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he Book of the acts of God 

Reinhold Niebuhr, CONSULTING EDITOR 

The Book of the Acts oj God 


Biblical Archaeology 
The Biblical Doctrine of Man in Society 
God Who Acts 

The Old Testament against Its Environment 
The Challenge of Israel's Faith 

The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (with Floyd V. Filsori) 
Ain Shems Excavations (Parts IV and V) (with Elihu Grant) 
The Pottery of Palestine from the Earliest Times to the End of the 
Early Bronze Age 


The Mission and Achievement of Jesus 

The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (with Richard Hanson) 

Weihnachten in der Angllkanschen Kkche 

What is Liturgical Preaching? 


Primitive Christianity, by Rudolf Bultmann 
Prisoner for God, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 
Kerygma and Myth, edited by Hans-Werner Bartsch 
The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer 
The Unknown Sayings of Jesus, by Joachim Jeremias 


Christian Scholarship 
Interprets the Bible 





Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, N. Y. 







THIS BOOK was written primarily for laymen. Its purpose 
is to introduce the Bible to the reader in something of the manner 
in which two scholars of the contemporary church present it to their 
students who are preparing for the Christian ministry. To be sure, 
many technical matters are omitted. The usual biblical introduction 
must concern itself in a technical way with the history, the text, and 
the canon of the Old and New Testaments. While these matters are 
here not ignored, they are nevertheless touched lightly, in order that 
the space may be used to depict the movement of biblical theology, 
the thoughts of believing men who sought to understand the ways 
of God and to proclaim those ways to their fellow men. Each writer 
treats his subject in an individual way, but on the whole they reflect 
the tendency of modern biblical scholarship to present the unity 
of the whole Bible in a somewhat different manner from that of the 
teachers on whose shoulders they stand. 

The Prologue and Parts I and II were written by G. Ernest 
Wright. He would here publicly express his gratitude to the Reverend 
Edward F. Campbell, who has been of great service in the revision 
of the manuscript after it came from the hands of the typist, and but 
for whom its publication would have been delayed by the author's 
absence from this country. Some of the material used in Part I was 
taken from Sunday-school lessons written by the author and his wife 
and published in Crossroads and The Westminster Teacher, October- 
December, 1952 (Copyright 1952 by W. L. Jenkins). It is here used 
by permission. 

Parts IDE and IV and the Epilogue were written by Reginald H. 
Fuller, who here would express his gratitude to Ms wife for detecting 
many typing errors and infelicities of expression. 

McCormick Theological Seminary G. ERNEST WRIGHT 

Chicago, Illinois 

Seabury-Western Theological Seminary REGINALD H. FULLER 

Evanston, Illinois 

A Suggestion to the Reader of This Book 

THE AUTHORS would advise the person who is thinking 
of using this book to read it straight through in order to see the 
sweep of the whole Bible before he begins to study the books of the 
Bible separately. 

There is nothing so vitiating to interesting and productive Bible 
study as the continual focusing on individual verses or passages 
without relating them to their context in the work of a particular 
author, and without relating the author to his time, and both him 
and his time to the movement of the whole. 

The Bible is a "historical" literature in which God is proclaimed 
as the chief actor in history who alone gives history its meaning. To 
study the Bible in such a way as to make abstractions of its spiritual 
or moral teachings, divorced from the real context of their setting 
in time, is to turn the Bible into a book of aphorisms, full of nice 
sayings which the devil himself could believe and never find himself 
particularly handicapped either by the knowledge of them or by 
their repetition. 


PROLOGUE: Introducing the Bible , 13 

CHAPTER I: The Biblical Point of View 15 

CHAPTER II; The Knowledge of God 27 

CHAPTER III: How the Bible Came to Be Written 39 

A. The Old Testament 39 

B. The New Testament 46 

C. Many Volumes, One Book 48 

PART I: The Histories of Israel 51 

CHAPTER I: The Priestly History 53 

A. The Introduction (Chapters 1-11) 54 

1. The Creation Stories (Genesis 1-2) 54 

2. The "FalT of Man (Genesis 3) 60 

3. The Story of Civilization (Genesis 4-11) 64 

B. God Chooses a People: The Stories of the 
Patriarchs (Genesis 1250) 66 

C. The Exodus: God Delivers the People from 

Slavery (Exodus 1-18) 76 

D. God Makes the People a Nation: The Covenant 
(Exodus 19-Numbers 36) 85 

CHAPTER II: The Deuteronomic History of Israel 

in Her Land 99 

A. God's Gift of a Land (Joshua-Judges) 102 

B. The Problem of Government: The Monarchy 

(/-// Samuel) 110 

C. God's Controversy with the Kings (/-// Kings) 118 
1. Solomon 120 

10 Contents 

2. Ahab and Jezebel 123 

3. The Fall of Northern Israel and 

Its Sequel in Judah 127 

4. The Last Days of Judah and Jerusalem 128 

CHAPTER III: The Chronicler's History of Judah 

(/-// Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) 131 

PART II: The Prophetic, Devotional, and 

Wisdom Literature 139 

CHAPTER I: The Prophets 141 

A. The Prophets of the Eighth Century B.C. 143 

B. The Prophets of the Seventh Century B.C. 153 

C. The Last of the Old Testament Prophets 160 
CHAPTER II: The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 171 

A. The Psalms 171 

B. The Wisdom Literature 177 
CHAPTER III: The Close of the Old Testament 191 

PART III: Between the Old and New Testaments 197 

CHAPTER I: Historical Background From the 

Maccabees to Jesus 199 

CHAPTER II: The Jewish Community 204 

CHAPTER III: The Jewish Religion 206 

A. Pharisaism and Rabbinic Judaism 207 

B. Apocalyptic 209 

1. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs 211 

2. I Enoch 212 

C. Palestinian Sects 213 

D. The Damascus Covenanters 214 

E. The Qumran Community 215 

F. John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth 218 

G. Hellenistic Judaism 219 
H. Josephus 226 

Contents 11 

PART IV: The New Testament 229 

CHAPTER I: In the Beginning Was the Word 231 

CHAPTER II: Jesus 236 

A. Introductory 236 

B. The Proclamation of Jesus 240 

C. The Demand of Radical Obedience 243 

D. The Works of Healing 244 

E. The Cross 246 

F. The Person of Jesus 251 
CHAPTER III: The Earliest Church 257 

A. From Easter to Pentecost 257 

B. The Life of the Earliest Church 262 

C. Greek-Speaking Jewish Christianity 268 
CHAPTER IV: Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 269 

A. Introductory 269 

B. Its Preaching 270 

C. Its Sacramental Life 276 

D. The Synoptic Gospels 280 

1. Mark 281 

2. Matthew 282 

3. Luke 283 
CHAPTER V: St. Paul: The First Theologian 286 

A. Critical Presuppositions 286 

B. Paul the Theologian 287 
C* Redemptive History 288 

L Redemption 296 

2. Justification 297 

3* Reconciliation 299 

4. The Appropriation of Christ's 

Redeeming Work 299 

5. Victory 302 

12 Contents 

6. Sacrifice 303 

7. The Resurrection 305 

8. The Spirit and the Church 306 

9. The Church 307 

10. The Sacraments 308 

11. The Person of Christ 312 

12. The Consummation 314 
CHAPTER VI: After Paul 318 

A. Ephesians 318 

B. Hebrews 319 
C The Pastorals 325 

D. James 326 

E. I Peter 329 

F. Jude 331 

G. II Peter 332 
CHAPTER VII: The Johannine Literature 334 

A. The Apocalypse 334 

B. The Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles 338 
L Authorship 338 

2. Affinities of Thought 340 

3. Literary and Oral Sources 343 

4. Authorship Final Conclusion 344 

5. The Johannine Writings An Interpretation 344 

6. The Farewell Discourses 354 

7. The Passion Narrative 358 

8. The Resurrection 359 

CHAPTER VIII: Epilogue: The Unity of the 

New Testament 360 

Index of Biblical References 361 

Index of Names 369 



The Biblical Point of View 

CHRISTIANITY HAS always held that the Bible is a very 
special book unlike any other book in the world. It is the most 
important of all books because in it, and in it alone, the true God 
has made himself known to man with clarit^^he world is full of 
sacred literatures and it is full of gods. But in the vast confusion the 
one source which can be relied upon for the truth is the Bible. There 
we are told about the events which brought the Church into being, 
and the purpose for its being. There we encounter the answer to the 
meaning of our own lives and of the history in which we live. There 
the frightening golf between our weak, ignorant, and mortal lives 
and the infinity of power and space in our universe is really bridged. 
There we discover our duty defined and our God revealed. The many 
segments of the Christian Church have said all this in a great variety 
of ways with a variety of emphases; but all have agreed that the 
Bible has been the fountain from which have come the Church and 
its faith. It is the common starting point to which we must constantly 
return for guidance and stimulation. 

Yet how is a modern man to receive and believe the Bible? Is that 
Russian dictionary too far wrong which defines this book as "a 
collection of fantastic legends without any scientific support . . . full 
of dark hints, historical mistakes and contradictions"? To many 
people today the Bible, while possessing fine sayings and teachings, 
is nevertheless basically a collection of myths and stories which no 
one can really take seriously. BL L. Mencken has written: 

Christianity, as religions run in the world, is scarcely to be 
described as belonging to the first rank. It is full of vestiges of 
the barbaric cults that entered into it, and some of them are 
shocking to common sense, as to common decency. . . . It is 


16 The Book of the Acts of God 

full of lush and lovely poetry. The Bible is unquestionably the 
most beautiful book in the world. Allow everything you please 
for the barbaric history in the Old Testament and the silly Little 
Bethel theology in the New, and there remains a series of poems 
so overwhelmingly voluptuous and disarming that no other liter- 
ature, old or new, can offer a match for it. ... No other 
religion is so beautiful in its very substance none other can 
show anything to match the great strophes of flaming poetry 
which enter into every Christian gesture of ceremonial and give 
an august inner dignity to Christian sacred music. Nor does any 
other, not even the parent Judaism, rest upon so noble a 
mythology. The story of Jesus ... is, indeed, the most lovely 
story that the human fancy has ever devised, and the fact that 
large parts of it cannot be accepted as true surely does no 
violence to its effectiveness, for it is of the very essence of 
poetry that it is not true: its aim is not to record facts but to 
conjure up entrancing impossibilities. . . . Moreover, it has 
the power, like all truly great myths, of throwing off lesser 
ones, apparently in an endless stream. 1 

The typical "bible" of the world is filled with a great variety of 
spiritual, moral, and cultic teachings, whence the popular saying 
"Confucius say this" or "Confucius say that" The Christian Bible 
has teachings, too, but they are a part of a larger whole a history 
of a people that starts with the creation of the world, then passes 
through Abraham, Moses, David, etc., and ends with Paul and the 
early Church. Somehow we are supposed to be taught religiously 
from that story. When the missionary goes to other lands and seeks 
to convert people to Christianity, he begins with the elements of 
this Bible story. Small groups of Christians gather in their weekly 
meetings, studying the Bible, seeking first a knowledge of the great 
story. Christianity has always taught that in a real history of what 
once happened in the ancient world God came and revealed Mmself . 
Hence the Bible presents factual history, in which is seen the work 
of the living God. Jesus Christ is thus a real personage, not simply 
a beautiful piece of imaginative poetry, because he is related to the 
work of the sovereign God, who has sent Mm into history with a 
mission to perform. 

* H. L. Mencken, "The Poetry of Christianity/* The World's Best (New York, 
The Dial Press, 1950), pp. 148-150. Originally jpublished in a volume 
of Mencken's essays by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and used by pennissioni. 

The Biblical Point of View 17 

Yet it may well appear to an intelligent critic that I as a Christian 
want to base my faith on a series of stories a man simply cannot believe 
any longer, I open the Bible and begin to read, and soon encounter 
an explanation of the existence of woman as being built out of a 
rib of a man, about a snake that speaks, about a world in which 
God and his angels are heard in daily life commimicating with 
various personages and with one another, about waters dividing and 
people crossing through, about water turning into wine, etc. How 
is any man to believe these things? Are they anything other than a 
kind of poetry, beautiful in its essence, crude in its externals? In 
recent discussion about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the fabulous new 
biblical manuscripts found in caves on the shores of the Dead Sea, 
Mr. Edmund Wilson, writing for The New Yorker magazine, inti- 
mates that the results of the study of the scrolls may have revolu- 
tionary impact upon Christianity. He believes that this new study 
win suggest that Jesus as well as Paul and the early Church become 
explainable in terms of a definite historical setting with a definite 
historical background. This may mean that aH of the elaborate claims 
which the Church has made concerning the divinity and supernatural 
character of the New Testament events will be taken away. Jesus will 
now seem less superhuman and he will appear miraculous only in the 
sense that Shakespeare is miraculous. Wilson believes it will be a great 
thing for Christianity to discover this, because the rise of the 
religion wifl be understood as simply an episode in human history 
rather than as a movement propagated by dogma and divine 

A reviewer of Mr, Wilson's book, The Scrolls from the Dead Sea, 
expressed the opinion that the author is merely giving voice here 
to a common confusion that is abroad today, a confusion that arose 
in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of a generation ago. The 
confusion arises from the mistaken conviction that the Bible is 
composed of a combination of supernaturalism and factual matter, 
so intimate and dose in their relation that if one is able to disturb 
a single segment of the structure, the whole will collapse of its own 
weight Thus on the one hand there are those who are continuaJly 
seeking to prove the Bible, and on the other there are those who are 
continually seeking to select the spiritual and moral gems from its 
literature, while leaving the mythology aside. The reviewer continued 
bv saving that those acquainted with what is going on in contempo- 

18 The Book of the Acts of God 

rary theology and biblical study in the Church welcome all factual 
information of every type which throws light on the background 
of biblical truths. Biblical events that are interpreted by the Christian 
as acts of God are known to be continuous with, indistinguishable 
from, and interpreted by, other events of a history that can be 
viewed and studied by a historian. Indeed, he said, "The Christian 
doctrine of revelation means just this, that God chooses to give 
meaning to history, not to suspend it." 2 

This review elicited quite a number of letters written to the editor 
in reply. One man wrote: "I feel that Professor Cross has dodged the 
real issue which Mr. Wilson was trying to point out. The supernatural 
birth of Jesus fathered by the Holy Spirit from a virgin was or was 
not a historical fact. His teaching was either uniquely original and 
from God or it was not so/' Another wrote: "Mr. Cross finds no 
conflict between anything that scholarship might uncover and Chris- 
tian revelation. ... Is Mr. Cross possibly omitting certain historical 
facts attested to by the Bible, such as walking on water, turning 
water into wine, etc., to say nothing of the Incarnation and the 
Resurrection?" 8 The question raised here concerns the manner in 
which a modern Christian is to understand his Bible. Deeper than 
that is the question as to whether the Bible itself has a particular 
religious point of view which we today do not completely compre- 
hend. What is the relation between fact and faith in the Bible? To an 
attempt to answer this question let us now turn. 

A. Christianity, historians have said, is a historical religion, In one 
sense this means that it has a history like all other religions. In that 
context it is one of the world's religions. Yet in another sense it must 
be affirmed that Christianity among the religions seems to be the 
only one that takes history seriously, for it assumes that the knowl- 
edge of God is associated with events that really happened in human 
life. For illustration let us take the period of the prophets in the 
Old Testament, between the ninth and the fifth centuries B.C. TMs 
is the first great age of empire building in world history. The time 
was dominated by the great imperialistic wars, with one great empire 
succeeding another. The biblical historian and the prophet affirmed 
that God's attitude toward his people, Ms intention, and Ms purpose 

2 Frank M. Cross, Jr., The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1955 t 

pp. 1, 31. 

8 The New York Times Book Review, November 6 t 1955, p. 60. 

The Biblical Point of View 19 

were revealed in those very events. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, 
and the Persians were God's instruments in effecting his historical 
purpose. The biblical eye of faith was not focused internally, in the 
belief that religion is primarily an internal experience, nor was it 
focused sacramentally in various great forms of religious expression, 
though of these it had a great number. The eye instead was focused 
on the great external events of world history during that age. Of 
course, there were people present in the nation of Israel who wanted 
to turn the whole religion into a more comfortable sacramentalism, 
but there was something deep within the faith which rebelled and 
always has rebelled against such a conversion of the faith into that 
which it is not. People were called to look at themselves in their 
current society in Palestine. They were asked by the prophets to 
measure what they saw against certain standards which had been 
revealed to them. In the light of what was going on in the international 
politics of the day, what do these things mean? Simply this, said the 
prophets: God intends the destruction of the Israelite and Judean 

In making this affirmation, every major segment of ancient 
Israelite life was saying that the standards already given by which 
current life was to be measured are to be found in the Mosaic period, 
in the early days of IsraeFs history as a nation before her entrance 
into Palestine. They are to be found in the ancient Sinai covenant. 
The biblical historian and prophet further said that the destruction 
which was at hand was not the end of the nation. Early in their 
history, God had made wonderful promises to this people. Hence 
they affirm there will be a future, and with it a resolution of their 
problem and the problem of the whole world. That future is God's 
kingdom when Ms rule will be acknowledged throughout the world. 
In the centuries just past the most remarkable characteristic of God's 
action toward them had been his love and his grace. It had been his 
undeserved loyalty to his promises, a loyalty first seen in the fact that 
they were delivered from slavery in Egypt, in the fact that they were 
given a land, in the fact that they were given a fine government 
under David. 

In this point of view we note that the rootage of the faith seems to 
be found in the following: (1) The IsraeEte patriarchs, whose stories 
are preserved in the book of Genesis, had received certain promises, 
and the history of the nation of Israel was interpreted as a fulfillment 

20 The Book of the Acts of God 

of those promises. (2) The exodus from Egypt was interpreted as 
God's freeing of a people from slavery. It was a setting free and it 
was interpreted by the historian as a fulfillment of the promise, (3) 
A special and unique experience had taken place in the wilderness 
after the people had left Egypt. It took place at Mount Sinai, where 
the understanding of society and of community obligation was some- 
how obtained in a law or a teaching regarding community duty. 
(4) The conquest of Canaan whereby Israel secured a land for 
itself, was interpreted as God*s gift of an inheritance. The land was 
not interpreted as belonging to various individuals and families of 
Israel as a natural right, but was thought of as a gift of God. Thus 
there came about a special understanding of the meaning of property 
and of obligation in relation to it. Unless Israel was faithful to her 
assumed obligations in relation to God, the land, which was God's 
gift, would be taken away at a future time. (5) The conquests of 
David were regarded as the final fulfillment of the promise of land, 
and the Davidic government was regarded as the final fulfillment of 
the promise of security from enemies and from slavery. 

There are, then, five "events" in the Old Testament in which the 
whole faith seems to center. These are the call of the fathers, 
the deliverance from slavery, the Sinai covenant, the conquest of 
Canaan, and the Davidic government. Of this group of "events,** the 
call and promises to the fathers, the deliverance from slavery, and 
the gift of a land (the conquest) are known from liturgy and confes- 
sions to be the key elements of the whole story. When an Israelite 
confessed his faith, he simply gave an interpreted version of his 
national tradition. One of the oldest confessions in the Old Testament 
is contained in Deuteronomy 26:5-9. When a worshiper brought 
a basket of his first fruits to present at the central sanctuary, he was 
to repeat the following: 

"A perishing Aramaean was my father; and he went down 
into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and there became 
a nation, great, mighty and populous. But the Egyptians treated 
us evilly, afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And 
when we cried unto the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord 
heard our voice . . . and the Lord brought us forth out of 
Egypt with a mighty hand . . , and he hath brought us into 
this place, and hath given us this land, even the land that floweth 
with milk and honey." 

The Biblical Point of View 21 

Clearly in this confession, which dates before the tenth century in 
all probability, the central events are the exodus and the conquest. 
If an Israelite wished to confess Ms faith in even shorter form, he 
might confine his attention to the exodus. Who is God? He is "the 
Lord thy God, who has brought thee out of the land of Egypt, 
out of the house of bondage" (Exodus 20:2). The 105th Psalm is a 
beautiful example of a longer confession written in a later period; 
there the whole story is told, beginning with the words "O give 
thanks unto the Lord . , make known his deeds among the people" 
and ending with the words "praise ye the Lord." In other words, 
when biblical man confessed his faith, he did so by telling the story 
of Ms past, interpreted by Ms faith. He learned to present his faith 
in the forms of history. 

B. In the five basic elements which stand in the background of 
all Old Testament writing and faith, what can be said to be factual? 
Modern historical and archaeological research make it highly prob- 
able that each one of the five rests on a real historical or factual 
footage. The patriarchal stories so reflect an atmosphere in the first 
half of the second millennium B.C., and the patriarchal movement 
itself is so closely related with great migratory movements that we 
know to have been going on in that time, that it is difficult to separate 
the narratives from the contemporary Mstory. The whole background 
and color of the patriarchal age has been brought to life by modern 
research. There is undoubtedly a factual basis to the patriarchal 
stories. That there must once have been an exodus of a group of 
slaves from Egypt, slaves who had been put to work on public 
building projects in the Egyptian delta, also is undoubtedly Mstorical. 
We can say as much, too, for some experience during the wilderness 
wanderings whereby tMs group of heterogeneous slaves was organized 
into a nation with one common faith. The conquest of Canaan, 
interpreted as God's gift of a land, is given eloquent testimony in 
the devastation visited upon a number of the Palestinian cities which 
are known from archaeology to have been destroyed during the 
second half of the thirteenth century (before Christ), a time to which 
aU other indications also lead us as a date for the period of Joshua. 
When we come to David and the Davidic theology of government, 
we are in the firm light of Mstory, with contemporary sources upon 
wMch to rest our investigation. 

Yet other peoples have had events in their background wMch are 

22 The Book of the Acts of God 

not dissimilar. We in the U.S.A. have our founding fathers, our 
exodus from European oppression, our covenant in the Constitution 
and Bill of Rights, our conquest of America, and a succession of 
great men who have been the fathers of our country, beginning 
obviously with George Washington. In other words, the biblical 
event as event of history is not overly impressive as to its uniqueness. 
Historical research has shown it probable that an Abrahaniic family 
did migrate from Mesopotamia in the first half of the second mil- 
lennium. But is this particularly significant? The main point of the 
biblical story is not simply the migration, but the statement that 
God called Abraham and gave to him the wonderful promises. Is that 
fact and are those promises the empirical, objective, verifiable facts 
of history? Obviously they are not. Israel during the second half 
of the thirteenth century gave the old Canaanite city-states in 
Palestine a very severe drubbing. That seems to be a historical fact. 
But is it a fact in the same sense that God was the commander in 
chief of that war? 

The point is, then, that real historical events are here involved, 
but in themselves they do not make the biblical event. In the Bible 
an important or signal happening is not an event unless it is also an 
event of revelation, that is, unless it is an event which has been 
interpreted so as to have meaning. Indeed, this is true for any fact 
Unless it is given meaning in a certain context, it is meaningless 
and insignificant. Everything that is significant demands interpreta- 
tion. In the Bible every historical event is always interpreted by the 
historian and the prophet, by those who were present at the time, 
and by the successive generations of religious worshipers in the 
community of faith. Thus every event had a context of meaning 
attached to it. No modern scholar can "prove" the Bible. Historical 
and archaeological research can uncover the factual background in 
ancient history. But the meaning, the interpretation, the faith which 
in the Bible is an integral part of the event itself this no one can 
prove. Like aE great convictions it is something which is shared and 
proclaimed. Nothing of basic or ultimate meaning in our world can 
ever be proved. One cannot prove the value of Mozart's music any 
more than he can prove the nature of space. With regard to the 
biblical viewpoint I either accept or I reject the general over-all 
conviction that these happenings in the history of the ancient Near 

The Biblical Point of View 23 

East are indeed significant in that they convey a real knowledge of 
the true God. This is a conviction which is shared in a community 
of faith, which is given certainty through the experience of the 
Church through the centuries, together with the examination of rival 
views as to the meaning of life and history. 

C. We have seen that the point of view of the Old Testament is 
that real events have been interpreted as God's purposed and planned 
activity, an activity in which a future is involved. In the atmosphere 
thus established the New Testament is firmly set. There the first 
four books describe a true human being, who was born under 
Herod the Great and died under Pontius Pilate. That was a real 
historical event. But as objective or factual history it means little 
until it is interpreted, until the whole context of meaning is given it. 
As previously suggested, every event in history, if important, will be 
interpreted by a particular context of meaning. In the New Testa- 
ment, therefore, Jesus is interpreted as God's great act; he is not 
to be understood apart from the planned activity of God. 

In the New Testament story the following appear to be the 
important events: (1) The real life and teaching of Jesus. (2) His 
death on a cross at the hands of the Romans. (3) His resurrection 
as head of the new community established in him, that is, the 
Church. There have been those in Christian history who would 
insist that the birth of Christ is also a primary event in the New 
Testament story. Yet the only places where his birth is mentioned 
in the New Testament are in the introductions to Matthew and Luke. 
It is never mentioned elsewhere in the literature of the first-century 
Church, insofar as it has been preserved for us. None of the early 
preachers ever allude to it. Hence it is questionable whether for the 
New Testament itself the birth stories are to be placed on the same 
level of importance as the three above mentioned. In any case, the 
purpose of these stories is to affirm that the birth of Christ is God's 
great act, that God has here come into our history in a dramatic 
fashion as a fulfillment of his promises of old. 

D. It is clear then that not all of the contents of the Old and the 
New Testaments are on the same level of importance. The five Old 
Testament faith-events previously pointed out and the three central 
faith-events of the New Testament are those main events which 
sarry in themselves for the biblical man the main significance of 

24 The Book of the Acts of God 

life and history. It is by these great events that all else is interpreted. 
It is also these same events which form the central content of 
confession and liturgy. Around them the whole Bible takes form. 

Yet it is also true that not all of these events have behind them 
the same amount of factual evidence. The life of David, the life and 
teachings of Jesus, and the death of Jesus: for these three we have 
the most detailed and in general reliable information. The general 
picture of the exodus, the Mount Sinai or wilderness experience, 
and the conquest of Canaan can also be drawn, though perhaps 
somewhat more sketchily. Matters are different, however, with 
regard to the patriarchs in Genesis. Except for the Joseph story in 
Genesis 37-50 we do not have a connected narrative. The material 
is fragmentary, and provides only occasional glimpses of the life 
of this time. Although archaeological research has given us a historical 
basis for the narratives, nevertheless the material is near the level 
of saga. It has had a long history before it has reached the written 
form. Hence, we should add one new point to those previously 
mentioned: namely, that the Bible is a literature which takes history 
and historical traditions seriously. That is, the people of the faith 
interpreted the factual material which they had and the traditions 
of their people which had come down to them in the light of their 

This furnishes a clue to our understanding of the prehistoric 
material preserved in Genesis 1-11. These traditions go far back 
into the dim and unrecoverable history of Israel; they are the popular 
traditions of a people, traditions which in part go back to a pre- 
Canaanite and North Mesopotamian background. For this reason 
there is little question of objective history here. We are instead faced 
with the question of why the old traditions were written down. What 
was the purpose of the writers who preserved them for us? They 
were not simply writing down the traditions of their people for 
purposes of entertainment. The old folk stories with which aH were 
familiar had a deep meaning, if understood in the light of God's 
work. What is significant in this prehistoric, legendary, and mytho- 
logical material, therefore, is not simply the collection of factual state- 
ments concerning world origins which they contained. Those 
statements axe certain to reflect the views of the universe which were 
then current. What is of importance here is the purpose which caused 

The Biblical Point of View 25 

the writers to recast and reform the old traditions and to put them 
into writing. 

Finally, what shall we say about the resurrection of Christ, as 
understood in the New Testament? This cannot be an objective fact 
of history in the same sense as was the crucifixion of Christ, The 
latter was a fact available to all men as a real happening, and pagan 
writers like Tacitus and Josephus can speak of it. But in the New 
Testament itself the Easter f aith-event of the resurrection is perceived 
only by the people of the faith. Christ as risen was not seen by every- 
one, but only by the few. Easter was thus a reality for those in the 
inner circle of the disciples and apostles. That is not an arena where 
a historian can operate. Facts available to all men are the only data 
with which he can work, the facts available to the consciousness of 
a few are not objective history in the historian's sense. 

Hence we have to view the resurrection in the New Testament as 
a faith-event, unlike other events, which is nevertheless real to the 
Christian community. It testifies to the knowledge that Christ is alive, 
not dead. The living Christ was known to be the head of the Church; 
and his power was real The process, the how of Christ's transition 
from death to the Mving head of the new community, and the 
language used to describe that transition ("raised the third day," 
"ascension," "going up," "sitting on the right hand of God") these 
are products of the situation. They are the temporal language of the 
first-century Christians. To us, they are symbols of deep truth and 
nothing more, though they are symbols that are difficult to translate. 

E. Finally, if it be granted that the clue to the Bible is to be found 
in these events, understood as here we have attempted to suggest, 
we can return to the beginning and say that Christianity is a historical 
religion in the sense that real events and traditions are interpreted 
in such a way as to reveal the nature of God and of man. The biblical 
point of view was to take history and historical tradition seriously 
and througji them to foresee a future. Faith is thus set 'within the 
forms of history. 

In this perspective what are we to make of all the unbelievable 
things to which allusion was made above: the snake talking, water 
turning into wine, woman taken from the rib of man, etc.? These are 
aU there, but somehow they are no longer so troublesome. They 
belong to the fringe of the central narrative for the most part, and 

26 The Book of the Acts of God 

neither their affirmation nor their denial can be used to negate the 
whole historical viewpoint either as fact or faith. They belong to 
the temporal features of the story. They show God's action in history 
as one which made use of people as they were, employing the outlook 
and the categories of mind and the traditions of the people as then 
they actually lived and felt. And, furthermore, they suggest to us that 
God who is still Lord, is using our minds, our culture, our science, our 
art, our limitations, our evil as the means by which Ms revelation is 
today to be comprehended. The Bible, the story of what God once 
did, provides us spectacles whereby we are made to see, whereby the 
otherwise confused notions of God and life are brought into focus 
around a central perspective. Archaeology and historical research are 
vitally important to us as we seek to understand the Bible, because 
they illumine the background and history of the time from which the 
Bible comes. The more we know about those times the more we shaU 
be able to understand the data with which biblical man was working. 
His faith was centered in the realities of life, in the attempt to under- 
stand what they meant; he projected his faith deep within the 
realities of historical evil and saw in the backdrop of the world's 
darkness the brilliant light of God. The more we know, therefore, 
about biblical man's age, the more we shall be able to comprehend 
the reality of his faith. 


The Knowledge of God 

FOR BIBLICAL man the knowledge of God is inseparably 
associated with the understanding of history's meaning. He believed 
that he was existing in a unique history which possessed a special 
significance because God, through it, was shown to be in the process 
of redeeming all history. He learned to confess his faith in the forms 
of history by taking the events of his own people and the traditions of 
his past seriously, because these alone revealed the nature and the 
purpose of the true God, Jesus Christ was not simply another of 
the many religious teachers on earth. He had come as one sent 
especially from God at the fuffillment or climactic point of a special 
time, a time prepared through the centuries by God through his 
special work with this one people. 

How had biblical man come to so unusual a point of view concern- 
ing the source of his knowledge of God? The explanation must lie in 
the historical experience of his people. It must rest far back in the 
beginning of their national existence when Israel as a group of slaves 
was a people whom the world's law and justice passed by. The great 
gods of the world at the time of Moses were gods who were particu- 
larly interested in the owners and providers of the great temples. 
These gods were the world's greatest aristocrats, and they were served 
by an elaborate political, economic, and ecclesiastical system. The 
whole religion about them was a support of the current status quo in 
society. But with Israel a most unusual thing had happened. A power 
greater than any known power in the universe, a power great enough 
to make both the heart of a recalcitrant Pharaoh and all the powers of 
nature serve him, had rescued a depressed people from the hands of 
her oppressors. 

This fact is the rootage of that peculiar viewpoint by which 


28 The Book of the Acts of God 

Israel is clearly to be differentiated from all other peoples of her 
time. Wherever one moves in the later society of Israel, whether 
in religious hymns or prophecies, whether in instructions for priests 
or teaching for children, whether in legal tradition or in pastoral or 
agricultural festival, the early encounter with deity in the events of a 
great deliverance is normative, God met the people while they were 
needy and delivered them from their oppression. From this point it 
was inevitable that the eye of the Israelite would be trained to give 
attention to the events which happened subsequently. The great 
Power which had saved him must have had a purpose in doing so. 
What was God about? The primary place for the Israelite to learn 
was in what was happening around him. The eye of faith was trained 
to take human events seriously because in them was to be learned 
more clearly than anywhere else what God willed and what he was 
doing. Consequently, in all that happened subsequent to the exodus 
the Israelite simply interpreted the meaning of events by recognising 
and acknowledging in them the God who had formed the nation by 
the remarkable signs and wonders experienced at the exodus and 
in the wilderness. History, therefore, was always pointing forward 
to something. God's purpose and plan always was to be discerned 
ahead* The purpose involved a vocation in history; it attracted the 
best from the Israelite follower. It was an external, independent 
purpose. It was always in conflict with the normal, national desires 
of the people. The nation had to follow, or suffer the consequences. 
During the great international wars in which Israel was soon 
enmeshed, like many other small nations of the ancient civilized 
world, the faith was never lost. The God of Israel did not die as the 
gods of the world died in the events which destroyed the political 
existence of the people. The Lord was one who was directing these 
wars toward his own ends, even though the conquering armies did 
not know or acknowledge it. God alone is in charge of history, As 
one who had met Israel in historical event he thus was recognized 
as the Lord of all events who was directing the whole course of 
history toward his own ends, for nothing happened in which his 
power was not acknowledged. For this reason the gospel stories 
present a picture of one who is not simply a fine rabbi; he is to be 
understood as vitally associated with God's historical purpose* He 
and the Church that exists in him are not to be understood in their 
humanity alone. They can only be comprehended in their relation 

The Knowledge of God 29 

to the purposive activity of the sovereign God. The Lord of history 
is the Lord of Jesus Christ; the latter has come to earth to do the 
former's work. Thus we, too, who are members of Christ's Church 
must find the clue to our own lives, not simply in devotional exercise, 
nor in the service of self, but in the service of him who placed us 
here. We become followers of him whose action in history has saved 
us from slavery. 

This biblical viewpoint toward the source of our knowledge of 
God is not a common or usual one. The normal person seems to 
think of the knowledge of God as available from some other sphere 
than history. This was true in biblical times and it is still true today. 
For example, in the Saturday Review (April 10, 1954) Albert N. 
Williams wrote an article entitled "Our Prettified Prophets." In it 
the author calls attention to the fact that so many of our best sellers 
in the non-fiction field today deal with religious matters in one way 
or another. He thinks it significant that people in our time "want 
bread for the soul far more than they do a prod in the plexus or a 
lift to the libido." Yet he feels there is something wrong with these 
religious giant sellers that go under the banner of religion today. 
They do not, somehow, communicate a knowledge of God to the 
reader. They seem to "address themselves only to the spiritual 
comforts available to a Christian of sure faith, and not at all with 
the religious foundations of that faith. . . . Faith, so strong and so 
bold in the novels and histories that deal with it, is looked upon as a 
knowledge that can float through man's consciousness without any 
reason for being, ... It has been torn away from the stream of history 
that brought it into being, and it is now established as a static and 
extra-human force. . . . The powder of prettiness and pettiness that 
has sifted down upon the shoulders of our Old Testament prophets 
and New Testament fathers has served altogether to smother them as 
human beings, and to take them, heels dragging in their own great- 
ness, out of the arena of history." 

A sermon on the knowledge of God recently given in Chicago 
gives a rather typical answer to the question as to the source of that 
knowledge. Its source is nature and the human heart. The God of 
nature and the God within these are the age-old gods of the natural 
man in our earth. The devotional leader of a vesper or a sunrise 
service in a summer conference on the edge of a lake is inclined to 
say: "God is the beauty of nature or the glory of the sun." But what 

30 The Book of the Acts of God 

kind of a god is this? An aesthetic feeling? The ancient polytheists 
of biblical times saw more clearly into nature's true being. They 
believed in many gods because Mother Nature does not speak with 
one voice only, but with many voices. The mother goddess and the 
god of healing depicted for the polytheist one side of nature. But 
the other side was more somber and awful, even while glorious. 
Baal and Enlil, the gods of the storm, were kings, the personification 
of nature's force, with hidden, uncontrollable, amoral (if not 
immoral) depths to their natures. Then there were Ishtar, Anath, 
and Ashtoreth, the goddesses who depicted all the beauty and wonder 
of love. These were also goddesses of war, because uncontrolled love 
for its own sake is closely allied in nature with blood and battle. 
And then there were the gods of death, pestilence, and disease. These 
are in nature too. The straggle among them for supremacy is almost 
constant. Indeed, Darwin's "survival of the fittest" may well give a 
more accurate portrayal of the observable heart of nature than do 
such descriptions as we force upon nature by giving it such attributes 
as "beauty," "health/* "motherhood," etc. Can one, therefore, say 
that the primary knowledge of God is to be found in nature? Can 
nature be unified into a god? H the argument from nature is simply 
to prove that God exists, that there is a first cause, then perhaps the 
arguments of Professor TUlicli must be considered when he says that 
to try to prove that God exists in this way is to deny him, God is not 
a thing among things* Existence and causation are elements of 
creation. Certainly God is no cause like other causes nor does he 
exist as a thing exists. He is above and beyond all such categories 
of the human mind. 

As for the God within, all great mysticisms have emphasized the 
fact that God is revealed within the human soul. A Hindu would 
point within himself when asked where God is. He would say, **He 
is in here; this is where I know him.** The categories of mysticism, 
spiritual experience, even prayer as ways of experiencing God when 
these are developed in and for themselves alone, are they not types 
of self-fulfilhnent, and therefore self-centered? Protestantism of our 
time has too frequently taught that the chief end of man is to have 
some sort of spiritual (meaning emotional and aesthetic) ocaorence 
within the heart. The picture of the truly pious man has typically 
been the picture of a man on his taees, straggling to become aware 

The Knowledge of God 31 

of God and to have "an experience" of Mm. Yet Americans are 
typically activists. Asceticism and knees on hard floors are not for 
the typical American. Hence, many of us have early come to the 
conclusion that we shall never be typically religious or pious people 
in this sense. 

For clarification of this issue let us examine the great religious 
experiences of the Bible. What was their purpose? Was their aim 
that of obtaining a knowledge of God, or were they for the purpose 
of securing a knowledge of one's vocation? What is the central thing 
about the great experience of Moses as recounted in Exodus 3? Is it 
the burning bush? But that was simply to attract attention! Is it the 
words "Put off your shoes . . . "? No, it is "Moses, come now, I send 
you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people . . . out of Egypt** 
(Exodus 3:10). Or what of the great experience of Isaiah? Was it 
solely the prophet's feeling of God's holiness and his own sin? Are 
those scholars correct who try to derive Isaiah's theology, his whole 
knowledge of God, from this one great experience? Rather is it so 
that the center and climax of that sixth chapter of Isaiah is in the 
eighth verse: "And I heard the voice of the Lord saying: 'Whom shall 
I send, and who wiH go for us?' Then said I: Here am I! Send me.' 
And he said: *Go , . . V* Similarly in the call of Jeremiah, the central 
words are: "I appointed you a prophet to the nations. ... to all to 
whom I send you, you shall go" (Jeremiah 1:5, 7). And finally, in 
the conversion experience of Paul on the Damascus road, the Lord's 
words were: "Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you 
are to do." And to Ananias the Lord said: "Go, for he [Paul] is a 
chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and 
kings and the sons of Israel" (Acts 9:6, 15). 

Note the frequent occurrence in these widely separated passages of 
the words, "send," "go," "do." The experience of God conveyed no 
complete theology, no statement of abstract doctrines, no precious 
feelings that were cherished for years hence. The experience was too 
awful to be sentimentalized, to be made either pretty or petty. It was 
rather God's way of turning a man around in his tracks and con- 
fronting him with his job. "Here is the way! Walk in it!" "Here is 
your work. Go, do it!" 

It is clear that the knowledge of God gained through these experi- 
ences was not a static faith floating through a man's consciousness; 

32 The Book of the Acts of God 

it was something to be done. Knowledge and truth in the Bible involve 
things to do, not simply a belief in a God of nature nor an experience 
of the God within. God is too busy, too active, too dynamic to wait 
for us to experience him in the acts of worship we devise in our 
schedules. He is to be known by what he has done and said, by what 
he is now doing and saying; and he is known when we do what he 
commands us to do. 

