Category Archives: Hermeneutics

Kefa’s Vision in Acts 10: A Genre-Sensitive Analysis

acts 10 visionDid HaShem really mean for Kefa (Peter) to eat monkeys, vultures, and venomous cobras when He showed him the vision of Acts 10?  There is a phenomenon in Scripture that evades many who understand that passage as an abrogation of Torah (esp. of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14) and the Prophets (e.g. Isaiah 66:17). It is a literary device which has precedent apart from that passage (as well as within it).  That phenomenon is the Hebraic convention of describing persons as animals (food animals or non-food animals) or even as edible plant products to illustrate a point, i.e. a special class of metaphor.  Scripture bears examples of both.

It should not really strike us as unthinkable that people could be compared with food or animals, as we do the same thing in English. [1]  We can also find Messiah Yeshua Himself calling certain of the Pharisees “vipers” (Matthew 23:33) and referring to those who are hostile to His Truth as “dogs” and “swine” (Matthew 7:6).  He also uses two clean animals, i.e. goats and sheep, in order to categorize persons in the eschatological framework of the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 25:31-46).  In this judgment oracle, the goats are consigned to everlasting punishment and the sheep to everlasting life (v. 46).

image source: Dr. Oded Lipschits, Tel Aviv University

image source: Dr. Oded Lipschits, Tel Aviv University (op. cit.)

This is not solely a convention of the B’rit Chadashah (apostolic Testament), however.  We find this same phenomenon in the poetic constructions of Yirmeyahu’s report at 24:1-10 of his canonical work (see summary statement in graphic at right).  Figs are generally a food item, but the statement in Yirmeyahu (Jeremiah) 24 attests to the success of the Babylonian strategy to exile only the social, religious, military, and economic “elites” from Judah, in order to deprive them of certain essential skill sets (2 Kings 24:15-16).  All totaled, about 10,000 were removed to exile of a population of approximately ten times that number. [2]

This same type of metaphor appears in Acts 10:9-35.  Those who take this passage as a “blanket permission” (pun intended) to eat pigs, lizards, and rats have to divorce verses 9-15 from the fuller context in order to arrive at that conclusion.  Reading to the end of the pericope, however, brings the reader to Shim’on Kefa (Peter)’s realization of the actual meaning of the vision of the treif (unclean) animals on the sheet.  Verses 17 and 18 tells us that it has yet to be explained:

“Kefa was still puzzling over the meaning of the vision he had seen when the men Cornelius had sent, having inquired for Shim’on’s house. stood at the gate and called out to ask if Shim’on was staying there.” (CJB)

Reading on, we find that the meaning is covered quite clearly in vv. 28, 34-35:

“He [Kefa] said to them, ‘You are well aware that for a man who is a Jew to have close association with someone who belongs to another people, or to come and visit him, is something that just isn’t done.  But God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean’….  Then Kefa addressed them: ‘I now understand that God does not play favorites, but that whoever fears him and does what is right [Torah] is acceptable to him, no matter what people he belongs to.”  (CJB)

canned possumKefa realized and articulated plainly that the vision was not about eating poisonous or otherwise unclean animals at all; it was about Gentile-inclusivity.  “Stop treating as unclean what God has made clean” (v. 15) refers to Gentile converts to the faith, not to creamed possum in coon fat gravy… or any other animal which was not intended for human consumption.  Dr. Friedman notes,

“He did not, according to the text, draw the conclusion that he should stop eating kosher food….  We can be thankful that the book of Acts interprets his vision for us in the continuation of the text.  Acts 10:28 describes Shim’on’s conclusion of the message of the vision….” [3]

Visions, like any other prophetic oracle, must be interpreted according to their genre.  In the exegetical methodology prescribed by Willem VanGemeren, the first and foremost point is this: “Be sensitive to the prophetic imagery.” [4] To interpret a passage divorced from its genre is just as ghastly an error as to sever it from its context.

Leviticus 19.34When proper hermeneutical principles and exegetical processes are applied, it cannot be interpreted any other way than that Kefa’s vision was a message advocating equal treatment for Jew and Gentile alike in the Body of Messiah, a message with Torah roots just as deep as they can get, both with regard to one Torah Standard for Jew and Gentile alike (cp. Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16, 29; see also Matthew 5:17-19; 7:21-23; 1 John chapters 2-3) and regarding equality of treatment for both alike (Leviticus 19:33-34; Deuteronomy 10:19; see also Ezekiel 47:22; Galatians 3:28).

