Jesus Wrote With His Finger

Posted by R. Fowler White

John 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 Then they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. 10 Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” [NASU]

As we see above, the Evangelist reports that, when Jesus was responding to the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, He stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. … Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground (vv 6, 8). If you agree as I do with those who affirm the historicity of John 7:53–8:11 (even though ancient manuscripts and our English translations aren’t sure where it should appear in the NT text), we’ve all had to puzzle over those two statements in verses 6 and 8. We want to know: what did Jesus write with His finger?

Yes, there are texts in “the Law Moses commanded” (v 5) that applied to the woman and her accusers (e.g., Exod 23:1b; Lev 20:10; Deut 17:7; 22:22–24). It makes really good sense to say that those passages are at least relevant parts of this episode’s backdrop. Perhaps Jesus wrote out a quotation taken from among them. It remains, however, that the Evangelist tells us not one word of what Jesus wrote. So, we keep asking: since we’re not told what Jesus wrote, what is the narrator’s point? I have a suggestion, but it has to be only tentative since I haven’t found a presentation or defense of it yet in the commentaries (not least because they skip over the passage as inauthentic to the Gospel of John). If you have seen it somewhere (and especially if you’ve seen it developed better than it is here), please don’t hesitate to let us know.

I suggest that the Evangelist’s point is not what Jesus wrote, but that Jesus wrote and did so with His finger. The act itself might be seen, then, as an acted-out, unspoken reminder that “the Law Moses commanded” was written by the very finger of God (Exod 31:18; Deut 9:10). Yet further, the fact that Jesus wrote with His finger was arguably tantamount to saying, “That Law cited by you scribes and Pharisees? It was My finger that wrote it.” For the narrator, it was the act itself that was revealing. After all, in keeping with the unfolding historical-canonical context, that finger was the very finger of God incarnate. In that light, we readers can recognize in Jesus’ act a pointed disclosure of His identity as God the Son to whom God the Father has committed all judgment (John 5:22-23, 27). In reporting, therefore, that (not what) Jesus wrote on the ground with His finger, the Evangelist wants his readers to know that Jesus is the Judge who frames His declarations and His questions to bring conviction of sin, to stir the conscience. His is the word that discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart, not just to punish but also to seek and save that which is lost. Writing on the ground with His finger, Jesus made known that He is the Judge who will punish or pardon all who appear before Him (cf. John 5:28-29), whether they appear as offenders, like this woman caught in adultery, or as accusers, like these scribes and Pharisees, who in passing judgment on others condemned themselves. 

Historical Novelty and Re-reading 1 Cor 14:34

Posted by R. Fowler White

‘Not all historical phenomena that manifest themselves as doctrinal are necessarily immediately doctrinal in cause or origin.’—Carl Trueman (citing a mentor of his)

The relevance of the quotation above came to mind as I was reading a post over at www.reformation21.org by William Castro, pastor of Emmanuel Upstate Church in Greenville, SC. He served as an advisory member of the Presbyterian Church in America’s Ad Interim Committee on Women Serving in the Ministry in the Church, and his essay, entitled 1 Corinthians 14:34: Did God Really Say … ? was highlighted as a Ref21 post from 2019 that “you may have missed” (and indeed I had). I’ll just summarize it here as a popular-level reflection on four interpretations of 1 Cor 14:34, the most recent of which is what Castro calls the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation. (For those who don’t know, according to that exegesis, the apostle required women to be silent at the time when prophecies were evaluated in the churches’ worship services.) What struck me most about Castro’s discussion of the four views was not his criticisms of those opinions, but his identification of the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation as not just “increasingly … more prevalent” and “more and more accepted and less and less questioned,” but also as “new” and “novel.” As it turns out, this view first showed up in “the literature” in the published work of W. C. Klein (1962) and of Margaret E. Thrall (1965). Today, it is arguably the most popular view of 1 Cor 14:34 among evangelical scholars, having been amplified by James Hurley (1973/1981), further elaborated by Wayne Grudem (1982), and embraced by others such as D. A. Carson (1991).