Yet the awareness of a calling, of being sent to do something, 
comes in and through a community of life. The knowledge of God is 
not formed in us in our solitariness. It is not a private or mysterious 
something which one treasures within. Knowledge is not conveyed 
or communicated apart from a social form or structure of thought 
and experience. In the Bible, that structure is the covenant society, 
and the knowledge of God is communicated in and through it. In 
Israel the universe was conceived of as a cosmic state, ruled by one 
divine will. The world is in rebellion against this great Lord, and he 
is in the midst of the struggle to make it his faithful kingdom. 
Meanwhile he has formed a new society in this earth as a foretaste 
of the goal. 

In other words, God is presented to us primarily in the form of a 
ruler who is doing definite things. He is a king in warfare to make the 
world his kingdom. He is the king as judge, trying people and nations 
for their rebellions against his rule. He is the king as lord, shepherd, 
and father of his new community which he has formed and with 
which he struggles to the end that it may become his faithful steward 
or agent 

The new society also had a definite picture behind it which gave a 
structure of meaning to human existence. That picture was derived 
from the conception of covenant, a term borrowed from legal usage. 
Covenant was then and stiE is a treaty between two legal communities 
sealed by an oath or vow. The so-called suzerainty treaties of the 
second millennium B.C. furnish us with the particular pattern which 
undergirds the relationship between God and Ms people Israel. TMs 
pattern is described in detail in the section about the covenant (see 
pages 87-91). The major point to be noted is that God is known 
in his covenant as the great suzerain, whose prior acts of love and 
mercy call forth a response of love and service from his people. The 
pattern is what we migjit call a benevolent feudalism, with the whole 

The Knowledge of God 33 

society dependent upon a Lord who has proved over and over again 
his benevolence and trustworthiness. 

These remarks, I realize, are to some extent cryptic. Yet the main 
point I am making here is that the knowledge of God in the Bible 
was communicated through a definite social form with its own partic- 
ular language to describe the nature of God and the meaning of our 
human Eves. In this structure of thinking the emphasis is not on some 
pious, private, or esoteric experience of the great King. One does not 
do that sort of thing with a king. Instead, our focus of attention is 
upon a knowledge of the Lord's will, on our attachment to him for 
what he has done, and on our loyalty to him in all that we do. The 
Lord has placed a vocation before his society and each member 
hears God's command addressed to him personally. 

My description here has been drawn from the Old Testament, 
because it provides the key to the New. The essentials of this concep- 
tion of the meaning of our lives under God have actually been fulfilled 
and realized in Christ, God has made Christ the head, the king, of 
this community, and to live in it is to live "in Christ," to love him 
and serve him loyally. 

In other words, the knowledge of God in the Bible is first of all an 
acknowledgment that God is the sovereign, that he is the ruler who 
claims, and has right to claim, our obedience, because of all that he 
is and has done. God is not thought of as a being who has always 
existed and whose existence is to be argued about one way or another; 
he is known as the will who has a determined aim, who judges, who 
is gracious, who requires. Knowledge, then, is not of God's eternal 
being but of his claim upon us. It is the reverent acknowledgment 
of God's power, of his grace and requirement Hence knowledge is 
not a private, inner possession of the knower. Man has knowledge 
only when he obeys, only when he acts in obedience. Knowledge 
involves the movement of the wiU f so that not to know is an error not 
correctable by more good ideas; it is a guilt, a rebellion. He who 
knows God is he who reverently acknowledges God's power and God's 
claim, a claim which leads him to practice brotherly love, justice, and 

This conception of knowledge is very different from that which 
we normally hold. To us knowledge is usually a coherent body of 
truth, an understanding of something which was always there awaiting 

34 The Book of the Acts of God 

our seeing and knowing. Yet in the Bible knowing is an event in the 
intercourse between two personalities. In the words of Professor Emil 
Brunner it is characteristic of the Bible that: 

"This two-sided relation between God and man has not de- 
veloped as doctrine but rather is set forth as happening in the 
story. The relationship between God and man and between 
man and God is not of such a kind that doctrine can adequately 
express it in abstract formulas. ... It is not a timeless or 
static relation arising from the world of ideas and only for 
such is doctrine an adequate form: rather the relation is an 
event, and hence narration is the proper form to describe it. 
The decisive word-form in the language of the Bible is not the 
substantive, as in Greek, but the verb, the word of action. . . . 
God 'steps' into the world, into relation with men. . . . He 
acts always in relation to them, and he always acts. 

Similarly, men are . . . those who from the first are placed 
in a specific relation to God and then also place themselves in 
such a relation: either positive or negative, obedient or dis- 
obedient, true or false, conformable to God or impious. They 
too are always considered as those who act: and their action, 
whether expressing sin or faith, is always understood as action 
in relation to God." 1 

The language about God in such a presentation is going to be the 
type of language that pertains to narrative. It will be a language filled 
with pictures drawn from human experience and from human society, 
that is, a language filled with symbols. The apostle Paul in I Cor- 
inthians 2:12-13 contrasted the wisdom of the world and the wisdom 
of God in the gospel as revealed to us in the Church by the Holy 
Spirit. He says: 

"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the 
Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts 
bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not 
taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting 
spiritual truths in spiritual language." (R.S.V. margin) 

The apostle Paul is probably the most abstract writer in the Bible. 
Yet, even so, Ms language stiU does not measure up to the desires of 
many of the Greek-speaking peoples to whom he addressed his 

Branner, The Divine-Human Encounter (Philadelphia, 1943), pp. 471 

The Knowledge of God 35 

message. He goes as far as he can to meet them, but in the last 
analysis his message is based upon the New Testament story, which 
to many Greek intellectuals was surely naive. The language of the 
gospel is a special language, and the Christian faith can be presented 
in the last analysis in no other way than by means of this narrative 
type of discourse. As the passage quoted above clearly indicates, the 
gospel for Paul must be imparted not in the words of human wisdom 
as it is currently conceived but by the special language required by 
the Spirit. Paul is conscious then of the special character of the 
language which he uses. 

Thomas Aquinas once asked whether the Holy Scripture should 
use metaphors. He said that people object to this because divine 
truths should not and cannot be put forward by comparing them to 
things of the earth. Man is not God. But, he says, "I answer that . . . 
it is natural to man to attain to inteEectual truths through sensible 
objects, because all our knowledge originates from sense. Hence in 
Holy Writ spiritual truths are fittingly taught under the likeness of 
material things. . . . Then it is clear that these things are not literal 
descriptions of divine truths . . . because this is more befitting the 
knowledge of God that we have in this life." 2 In other words the 
special language of the Bible, says Thomas, is not a literal description, 
but it is nevertheless a language in which the truth of God is truly 
conveyed. It is a language that uses pictures to speak about hidden 
things, a language in which the truth is revealed in symbolic form. 
But what is a symbol? Concerning this there has been some 
difference of definition. Ordinarily, we think of it as a sign of some- 
thing. In early Christianity, for example, the fish was a symbol for 
Christ, It was a picture which related the knower to the real. 

Today we suffer from the literalization of knowledge, of words, 
of language* We forget that what we know by the senses is only a 
fragment of experience. To live is to feel, to understand, to participate 
in memory which relates past and future, to connect the passing 
moment to an over-all unity, so that life is not fragmentary or aimless 
but meaningful. A fact is not a significant fact until it has meaning. 
We have no way of presenting or understanding the meaning of things 
except by symbols, by a picture language. In fact, in whatever realm 
of discourse or study we happen to be we shall find ourselves using 
2 Erich Frank, Philosophical Understanding and Religious Truth, pp. 101-2. 

36 The Book of the Acts of God 

a special language with its own series of symbols. If we think of 
science as being non-symbolic, then perhaps we may recall that no 
one really knows what an electron is like. Its movements can be 
described and inferences can be made on the basis of its movements. 
Yet it is not a thing in the sense that we would normally consider a 
concrete entity to be a thing. It has all the qualities of energy or 
motion, and yet it seems to be more than that. In fact, what it is in 
itself is by no means clear; it is a mystery. And yet scientists have 
developed a whole language of symbol by which the electron can be 
talked about in its relationships to other things. What it is in itself 
is not clear, but what it does, how it acts, and how it relates these 
can be known and described by symbols. Similarly, algebra and higher 
mathematics would appear to be an elaborate system of symbols 
which relate us to the real, though they in themselves do not describe 
the real as it is in itself. 

The God of biblical faith hides himself; he is mysterious in the 
sense that he is never seen by human eye. Occasional glimpses are 
caught of his glory, of the shining envelope that surrounds his being, 
of the effulgence of beauty or order that derive from him, but what 
he is in himself is the great mystery. As one prophet has written: 
"It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are 
like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and 
spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nought, 
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. ... To whom then will 
you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One" 
(Isaiah 40:22-23, 25). The prophet is very conscious of the problem 
of language. No words are sufficient to describe the greatness of the 
power of the God who has made all things and before whom all things 
are as nothing. In a preceding verse he has suggested that normally 
people liken their gods to things of wood and stone; the impoverished 
man chooses wood that will not rot and seeks out a sMUM craftsman 
to make an image of Mm. That is, the greatness of the living God is 
reduced to a material image, an idol which is made by hand. The 
Bible thinks of God in terms of the sovereign king or lord who is 
known in the form of a commander in chief of the armies, of judge, 
or of lord or father, though in themselves these picture-words do not 
confine Mm or convey all that is significantly to be known about Mm. 
What is important is what tMs great Lord has done. He is the concrete 

The Knowledge of God 37 

God, the Lord who led Israel from Egypt and the Father of Jesus 
Christ. He is not a principle; he is individual, personal, definite, all 
this without being an idol As Professor Tfllich has put it, he is 
independent of his nation, Israel, and he is also independent of his 
own individual nature as conveyed by the symbols. He is known, but 
not confined, by them. 

Many people have used the term "symbol" and mean by it that 
since something is merely symbolic it need not be taken seriously. 
Yet we do not have in this life a choice between using a symbolic 
and non-symbolic language when it comes to matters that are vitally 
or ultimately important. A symbol or picture-word is the only way 
by which the ultimate and infinite is made real to us who are of 
limited minds and understandings. It always points beyond itself; 
it hints at reality without confining it; it relates us to the real while 
at the same time the real is opened for us to comprehend and to love. 
In other words, the religious symbol is a relationship word, and 
without it we would have no way of knowing God or anything that 
matters. Every religion has its system or structure of symbols which 
relate our lives to the meaning of the universe. 

In Christian theology the Church through the centuries has made 
attempts in every generation to translate its message into the current 
idiom. It must always do this; its creeds are one means by which 
it has done it, while at the same time protecting its members from 
straying too far from the fold. Nevertheless the Church's theological 
and creedal attempts are always products of their situations. In the 
last analysis the Church must always go back to the Bible to discover 
the truths that He behind all translation attempts. The whole biblical 
drama is actually our only means of presenting the Christian faith. 
For this reason the Bible is always at the center and must always be 
at the center of the Church's faith and proclamation. 

Yet there is always the final lurking question: Is the Bible true? 
What is truth and what is just symbolic? Cannot I have anything that 
is absolutely certain? The answer must be that the symbol is the 
truth. We have no other truth. We know it is not literal truth, but 
we know that the biblical portrayal is the relationship between the 
unknown infinite and ourselves here and now. No precise dividing 
line can be drawn between the ultimately real and the poetic symbol, 
because God has not made us infinite. "Now I know in part, but then 

38 The Book of the Acts of God 

shall I know even as also I am known'* (I CorintMans 13:12). If we 
are not content with this, then we are not content with our creaturely 
finitude. But whether content or not content, we will not get anything 
more than this. And it is the biblical proclamation that God has 
revealed himself in this history, and in so doing has given us all that 
we need for our salvation. The result is, as a marvelous biblical 
passage suggests (Deuteronomy 30:11-14), God's teaching is not 
so far off that it has to be wrested from the uttermost parts of the 
universe. It is not so high that it cannot be attained. "But the word 
is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you 
can do it." 


How the Bible Came to Be Written 

How BID it happen that a particular group of books came 
to compose the Bible? In other words, how was the "canon" of 
scripture formed? The word "canon" is the technical name for the 
body of books which make up the Bible, to which nothing is to be 
added. Its literal meaning is "measuring rod"; this particular litera- 
ture, then, is the measure of all else belonging to the faith. 

The story of how the Bible came to be written is a very long and 
complex one. No one set out to prepare a scripture. A great variety 
of people and traditions is represented, most of them in one way or 
another related to the central story, but the time between the earliest 
and the latest writings is some 1300 years. Let us begin with the 
Old Testament. 


At the heart of the Old Testament is the simple story 
which furnishes the theme of the first six books, Genesis through 
Joshua. God the Creator, in order to redeem men from their sin of 
rebellion against him, chose Abraham and his posterity (that is, the 
people of Israel) that through this one people his blessing might be 
mediated to all peoples (Genesis), His greatest acts were the demon- 
stration of his saving power in rescuing Israel from Egyptian slavery, 
in forming them into a nation in covenant with himself at Mount 
Sinai (Exodus through Deuteronomy), and in giving them a land 
in which to dwell (Joshua). 

We do not know when the essentials of this story were first com- 


40 The Book of the Acts of God 

mitted to writing. Some of the earliest datable literature preserved 
are old poems, such as the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), the Blessing 
of Jacob (Genesis 49), the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15), the 
Prophecies of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), etc. The Old Testament 
does not tell us exactly what Moses himself wrote. Late Jewish tradi- 
tion was to the effect that he wrote the whole Pentateuch (the first 
five books), but the contents themselves speak of Moses in the third 
person and give no hint to support the theory. That he prepared at 
least a collection of laws, known later as the Book of the Covenant, 
including the Ten Commandments in their original form, seems quite 
probable (cf. Exodus 24:7; 34:27). For the rest, all we can say is 
that while the substance of Israelite faith was Mosaic, title present 
written form of the literature is later in date. There is thus no more 
reason to accept the Jewish tradition regarding the Mosaic authorship 
of the Pentateuch than there is to accept other Jewish traditions 
regarding authorship of various books, including the one which held 
that Ezekiel was not responsible for the book which bears Ms name. 
Virtually all of the leading scholars of the Protestant wing of the 
World Church hold a more dynamic view of scriptural origins than 
Mosaic authorship permits. Even Roman Catholics are now permitted 
to believe that though the Pentateuch is substantially Mosaic, this 
does not mean that Moses was responsible for everything written in 
it, because it was supplemented during the course of the centuries. 

It must be recalled that in Old Testament times writing did not 
play the role that it does today. For the most part it was the work 
of a specialist who made his living by it. He was the "scribe" who 
worked for commercial concerns and temples, making lists, drawing 
up formal documents and the like, and also was needed in the 
diplomatic and political affairs of a nation in order to assist in foreign 
affairs and in keeping the nation's life in order. Other than this all 
emphasis was placed upon the oral transmission of historical and 
literary works. Plato once said that the invention of writing was not 
necessarily the greatest of all good things in human culture. When 
writing was invented and widely used, it tended to "produce forget- 
fulness in the minds of those who learn to use it" so that "they win 
not practice memory." The biblical world was dominated by a 
genuine, living oral tradition, whereby everything worth while was 
known and transmitted orally. Writing was not considered an inde- 
pendent mode of expression, literature and historical traditions, 

How the Bible Came to Be Written 41 

such as descriptions of legal practice (laws), were put down on 
leather or papyrus only when there was a crisis of confidence, when 
faith in the spoken word began to waver, when there was fear that 
all might be forgotten. 

In the Old Testament, as we have already observed, there was a 
living oral tradition about what God had done by a series of mighty 
acts, beginning with Abraham and coming to a climax with Moses 
and Joshua, whereby the nation was brought into being. This tradition 
was nourished by the living community which was formed and condi- 
tioned by it, while at the same time the community was its bearer. 
There is increasing agreement among scholars today that the first 
edition of the early Israelite history was probably put into writing 
during the great age of the United Monarchy, perhaps during the 
reign of Solomon about 950 B.C. The unknown author is called 
the "Yahwist writer" (or simply *T') because he uses the proper 
name (Yahweh) for God from the very beginning of Ms work, while 
the other strata of the literature preserve the tradition that this name 
was first revealed to Moses. His work forms the core of our present 
books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, but at what point it ended 
and whether or not it extended into Joshua is now no longer clear. It 
is a great work, as we shall see, full of joy, confidence, and faith. 
God's selection and his promises to Abraham are viewed by the J 
writer as fulfilled in three stages: the exodus and formation of the 
nation at Sinai, the gift of the land, and the granting of security and 
"rest" under David (during or just after whose time the author 
apparently lived). 

As a backdrop to this portrayal of God's action toward one people 
and as an answer to the question, "Why?" he collected some of the 
old stories about prehistoric times which had circulated among his 
people. By the very manner in which he retells these hoary traditions 
he gives a penetrating analysis of the problem of man and his civiliza- 
tion. His story of a chosen nation, Israel, is then set over against this 
backdrop of human civilization, and, as we shall see, he appears to 
view the former as God's answer to the problem of the latter. 

Why the Yahwist committed his work to writing when he did is 
not entirely certain. We may surmise that the reign of David, 
marking as it did the death of an old order and the beginning of a 
new one, brought with it a crisis of understanding. How did all of the 
old traditions make sense in the new day? In order that they might 

42 The Book of the Acts of God 

not be lost but might speak for the new order, it is not impossible 
that David himself encouraged someone in Ms court to write the 
stories down as the One Story. It was probably the official version 
of the national epic, encouraged by David and Solomon as they 
sought to make one nation out of a group of tribes. This is not to say 
that the central core or theme of that story, and even much of the 
detailed working out of it, had not been composed orally long before 
this time. But the more complete written version, with its reworking 
of the prehistoric materials, housed in the newly established political 
and religious capital, Jerusalem, must have provided a powerful 
sanction for the new order. 

As we read through the early Old Testament books, however, it is 
quite apparent that a conglomerate of material has been heaped 
around the central narrative. This is a testimony to the fact that these 
books have had a history, in which various materials have been used 
to supplement the first edition. Scholars have long detected a second 
stratum of old material, very close to that of J (the Yahwist), in 
Genesis (first clearly noted in Chapter 15), Exodus, and Numbers. 
Theologically it is much more conscious of the problems of obedience 
and loyalty to God over idolatry, of the way God reveals himself to 
man, of the role of the prophet, etc. It is generally felt that this 
source may have been a connected oral or written edition of the 
national epic that circulated in North Israel. It is called the "Elohist" 
or "E" stratum and is perhaps to be dated to the ninth century, since 
during the controversies of that time the religious teachers of North 
Israel became much more conscious of certain special theological 
questions than had been the case a century before. Perhaps after the 
fall of North Israel to the Assyrians in 721 B.C., or at least sometime 
during the ninth or eighth centuries, certain parts of this document, 
if it was that, were used to supplement the work of the Yahwist. At 
a few places where it was more detailed it was even permitted to 
displace the Yahwisf s story. The resultant written document is called 
JE by scholars; it is simply a term for the oldest material in Genesis, 
Exodus, and Numbers, material far older certainly than the written 
stage of its transmission. 

It was probably during the exile in the sixth century B.C., after the 
fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, that a 
circle of priests from that temple decided to edit JE and to make 
extensive additions to it from sources which they had saved oat of 

How the Bible Came to Be Written 43 

the archives of the destroyed temple. For example, they added the 
detailed description of the wilderness tent-shrine (tabernacle) which 
is found in the second part of Exodus; they also contributed all of 
Leviticus, mainly old orders and rules relating to worship and priest- 
hood, and quite a variety of heterogeneous fragments in Numbers. 
The Jerusalem priesthood was vitally concerned that material of 
such central importance to them and to the temple be preserved. 
Central to it was their theology of the God whose presence was so 
graciously "tabernacling" in the midst of his people, the God who 
had revealed the manner by which he might be served and worshiped. 
The present final form of the first four books, Genesis through 
Numbers, was thus probably fixed by the Jerusalem priests during 
the course of the sixth or early fifth centuries B.C., and was used as the 
normative guide to the newly established community following 
the return from exile. 

Meanwhile other bodies of literature had been written or were in 
process of formation. An old book found in the temple in 622 B.C. 
(II Kings 22) had caused a great religious revival and had so 
inspired one great soul that, by using it as the basis for his writing, 
he prepared the remarkable history of Israel in Palestine which we 
have in the books of Joshua through II Kings, The old book was 
evidently the core of our present Book of Deuteronomy. The history 
based upon it was finished sometime between about 600 and 550 B.C., 
as we know from the last events recorded in it. The author wrote in 
the light of the covenant faith, interpreting to Israel the meaning of 
all that had happened. 

In the Book of Deuteronomy he had at hand an exposition of the 
relation between the faith and the land. Here were the Lord God's 
terms, what he required of his people if they were to be permitted 
to keep the land. Using this as the introduction to his great work, 
the historian proceeded to the story of the people in the Promised 
Land, giving an interpretation which furnishes the reasons why 
the land was lost. 

Finally, the Chronicler, working from older sources, prepared the 
history of Judah which we have in the books of I and II Chronicles, 
Ezra, and Nehemiah. He completed it, probably during the early 
part of the fourth century B.C., for the small Jewish community which 
was straggling to reconstitute itself after the exile. We have then the 
three great documents which compose the historical part of the Old 

44 The Book of the Acts of God 

Testament: the priestly edition of the early history (JE) from the 
creation through the covenant at Sinai (Genesis-Numbers); the 
Deuteronomic history of Israel in Palestine (Deuteronomy II Kings) ; 
and the Chronicler's history of Judah (I Chronicles-Nehemiah). 
Nehemiah 8 : 1-8 tells us of a great ceremony led by Ezra for the 
renewal of the covenant. Before the taking of the vows, he read from 
"the book of the law of Moses." This was probably either JE 
described above or a priestly collection of older material which we 
have in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers* In any event, it was the 
occasion for the public presentation of a collection of covenant laws 
gathered together by the priests in exile, which Ezra brought with 
him back to Palestine (Ezra 7:14, 25) and used as a basis for 
religious reform. 

The prophetic books, in four large scrolls (Isaiah, Jeremiah, 
Ezekiel, and the Twelve), are collections of sermons largely gathered 
together by disciples of the prophets; they were completed in their 
present form at least by the fourth century B.C. The collections of 
Psalms and Proverbs were also finished by the same period. The 
latest books in the canon to be written were Daniel, Esther, and 
Ecclesiastes. The first was composed about 165 B.C. but the other 
two are earlier, probably not later than the third century B.C. 
Between the fourth and first centuries B.C*, however, many other 
books were written, and as the conception of a canon of sacred 
writings took form there was considerable discussion as to which of 
these books should be admitted and which left out. Ecclesiastes and 
the Song of Songs, for example, were long debated, and final decision 
regarding certain of these marginal books seems not to have been 
made until the rabbinic Council of Jamnia about A.D. 90, long after 
the death of Christ. Certain of the disputed books, called the 
Apocrypha, are still included in Roman Catholic Bibles, following 
the Greek and Latin versions of the early Church. The Protestant 
Reformation excluded them from the canon, however, because they 
were not accepted by early Palestinian rabbis. Protestants generally 
regard them as valuable for instruction but not as a source of doctrine. 
The study of the Dead Sea Scrolls wiH undoubtedly give us more 
information about the final stages of the fixing of the Old Testament 
text and canon. As is well known, the recovery of these scrolls, 
beginning in 1947, is one of the greatest archaeological events of 
modern times. They represent the fragmentary remains oi a large 

How the Bible Came to Be Written 45 

library of a Jewish sect, one group of which lived in and near a 
community center on the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea. The 
ruins of this center are now called Khirbet Qumran. The library dates 
between about 200 B.C. and A.D. 68. Farther south other manuscripts 
from the end of the first and the early second centuries A.D. were 
found. The discoveries indicate that the period between the second 
century B.C. and the second century A.D. was one of great literary 
activity among the Jews. The sacred writings were studied intensively. 
Many commentaries were written, and a great variety of theological 
works were produced under the direct inspiration of scriptural study. 
The biblical manuscripts can be identified quickly and distinguished 
from the rest of the material in these libraries by the special color and 
fine quality of the leather used and by the special book hand in 
which they were written. Portions of over a hundred scrolls of Old 
Testament books have been found, all but three or four in a very 
fragmentary condition, some of them consisting of no more than one 
or a few tiny fragments. By studying the evolution of the script in 
relation to all available knowledge on the subject, scholars have 
arranged the fragments in the approximate order in which they 
were written. All books of the Old Testament were present in the 
library, with the exception of Esther, which has not yet been identi- 
fied. Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the Psalms were represented by a 
dozen or more scrolls each. While scholars in the past have been 
inclined to date Ecclesiastes about 200 B.C., the presence at Qumran 
of a scroll of that work, dating from the mid-second century and 
written in the book hand and on the leather used for other biblical 
books, would suggest that it must have been originally composed 
before the second century. A period of time must have elapsed for 
it to have been set aside as special or sacred. Similarly some scholars 
have believed that the Book of Isaiah was not put into its final 
form much before 200 B.C., but the great Isaiah scroll from Cave 1 
at Qumran, dating about 100 B.C., would lead one to conclude that 
the final arrangement of the chapters had been completed some time 
before the second century B.C. On the other hand, at least three 
different scroEs of Daniel were found at Qumran. One of them is said 
to date less than a century from 165 B.C. when the book was written. 
To get so close to the time of composition of an Old Testament book 
is something few had dared to hope for. Yet there seems to be evi- 
dence 'tf9t tftese Daniel fragments were not yet considered sacred lit- 

46 The Book of the Acts of God 

erature. Both the writing and the leather suggest to some of the inter- 
national team of scholars working on the scrolls that they probably 
were not. If so, then within the Jewish sect at Qumran, Daniel's posi- 
tion as a canonical book was not yet decided. 

When all the evidence is sorted and arranged, the most reasonable 
theory is that the conception of a "canon" of scripture and the 
decision of just what should be included within it were products 
of the Jewish community of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. 
Hence the basic Old Testament collections of historical writings, 
prophecy, psalms, and wisdom were probably completed during the 
fourth century B.C. After that, many, many religious treatises were 
written but few were admitted into the canon. The Palestinian Jews 
confined themselves to three, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel. In 
Egypt, judging from the Greek translation made there beginning in the 
early third century B.C., several additional books were included, and 
these were not omitted by the Jews generally until after the standard- 
ization of both canon and text at the end of the first century AJD. 


To the earliest Christians the scriptures were the writings 
of what later was to be called "the Old Testament," which is a poor 
translation through the Latin of "the Old Covenant." By their day 
the conception of a sacred literature, as distinct from aH others, had 
already come into being. The Church inherited this distinction from 
Judaism and was most careful to preserve it because it was the Old 
Testament alone which set forth the preparation and the setting of 
God's work in Jesus Christ. Without it the meaning of God's action 
in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ could not be understood 
or proclaimed. With it one could understand that the new age, 
promised of old, was now at hand; God's messiah had actually come. 
With the scriptures (that is, the OH Testament) at hand, the 
Church of the first century did not set out to replace them nor did 
it even plan to write the New Testament. The latter came into being 
more by what Christians would call the unseen direction of the Holy 
Spirit than by the conscious plan of man. At first Christian witnesses 
scattered gradually through the world, proclaiming the gasfel md 

How the Bible Came to Be Written 47 

founding churches. The story of Jesus was told in sermons, and 
passed orally from one person to another. Various collections of 
Jesus' teachings were made and used in the teaching of catechumens 
and the baptized. But as the churches became many in number and 
widely scattered between Europe and Palestine, numerous problems 
began to arise. The apostle Paul attempted to solve many of these 
problems by writing letters to the churches he had founded, when 
he could not immediately get to them in person. So remarkable were 
these letters that they were repeatedly copied, treasured, and gradu- 
ally distributed to churches other than those to which they were first 
sent. As finally collected together, they were not arranged in order 
of writing, with the earliest first, but chiefly in order of length, with 
the longest first. The letter to the Hebrews was put with them at the 
end, though the early Church was not certain as to its author. It differs 
so much in content and style from Paul's writings that scholars today 
believe it was written by an unknown person, a friend of Paul's disci- 
ple Timothy (Hebrews 13:23), to a Jewish Christian congregation. 

Many other letters were written, of course, and it was long before 
the Church came to any agreement regarding which should be espe- 
cially preserved and placed together with Paul's writings in a general 
collection of epistles. The seven finally agreed upon (James, I and II 
Peter, I, II, III John, and Jude) are called the Catholic Epistles 
because they were believed to have been addressed to the entire 

Meanwhile John Mark had collected and carefully edited the 
material for a connected story of Jesus 1 life and teachings. We do 
not know for certain when he wrote it, though the date most gen- 
erally accepted is about A.D. 65. With the passage of time and the 
rapid spread of the Church it was necessary that the various tradi- 
tions be edited and committed to writing before they were corrupted. 
In doing so Mark created a new form of writing, a gospel. It was 
not simply a biography of Jesus; it was primarily a testimony or proc- 
lamation to the saving work of God in the life, death, and resurrec- 
tion of his Son. Subsequently, the gospels of Matthew and Luke 
were prepared. The writer of each used Mark as his basis, adding 
material from a collection of the sayings of Jesus which has not been 
preserved (scholars call it "Q"), as well as material which each 
ted available from his own individual sources. As was 
by the fathers of the early Church, the gospel of John 

48 The Book of the Acts of God 

differs greatly from the other three gospels. It is more distinctly an 
interpretation of the life and person of Jesus, a setting forth of the 
doctrine of the office of Christ. The present written form of John, 
together with those of Matthew and Luke, probably dates from the 
last thirty years of the first century, after the fall of Jerusalem to 
the Romans in A.D. 70. An actual manuscript fragment of John, 
dating from the early part of the second century, has been found in 
Egypt. This warns against too late a date. But regardless of the date 
of the books as we now have them, their essential narrative content 
comes from Palestinian traditions, some oral and some written, from 
the period before A.D. 70. Luke's story of the Acts of the Apostles is 
a fitting supplement to the four gospels, for it is a history of what 
happened after Chrisf s death. It thus provides the setting in which 
we understand the nature of the epistles. 

Finally, there is the Book of Revelation, from the very end of the 
first century, and very different in character from anything else in 
the New Testament. By the use of visions and symbols it portrays 
the future, the triumph of God, to a Church which was suffering 

Only by a very gradual process did the churches agree, largely by 
usage, upon the particular books which should be set aside from others 
and circulated with the Old Testament. Certain books, particularly 
Hebrews and Revelation, were long in dispute. By the end of the 
second century seven books now included in the New Testament were 
still not generally recognized as canonical: Hebrews, James, II Peter, 
II and III John, Jude, and Revelation. It was only in the Easter letter 
of the church father, Athanasius (A.D. 367), that the present twenty- 
seven books and no others were first listed. Only by the end of the 
fourth century can we say that the New Testament canon had been 
fixed. It presents the "New Covenant" (Testament) which man has in 
lesus Christ, and is thus to be placed beside the "Old Covenant" 
(Testament) on which it depends and which it fulfills* 


One question which many people ask is this: Why is it 
accessary for us to depend solely upon these particular biblical 

How the Bible Came to Be Written 49 

books? Why not include certain other great classics within the Chris- 
tian canon? It is true that within the canon there are certain marginal 
books which can be either kept in or left out without harming or 
marring the faith one way or another. In other words, the actual 
dividing line which includes Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, for 
example, but excludes such apocryphal books as Ecclesiasticus and 
the Wisdom of Solomon, is one that is drawn by fallible human 
decision. Yet a simple comparison of the biblical books with other 
competitors of that time shows without doubt their superiority. 
Furthermore, if we decide to include other books, what shall we 
include? On that few people could agree. The point is that the Bible 
as now constituted is the norm and judge of subsequent Christian 
literature, not the reverse. Consequently, Christians continually 
return to the Bible for fresh enlightenment, and not to the secondary 
literature which has been produced under the Bible's inspiration. 
In the final analysis, however, the Protestant believes that the truth 
and authority of the present canon of scripture is constantly con- 
firmed by the work of God himself through his spirit of truth. If it 
is his word, he will sustain and confirm it. And it is the Christian 
witness throughout the centuries that the Bible confronts us with 
ourselves and with the true God as known from the witness of 
prophets and apostles, but especially in Jesus Christ, whereas other 
literature either does not contain such saving truth, or, if it does, 
the truth is but a reflection of the brilliant image of scripture. 

A final problem which the study of the formation of scripture 
poses is that of the unity of the Bible. So many things are said in 
the Bible; there is such a great variety in type of literature and in 
content. Wherein does the unity lie? The peculiar fact is that the 
variety itself bears witness to the unity. People in all walks of life, 
with various interests in various periods of the history, have con- 
tributed their portion; yet all bear testimony to the God whose 
wondrous works are celebrated in song and story, in liturgy and 
prayer, in law and custom. The Bible's unity is certainly not to be 
found in the supposition that it presents a completely unified and 
systematic series of abstract dogmas. The Bible is not a static, but 
a living, book, in which the central figure is God and in which the 
central concern is to bear testimony to the story of what he has done 
to save man and to bring his kingdom into being on this earth. 
Central to the Bible is the history of a people, known by faith to be 

50 The Book of the Acts of God 

the story of the handiwork of God. There his determination is 
revealed to bring all men under Ms sovereignty. There he is shown 
to have reached down into our midst in order to show us what we 
are and to save us from our darkness. In so presenting God's action 
the Bible's goal, center, and climax is Jesus Christ, who died that 
Ms people might live and who now is the head of the Church. Such 
is the central proclamation wMch holds the variety of biblical litera- 
ture together, wMch makes it one book, wMch continually throws 
out its challenge to us: "Choose you tMs day whether you will serve 
the idols of the nations, or the God who here has revealed himself!" 

Part I 

IF THE reader has followed closely the descriptive sum- 
mary in the third section of the Prologue, he will have noted that 
the historical narrative of Israel in the various books from Genesis 
through Nehemiah must be divided into three parts: (1) The Jerusa- 
lem priesthood's (P's) editing and supplementing of the older 
material in the first four books of the Old Testament (Genesis, 
Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers); we may call this "The Priestly 
History," if we remember that the priests did not write it but simply 
added their material to the older account. (2) "The Deuteronomic 
History of Israel in the Promised Land"; the Book of Deuteronomy 
here serves as the preface to an interpretation of Israel's life from the 
entrance into her land until the time of her removal from it (Joshua, 
Judges, I-II Samuel and I-II Kings originally one work) . (3) "The 
Chronicler's History of Judah" from David to Nehemiah and Ezra 
(I II Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah). We shall now undertake 
an analysis of these three histories in order to comprehend their 
meaning and intent. 


The Priestly History 

DURING THE exile from Palestine, probably in the sixth 
century B.C., a priest or priests from Jerusalem reworked the older 
narrative materials (JE), and added a considerable amount of data 
from documents preserved by the priests. In Genesis he first added 
a fairly abstract account of creation in Chapter 1:1-2:3 and then 
gave the old history an outline by means of an old genealogy which 
he had available. At stated intervals he introduced fragments of the 
genealogy (for example, Chapter 5, part of Chapter 10, Chapter 
11:10-27) and also inserted his outline headings, "These are the 
generations of . . ." By means of the latter the book may be out- 
lined: Chapter 2:4 (see R.S.V.) introduces the old Adam and Eve 
story; Chapter 5:1 the generations between Adam and the flood; 
Chapter 6:9 the story of Noah; Chapter 10:1 the separation of the 
peoples of the earth; 11:10 the Semites, and 11:27, from among 
the Semites, the family of Abraham. These headings serve until 
Abraham's death when new ones introduce his sons, Ishmael and 
Isaac (25:12 and 19) and the sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob 
(36:1; 37:2). In Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, as already noted, 
the editor's interest was to add a great deal of information which 
the priests had saved about the place of worship (Exodus 25-31; 
35-40), the manner of worship (Leviticus), and a great variety of 
heterogeneous laws and customs (in Numbers). The result is that the 
simple flow of the story is interrupted time and again. This was done 
in an age of crisis when the community had been destroyed and when 
plans had to be drawn for a new one. To this end the editor did his 
work. He to some extent spoiled the simple beauty of the old story, 
but he gave the new community of the fifth century something on 


54 The Book of the Acts of God 

which to stand. Let us tan to the history and look at it in more 


These first chapters of Genesis constitute the prologue to 
the great acts of God which begin with Abraham and together enun- 
ciate the unifying theme of the Bible. By means of this prologue the 
Church has learned and taught that God is the Creator, that man 
is made in God's image, and that man also is a sinner who has fallen 
away from God and whose civilization is in a sense a product, not 
of obedient service given to God, but of self-worship in defiance of 
God. These chapters reveal God's relation to us and to our world; 
he is our Maker and, therefore, our Lord. They also make clear the 
human problem because of which God's saving acts in history took 
place. Yet they have been the occasion for great argument in modern 
times because we are told that the evolution of the earth and of 
man make it impossible for us now to believe that there once was a 
Garden of Paradise, a flood that destroyed all life except what was 
saved in Noah's ark, and an Adam and Eve who were good until 
they ate some forbidden fruit. 

As we take a close look at these chapters, we should remember 
that Israelite faith did not start at this point. The Israelites who 
wrote these stories were men of the faith. They knew God as Creator 
because he had already encountered them in their life as Lord and 
Savior. They understood the problem of man in the world because 
that was precisely their problem. They wanted to be God's loyal 
servants, but found themselves instead in a history of rebellion and 
disloyalty. The creation stories are a statement of the real meaning 
of a people's popular traditions about beginnings in the ligiht of the 
God who had made them a people. The Lord of history was to them 
the Lord of the world and its Maker. 

L The Creation Stones (Genesis 7-2) 

The creation story of Genesis remains unique among the 
many myths, legends, and scientific explanations provided by the 

The Priestly History 5i 

ancient and modern worlds. The opening phrase sets the tone for thi 
whole presentation; "In the beginning God . . ." God stands a 
the beginning of all things as their Creator. And this God is not j 
capricious deity or a blind force; he is not a mere "principle o 
order"; he is a person, who created a good and beautiful worl< 
which reveals his glory, Ms power, and his love. And in the cente 
of this marvelous creation is man, the climax of God's work, se 
here as a steward, responsible to his Creator for all he does with th< 
world over which he is given dominion. 

We can readily see that Genesis gives us a unique version o 
creation when we compare this record with those to be found k 
ancient paganism. In Babylon and in Canaan, for example, creatior 
was conceived of as the result of strife among the gods. These god* 
were the forces of nature; and as the forces were numerous, so were 
there a great number of gods. Some personify chaos; others represem 
powers in nature that work for order. The world was believed tc 
have come into being through the triumph of the gods of order ovei 
the gods of chaos. In the Canaanite version of the story, creation 
and therefore order came when the power of the chaotic sea monster. 
Leviathan, was overcome by the king of all gods, Baal. 

In Babylonian mythology there was in the beginning a primevaJ 
watery chaos represented by two deities, the god Apsu and the goddess 
Tiamat After a passage of time during which several generations oi 
lesser gods were born, this divine pair, feeling themselves threatened, 
planned to overthrow the newer gods. Apsu, however, was put to 
death by magic. Then a god named Marduk was chosen Mng by 
the younger gods, and, armed with a thunderbolt, he conquered 
Tiamat in a bloody struggle. Splitting her body in half, he made the 
firmament (heaven) and the earth out of the two halves. Then he 
divided the gods into two groups, placing one group in charge of 
the heavenly regions and the other over the aflfairs of earth. But after 
a time the gods of the earth wearied of the work involved in irriga- 
tion, seedtime, and harvest. Consequently, man was created as the 
slave of the gods to perform the tasks that they found too burdensome. 
In contrast to these pagan gods and goddesses stands the biblical 
God. He is no personified force of nature or the sum of nature's 
powers. As the Creator, his being is not identified with anything he 
has created. He stands above the world and is independent of it. 
He does not need it to exist. Consequently, the biblical writer could 

56 The Book of the Acts of God 

not think of creation as the product of a struggle among the powers 
in nature. It was instead the marvelous work of the one God, the 
Creator of the ends of the earth, the Lord of all he has made. 

We have two accounts of the creation, one in Genesis 1:1-2:3 
and the other in Chapter 2:4-25. The first gives the whole sweep 
of God's creative work; the second confines itself to what he made 
upon the earth. 