References & Notes

  1. Michiel Korthals, “Food as a Source and Target of Metaphors: Inclusion and Exclusion of Foodstuffs and Persons through Metaphors,” Confgurations  16 (2008): 77–92.  [read online]
  2. Oded Lipschits, “Course Lecture 3.5: Babylonian Arrangements in Judah after Jehoiachim’s Deportation,” The Fall and Rise of Jerusalem (Tel Aviv, Israel: Tel Aviv University, Fall 2014).
  3. David Friedman, They Loved the Torah: What Yeshua’s First Followers ReallyThought about the Law (Baltimore: Lederer, 2001), 62-64.
  4. Willem A. VanGemeren, “Oracles of Salvation,” in D. Brent Sandy & Ronald L. Giese, Jr (eds), Cracking Old Testament Codes: A Guide to Interpreting the Literary Genres of the Old Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 146.
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On the Use of Secular References in Scripture

Many years ago, when my faith was yet “new,” I was shocked to learn that there are numerous quotes in Scripture (and/or allusions) from pagan and other secular writings.  I embarked on a study at that time into the context in which these secular sources are cited in the Holy Writings, and I reproduce the findings thereof here.

References to Historical Records

Numbers 21:14 refers to the Book of the Wars of YHWH, an apparently ancient work (pre-15th Century BCE) no longer available and not referenced in any other extant work but the Torah.  What seems to be a community conduct code is mentioned at 1 Samuel 10:25, i.e. Book of Statutes (aka 3 Samuel).

There is also reference to two royal annals which have disappeared from modern access: Chronicles of the Kings of Israel and Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:19; 14:29; 16:20; & often in Kings).  These seem to be records from the time of Jeroboam and Rehoboam.  The Annals of King David (1 Chronicles 27:24) and the Acts of Solomon (1 Kings 11:41) are also cited lost works.

2 Chronicles speaks of the Book of Shemaiah and The Annals of the Prophet Iddo (9:29; 12:15; 13:22), neither of these currently extant.

Uncertain References

There are several references in Scripture to works which may be unknown, or may actually be ancient monikers for portions of the Scriptures themselves.

  • Acts of Samuel the Seer, possibly 1 & 2 Samuel (ref. at 1 Chron 29:29)
  • Prophecy of Ahijah, possibly 1 Kings 14:2–18 (ref. at 2 Chron 9:29)
  • Book of Jehu, possibly 1 Kings 16:1–7 (ref. at 2 Chron 20:34)
  • Vision of Isaiah, possibly the canonical Book of Isaiah (2 Chron 32:32)

matthew 5:43-45Another uncertain reference is found in Matthew 5:43, where Messiah Yeshua seems to quote some work (certainly not, as we tend to understand its meaning, a reflection of Scripture nor Talmud) which advocated an attitude of “hate your enemy.”  Hatred for one’s enemies, per the usual definition, is a precept foreign to Pharisaic Judaism (under the umbrella of which Messianic Judaism falls, per Yeshua in Matthew 23:1-3), adherents of which mourn the death of enemies (Pessikta K 189a; Job 31:29-30) and forbids seeking revenge (Leviticus 19:18; Proverbs 20:22; 24:29) or even “abhoring” (hating) one’s enemy (Deuteronomy 23:8).

Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land” (JPS 1917).

Many have insisted that this is a reference to DSM 1:3f from the Dead Sea Scrolls, considered by most to be an Essene product, which indicates that members should properly harbor hatred toward all enemies of that community, i.e “sons of darkness.”

Rabbi and scholar Pinchas Lapide, however, questions whether that document is the true source behind the reference.   He suggests, “In Jesus’ time the Qumran sect [Yachad] was too young, too distant, and too small to be presumed to have been a norm — or antinorm — in Galilee.” [1]  It is becoming more widely recognized among scholars that the alleged Qumran connection is untenable.  Lapide suggests, instead, a possible connection with Deuteronomy 21:15, where “hated” simply means “loved less than” (ibid., 86).  It may possibly connect to Malachi 1:2-3 as well, where the verb “hated” is better rendered “have not enter into covenant with.”