Speaking for myself, when I realized that this view is new and novel, it gave me pause. Though I no longer hold this view, I realized that, thirty-five years ago, I did hold it and teach it without ever considering its historical novelty. I could have and should have known better. I ought to have handled my adoption and presentation of the exegesis of that text with greater humility and respect toward the history of interpretation. In admitting this, I don’t mean at all to say that a new interpretation is necessarily wrong. Nor do I mean to exaggerate the importance of a novel exegesis of a single text on one’s overall doctrinal conclusions: the interpretation of relatively few individual texts has the power to alter the way we construe the broader teaching of Scripture. I only mean to point out that the historical newness of an exegetical conclusion requires that the evidence put forward in its favor must be weightier than usual. So I agree with Castro when he writes: “I certainly am not advocating for a rejection of all possible solutions to interpretive difficulties. I do, however, believe that we should follow the humble attitude of the divines of Westminster, who—before affirming an interpretation—considered the history of exegesis of the texts.”

One way to apply the concerns of Castro (and Trueman in the quotation above) is to reckon with the fact that exegesis is inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Doubtless most who read this blog see themselves as familiar (and comfortable) with the controlling factors that influenced the adoption of the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation by able scholars like Hurley, Grudem, and Carson. Yet the history of interpretation, at least as those scholars and we know it so far, tells us that that view of 1 Cor 14:34 is new and novel. In that light, I’m constrained to ask myself, what can I learn about the existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding in the 1960s that influenced Klein and Thrall to put forward the “judging-of-prophecies” interpretation? To answer that question seems a sounder way to proceed than to hold it and teach it without ever considering its historical novelty.

Corporate and Individual Responsibility: An Introduction

I want to write some posts about corporate and individual responsibility in the Bible. This is an extremely thorny issue. At the moment, I am only beginning my investigation of the biblical texts. Thus, this post will raise more questions than answers. In the future, I will be focusing major attention on Ezekiel 18, and what it does and does not say. Other related passages are Joshua 7 (the account of the failed attack on Ai), 2 Samuel 21, Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:5-6, Daniel 9, and Exodus 20:5-6. Assessing how these texts relate to each other to form a coherent picture is a very thorny task. The reason I am addressing this issue is that the PCA has addressed and will be addressing corporate responsibility regarding the race issue.

What are some categories that the Bible uses to address the question of corporate and individual responsibility? The first category is a distinction between guilt and consequence. Obviously, guilt is one consequence of sin. However, there are other consequences that can be incurred by someone who has no direct guilt. This might be a helpful way of understanding why it is that 36 men get killed in the attack on Ai for something that they themselves did not do. One might say that Achan murdered those 36 men by transgressing the ban.

A second category distinction is between human retribution and divine retribution. Who assesses the punishment, in other words? Does human retribution apply to corporate guilt, or that only the purview of God? Bear in mind that this particular distinction is not the same question as repentance, and whether repentance needs to be corporate or individual.

A third category distinction is between sins of omission and sins of commission. This one should be familiar to most of my readers. A sin of omission is something that we (or I) should have done but failed to do, whereas a sin of commission is something that we (or I) should not have done, but did anyway. This has a bearing on possibly composite sins. On the racism issue, for instance, if a church committed racist acts, and the presbytery of which it was a part failed to discipline that church for said actions, then the presbytery incurs the guilt of omission. While the presbytery may not, as a whole, have committed the action itself, it is still responsible for its required and biblical response. The same is true on a denominational level.

The fourth, and perhaps stickiest question of all, is the question of covenantal continuity. There is a tension between the continuity (on the one hand) that the true church has with itself in all generations, regardless of denominational boundaries; and the discontinuity of governing bodies that are directly responsible for the discipline of members within its scope. In the case of the PCA churches that Sean Lucas has in mind, for instance, the question will revolve around some of these questions: have these churches ever repented? Did the southern presbyterian denomination repent before the founding of the PCA? Is there continuing sin on the matters of racial equality? If so, what is the responsibility of current bodies within the PCA, and is the whole denomination at fault, or only some presbyteries?