Genesis 1:1-2:3. In this chapter God is seen fashioning order 
out of disorder by his word. He commands and it is done. The 
description is actually a radically demythologized version of the 
Babylonian conception of the creation. 

The first act of creation is the separation of day from night after 
the formation of light Note that in Chapter 1 God's creative acts 
are carefully organized within six days. The seventh is the day of 
rest, instituted and hallowed by God, and thus different from other 
days. It is clear, therefore, that the organization of human life within 
the pattern of the week, the last day of which is a holy day, is here 
presented as purposely ordained by God and reflects the world's first 
week in which the creative work was accomplished. Speculation that 
the author here had in mind a "day" of a thousand years or more, 
that is, an aeon of time, is thus excluded. 

The view of the world that the chapter contains is the one con- 
ceived by all ancient people, and one held until comparatively modern 
times. To people of Bible times heaven was not a limitless space; 
it was a solid substance, a firmament, erected as a tent or dome over 
the earth. Without this solid dome, waters above the heavens would 
engulf and destroy the earth. It is important that this world view 
be kept in mind while reading the chapter; otherwise, the deeper 
dimensions of the author's faith will be missed. Every element of the 
universe owes its original and its continued existence to God* We 
are not to think of the world as so well governed by natural laws 
that it no longer needs God's sustaining and constant care. Without 
God's constant concern, the order of nature would be wiped out in 
a moment and would revert to the original chaos. The writer implies 
that without the "heavens' " being kept in place by God's decree, we 
would be destroyed. 

Chapter 1:26-3L In these verses the climax of all God's crea- 
tive work is described. Man enjoys a peculiar relationship to God; 
nothing like it exists between God and any other of his creatures. 

The Priestly History 57 

Man Is set as Mug over the whole earthly dominion, though he is 
a kingly steward, serving for God. Note also that the "man" here is 
divided into male and female. Man and woman do not exist as 
isolated or completely separated beings. They are the two parts of 
the human species and exist in a close relationship of dependent 
being. Together they are to have dominion over the earth. For food 
they are to eat from earth's vegetation, as do the animals. The eating 
of meat is permitted only after man's fall from grace (Chapter 9:2-6) . 
This reflects the biblical man's belief that there is something unnat- 
ural about the killing and destroying that goes on in a world in which 
everything is good. At creation there existed that perfect state of 
peace where nothing was killed or destroyed. This state, however, 
was lost in the fall of man, and it will once again come into being 
only in the new creation at the end of the age. At that time there 
will be no hurting or destroying, and all will exist together in perfect 
harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Amos 9:13-15). 

The core of Genesis, beginning at Chapter 2:4, is an old document, 
probably written about the time of Solomon (tenth century B.C.). 
It is a compilation of the old traditions that had existed through 
the centuries, here presented with a profound theological perspective. 
Chapter 1 is the introduction of the Jerusalem priests to the older 
document. It is more abstract and detailed than the account in 
Chapter 2; but the latter was not omitted, because it forms the proper 
setting for the presentation of the problem of man on earth, described 
in Chapter 3. The accounts thus supplement each other in witnessing 
to God's work. 

Chapter 2:425. A proper translation of verses 4-7 is as follows: 

"These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they 
were created. At the time when the Lord God made the earth and 
the heavens, there was as yet no shrub of the field on the earth 
and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had 
not made it rain on the earth and there was no man to till the soil, 
although waters used to go up from the earth and water the whole 
surface of the ground. And die Lord God formed the man out of 
the dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath 
of life; and the man became a living being." 

It will be noted that the interest of this account is more confined 
than that of Chapter 1. The earth, not the universe, is the focus of 
attention. After it had been watered, man was formed out of its 

58 The Book of the Acts of God 

dust to till it. He is thus related to the earth, but God has given 
him the mysterious principle of life, here figuratively conceived of 
as breath. His abode is in Eden (Paradise); the whole of its good- 
ness is for his enjoyment, except the fruit of one tree (verses 16, 17). 
But man was made for society; it was not good for him to be alone 
(verse 18). Consequently, the animals and the fowls were made and 
brought to him as their lord. Yet man was so different from the 
animals that they did not fill his need for companionship. So woman 
was formed as a helper, "meet" or corresponding to him. The inci- 
dent of the rib should be understood as a colorful way of describing 
the close relation existing between man and woman, as verse 23 
explicitly says. Since this intimate relationship does exist, the institu- 
tion of monogamous marriage, in which a man and woman leave 
their respective homes and become "one flesh," that is, as one person, 
is to be understood as established by God at creation. It is the 
fundamental and basic institution of human society. It should be 
noted that this is the first time in the history of the world's literature 
that such a position has been so clearly affirmed. The knowledge of 
God as Creator of male and female has led the writer to a conclusion 
that for us remains unique and final. 

A few further observations about the significance of these accounts 
may be made. ( 1 ) A common human tendency is to think of God 
in terms of some principle or process in the world, or in terms of 
our ideals of goodness and beauty. From the Bible, however, we 
infer that God is greater than any force or principle in nature, or 
than the ideals of society, because he created them. They reveal 
God's working, but in themselves they are not God. Man should not 
expect to discover God in test tube or telescope, because the thing 
made is not the Maker. God is the ultimate mystery beyond aU things 
knowable; he is known only because, and in the manner that, he has 
revealed himself. 

(2) Some philosophies both ancient and modern have a tendency 
to be pessimistic about the world, a pessimism that has assumed 
many forms. The earth may be full of evil spirits that must be 
appeased; or man is at the mercy of capricious deities, or lost in a 
purposeless universe, or fettered to material cares, when he should 
be free of all things earthly in order to achieve holiness. So, through 
the ages, there have developed all manner of cults whose only purpose 
is to "free" man from this evil world. As a result, men have marked 

The Priestly History 59 

their fellow men as "untouchables" and separated themselves to 
achieve their uncontaminated holiness. They have developed all sorts 
of "purification" ceremonies in order to rid themselves of this world's 
evil. They have mortified the flesh in order to glorify the soul. They 
have adopted all manner of asceticisms and this by no means 
has been confined to pagans; it has appeared again and again in 

In contrast to all this is the biblical view of creation. This world 
and everything in it is good, fashioned by a wise Creator, who loves 
all things that he has made, so that not even a sparrow is forgotten 
by him (Luke 12:6). And the world as a good world is the proper 
setting for the "good" life, a life that is indeed possible here because 
God meant it to be so. 

(3) The one statement that more than any other in the Bible 
summarizes its view of man is this one in Chapter 1:27: "In the 
image of God created he him." The Church accepts it as a noble, an 
exalted, view of man, but when we come to ask what it means, we 
are perplexed. The statement is hard to define because no one in 
the Bible ever attempts to clarify it for us. The word "image** means 
a statue made to look like someone else. Now how is man "in the 
image of God"? Is he a statue, a replica of God? In the Bible, we 
must remember, a person is not conceived of as made up of two 
separate parts, body and soul. He is a unity, a coherent, undivided 
being. In the Hebrew language, then, the phrase **in the image of 
God" would be the simplest way to express the thought that the total 
being of man bears a likeness to the total being of God. Man alone 
on this earth has this likeness; the animals do not possess it (though 
in paganism they did). 

As a result of this divine likeness we see that man alone among 
the creatures of earth is dignified by God's direct address. He has 
the possibility of hearing, of communing, and of obeying. His dignity 
lies at this point: he has been chosen by God as the bearer of a 
responsibility and for that end he has been directly addressed as 
person to person. His dignity and power lie not simply in his bodily 
and mental structure, but in his relationship to his Maker and in his 
vocation given him by Ms Maker. As God is Lord of the universe, 
so man is lord of this created world; he is its king, crowned with 
glory and honor (Psalm 8). Why that is so is God's mystery for 
which the psalmist praises him. Man has freedom and power to 

60 The Book of the Acts of God 

rule, but as the following chapters point out his freedom is also his 

2. The "Fall" of Man (Genesis 3) 

The writer of Genesis 2-3 has a wider interest than merely 
the presentation of the story of the first man and the first woman. 
This is quite clear not only from the manner in which he tells the 
story but also from the various names that have a symbolic sig- 
nificance. It is a mistake in translation to speak of Adam in these 
chapters (see R.S.V.). The word means "man" in the general sense 
of "mankind." It is never used as a proper name in the Old Testa- 
ment, and in these chapters it has the article "the" before it. 
Consequently, the author is speaking about "the man" in the most 
general sense that the Hebrew language permits. The narrative also 
speaks only of "woman" or "the woman" until she is given a proper 
name, Eve, in Chapter 3:20. This name means "life" or "living" in 
the sense that Eve was "the mother of all living." "Eden" means 
"delight" or "pleasantness," and thus, properly, "paradise." The 
author had no clear picture of where it was; it was simply the place 
which the ancients believed to be the common source of the great 
rivers known to them. The "tree of life" and the "tree of knowledge 
of good and evil" are further evidence of the parabolic interest of the 
author. He is presenting a story that, to be sure, most people of his 
day knew and believed, but in doing so he exhibits a wider and more 
profound purpose than that which existed in the popular tradition. 
The history of the first man and the first woman to him is the 
history of all men, the history of every man and mankind as well. 
The Church has always understood the story in this way. As the 
words of an old couplet put it: 

In Adam's fall 
We sinned all. 

In other words, the teaching intent in these chapters is so obvious 
as to make them unlike any other chapters in the Bible. The author's 
interest was not solely to present the history of sin's origin; it was 
to interpret the fact of sin through the old popular stories his people 
knew. Mythology and art in western Asia at that time also knew a 
paradise and a tree of life. The typical human being has always 

The Priestly History 61 

been concerned with death and has pondered about life, immortal 
life, without it. In the art of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia the 
sacred tree plays an important role, and the Gilgamesh Epic, one of 
the most popular of the ancient stories, describes man's unsuccessful 
and disillusioning search for life in which there was no death. The 
fact that our author has two trees in his story indicates that in his 
background the tree of life once played an important role. Yet as he 
presents his material he says little about that tree which guarantees 
life without death. To him it is a simple fact that man is mortal, 
though it was perhaps not God's original intention that he be so. 
But the fact is that the tree of life is now denied him (Chapter 
3:22-24). Why? It is this "why" which is our author's real concern. 
To deal with it he turns to a tree that has no parallel in ancient 
mythology, "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." It is this 
tree, and not the question of how to get life without death, that for 
the author is the distinctive and all-important matter. 

The manner of presentation is, at first glance, deceptive, and many 
Christians dismiss it as a primitive idea of the Hebrew people that 
has little importance for us. But let us not be deceived by the simple 
story form of presentation. The greatness of this story is its insight 
into the inner nature of man and the simple manner in which it 
presents that insight. 

In Genesis 2 our author has presented the setting. Man was 
created by God and placed in Eden (Paradise) in a family rela- 
tionship. He is the noble lord of all creatures, to which he gives 
names. By nature he is good; so is the garden with its trees; woman 
is good; the sexual relation is good; indeed, God is good. Yet a 
divine command is placed before man; the life of God's creatures is 
not one of such complete liberty that they can do as they please. 
The whole of Paradise is at man's disposal, except for one tree, "the 
tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Of that he must not, for 
his own good, eat, because in the midst of all life there is and must 
be a prohibition which the trained will obeys. Now what has hap- 
pened to man? He no longer lives in Paradise. Instead, he seems to 
live in a world that has a curse upon it, one in which there is pain, 
toil, sweat, thorns, hardship. Chapter 3 presents the reason for this 
situation which stands in such contrast to man's original state, 

Man's problem is that he has rebelled against his Creator. He has 
used the freedom that God has given him for the purpose of ruling 

62 The Book of the Acts of God 

over the earthly creation in order to assert his independence of God 
and to become like God. Refusing to accept his status as a creature 
dependent upon God, a dependence in which Ms true freedom is to 
be discovered, he attempts to put himself on equal footing with God. 
When he does so, however, he destroys the most precious thing he 
has the free and natural communion that exists between himself 
and God. His assertion of independence is actually his separation 
from the source of all life and all blessing. He wants to enjoy God's 
blessing, but he also wants to be like God. The power given him by 
God to rule thus becomes the occasion for him to lust for more 
power. Yet this actually is something that cannot succeed, because 
it is an attempt to displace God as the sole Lord of the world. Such 
is the author's essential meaning in Chapter 3 when translated into 
less interesting and more abstract language than that which he uses. 

The author begins by using the serpent as the instrument of 
temptation. In the ancient paganisms the snake was a god or goddess, 
having to do with life, fertility, and wisdom. Here it is simply one 
of the beasts of the field which God has made, but the pagan back- 
ground survives in the statement that it "was more subtle than any 
beast." That is, it had a crafty, invidious cunning. It speaks to the 
woman, distorting God's command about not eating from the one 
tree, asking her whether it were not true that God had forbidden the 
eating of the fruit of any tree. This immediately puts the woman on 
the defensive. The serpent then suggests that the reason why God gave 
the command was a selfish one and not for the good of the human 
pair at aU. So in verse 6, when the woman saw that the fruit was 
indeed attractive and also desirable to make one wise (like God), 
she ate and gave to her husband. Thus temptation was described 
in a manner true to life: by subtle argument a thing that in itself is 
evil becomes, or seems to become, a good. When that happens, 
man sins. 

When the man and the woman ate of the forbidden fruit, it is said 
that their eyes were opened and that they knew that they were 
naked (verse 7). This seems to say that a new knowledge was indeed 
gained, but not the knowledge expected. As an illustration, the 
author singles out the example of sex. That which was perfectly 
natural and good now appears in another light, and the self- 
consciousness that arises only from an awareness of something that 
is evil now appears. In other words, the evil use to which the good 

The Priestly History 63 

may be put is now evident. The "tree of the knowledge of good and 
evil" evidently refers to a knowledge of everything in a moral sense, 
and for man this means the ability to assert himself against God, to 
turn good into evil, and to bring upon himself a durse fear and 

Next we note that when caught in their sin by God, they simply 
cannot make a clean confession. There is an infection in them that 
sullies their being. They are caught "red-handed," and yet they 
cannot confess their guilt. The man blames the woman, the woman 
blames the serpent, and disharmony now appears where once there 
was only harmony. There follows the divine curse or penalty. To our 
author this means first that enmity is placed between snakes and 
men (verses 14, 15), an enmity and a struggle that shall continue 
throughout subsequent generations. On the face of it this seems only 
to mean the simple fact that for the most part snakes have always 
been abhorrent to men. Yet the way verse 15 is phrased indicates 
that the author has a deeper meaning here, namely, that the life of 
man is to be a continual struggle with that which tempts him. There 
then follow the curse on woman (the pain of childbirth), the curse 
on the ground so that man is forced to toil in sorrow and eat his 
bread by the sweat of his face, and the expulsion from Paradise. 
Man has asserted his independence of God and would, if permitted, 
seize on immortality to become a god himself; and this God refuses 
to permit (Chapter 3:22-24). Here begins, then, that association 
of sin and death which plays such a prominent role, especially in the 
theology of the apostle Paul. 

In Christian teaching this story has been known as the "fall" of 
man. That is, man has "fallen" from the grace of God in the sense 
that he now lives in sin and under the judgment of God. His rebellion 
against God's lordship has forced God to discipline him by punish- 
ment. This does not mean that the "image of God" in man has been 
destroyed; it is still there (Chapter 9:6). Nor does it mean that man 
shall know in the future nothing but the punishing judgment of God. 
The remainder of the Bible is the story of the loving and merciful 
acts of God in man's behalf. Yet it does mean that a deep, basic, and 
fundamental infection exists in the heart of man, with the result that 
wherever he moves he finds himself doing that which he knows to 
be wrong. Consequently, his life is a misery, and he comes to know 
the judgment of God in full measure with the love of God. 

64 The Book of the Acts of God 

3. The Story of Civilization (Genesis 4-11) 

The sequel to the "faE" and its effect on civilization is 
now described by a series of old stories and traditions in eloquent 
manner. The sin of the first man seems mild enough, but in the 
second generation there occurs the first murder, that of Abel by Cain, 
with the result that the murderer is cut off from human society. 
Yet several generations later we find the completely hardened char- 
acter of Lamech (Chapter 4:23, 24), one whose vengeance knows 
no bounds and whose thoughts know nothing of the will of God. 
This, then, is the complete opposite of the intention of God as 
depicted in his creation of Paradise. What is God to do with this 
man whom he has created who now has so wantonly disregarded 
all the conditions of his creation by God? 

The story of the flood in Chapters 6-9 presents one answer. Man 
must suffer the terrible judgment of God. To depict this judgment, 
an old tradition which all Israelites knew and which their fathers 
had probably brought with them in their migration from Mesopotamia 
is used: that of a great flood which once destroyed the greater part 
of the human race. In Babylon, where a similar story is known to 
have existed almost a thousand years before the time of the Hebrew 
patriarchs, the flood was a rash and irresponsible act of one of the 
gods, an act of which the god later repented. In Israel, however, it 
is given an utterly different setting one that depicts God's just 
judgment on the human race. Yet the "anger" of God is always 
tempered by his mercy. God saves a remnant the family of Noah, 
makes a covenant with him that from that time forth man might 
depend upon the orderly processes of nature (Chapters 8:22; 
9:11-17). The sign of this covenant or solemn agreement is the 
rainbow. To the Israelite this became the sign of God's faithfulness 
in an orderly nature. 

In this way, man gains a second chance. He does not deserve it; 
nevertheless God gives it to him. So the earth is re-peopled and 
nations are established (Chapter 10). Yet man has not learned his 
lesson, for next is presented the story of the building of the great 
temple-tower (ziggurat) in Babylon. First erected sometime between 
2400 and 1600 B.C., this high platform represented an old tradition 
in temple architecture along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Its 
erection in the dim past is remembered in the Hebrew story, but our 

The Priestly History 65 

early author uses it for his own purposes. He interprets it as a 
supreme example of human presumption. Men want to make them- 
selves a name; thus they build a tower, the very top of which reaches 
to heaven (Chapter 11:4) . Here again is man's ordering of his affairs 
in complete disregard of Ms Creator and Lord; he pays no attention 
whatsoever to what has happened before. 

We should note another theme running through these chapters, 
however, one having to do with the interpretation of civilization, 
Man's civilized life advances by successive stages, and his progress 
in the arts of civilization corresponds with the increasing complexity 
of his sin. The first clothes (Chapter 3:7, 21) and the cultivation of 
the soil are associated with the fall of man from his created state. 
Cain the murderer is associated with Cain the builder of the first city 
(Chapter 4:17). Progress in the arts of nomadic life, metallurgy, 
and music culminate in the completely hardened and vengeful Lantech 
(verses 18-24). With the establishment of grape or vineyard culture 
we are presented the picture of a good man drunk (Chapter 9:20, 
21). The growth and separation of nations and languages is asso- 
ciated with the story of the Tower of Babel (Chapter 11:1-9). In 
this interpretation, then, the growth of civilization is accompanied 
by a degeneration of the spirit of man, caused by the human refusal 
to accept all the conditions of creation. 

The tenth-century author of most of the material, that is, the 
basic narrative in Chapters 2-11, is first of all a compiler of the 
old traditions of Ms people. But he is much more than that; he is 
also a man of great faith and great understanding of the inner nature 
of man. He does not preach at us; he does not pause here and there 
to point out the moral of his stories. By the simple arrangement 
and narration of them he lets them speak their own lesson. Together 
they form a powerful and profound portrayal of the problem of 
universal man. That problem is sinful rebellion against the Creator 
and against man's created nature. And the sin is not primarily that 
of the "flesh," It has a much deeper rootage in the emotional and 
intellectual life of man. Man is in a fallen state, so deeply entrenched 
in his sin that he cannot pull himself from the mire by himself. The 
answer must come from God, the Lord and Creator. 

Here then is the biblical preface. The remainder of the Bible 
presents the answer that God has provided to the problem there 
depicted. God's answer comes in two stages. The first is the choice 

66 The Book of the Acts of God 

of a people that through the one all may receive a blessing (Chapter 
12:3). The second is the gift of his Son, Jesus Christ, who comes 
to save man from his sin and to reconcile him to God. "For since 
by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. 
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" 
(I Corinthians 15:21-22, K.J.V.). 


After leaving the last chapter of the preceding section 
about the prehistoric period, the interest of the biblical story has 
rapidly narrowed to one particular family among the Semites (the 
descendants of Shorn) . This family has migrated from Mesopotamia 
into "the land of Canaan" (Chapter 11:31), the old name for 
southern Syria and Palestine. In the stories which follow, the 
members of the family do not forget their old homeland in northern 
Mesopotamia at the city of Haran. Both Isaac and Jacob secured 
wives from the relatives who remained in that area. Hebrew tradi- 
tion, then, preserved the memory of this migration from Mesopo- 
tamia. Deep within the Israelite consciousness was the sense of 
historical relatedness to a people whom they called the "Aramaeans." 
Historical and archaeological research fixes the period of the 
Hebrew patriarchs approximately between 2000 and 1700 B.C. 
During that time and in the centuries just preceding it the whole 
of the ancient Near East had been inundated by fresh waves of 
people coming from the desert and settling in the cultivatable lands. 
The new invasions had brought to an end the great cultures of the 
first period of statecraft during the third millennium B.C. The great 
cities of Palestine that existed between 3000 and 2400 B.C., cities 
which possessed great fortifications and public buildings including 
temples, had all been destroyed. It was title first great age of civi- 
lization in the whole of the lands of the Bible from Persia to Egypt. 
It was succeeded, however, by a period of great disturbance, after 
the end of which we come to the patriarchal age when everywhere 
a new culture has been developed. 

Abraham's migration to Palestine was probably one tiny part of 

The Priestly History 67 

this great movement of peoples. His name and that of his grandson, 
Jacob, together with a great many of the patriarchal names, were 
common personal names among the peoples of this period. Names 
of a few of his ancestors are also known as place names along the 
Upper Euphrates in the area of Haran whence he came. Several of 
the customs illustrated by the Genesis stories are known to belong 
to the common law of the Upper Euphrates region during the 
second millennium B.C. For example, Abraham is promised a son 
and a great posterity, but the story describes him as disturbed that 
his wife is unable to have children. In Chapter 15 he expresses 
concern in a prayer to God about the fact that his heir is to be one 
Eliezer of Damascus, and that he is apparently to go childless in 
spite of God's promises to him. This statement is illumined by our 
knowledge that during this time it was customary for elderly people 
who had no children of their own to adopt someone to be their 
"son." This adopted son would take care of the old folk during the 
remaining years of their lives and see to it that they received a 
proper burial. In return for this he inherited their property. Abraham 
and Sarah were elderly people and they evidently had adopted some- 
one to take care of them and to be their heir. Then came a promise 
of a son, and the patriarch is asking God how this promise will be 
fulfilled. In Chapters 29-31 the story of Jacob and his father-in-law 
Laban in Haran is recounted. It is the story of two crafty men, each 
trying to outdo the other within the context of ancient customary 
law. It, too, is illumined by the ancient custom of adoption. Jacob 
is evidently adopted as the son of Laban; he marries his daughters 
and works for his adopted father for a number of years. Laban had 
planned to get the better of the arrangement, but discovered that he 
in turn was being bested. Consequently, it seemed wise to Jacob to 
leave with his family for Canaan. Bad feelings ensued when Rachel 
stole from her father's house the household idols or "gods." The 
explanation of this act is that possession of these household or 
family idols was of great assistance in assuring one of inheritance 
rites in the family. 

The various narrative materials about the patriarchs divide them- 
selves up into three main sections: Chapters 12-25 deal for the 
most part with the family of Abraham; Chapters 26-36 for the most 
part with the family of Isaac; and Chapters 37-50 with the family 
of Jacob, especially with the story of his most illustrious son, Joseph. 

68 The Book of the Acts of God 

The last-mentioned story is a connected and beautifully polished 
narrative. Most of its elements had been collected together in their 
present form centuries before the narrative was set into writing as 
we now have it. The main thing to notice about the stories relating 
to the families of Abraham and Isaac is their episodic nature. That 
is, there is very little connected narrative but only a series of stories, 
Israel's traditions preserve only fragmentary memories of the found- 
ing fathers, a series of episodes in the lives of each one. Several have 
been preserved about Abraham, but very little was known about 
Isaac. It is amazing that these traditions so faithfully reflect the 
background color of their time, when one remembers that they are 
so fragmentary and that they come to us through such a long period 
of oral transmission. Since these stories had been told and retold 
for centuries before being written down, they are for the most part 
highly polished and are generally ranked among the finest examples 
of narration in short-story form to be found in the literature of the 
world, both ancient and modern. The eye of biblical man, having 
been trained to look at his history with particular care because 
there God revealed himself, was also trained, evidently, to be critical 
of narrative style. In any event, no people in history have ever 
surpassed these in the practiced art of simple, absorbing, and direct 
narration. On the other hand, we should also say that it is futile to 
inquire about the details of the stories, as to whether Abraham 
actually said precisely these words or actually did this or that thing. 
That a man named Abraham lived, that he was the ancestor of 
Israel, that he migrated from northern Mesopotamia into Palestine 
these and many other things are most certainly historical fact. 
But archaeology and historical study can never penetrate into the 
spiritual life of the patriarchs. What we have here is later Israel's 
interpretation of the true meaning of the life of their ancestral fathers. 
This interpretation is a testament of faith, and it is with this faith 
that we are here concerned. 

We must inquire, therefore, as to the theme or themes which bind 
this material together. We should not expect to find that every item 
of the narration contains some deep spiritual truth. The traditions have 
been preserved with various purposes in mind. Among them are 
early examples of tribal history, so that one cannot be sure whether 
the narrative about a patriarch means that it is to be taken as a tribal 
story with the patriarch standing for the tribe, or whether it is meant 

The Priestly History 69 

to be an episode about an individual. Nevertheless, throughout the 
whole it is very clear that the original editor of the tenth century 
(that is, the man who wrote the first edition of these old traditions) 
has conceived of the whole history of the fathers in a particular way 
and has cast the material in such a form as to let it speak his point. 
The tradition says that Abraham came from a family in Mesopotamia 
to the land of Canaan.- It also says that the patriarch received marvel- 
ous promises from God, including the gift of the land to Ms posterity 
who would become in time a great nation. Tims, a conception of the 
meaning of the patriarchal age for Israel is presented in which the 
central theme is that of the promise of God. God has bound himself 
in promise to this particular family. That is why Abraham appeared in 
the land of Canaan, having left Ms home in Mesopotamia. Further- 
more, this promise furnishes the clue to the relation between the story 
of Israel and the preMstoric traditions regarding the problem of man 
and Ms civilization in Chapters 1-11. This relation is depicted in 
Chapter 12:3, "by you all the families of the earth will bless them- 
selves" (R.S.V.). These promises are repeated again and again to 
the successive patriarchs (Chapters 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). 
Abraham is the father of Israel, and as such receives the promises for 
all Israel. What the phrase in Chapter 12:3 means, therefore, is that 
God has chosen Israel in order that through tMs one people all men 
may be brought to a saving knowledge of himself. God has chosen the 
one as the means whereby all may find their blessing. In this way God 
provides a saving answer to the problem of man and Ms civilization 
which the editor has previously described by the juxtaposition of the 
old traditions in the early chapters. Wherever and in whatever condi- 
tion the patriarch may be, he is represented as never being away from 
the presence of God. 

One old narrative about the patriarchs is used in three different in- 
stances by the different strata of material in order to teach tMs truth. 
This is the story about a patriarch in a foreign territory, concerned 
about Ms beautiful wife and afraid that he will be killed in order that 
the king of the territory may have her. Chapters 12, 20, and 26 are 
all variant treatments of this particular tradition. In them God is 
shown to be the faithful God who is guiding events to Ms own pur- 
poses and is rescuing Ms people in the distresses which they have 
brought upon themselves. 

The Joseph story presents an eloquent treatment of the same theme, 

70 The Book of the Acts of God 

centering in family infidelity. Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery 
into Egypt, and in due time have themselves to go to Egypt for food 
in time of famine. Chapter 45:5 shows the central theological intent 
of the narrative. When Joseph identifies himself to his brethren who 
sold him into Egypt, he says: "And now do not be distressed, or angry 
with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before 
you to preserve life." God is the directing hand behind events, and 
he even uses the sin of man to further his providential purpose, The 
narrative does not dramatize the great quality of Joseph's personality, 
namely that he had the power to forgive, but instead focuses the at- 
tention upon the purposes of God who overrules the evil of the 
brothers for a greater good that is accomplished through the very 
events which put the lad Joseph into slavery. 

Central through the whole narrative, and of great importance 
in biblical theology as a whole, is the manner in which the original 
editor of the stories presents the personality and character of Abra- 
ham. He is shown to be an extremely high-minded person. For ex- 
ample, in Chapter 13 the nomadic life of the patriarch is described. 
Because of trouble over watering places Abraham suggests to his 
nephew Lot that they separate. As the head of the family Abraham 
had the right to make such choices as he would. In this case, however, 
he allows Lot to choose what land he would prefer. At that time the 
Jordan Valley, both north and south of the Dead Sea, was thickly 
settled, as suggested both by the narrative and by archaeological dis- 
covery. The area of Sodom and Gomorrah, now covered by the waters 
of the southern part of the Dead Sea, was especially fertile, so Lot 
chose it, in spite of the fact that the people who lived in those cities 
were a very bad sort (Chapter 13:13). Lot's character is depicted 
here, and in Chapters 18 and 19, in vivid contrast to that of Abraham. 
Lot is a good man, but he is nevertheless very weak. He has not the 
strength of purpose to separate himself from evil associations. He is 
represented as an example of the danger of thinking exclusively about 
worldly comfort, the subtle temptation that always betrays the good 
man. In Chapter 14 the rescue of Lot from enemy invasion is pre- 
sented. God's direction and guidance of Abraham is again made clear, 
as is also Abraham's disinterestedness, his independence and high- 
mindedness. After the victory, Abraham will accept nothing whatso- 
ever for himself. 

In Chapter 15:6 occurs the statement which appears to be the key- 

The Priestly History 71 

note of the whole Abrahamic cycle of material, and is so interpreted 
by the apostle Paul in the New Testament (Romans 4:3, 9, 22; Gala- 
tians 3:6). There we are told that Abraham "believed the Lord; and 
he reckoned it to him as righteousness." The very arrangement of the 
stories about Abraham furnishes a commentary on this text. In Chap- 
ter 12 the two halves of the chapter present two different stories about 
Abraham. In the first half Abraham is the recipient of these wonderful 
promises of God, as a result of which he leaves his home and country 
for the land of which he knows nothing. In the second half of the 
chapter Abraham, because of famine, is in Egypt and there is pre- 
pared to He to the King of Egypt about his wife. He says that his 
wife is his sister, because he is afraid otherwise that he will be killed. 
Subsequently the Egyptian king discovers the lie and Abraham is 
severely reprimanded and sent away from the country. No attempt is 
made here to apologize for the patriarch. He has lied and no excuses 
can be made for him. He who has received the promise of God is un- 
able to act as though the promise were true in a situation of crisis. 
In Chapters 16 and 17 the matter of a son and heir becomes critical. 
Sarah cannot take seriously God's promise that she, who is an old 
lady, will bear a son. To help matters along according to her common 
sense and the common law of her time, she gave Hagar to Abraham 
so that, as she said, "I shall obtain children by her." Hagar was her 
maidservant, and in contemporary law this was one way by which 
a childless woman could obtain an heir for the family. Yet this act 
promptly involved the family in a squabble, because Sarah soon 
thought that Hagar was acting in too superior a way. God himself is 
represented as having to solve the problem. Abraham and his wife 
are people of faith. Yet they are represented as sinning, not because 
they do not believe in God, but because in various situations they 
give way to fear and anxiety. Hence they simply cannot believe God's 
promises in every situation; they are unable to wait for God because 
of their anxiety. The substance of faith is here presented by means 
of illustration. Faith is simply believing what God has said, what 
God has promised; it is the knowledge that what he has said he will 
do. Faith is not a series of propositions which are either believed or 
not believed. It is instead that trust in God which leads one to follow 
him in whatever situation one may find himself, a trust which waits 
on the Lord even in times when one is fearful for Ms life. Conversely, 
sin is born of doubt and nourished by anxiety. It is a failure to believe 

72 The Book of the Acts of God 

God's promises. This led Abraham and his wife to assert their own 
wills and to plunge themselves deeper into trouble. Later in Exodus 
and Numbers the same theme is continued. In spite of everything, the 
people could not believe God's promises; they constantly murmured 
and attempted to take matters into their own hands. This served only 
to heighten their misery and resulted in the failure of their generation 
to secure the Promised Land. In other words, the perennial problem 
of even the good man who wants to believe is his fear and anxiety 
which prevent him from trusting God and waiting upon God. Against 
all appearances to the contrary, Abraham is portrayed as one who 
trusted God's word, and God accepted that trust as Abraham's 
"righteousness." Obeying moral rules without this faith is not true 
righteousness. The apostle Paul makes much of this verse in his argu- 
ment for justification by faith instead of by works; that is, we are 
deemed right with God only when we possess the kind of faith that 
Abraham here typifies. The righteousness God wants is this kind of 
faithful commitment to the faithful God, Faith is primarily a relation- 
ship word which involves our commitment to the faithful One. A man 
can keep a great number of rules regarding right behavior and still 
not be a man of faith. 

Chapter 15:7-21 repeats the promise of the land, and now God 
seals his promise by a solemn rite which Abraham could understand. 
Evidently one method by which people then ratified an agreement was 
to divide the bodies of certain animals, after which the two parties of 
the agreement passed between the separated parts. God offers to 
perform this rite with Abraham as an assurance to Abraham that he 
will keep his promises. The rite is called a covenant in verse 18; in it 
God binds himself purely by a gracious act to Abraham. In Chapter 
17 the priestly editor of Genesis presents an additional and expanded 
version of this Abrahamic covenant. The sign of that covenant is the 
rite of circumcision, a rite that later became a fundamental institu- 
tion of Judaism, marking a child's entrance into the household of 
faith. It was the outward sign of membership in the community of 
God, being replaced in the Christian Church by the rite of baptism. 
This promise or solemn oath in covenant by which God commits 
himself to Abraham is ever after remembered as the central meaning 
of the Abrahamic story. The great events which follow are understood 
as fulfillments of this promise. 

Still another conception that informs and is central to the pa- 

The Priestly History 73 

triarchal narratives is that of the chosen nation. Israel is a special 
people whom God has chosen from the ends of the earth. For this 
reason Abraham was selected from among all the families of his 
world. A central theme of these chapters is the call of Abraham to a 
unique blessing and the separation of his family to a unique destiny. 
Indeed, this theme is one of the central affirmations of the Old Testa- 
ment. Israel, the seed of Abraham, has been chosen by God out of all 
the families of the earth, and God has revealed himself to this people 
as to no other. The first appearance of this affirmation of faith is in the 
promises made to Abraham when he was called (Chapter 12:2-3). 
Theologians call this promise "the election of Israel." 

This very claim of Israel to be a chosen people has been one of the 
chief sources of difficulty with the Old Testament ever since the time 
of the early Church. About a century after the death of the apostle 
Paul, a man named Celsus selected this claim as one of his arguments 
for the absurdity of Christianity. He said that the Jews and the Chris- 
tians seemed to think that God made the whole universe for them in 
particular. Despising all others on this great earth, God takes up his 
abode among this people alone, "and ceases not his messages and in- 
quiries as to how we may become his associates forever." A God of 
love and justice, it was affirmed, could scarcely show such favoritism 
as that! The biblical answers to these objections are not difficult to 
discover. How did the people of Israel come to have such an idea? 
Nearly all scholars are agreed that the doctrine of special election 
arose in Israel during the time of the exodus from Egypt. Here was a 
poor, enslaved people whom the world's justice had passed by. They 
were made to work as slaves on public building projects in Egypt by 
a Pharaoh of that land, the greatest temporal power of the time. Yet 
suddenly they were free and were formed into a nation. How had it 
happened? They did not have the power in themselves; there was only 
one explanation available to them. That was the assumption that a 
great God had seen their afflictions, had taken pity on them, and had 
set them free. Thus when Israel claimed to be the chosen people, she 
was merely giving the one plausible explanation of the historical fact 
that whereas she had been in bondage, she was freed by the wonderful 
work of this one true God. He who had saved her from slavery must 
have had a purpose in doing so. Yet if this belief in special election 
began during the exodus, why do we find it the central theme in Gene- 
sis? The answer is that as the later Israelite men of faith told the story 

74 The Book of the Acts of God 

of their fathers, God's choice of Abraham and of each of the patri- 
archs was the only way by which the life of those patriarchs could be 
understood. How did Abraham happen to come to Palestine at all 
unless God had chosen and led him? The fact that he came is proof 
of God's call; the fact that Israel is chosen is the proof that God chose 
Abraham. But some one may ask: "Why did God choose Abraham 
and not some other person? Was not God 'playing favorites' in this 
choice?" We cannot answer these questions, and Israel did not know 
their answers either. Why God chose Abraham and not someone else, 
or why we individually are chosen for this or that task and not for 
another is one of the secrets of God to which he does not always give 
an answer. All that he asks of us is that we accept what he has done 
for us with grateful and humble hearts this is the perspective of 
biblical faith. To the writers of Genesis the wonder of Abraham was 
that he did accept with no questions asked; he rearranged and ordered 
his life accordingly, leaving Ms home and kin for a land of which he 
knew nothing. 

Was Abraham chosen because he was such a good man? Was 
Israel chosen because she was such a gifted people? Are righteousness 
and merit the bases of God's choice? The answer of Israel was an 
emphatic negative. Nothing whatsoever is said about the moral life 
of Abraham before his call. A later Israelite told his people most 
emphatically that they were not to think that God did what he did for 
them because they were so righteous (Deuteronomy 9:4-6). He 
continues by saying that they most certainly were not a good people 
but a "stiff-necked people." From the earliest days they had provoked 
God by their continual rebellion against him. To the wonderful things 
that God did for them, Israel had answered with the basest and the 
most wanton ingratitude. God does not choose sinless people for his 
work; he takes men as they are and makes even their sin praise him. 

We must now ask: "What are the responsibilities involved in 
election?" Here in Genesis, God has revealed his purpose in choosing 
Abraham. It is to save the world, or so Chapter 12:3 implies. This 
suggests that the elect or chosen people have more than a passive 
role to play. Israel was a chosen people, but this gave them no 
liberty or license to do as they pleased. Instead it placed a terrible 
burden of responsibility upon them. The prophet Amos put the 
matter this way (Amos 3:2): "You only have I known of all the 
families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your in- 

The Priestly History 75 

iquities." In other words God had especially revealed himself to his 
chosen ones. Consequently the chosen have a great responsibility 
and are the more guilty and will be the more punished if they flout it. 
As a great scholar of the last century, William Robertson Smith, 
once wrote: "If Israel would not learn to know Jehovah in the good 
Land of Canaan, it must once more pass through the desert and 
enter the door of hope through the valley of tribulation.'* In the 
vast sea of ancient paganism, God did reveal himself to Israel, and 
from this nation the world has indeed come to know God so the 
Christian Church has always affirmed. Yet the problem of Israel was 
the problem of sin and rebellion. The story of the Old Testament is 
God's revelation of the nature of the true life on this earth and of 
his dealings with his chosen people to the end that they might be 
faithful. But the story of Israel is a tragic tale, one in which God is 
forced so to punish his faithless elect that they suffer tragically and 
terribly. Election is not election to privilege but election to responsi- 
bility and that responsibility is truly enormous. Yet by means of 
gracious leading, unmerited love, and severe chastisement God did 
accomplish his purpose through Israel. In the fullness of time Jesus 
Christ was sent into the soil God had prepared for his coming. He 
came not to annul what God had done in Israel, but to fulfill it 
by dealing dramatically with the matter of sin. He came to save 
people from their sins. 

In God's covenant with Abraham, described in Chapters 15 and 
17, the emphasis is almost solely on God's part of the agreement. 
Therefore we may see in this particular covenant simply a sign and 
seal of God's election of Israel and the promises that went with it. 
The covenant is to be an everlasting one, valid for all generations 
to come. Nothing is said there about Israel's part of the agreement, 
except that the people must perform the rite of circumcision as the 
sign and seal of the covenant (Chapter 17). Not until the later 
covenant at Sinai (Exodus 19-24) would the nation's responsibilities 
be made clear. The Abrahamic covenant is one of promise, and it 
looks forward to its fulfillment When and how was it fulfilled? 
Partly in the great work of God in and through Israel. Yet at the 
end of the Old Testament the chosen nation was still looking forward 
to the completion of the promise. The Christian Church understood 
that only in Christ was the covenant fulfilled. He is the fullness of 
Israel and the fulfillment of God's promises to his people. 