Pseudepigraphal References

There was a popular genre of fiction en vogue from about the 2nd Century BCE to about the 8th Century CE (though waning the last few centuries of that epoch) called pseudepigrapha.  characterized by the attribution of the name of a well-known figure from the past to one’s work in order to explore what that person might have said on a subject he or she had never addressed. [2]  Pseudepigraphy (false attribution) was a literary device that was well understood by the audience, and in most cases no deception was intended by it (though modern audiences can tend to be confused by the device).  Some pseudepigraphal works, however, clearly overlap with the “propaganda” genre and are intended to deceive, e.g. the agenda-driven Letter of Aristeas (written to spread the fabricated “story” of the creation of the Septuagint).

Popular examples of this fictional genre of writing include the Book of Jasher (referenced at Joshua 10:13 and 2 Samuel 1:18) [3] and the Book of Enoch (i.e. 1 Enoch, alluded to in 2 Peter and Jude).  Both of these contain passages that blatantly contradict Scripture (e.g. 1 Enoch 10:1 reporting that Enoch was instructed to go speak to Noach when he had been raptured 69 years before Noach’s birth).  But, the original audience knew they were reading fiction and thus did not hold it to the standard of Scripture, just as we do not expect theological inerrancy out of a religious-themed novel like The Chosen (Chaim Potok) or The Hobbit (J. R. R. Tolkein).  Likewise, no one reads Jewish author Yudl Rosenberg’s novel and comes away believing “golems” are anything but fictitious creatures invented for entertainment. [4]

Other Pseudepigraphical works referenced in Scripture include Assumption of Moses (Jude 9), Life of Adam and Eve (2 Corinthians 11:14; 12:2), and Martyrdom of Isaiah (Hebrews 11:37), as well as (probably) the Book of Gad the Seer (1 Chronicles 29:29).

Writings from Pagan Cultures

The previously mentioned works are at least Jewish, but what do we do with quotations from or allusion to works that are clearly pagan?  Esther and Nehemiah make mention of a Persian document titled the Chronicles of King Ahasueras (Esther 2:23; 6:1; 10:2; Nehemiah 12:23).

Menander

Menander

More problematic is that Sha’ul (Paul) quotes from Menander’s Thais (1 Corinthians 15:33 — “Bad company corrupts good character”), Epimenides’s De Oraculis (Titus 1:12–13), and Aratus’s Phaenomena (Acts 17:28) — all three of which are pagan penmen.  Menander was a comedy-playwright (3rd-4th Century BCE), Aratus was a poet and astrologer (3rd-4th Century BCE), and Epimenides (referenced as “the Cretans’ own prophet”) was, besides being a pagan seer, also a reknowned Greek philosopher (6th-7th Century BCE).  Aratus wrote the line “For in you we live and move and have our being” for the chief god of the Greek pantheon, which Paul acknowledges with the qualifier, “some of your poets among you have said….”

Conclusion

It is not necessarily an endorsement for canonicity for a Biblical writer to reference a non-canonical work.  It is more an indictment of the audience missing an important truth that “even this secular work recognizes” (the thrust of the citation).  We would certainly not claim that Paul is declaring the writings of Epimenides or Menander to be Scripture by quoting or alluding to them any more than we would say that Pastor Joe quoting from C. S. Lewis is declaring The Chronicles of Narnia to be Scripture.  There is an illustrative use of these texts that we should be careful not to mistake for wholesale endorsement or advocacy of canonization.  The important thing to remember is that these works are not being endorsed wholesale by the authors and Author of Scripture, and thus should not be used a lens for interpreting Scripture.  While they may, perhaps, provide historical-cultural background, they are not (for good reasons) inspired Scripture and should not be exalted as such.