A fifth question to ponder is a very important question: what constitutes racism? I have addressed this question briefly before. Having read a bit more, and done a bit more thinking, there are some things I might say differently. For instance, the question of how the biblical passages relate is a far more difficult question than the previous post would seem to indicate. I still hold to my position on affirmative action being inherently racist. I also hold that evolution and a theory of polygenesis (that we do not all come from Adam and Eve) open the door to racism.

Why talk this way about all these careful distinctions? One reason is that we want to tell the truth. It is not truth to confess to sins for which we have no guilt any more than it is truth not to confess for sins of which we are guilty. We need to assess carefully and biblically what guilt we have in the question of racism. Whatever truth of guilt we have can then lead us to repentance and restoration.

I attended recently a memorial service for the Charleston Nine at a black church in Winnsboro. It was a wonderful experience. I was afraid at first that the talk would all be about social justice. Instead, it was focused on Jesus Christ and the gospel, while mentioning racial issues in the context of the gospel. Yes, there was much talk about the unity that the church has in Christ, as was appropriate. But it did not sideline the gospel, for which I was very thankful. As was mentioned by my black brothers at GA this year, any repentance that we do needs to have feet, so that actual change can happen in our churches. Some churches are further ahead in this process than others. Some degree of compassion and understanding will need to be present.

Shaking Things Up: Hebrews 12:26-29

(Posted by Paige)

Here is another Hebrews puzzler for you! In our study we have finally made it to ch. 12, and I am contemplating possible readings of 12:26-29, where the author exposits Haggai 2:6 re. the “shaking” of the earth and the heavens. In his 2010 commentary Peter O’Brien sums up the general consensus on this passage when he writes in a footnote:

The shaking that God will do ‘once more’ is usually taken to mean that the whole universe will be shaken to pieces and the only things to survive will be those that are unshakeable. It is understood as the eschatological judgment to be visited upon the earth at the end of the age, when the material universe will pass away (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Pet. 3:10, 12; Rev. 21:1). At that point only the kingdom of God will remain, the kingdoms of this world having been utterly destroyed (Guthrie, 422). (O’Brien, p.495n.262)

This eschatological reading seems largely to be based on the phrase “ὡς πεποιημένων,” usually translated “that is, created things.” But John Owen points out (in an appendix of Calvin’s commentary) that this could also be read as “things that are completed, accomplished, finished,” allowing us to read as the object of “shaking” the Old Covenant, or the Jewish religion, instead.

I am wondering whether there is any legitimacy to the suggestion that the author has in mind here NOT the final eschatological transformation to new heavens and new earth, still pending; but rather the completed, accomplished, finished “shaking” of heaven and earth that occurred when Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary and inaugurated the New Covenant, new kingdom, new world order by the sprinkling of His blood (cf. Heb. 12:22-24). This event would still have been future in relation to Haggai’s time, but (in contrast to the eschatological reading) would have already been accomplished by the time Hebrews was written.

Although I have not encountered it in my resources outside of Owen, I find this possible reading compelling in light of the stress in this epistle on the dramatic and decisive change from Old Covenant to New; and it is also in keeping with the author’s assertion in v.28 that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” indicating that this unshakeable kingdom is already an accomplished state of affairs.

What do you think? Does this passage give us information about a future event involving the material universe, or is it conveying the earth-and-heaven-shattering nature of the already-accomplished work of Christ?

Thanks in advance for your perspective!

Receiving Rebuke

There is an issue in the blogosphere (and not only here!) that needs addressing. It is rather pressing. I have seen it over and over on my blog. No doubt many who read this post will think, “Physician, heal thyself!” Some who are less charitable might be thinking, “You two-faced hypocrite!” I will attempt to forestall such thinking by admitting that I am the first person who needs to heed Scripture on this, and that I often fail. By God’s grace, I do not always fail. I have admitted mistakes on the blog before when they have been pointed out. But there is no doubt that I can do better. Please (and most especially if you hate my guts!) pray that I will do better about that. So I am preaching to myself first, folks.