76 The Book of the Acts of God 

Who is the true Israelite? Is he a racial descendant of Abraham? 
Is the everlasting covenant of God solely with one national entity? If 
Israel is the chosen people through whom salvation is to be mediated 
to the world, then would this not mean that God's promises come 
to us only as we become Jews by adoption? This was one of the first 
great problems of the early Christian Church (see Acts 15 and 
Galatians). Led by the apostle Paul, the Church answered as follows: 
Abraham was called, and he responded in faith; that is, he believed 
in God and obeyed (Genesis 15:6). The true Israelite, therefore, is 
not the man who merely happens to be a racial descendant of 
Abraham. He is the man who is Abraham's spiritual descendant, who 
likewise responds in faith and obeys as did Abraham. The Church in 
Christ, therefore, has considered itself the true Israel and the true 
heir of the promises in the covenant with Abraham. The early Church 
clearly assumed that Israel had violated her election. In other 
words God's choice of Israel to a vocation in the world could be and 
was annulled by her own act. Yet God was not defeated. Israel 
accomplished his purpose, and the Church as the New Israel carries 
the promises and looks forward to their fulfillment at the time 
when the whole earth shall be the kingdom of God and of his Christ. 
It was somewhat in this manner that the early Christians saw them- 
selves in relation to that statement of faith which rests within the 
narratives of Genesis. 



At the end of the book of Genesis we find the family of 
Jacob (the grandson of Abraham) living in Egypt, where they had 
gone because of a famine in Canaan. Exodus begins with a brief 
review of the situation and then tells how the Hebrews were made 
slaves by a Pharaoh ''who knew not Joseph." This is followed by 
the story of their remarkable deliverance from that slavery. 

This deliverance was always conceived of as the most important 
event in the history of Israel. A people had been put into bondage, 
but a great God had seen their affliction, had taken pity on them, 
and by remarkable demonstrations of power had set them free! A 

The Priestly History 77 

weak, dispirited people whom the justice of the world had passed by, 
a people for whom there was no protecting law, a people oppressed 
by Pharaoh, who was the greatest temporal power of his day these 
were the people whom God, mightier than the gods of the nations 
and mightier than Pharaoh, saw, pitied, and saved. Why had he done 
that? The popular gods of the human race show much more respect 
and consideration for the strong, the wealthy, and the powerful than 
they do for the weak. It is only the strong and the wealthy who can 
provide them with magnificent temples and magnanimous gifts. Yet 
here was a God who chose to combat the strong in behalf of the weak, 
for whom the world and the gods of the world cared nothing. 

It is small wonder, therefore, that at the center of Israel's faith 
was this supreme act of divine love and grace. The very existence 
of the nation was due solely to this act; the beginning of Israel's 
history as a nation was traced to this miraculous happening. In 
confessions of faith it is the central affirmation. (Note such confes- 
sions in Deuteronomy 6:20-25; 26:5-10.) Who is God? For Israel 
it was unnecessary to elaborate abstract terms and phrases as we do 
in our confessions. It was only necessary to say that he is the "God, 
who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of 
bondage" (Exodus 20:2). What more was needed to identify or to 
describe God than that? His complete control over nature and man 
is adequately implied in the statement; his purposive action in history 
in fighting the injustice of the strong and making even their sin to 
serve and praise him is also directly implied; so also is his redemptive 
love, which saves and uses the weak of the world to accomplish his 
purpose even among the strong. 

The psalmists continually sang praises to God for what he did 
here, and the prophets repeatedly warned the people of their ingrati- 
tude. "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son 
out of Egypt. ... I drew them with cords of a man, with bands of 
love; and I was to them as they that lift up the yoke on their jaws . . . 
And my people are bent on backsliding from me" (Hosea 11:1-7). 
It was the exodus, then, that kept Israel firm in the knowledge of 
God's love, even when they were experiencing his punishment. 
Furthermore, it was the knowledge of God derived from this event 
that became the original basis of the conception of his righteousness 
which is distinctive to the Old Testament. God's purpose is a saving 
purpose, and his righteousness is especially concerned with the weak, 

78 The Book of the Acts of God 

the dispossessed, and the outcast of the earth. Those for whom the 
world provides no justice are the very ones who shall know God's 
righteousness as a saving power. On the other hand, the Bible is ex- 
tremely suspicious of those who have power and wealth in the midst 
of weakness. They, like Pharaoh, shall also know of God's righteous- 
ness, but it will be a righteousness that will judge and punish them. 
God demands humility, not pride; he demands stewardship, not self- 
assertion; he wants dependence upon himself, not self-sufficiency. 
Consequently, the righteousness of God in the Bible is to be seen 
in two aspects; on the one hand, it is his saving love for those in 
need; on the other, it is Ms wrath for those who are the enemies of 
his redemptive purpose. 

Furthermore the righteousness of God as seen in the exodus event 
colored the believer's whole point of view toward God and his 
neighbor. In a summary of the Israelite's responsibility in the light 
of what God has done, one passage (Deuteronomy 10:14-22) puts 
the matter very vividly. The passage begins with a statement that, 
though to God belong the whole realm of earth and heaven, yet he 
has set his heart in love upon the fathers of Israel and has chosen 
their descendants after them. And yet he is not a God among gods; 
he is a God of gods and Lord of lords, that is, he is the sovereign 
Lord of all, who is great and mighty, who cannot be influenced by 
bribery or favoritism, but sees to it that the weak of the earth get 
justice; he loves the sojourner, that is, the stranger who lives within 
the nation's gates. "Love the sojourner therefore; for you were 
sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God . * . 
and cleave to him ... He is your praise: he is your God, who has 
done for you these great and terrible things which your eyes have 
seen. Your fathers went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now 
the Lord your God has made you as the stars of heaven for a 
multitude." In other words, we are to love God and cleave to him 
because he has shown himself to us in such a marvelous and loving 
way. But the manner in which he has done this, when we were in our 
period of weakness, sets the tone and direction of our response to 
Mm. As we were once slaves and sojourners, so now we are to be 
kind to the slaves and sojourners who are in our midst. God's com- 
mand that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18) 
means in its original context that the whole of our economic and 
social life has as its central purpose the service of the neighbor, the 

The Priestly History 79 

assistance of those in need. Obedience to God involves this as the first 
and primary commandment, once our love to fom has been estab- 
lished and affirmed (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). In the New Testament, 
when Jesus was asked as to the meaning of the two greatest com- 
mandments, those concerning the love of God and the neighbor, a 
questioner, trying to justify himself, asked the familiar question, 
"And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied by telling the story of the 
good Samaritan. He meant by it that any person who is in need is 
the Christian's neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). Because of the exodus 
event, therefore, the righteousness of biblical man became something 
different from the normal righteousness seen on earth, with its careful 
calculation of each man's due. It is a saving and redemptive righteous- 
ness directed toward all who need help. 

The time of the exodus is the early part of the thirteenth century 
B.C., when Egypt is at the height of her power, and when Palestine 
and Lower Syria are a portion of the Egyptian Empire. Archaeo- 
logical information from Egypt informs us that it was not unusual 
for families and clans of Bedouins from Palestine and Sinai to enter 
Egypt in hard times and live along the border. That Israel, or some 
portion of the later nation of Israel, had at one time been in Egypt is 
verified not only by the tradition of the slavery but also by the 
presence in the tradition beginning with the time of Moses of a 
number of Egyptian names. The name "Moses" is itself from an 
Egyptian name; it was a very common verbal element used by 
the Egyptians in names to suggest that such and such a god had borne 
or begotten the particular individual in question. In the case of Moses 
the god name has been omitted and only the verbal element remains, 
its meaning having been forgotten in the Israelite tradition. A number 
of other names of Egyptian origin were likewise preserved, particu- 
larly in the tribe of Levi, which became the tribe of the priests and 
teachers of the faith. Most important for fixing the date of the exodus 
is the knowledge derived from excavations in Palestine about the 
conquest of Canaan, on the one hand, and on the other hand 
the statement in Exodus 1:11 that the King of Egypt put the Israelites 
to work on two cities in the region of the Nile Delta. This brings us 
immediately to what is known as the Nineteenth Egyptian Dynasty, 
more specifically after about 1308 B.C. The reason is that the kings 
of Egypt before this time had used Thebes in Upper Egypt as their 
capital and had done very little construction work in the Delta. 

80 The Book of the Acts of God 

Beginning in the Nineteenth Dynasty, however, a great attempt was 
made to win back the empire in Asia which had been lost during 
the middle of the fourteenth century. Consequently the center of 
operations was moved into Lower Egypt near the Mediterranean 
where ready access to Palestine and Syria was at hand. 

This means that we are a long way from the time of the patriarchs 
in Genesis. Indeed Exodus 12:40 tells us that the time the children 
of Israel dwelt in Egypt was 430 years. Long ages have passed, there- 
fore, and only memories of the forefathers remain. 

The exodus story is brief and terse. The first chapter quickly 
describes the situation. The narrative then turns to the description 
of what God did about it In Chapters 2-4 we are told about the birth 
and upbringing of Moses, how he had to flee from Egypt, and how 
God called him as his chosen man to deliver his people from slavery. 
Moses objected strenuously because he was afraid the people would 
not believe him and would say that God had not appeared to him. 
The Lord, accommodating himself to the situation, then gave Moses 
magical tricks to perform. Moses still objected. He was not an 
eloquent speaker. Finally God in exasperation says that he will make 
use of Aaron, Moses' brother, who will be the orator for the occasion 
and speak the words which Moses wants him to. And in typical 
biblical fashion the first results of the joint work of Moses and Aaron 
are briefly stated: "And the people believed; and when they heard 
that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen 
their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped" (Exodus 

Then begins the great contest between God and Pharaoh as 
described in Chapters 5-11. The magical tricks which God has given 
to Moses are unavailing before Pharaoh, because the Egyptian 
magicians are able to duplicate them. But there follows a succession 
of plagues, each worse than the last, until Pharaoh in fear lets the 
people go. 

It will be noted that the greatest concentration of miracle stories 
in the Bible occurs at critical points in the history where the power 
of God is especially felt to be present. Such critical points are the 
exodus, the period of Elijah and Elisha during the ninth century, 
and the ministry of Jesus. Scholars have long since pointed out that 
the various plagues described in the exodus story are natural scourges 
which have long been known in Egypt, and here apparently occurred 

The Priestly History 81 

with particular severity and were used as proofs of the power of 
God. Such a view hardly accounts for all aspects of the narrative, 
as for example the death of the first born in Chapter 12:29. Further- 
more it should be observed that the biblical man did not look upon 
a miracle quite as we do. He did not have such a word in his vocabu- 
lary. He spoke of "signs and wonders." Any unusual or spectacular 
happening that was a sign of the direct working of God this was his 
miracle. If a modern man could have stood beside him and given a 
rational explanation of all the events through which he passed, he 
would not have been particularly impressed. His question would 
always have been, "Well, why did they happen at exactly this time 
in this way and secure this result?" To us the major focus of attention 
in the matter of miracle is to explain how it could have happened 
without setting aside natural law. With him the point was rather 
what was happening, what was going on, what result God achieved 
through the unusual. 

In Exodus 12-13 editors of the material have inserted a complete 
description of the Passover celebration as it was later known in Israel. 
The reason they did so was that they traced its foundation to this 
final plague, when God saved his people. The festival thus became 
the central one in Israel's life, and celebrated God's great deliverance. 
The climax of the story comes, however, in Chapters 14-15 two 
different versions of the miraculous events that happened when Israel 
left Egypt Chapter 14 is prose and Chapter 15:1-18 tells the same 
story in poetry an old poem, the original of which must date not 
far from the events described. By an act of God a terrific storm of 
some sort parted the waters, allowing Israel to pass through them 
(Chapters 14:21; 15:8). In one passage "strong east wind" is 
specifically mentioned; in the other the wind is figuratively called the 
"blast of thy nostrils." As a result of the wind, the waters, presumably 
rather shallow, were driven back; but when the Egyptians tried to 
follow, their chariot wheels floundered in the mud (Chapter 14:25), 
and they were trapped when the waters returned, 

Two themes are woven together in these two chapters and those 
which precede and follow. One is the repeated assertion that God is 
in charge of the events, and therefore Israel need not fear. The other 
is the murmuring and lack of faith on the part of the people. Here 
again we have the contrast between God's promise and the human 
inability to believe it; it is the same contrast as that observed in the 

82 The Book of the Acts of God 

story of Abraham in Genesis. The first theme is the power of God to 
do what he has set out to do; the key verse in the first theme is 
Chapter 14:14: "The Lord will fight for you, and you shall hold 
your peace," There are times when matters seem completely out of 
human hand; there is nothing else man can do. Israel beside the sea, 
with Pharaoh's chariots behind, was in such a position. Had the 
hard-won release from Egypt been in vain? Would God fail Israel 
now after Ms promises of salvation? To Moses this was inconceivable. 
God, in delivering Ms people, has determined that the deliverance 
shall be an act that shall lead all men to honor and respect him 
(Chapters 14:4, 18; 15:14-18). So confident of tMs are the Israelite 
writers that they go so far as to say that God actually hardened 
Pharaoh's heart to make the victory the greater. Elsewhere, however, 
it is said that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (for example, Chapter 
8:15). The Israelite would have seen no inconsistency in tMs, though 
it appears to be one to us. To him God's foreknowledge is such that 
he does Ms work while still allowing for human freedom. God is at 
work there; yet it is in such a way that Pharaoh's moral responsibility 
is not annulled. It is a colorful way of affirming that God uses man's 
sin for Ms own glorification and to acMeve Ms own end. 

The second theme, wMch is in contrast to the promise of God and 
the faith of Moses, is the murmuring of the people (Chapters 14:10- 
12; 15:23-26; see also Chapters 16:3; 17:2, 3;Numbers 11; 12). All 
the old doubts and fears come to the surface, not only before the sea, 
but in every subsequent crisis. No matter what God has done in the 
past, every new danger brings on the murmuring that at times reaches 
the proportions of a rebellion. The people believed in God, but they 
were afraid to trust Mm, particularly when they found themselves in 
a crisis. It is remarkable that Israel should preserve the story of its 
past in such form. The truth is told; and their life is explained as one 
of infidelity to the kindness of God. It is very evident that in the 
Exodus event something happened to Israel of such a nature as to 
make it impossible for the people to interpret their life apart from it. 
Because of what God did here, a special relationsMp was created 
between God and Israel. A disparate group of families and clans 
were now made into a people who thought of themselves as "the 
people of God." No attempt was made or could have been made to 
understand the meaning of Israel's peoplehood apart from this event 
and from the relationsMp wMch it established. And because of the 

The Priestly History 83 

way the relationship was formed, the biblical view of the nature of 
God as known from his work in history, and also of man's obligation 
to God, was utterly different and unique. 

Of the many relationships which individuals and groups have with 
one another we may perhaps single out two which are of basic 
importance. One is a relationship which involves mutual obligation. 
Marriage is an example of this type of covenant or relationship. 
Solemn vows are taken and mutual duties are required. Another type 
of relationship exists in my job. My employer and I possess an 
agreement: he promises to do certain things for me and I in turn 
promise to do certain things for him. If either one of us fails in the 
fulfillment of these obligations, the relationship will probably be 
severed. In Genesis 30:31 Jacob and Laban enter into an agreement 
whereby Jacob becomes Laban's son and servant. The mutual obliga- 
tions are closely defined. In I Kings 5 Hiram, King of Tyre, and 
Solomon, King of Israel, have a joint covenant or trade treaty. Hiram 
promises to supply materials for the temple Solomon desires to build 
in Jerusalem, and Solomon promises to deliver in exchange a certain 
amount of wheat and olive oil, though in the end Solomon had a 
trade deficit and had to cede to Hiram some twenty cities of IsraeEte 
territory in Galilee (I Kings 9:11). In such cases acts of giving and 
receiving are involved in a context of mutual duty. We live and move 
and have our being amid relationships of this type. 

There is another type of relationship which exists between indi- 
viduals and between groups. If the relationship began through some 
undeserved act of kindness, an act which sought no reward, nor did 
it require any reciprocal action; if someone goes out of his way to 
do something for me, particularly at a time when I am in need of 
help; if any of these happen, a special relationship is established 
between me and that person. I cannot pay Trim back. To reduce this 
act of kindness into a matter of bookkeeping so that I could easily 
repay what has been done is to annul the relationship. Nothing that 
I have done deserves what I have received. I am thus tied to the 
person in question by a bond that is stronger than any mutual 
agreement involving mutual obligations. I am grateful to him; and 
my gratitude means that I am somehow emotionaEy attached to him. 
And if the opportunity arises I will, out of this love that has thus been 
created, do a kindness to him in return. Such acts of mutual kindness 
have no obligation behind them. One is not a payment for the other. 

84 The Book of the Acts of God 

One's attachment to a parent, for example, is often on a far deeper 

basis than one of formal family tie or "blood" relationship. The 

parents' continual acts of kindness beyond any call of duty have 

pulled from the child a response of love and affection. He cannot 

repay Ms parents, but a close relationship has been established and 

he in turn will show deeds of kindness to them on whatever occasions 

it is possible for him to do so. In I Samuel 18:1-3 we are told about 

a relationship that was established between Jonathan, son of King 

Saul, and the young man David. Jonathan was a prince of Israel; he 

owed nothing whatsoever to David. Yet we are told that his soul "was 

knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as Ms own 

soul. . . . Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he 

loved him as his own soul." Later when Jonathan's father sought to 

kill David, this close relationship persisted, and Jonathan saved 

David's life. When David became King of all Israel, one of his early 

acts was to find out if there was anyone left of the house of Saul, in 

order that he might show them kindness "for Jonathan's sake." He 

found a son of Jonathan and provided for Mm during the rest of Ms 

life. This was an act of kindness wMch David did not have to do; 

nor did Jonathan need to have made the covenant with David in the 

first place. The relationsMp was closer than any made in the frame- 

work of law or custom. It rested upon an inner union of the soul, so 

to speak. No legal duties were required as a result of it In such a 

relationsMp deeds are done, but they are done out of love and 

kindness. And if I am the recipient of one of these deeds of kindness, 

I want to reciprocate in love, for otherwise I will feel ungrateful. To 

break a relationsMp established out of undeserved goodness is far 

worse than to break a contractual relationsMp. One's deepest feelings 

of guilt and infidelity are involved in any betrayal of love. 

A close relationsMp between God and Israel was established in the 
Exodus event, but it was a relationsMp of the latter type rather than 
of the former. God did not save Israel from slavery because she was 
better than other people, and therefore worthy to be saved. Indeed 
Chapter 9 of Deuteronomy makes a special point of tMs: God did not 
give the people iheir land because they were more righteous than 
those being dispossessed. God had another reason and it was basically 
one of love. The people are to remember, however, that they have 
been sinners and rebels from the earliest days. God's act is one of 
undeserved kindness and the close tie that exists between Mm and his 

The Priestly History 85 

people is the result of that kindness. He has sought out, not those 
whom the peoples of the earth might call the deserving ones, but 
those whom no one would claim to be deserving. Israel's relation to 
God was one originally established in grace, not in law. It is only 
because God first loved his people that they love him in return, and 
they obey him primarily because they love him for what he has done. 
Indeed, they are to love their neighbors because he first loved them. 
Psalm 136 is a magnificent hymn of praise to God, centering precisely 
in these undeserved acts of kindness; "O give thanks to the Lord, 
for he is good, for his steadfast love [his undeserved deeds of kind- 
ness] endures for ever." Conversely, wrongdoing is interpreted with 
deep emotional overtones as ingratitude and infidelity. For example, 
Psalm 106:7-13: "Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not 
consider thy wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance 
of thy steadfast love, but rebelled . . . Yet he saved them for his 
name's sake . . . Then they believed his words; they sang his praise. 
But they soon forgot his works; they did not wait for his counsel." 

The tie between God and Israel was thus of the closest possible 
kind. It was established in what to the Israelites was the history of 
their past. It meant that central to Israelite faith from this time 
forth was to be a conception of relationship. This new community 
belongs to God, and to God it must cleave. Whatever may happen, 
whatever dark valley of the shadow is encountered, he is their rock 
and their fortress. In whatever tragedy, he is good and just and 
righteous. The King of kings and the Lord of lords, the almighty 
power among all the powers of the world this God is good and his 
goodness shall endure forever. It is central to Ms nature to love, to 
save, to redeem, to restore; he did this at the exodus, and subsequent 
history, when properly understood, is further testimony to that 
goodness. The story of the exodus is thus at the very heart and core 
of the faith. 


An over-all title for the period which extends from the 
exodus from Egypt to the time of Joshua and the conquest of Pal- 

86 The Book of the Acts of God 

estine might be "In the Wilderness." It was in this time that certain 
experiences took place at the holy mountain (Mount Sinai or, as it 
is sometimes called, Mount Horeb) which formed the people into a 
nation. There followed, however, a long period of wandering in the 
wilderness, especially in the area of Kadesh-Barnea in southernmost 
Palestine, followed by a trek through Trans-Jordan and finally the 
conquest of Trans- Jordan as described in Numbers 20-21. The 
wandering in the wilderness is referred to in various ways by later 
writers. For example, in Joshua 24:8-10 it is mentioned as a scene 
of great deeds of salvation on God's part for his people. On the other 
hand, Jeremiah 2:2 speaks of the people's devotion in their youth, 
when they followed God in the wilderness, when the bond between 
them was very close. Then, too, there is the theme as expressed in 
Psalm 106:13-33; it is the story of the rebellions in the wilderness. 
These were Israel's responses to the goodness and the fidelity of 
God. Salvation, devotion, and rebellion these were three different 
ways in which the wilderness wandering of Israel could be and was 

Yet if the wilderness wandering is the theme of this large collection 
of material, we must admit that here we encounter greater difficulty 
in comprehending what we are reading than at almost any other 
point in the Old Testament. The narrative here is by no means 
continuous. It is continually interrupted by a vast amount of hetero- 
geneous material from a variety of sources. Exodus 19-24 describes 
God's covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai (Horeb). This is followed 
in Chapters 25-40 with a detailed description of the tabernacle, the 
shrine which was the center of the community in this age, the descrip- 
tion of which reveals the center of the theology of the priestly writers. 
That theology was concerned with the tabernacling God whose 
presence in the midst of the people alone made them a people. In this 
section with its detailed prescriptions, Chapters 32-34 preserve some 
older narrative material about the people's rebellion and their desire 
to have a God to worship whom they can see or visualize. The Book 
of Leviticus has very little narration in it. It begins with the manual of 
public worship, which describes the various sacrifices or services 
of offering at the tabernacle. Following this manual of instructions 
there appears also a variety of matters relating to the priests, to the 
proper foods which shall be eaten, etc. Chapters 17-26, however, 
preserve a fragmentary collection of old laws as they have been 

The Priestly History 87 

preserved in the Jerusalem temple, laws dealing with all phases of 
the people's life. Among them we find in Chapter 19:18 the famous 
words, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This is a summary 
of the whole economic life of the people. The whole purpose of their 
economic and social life is that they shall love their neighbor, partic- 
ularly the poor and the unfortunate, by assisting him according to 
his need. In the Book of Numbers, Israel leaves Sinai, spends a 
generation in the area of Kadesh because of a problem in morale 
which is interpreted as the judgment of God, and finally succeeds 
in the conquest of Trans-Jordan. This narrative is contained in 
Chapters 11-14, 20-25. And it concludes with the marvelous story 
about Balaam. The King of Moab, frightened by Israel and afraid to 
fight, instead sends to far-off Mesopotamia and hires a famous 
magician named Balaam. The latter does his best to conjure up a 
curse against Israel, but he is an honest practitioner who recognizes 
failure when his procedures do not come out right. The King of Moab 
is described as getting exceedingly angry with the magician, even 
refusing to pay him his fee! The Israelite writer of the narrative 
obviously enjoys the telling of it, and sees the whole event in a 
highly humorous light. To him it is the height of absurdity that the 
pagan arts of magic could in any way influence the course of action 
decided upon by the God of Israel! In fact, God uses the magician's 
art to serve his own purposes, rather than those either of the magician 
or of the king who hired him. 

Around this essential story of the Book of Numbers there is a 
great variety of priestly material preserved in Chapters 1-10, 15-19, 
and 26-36. In them the Jerusalem priesthood has preserved a great 
variety of very archaic materials, but their arrangement suggests 
considerable haste in the editing for reasons which are no longer clear. 

Since the successive editors heaped so much traditional matter 
around the original story, we must assume that to them this period 
in the wilderness was a pivotal time in Israel's life. The central event 
of the period was considered to be God's covenant with Israel which 
was celebrated at the sacred mountain. From this covenant the Old 
Testament received its name; here was made the old covenant, as 
distinct from the new covenant in Jesus Christ. It is described in 
Exodus 19-24. Since it is so central to the Israelites' understanding 
of the meaning of society and history, we must pajise to describe it 
in some detail. 

88 The Book of the Acts of God 

The ancient world was a world full of covenants; man lived and 
moved throughout his life in an interlocking series of covenants. 
When two parties are bound together in an agreement or a treaty, 
sealed by a vow, but in which no means of enforcement are available, 
there we have a covenant To this day international treaties have the 
form of covenant: they are agreements between two parties sealed 
by vows, but no means of enforcement are available other than those 
contained in the vows. In the ancient world the witnesses of the 
human covenants were the God or gods of the respective parties. 
They were called upon as the witnesses who would keep the covenant 
in case one or both of the human participants broke it. A good 
example of this type of parity treaty, or agreement between equals, 
is to be found in Genesis 31, the covenant between Jacob and Laban. 
Indeed, the Mizpah benediction, so often used in young people's 
groups today, had its original setting in that treaty. Jacob and Laban 
prayed to God that he would keep the covenant if either of them had 
a tendency to break it when they had left one another: "May the 
Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from 
another." These words do not mean that God will kindly keep us 
from getting into danger after our meeting has broken up! They are 
rather a part of a covenant: we have made our mutual vows, but 
we are human and sinful. Our agreement is in danger if we are left 
to our own devices. We beseech God, therefore, to be the guard of our 
solemn vows to the end that they are kept, when we are no longer 
present with one another to look after each other in our weakness. 

It is very clear that the conception of covenant, borrowed from the 
social and political law of the day, was used to depict the relationship 
of God and people. This relationship was one which had been formed 
in the exodus when God had chosen this people for himself and Ms 
own purposes. Covenant was a way of making a picture out of the 
relationship, so that the people would understand what it meant. In 
Exodus 19:5-6 God is represented as saying: "If you will obey my 
voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among 
all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom 
of priests and a holy nation." We note that in this case the promise 
begins with a condition; there is now a covenant which must be kept. 
Before this we have noticed the concentration upon the grace of God, 
upon Ms undeserved acts of goodness. The good news of God's 
marvelous and saving activity has been related with joy, but here now 

The Priestly History 89 

we encounter the divine requirement. Law is added to grace, and 
the good news (gospel) from this point on in the Bible is associated 
with a requirement God places upon his people. From this point on 
gospel and law become a dominant biblical theme, and their relation- 
ship one to another becomes something difficult to describe in simple 
words. The substance of the covenant is described in Chapter 20; 
it is the Ten Commandments. This is followed in Chapter 20:23- 
23:33 by the oldest collection of legal practices which the Old 
Testament possesses, one which the scholars call "the book of the 
covenant" (Exodus 24:7). In other words, God is here represented 
as a king who is giving a law to the people, and the people are the 
subjects of the king and are required to keep his law. In God's 
covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15, 17) the whole emphasis is upon 
God's promise to the patriarch. There God commits himself, and 
Abraham is the one who receives the promises and acts upon them 
in faith. Here at Mount Sinai the people vowed to obey the king. One 
very common summary of the covenant which appears again and 
again in the Old Testament is the expression, "I will be your God 
and you shall be my people." The continuing lordship of God, as a 
result of the Sinai covenant, is dependent upon the loyalty of the 
people. The words express a close relationship, and it is the relation- 
ship pictured in a king bearing rule over his subjects. The nation of 
Israel understood itself, therefore, by means of a picture drawn from 
political life. 

The particular type of political covenant that originally lay behind 
the biblical doctrine of society has only recently been discovered by 
Professor George E. Mendenhall of the University of Michigan. 1 
It is to be found in certain treaties of the second millennium B.C. in 
western Asia. These treaties were of two types. One was a parity 
treaty between equals. The other was between a suzerain and a 
vassal. It should be understood that a suzerain is not a king among 
other kings, but a ruler who believed himself to be the king of kings 
and lord of lords, one who rules over many kings. He is the great 
king who offers his covenant to his vassal. In the typical suzerainty 
treaty he speaks to his vassal in the first person and begins by describ- 
ing ail Ms benevolent acts to the vassal in past years. By this means 
he hopes to get the vassal to obey him, not simply because of legal 

and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East f The Biblical Col- 
loquium, 57 Belvedere Street, Pittsburgh 5, Pennsylvania, 1955. 

90 The Book of the Acts of God 

necessity, but because the great king has been so good to him. Then 
follow the stipulations of the covenant. These vary greatly in the 
various treaties, but one common prohibition opposes the vassal's 
having any relations with other powers. Furthermore the vassal is 
expected to keep the king's peace; there should be no internal civil 
war. There is also a provision for depositing the treaty in the sanc- 
tuary of the vassal, for reading it publicly periodically, a lengthy 
invocation to the deities of heaven and earth who are the witnesses 
to the covenant, and finally the curses that will come to the vassal if 
he breaks the covenant and the blessings which will accrue to him 
if he keeps it. The treaty was binding only in the lifetime of the parties 
involved, and it had to be made again with each successive generation 
or dynasty. 

When this type of political treaty is examined carefully side by side 
with the Mosaic covenant in the Old Testament, as Professor 
Mendenhall has done, it becomes necessary to conclude that a 
relationship in form exists between the two. Israel pictured her 
relationship to God in the form of some such treaty or covenant. In 
Exodus 20 God introduced the new relationship by identifying 
himself: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land 
of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." The covenant begins by 
identifying him who gives it as one who is entitled to do so by his 
benevolent acts. This means, as Deuteronomy 6:5 has observed, that 
legal requirement is not the center of the relationship between God 
and his people. Rather the relationship is one of love and grace; as 
God has loved us, so we should love him with all our heart and soul 
and strength, for obedience must be rooted in love. As in the suze- 
rainty treaties the first stipulation of the Decalogue is the prohibition 
against foreign relations: that is, God's people are to worship no one 
but himself. This meaning of the first commandment is made clear 
in Exodus 34:14 where the words, "You shall worship no other god," 
actually explain the true intent of the commandment In the second 
part of the Decalogue the concern is with the inner wholesomeness 
and peace of the society: no murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, 
or coveting. These commandments were put within the ark, which 
was a portable box. As a result, it was called "the ark of the testi- 
mony" (Exodus 25:16) or "the ark of the covenant'* (I Samuel 4:4), 
The ark, therefore, became the symbol of the covenant, and in later 
times the Ten Commandments could be called God's covenant 

The Priestly History 91 

(Deuteronomy 4:13). Hence the covenant, like the suzerainty treaty, 
was always kept in the central sanctuary of the people. There is also 
evidence that in the early days of Israel, before the time of the 
monarchy, there was a periodic celebration of the covenant in Israel, 
similar to the one periodically required of the vassal in the inter- 
national treaties of the second millennium B.C. 

Space does not permit a more detailed analysis of the relationship 
between the international treaty formulae and the covenant between 
God and people in the time of Moses. Enough has been said, however, 
to indicate that it originally provided the picture, the form or struc- 
ture, through which the knowledge of God was communicated in the 
Bible. God was then known as the great suzerain whose benevolent 
acts toward his newly created community were to lead his people 
to serve him through love. No other divine powers could be honored, 
for these would weaken the central commitment. And the service 
was one of freedom. The general obligations were cast in the form 
of absolutes; within the framework they provided that the vassal 
was free to order Ms own life. The Ten Commandments have some- 
times been objected to because most of them are negatively phrased: 
"Thou shalt not." Yet, as Professor Mendenhall has pointed out, 
the negative is the only truly universal form of law. A prohibition 
forbids action in one area, while leaving all other areas free. A posi- 
tive law, "Thou shalt," limits all action to the one area prescribed, 
thus preventing freedom of decision and action unless the law is so 
general that it provides nothing more than a frame of reference. 

One of the great struggles in both the Old and New Testaments is 
with the attempt to interpret the detailed positive law of the legal 
community as the constitutional law of the divine suzerain some- 
thing which happened in Judaism. In this sense, therefore, the Ten 
Commandments, that is, the Mosaic covenant, is a charter of freedom. 
Religious obligation is established, but the Israelite was not told 
precisely in what manner these laws were to be kept in the various 
phases of his life and history. In what manner was God to be wor- 
shiped? How was the Sabbath to be observed? How were one's 
parents to be honored? The Decalogue provides only the framework 
of life. The covenant community is responsible for working out for 
itself the detailed manner in which God shall be served in daily life. 
TMs Israel did in her various codes of law. As previously mentioned, 
the oldest one is in Exodus 21-23; the Holiness Code in Leviticus 

92 The Book of the Acts of God 

17-26 and the Deuteronomic Code in Deuteronomy 12-26 are the 
two other collections of old laws in the Old Testament and contain 
also considerable exposition of their meaning. These laws describe 
how Israel served her Lord. They were descriptions of legal practice, 
but originally they were not compiled as constitutional law in the 
modern sense; there was at that time in the ancient world neither 
the vocabulary nor the mentality which would permit or compel the 
judge to decide a legal case on the basis of the "constitution." In 
Mesopotamia, for example, an earlier code dating from about 1700 
B.C. is that compiled by the famous King Hammurabi. In that country 
there is no extant example of a judge rendering a decision by refer- 
ring to that code, though there are many decisions contrary to the 
provisions in it. "Law" meant "teaching, instruction," and the codes 
were prepared at various times and occasions as descriptions of legal 
practice in various areas, but no judge felt any compulsion to be 
bound by them. The Judaism which arose in the post-exilic period 
was a comparatively new phenomenon in that it made these old 
detailed prescriptions of legal practice into constitutional law, and 
freedom of decision and action was limited by the host of positive 
commands. The Jews in the time of Ezra during the fifth century B.C. 
wished to obey God, and to do so they collected every law that they 
could find in the older codes and interpreted them as their constitu- 
tion. They were God's will which could be written down. 

The New Testament, of course, has no patience whatever with the 
compulsory nature of Israel's common law. It aligns itself with 
the pre-exilic prophets in the attempt to revive the old society 
envisioned in ideal in the original Israelite covenant. It was an order 
of freedom in which responsible people under God were called upon 
to make decisions in his behalf within a general frame of reference. 

The picture of God as King of kings and Lord of lords, as the ruler 
who sought Ms vassal's love and obedience this is what gave to the 
Israelites self-understanding and the understanding of himself in 
relation to his people. To be a people meant to be servants of the 
ruler, and love to God was alone what made possible the love of one's 
neighbor. That is, loyalty to the great king meant the preserving of 
the internal harmony and peace. Furthermore, while God bound the 
people in covenant, each member of the community heard the law 
addressed to him personally, "Thou shall" The divine ruler dignified 
each one with his personal address. Man the individual was pulled 

The Priestly History 93 

out of the mass and honored with God's personal and individual 
command. He was a member of his people and that alone gave him 
meaning for his life; but since as a* member of his people he had 
received God's command, this meant that he could be no slave to 
social pressure. He was an individual, with individual decisions to 
make in response to the divine will; by this means the individual in 
Israel received far more dignity than he did in any other nation of 
the time. In fact, the whole biblical teaching about the dignity of man 
probably originated in its earliest form as a clearly felt implication 
of God's covenant with Israel. Genesis 1:26, "man in the image of 
God," is undoubtedly based upon a reflection concerning the nature 
of man, as the Israelite understood himself and his true role under 
God in the covenant. Then, too, it can be affirmed that in this picture 
the true relation of the individual and the community is portrayed. 
There is no individual apart from a community, and there is no 
individual without a separateness, a uniqueness which is not sub- 
merged in the group. In Israel's covenant both things are clearly 

Since God as "lord," or "ruler," is the central figure in the Old 
Testament, the language of the faith was inevitably anthropomorphic, 
that is, filled with human words to describe the deity. This was 
because the context in which God was known was a context of 
relationship. It was a relationship between the individual or the people 
and the Lord. Hence the categories of personality are openly applied 
to God. God is conceived of as a great man. The biblical writers 
speak frankly about his voice, his hand, his back, his feet, etc, 
Yet this language is not a luxury or a primitivism which later 
stages of the faith outgrew. It was and is a necessity of the faith. The 
relationship of God to people and of people to God can be depicted 
in no other way, when the covenant as the framework of understand- 
ing is central in the faith. 

If God is conceived of in terms of king or lord, then man would 
be spoken of as his servant. Before there can be worship or any kind 
of religious life, man must acknowledge God's lordship and his own 
position as a servant. Consequently, at the center of biblical morality 
is a necessity for humility before God and submission to his rule. 
To be religious is frequently expressed by the words "to hearken, to 
be obedient, to serve." Righteousness is maintaining the covenant, 
which means fulfillment of our vows to obey God. Sin is the violation 

94 The Book of the Acts of God 

of covenant and rebellion against God's personal lordship. It is more 
than an aberration or a failure which added knowledge can correct. 
It is a violation of relationship, a betrayal of trust. In the covenant 
man is bound to God in a close relationship that is centered in the 
realm of communion and will. In its light we live in a totalitarian 
universe, one in which God is king and demands our unqualified 
obedience. There can be no watering or weakening of this concep- 
tion; otherwise the whole basis of biblical faith would be destroyed. 
It does mean, however, that totalitarianism is lifted from the earthly 
to the heavenly spheres; there can be no such thing as a self- 
sufficient, self-worshiping totalitarian government on earth, because 
God alone is king and lord of human life. It is small wonder, there- 
fore, that when kings finally came to Israel, they were history's first 
constitutional monarchs. When they tried to be anything else, they 
usually had a rebellion on their hands. 

Why did not Israel speak of God as father and of the people as 
children of the father, as the New Testament so frequently does? 
The father-son language to depict the relationship between God and 
his people is indeed used occasionally (for example, Hosea 11:1-7), 
but it is comparatively rare. Israel did not dare make much use of 
this term because of the crassly physical and literal conceptions 
of divine fatherhood current among her pagan neighbors at the time. 
Jeremiah 2:27 denounces pagans who say ". . . to the tree, 'You are 
my father,' and to the stone, 'You have borne me.' " Furthermore, we 
may say that the relations within a family do not involve a conception 
of government and society in as wide a sense as that involved in the 
original language of the covenant. In modern times our talk of God's 
fatherhood and of man's brotherhood is frequently so sentimentalized 
that the relationship between God and man loses any real power and 
content in the sense in which power and content were both present 
in biblical faith. The language suggesting a knowledge of God through 
the category of father needs always to be supported and strengthened 
by the conception of God's ruling power, his kingship. Otherwise 
the whole conception of the government of God in the world, of 
God's kingdom, and of God's purpose in history to establish that 
kingdom will be lost. In other words, the two terms need to be used 
together even as did Jesus in the Lord's Prayer ("Our Father . . . thy 
kingdom ..."). In biblical faith it would appear that the relationship 
between God and man has as an irreducible minimum the depiction 

The Priestly History 95 

of God as the lord and the ruler and of his people as the servants 
who must be loyal and obedient. When this language becomes too 
cold, legalized, and formalized, it must be corrected by the use of 
other terms, as happened in the Bible itself. Not only is the expression 
of God's fatherhood very frequent, but even the marriage relation is 
used by the prophet Hosea. It was a vivid symbol used to portray the 
faithlessness of God's people to him. Hosea's wife was a faithless 
wife; similarly Israel's relation to God is that of a harlot. Sin can 
thus be described as harlotry, running after other lovers. This lan- 
guage was used occasionally over a period of some 200 years before 
it was finally dropped. The Song of Songs is a beautiful series of love 
poems: it was possible to preserve them in the canon by interpreting 
them allegorically. In the Church the two lovers were considered 
to be Christ and the people, and in the New Testament itself the 
Church as the bride of Christ is to be found (for example, II Corin- 
thians 11:2; Revelation 19:7). This language indicates the closeness 
of the relationship between God or Christ and his people, but it has 
never been widely used because of the danger of sentimentality. 