Notes and References

  1. Pinchas E. Lapide, “And I Say to You,” (Orbis Books, 1986; online: http://www.nyu.edu/classes/gmoran/LAPIDE.pdf), 85.
  2. Michael E. Stone, “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha,” Jewish Virtual Library (online: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/apocrypha.html); S.v. ψευδεπίγραφος, Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon(online: http://perseus.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.83:2:17.LSJ).  Nota bene: Though some parts of Stone’s article are flawed, his definition of pseudepigrapha (comprising the 3rd paragraph) is accurate and in agreement with Liddell & Scott (as indicated here) and with responsible 2nd Temple scholarship in general.
  3. http://www.pseudepigrapha.com/pseudepigrapha/jasher.html.
  4. A criticism was made recently of the present author that “to call any Jewish book fiction is anti-Semitic.”  I would answer that charge with a question.  Does this mean that no Jew is ever permitted to write a work of fiction, or that everything any Jew ever writes (Sigmund Freud, Woody Allen, etc.) must be regarded as inerrant or else the person recognizing that, for example, Yudl Rosenberg’s “golems” are fictitious is a Nazi?  If a Jew writes a fiction piece, intending it to be fiction, it is not “anti-Semitic” to place it in the genre the author intended it to be under, and it does not “weaken Judaism” for a Jew to write in a fiction genre.

On this Rock… ܐܒܢܝܗ ܠܥܕܬܝ

upon this rockThere has been at least a thousand years of debate over the meaning of Yeshua’s response to the Petrine Confession (Matthew 16:13-20).

First, a history of interpretation is in order.  In Catholic thought, it is Peter himself who is the rock, and the institution built upon that rock is the Roman Church.  Eastern Orthodoxy offers a similar understanding, but insists that the institution built upon Peter is the Orthodox Church.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProtestantism has argued from at least as far back as the Reformation that the rock is not Peter the person, but rather his statement that Yeshua is the Messiah and Son of the Living G-d (Matthew 16:16).  This position expands the institution beyond one particular denomination and identifies the “ἐκκλησία” as the Universal Body of Believers.

Biblicists have maintained that given the practice of the Septuagint (LXX) translators to render the Hebrew words קָהָל and קְהִלָּה with the Greek ἐκκλησία, a more faithful translation of the latter would be to anchor it to the historical understanding of the Hebrew terms as meaning “Israel,” i.e. an entity which had been in existence long before Matthew 16 was penned… centuries before.  As Koine Greek does not have verbal tense, the future tense does not need to be assumed in the verb, and it can properly be read as an ongoing action begun at some moment in the distant past.

Possibly giving weight to this understanding, besides the sheer linguistic sense that it makes, is the rabbinical midrash suggesting that Avraham had been told by HaShem:

“You are the rock upon which I will build the universe.”

Dwight Pryor conveyed the above statement at a conference of the Center for Jewish-Christian Studies in Jerusalem.  These positions all have their proponents and adherents… but today, another angle (new to me, but apparently in the air for over 20 years now) was pointed out to me.  Dr. Roy Blizzard posted the following statement with regard to Yeshua’s debated oracle:

“… you all need to keep on mind that this statement was made in HEBREW…NOT Greek. In Hebrew it is Kahal…or congregation, however…after the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls many scholars in Israel believe it was Edah, which means witnessing body. It could have been either but I tend to lean toward Edah…from lehaid, to witness or to tell.” (italics added)

Khabouris Matthew 16Upon reading this, I turned immediately to a codex reportedly copied from a manuscript dated to 165 CE, i.e. the Khabouris Codex.  What I found there aligns with Dr. Blizzard’s statement.  The word so often translated “church” is actually the Aramaic equivalent to עֵדָה (edah) — ܥܕܬܝ.  It is important to note that this word is also translated by the Greek ἐκκλησία in LXX.

The preceding verb, generally rendered “I will build…,” appears in a language which does not have verbal tense (it is verbal-aspect-intensive), so all it communicates is imperfectiveness (incomplete action, or even ongoing action).  Besides the futuristic rendering, other possible understandings of the imperfect aspect expressed in the form ܐܒܢܝܗ would be “I am building” or “I have been building.”  Given this insight, we might better translate Yeshua’s response:

“I also say to you that you are Kefa, and upon this rock[-solid statement], I have been building my Body of Witnesses….”

This shift does not move us a great distance from the Protestant reading, but it does remove the problematic word “church” (derived from the Latin “circus”).

The appeal of this rendering is that it is Gentile-inclusive without being anti-Semitic, maintaining the Bible’s incontrovertible Israel-centricity in affirming the same understanding of the Olive Tree held by the Apostle Sha’ul (Paul).  The confirmation found in the Peshitta (Khabouris Codex), an ancient witness, establishes that this view could not be deemed a wretched NDU (new doctrinal understanding).  It seems to dodge all the usual bullets and harmonize the text in view with the Whole Counsel of Scripture.  Baruch HaShem!