The problem to which I refer is the problem of people not receiving correction very well. There can be a number of reasons for this. Undoubtedly the first and foremost problem is pride: Rule 1- I am always right. Rule 2- If I am not right, see Rule 1.

Pride can be present for a number of reasons. One is that God has given some people many gifts, and it is easy to be very complacent (not to say proprietary!) in our contemplation of those gifts. A second reason we are often proud is that sometimes we are often correct. And when we are, we can often think that our personal worth is tied up in being right. That harmful unity of self-worth and correctness must be severed. Contrary to what we might think, it is not the end of the world if we are wrong. It does not mean that we are worth less (or worthless, for that matter!) if we are incorrect on something. It does mean we are human.

Proverbs 9:8 is critical here. I will put it up in several translations:

Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you (ESV). Don’t rebuke a mocker, or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you (HCSB). So don’t bother correcting mockers; they will only hate you. But correct the wise, and they will love you (NLT). A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you (NRSV).

One could go so far as to say this: if there is one Bible verse that is being ignored/transgressed more often than any other in the blogosphere, this would have to be that verse. At the very least, it would have to rank pretty high up there. The reason we ignore this verse is because we think that disagreement equals personal attack, and that rebuke is an even worse assault. But the verse says that part of wisdom is receiving rebuke well. It means that rebuke does not immediately send the wise man into ecstasies of thin-skinned apoplectic rage. Instead, the first question a wise man asks himself upon receiving rebuke is this: “Despite my initially irritated response, is there any merit to this rebuke? Is there any way that I can put myself into the other person’s shoes, see it from their angle, and acknowledge that there might be something in this?”

Full disclosure: to a certain extent, I am writing this post out of a strong sense of self-preservation. The amount of moderation might be significantly reduced if we all took Proverbs 9:8 to heart! And then my blood-pressure might return to normal, and the stress level lessen, and I might worry a bit less about what happens here at the GB.

Hebrews 10 and the LXX

(Posted by Paige)

So, who is up on recent developments in manuscript studies of the LXX?

I encountered an intriguing difference as I read through Hebrews commentaries in chronological order, focusing on the use of Ps. 40:6-8 in Heb. 10:5-7, specifically the line, “But a body you have prepared for me.” This rendering of Ps. 40:6 differs from what our MT-based OT says, whether “But ears you have pierced for me” (NIV) or “But you have given me an open ear” (ESV), each a paraphrase of the literal Hebrew “But ears you have dug for me.” Sure enough, when I checked my copy of the Septuagint, I found that it matches with what is written in Hebrews 10:5, “But a body you have prepared for me.”

Now, commentators from Calvin through F. F. Bruce (1990) and Peter O’Brien (2010) have been concerned to harmonize the difference between the MT and the LXX in some way, explaining the diversity by way of paraphrase. Ears, after all, are body parts; ears being “dug” certainly suggests listening or paying attention, but it could also refer to the formation of the ears in the first place – so, “Body parts you have created (or prepared) for me.” One more step gets to, “A body you have prepared for me,” which became the version happily appropriated by the author to the Hebrews, who wanted to present the obedient, bodily sacrifice of Christ as superior to all the animal sacrifices prescribed by the Mosaic Law.

And maybe it happened just so. But in Beale & Carson’s splendid tome on the NT’s use of the OT (Baker Academic, 2007), I encountered a different explanation, offered by George Guthrie in his chapter on Hebrews. On the textual background of Heb. 10:5-7 (Ps. 40:6-8) Guthrie writes:

“In 10:5c we find sōma (“body”) rather than the LXX’s ōtia (“ears” [also in LXX La(G) Ga]). Although it is true that LXX B S A have sōma, these probably should be read as corrections by scribes wishing to bring the manuscripts in line with Hebrews’ quotation.” (p.977)

In other words, according to this explanation the variation originated with the author of Hebrews, NOT the LXX, and was subsequently absorbed into later copies of the LXX.