Not only did the language of the faith center in the covenant 
relationship, but further the covenant theology furnished Israel with 
the means of interpreting the meaning and course of her history. 
Her function was to be the faithful people that she had promised in 
the covenant to be. If the history of the covenant was a sad one, it 
was the story of a people's faithless violation of its covenant vows and 
God's demand that his chosen nation should be what it had promised 
to be. God is the lord of the nation's life, and he has given the nation 
its function in the world and its responsibility. If it will not fulfill that 
function and that responsibility, if it violates its solemn vows and 
commitments, then it has sinned against God and will experience 
the judgment of God. The history of the covenant becomes the history 
of Israel from this time forth; and it is a rather sad story. The diffi- 
culties of Israel in her promised land and her involvement in the 
wars between the nations in a corridor between Asia and Africa 
where lay the two centers of power presented a tragic picture. For 
this reason, the history of the covenant for the Christian has always 
led to Jesus Christ. To Israel, God revealed the manner and the 
nature of the true life of man and of society on this earth. But how 
is man to find that life when he so persistently sins, violates his vows, 
and chooses death rather than life? This fact about man's history 

96 The Book of the Acts oj God 

together with God's warfare against it all this constitutes the stuff 
of the world and the true meaning of the inner struggles of the world 
according to the Israelite writer. But is man forever to be caught in 
God's judgment? The New Testament opens precisely at this point. 
The revelation of God to Israel is true, but God has again intervened, 
as he did at the exodus, to provide man with salvation. In Jesus 
Christ the language of the exodus is used to suggest that God has 
rescued man from the "power" or the "bondage" or the "slavery" 
of sin, or of the "principalities" and "powers of darkness"; he has 
reconciled man to himself and given him a new chance. The warfare 
against evil is by no means over, but the victory is now assured. 

What God has done in both Testaments, according to the biblical 
writers* viewpoint, is a great work of salvation, a deliverance, a 
redemption. Furthermore, in both Testaments, God's act of salvation 
is celebrated in a festival or a sacrament. In Israel that festival was 
called Passover and the descriptions for it are given in the story at 
the conclusion of the warfare between God and Pharaoh (Exodus 
12-13). In the New Testament, the Lord's Supper was first instituted 
at the Passover time, and it commemorates our deliverance by Christ. 
Thus Christ is called "our Passover" (I Corinthians 5:7), the Pass- 
over lamb, slain in our behalf. Furthermore, the celebration of God's 
deliverance in Christ is directly connected with the conception of 
covenant in the Lord's Supper. Note that in Paul's record of the 
words of the institution of the Lord's Supper there are two parts of 
the service. The taking of the bread celebrates the new exodus, the 
work of Christ in our behalf. The drinking of the cup signifies 
the new covenant in Christ's blood (I Corinthians 11:23-26). This 
is the covenant of which Jeremiah spoke (Jeremiah 31:33-34), one 
that is written in the heart and is not centered in an outward written 
law. The seal of the new covenant in the New Testament is the blood 
of Christ, the fact of Christ's giving up his life in behalf of his people. 
The terminology "blood" derives from Exodus 24, where the old 
covenant was sealed in Moses' time. At Mount Sinai, Moses cele- 
brated the covenant with a great sacrificial offering to God. The 
blood, which was conceived to be the life of the animals used in 
the sacrifice, was drained and put into basins. One half of the sacri- 
ficial blood was thrown against the altar, symbolizing God's portion. 
Moses then took "the book of the covenant" and read it before the 
people. On their part they took a solemn vow saying, in effect, "all 

The Priestly History 97 

the Lord has required of us we will do and we will be obedient." 
Then Moses took the remaining blood and sprinkled it on the people, 
saying, "Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made 
with you in accordance with all these words." In this case the 
sacrificial blood in a solemn ceremony not only confirms the people 
in their vows, but it symbolizes the binding nature of the agreement 
because it portrays the close relationship with God. The same blood 
was thrown against the altar as was sprinkled upon the people. 

We are now in a position to understand the importance of the 
wilderness period in Israel's life. At the beginning of this section three 
different ways in which the wanderings in the wilderness are used by 
later writers were summarized. Yet far more important than these, 
we have now observed, is the Israelite belief that in the wilderness 
their forefathers became a people. Later Israel had no way of under- 
standing itself apart from that relationship to God, which depicted 
the meaning of their innermost life as involving a relationship, a 
relationship involving both grace and obligation. Grace to be seen 
in the undeserved acts of goodness on God's part, particularly in his 
saving work and in his desire to be the lord of his people; obligation 
in the people's understanding of themselves as servants of their ruler. 
Their nation was thus a small "kingdom" in which God was the true 
lord, and the fortunes of this nation could be described in personal 
terms as involving matters of loyalty toward the ruler. The concep- 
tion of covenant, in other words, provided the whole setting for the 
language of the faith and for the people's understanding of themselves. 
Furthermore, the particular type of covenant that lies behind the 
Israelite understanding of society, namely the suzerainty treaty, was 
a proper one to depict the true relation between God and people as 
established in the exodus. It was a relation founded in the first 
instance not on legal obligation but out of an undeserved act of 
God in salvation. Legal obligation was always qualified, therefore, 
by a relationship involving love and affection, whereas sin became 
all the more a felt reality because it was a form of infidelity. The 
biblical community, as a result, was always more than an organization 
of people; it was an organism. And this portrayal of the true meaning 
of peoplehood under God is continued into the New Testament by 
a variety of languages, all depicting the same inner relationship, as 
it was re-established and renewed in a fresh way in Christ. We hear, 
for example, of "the family of Christ," "the household of faith," the 

98 The Book of the Acts of God 

"fellowship," the "body of Christ, 95 Hie "little flock," "a vine with 
its branches," etc. Family, household, and feEowship all point to a 
community of people knit together not primarily by human structures 
of organization, but by an inner mutuality of spirit that came with 
the common worship and a common union with the head of the 
community. In the case of the biological metaphors, the vine and the 
body, the inner vitality of the organism is still more vividly expressed; 
Christ is the life of the body or its head; he is the vine itself while 
the people are the branches. Branches are able to live only so long 
as they are related to the vine, while members of the body have 
meaning only so far as they are organically connected and receive 
their function from the body. The biblical community, therefore, was 
conceived of as an assembly in fellowship with God and with one 
another. It was a gathered people, a congregation before its lord, 
one which existed in and by its head. This is a conception, originally 
visualized in the early days of Israel under the idea of covenant, 
which distinguished Israel from all other people and was ultimately 
to make the Church such an unusual and unique institution in the 


The Deuteronomic History of 
Israel in Her Land 

As WE open the Book of Deuteronomy we read the 
introduction to a remarkable history of Israel in Palestine extending 
through Joshua, Judges, I-II Samuel, and I-II Kings. This history 
was written under a unified plan and theological perspective in which 
the Book of Deuteronomy itself served as the introduction furnishing 
the theological viewpoint by which the history was written. The 
editor of this great work collected the various traditions, selected 
from them, edited and revised them in order to present a compre- 
hensive and unified account of the history of his people from the 
final days of Moses and the gift of the land to the fall of Jerusalem. 
In the Book of Joshua the editor composed rather freely from old 
traditions, whereas in Judges and I-II Samuel he inserts large blocks 
of material which he has taken from older sources. In I-II Kings 
the historian has had to do much more free composition, though 
he is able to draw constantly from older sources now lost to us; 
indeed, he often refers the reader to them if they wish to have more 
information about this or that person. In other words, our editor is 
the author of a historical work which made use of various and 
sundry traditional materials according to a well-thought-out plan. 

The clue to the author's plan is in the Book of Deuteronomy itself. 
This book is presented to us as a series of addresses by Moses, given 
to Israel on the other side of the Jordan shortly before his death. 
In earlier passages dealing with the covenant and with the law, God 
is represented as speaking directly to Moses or to the people, but in 
this book God is not speaking directly; Moses is speaking. As 
Deuteronomy 1:5 puts it, "Moses undertook to explain this law," 


100 The Book of the Acts of God 

meaning that this is a Mosaic exposition of the covenant faith. 
Furthermore, we are not to assume that the book contains a verbatim 
report of what Moses said. It is an interpretation and exposition of 
the Mosaic faith. Moses is represented as the teacher of Israel, who 
expounds the faith. Yet this is a liturgical and literary or teaching 
device. It was not meant to be taken as implying Mosaic authorship 
of the book itself. The material in the book originally arose, it now 
seems evident, in an old covenant renewal ceremony, celebrated year 
by year in the area of ancient Shechem in north-central Palestine. 
Its type of exposition was a means whereby the faith was taught in 
certain religious circles in north Israel. The core of the book, con- 
sisting probably of most of Chapters 5-28, may well have been 
rescued from the ruins of northern Israel after its destruction by the 
Assyrians in 721 B.C. It was stored in the Jerusalem temple, was 
found and evidently read to King Josiah in 622 B.C., with the resulting 
reform of the religious life of Judah (II Kings 22-23). For Josiah 
it was a marvelous restatement of the old covenant theology of early 
Israel, a theology that had largely been forgotten. 

The first address is a historical summary of the exodus events in 
Chapters 1-3, and a statement of the implications for Israel's faith 
which can be drawn from these events (Chapter 4). These chapters 
may well have been appended to the book as an introduction to the 
whole history of Israel in Palestine. That is, they are more than an 
introduction to Deuteronomy; they are an introduction to the whole 
Deuteronomic history. 

The older document began in Chapter 4:44 and continues in 
Chapter 5 with the statement of the covenant that God had made 
with Israel and the presentation of the Ten Commandments as a 
summary of God's requirements in the covenant. Chapters 6-11 then 
continue with a series of sermons on the meaning of the covenant, 
particularly of the first two commandments, for the life of the people. 
It may be noted in Chapter 5:22 and verse following that a clear 
distinction is made between the Decalogue and other laws which 
Israel knows. At the sacred mountain which is here called Horeb, 
but in other sources (J, P) may be called Sinai, it is affirmed that 
Israel heard God's voice. And the result of the hearing of the voice 
was the Ten Commandments: ". . . and he added no more." In other 
words, among the various laws which Israel has, only the Decalogue 
can be interpreted as being the primary will of God which he has 
directly revealed. All other laws are important perhaps for com- 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 101 

munity life, but the primary will of God as expressed in the Decalogue 
has authority over them all. These commandments were taken over 
later by the Christian Church, and the latter has always considered 
them a valid summary of God's will for human worship and moral 

Yet if one were to summarize the whole meaning of the covenant 
in even shorter form, what would he say? Chapter 6:4-5 presents 
such a summary. God is one, not many. Therefore, the people must 
not have a divided loyalty; the focus of their religious attention 
must be single. And they must love God with heart and soul and 
might. The heart was believed to be the seat of the mind and the 
will; the "soul" is actually the mysterious vitality that makes one 
alive and gives him vigor, according to biblical thought. Verse 5 
maintains, then, that one must love God with his whole being 
with mind and will, with vitality and strength. If one does this, then 
he will possess no divided loyalty and he will obey God because he 
loves him. This verse is repeatedly used in the New Testament, 
together with Leviticus 19:18, as the adequate summary of the will 
of God and of the teaching of Israel's law and prophets (Matthew 

One emphasis, then, in the theology of Deuteronomy is the 
intense and all-absorbing loyalty Israel owes to God* No easy toler- 
ance is to be permitted, because Israel lives in the midst of a world 
filled with idol worship. Yet there is no god like the Lord of Israel; 
"There is no other besides him" (Chapter 4:35). The whole order 
of life in Israelite society rests upon the complete, unwavering, and 
unquestioning loyalty to him who has brought the nation into being. 

Furthermore, the loyalty which Israel owes to God in the covenant 
furnishes the context hi which her possession of the Promised Land 
is understood. Deuteronomy actually presents the conditions upon 
which Israel is to remain hi possession of the land which she has 
been given. Repeatedly it is affirmed that a law must be kept in order 
that the land may not be defiled with sin and that there be no evil 
in the midst of the community. If land and covenant are violated, 
then it may be expected that, as God's punishment, it will furnish 
them difficulty and will ultimately be taken away. What God gave 
he can also take away. This conception is so central a Deuteronomic 
point of view that it becomes the presupposition of the whole history 
of Israel in her land. The order of life which Deuteronomy commands 
was thus presented as truly demanding a decision, one between life 

102 The Book of the Acts of God 

and death (Chapter 30:155.). There is about the book, therefore, 
a somber and terrible earnestness, for the issues involved in this 
covenant theology are too great to be treated lightly. The land was 
God's marvelous and undeserved gift, but it was a holy gift which 
demanded a definite covenant decision and unqualified loyalty to the 
giver. The books which follow in the Deuteronomic history present 
the story of what happened to Israel as evaluated in the light of this 
covenant theology. 


The Books of Joshua and Judges present the story of how 
Israel obtained the land and what happened when the people settled 
in it. The Promised Land came into Israel's possession only after it 
was seized by force in hard fighting. Yet even after the conquest 
was over, the settlement of the land was a most difficult task because 
of the people who still remained in it as pockets of resistance and 
because of outside invaders who were always ready to move into 
areas of weakness. The two books before us give us not only the 
story but also a religious interpretation of its meaning. 

Let us first examine the Book of Joshua with its description of 
the conquest. This book is divided into two main parts: (1) Chapters 
1-12, the siege of Palestine, and (2) Chapters 13-22, the parceling 
out of the land to the various tribes. The final chapters (23-24) 
present sermonic material spoken supposedly by Joshua. In Chapter 
23 the Deuteronomic historian who is responsible for this whole 
section of material uses the form of an address to summarize, as 
was done in the Book of Deuteronomy, the whole meaning of Israel's 
history. The land is God's conditional gift, contingent upon obedient 
loyalty to the covenant. In Chapter 24 there is preserved what was 
originally an older document. This describes a covenant ceremony 
which took place in central Palestine at the ancient town of Shechem, 
between the mountains of Ebal and GerMm. The conquest was over 
and the tribes were gathered to renew the vows taken by their ancestors 
at Sinai. It is now commonly believed that on this occasion a number 
of the groups of people which had not participated in the deliverance 
from Egypt or in the original Sinai covenant under the leadership of 
Moses were accepted into the fellowship of the covenant society. In 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 103 

this manner the exodus and the Sinai traditions became the normative 
elements of the faith of all Israel. They played a very important role 
in uniting under one faith a people which by this time had a rather 
conglomerate background. In the Shechem ceremony Joshua recounts 
the history of the marvelous dealings with Israel up to that time, and 
in the solemn renewal of vows which followed he made very clear 
what the implications of the history were for the people's present 
and future life in their land. 

It will be noted again how the historical confession which Joshua 
gives at the beginning of the covenant ceremony is centered around 
the three major events of Israel's national life: (1) God's election 
and guidance of the fathers of the nation and his promises to them; 
(2) his deliverance of the nation from slavery; and (3) his gift 
of "a land for which ye did not labor" (verse 13). Here as hi other 
confessions in both the Old and New Testaments the references to 
the conquest of Canaan indicate that to biblical people it was con- 
sidered to be one of the great acts of God's goodness. The two 
questions which we should now ask are these: first, what is the 
historical background of the events herein described? and second, 
how are they interpreted theologically, that is, how can a terrible 
war of conquest be considered a gracious deed of God? 

Regarding the historical question, we may say that the Book of 
Joshua implies that in a series of campaigns by Joshua the whole 
land was completely subjugated and possessed by Israel. In Judges, 
Chapter 1, however, we discover that Israel is still fighting and that 
the fighting seems to be done by the various individual tribes who 
were attempting to possess their land. In attempting to harmonize 
these two seemingly conflicting bodies of material, we should say 
first that the complete subjugation of the country took a long time, 
probably over 300 years, since it was not completed until the reign 
of David in the early tenth century B.C. Nevertheless the work of 
archaeologists has indicated that a number of cities suffered severe 
destruction between 1250 and 1200 B.C., whereas between 1200 and 
about 1025 B.C. the ruins indicate one of the most disturbed periods 
in Palestinian history, when new towns were being founded all over 
the hill country and both they and the older cities were destroyed 
as many as four times within less than two centuries. We may 
reasonably infer, therefore, that there was a violent campaign of 
conquest on Joshua's part which took place during the second half 
of the thirteenth century and reduced the power of the Canaanite 

104 The Book of the Acts of God 

city-states so that there could no longer be organized opposition. 
Yet when the individual tribes and clans of Israel attempted to settle 
in the land there were still pockets of resistance, since there were 
still certain major cities left unconquered. Furthermore, outsiders 
continually attempted to press in and take what they could from an 
unorganized people. Thus while through the Books of Joshua and 
Judges we look back at the ancient events through the mists of 
tradition, we can nevertheless see that the tradition rests on solid 
historical fact. 

The first time that the name "Israel" is mentioned in sources out- 
side the Bible is in the annals of Pharoah Memeptah, about 1220 B.C. 
He tells of the defeat of a number of cities in Asia, particularly in 
Palestine, and lists also the people of Israel among those defeated. 
The claim was undoubtedly exaggerated, but it does indicate that by 
his time Israel was a known people already established in their 
homeland. Furthermore, a large amount of information from archae- 
ological work in Palestine points to the same conclusion. The peoples 
of Edom and Moab on the other side of the Jordan, around whom 
Israel had to go because permission to travel through their territories 
was denied, were not established in their cities until the thirteenth 
century. This we know from the exploration of hundreds of ancient 
sites. Palestine proper was organized into a number of city-states, 
each of which was independent under its own king, though all gave 
nominal allegiance to the Egyptian kings. The particular number and 
situation of these city-states in the Book of Joshua points to the 
thirteenth century and not to an earlier period. Certain of the cities 
excavated in Palestine, for example, Bethel, twelve miles north of 
Jerusalem, Lachish and Debir in the lowlands of Judah, and the great 
city of Hazor, the capital of Galilee these were all Canaanite city- 
states which Joshua destroyed; and their ruins as excavated present 
a vivid witness to the violence of the destruction. And the date in 
each case is in the middle or second half of the thirteenth century. 

The biblical story begins with the conquest of Jericho and Ai 
(Chapters 6-8). Jericho is in the Jordan Valley, a site guarding the 
major pass leading up into the hill country just north of Jerusalem, 
whereas Ai is in the hills some twelve miles north of Jerusalem. 
In this way Israel secured a foothold in the central hill country 
without attempting to take Jerusalem, because that city was entirely 
too strong. Indeed, it was not taken until the time of David, who 
made it his capital. This initial phase of the conquest, however, 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 105 

causes historians some difficulty. The reason is that both Jericho 
and Ai were great mounds of ruins in the time of Joshua. Jericho 
probably had upon it a fort, that is, a small settlement with a small 
fortification. Ai, on the other hand, was a ruin (indeed, the name 
means "ruin") of a great city which existed there during the third 
millennium B.C. but was destroyed somewhere around 2400 B.C. 
We know from excavation, however, that the neighboring city of 
Bethel, which had replaced Ai as the major city of its area, was 
violently destroyed in Joshua's time, though it was immediately 
reoccupied by the Israelites. Consequently, we may assume that the 
great story of the conquest of Bethel was transferred later, as people 
told it from one generation to another, to the neighboring ruin. In 
the case of Jericho we do not have sufficient evidence to give explana- 
tion for the whole narrative regarding its capture. It was the first 
major city established in Palestine, as far as we know, about 5000 B.C. 
During the fifth millennium, and again during the third millennium, 
it was a leading city of the country. Similarly, during the seventeenth 
and sixteenth centuries it was heavily occupied and fortified. It was 
then violently destroyed and only a small settlement existed on the 
site in the fourteenth century until sometime before or after 1300 B.C., 
precisely when is not clear. 

The second phase of the conquest begins in Chapter 9, when a 
group of four cities (the Hivite cities), headed by Gibeon, secured 
a covenant with Joshua and were included in Israel without destruc- 
tion. A coalition of five kings, headed by the King of Jerusalem, then 
attacked Gibeon because of that covenant. Joshua came to the rescue, 
defeated the coalition, and proceeded against one city after another 
along the Judean lowlands, after which Hebron in the center of 
Judah was easily taken. This campaign makes excellent geographical 
sense, and took place probably not far from the period around 
1225-20 B.C. The third phase of the conquest had to do with the 
successful Galilean campaign in the North (Chapter 11). None of the 
great cities was destroyed, however, except Hazor, a vast city of 
some 40,000 inhabitants we now know from recent excavations, 
indeed one of the greatest cities of western Asia, the capture of 
which by Joshua during the second half of the thirteenth century is 
to be inferred from the ruins of the city about that time. 

If one examines a map of Palestine, it will be noted that Joshua's 
campaign, as described above, says nothing about his having to 
conquer north-central Palestine, the area of which Shechem was the 

106 The Book of the Acts of God 

capital and in which Shiloh, where the tabernacle was erected, was 
situated. Yet in Joshua 24 all the tribes are gathered together in that 
territory for the covenant ceremony. Scholars infer from this that 
the Shechem.area may already have been in the hands of a group 
of Hebrews with whom Joshua simply had to make an alliance since 
they were closely related. If this is the case, we can understand why 
it was that Joshua had to do no fighting in the area, and also why 
the great ceremony by which a united Israel came into being was 
instituted in this place. Indeed, the evidence that we have suggests 
that this ceremony was remembered and repeated at Shechem in 
yearly ceremonies thereafter, and it was from these ceremonies that 
much of the material in the present book of Deuteronomy was derived 
in later times. 

Israel interpreted the success of the conquest as a sign that the 
power of God was directing the events in Israel's behalf. A new land 
was not Israel's by natural right of possession. It was God's land, 
and he gave it to Israel as a gift that the people might have a place 
to live in security from slavery. 

This point of view had extremely important consequences for the 
life of Israel. Since the land was God's, it was parceled out to the 
clans by lot. People at this time and later (see Acts 1:26) believed 
that the casting of lots was not a matter of mere chance: rather it 
was God who decided how the lot fell. Consequently, parceling out 
of the land by lot was actually believed to be God's decision as to 
which groups of people should live in what places on his land. The 
chief form of property and the means of production was the land. 
This being the case, God's concern was believed to be that every 
person should have equal access to the land. Consequently, God says 
in the law: "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land 
is mine" (Leviticus 25:23). That is, speculation in land and the 
taking advantage of the less able members of the community for the 
purpose of piling up large estates was believed to be sin. If a piece 
of land was to be sold for one reason or another, the clan was to 
have the right of redeeming it in order to keep it within the group. 
Every fiftieth year was (later at least) established as the jubilee year 
in which all land was to revert to the original families or clans 
(Leviticus 25:8-17). It is doubtful whether this legal provision was 
ever observed. Nevertheless, there was in Israel a deep and radical 
interest in the poor and the weak, and the whole effort in the economic 
life was to provide for their welfare. The weakness and the poverty 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 107 

of some, it was felt, should never be the occasion for profit on the 
part of the strong. No interest was to be charged on a loan because 
the poor man who needed help was to be aided in a neighborly way; 
his need was not to be made into an occasion for profit. The means 
of production were owned by God, and the people should use them 
as stewards in the service of one another. Later on in the prophets we 
shall hear it claimed that inasmuch as the people have not been 
good stewards in the use of the land, God is about to take it away 
from them. 

The most severe problem with which the Book of Joshua faces 
us is the problem of God and war. The conquest of Canaan was 
believed by Israel to be conducted by God himself, and consequently 
the success of the war was credited solely to his power. God's pur- 
posive and powerful activity in history is here affirmed in a vivid 
way. Israel at the time of the conquest and throughout the period of 
the judges believed in such a thing as holy war. That was a special 
institution with special customs and laws governing the practice of it. 
In holy war God was believed to be the leader who would give the 
people the victory, provided that they followed him without any 
hesitation or lack of faith and with complete obedience to his will 
and law. The human leader was one whom God chose for the task, 
but the number of warriors was unimportant since God was the 
leader (see, for example, the story of Gideon in Judges 7). In holy 
war the booty of the enemy was the property of God; as regards the 
cities taken in the land of Canaan, no spoil was to be allowed; Israel 
was to gain nothing from the war except a place in which to live. 
The booty of the enemy was tinder the ban and was to be completely 
destroyed as a holocaust to God in order that the land might be 
purified and readied for new occupation. No human being was to 
enrich himself by keeping any enemy property in his own possession; 
the story of Achan in Joshua 7 is an illustration. The war was for 
God's ends and not for the benefit of any individual. Yet in the case 
of the conquest this ban against the talcing of booty and the offering 
of all to God was extended to the pagan peoples in possession of the 
land. There were to be no captives whatsoever. 

One of the age-old questions which people have had concerning 
the Book of Joshua is this: How is it possible to believe in the 
goodness of God and at the same time to affirm his role of com- 
mander in chief in the horrible blood bath of the conquest of Canaan? 
The Book of Deuteronomy contains a considerable amount of mate- 

108 The Book of the Acts of God 

rial that has been preserved from the old institution of holy war. 
The one passage in the Old Testament which attempts to deal with 
the question of God and war in this connection is Deuteronomy 
9:1-6, There Israel is told that the conquest has been carried out 
by God, not because Israel is more righteous than anyone else. In 
fact, just the opposite is the case; Israel has been a stiif-necked and 
rebellious people since the time God first chose them. In the biblical 
point of view wars exist because of human sin, and God uses human 
agents to accomplish his purposes in history. When he does so, he 
does not add up the degrees of righteousness which his agent 
possesses. The agent is sinful, but nevertheless God uses it for his 
purpose. In Deuteronomy 6 it is affirmed that God is doing what he 
does in the conquest for two reasons: (1) because of the wickedness 
of the Canaanites and (2) because of his promises to the fathers of 
Israel. Now we know not only from the Bible but from many outside 
sources as well that the Canaanite civilization and religion was one 
of the weakest, most decadent, and most immoral cultures of the 
civilized world at that time. It is claimed, then, that Israel is God's 
agent of destruction against a sinful civilization, for in the moral 
order of God civilizations of such flagrant wickedness must be 
destroyed. On the other hand, God has a purpose in the choosing 
of Israel and in giving her a land, a purpose stated in the promises 
to the fathers of Israel in Genesis. All this does not mean that Israel 
as God's agent is free of her responsibility. Later on the prophets 
saw God using foreign agents as the instruments of his punishment 
for sinful Israel; yet in time the agents also suffered judgment for 
their sin (see Isaiah 10:5fL). In other words, God has a purpose 
of universal redemption in the midst of and for a sinful world. He 
makes even the wars and fightings of men serve his end. In the case 
of Israel, his purpose as expressed in the patriarchal promises coin- 
cided at the moment of the conquest with the terrible iniquity of 
Canaan. It was a great thing for Israel that she got her land; it was 
also a sobering thing because with it went the great responsibility 
and the danger of judgment. It was likewise a great thing for the 
Canaanites in the long run. Between 1300 and 1100 B.C. Israel took 
away from them the hill country of Palestine, while the incoming 
Aramaeans took away the whole of eastern Syria. The remnant of 
the people was confined to the Syrian coast around Tyre and Sidon 
and further north. After 1100 B.C., they began to develop one of 
the most remarkable trading empires in the world (the Greeks called 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 109 

them Phoenicians). Their colonies were spread all over the Medi- 
terranean world, much to the benefit of that world; and this was done, 
not by conquest, but solely by the peaceful means of trading. 

But did God actually tell Joshua to carry on such terrible slaughter, 
involving even the defenseless elements of the population? It is rather 
difficult for a Christian to understand how God could be responsible 
for such a slaughter. From the biblical perspective we may perhaps 
frame an answer somewhat as follows: In the context of human sin 
wars and conflicts occur. But God has not withdrawn from the world 
to heaven. He is not defeated by human sin; even this he uses for 
his own ends. Unless he did we would have nothing in this earth 
for which to hope. Yet to say that God is in control, even of our 
wars and cruelty, does not mean that he is responsible for the way 
in which men carry them on. It is not God's fault that the Ameri- 
cans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Yet no Christian can 
assume that God had no interest whatsoever in how the last war 
was to turn out. Two things must be held together in tension here: 
one is God's control and direction of history to his own ends, and 
the other is the terrible sin of man for which he is responsible. If 
we view the conquest in this ligftt, then the Christian may say that 
God was "fighting for Israel," though his own purposes were larger 
than Israel understood at that moment. The sovereign goodness of 
God and the freedom of man must both be affirmed in a biblical 
understanding of theism. God is thus not responsible for man's 

The editor of the Book of Judges characterizes the twelfth and 
eleventh centuries as a time when there was no king in Israel and 
every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Chapter 21:25) . 
Israel in possession of the land is now faced with the problem of 
settling down to a new mode of life. The great crises of the past 
are over; the people look forward to security. Yet the period of the 
judges is one of straggle, oppression by various enemy invaders, low 
moral and religious standards. Various groups of pagan peoples have 
been left in the land as a snare to Israel (Judges 2:3). In the 
attempt to possess the land and to hold it securely, battle after battle 
had to be fougfrt in almost every part of the country. In such a 
situation spontaneous leadership rises out of the midst of the people 
to deal with the crises. This is the type of material with which the 
editor of Judges deals. His theological interpretation of the events 
of the age is clearly set forth in Chapter 2. In order to present his 

110 The Book of the Acts of God 

case clearly he has made the various wars and oppressions appear 
to have followed one another, whereas in point of fact many of them 
seem to have occurred simultaneously in the various parts of the 
country. Nevertheless, the editor makes his point forcefully, and the 
old hero tales of the pre-monarchial time are made to serve his 
purpose very well indeed. 

To the editor the events of the time are a perfect illustration of 
a cycle which is repeated over and over: idolatry and punishment by 
an oppressor followed by repentance and salvation by a leader whom 
God raised up. To the editor the security of Israel lay solely in the 
covenant and in entire loyalty to her lord. Yet the pagan attractions 
were subtle and alluring. This was particularly true of the pagan gods 
who were so easily worshiped. The Canaanite gods especially prom- 
ised so much, made so few demands, and were so conveniently 
followed, while allowing the people to indulge themselves largely as 
they pleased. That appears to be the way with the idols which man 
creates; they are projections of his own desires. Yet the more Israel 
turned to idols, the weaker became the covenant bond which held 
the people together. The Lord of the covenant made the people one; 
when they turned from him and from his covenant they were no 
longer a people but a group of tribes, each going its own way. Such 
a situation created an interior weakness in Israel, which made her 
easy prey to any invader or marauder. When she repented of her 
error, she was again drawn together by a leader whom God had 
chosen for the occasion. Idolatry was divisive and destructive, and 
the interior weakness which invited oppression became the subject 
of the historian's theology. The Book of Judges, then, presents the 
real problem of Israel: the problem of living within a covenant apart 
from which there is no security. It is also preparatory to the next 
event: the establishment of a king as an attempted answer to this 


In Acts 13:16 and verses following the early Church has 
presented us with an account of the first recorded sermon of the 
apostle Paul, one which was given in a synagogue at Antioch in 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 111 

Fisidia (a region of Asia Minor). He begins as did the Israelites of 
old by making a public confession of the great acts of God in the 
history of his people. After making mention of the three chief events 
in the formation of the nation of Israel (the choice of the fathers, 
the deliverance from bondage, and the gift of the land), he speaks 
of the people desiring a king. Thereupon God gave them Saul as 
king for a time, he continues, but later removed him and raised up 
David, a man after GocFs own heart. From this point the apostle 
jumps immediately to Jesus (verse 23), saying that from the seed 
of David "God according to Ms promise raised unto Israel a Savior, 
Jesus." Both here and in the other sermons in Acts it is evident 
that the early Church understood the most important part of the 
history of the former times to be that from Abraham to David. 
Immediately thereafter the meaning of Jesus' life, death, and resur- 
rection are described. The history between David and Jesus is consid- 
ered notable only as a history of the people's sin in the midst of 
which God sent his words of judgment and of promise by his prophets. 
Jesus Christ is the direct continuation of the great acts of God from 
Abraham througft David and the fulfillment of the promises made 
through the prophets. To understand how this point of view was 
achieved and what it meant, it is necessary to review something of 
the meaning of David and of the office of kingship which he held 
in Israel. 

During the period of the judges the political organization of Israel 
differed radically from that of all other peoples around her. The 
latter were organized under a monarchy, the king having more or 
less absolute powers in ruling the people. Israel's king was God 
himself. In the covenant God ruled the people directly. During the 
period of the judges the tribes were bound together by a sacred 
compact around their central sanctuary at Shiloh where the ark of 
the covenant was kept. This sacred object symbolized the presence 
of God in the people's midst and the covenant compact in which 
they acknowledged him as their ruler. In time of trouble God would 
raise up a temporary leader (called a "judge") to deal with the 
situation. When peace was restored, the leader's job was finished. 
The covenant faith was that God would lead and protect his people 
provided that they obeyed htm and kept their vows to do his will. 

As we look back upon the situation, the faith of this people at 
that time is simply amazing. They had been taught, and the best 
among them wholeheartedly believed, that this type of political 

112 The Book of the Acts of God 

organization would succeed if only the people were faithful. God 
was their lord; he had said that he would lead and defend them, 
and they had no doubt whatsoever that he meant what he said. So 
they took him at his word. But there was the problem of sin, of 
faithlessness, and of covenant breaking. The result was insecurity, 
hardship, and anarchy, interpreted as the judgment of God upon 
their faithlessness. Meanwhile by the time of Samuel in the eleventh 
century B.C. one of their enemies, the Philistines, had become so 
strong as to threaten to make all of Palestine into a Philistine state. 
After the battle of Ebenezer in which Israel was soundly defeated 
and the ark captured (I Samuel 4), Philistine garrisons were sta- 
tioned throughout the central hill country of Israel and a tight control 
was established over Israel's whole life. No Israelite was allowed to 
practice the trade of smith, for example, for fear the Hebrews might 
be able to make themselves swords and spear points for military 
rearmament. Instead each Israelite farmer had to take even his agri- 
cultural tools down to Philistine country along the southern coastal 
plain in order to get them sharpened and repaired and he was 
charged exorbitant prices for the work! (I Samuel 13:19-21). 

This was the situation in which the Hebrews found themselves by 
the second half of the eleventh century B.C. The elders of the people 
decided that the only solution to the problem was to reorganize their 
political life under a monarchy. Two accounts of the founding of 
the monarchy seem to have been preserved and placed together in 
Chapters 8 and 9 respectively. The latter is a simple story about Saul 
looking for some lost asses. Hearing about Samuel, he thinks that 
man of God may have some superhuman means of telling where the 
animals are. Meanwhile God has spoken to the prophet-priest, 
Samuel, about him and has indicated his plan to save Israel from 
her enemies by selecting a king. 

The first account in Chapter 8 is not primarily a story, but a 
prophetic evaluation of the situation and of the meaning of Israel's 
desire to have a king. When Samuel warns the people concerning 
the nature of their future king in verses 11-17, he actually describes 
the nature of Solomon's reign. It is probable, therefore, that the 
writer of this chapter lived sometime after the reign of Solomon. 
That does not mean, however, that Samuel did not feel or say any 
of the things here expressed. It is not at all improbable, but indeed 
highly likely, that Samuel, together with a number of the more pious 
religious people of the country, felt that the institution of the mon- 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 113 

archy was a dangerous innovation made in the stress of an emergency 
and in imitation of pagan customs. According to this view God 
grants the people's request for a Icing, but it is his concession to 
their weakness and his desire to give them still another chance to 
serve him faithfully. This chapter, then, though written later than 
the time of Samuel, is very probably an interpretation of the whole 
institution of the monarchy which was strongly held by a number of 
people in the nation both in the time of Samuel and later. In this 
view the Philistine menace brought a crisis in sovereignty. It was not 
Samuel whom the people were rejecting. In a deeper sense it was 
God himself. Samuel would continue as the spiritual leader of the 
nation, but the executive political functions would be taken over by 
a king. Yet how could a human being be king when God was king? 
That was the real religious issue. The people were faced with a 
desperate situation, and they simply felt that the old covenant organ- 
ization was insufficient to cope with it. They saw as their only hope 
a new type of organization like that of the other peoples of the day. 
Samuel, on the other hand, saw the real issue as sin and faith- 
lessness. In that condition no human king could permanently solve 
their problem. Nevertheless, God accommodated himself to the wishes 
of the people. His word to Samuel was to give them a king, though 
he warned them of the radical changes that would be made in 
their lives. 

How was the new office to be filled and what was its function? 
God himself was believed to have elected the king, and the latter was 
inducted into his office by the sacred rite of anointing with oil. This 
rite was one used in worship by the priests. The oil was specially 
prepared according to a certain formula which was not to be imitated 
or used for any other purpose (Exodus 30:22-32). It was a specially 
consecrated holy oil. When poured upon the priests and the various 
objects used in worship, it rendered them "cleansed" and ready for 
the service of God (Exodus 40:9-15; Leviticus 8:10-13, 30). In 
our Protestant churches we no longer have anything like it. A similar 
conception still survives, however, in the holy water of Catholic and 
high Episcopal churches. This water has been consecrated; it is no 
longer like ordinary water; it has a special sacred function of 

This rite of anointing was used for the king. When the king was 
anointed, it meant that he was set apart from other people. His 
person was sacred. He had a special relationship with God. For this 

114 The Book of the Acts of God 

reason when Saul was attempting to capture David, David refused 
to harm a hair of his head when he had the opportunity to do so 
(see I Samuel 24:6, 10; 26:9-23). Consequently, while the ruler 
was simply called "the king" or "the King of Israel" in ordinary 
secular speech, he had another title in theological usage. That was 
"the anointed of the Lord." The Hebrew word for "anointed" is 
messiah; thus the King of Israel was God's Messiah (meaning simply 
his "anointed"). 

Hence the king was selected by God and especially consecrated 
for his office. The functions of his office were also fixed by God. 
They were to provide and to administer justice within the realm and 
to gain security from outward enemies. The king was to be God's 
executive officer on earth; indeed he could be called God's "son" 
(II Samuel 7:14; Psalms 2:7). Yet he could never have the abso- 
lute power over the people which other kings of the day had. God 
had given the law to the people as a whole. He had not given it to 
the king, and the latter could not take credit for it, as kings did in 
other countries. His job was only to administer the law. The 
government was thus a constitutional monarchy, and the basic 
freedoms of the people were protected by God against the encroach- 
ments of royal power (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20; note the inci- 
dents of David and Bathsheba in II Samuel 11-12, and of Ahab 
and Naboth in I Kings 21). The prophets, therefore, possessed a 
freedom of speech to denounce the king in the name of God, a free- 
dom such as has existed in few places in history before modern times 
(note Nathan against David, Elijah against Ahab, Isaiah against 
Ahaz, Jeremiah against JehoiaMm and Zedekiah). 

How did the institution of kingship work out? Did it provide the 
security and the justice which had been hoped for by the people? 
For a hundred years the answer must be generally affirmative. Saul 
had some fine political successes, but he seems to have possessed a 
certain instability of character. This instability was in strong contrast 
to the completely uncompromising and unbending character of 
Samuel. Consequently, the two soon broke off relations, and Saul 
was left an isolated figure without religious backing. His instability 
took the form of virtual insanity in his attitude toward David. He 
spent a large amount of his time trying to capture David until his 
hold upon political power was greatly weakened and he had lost the 
support of many of his people. He and his son Jonathan met their 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 115 

death in an unsuccessful battle with the Philistines, who were still 
hoping to gain control of the whole country. 