Is anyone aware of which of the above explanations is current scholarly consensus? Do you find Guthrie’s suggestion compelling, based on the dates of the different LXX manuscripts, or are you satisfied with the harmonization approach?

Thanks in advance for any thoughts you have on this.

The Devil in his Redemptive-Historical Context

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a pair of theological questions related to the “fear of death” topic and deriving from the same pair of verses, Heb. 2:14-15. One of my curious laypeople asked about it in our Hebrews study:

In what sense did the devil ever hold “the power of death”?

How was this power altered by Christ’s defeat of the devil?

We are looking for a way to speak accurately about the “Before” and “After” of the devil in redemptive history. Any insights?

The Hebrews verses again are:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Inspiration and Ancient Texts

(Posted by Paige)

Here is another question along the theme of speaking to curious laypeople about inspiration and ancient texts: How would you go about describing the differences between certain passages in the LXX and MT in terms of the doctrine of inspiration? Again, the complexity of the process of inspiration is certainly in view, here involving multiple Hebrew versions and the work of translators. I am wondering what we can fairly say about diversity among OT texts that is in keeping with an orthodox doctrine of inspiration?

Is it fair to say, for example, that if I am reading the Septuagint I am reading the inspired text of the OT? Or is it just to be considered a translation, with editorial changes (i.e., redactions that do not come under the umbrella of inspiration)? — But if the latter, were the NT writers not reading the inspired OT? (Not to mention us, since we read translations too!)

What of the different versions of the Hebrew Bible that apparently existed before the LXX was made, and which may account for some of the differences between LXX and MT? Must we assume or posit that any one version, Hebrew or Greek, was “more inspired” than another? Or might we use the analogy of multiple Gospels, and the unity-in-diversity that we see between scenes in the Synoptics, to make sense of the differences?

For those of you with some knowledge in this area, how often and to what degree do the LXX and MT vary? I am entering into these questions via one particular portal, the book of Hebrews, so I do not yet have a sense of the big textual picture.

I would love recommended resources on this subject, too, if you have any to suggest. My “curious laypeople” will probably not want to venture much past their study Bible notes, but I can be a bridge to them for some of these more complicated ideas.

Thanks!

Re. Angels and the Law

(Posted by Paige)

I’m hoping some of you thoughtful people can help answer a pedagogical-theological question I’m pondering, prompted by my need to explain to some curious laypeople Hebrews 2:2 — “For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution…”

I know that while Paul (Gal. 3:19) and Stephen (Acts 7:38, 53) mention the bit about the angels in passing to audiences who apparently knew what they were talking about, we don’t get the background history for this reference in the OT accounts of the giving of the Law. (Maybe vaguely in Deut. 33:2, but not to the extent that we’d be able to say what Paul or Stephen said with just this to go on.)

So how would you explain to curious students how these NT authors got their information? Because it looks like they were repeating a more fully developed Jewish tradition, not an OT teaching. This situation seems to beg a bit of textual apologetics. How would you speak of inspiration and authority in this case?

Thanks!

Two Verses, Twelve Questions

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s a whimsical Bible puzzle for you to bat around. These two verses have recently caught my attention and raised a handful of questions in my mind:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:5-6)

Here are twelve of my many questions. Tackle any that interest you, too!

1. What did the disciples assume about faith?

2. Were they correct in their assumption?

3. What did they assume about Jesus?

4. What did they expect Jesus to accomplish for them?

5. Is Jesus’ response intended as an affirmation or a correction of their request?

6. What does Jesus imply about faith?

7. Why a mulberry tree? Is there any symbolism here?

8. Is Jesus describing something that might literally happen, or is he using poetic hyperbole?

9. If hyperbole, what’s his point?

10. Is this the same message that Jesus intends in Matt. 17:20 (“…if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”)

11. Why is this exchange recorded here in Luke (i.e., in this particular location in the Gospel)? Are the apostles reacting to something, or has Luke collected similar material together?

12. How is this exchange related to what has come before and what will follow?

Bonus question: What would you emphasize if preaching from this passage?

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