David was a completely different figure. Attractive, engaging, 
brilliant, exceedingly clever, an adroit politician, he was an astute 
judge of men and kept himself surrounded with exceedingly able 
administrators even when he did not like them personally. A case 
in point is Joab, the general of the standing army. Time after time 
he rescued the kingdom from disaster and undid the errors of David. 
He was completely loyal to David, yet a blunt, direct man who either 
did not understand or did not always sympathize with David's 
adroit and often complex, occasionally underhanded, political ma- 
neuvering. David therefore seems to have come to dislike him, but 
for some reason he never got rid of him. This dislike occasioned one 
of the final and completely ungracious acts of David, when on his 
deathbed he told Solomon to put Joab to death (I Kings 2:5-6), 
Undoubtedly the reason lay in David's conservative religious nature. 
When he was attempting early in his career to unite the people under 
him, he indulged in some secret negotiations with Abner, the strong 
man in the northern section of the country. Joab considered Abner 
a dangerous blackguard and found opportunity to kill him. Yet 
David had evidently given Abner a sworn oath of safety, and from 
that time on David feared that a curse would fall upon his dynasty 
because of this betrayal of a solemn vow. He attempted to lay the 
blame on Joab (II Samuel 3:6ff.), and finally tried to solve the 
case by having Joab killed. That course, he felt, would relieve his 
successors of the burden of the unexpiated shedding of innocent 

It is difficult to forgive David for many things that he did, not the 
least being the way in which he put Uriah to death in order to get 
Uriah's wife, Bathsheba (II Samuel 11-12). Yet David's life was 
open and well known to all his court. In spite of his failings in 
morality he was loved and followed as was no other man in Israel's 
history. A court biographer wrote the annals of his reign, a large 
part of which are preserved in II Samuel and I Kings 1-2. We know 
David better than any other person in the Old Testament because 
this biographer gives us so much detail. He was a devoted follower, 
and yet he presents a fairly objective picture of his hero so that 
we can see his strength and weaknesses. This above all else must be 
said about David: he sincerely wanted to rule responsibly as the 

116 The Book of the Acts of God 

anointed of the Lord; and when he committed a fault, he was in 
general ready to acknowledge it. Read the story in II Samuel 12, 
What other king in history would have had the grace and humility 
before God to take as he did the prophet's direct accusation: "Thou 
art the man!" Read also his lament over Saul and Jonathan in 
II Samuel 1:17 and verses following a beautiful and moving poem 
which shows a depth of character in David which was part of the 
reason he was so beloved. 

Thus David was "a man after God's own heart," not because he 
was sinless he most certainly was not! but because he was a 
pliable and at heart a sincere person. When in sin, he could repent 
deeply before God, accept Ms punishment without murmur, and 
secure God's forgiveness. He did not possess what the Israelites 
considered to be the root of all sin, a hard, proud, and rebellious 
heart. He sincerely wanted and tried to rule justly as God's servant 
and vicegerent on earth. 

His success, for which he gave all praise to God, was phenomenal 
both in his military victories and in his organization of the realm. 
Vast changes in Israelite life took place during his reign, and at his 
death the nation was greatly altered from what it had been in the 
days of the judges. In the royal court of his time and later, the 
theology of the office of kingship was extended and deepened. A 
number of the psalms which mention the king are believed by 
scholars to have been composed as hymns for use in religious services 
in Jerusalem (such as the royal coronation, marriage, etc.), services 
in which the king was the central figure. Among others Psalms 2, 18, 
45, 72, 89, 101, 110 are examples. The psalms, like our hymns of 
the Christian life, portray the ideal role which the king was to play 
in God's plan. He was to rule until all God's enemies were destroyed; 
he could be said to be seated at God's right hand, and in the day of 
God's kingdom over the whole earth he would be God's ruler to 
provide for safety, wisdom, and justice in the kingdom (see Psalms 
2 and 110). 

Unfortunately, few of the kings measured up to the standard set 
for the office. Solomon was very different from David. He was a 
lover of culture, wealth, and magnificence. He tried hard to put the 
small nation on the cultural map of the world. To do so meant a 
more radical limitation of individual freedom, the imposition of the 
draft for labor battalions, and heavy taxation. At his death the larger 
and more prosperous northern section of the country had had its 

The Deuteronomic History oj Israel in Her Land 117 

fill, and split off from the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem king. Many 
sincere religious people, especially among the prophets, backed this 
move, because they felt that the Jerusalem king had become too 
strong and was threatening to violate completely the old covenant 

In the Books of Kings the editor presents an interpretation of the 
whole history of the divided kingdoms as a story of God's controversy 
with the institution of kingship and with the people who followed 
it blindly. Every king of North Israel is said to have done evil in 
God's sight and to have flouted God's law. Most of the kings of 
Judah are deemed equally culpable. It was these evil kings who more 
than any other "made Israel to sin." Consequently, in seeking their 
own power after the manner of this world and not at all in keeping 
with the purpose of Israel's election, they were actually the enemies 
of God. Just as it had been revealed to Samuel at the beginning of 
the monarchy, kingship was actually to become an attempt to displace 
God as King. 

What now of the promises of God? What of the people's justice 
and security? Had God's plan and purpose for his anointed (Messiah) 
been completely frustrated? Certain of the prophets in Judah who 
were acquainted with the theology of kingship which had been kept 
alive by some circles in Jerusalem were sure that this was not the 
case. When God's new and final day dawned, the darkness of the 
world would be changed to light, and God would send his true 
anointed (Messiah) to sit upon the throne of David. Upon him the 
spirit of God would rest and he would be girded with God's power 
so that he could judge the earth in righteousness and rule all men in 
the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 9; 11; Jeremiah 23:6; 33:15-16; Ezekiel 
37:21-28). Under him the chosen people would finally find safety 
and his dominion would be to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:4; 
Zechariah 9:10). 

Yet in Old Testament times this king did not appear; God's inter- 
vention and the establishment of his universal rule did not come as 
soon as it was expected. Some, at the rebuilding of the temple in 
520 B.C., thought that the ruler Zerubbabel was the Messiah, the 
shoot or branch from the root of David (Haggai 2:23; Zechariah 4), 
but it was not to be. In the New Testament it is Jesus who is seen 
to be the true anointed (the Greek word "Christ" means this and is 
a translation of the term "Messiah"). The Old Testament office of 
God's king is the dominant one used to explain the office of Christ 

118 The Book of the Acts of God 

in the plan of God. In his lifetime he was called the Christ, and after 
his death he was raised to "sit on the right hand of God" and to rule 
the world for God (Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33-36). Jesus Christ is 
the lord to whom all power has been given in heaven and earth; he 
is the hope of Israel, the mediator of the new covenant, of the new 
kingdom, of the new age. 

Yet obviously Christ is not the king which Israel expected. He is 
not an earthly ruler with political power. His is a spiritual kingship 
from heaven. For this reason the Jews could not accept Jesus as the 
Christ. What had happened? Jesus had seen more deeply into the intent 
of God, and he reinterpreted the Old Testament faith in the coming 
Messiah by material in the Old Testament itself: namely, Isaiah 53. 
God's true king was the suffering redeemer who bore the griefs of 
all men. It is thus that Jesus was interpreted as David's true successor. 
He fulfilled the hope of Israel in its king and he became God's 
anointed with dominion over the whole earth. 


(i-n KINGS) 

Now that the system of government in Israel has been 
revolutionized with the introduction of the monarchy under the great 
personality of David, our historian proceeds to describe the proces- 
sion of Israel's kings. His purpose is to interpret Israel's life under 
the monarchy, and his judgment is that the institution was a virtual 
failure. With king after king the historian affirms that he "did evil 
in the sight of the Lord" and led the people to do evil with the result 
that the purpose for which this people was given the land was 
annulled. Nearly 400 years of the nation's life are here summarized 
in brief, and the purpose is to show why the land was taken away 
from the people and why they were scattered among the nations. 
Because Mngs and people were unfaithful to their true ruler, God 
used the events of international history as a means of carrying on a 
controversy with the kings and people until finally they were swal- 
lowed by the empires. What is involved, then, is an attempt to 
understand the life of the chosen people in the midst of the inter- 
national imperialisms. Why did God give the land and then take it 
away? We might say that inasmuch as Palestine is the bridge between 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 119 

Asia and Africa, between the two centers of political power, inevita- 
bly the country is going to be swallowed up by the dominant force 
of the moment. Yet to the Israelite historian this is by no means a 
sufficient explanation. God has made his promises and God does 
not lie. In Israel's involvement among the nations there must be 
observed a righteous and consistent plan of God. For our historian 
it was sufficient to point to the justice of God and affirm his righteous- 
ness even in the downfall of the monarchy. The great prophets whom 
we encounter in this age, beginning with Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah in 
the eighth century, continue to affirm the justice of God but go on to 
say that the end of the state is not the end of the people of God. 
Beyond the current tragedy lies the brilliant future, the end of all 
God's work, and the fulfillment of his promises. History's tragedies are 
not meaningless, even though while the darkness is at hand the future 
is difficult to envisage. Yet Israel must walk through the valley of 
deep shadow in order to enter the door of hope. 

The historian's account of God's controversy with the kings, there- 
fore, is a most remarkable document. God has chosen himself a 
people as his special servant in the world. Yet he allows his people 
to be destroyed and scattered among the nations. This history at- 
tempts to answer the question "why"? That the author succeeded 
in his endeavor is proved by the fact that a people of God survived 
the destruction and built anew, whereas similar destructions hi the 
ancient world customarily meant the end of peoples and their gods, 

The central figures and events emphasized in the Books of Kings 
can be summarized as follows: 

a. Solomon (I Kings 1-11) 

date: 961-922 B.C. 

b. Ahab and Jezebel (I Kings 17-11 Kings 11) 

date: about 869-837 B.C. 

c. The fall of Northern Israel and its sequel in Judah 
(II Kings 15-20) 

date: about 746-700 B.C. 

d. The last days of Judah and Jerusalem (II Kings 21-25) 

date: about 687-587 B.C. 

In describing these various events the historian draws upon various 
sources, several of which he mentions, and some of which he does not 
mention. Through most of the period of the kings, after the division 

120 The Book of the Acts of God 

of the monarchy into two parts, North Israel and Judah, he inter- 
weaves the kings of .the North and the kings of the South. At the be- 
ginning of each he makes a summary statement giving his evaluation 
of the particular king's reign. At the end of the story of each he gives 
further summary data about a king's death and burial, and then adds 
the words: "Now the rest of the acts of X, and all that he did, are 
they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?" 
or "in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?" These 
two books are lost sources which evidently described in some detail 
the reigns of each king. The author here selects just that information 
which serves his evaluative purpose and then adds, in effect, "if you 
want to know more about the details, look up the original sources. 9 * 
Unfortunately, these sources are lost to us and we can only infer what 
was in them. Let us now examine the history in more detail. 

1. Solomon 

Solomon, David's son, reigned from about 961 to 922 B.C. 
He was not a military figure as David had been. The great aim of his 
reign was to consolidate David's conquests and make of Israel one of 
the great and respected nations of the ancient world, if not in size 
then at least in culture. The sources which our historian uses pre- 
serve as the dominant note in the reign of Solomon his desire to be 
considered glorious, "so that none like you has been before you and 
none like you shall arise after you" (I Kings 3:12). His ivory throne 
is said to have been so extraordinary that "the like of it was never 
made in any kingdom" (I Kings 10:20). The story of the Queen of 
Sheba in I Kings 10 gives special emphasis to the lory of Solomon's 
court. Without doubt this queen had arrived in Jerusalem to look 
after her trading interests, because trade with South Arabia was ex- 
tremely lucrative for all concerned. Yet the story as we now have it 
serves to underscore the glory and honor accorded to Solomon. We 
are told that when the queen had heard all that Solomon had to say 
and had seen the splendor of his court and the luxury in which they 
lived, "There was no more spirit in her" the Hebrew way of saying 
that her breath was taken away! She continues, "Your wisdom and 
prosperity surpass the report which I have heard." 

Solomon's great effort was to place the nation of Israel on the 
cultural map of the world. He was a great builder of marvelous build- 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 121 

ings. He extended the old city of David northward in order to provide 
for an elaborate headquarters of government and for a temple to the 
Lord. He built an elaborate palace which took him thirteen years to 
complete, and to it he appended a smaller house for his queen, the 
daughter of Pharaoh of Egypt. Other governmental buildings were of 
unusual construction according to the latest fashions. Up to this 
time Israel had never specialized in the arts of material civilization. 
Consequently, Solomon had to go outside his kingdom for assistance. 
He hired specialists from Hiram, King of Tyre, and also made a com- 
mercial treaty with him so that he could obtain the required raw 
materials for his building project. 

The most famous of his buildings was, of course, his temple. This 
structure was not so large as the palace and other governmental head- 
quarters, but it undoubtedly represented some of the finest workman- 
ship. It was built of carefully hewn stone and lined with cedarwood on 
the interior. The wood was carved and painted with elaborate Phoeni- 
cian designs. In its innermost room, the holy of holies, there was no 
statue of the deity as in pagan temples. There were instead two olive- 
wood cherubim, which were lions with human heads and with wings 
stretched out as though they were about to take flight. They were 
borrowed from a Phoenician art motif, and represented the sides and 
legs of the invisible throne of God. God was believed to be enthroned 
above the cherubim, and their outstretched wings evidently suggested 
to Israel God's omnipresence; that is, God was the living, active 
sovereign, and these mysterious beings were those which carried him 
rapidly from place to place. 

Beautiful as the temple was, however, it raised theological questions 
in Israel. David had not been able to build a temple in Jerusalem be- 
cause it was too radical a departure from old customs (II Samuel 7). 
The sanctuary of God had been a very simple tent (tabernacle). Yet 
simplicity was scarcely the characteristic of the new temple; it was 
built for Israel by pagans, and its symbolism was precisely that used 
in the temple of the gods. From this time forth there arose those in 
Israel who raised questions about the necessity of the temple. In I 
Kings 8 there is a long prayer which Solomon is represented as giving 
at the temple's dedication. In its present form this prayer evidently 
preserves Hie teaching of the school of thought to which our Deuter- 
onomic historian belongs. Thus in verse 27 the question is raised: 
"But will God indeed dwell on earth? Behold, heaven and the highest 

122 The Book of the Acts of God 

heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have 
built!'* In other words, how can the lord of heaven and earth live 
like human beings live in an earthly building? How can that structure 
which is called the "house of God" actually be God's dwelling place, 
when Ms dwelling place is not on earth but in heaven! The priests 
were to solve this problem by a sacramental symbolism and the use 
of a technical language in which it is said that God never really dwelt 
on earth. Yet it is a mark of his extraordinary grace that he has 
chosen to "tent" or "tabernacle" in the midst of his people. How God 
does this In relation to the temple is not stated; it is for the priest a 
mystery of God's grace. For the Deuteronomic school in I Kings 8, 
however, such a solution to the meaning of the temple in relation to 
God is unsatisfactory. A careful reading of that prayer of dedication 
will suggest the theology which they desire to have one accept: that 
is, that God in no sense dwells in the temple; this structure is simply 
the place where his name resides; it is a house of prayer. It is God's 
accommodation to human need, so that when prayer is directed 
toward this central symbol of God's presence among his people, then 
God who is in heaven will hear. In this way, our historian affirms the 
importance of the temple without in any way suggesting that God 
himself was housed in it or that he needed to be fed and served as did 
the pagan gods. 

Solomon's business activities are quite as noteworthy as his architec- 
tural endeavors. He tried to establish himself as a great businessman, 
indeed a middleman in the trade between Africa and Asia. He became 
a purveyor of horses and chariots to the various kings of Syria. One of 
the cities which he rebuilt as a governmental headquarters was the 
city of Megiddo in northern Palestine. There archaeologists have dis- 
covered not only the palace of the local administrator but also stables 
for upward of 500 horses. On the Red Sea there has been excavated 
a great refinery where Solomon, exploiting the copper and iron mines 
south of the Dead Sea, refined the metals for export. 

Solomon also was a great lover of wisdom teaching. Wisdom teach- 
ing was characteristic of various religious cultures. Its form was a 
variety of short epigrammatic sayings which were easily memorized 
and taught. Its interest was not primarily theological, but practical 
and prudential. The Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament is a 
later collection of the type of thing that Solomon originally sponsored 
in his Jerusalem court. As David was considered to be the father of 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 123 

music and psalms, so Salomon was considered the father of the wis- 
dom literature in Israel. As our historian sees him, he "excelled all 
the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And the whole earth 
sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had 
put into his mind" (I Kings 10:23). While the tradition admires Solo- 
mon's glorious reign, the evaluation given it is not favorable. For one 
thing, his fiscal policies laid such a heavy burden of taxation and 
forced labor for the state upon the populace that the freedom-loving 
peoples, particularly of the North, insisted that his son make a radical 
change in policy. When this change was not promised, the kingdom 
was split into two portions. In addition, Solomon's wives and con- 
cubines came in for censure. In order to maintain good relations with 
all of his neighbors the king seems to have made it a policy to marry 
the daughter of every king of western Asia, insofar as he was able. 
Indeed, he is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines! This 
tremendous harem obviously served for purposes of both politics and 
display. It added to his reputation for glory and splendor. Yet in order 
to keep his wives satisfied he had to import their religious cults into 
Jerusalem, and as head of the state he actually took formal part in 
the worship of these gods (I Kings 11). This type of easy, cultured 
tolerance was not in accord with Israelite traditions, and there were 
those in the state who would not put up with it without criticism. For 
this reason our historian gives his final summary of Solomon's reign: 
"So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not 
wholly follow the Lord as David his father had done" (I Kings 11:6). 
As a result, the outlying regions of the Solomonic empire began to 
secure their freedom sometime before his death, and a prophet of 
the Lord even encouraged one Jeroboam, Solomon's director of pub- 
lic works in North Israel, to revolt and divide the kingdom. The divi- 
sion of the kingdom at Solomon's death into two parts, a northern and 
a southern kingdom, is the first stage in the series of catastrophes 
which begin to fall upon the realm of David. It is interpreted as a 
judgment of God upon the policies of King Solomon. 

2. Ahab and Jezebel 

There are forty-seven chapters in the two Books of Kings 
as the material is now arranged. The first eleven of these chapters deal 
with the reign of Solomon, covering a forty-year period from about 

124 The Book of the Acts of God 

961 to 922 B.C. Seventeen of the forty-seven chapters deal with a 
forty-year period from about 875 to 835 B.C. This is the story of 
Ahab and Jezebel, and of Elijah and Elisha, whose lives and times are 
described in I Kings 16:28-11 Kings 11 with a story of a sequel to the 
North Israel events in Jerusalem described in II Kings 12. The amount 
of space given over to the events in this period of the ninth century is 
a testimony both to the wealth of material which survived from that 
age and to the importance with which it was regarded in the nation of 
Israel, or at least by our Deuteronomic historian. 

The fifty-year period between the division of the kingdom after 
Solomon's death and the founding of the dynasty of Omri in North 
Israel is described as one of continual bickering and civil war between 
the two states of North Israel and Judah. Finally, to put an end to 
an impossible situation, the general of the army, a man named Omri, 
seized the throne of Israel about 876 B.C. and set about giving stability 
to his nation. He contracted a mutual assistance treaty with Judah. 
He purchased a new site and began the building of a marvelous new 
capital for the North Israelite kingdom at a place called Samaria. He 
oriented his nation toward Phoenicia, that is, the kingdom of Tyre and 
Sidon. The latter was the greatest international trading power in the 
world of the day. Omri cemented this relationship by marrying his 
son to a young princess of Tyre, a woman named Jezebel. 

The findings of modern archaeologists in uncovering the ancient 
capital of North Israel at Samaria are a most eloquent testimony to 
the work of Omri and his son Ahab at that city. The city fortifications 
which they erected and the palace which they built for themselves are 
perhaps the finest examples of architecture surviving from ancient 
Israel. No fortification was built in ancient Palestine before the time of 
the Romans that excelled the work of these men. At this time we 
begin to hear of the Israelites from the royal inscriptions of the kings 
of Assyria. It is interesting to note that the Assyrian monarchs con- 
tinued to speak of Samaria as the "House of Omri" and of Israel as 
the "Land of Omri" for a century after Omrfs dynasty had been 
swept from the throne. In 853 B.C. a coalition of western kings headed 
by the kings of Damascus, Hamath, and Ahab of Israel met the 
Assyrian king in battle at a place called Qarqar in southern Syria. 
The Assyrian report of this battle says how many forces each king 
supplied to the total army opposing him. Ahab's contingent of 2000 
chariots is more than all the chariots of all the other kings put to- 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 125 

gether, though he has not introduced into Israel cavalry as a weapon 
of war, an item which the other kings are beginning to use. In any 
event this coalition appears to have been successful in preventing 
Shalmaneser's march into Damascus and into Israel at that time. These 
are indications of the strength and political acumen of the two main 
kings of this dynasty. 

Our historian, however, is not sufficiently impressed with the politi- 
cal power of the Omri dynasty to pay very much attention to it. In the 
long run to him this is a most insignificant factor, one not worth men- 
tioning. Most significant for him is the figure of Jezebel in whose hands 
Ahab seems very weak and pliable. Jezebel was a very forceful woman 
with a missionary spirit, determined to put this backwoods nation on 
the civilized map of the world. She evidently despised the religion of 
Israel as any good polytheist would have done, and she set about, with- 
out opposition from her husband, to displace it as the official religion 
of the state of Israel. The Lord God of Israel was no longer to be the 
national god; Jezebel was determined to substitute the gods of Tyre, 
particularly the god Baal and his female consort, as the heads of the 
state. To that end she imported, we are told, 850 "prophets" of this 
pagan religion and fed them in her own palace at the expense of the 
royal court. This large number of devotees to the religion of Tyre 
could have only one purpose in Israel and that was a missionary one 
(I Kings 18:19). 

This, then, was a most critical time in the history of Israel. For 
what purpose had this people been called into the world and separated 
as a nation? For what purpose had they been given the land? Who 
was strong enough to oppose the policies of Jezebel, a woman able 
to use the whole power of the government to enforce her will? Indeed, 
we are told that there were only 7000 people in Israel who had not 
bowed the knee to Baal, the Canaanite god (I Kings 19:18). 

There was only one man who became an effective force of opposi- 
tion to the religious policies of the royal court. That man was Elijah, 
a prophet from a town across the Jordan. Elijah is a mysterious 
figure who was well known by few people in the scenes of civilization. 
He appeared and disappeared with startling suddenness, and no one 
knew where he would be at any one moment. Yet at every critical 
juncture he was at hand as the conscience of the nation. His work 
began in relation to a severe drought and famine, one which is also 
attested in Phoenician sources. Having prophesied the drought as an 

126 The Book f the Acts 1 God 

act of God's judgment, he was credited with having brought it on! 
Hence the first part of I Kings 18 describes how King Ahab had 
searched everywhere in order to find him. Suddenly he appeared and 
Ahab's first words to him were: "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" 
(I Kings 18:17). Elijah's subsequent challenge to the priests of Baal 
for the great contest on Mount Carmel furnishes the setting for as 
dramatic a story as is recorded in the pages of the Old Testament 
What precisely happened we cannot now recover. Needless to say, 
something very dramatic occurred, with the result that Elijah won 
a resounding victory. 

It is doubtful, however, whether a dynastic revolution could have 
been brought about by the prophet on religious grounds alone. The 
story about Naboth's vineyard, recounted in I Kings 21, undoubtedly 
is preserved in order to show how the common man in Israel became 
increasingly suspicious of the policies of the royal court. Law could 
not be set aside in Israel by the long as it could be set aside in the 
totalitarian Canaanite regime. Private property could not be claimed 
by a royal court simply because the court desired it. Ancestral law 
was hallowed and private right was respected in Israel. By disgraceful 
means Jezebel secured the vineyard for her husband. No sooner had 
the latter entered the vineyard to possess it, however, than, he was 
met by Elijah. Ahab's first words to Elijah were: "Hast thou found 
me, O mine enemy?" And Elijah replied, "I have found thee!" The 
end of the story comes some years later after the death of Elijah 
and Ahab in the time of Elijah's successor, Elisha. Bitterness against 
the dynasty of Omri rises gradually to such a pitch that a revolt 
becomes possible. At the proper moment this is led at prophetic 
instigation by a general of the army, a man named Jehu. The 
bitterness of feeling may be gathered from the story of the revolt, 
which did not rest until every vestige of the Omri dynasty had been 
removed from Israel and Judah. The revolt was extremely bloody. 
It marks the first and only dynastic revolution sponsored by prophets 
for religious ends, while using the power of the army to effect these 
ends. The provocation, however, was severe and the whole issue of 
the meaning of Israel's existence was at stake. As a result, never again 
did any king or queen in Israel or in Judah attempt to use the power 
of the throne to displace the Lord of Israel from his position as the 
God of the people. This was a significant battle and all credit is due 
to Elijah for its outcome, even though a later prophet was to hear 
the Lord condemn the excessive bloodshed (Hosea 1:4). 

The Deuteronomic History of Israel in Her Land 127 

3. The Fall of Northern Israel and Its Sequel in Judah 

The Deuteronomic historian pauses to narrate in only four 
chapters the chief events between the Jehu revolution in 842 B.C. 
and the return with power of the Assyrian armies to the West one 
hundred years later. During the first half of the eighth century, strong 
kings lived in both Israel and Judah and great deeds were accom- 
plished in both countries. In the time of great prosperity in Israel 
around 760 or 750 B.C. Amos prophesied in northern Israel, saying 
in effect that the current optimism was only a cloak for radical social 
dislocations in the nation and the day would soon come when the 
nation would be destroyed. In 745 B.C. a new Assyrian emperor came 
to the throne who again began the big push to take over Assyria 
and Palestine, preparatory to an attack on Egypt. Faced with this 
external pressure the political situation in North. Israel deteriorated 
so sharply as to be a virtual anarchy. Finally, in 733 B.C. Israel 
became a subject nation to Assyria and after a revolt in 721 B.C. 
she was destroyed as a nation and those who remained were governed 
by Assyrians as a subject people. At this point the historian introduces 
in II Kings 17 a discussion of why this terrible destruction of the 
nation had taken place. The Assyrian is interpreted as God's agent 
of judgment against a sinful nation. God had warned his people con- 
stantly by every prophet, but they would not listen. The conditions 
which God had established whereby the people were entitled to keep 
the land had been violated, and now the land was taken away. Let 
Judah, therefore, the remaining nation, be warned and take heed. 

II Kings 18-20 describes the reign of King Hezekiah (715- 
687 B.C.) in Judah. He is one of the few kings for whom the historian 
has little but praise. "There was none like him among all the kings 
of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him" (II Kings 
18:5). He is considered the greatest king since David. Indeed, his 
ideal, now that the Northern Kingdom had fallen, was to create a 
united Palestine under the Davidic dynasty. While he was a client 
king, paying yearly tribute to Assyria, he seems to have felt that this 
could be accomplished as a simple adjustment in the Assyrian empire. 
When his plans failed, he took advantage of the period of uncertainty 
following the coronation of a new king in Assyria in 705 B.C. to assert 
his independence. In 701 B.C. the Assyrians retaliated, besieged Judah 
and Jerusalem, saying in their own record that they shut up Hezekiah 
in his city "like a caged bird." While the fortifications of a number 

128 The Book of the Acts of God 

of Judean cities were broken down, the country was not devastated 
nor was Jerusalem destroyed. Hezekiah finally was able to buy his 
freedom as a client king by paying a very heavy tribute. 

In the mind of our historian Judah had been warned, had almost 
succumbed as had Israel, but k the last minute had been saved by 
God. He seems to imply that if there had only been more good kings 
like Hezekiah, the story of Israel and Judah might have been different. 
Hezekiah's great contemporary was the prophet Isaiah, and the latter 
figures in the story in II Kings 19-20 as a close intimate of the king. 
For further information concerning the state of affairs in Judah and 
what Isaiah had been saying about them as well as about the inter- 
national political situation, one must turn to a study of the Book 
of Isaiah. 

4. The Last Days of Judah and Jerusalem 

After the death of Hezekiah a period of reaction takes 
place under a poor king during the first part of the seventh century. 
The historian passes this period over quickly with a brief evaluation. 
In II Kings 22-23 the final major pause in the course of history is 
made to describe the reign of King Josiah. This man was an eight- 
year-old boy when he began to reign, and he reigned for thirty-one 
years before he was killed in battle. He is the second of the great 
kings of Judah to whom the historian accords the verdict of unqual- 
ified approval. "And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, 
and walked in all the way of David his father . . . Before him there 
was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and 
with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law 
of Moses." 

By the time Josiah had come of age the power of the Assyrians 
had so weakened that their empire was beginning to crumble. Josiah 
gradually began to free himself from Assyrian domination, and accom- 
plished what his great-grandfather Hezekiah had tried to do and failed. 
That was to reunite Palestine under the Davidic dynasty. His reign 
was thus the time of high hope, for independence had again been 
achieved and a united country had been gained. Yet Josiah well 
understood that his country would never be truly united unless the 
reformation came deep from within. Emulating his ancestor David, 
he insisted upon a thorough religious reformation which migjit turn 

The Deuteronomic History oj Israel in Her Land 129 

the people's hearts back to God with the sincerity and wholehearted- 
ness which characterized the reign of David, at least as it was now 
believed to have been in popular tradition. To that end Joslah began 
a thorough religious revolution. While repairing the temple, workmen 
found in its dusty archives an old scroll which was read before the 
king. So remarkable was this document that it shamed and humbled 
him. He called an assembly of the whole people and had the scroll 
read in their hearing, and the covenant vows were renewed. On the 
basis of this document a complete revolution in religious practice 
was brought about, every vestige of paganism was destroyed from 
the country as far as possible, and all sacrificial worship was confined 
to the central altar in Jerusalem. It is generally agreed, and has been 
for centuries, that this book which was found in the temple was some 
portion of the Book of Deuteronomy, if not in the present edition 
then in an earlier edition, lacking the introduction and the conclusion 
of the present book. 

In 612 B.C. the capital of the Assyrian empire, Nineveh, was 
destroyed by the Babylonians and Medes from northern Iran, The 
remnant of the Assyrian army fell back on the provinces in northern 
Mesopotamia. In 609 B.C. the last great battle took place between 
the Babylonians and the Assyrians, the latter being annihilated in 
the battle of Haran. While this battle was brewing, Pharaoh IS[echo 
of Egypt had decided that the time was ripe for him to intel?ene. 
By seeming to support the Assyrian army and preventing its annihila- 
tion by the Babylonians, he could keep it as a buffer between himself 
and the Babylonians while recovering most of Syria and all of Palestine 
as a part of the Egyptian empire. King Josiah of Judah attempted to 
prevent the Pharaoh from joining forces with the Assyrians. He placed 
his Judean army across the pass at Megiddo in northern Palestine, 
forced the Egyptians to fight and so delayed them that they were 
unable to reach the Assyrians in time to help them. Josiah had 
achieved his goal, but he lost his life in the attempt. Pharaoh Necho 
now took control of Palestine and put a Judean on the throne who 
would obey him; thereupon a radical reaction set in against everything 
for which King Josiah had stood. During this time, the prophet Jere- 
miah utters some of his most remarkable prophecies, words that so 
angered the Judean king that the prophet had to spend no small part 
of his time in hiding. Jeremiah, like the Deuteronomic historian, un- 
derstood that the last days of Judah were at hand. The international 

130 The Book of the Acts of God 

situation was now so clear that he could only infer that it was God's 
answer to a complete betrayal of trust. Judah was now to be destroyed 
and cast among the nations as Israel had been before her. In 605 
a new international force appeared on the scene, the Babylonian 
Nebuchadnezzar. In a short time he had defeated the Egyptians, taken 
over Syria and Palestine, and forced Judah to become his client 
state. Twice within eleven years Judah rebelled. A newly found 
Babylonian historical document confirms the story, related in II 
Kings 24, of how Nebuchadnezzar sent his army against Judah and 
Jerusalem in the first revolt, forced them to submit, and took their 
young king and most of their leaders and men of substance off into 
exile in mid-March, 597 B.C. Less than a decade later, in opposition 
to the pleading of Jeremiah, Judah had rebelled again. In the summer 
of 587 B.C. Jerusalem was completely destroyed and the temple 
burned. Town after town in Judah was laid waste and the inhabitants 
killed, until the small country had become a virtual wilderness. It is 
improbable that any country has ever suffered a more horrible blood 
bath than did Judah. Two centuries went by before one could say that 
prosperity had begun to return to the land. The historian at the end 
of n Kings simply tells what happened without comment. The earlier 
chapters have made their own point. God's controversy with the kings 
of his people had come to an end with the destruction of monarchy, 
temple, and state. The history of Israel within her land had begun 
with hope and triumph and promise and conquest. It ends in sadness, 
bloodshed, and destruction. Yet even in the darkness, God's justice 
and goodness are assumed. With the gift of the land had come great 
responsibility. The responsibility had been betrayed and the land had 
been taken away. Will there now be a future? Will God's purposes as 
expressed in his promises to Abraham be fulfilled? Only the years to 
come after the Deuteronomic historian had completed his work would 
answer these questions. 


The Chronicler's History of Judah 
(I II Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah) 

THE LAST and the latest of the collections of historical 
material in the Old Testament are the books of I and II Chronicles, 
Ezra, and Nehemiah. It has long been agreed among scholars that 
these four books were produced by one man as one work. His name 
is unknown, to us, but for convenience he is called the "chronicler." 
In the past he has been thought to have done his work sometime in 
the latter part of the fourth or during the third century. Today, most 
scholars are inclined to think that he wrote his history not long after 
400 B.C., that is, shortly after the last events which he describes 
are over. His main importance for us is that he preserves the story of 
how a group of exiles were able to come back from their captivity in 
Babylon and begin life anew in and around the ruins of Jerusalem. 
With the completion of his work Old Testament history is completed. 
For information of what happened between about 400 B.C. and the 
time of Christ we must turn, almost exclusively, to sources outside 
the Bible which were not preserved in the biblical canon or authori- 
tative list of books. Furthermore, as we shall see, by that time most 
of the literature of the Old Testament had been re-edited and com- 
pleted in pretty much its present form. 

Theologically, the chronicler adds little that is new or fresh. His 
value lies largely in his compilation of facts and traditions. In the 
first nine chapters of I Chronicles the author has preserved for us a 
large number of genealogies of varying types and from various circles 
of the Israelite population. They are very dull reading for the average 
person and are of importance solely for historical research. In the re- 
mainder of I Chronicles the story of David is related in which a con- 


132 The Book of the Acts of God 

siderable amount of material is quoted from the second book of 
Samuel. Nevertheless, the chronicler has a great deal of information 
of his own from various sources. For one thing* he is particularly 
interested in the new tabernacle which David built in his capital at 
Jerusalem and in the religious services and officials which he estab- 
lished in that tabernacle. His viewpoint is that the official worship 
in the later temple simply followed the procedures which David had 
established for the tabernacle during his reign. Of special note is the 
historian's interest in music and his description of the important role 
which music played in the official worship services held in the capital 
city. On the basis of the new information which the chronicler has 
here preserved, scholars have had a tendency to think that the 
chronicler must have been a member of the special tribe of Levi 
which was charged with the religious duties of the nation, and that 
in particular he might have been a temple musician. Such a supposi- 
tion, however, can never be anything more than a guess; like most of 
the major compilers of material in the Old Testament the author and 
various editors remain unknown to us. 

The thirty-six chapters of II Chronicles parallel, in the span of time 
covered, the two books of Kings. The chronicler is largely dependent 
upon the latter work for his material. His own history continues the 
theme of God's controversy with the kings of Israel and Judah, but 
he confines his attention very largely to Judean matters. After the 
reign of Solomon is described (largely simply quoted from I Kings) he 
confines his attention primarily to Judah. He quotes from I and 
II Kings those portions pertaining to the Judean kings. With that 
as his core he then adds from a large variety of independent sources 
of information. He mentions a number of different works which are 
now lost to us, particularly chronicles of events written by various 
prophets [for example, "the chronicles of Shemaiah the prophet and 
of Iddo the seer" (II Chronicles 12:15), "the chronicles of Jehu" 
(II Chronicles 20:34), and the history of the two greatest kings of 
the eighth century, Uzriah and Hezekiah, which was credited to the 
prophet Isaiah but of which we have no other information (II Chron- 
icles 26:22; 32:32) ]. As a result, the chronicler's history is filled with 
a great deal of important material which we otherwise would not 
have. On the other hand, scholars have been inclined to feel that 
with regard to various factual matters, like the transmission of num- 
bers and dates, the chronicler is somewhat careless in his editing or 

The Chronicler's History of Judah 133 

copying. Nevertheless, we must be grateful to him for preserving 
as much as he did. 

What was the purpose which the chronicler had in mind when he 
wrote his history of Judah? He, of course, had much material which 
no one had written down. But his real purpose was probably other 
than simply antiquarian or historical. In all probability he wrote as 
he did to assure the little community which was seeking to re-estab- 
lish itself in the ruins of former Judah that it was the heir of all that 
had gone before. As we look at the history of Israel from the time 
of Abraham to the time of Christ, it seems to us a fairly continuous 
history. We must not forget, however, that it was not obviously so 
when it was being lived. What possible hope could a small group of 
survivors, people who were desperately poor and hard-pressed, have 
that they were the true heirs of the promises to Abraham? How 
could they believe that all was not lost, that God had not been 
defeated and had not forgotten them, but that he was still to accom- 
plish his purposes and he would do so through them? It would 
appear, then, that the deeper purpose behind the chronicler's work 
was to join the pre-exilic history of Judah to that after the exile, so 
that the new community would be aware that it stood in a very 
special and close relationship to the history of its ancestry before the 
destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 B.C. The chief value 
of the work of the chronicler is, therefore, that it emphasizes a con- 
tinuity running into the period of darkness after the destruction. 

The books now called Ezra and Nehemiah are of special interest 
to the biblical student because of the information they preserve of 
the chief events which occurred during the first century and a half 
after a few of the exiles began to return home. The Persian empire 
has now replaced the Babylonian. It had one of the most enlightened 
governments the ancient world ever knew. For the first time the 
freedom and self-respect of local populations was fostered and not 
submerged. Captive peoples were encouraged to return to their 
former homes, if they wished to do so, and pursue their religious 
life as they saw fit. The permission for the Jewish exiles to return 
home was quite in line with official policy concerning all similar 
peoples. By 500 B.C. a small province with Jerusalem as its center 
had been re-established in Palestine and given the name Yehud, the 
Persian equivalent of the name otherwise familiar to us as Judah. 
It had a population of some 50,000 people, and a temple had been 

134 The Book of the Acts of God 

rebuilt on the foundations of that which Nebuchadnezzar had de- 
stroyed in 587 B.C. In 520 the Persian government had appointed 
a man named Zerubbabel as the governor of the Judean province. 
He was the last of the family of David to be given so important a 
political office. With the encouragement of two prophets, Haggai 
and Zechariah, the temple was rebuilt, though not without consid- 
erable agitation among the people. In veiled but unmistakable lan- 
guage the prophets proclaimed amid certain disturbances currently 
at hand in the Persian empire that the day of the Lord was at hand 
when God would shake all nations and establish his kingdom among 
them. In that day, which they believed to be just at hand with the 
completion of the temple in Jerusalem, God would undoubtedly take 
Zerubbabel and make him the Messiah, his king who would rule the 
world for him. After 515 B.C. Zerubbabel suddenly disappears from 
the record and there is evidence of a rather deep disillusionment. It 
is not unlikely that the Persian government removed Zerubbabel. In 
any event, never again, to our knowledge, was a member of the 
Davidic house given such a political post. The day of the Lord did 
not come as was expected and Zerubbabel did not become the 
Messiah. Nevertheless, the temple had been built and the prophets 
were successful in their encouragement of it. Yet we must understand 
that not all people in the community believed that God desired the 
temple quite as much as the prophets Haggai and Zechariah seemed 
to infer. For example, an unknown contemporary at this time spoke 
these words: "Thus says the Lord: 'Heaven is my throne and earth 
is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, 
and what is the place of my rest?'" (Isaiah 66:1). Here it is 
claimed that, inasmuch as God owns the whole heaven and the whole 
earth, he has no need for this building being erected for him in Jeru- 
salem. What God wants is humility and contrition of spirit, one who 
reverences him and obeys his word. In this manner alone will the 
Lord truly be glorified. Such a point of view, however, was very 
much a minority opinion at this time. The new community was led 
very largely by those who had had a vested interest in the former 
temple and now were deeply concerned that it be re-established. 
It was, therefore, very largely a priestly community. The great days 
of former prophecy were at an end, for in this new community 
prophets were no longer what was needed. The day of God's con- 
troversy with kings was over, and the day of obedience to God's 
law had begun. 

The Chronicle fs History of Judah 135 

The Ezra-Nehemiah story now skips to the second half of the 
fifth century B.C. In 445 B.C., a Jewish cupbearer to the Persian 
king is appointed governor of the province of Judah and given per- 
mission to rebuild the city's fortification walls. This man was Nehe- 
miah. The chronicler quotes from this man's eloquent memoirs 
in Nehemiah 1-7, 12, 13. The governors of the surrounding provinces 
did not approve at all of Nehemiah or his plan to rebuild the walls 
of Jerusalem. As long as the city was nothing more than a religious 
center over which they had considerable control, they evidently did 
not mind. But to have a strong province with a strong capital city 
which would offer competition in political and economic affairs 
re-established in their midst was not to their liking. Consequently, 
they threatened Nehemiah repeatedly, attempted to frighten him 
and the people from their plan, and practiced every device they 
could in order to prevent the completion of his work. The story of 
Nehemiah is that of a selfless man who with single-minded devotion 
was entirely devoid of fear and pursued his course to its successful 

The story of Ezra is preserved in Ezra 710 and in Nehemiah 
8-10. In other words, while ten chapters f the chronicler's Ezra- 
Nehemiah narrative have been subsequently separated and given 
the title "Ezra," actually the story about him is told half in one 
book and half in the other. For some time scholars have been 
debating the rather ambiguous evidence as to the date of Ezra. 
Traditionally it has been thought that he returned to Jerusalem 
with a fresh group of exiles in 458 B.C. Today a majority of scholars 
seem prepared to say that Ezra probably followed, rather than 
preceded, Nehemiah, and they would date him about 432, 428, or 
398. The reasons for this are complex, and it would not serve our 
purpose to enter into them in this place. 

Ezra is said to have been a scribe who was a scholar in the law 
of Moses. He evidently had been born and reared in a Jewish com- 
munity in Babylonia and had become a Jewish scholar. He returned 
to Jerusalem as an appointee of the Persian king with power for the 
reorganization of Jewish religious affairs. A copy of the royal decree 
which granted to Ezra his commission is preserved in Ezra 7: 12-26. 
In it Ezra is told to initiate Ms reform on the basis of the "law of 
your God which is in your hand." The evidence which we have 
from the Bible and also from a Jewish colony which lived in Upper 
Egypt, suggests that this was a time of conservatism in Jewish his- 

136 The Book of the Acts of God 

tory and that the accomplishments of Ezra were undoubtedly of 
great importance. 

In Ezra 7:6 we are told that he was a scribe who was very skillful 
in the law of Moses, meaning not only that he could write as a 
scribe but that he was a scholar who had given himself to a detailed 
study of the Mosaic teaching and law. Furthermore, he is taking 
with him to Jerusalem what is evidently a new and special edition 
of the law, something which represented his own work or that of 
others in the Jewish colony in Babylonia. Scholars believe that this 
is the completed edition of the present Pentateuch (the first five 
books of the Old Testament which the Jews call the Law of Torah) 
or some special edition of the laws which had been abstracted from 
the completed Pentateuch. On the basis of this edition, a reformation 
was instituted. 

From this and other evidence we can make certain inferences 

regarding the theological problem of the age and the way in which 

it is being solved. Before this age the prophets had affirmed that 

though God's people would have to be punished and suffer for 

their violation of the covenant, beyond this dark night there would 

be a glorious day when all the frustrations and problems and evil 

of history would be overcome in the kingdom of God. Two prophets, 

as we have already noticed, had believed that the great day would 

dawn immediately upon the temple's erection and that the governor 

of that day would become God's Messiah. These hopes had not 

been fulfilled. A community had been restored, Jerusalem had been 

rebuilt, yet the problems of history and the evil of history still 

remained. The day of the Lord had been delayed. How did God 

mean his people to live in the meantime when the interval between 

the past and the future seemed greatly extended? The priests in 

Babylon appear to have given considerable thought to this problem. 

They evidently arrived at the conclusion that the one thing they 

could do was to obey the Lord in sincerity and in truth. The prophets 

had affirmed and the historians had shown that the nation had been 

destroyed for its infidelity. This would not happen again if, from 

now on, the people vowed to be obedient with all their hearts. But 

how could one be sure he was doing exactly what God wanted? 

Men like Ezra in Babylon had for years been studying the various 

legal passages in the early books of the Old Testament. It was now 

decided that this great variety of laws could serve as a written con- 

The Chronicler's History of Judah 137 

stitution, the law of God given in detailed form. If men but under- 
stood what each of these laws meant and would obey them all, then 
it would be impossible for them to go wrong in this world. The 
Mosaic covenant, therefore, was now interpreted more as the giving 
of a law than as the establishment of a relationship. The primary 
law in the covenant was the Ten Commandments, and this was the 
law which protected the interests of God while leaving man free 
within its structure to arrange his own life. The great variety of 
other laws which appear in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuter- 
onomy were meant originally to be simply descriptions of legal 
practice. There was no thought originally of their being written down 
as constitutional law, for before the time of Ezra no one in the ancient 
Near East thought in terms of constitutions or conceived of the 
necessity to decide a case on the basis of a written constitution. 
Things were not done that way. But now in this day something new 
entered the scene of history. It was the idea of constitutional law, 
influenced greatly, no doubt, by the "law of the Medes and the 
Persians," that is, by the royal decrees as they were conceived in 
the Persian empire. However that may be, the great variety of legal 
material that had been heaped around the original covenant was 
now interpreted as positive constitutional law, and to disobey any 
portion of it was to disobey the whole; it was to break the constitu- 
tion. What now was needed was a large number of scholars like 
Ezra who could interpret what the law meant and apply it to the 
various situations which people encountered in their lives. If this 
could be done, then the sincere man would have a constitution 
within which he could walk, if he knew it well enough. He would 
never be able to break the major commandments if he knew all the 
minor ones and sought zealously to keep them. Needless to say, 
this was not the attitude of a prophet like Jeremiah toward the 
law. For him the content of the original Mosaic covenant was the 
establishment of a close relationship wherein God was acknowledged 
as a lord to be obeyed by conscious acts of decision. God was to be 
followed and obeyed, but following a lord who has made himself 
known in specific ways in the past is very different from simply 
obeying a constitution. Needless to say Jesus and Paul are more in 
line with the intent of the original Mosaic covenant and with such 
a prophet as Jeremiah than they are with the scribe Ezra. 
As for the outlook toward the future, prophecy of the classical 

138 me HOOK oj me ACTS oj 

type is displaced by what is called "apocalypticism." The great 
prophets before this time had always stood firmly within their his- 
tory. They were expounding a relevant word of God for their 
particular time, and any visions of the future to which they gave 
utterance were projections from the known past and present situa- 
tion. Apocalypticism, on the other hand, is very difficult to date 
because it has very little definite historical reference. It is charac- 
terized by the view that the current world is meaningless, evil, 
wicked. God has given it over to destruction and in due time he 
will intervene and bring in the end of this age while inaugurating his 
kingdom. The earlier prophet emphasized the significance of the 
"now," so that no matter how hopeless things may have been God 
was working a new thing and hacj called his prophet to meaningful 
work in that particular moment. No prophet ever gave up his interest 
in the present. Yet in apocalypticism the present is not a time when 
God is working a new thing; God is beyond the current history and 
will not intervene until its end is come. Meanwhile, the faithful should 
wait patiently and obediently for the coming of the Lord. The one 
thinks of the present as always significant, while the other has lost 
any sense of the meaningfulness and significance of current history. 
Ezra has often been called "the father of Judaism." It is true 
that for the first time one is entitled to use the words "Jews" and 
"Judaism" at this time in biblical history. When one thinks of a 
Jew he thinks of Judaism, The latter is a definite religion which has 
developed out of that which Ezra stood for and culminates later in 
the Talmud. Before this time there were too many currents in the 
life of Israel, and historically one should not simplify the classic 
faith of the Old Testament by calling it "Judaism." Judaism and 
Christianity are two different religions because they have developed 
out of the classic days of Israel in different directions, each empha- 
sizing different currents in Israelite life. Ezra is obviously to be con- 
sidered more the father of Judaism than he is of Christianity. Yet 
at the same time it is this community of Ezra, those who went before 
and those who came after, who rescued the literature of Israel from 
the fires of destruction and preserved the faith until the coming 
of a new era and a new reformation. 

Part II 


IN PART i we have examined the fifteen books of Old 
Testament history; they divided themselves into three major col- 
lections, each with its own intent and purpose. We now turn to the 
other books of the Old Testament, fifteen of them from the circles 
of Old Testament prophecy, four containing collections of Israel's 
devotional and wisdom literature, and five which must be classed 
as miscellaneous. This literature is to be fitted into the foregoing 
history; it must be understood as a part of that history and it is 
needed to complete our understanding of Israel's faith in its whole 
range and complexity. At the same time it must be admitted that 
we encounter writing in these books that is the most difficult to 
understand in the Old Testament. The prophets were preachers who 
spoke to their people regarding matters in their own day. Their 
words are full of detailed historical allusions that demand consider- 
able study. In addition, such books as Isaiah, the Psalms, and Job 
were written for the most part in a very highly sophisticated and 
beautiful poetry. As is very frequently the case, writing of this type 
demands study in order to understand it fully. The student of the 
Bible, therefore, is encouraged in these books especially to make 
use of detailed aids which will help him to understand what he is 
reading. The most important of these now available is perhaps The 
Interpreter's Bible, a commentary on all of the biblical books. It 
is in twelve volumes and, while somewhat uneven in quality, is 

perhaps the best over-all work that is now available. While this 
is too expensive to be in every home, an annotated Bible with intro- 
ductions to the various books and footnotes to the text and a glossary 
of difficult theological words can be obtained from the Westminster 
Press; it is called The Westminster Study Edition of the Holy Bible. 
A Bible dictionary in which terms may be found and explained is 
also a very great help. The Bible is sufficiently simple that anyone 
can get its central meaning. Yet it also has its deeper ranges, and 
like anything else that is worth while these must be worked for if 
they are to be grasped. 


The Prophets 

WE TURN first to a brief description of the Old Testament 
prophets. They were men who belonged to a particular and recog- 
nized office in Israelite society, and it is important that we understand 
what that office was. Kings, judges, and priests held high positions 
in the society, but the position of the prophet was like none of the 
others. If a person happened to be the eldest son of a royal father 
in Jerusalem, there was no doubt that he would be the next king. 
Judges and army officers and cabinet officials were all appointed. 
A priest had to belong to a particular clan of the priestly family, and 
the particular clan to which he belonged determined the type of 
priesthood he could follow. In Jerusalem the high priest was selected 
from among those who could trace their ancestry back to Aaron in 
the time of Moses. The prophet, on the other hand, did not have 
an hereditary office, nor was it an office determined by human choice 
or ancestry. He was believed to have been appointed by God, and 
his job was to speak directly for God. Kings, priests, and judges 
did what they did according to established rules and precedents. 
When God wanted to speak directly to his people in a manner that 
was not mediated through an office, he always chose a prophet. The 
prophet was the messenger of the divine sovereign. His main con- 
cern was to speak what he profoundly believed to be God's message 
for a particular current situation. 

It will be remembered that during the period of the judges and 
before that God was believed to have ruled his people directly by 
spiritually empowering certain key individuals to perform various 
tasks. The introduction of the monarchy was interpreted by some 
as being a limitation upon the divine choice of leadership in politics. 
From this time forth a man would become king, not because God 


142 The Book of the Acts of God 

approved of him, but because be had the proper father. It is pre- 
cisely at this juncture that we begin to hear about the first prophets. 
No matter how great the king's political power, the prophet as God's 
spokesman was always at hand to say "Thus saith the Lord" to any 
king or to the people as a whole when they went contrary to the 
conditions established in the old Mosaic covenant. As a result, there 
could be no real curb on freedom of speech in ancient Israel. Never 
in history has there been a more profound and searching analysis 
of the course of a people's life than that provided by the Old Testa- 
ment prophets. This freedom, of course, was subject to misuse. By 
the time of Elijah in the ninth century we begin to see that the 
country was overrun with prophets, and few of them did the people 
any good. The problem of false prophecy, of knowing who among 
the various voices speaking for the Lord was actually speaking the 
truth, became a very serious one indeed. The great prophets whose 
works are preserved in the Old Testament are, for the most part, 
fairly isolated figures, dissociating themselves from the popular 
prophets who used their office in order to speak what the people 
wanted to hear. Furthermore, the few great men are generally asso- 
ciated with particular crises in the life of their people. The first of 
these, as we have already seen, came at the time of Ahab and 
Jezebel in the ninth century, when the latter was attempting to dis- 
place the God of Israel as the lord of the nation. The prophets 
Elijah and Elisha led the movement that brought this process to a 
dramatic halt. In the middle of the eighth century, however, there 
appeared a new group of prophets at the time when Palestine became 
involved in the great thrust for empire on the part of the Assyrians 
in Mesopotamia. The essential message of these prophets was a 
terrible one: they interpreted the international events as meaning 
that God was going to destroy the political states of Israel and Judah 
and scatter the people again among the nations. They predicted, 
however, that God would again restore them to Palestine and when 
that happened the new and glorious age of God's kingdom would 
begin on earth. This was the interpretation of the meaning of the 
international imperialism of the time in relation to the people of 
Israel. It is to be observed that both Israel and Judah were destroyed, 
that their peoples were scattered among the nations, and that without 
the words of the prophets they would probably not have survived the 

The Prophets 143 


Let us first examine briefly the prophets of the Assyrian 
period during the eighth century; they are Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and 
Micah, The men are the first of the so-called "writing" prophets. 
That is, they are the first whose words have been preserved and 
collected into the books which bear their names. One of the most 
remarkable things about them is the style in which they chose to 
deliver their messages about the meaning of current events. That 
style is a very elevated, carefully composed, and often beautiful 
poetry. This combination of message and poetic style is a most 
unusual and interesting feature of the classical prophets of Israel. 
The inspiration which they received from God did not result in the 
type of ecstatic utterance that characterized so many of the false 
prophets of their day; instead the inspiration led them to speak more 
beautifully and intelligibly than they otherwise would have done. 
These poetic works are products of careful composition and, as a 
result, have a great power within them that speaks not only to the 
emotions but to the mind. 

Amos is the earliest of the series. According to an editor's intro- 
ductory note at the beginning of the book, he prophesied during the 
reign of Jeroboam II (about 786-746 B.C.). From the contents 
of the book and especially from Chapter 6:13 (see R.S.V.) he spoke 
at a time when a great victory had been won or was in the process 
of being won by Israel. This event is mentioned in II Kings 14:25, 
28, and it is generally thought to have taken place between about 
760 and 750 B.C. It was just before the Assyrian pressure began 
on Palestine at a time when the Northern Kingdom had won a great 
victory by restoring the Davidic border up into Syria, Damascus 
again becoming a subject territory. Amos himself was evidently a 
Judean, though all that we know about his life is contained in a 
bit of biography written in prose about him, evidently by a disciple 
who edited and perhaps also committed to writing the prophecies 
that we have in the book. This biography is in Chapter 7:10-17. 
Here we learn that Amos, a Judean, was delivering his prophecies 
at Bethel, twelve miles north of Jerusalem across the border in 
Israel. It was a place where the central sanctuary patronized by the 
King ; of Israel was situated. He is told by the priest of that sanctuary 

144 The Book of the Acts of God 

to go back home and say what he pleases there, but to keep his 
mouth shut at the royal sanctuary in Israel where he has no business 
to be. In defending himself Amos dissociates himself from the popular 
prophets of his day and says that the Lord has taken him from a 
humble life as a herdsman and a "dresser of sycamore trees." The 
latter is a reference to the care of sycamore figs. In ancient times 
the figs of this type of sycamore had to be punctured at a certain 
point in their development in order that they might develop large 
enough to become edible. This background does not necessarily mean 
that Amos was an uncouth or an uneducated backwoodsman. On 
the contrary, he shows himself to be a highly intelligent man who 
has a deeper insight into the meaning of international affairs than 
do his contemporaries. 

For Amos the victory which has brought joy and pride to the 
Israelite nation is simply a prelude to the disaster which is shortly 
to follow. God, who had given this people a land and a life within 
the land, is about to take it away and to scatter them in exile at the 
hand of the Assyrians. One of the key passages in the book is 
Chapter 5:18: "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! 
Wherefore would ye have the day of the Lord? It is darkness and 
not light." We gather from this verse that the people of Israel were 
well aware of the teaching that God had chosen them from out of 
the nations of the world and had a great destiny for them. They 
believed, therefore, that God held in store for them a golden future 
and would accord them this future in his great day when he brought 
all the nations of the world under his sovereignty. What Amos is 
saying in the above quoted passage is this: Woe unto you people 
who have violated God's covenant, filled his land with all sorts 
of misdeeds, and violated every one of the solemn vows which once 
had been taken. Do such a people believe that they can have a 
golden future apart from judgment? On the contrary, the judgment 
of God that will fall upon the world will first be experienced by 

It is characteristic of the optimism of the prosperous that they 
hope to obtain a future apart from punishment for sin, that they can 
be blessed while violating the most solemn of their sacred cove- 
nants. Amos for the first time turns the popular view of the future 
into a solemn warning of the judgment that will surely fall. By so 
doing he was preparing his people for the critical and terrible events 

The Prophets 145 

that were shortly to happen when the Assyrian army arrived in Pales- 
tine, and he enabled them to see that these events were not in spite 
of God but indeed because of the very righteousness of God. 

But why was God to act so drastically as to destroy the Israelite 
nation? A part of Amos* answer to that question is to be found in 
Chapter 5:21-27. It is to this effect: What God wanted of the 
people as he established the conditions for their life in their land 
was justice and righteousness. In the original Mosaic system there 
was great concern for the weak and the poor in the society, people 
who always have such difficulty in taking care of themselves. Such 
people are always easy prey to the strong, and at their expense the 
strong can become stronger and wealthier. Because Israel had once 
been a slave in Egypt, they understood that the righteousness of 
God directed toward salvation of them as slaves should also char- 
acterize their own conceptions of justice in thek society. Hence, the 
whole aim of their economic life was the love of neighbor (Leviti- 
cus 19:18). This meant that the central concern of economic life 
was the service of one's neighbor, and that meant the one who was 
in need. Laws such as the one saying that no interest should be 
charged on loans of money were very deeply ingrained in Israelite 
society. Another man's need should not become the occasion for 
profit such was the theory. As we read the book of Amos we see that 
his central concern is with the violation of social order as it had 
been classically conceived in Israel. There is no concern for justice, 
but the strong are continually grinding the weak into the dust in 
order to make their profits and they corrupt the courts of law in 
order to preserve their strong position. Amos pleads with his people, 
"Seek good and not evil that ye may live; and so the Lord, the God 
of hosts, will be with you, as you say. Hate the evil, love the good, 
and establish justice in the gate [i.e., the gate as the seat of the law 
court]" (Chapter 5:14-15). At the same time the same people 
are thronging to the shrines of worship and multiplying their sacri- 
fices and their offerings and their pious songs and prayers. In the 
book of Leviticus, however, it is repeated over and over that the 
forms of worship are accepted by God as meaningful only when they 
are practiced by a people who are sincere and whose sins are 
unwitting sins. What Amos is implying is that the people of Israel 
are sinning with a high hand and a stiff neck. At the same time 
they believe that the splendor of *thek services of worship will hide 

146 The Book of the Acts of God 

their acts. Hence he exclaims in God's name: "I hate, I despise 
your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (5:21). 
What God wants is not simply pious acts in church; he wants a 
righteous national life from his people. And anyone who thinks that 
worship can be used as a substitute or as a cover for social responsi- 
bility, or in modern terms that "religion can be used as an opiate" 
to hide the need for social justice, must understand that God hates 
this kind of worship and will have nothing to do with it. Because 
Israel has corrupted her common life and has violated every condi- 
tion of her existence, God is now about to destroy her as a nation. 
And her destruction will be the first in a series of events which can 
be described as "the day of the Lord." That Amos should have said 
these words at a time of great national prosperity and triumph meant 
that his message was not received gladly. Nevertheless, what he had 
to say was at least partially verified in Israel by the destruction of the 
Northern Kingdom within thirty or forty years after he uttered Ms 

The prophet Hosea was a North Israelite. A close inspection of 
his prophecy leads to the conclusion that most of his message as 
we have it preserved in the fourteen short chapters of his book was 
delivered at a time somewhat later than that of Amos. It is a time 
when the Assyrian pressure on Israel had begun and when the 
internal political situation had weakened to the point of chaos. This 
we know to have happened in the period between about 745 and 
721 B.C. It seems safe to date most of the prophecy of Hosea, as it 
is preserved, in the decade between about 740 and 730 B.C. Essen- 
tially, his message is the same as that of Amos. In Chapter 4, for 
example, he begins the main part of his prophecy with the statement 
of God's "controversy," that is, his legal case against his people, 
because there is nothing but immoral chaos in the land, and this 
means that there is no true knowledge of God among the people. 
In verse 6 of that chapter he says, "My people are destroyed for lack 
of knowledge.'* Hosea means by knowledge that acknowledgment of 
God's claim upon his people which leads them to loyal and loving 
obedience of him. Whereas Amos stressed the violations of social 
justice in the society in a time of prosperity, Hosea in a time of politi- 
cal chaos and weakness is inclined to stress the religious idolatry 
which leads the people to foolish and absurd actions. The nation flits 
back and forth in her political adventuring between Egypt and 

The Prophets 147 

Assyria, acting "like a silly dove without understanding" (Chapter 
7:11). She is a cake half baked (7:8) and, having sown the wind, 
she will "reap the whirlwind" (8:7). 

In describing Israel's problem, Hosea uses a new terminology. 
He speaks of Israel's sin quite frequently as "playing the harlot." 
That is, instead of remaining loyal to her true husband who is God 
himself, she has chosen to play the harlot by joining herself to idols 
(Chapter 4:11-19); indeed, the people of the territory of Ephraim 
have joined themselves to idols because the spirit of whoredom is 
within them and they do not know the Lord (4:17; 5:4). In other 
words, Hosea has chosen a new way to make clear to Israel the 
enormity of her offense against God, and this is the explanation of 
her present political difficulty. The relation which had been estab- 
lished between God and Israel in the days of Moses is now likened 
to a marriage contract in which Israel appears as the wife of the 
divine husband. But the wife has been unfaithful, and her infidelity 
is the source of her present woe. Because Israel has violated the 
conditions of the covenant, God will afflict her and send her into 

In saying this, which is essentially what Amos before him had 
said, Hosea gives us more of a glimpse into his innermost feelings 
than was the case with the prophet Amos. Hosea is a very sensitive 
person, and the prophecy which he must give is heart-rending to 
him. In keeping with his use of the marriage bond as a symbol typify- 
ing the relation of God and people, the prophet also for the first 
time makes large use of the term "love," a word drawn from family 
relationships, as descriptive of God's concern and attitude toward 
Israel. So convinced is he of the love of God as shown by God's past 
actions toward his people, that he is sure that the disaster which is 
shortly to fall upon Israel will not be the end of the chosen people; 
the time will come when God will restore his beloved. He quotes 
God as saying, "I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely" 
(14:4). The depths of the prophet's internal distress causes him 
to give expression to the struggling love of God for his people both 
as the love of a husband for a faithless wife and as the love of a 
father for a faithless child. The most profound and beautiful of these 
statements is in Chapter 11. Here the prophet describes God's past 
relation to Israel as one in which God has reared his child, and now 
finds it in its maturity to be "bent on backsliding from me." Yet 

148 The Book of the Acts of God 

the prophet hears God say, "How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? 
How shall I cast thee off, Israel? ... I will not execute the fierceness 
of mine anger, I will not be turned to destroy Ephraim, for I am 
God and not man." 

The new terminology which Hosea used evidently had its root in 
the prophet's own marriage. This is described in the first three 
chapters of his book, though the exact nature of these chapters is 
most difficult to interpret and scholars are by no means agreed on 
their meaning. The most popular view is that Hosea married a fine 
woman by the name of Gomer, and had three children by her. These 
children, whose names are given in Chapter 1, symbolized through 
their names three of the chief points of Hosea's message of doom 
for his people. Subsequently, his wife left him for a life of harlotry. 
Yet Hosea still loved her, and in Chapter 3 we are told how he 
bought her back. This was to him a symbol of God's relation to 
Israel in the past and in the future. Many scholars, however, are 
by no means sure that this is the precise history of Hosea's marriage 
to Gomer. In Chapter 1:2 Hosea hears God command him to "take 
unto thee a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom because the 
land doth commit great whoredom." They take these words quite 
literally and believe that Hosea literally married a harlot and used 
his marriage as a symbol of the relation between God and Israel as 
dramatic and forceful a symbol as one could possibly devise. It was 
quite customary for prophets to make use of all sorts of dramatic 
actions to symbolize what they were saying. That Hosea married a 
harlot, sought to redeem her from her life, and continued to love 
her even in defection would scarcely have been a shocking thing 
to Israelites in that day. Indeed it would have been the strongest 
possible sign of his theological position and his interpretation of the 
meaning and destiny of Israel in the Assyrian crisis. 

The greatest of the Old Testament prophets during the Assyrian 
period was Isaiah of Jerusalem. He is one of the three "major" 
prophets, as distinct from the twelve "minor" prophets. This does 
not mean in itself that he was a greater man than his compatriots, 
Amos and Micah. It means that the book which bears his name is 
a lengthy one. The three major prophets and the twelve minor at 
one time made four written rolls of about equal length. An idea of 
their size is obtained from the complete manuscript of Isaiah found 
among the Dead Sea Scrolls and dating about 100 B.C. This is 

The Prophets 149 

the oldest complete book of the Old Testament which we have in 
manuscript form and its scroll is about twenty-four feet long. The 
first difficulty which we encounter, however, in studying Isaiah is 
the fact that the book which carries his name is a compilation of a 
variety of prophetic materials, evidently preserved and put together 
by a school of disciples long after the original prophecies were 
uttered. Of first importance is the fact that the book seems to divide 
at Chapter 40, so that the first thirty-nine chapters for the most part 
belong to Isaiah of Jerusalem in the eighth century, but Chapters 
40-66 belong to a later period, for the most part in the second half 
of the sixth century. Scholars speak of First Isaiah and of Second 
Isaiah. A general rule which is useful in determining the age of 
prophetic materials is as follows: a prophecy is obviously earlier 
than the things it predicts, but inasmuch as the prophets were 
preachers to the people of their time a prophecy is obviously con- 
temporary with or later than the conditions it presupposes. First 
Isaiah proclaims the judgment of God upon Judah in the current 
crisis brought about by the Assyrian armies in Palestine. In Chapters 
40-66, Second Isaiah knows a Judah and Jerusalem that have 
already been devastated. Jerusalem is laid waste, the temple is 
destroyed, and people are scattered in Babylon, and the prophet 
proclaims the coming of the Lord to deliver and save his people 
and to lead them in a new exodus back to the Promised Land 
(cf. Chapter 44:26-28). Even in First Isaiah there are certain 
chapters that seem to belong to a later period. For example, Chap- 
ters 13-14 seem to refer to the fall of Babylon that occurred in 
539 B.C. Chapters 2427 contain a series of remarkable visions 
of the future without definite historical reference, but scholars in 
general have long believed that they belonged to a later period than 
that of First Isaiah. Chapters 34-35 are in the style of, and are be- 
lieved by many to belong to Second Isaiah. Chapters 36-39 are a 
fragment of history repeated from II Kings 1820; they narrate the 
story of Isaiah's relation with King Hezekiah in Jerusalem at the 
end of the eighth century when the Assyrian army was besieging 
Jerusalem. These narratives form a fitting close to the prophecies of 
Isaiah because they preserve the memory of Isaiah's assurances to 
the king and to his people that Jerusalem would not be destroyed 
but that God temporarily at least would save the city and the temple. 
The Book of Isaiah thus illustrates in an acute form the problem 

150 The Book of the Acts of God 

one has in studying Old Testament prophecy. It is improbable that 
any of the prophets wrote down his own message. The poetic com- 
positions were remembered, sometimes as in the case of Jeremiah 
were dictated to a secretary, in all cases were preserved by circles 
of disciples before finally being committed to writing and arranged 
in the form in which we now have them. Thus, snatches of biography 
will occasionally be preserved (Isaiah 7, for example), whereas in 
Chapters 6 and 8 material that may once have been in poetic style 
has largely lost its poetic form in the course of its transmission to 
us. Then again disciples were sometimes forced to fill out certain 
prophecies in their own words as the original was remembered, and 
other compositions of unknown origin were occasionally included 
if they were not completely out of keeping with the great master's 
original proclamation, and if they were works of genuine merit. 

The power of Isaiah lies not so much in new doctrines that he 
promulgated as in the forcefulness and beauty with which he applied 
the prophetic message to the conditions of his own times in Judah 
and Jerusalem. The story of his call in Chapter 6 preserves one of 
the pictures which dominates prophecy. In a vision the prophet sees 
God enthroned in his heavenly temple with Ms angelic host surround- 
ing him. It is a heavenly courtroom scene in which a judicial case 
is being tried. In most prophecy God appears as the judge trying 
and directing the course of history and the actions of people in it. 
In this case the prophet sees before he hears and is immediately over- 
whelmed with his own sinfolness and that of his people. He then 
experiences the miracle of the divine forgiveness and his ears are 
opened. He hears God asking his heavenly court who shall be desig- 
nated to carry to the people of Israel the message of what the court 
has just decided. At that point Isaiah answers, "Here am I, send me." 
It should be noted that the great religious experiences described in 
the Bible are mainly of this type: they are vocational; God by them 
is taking hold of a man and giving TIJTTI a job to do. The concern is 
not so rnudx with a religious experience as with a work which God 
wants to have done. 

Chapter 1 of Isaiah, while coming toward the end of Isaiah's min- 
istry, is placed at the beginning because it is a classic summary of 
God's indictment of his people. It, too, is in the form of a court- 
room discussion wherein all the elements of the heaven and the 
earth aie called to bear witness to the indictment of the people. As 

The Prophets 151 

in Hosea the basic problem is that God's people have rebelled against 
Mm, they do not "know" him. For this reason their country is in 
turmoil and they are sick from head to foot. As in the case of Amos, 
however, the prophet sees the people flocking to their worship 
services and using their piety as a way of escape from social respon- 
sibility. God wants none of it; he has had enough of the rites of 
worship which are separated from social responsibility: "Wash you, 
make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine 
eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the 
oppressed; judge the fatherless, plead for the widow, ... If ye be 
willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye 
refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword; for the mouth 
of the Lord hath spoken it" (1 :16-17; 19-20). 

Like Amos prophecying to Israel, Isaiah foresees the Assyrian 
peril as an instrument of God's judgment and the first stage in a 
series of climactic events which shall lead to the establishment of 
God's kingdom. In Chapter 2:5-6 the prophet warns of the day 
of the Lord as did Amos before him. In an unforgettable series of 
woes (Chapters 5; 9:8-10:4) the prophet vividly portrays the wicked 
irresponsibility of a people interested only in themselves and in their 
possessions while entirely uninterested in the knowledge of God 
and of his will for Ms people. ". . . they regard not the work of the 
Lord, neither have they considered the work of his hands. . . . Woe 
unto them that call evil good, and good evil, that put darkness for 
light, and light for darkness . . . that are wise in their own eyes, and 
prudent in their own sight . . . that justify the wicked for a bribe, 
and take away the righteousness of the righteous from Mm . . . they 
have rejected the law of the Lord of Hosts and despised the word of 
the Holy One of Israel." In Chapter 10:5-6 the prophet describes 
in more detail his view of the historical situation. The Assyrian army 
is God's instrument of judgment, the rod of God's righteousness, to 
chastise his sinful people. This does not mean that the Assyrian is 
more righteous than Judah. Indeed, he has no idea that he is God's 
instrument; he believes he is doing this under Ms own power, that 
he himself is God. But "shall the ax boast itself against him that 
heweth therewith?" It is tyjjjlcal of the powerful that they deify them- 
selves. And God, as soon as he has accomplished Ms purpose through 
them, will then punish them for their wickedness. The great battles 
for empire and the struggles for power in history are not meaningless. 

152 The Book of the Acts of God 

The hand of God is to be seen within them, but his righteous judg- 
ment is over all and no one force in history can ever deify itself, but 
must know it is under judgment in time. Idolatry will be destroyed. 

Isaiah, however, does not leave the future in deep darkness. He 
sees the historical blackness of his time as a prelude to the glorious 
coming of the kingdom of God. The day of the Lord is at its onset 
darkness, as Amos has said. But beyond it is the light. One of 
Isaiah's sons bore the name Shear-jashub. The name means "a rem- 
nant shall return"; that is, some shall repent. At first Isaiah used that 
name as a threat against a prosperous people: only a remnant would 
return. Later in the course of his life it became also a prophecy of 
hope. The people would never be completely destroyed. A remnant 
would survive and with that remnant God would build anew. 

Isaiah, of course, is best remembered as the first prophet to give 
vivid pictures of the coming Messiah, that is, of the king whom God 
would raise up to fulfill his promises to David, the king who would 
rule the earth in righteousness and justice, the perfect king who would 
be God's answer to the problem of war and justice in the earth. In 
the tragedies of the current history, said the prophet, "the people 
that walked in darkness have seen a great light," A child shall be 
bora who, as he grows into manhood, shall take the government 
upon his shoulders and shall bear a name which describes the char- 
acter of God as he was and would then be known: "Wonderful 
Counselor, Mighty Warrior, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace" 
(Chapter 9:2, 6). This king shall have the spirit of the Lord resting 
upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding which will enable 
him to administer justice righteously and equitably with particular 
consideration for the poor and the meek, while possessing the 
strength and the will to fight and control the wicked in the earth. 
When that comes to pass, a new day will have dawned on the earth, 
a day when warfare will have ceased, when "they shall not hurt nor 
destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be fuE of 
the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Chapter 

The prophet Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, at least during 
the second part of his ministry. His message is essentially the same 
as that of Amos and Isaiah. He lays strong emphasis upon the social 
iniquity of the Judean society, prophesies that Jerusalem will be 
destroyed, and reiterates the thought of Amos and Isaiah about the 

The Prophets 153 

iniquity of rites of worship which are unrelated to the common life. 
"He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord 
require of thee but to do justly, and to love the doing of merciful 
deeds, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Chapter 6:8). 

It is interesting to observe that while in 721 the Northern Kingdom 
was completely destroyed by the Assyrians, Judah escaped complete 
destruction at the hand of the Assyrian army both then and in 
701 B.C. when the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, attacked Jeru- 
salem. In each case Judah became a subject nation, paying yearly 
tribute. In prophetic terms this was the judgment of God, and this 
was the day of the Lord. And yet, Jerusalem was not destroyed until 
over a century after Micah's time. In the time of none of the 
prophets, nor in the time of Jesus, nor yet in our time has the golden 
age of peace in the kingdom of God arrived. The prophets expected 
this to arrive soon, but people were to learn that God's time is not 
identical with our time. Nevertheless the prophetic predictions of the 
coming end of current history in time became something of an embar- 
rassment and of wonder. Will God's kingdom come? When? 


The story of the prophets does not take up again until a 
hundred years after the time of Isaiah. After about 630 B,C. the 
Assyrian empire rapidly declined in power until in 612 B.C. Nineveh, 
the capital of that empire, was destroyed by the Medes and the 
Babylonians. A Hebrew prophet, Nahum by name, celebrated 
this event in three chapters of stirring poetry. He saw it as the judg- 
ment of God upon a cruel and wicked people which for centuries 
had been preying upon others and keeping them in subjection. 
Meanwhile in Palestine during the 620s the kingdom of Judah under 
the fine king Josiah had been busily asserting its independence and 
re-establishing its control over the whole of western Palestine. 

At this time Zephaniah and Jeremiah began their prophetic careers. 
We know nothing about Zephaniah, except that he, like Jeremiah 
in the early days of the latter's ministry, did not believe that the 
downfall of Assyria meant the dawn of a new age of freedom for 
Judah or for the ancient world as a whole. He could not specify 

154 The Book of the Acts of God 

precisely what the future would bring, but he was certain that a 
new northern peril was already in existence which was shortly to 
overcome Palestine. To him the downfall of Assyria meant that the 
coming day of the Lord was at hand, "a day of wrath, a day of 
trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of 
darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness." It 
was a time, then, not simply for exultation but for repentance: "Seek 
ye the Lord, all ye meek of the earth, that have kept his ordinances; 
seek righteousness, seek meekness. It may be ye will be hid in the 
day of the Lord's anger." 

Jeremiah and Zephaniah were correct in their fears that Assyria 
would soon be replaced by another power. The Babylonians, after 
their defeat of the Egyptians in northern Syria in 605, rapidly took 
over the coastlands of Palestine and Syria. From this period come 
the meditations of a prophet named Habakkuk. His is no typical 
prophecy; it is truly a meditation on the problem of evil. The coun- 
try is being overrun by bands of Babylonians, men whose might is 
their god (Chapter 1:11). He knows that God is a God of justice 
and of righteousness, but he also knows that complete disorder 
prevails in his land and "justice goeth forth perverted." He there- 
fore prays to God concerning the meaning of what is happening. 
Why does God hold his peace when "the wicked swalloweth up the 
man that is more righteous than he?" In the second chapter the 
answer comes to the prophet. It is to the effect that the question is 
a legitimate one, that it should be written large so that all men might 
read it. It is also true that there is an answer to the question, but the 
answer lies in God and at a particular moment in history it may not 
be immediately forthcoming. For this reason one must wait in trust, 
knowing that it will surely come in its own time. Meanwhile "the 
righteous shall live by his faith" (Chapter 2:4). This text is one of 
the most famous in the entire Bible; it was used by Paul against 
Judaism and by Martin Luther in his struggles against the Roman 
Catholic Church. In its original setting it means this: while all the 
answers to our questions concerning the justice of God and the 
meaning of suffering in history are not to be had at any one moment, 
God's faithful will live and continue to live patiently in their complete 
commitment to God and in their fidelity to what they know is right, 
to what they know from earlier times to be the will of God. The 
word "faith" here is the same as the word "faithfulness." The good 

The Prophets 155 

man shall live by Ms faithfulness: that is, a faithfulness that is com- 
pletely committed to the Faithful One, a commitment that involves 
trust and loyalty. In the Bible faith-faithfulness is a relationship 
concept; in it there is complete reliance and trust on the one hand 
and entire fidelity and faithfulness to vows on the other. 

Jeremiah is the second of the "major" prophets; he received his 
call about 626 B.C. and is last heard prophesying against the idolatry 
of Judean exiles in Egypt around 585 B.C. We have more intimate 
knowledge of him than we do of any other personality in the Bible, 
except David and Jesus. The reason is that the prophet had a close 
friend and biographer who has preserved the story of his life. The 
first twenty-five chapters of the Book of Jeremiah are for the most 
part a fragmentary assemblage of the words of the prophet, deliv- 
ered at various times during his life. Chapters 26-45 are for the 
most part narratives about Jeremiah, written by his biographer. 
Chapters 46-51 are prophecies against foreign nations, a section 
that is typical of the major prophets, because they saw that the 
judgment of God against his own people in Palestine was but one 
step along the way to the total destruction of the principalities and 
powers of the earth. The whole of the civilized world would be 
judged before God's kingdom would be established. The final chap- 
ter (52) of Jeremiah is a historical appendix, except for verses 2830 
taken verbatim from II Kings 24:18 and verses following. 

Jeremiah was very much like the prophet Hosea in the Northern 
Kingdom. He was an extremely sensitive, shy person, who was called 
to say the unpopular thing and to take a firm and unbending stand 
against kings, against royal officials, against the priests, and against 
the people. Consequently, in the call of the prophet (Chapter 1) the 
emphasis is upon God's strengthening of the fearful young man. The 
visionary sacrament which Jeremiah experiences is not so much one 
of purification as it was in the case of Isaiah; it was rather an experi- 
ence of being strengthened: "The Lord put forth his hand and 
touched my mouth; and the Lord said unto me, Behold I have put 
my words in thy mouth. . . . Thou, therefore, gird up thy loins, and 
arise, and speak unto them all that I command thee. Be not dis- 
mayed at them, lest I dismay thee before them. . . . They shall fight 
against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee, for I am with 
thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee.'* It is not surprising then that 
Jeremiah more than any other prophet preserves a record of the 

156 The Book of the Acts of God 

internal struggles which he had with the commission which God had 
given him. Through most of his life he was forced to stand alone, 
hated and attacked on every hand, even by members of his own 
family. It is small wonder, then, that at times he wished that he had 
never been born: "Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me 
a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth!" (Chap- 
ter 15:10). He prays to the Lord in his trouble: "Be not a terror 
unto me; thou art my refuge in the day of trouble" (Chapter 17:17). 
Perhaps the most vivid passage in this connection is Chapter 20:7 
and verses following. There he exclaims that he knows that God 
has persuaded him, that God is stronger than he and has had his 
way with the prophet. The result, however, is that he has become a 
laughingstock; everybody makes fun of him. The reason is that every 
time he opens his mouth it is to cry out violence and destruction; 
the very word of the Lord which he has been sent to speak has 
become a means whereby people laugh at him. And yet when he says 
to himself that he will stop it, that he will no more talk in the name 
of the Lord, "Then there is in my heart as it were a burning fire 
shut up in my bones, and I am weary with forebearing, and I cannot 
contain it." Yet the weakness of the prophet within was hidden from 
all public gaze. He bore pain and hardship and loneliness and derision 
without outwardly flinching. He fulfilled the Lord's commission, and 
stood like a fortified wall against the popular prophets who spoke 
what the people wanted to hear, against the priests who offered their 
simplified slogans for salvation, against the wickedness of the last 
kings of Judah, and against the expediency of their royal officials. 
In one of his greatest texts he said: "Let not the wise man glory 
in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not 
the rich man glory in his riches, but let him that glorieth glory in 
this, that he hath understanding, and knoweth me, that I am the 
Lord who exerciseth loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in 
the earth; for in these things I delight, saith the Lord" (Chapter 
9:23-24). As to the state of the nation, he chided the people with 
having changed their God for gods that were no gods: "my people 
have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of 
living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns that can 
hold no water" (Chapter 2:11-13). The popular prophets have 
deceived the people and have continually spoken about peace, when 
to Jeremiah there was no peace. Said the prophet: "A wonderful 

The Prophets 157 

and horrible thing is come to pass in the land. The prophets prophesy 
falsely and the priests bear rule at their direction, and my people 
love to have it so. What will ye do in the end thereof?" (Chapter 

A number of Jeremiah's prophecies are dated, and most of these 
are gathered around certain critical periods in the history of Jeru- 
salem shortly before it was finally destroyed by the Babylonians. 
The first of these dated sermons is the famous temple sermon, deliv- 
ered by the prophet at a great festival when the temple courtyards 
were jammed with people. The narrative version is recounted in 
Chapter 26, whereas a fuller resume of the sermon delivered on the 
occasion is to be found in Chapter 7. The great King Josiah had been 
killed the year before by the Egyptians (in 609 B.C.), and now they 
had taken over the country and put on the throne a son of Josiah 
who was pliable enough to do the Egyptians' bidding. At this critical 
juncture in Judah, when all dreams of freedom had been dashed 
and now the nation was again under the control of a foreign power, 
the priests had coined a new slogan: the temple, the temple, rally 
around the temple that we may be saved. They evidently recalled 
to mind the time a hundred years before when the prophet Isaiah 
had proclaimed that God would not destroy the city of Jerusalem 
by the hand of the Assyrians. In the course of his remarks Jeremiah 
called this new slogan of the priests a lying word. What God wanted 
was obedience in the whole of the people's life; the critical state of 
affairs called for national repentance. The temple, on the other 
hand, was being made into a kind of a den or cave where robbers 
could hide out. God wanted no worship that was not based upon a 
deep-rooted repentance and desire to obey in all aspects of the 
common life. If the priests and people thought that simply rallying 
around the temple would keep them safe because God would not 
destroy his own house, let them remember how God had destroyed 
the old tabernacle at Shiloh in the days of Eli and Samuel during 
the eleventh century B.C. These remarks so angered the priests and 
popular prophets that they immediately sought to put Jeremiah to 
death. His life was saved only by the intervention of the royal officials 
and by certain wise laymen among the people who recalled that a 
hundred years before Micah had prophesied that Jerusalem would 
be destroyed and yet Hezekiah, King of Judah, had not put him to 
death. Instead he had entreated the favor of the Lord, had repented 

158 The Book of the Acts of God 

of sin, and the Lord had saved the city. Should not the same be done 

As a result of his temple sermon Jeremiah evidently had to go 
into hiding for a period of time. We next hear of him after the battle 
of Carchemish in 605 B.C., when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, 
had defeated the Egyptians. This meant, of course, that the royal 
house of Judah would shortly have to change its allegiance, shifting 
it from Egypt to Babylon. At this juncture Jeremiah could no longer 
refrain from speaking. Yet he was forbidden to address any public 
assembly in the temple. As a result, according to the narrative related 
in Chapter 36, he dictated to his friend and confidant, Baruch, a 
digest of aE his prophecies from the beginning until that moment. 
Baruch then took it into a great assembly in the temple area and 
read the scroll in the hearing of all who were gathered there. The 
words made a tremendous impression, particularly upon certain of 
the better men among the royal officials. They succeeded in getting 
an audience with the king and had the roll read before him. The 
latter cynically cut it in pieces, while it was being read to him, and 
burned it in a fire. Undaunted, Jeremiah dictated his prophecies to 
Baruch again, with much additional matter. It is not improbable that 
this second scroll was preserved; in any event, the story provides one 
illustration of how some of the prophecies may have been preserved. 

Most dramatic of all were the adventures of the prophet during 
the final siege of Jerusalem in 588-87 B.C. To Jeremiah, Nebu- 
chadnezzar was a servant of the Lord for the punishment of Judah, 
and he believed that it was God's will that the whole civilized earth 
should be for a season subjugated by the Babylonians. When the 
Judean royal officials, with promises of Egyptian aid, had decided 
again to rebel against Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah could not restrain 
himself. He had counseled against the foolhardiness of this course 
in the days before the first rebellion in 598 B.C. He worked hard to 
avoid a second rebellion about 594-93 B.C., when it seemed that 
one was planned (cf. Chapters 27-29). And now the second and 
final revolt appeared to Jeremiah as nothing short of complete rebel- 
lion against God and his leadership of the nation. And so it was that 
when the government officials had decided upon their course of 
action, the words of Jeremiah became exceedingly troublesome. When 
finally the city was put under siege by the Babylonian army the 
government decided it could no longer afford the luxury of Jere- 

The Prophets 159 

miah's free speech and he was confined during a good part of the 
siege. At one time the Egyptian army did appear and Babylonians 
had to break off temporarily from Jerusalem. Just before this 
Jeremiah had purchased a field from one of his family in the neigh- 
boring town of Anathoth. He did this, not because he wanted the 
field, but because he wished to suggest to his people that though 
Jerusalem would be destroyed, this was not the end of the nation. 
They would again sow and plant; they would again want and need 
their fields. When the siege was lifted he attempted to leave the 
city to claim his field, but he was immediately arrested and accused 
of deserting to the Babylonians (Chapter 37:11 fL). 

One of the most interesting sections in the narrative about Jere- 
miatKis his relation to the King of Judah, ZedeMah. We read in 
Chapter 38 that the king wiU not permit his royal officials to put the 
prophet to death. Surreptitiously he visits Jeremiah to ask for the 
word of the Lord while a siege is in progress. The narrative suggests 
that the king had made this inquiry repeatedly (cf. Chapter 21), but 
each time Jeremiah gives the same answer. If Jerusalem is to be 
saved it must surrender promptly to the Babylonians and cease its 
fruitless rebellion. If King Zedekiah would save his life, then he must 
immediately go forth to the officials of the King of Babylon (Chapter 
38:14fL). The king expresses fear that he will be given over to 
those Judeans who have already fallen away to the Babylonians; but 
Jeremiah swears to him that this will not happen, that it is not the 
intention of the Lord so to do. It is an interesting fact that the king 
had a great respect for the prophet and seems to have realized that 
he was speaking the truth. Yet he did not have the strength of 
character to act upon what he knew to be right. He was a captive 
of his government and of the policies previously established. The 
result was that the siege ground on to its bitter close with the com- 
plete destruction of the city. 

After the conclusion of the siege, Jeremiah was given permission 
by the Babylonian officials either to go into exile or to stay in 
Palestine. He chose the latter, but after the murder of the official 
whom the Babylonians had left in charge, a sizable group of the 
remaining Judeans fled for safety to Egypt and dragged the pro- 
testing prophet with them. There, it seems evident, he must have 
died, though not without protesting profusely against the idolatrous 
practices of other Judean exiles whom he found in Egypt when he 

160 The Book of the Acts of God 

arrived there. This was a prophet who suffered with and died for 
his people, an intermediary between them and God, a lonely man 
who had given up all for the sake of his prophetic calling. 


The prophet Ezekiel was a priest who had been taken 
into exile to Babylon in March 597, at the conclusion of the Baby- 
lonians' first siege of Jerusalem. His prophecies have been very neatly 
arranged and carefully dated by a group of disciples, the dates 
being given by the years of the captivity of the young King Jehoiachin 
who had been taken into captivity with the other exiles in 597. 
Chapters 1-3 represent the prophet's call and commission. Chapters 
4-24 come from the period before the final fall of Jerusalem in 587; 
in them he desperately attempts to convict his people of their sin 
and to make them understand that Jerusalem shall indeed fall and 
that there is no escape from the punishment. Chapters 25-32 are 
prophecies against the nations surrounding Palestine. Chapters 33-37 
were delivered after the fall of Jerusalem and their dominant note 
is one of hope for God's restoration of his people in the land. 
Chapters 38-39 appear to be a symbolic picture of a final war before 
the establishment of God's kingdom on earth, a war with the unre- 
pentant and barbarian hosts of darkness from the distant reaches 
af the North. Following that the prophet gives a picture of the new 
Jerusalem and the new Palestine in Chapters 40-48. 

One of the first things we note about the prophet Ezekiel is his 
psychological peculiarity. He is an extremely visionary man who 
makes use of many symbols because he seems to see each thing 
iround him as capable of possessing symbolic meaning. He begins 
lis prophecy with the vision of God enthroned upon his heavenly 
chariot; God visits him and calls him to be his prophet. Unlike Isaiah 
md Jeremiah in their inaugural visions, Ezekiel becomes so absorbed 
n the vision of the chariot which he sees that he must describe it in 
;onsiderable detail. There is also a reference to the prophet's dumb- 
less; God made his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth so that 
le was not able to speak, except at those times when God spoke to 
lim and opened his mouth (Chapter 3:26-27). We read that he 

The Prophets 161 

was told to lie upon his left side for 390 days in order to symbolize 
the captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and then to lie 
on his right side for forty days in order to symbolize the captivity 
of Judah. 

A number of people have attempted to psychoanalyze Ezekiel, 
with spectacular results. It is very much to be doubted that any of 
these attempts can be said to be successful. On the other hand, it is 
probable that Ezekiel was not perfectly normal and well-integrated. 
He was most evidently a peculiar person, but he could speak with 
power and in so doing employ the most vivid and powerful images. 
The people in exile evidently listened to him with great respect and 
his words were carefully preserved, even though there may have been 
such a long space of time between their original proclamation and 
their subsequent written form that some of the power of the person- 
ality has disappeared. One thing seems certain, however, that Ezekiel 
was a very straightforward, abrupt, and peremptory person. He 
understood his calling to be that of Israel's watchman (Chapter 3:17). 
Whether the people heard or whether they would not hear, he was 
to speak the warning. He hears God say to him: "Behold, I have 
made thy face hard against their faces and thy forehead hard against 
their foreheads" (3:8). A suggestion of the same abruptness is to 
be seen in a refrain repeated throughout the Book of Ezekiel. It is 
to the effect that whatever happens, happens so that the people of 
Judah or the world may know that God is God: "Ye shall know 
that I am the Lord"; "And they shall know that I am the Lord; 
and I have not said in vain that I would do this evil unto them" 
(Chapter 6:7, 10). 

There are also many suggestions of Ezekiel's priestly training. 
The central tenet of the theology of the Jerusalem priests was that 
God had graciously consented in the time of Moses to tabernacle 
in the midst of his people, and that as long as he did so the people 
would remain a people. In Chapters 9-10 Ezekiel portrays the fall 
of Jerusalem, not as a battle in which the Babylonian army is 
victorious, but as a purposive work of God, carried out by his angelic 
messengers. At the conclusion when the marking out of the city for 
burning is at an end, Ezekiel sees God's chariot and God himself, 
surrounded by a glorious light (the "glory" of God), ascend from 
the temple and leave the city. For a Jerusalem priest there would 
be no more powerful symbol of God's determination to destroy his 

162 The Book of the Acts oj God 

people than to portray his departure from their midst. It is equally 
to be expected that in the new Jerusalem, which God will restore, 
the "glory" of God should be seen re-entering the temple; that was 
a sign that the restored people would again become the people of 
God (Chapter 44: 4 ft). It is also characteristic of the priest that 
he should be mainly concerned with proper religious arrangements 
in the new temple in Jerusalem, and less concerned about God's 
redemptive love working for the salvation of all men. 

In Ezekiel's view of history the fall of Jerusalem was the first 

of God's just acts of judgment against current civilization which was 

alienated from him, its lord and master. God was first going to 

destroy and scatter his people. After that he would turn upon all 

the nations of the civilized world; there is nothing permanent or 

final in any of them; all of them are in sin and all of them will be 

judged before the new day will dawn. But after the day of judgment 

will come the beginnings of the new era. At this time God will 

restore his people to Palestine and give to them a new heart and 

a new spirit whereby they can live as his people obediently and 

loyally. Ezekiel has no faith that mankind can gradually evolve into 

that state of goodness whereby it can live happily and purely in the 

earth. In Chapters 36-37, which are among the most beautiful 

chapters in the book, the restoration of Israel is accompanied by 

the creation of a new humanity, a new heart, and a new spirit. 

When that happens the people will remember their former way of 

life; they will see that it was not good; they will loathe it and have 

no desire whatsoever to return to it. Yet, says the prophet, the people 

should realize that they have done nothing whatsoever to merit this 

act of God. God does it for his own sake so that all men in the earth 

may know that it is God who has built the ruling places and replanted 

them, that it is God who has cleansed them and given them what 

they have, so that all praise must be given to him rather than to any 

earthly power or merit. Ezekiel's contemporary, Jeremiah, was saying 

a similar thing in a very different way, when he spoke about the new 

covenant which God was about to make with the house of Israel. 

It was not an outward covenant, an external treaty which could be 

broken as was the covenant of Moses. It was to be a new covenant, 

a law written within the heart so that all men will know the Lord, 

and religious education will no longer be needed; "for they shall all 

know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith 

The Prophets 163 

the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I 
remember no more" (Jeremiah 31:31-34). In Ezekiel 37 the res- 
toration of Israel with the new heart and the new spkit is vividly 
pictured in terms of a valley of dry and scattered bones, which are 
reclothed with flesh and restored to life. This is God's miracle; they 
that were dead now live again. "And I will put my spirit in you, 
and ye shall live, and I will place you in your own land; and ye 
shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it, saith 
the Lord" (Chapter 37:14). The central elements of this viewpoint 
are a basic part of the biblical hope for the future. The salvation of 
man is not within himself or within his current civilization. Man's 
ultimate hope lies within God himself and in the miracle of God's 
gift of life. As God once created life, so he will re-create it with a 
new heart and a new spirit. When that happens, man will be enabled 
to live in God's good earth in peace and security, in love and in 
loyalty, using the good things of earth to the glory of God and the 
benefit of all man. 

Old Testament prophecy reaches its height in the marvelous pro- 
phetic poems of Second Isaiah. This work begins in Chapter 40 of 
the Book of Isaiah and has as its central concern God's restoration 
of a scattered people, the first step in God's creation of a new 
heaven and a new earth. Nearly all scholars are agreed that Chapters 
40-55 of Isaiah belong to this unknown and unnamed prophet whose 
work is appended to that of the earlier Isaiah of Jerusalem. The chap- 
ters appear to date from about 540 B.C., just as the Persian King 
Cyrus is about to take over the whole of the Babylonian, empire. The 
question uppermost in the minds of the people of that day is what 
is going on and what does it all mean. It is with that question that 
the prophet begins his prophecy. The source of Chapters 56-66 is 
not so clear. While some scholars in the past have spoken of a third 
Isaiah, there is more of a tendency today to think of these chapters 
as belonging in the school of Second Isaiah. Some of this material 
was written by him and the rest is an elaboration of his words by 
his disciples. The whole comes from the period after the restoration 
of the people from exile between about 539 and 500 B.C. 

When the newly returned Jews were desperately trying to rebuild 
their temple, under the promise that if the temple were once rebuilt 
God would bless them wholly, the school of prophecy belonging to 
Second Isaiah remained unconvinced. Instead they heard the word 

164 The Book of the Acts of God 

of the Lord saying: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my 
footstool; what manner of house will ye build for me? And what 
place shall be my rest? For all these things hath my hand made, 
and so all these things came to be, saith the Lord. But it is to this 
man that I will look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, 
and that trembleth at my word" (Chapter 66:1-2). These words 
are certainly in the spirit of a First Isaiah and a Jeremiah. The Lord 
of the world is not in need of temples made with hands (cf. Psalms 
50 and Acts 17:24-25); he is much more concerned with humble 
and contrite people who will serve him faithfully. 

Second Isaiah begins in Chapter 40:1-11 with his call and com- 
mission by God. The prophet first hears God speaking to his heavenly 
assembly, commanding them to go and comfort his people Israel. 
In verse 3 a heavenly voice makes the proclamation: "Prepare ye 
in the wilderness the highway of the Lord." Then a second voice 
is heard, saying: "Cry" (i.e., "make the prophetic proclamation"). 
And the prophet replies (40:6 R.S.V.), "What shall I cry?" The 
answer has to do first with the transitoriness of all things earthly in 
contrast to the enduring stability of the word of God. That word now 
proclaims good tidings to Jerusalem; the return of the Lord is at hand, 
and he will treat his scattered flock like a good shepherd, gathering 
the lambs in his arm. 

In Chapter 40:12 and following verses, the prophet pauses for 
meditation upon the nature of God. He does so because Israel, God's 
people, is a weak, dispirited, and scattered people with no hope left 
in them. They say, "My way is hid from the Lord, and the justice 
due me is passed away from my God" (verse 27) . The prophet replies, 
"Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard? The everlasting God, 
the Lord, the Creator of the end of the earth, fainteth not, neither 
is weary; there is no searching of his understanding." Recall the 
Creator of the world, who measured the heavens and the seas and 
before whom the nations are as a drop in a bucket. What is there 
in heaven and in earth to which he can be compared? The thing 
made is not the maker; the thing ruled is not the ruler. To whom 
or to what can this great one be compared? There is nothing in 
heaven or in earth that is his equal or equivalent. This is the God 
who now is at hand. He alone is the one who can give power to the 
faint. They who wait on him shall renew their strength and mount 
up with wings as eagles. 

The Prophets 165 

At this point the prophet begins his prophecy; that is, God begins 
to speak through him. Here God is portrayed as calling a great 
assembly of all the nations in order to decide what is the meaning 
of the coming of Cyrus. The nations are represented as vastly worried 
over the events, as indeed they were, and industriously preparing 
their idols who are supposed to give answers to their problems. 
Meanwhile God speaks to Israel in order to encourage her, to assure 
her that she is indeed his chosen one, that he has chosen her to be 
his witness in the current crisis, that he has not forsaken her, that 
he has not cast her off. Israel is not to fear, for God is with her; 
she is not to be dismayed for he will strengthen her. The council of 
the nations is then represented as gathering and the question thrown 
at them as to the meaning of Cyrus. The idols of the world are then 
told to produce their case and to explain the meaning of the current 
events. There is silence followed by the exclamation that they should 
do something whether good or bad, anything so that people may 
know that they are gods! Then in disgust the prophet exclaims: 
"Behold, ye are nothing, and your work is nothing; an abomination 
is he that chooseth you!" (Chapter 41:24). This, of course, is a 
very vivid bit of comparative religion. The gods of the world are 
here attacked at their weakest point. They were never devised or 
conceived as deities responsible for history. To the biblical man the 
God who had revealed himself to him was the sole God in charge 
of the world because he alone could control it, because he alone 
was the sovereign of history. Therefore God exclaims through the 
prophet that he alone is the one who has raised up Cyras, that he 
alone has declared the meaning of history from the very beginning, 
and that of the peoples of the world it is only God's prophet in 
Jerusalem who actually understands the meaning of events. 

To Second Isaiah, Cyrus the Persian is God's instrument to 
inaugurate the new age. He will break down all the walls and barriers 
and secret places, and in this respect will actually serve as God's 
Messiah (Chapter 45:1 ff.)- Before the world can be drawn to God 
the centers of world power and pride must be shattered. This, accord- 
ing to the prophet, God is doing through Cyrus. On the other hand, 
a saving mission to the world has been given by God to his servant, 
Israel. God is about to restore Israel to Palestine, but for what 
reason? God says to the prophet: "It is too light a thing that the 
energies of the servant should be expended solely on restoring the 

166 The Book bj the Acts of God 

people of Israel to Palestine." God has a far more important mission 
for the servant than that: "I will also give thee for a light to the 
Gentiles that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth" 
(Chapter 49:6). God's servant, Israel, or the ideal Israel, was not 
brought into being nor is it being restored simply for its own good. 
It has a mission to the world; it is to be God's agent of justice, so 
that blind eyes can be opened and prisoners set free and all those 
that sit in darkness (Chapter 42:1-7). God's servant is not to be 
the light of the world through the use of power and of force. Its 
work is to be accomplished peacefully, as a teacher and a prophet 
and as one who bears the bruises of the world in his own body. The 
needed force and power will be applied by Cyrus. In this way Second 
Isaiah solves in a most remarkable way the old problem of the 
Israelite theology of the Messiah. How is the Messiah as the leader 
of Israel to be a savior and a destroyer at the same time? The 
prophet splits the two aspects apart, and applies the title "Messiah" 
solely to the Persian emperor, Cyrus. God's servant as the instrument 
of his salvation for the Gentiles cannot effect its mission except by 
being willing to suffer and to die in order to effect it. 

The best known of the servant passages is Chapter 53. The 
speakers are presumably the Mngs of the nations who now explain 
what previously they had not known (Chapter 52:15). To them this 
servant was an ugly, despised, and rejected person, filled with disease 
and sickness. They thought he was simply another of the world's 
afflicted people whom God for some reason was chastising. But now 
they have discovered that the servant was wounded for their trans- 
gressions and with Ms stripes they are healed. They confess, "All 
we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own 
way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." The 
interpretation of this passage has been much disputed, and questions 
have always been asked concerning it (cf. Acts 8:34). Who is the 
servant is he Israel or is he an individual? The prophet is by no 
means clear, and perhaps purposely leaves the question unanswered. 
His figure of the servant at one moment will be the whole people 
of Israel, at another moment the ideal Israel, and at still another a 
figure who in himself personifies the true role which Israel should 
assume in this world. The prophet explains to Israel in these various 
ways the meaning of her sufferings in the world. As the redemptive 

The Prophets 167 

servant she must also understand that she is the vicarious sufferer 
for the sins of the world. 

Jewish scholarship has always read these passages with a collective 
meaning. The figure of the servant is a personification of them- 
selves and an interpretation of their past life of suffering in the 
world. The Christian, on the other hand, has always read Chapter 53 
in relation to Jesus Christ, because it seemed such a perfect descrip- 
tion of the meaning of Christ's life and death. Second Isaiah's figure 
of the servant has thus played a more prominent role in Christian 
theology than it has in the theology of Judaism. The reason is 
probably to be found in Jesus himself. It seems evident that both 
he and the early Church interpreted the role of the Messiah as one 
of being the suffering servant. For this reason Christ died, bearing 
in his body the sins of the world. And yet afterwards God highly 
exalted bim so that his kingship was not exercised from a throne in 
this world. From the standpoint of the Bible as a whole Second 
Isaiah is the one Old Testament figure who gives the most eloquent 
interpretation of the redemptive work of God in the world and of 
the meaning of God's choice of a people who are to be his servant. 
In doing so he has also given the most glowing and triumphant 
portrayals of the power and the love of God which are to be found 
in the surviving literature of Israel. 

The history of Israelite prophecy now draws rapidly to a close. 
Sometime in the sixth or early fifth century Arab invasions brought 
an end to the kingdom of Edom. The prophet Obadiah saw this 
event approaching and interpreted it as tie judgment of God upon 
Edom because of its pride and because of the part which it played 
in the destruction of Judah in 587 B.C. Edom had taken over large 
portions of territory from the former Judah and had taken advantage 
of her weakened condition. Haggai and Zechariah are two prophets 
who together were instrumental in getting the temple rebuilt in 
Jerusalem between 520 and 515 B.C. In so doing, however, they 
made certain suggestions which later proved embarrassing. They 
seem to imply that once the temple was built, the troubles of Judah 
would be over and the glorious day of the Lord would arrive. Zer- 
ubbabel, the Judean governor of the province, it will be remem- 
bered, was expected to fill the role of the Messiah. This was a revival 
of older views which disregarded almost entirely the fresh interpre- 

168 The Book of the Acts of God 

tations of Second Isaiah. Immediately after the temple was rebuilt the 
whole subject was dropped and nothing is heard from it again. Zerub- 
babel did not become the Messiah, and the prophets who said that 
he would be would undoubtedly have been forgotten had it not been 
for their encouragement of the rebuilding of the temple. About the 
same time, or during the following century, a prophet named Joel 
proclaimed that the day of the Lord was at hand when a terrible 
locust plague visited his country. His words too would probably have 
been forgotten and not preserved in the canon had it not been for 
two beautiful passages about repentance and about the coming day 
when the spirit of the Lord will be poured out on all flesh (Joel 
2:12-14, 28-29). 

Two prophecies in which the spirit of pre-exilic prophecy survived 
are those of Malachi and Jonah in the fifth century. Malachi directs 
his words against the priesthood of his time, men who are not taking 
their duties seriously, who are disgracing their offices and are causing 
many people to "stumble in the law." Furthermore, they are engaging 
in wholesale divorces, violating the solemn covenant which they made 
with the wives of their youth, and this is the type of thing which the 
Lord hates. The day is coming when all such wickedness will be 
radically purged, though "unto you that fear my name shall the sun 
of righteousness arise with healing in its wings" (Chapter 4:2). 

Jonah is a most eloquent book. It differs from other prophecies 
in that it is the story about a prophet rather than a collection of 
the words of the prophet. The prophet chosen for the story is men- 
tioned in II Kings 14:25 as a popular prophet who predicted the great 
victory for Israel in the reign of Jeroboam II. He was a contemporary 
of Amos, the latter seeing in the same events predicted by Jonah 
a warning of future doom. The language of the book is much later, 
however, than the eighth century, and most scholars date the book 
in the fifth century. It was written at a time when nationalistic 
exclusivism on the part of the Jerusalem priesthood had become 
very strong. It sought, therefore, to remind the new community of 
the restored exiles what Second Isaiah had previously reminded 
them of, namely that the love of God was broader than they were 
conceiving it, that he did not choose Israel in order to play favorites 
among the peoples of the earth, but that he chose her and his prophets 
to be instruments of his saving power in the earth. The true prophet 
is, therefore, the author of the book, rather than the man about 

The Prophets 169 

whom the story is told. The book serves as a kind of parable. Jonah 
is portrayed as a prophet in Palestine who hears the command of the 
Lord to become an instrument of mercy to the city which was the 
worst enemy of his people, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. Refusing 
to carry out the Lord's command, he flees in the opposite direction 
by boat as fast as he can go. But the Lord will not let him get away. 
He hurls a great storm into the sea, the sailors discover by a means 
typical of the day that the culprit is Jonah, and they are forced to 
throw him into the sea. God has him swallowed by a big fish who 
vomits him up again on the shore of Palestine, where he is once 
again commanded to go to Nineveh. Many people, when they read 
the story of the big fish which swallowed Jonah, never get any further 
because they bog down in speculation about whether or not such a 
thing could actually happen. One can be certain that if the author 
of the book had only known the trouble this fish was to cause the 
minds of men, he would have been perfectly willing to substitute 
some other device. His concern is simply to show that one cannot 
run away from God; the fish is simply a device in the story whereby 
Jonah is returned and faced again with his duty. This time the 
prophet obeys, and in a remarkable way his proclamation gets results; 
the city of Nineveh wholeheartedly repents, so that God does not 
have to punish it by destruction. Yet this is precisely what disgusts 
the prophet Jonah exceedingly. He quotes one of the great confes- 
sions of God's love in the Old Testament, namely that God is 
merciful and gracious and slow to anger and full of mercy, and uses 
that as precisely his excuse for his anger. The mercy of God is a 
fine thing when it was directed to his own people, but a disgusting 
thing when directed toward his enemies. Hence the prophet exclaims 
that he would prefer to die rather than to live. He goes outside the 
city and builds a booth there in order to see what will happen, A 
heat wave arrives, but a plant which has grown up over the hut 
protects it from the sun. During the night the plant withers and dies 
because of a worm that attacks it, and again Jonah wishes in his 
heart that he might die. And now gently God asks whether Jonah 
has a right to be angry, and Jonah in great disgust affirms his right 
to be angry even unto death. Then God replies even more gently 
that inasmuch as he, Jonah, has had such great concern for a plant 
which was simply a child of the night, should not he, God, have 
concern for a great city wherein there are 120,000 people who 

170 The Book of the Acts of God 

cannot tell their right hand from their left? And as though that were 
not sufficient, he makes a final humorous appeal to the prophet's 
common sense by suggesting "and also much cattle" that is, it 
would be a shame to destroy so many innocent animals! 

The Book of Jonah was obviously written by a great spirit who 
was struggling against the narrowing of the faith within the confines 
of the tiny province of Judah during the period after the exile. Yet 
the book stands at the \pry end of the prophetic movement. From 
this time forth the community of Judah seems unable longer to listen 
to prophets. Priests and lawyers in the law are those who are most 
needed in the developing Judaism, whereas prophets only create 
embarrassments. The belief that God was about to do the new thing 
in each succeeding crisis faded, and its place was taken by what was 
known as apocalypticism. That is a view which interprets current 
history as being a dark and terrible time which is constantly getting 
darker and more terrible until it will finally be brought to a halt by 
the intervention of God and the coming of the Messiah. In this 
viewpoint the "now" loses a great deal of its dramatic significance; 
it becomes a time only for watchful waiting and for obedience as one 
understands obedience to the Lord. The period of excitement and 
urgency is gone. Indeed, it would seem that those who framed the 
canon of scripture were quite right in leaving the centuries between 
Ezra and John the Baptist very largely a blank. Only with the open- 
ing of the New Testament is the spirit of Old Testament prophecy 
again revived and the Lord who is about to do the new thing is 
again known, this time in Jesus Christ. 


The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 

WE NOW turn to three major collections of poetry in the 
Bible. These are the Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. We shall first have 
a brief discussion of the Psalms as a manual of public worship, and 
then treat Proverbs and Job together as a part of the story of Israel's 
wise men. To complete that story we must add the third of the 
wisdom books in the Old Testament; that is, the small prose book 
of Ecclesiastes. 


The Book of Psalms has been the most widely read book 
in the Old Testament. Among Christians as well as Jews it has been 
the primary source for hymns and liturgical expressions. If the Bible 
as a whole can be said to be a book about what God has done, the 
Psalms may be said to be a volume of devotional testimony, com- 
posed in the light of God's gracious activity. Hymns of praise and 
thanksgiving, meditations, liturgy for special occasions, the outpour- 
ing of souls in a great variety of difficulties all these are included 
and many more. While the individual psalms differ greatly in their 
quality of utterance, even those unlearned in biblical lore cannot fail 
to be impressed and inspired by the depth of feeling and sheer lyric 
beauty of many of the psalms, a depth and beauty that appear even 
in translation. Israel was among the poorest of ancient peoples; yet 
in literature she surpassed all her contemporaries of western Asia. 
This is surely not an accident. There was something about the 
people's faith in God which had an extremely purifying effect both 


172 The Book of the Acts of God 

upon the soul and upon the way in which the thoughts of the soul 
were expressed. As a result the successors of biblical faith have been 
able to use most of the psalms, almost without change, for over 
twenty centuries. 

The Psalms as we now have them are divided into five books: 
book one, Psalms 1-41; two, Psalms 42-72; three, Psalms 73-89; 
four, Psalms 90-106; five, 107-50. Each of the first four books 
ends with a special doxology. For example, Psalm 41:13: "Blessed 
be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting. 
Amen, and Amen." These words are not a part of Psalm 41, but are 
a conclusion to the first book of the Psalms. Psalm 150 forms a 
doxology to book five and to the whole Psalter. It is a final call for 
everything that has breath to praise the Lord to the accompaniment 
of a great symphony played by the temple orchestra. It should be 
noted that the psalms were not written to be used as for the most 
part we use them today. They were composed as hymns to be sung 
in worship at the Jerusalem temple. Many of them still have musical 
notations appended to them, but unfortunately we know nothing 
about ancient music and, therefore, we do not know what these 
notations mean. For example, Psalm 22 has a note at the beginning, 
"To the chief musician upon Aijeleth Shahar." We presume that 
this is a reference to a type of music or tune to which this psalm 
was sung, but we do not know for sure. It is important, however, to 
realize that this great manual of public devotion was undoubtedly 
the hymnbook of the Jerusalem temple during the fifth and fourth 
centuries B.C. 

Who wrote the psalms and when were they written? These are 
questions which cannot be answered. The psalms represent every 
phase of Israelite life between at least the tenth century B.C. and the 
time of Nehemiah and Ezra. It is not probable that any psalms are 
preserved in the Psalter which were written after the fifth century B.C. 
On the other hand, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that there 
are psalms or at least passages in the psalms which date long before 
the tenth century. This is because Israelite musicians occasionally 
borrowed poetic compositions from their pagan neighbors, changing 
the wording as necessary to fit the worship of the Lord of Israel. 
Psalm 29, for example, was certainly a hymn to the Canaanite god 
Baal before it was borrowed by Israel and adapted for worship in 
the Jerusalem temple. All but about fifty of the psalms are ascribed 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 173 

to various people. Three fourths of these or nearly half of all the 
psalms are entitled, "A Psalm of David." This has traditionally been 
taken to mean that David wrote the psalms that bear his name. 
Such a view was believed even by the Jewish scribes who edited the 
present Book of Psalms long before the time of Christ. As a result 
they tried, on occasion, to find a proper setting in the life of David 
when the psalm might well have been composed. For example, 
Psalm 3 has the scribal notation, "A Psalm of David, when he fled 
from Absalom his son." Psalm 18 has a much longer note, suggesting 
that David spoke the words of this psalm at a time when the Lord 
had delivered him from all his enemies, particularly from the hand 
of King Saul. Scholars today do not find these notes a very satisfactory 
explanation of the contents of the psalms, nor of the facts about them 
as we now know these facts. David was very interested in music, and 
according to I Chronicles it was David who established the various 
services of worship which were later taken over into the service of 
the Solomonic temple. As one who was very interested in music, 
David even went so far, evidently, as to hire foreign musicians to 
assist Israelite musicians in creating a beautiful musical setting for 
the worship in Jerusalem. Liturgical music and psalmody, therefore, 
owe their origin in Israel to David. This should not be interpreted 
to mean that David wrote all the music himself, nor that he composed 
the psalms which were used as the text to be sung. It means rather 
that he was the patron of religious music. Thus when nearly half of 
the psalms bear the heading, "A Psalm of David," we should no 
longer think in terms of Davidic authorship. Psalm 29, for example, 
bears this heading, though as already observed we now know that it 
was a Canaanite psalm borrowed and adapted for the worship of 
Israel. David may have adapted it, but he did not write it. Instead, 
the title simply means that such and such a psalm belonged to the 
Davidic or royal collection, a group of psalms of which he was the 
patron, which he sponsored for use in the Jerusalem temple. It 
means that the particular psalm in question once belonged to "The 
Davidic Psalter," that is, to "His Majesty's Hymnbook." This does 
not mean that all of the psalms which bear the Davidic title were 
originally composed in David's time or before. It means that David, 
having established a royal psalter, provided the temple with a royally 
sponsored hymnal, to which additions were subsequently made. 
Other psalms were taken from other sources. Hence we may say that 

174 The Book of the Acts of God 

the present Book of Psalms is a collection derived from previous 

There is one note in several of the psalms that often bothers the 
Christian conscience. That is the outcries of particular psalmists 
against their enemies, prayers that God wiH take vengeance upon the 
wicked. Psalms 35, 41, and 109 are vivid examples. Almost instinc- 
tively we feel that the deepest note in prayer is to be found in the 
words of Jesus: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they 
do." This word of defense, however, should be said for the biblical 
psalmist It must be remembered that he lived in a time very different 
from our own, when security in society was a comparatively rare 
thing. It was not uncommon for a man literally to be surrounded 
by enemies, and to suffer constantly therefrom. If he were a loyal 
and pious man, he could not but see that his enemies cared little 
for the Lord of Israel or for his worship and law. It is customary 
for the psalmist, therefore, to link his own predicament with that of 
God's just and righteous work in the world as a whole. He under- 
stands himself to be a member of God's people, wherever they may 
be, a people which knows the Lord, acknowledges his claim, and 
loves and obeys him. He also knows that the world is full of people 
who care nothing for the Lord. Thus the trouble in which the 
psalmist finds himself becomes in a measure a part of the whole 
trouble with the world. It was against the law of the Lord for a man 
to take vengeance in his own hands. Vengeance belonged to God 
himself. Thus the psalmist in praying to God could not but ask God 
to defeat the plans of his enemies and to take vengeance upon them. 
Yet he knew that when the word "vengeance" was applied to God 
it did not mean "getting even." God's vengeance was simply his 
righteous determination that wickedness in the world would not go 
unchecked and unpunished, while righteousness in the end would 

As an example of Israelite psalms, let us pause for a moment 
on the most familiar of them all, Psalm 23. Israelite poetry is dis- 
tinguished, not by its rhyme, but by its rhythm. The typical poetic 
line has two parts, more rarely three, each part distinguished by a 
certain number of beats. Each beat falls on a stressed syllable in the 
most important word, and around it may be one to four unstressed 
syllables. The most common Hebrew line is one with two parts, 
each having three beats. For example, 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 175 

Psalm 29:1: 

Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, 

give unto the Lord glory and strength. 

The Twenty-third Psalm is arranged in English in six verses. The 
original Hebrew has nine poetic lines. If one would understand the 
detailed meaning of the original poet, it is of course necessary for 
him to recover the original poetic form. The following is a fairly 
literal attempt to indicate that form, though it is often impossible to 
fit the Hebrew into the same number of English words. 

The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want; 

In green pastures he beds me; 
By waters of restfulness he leads me; 

My life he revives. 
He leadeth me in paths of safety 

For the sake of his name. 
E'en though I walk in a valley of deep danger 

I'll fear no harm, 
For thou art with me; 

Thy rod and thy staff 

They comfort me. 
Thou preparest before me a table 

In front of mine enemies. 
Thou anointest my head with oil; 

My cup full! 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me 

All the days of my life, 
And I shall dwell in the household of the Lord 

To the end of days. 

The psalm begins with four lines of three beats in the first part 
and two beats in the second. The last four lines are of the same nature. 
In the middle there is a longer line of three parts, each with two beats. 
Such is the very carefully arranged form of the poem. 

As to meaning, the psalmist is simply saying that God is good, 
that he is trustworthy. Yet as a good poet he does not want to use 
abstractions; he wishes to make his point very vivid so that it will 
be felt as well as known, and for this reason he uses vivid images. 
His first image is that of the good shepherd. If we would enter into 
the emotional intensity of the Psalm, we must in the first instance 
become sheep! In Palestine because of the heat and the scarcity of 

176 The Book of the Acts of God 

water the sheep are very dependent upon their shepherd. Green 
grass is as rare as water, except for a month or two in the spring. 
Hence the psalmist pictures the ways of the Lord as those of a good 
shepherd taking care of his sheep in the difficult land of Palestine. 
His general theme is that I as a sheep will lack nothing. The psalmist 
then specifies why that is so: at night the shepherd beds me down 
in a grassy meadow where there is plenty of wonderful grazing. He 
leadeth me to restful and refreshing waters after a long, hot day. 
The familiar words, "He restoreth my soul," actually mean that he 
revives my life! After the heat and weariness of the day, I am revived. 
It is his nature as the good shepherd to lead me in safe paths. The 
shepherd's "name" is actually himself in biblical language. He does 
what he does for his name's sake, simply because he is the good 
shepherd and he will do no other. Consequently, even though I walk 
through a valley of deep darkness and danger I need not fear that 
any harm will befall me. Then comes the summarizing line: I need 
not fear "for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they com- 
fort me." The shepherd's rod is his club, by which he protects 
his sheep from predatory enemies. His staff is the shepherd's crook, 
whereby he guides and assists the sheep in difficult places. The club 
and the staff are vivid symbols, then, of the two sides of the working 
both of the shepherd and of God. The power of God as protection 
and salvation is the ground for one's confidence. 

In the second part of the psalm the picture changes to a Bedouin 
encampment in the desert. Arab hospitality is proverbial, and the 
protection that it affords is here used as a symbol of the goodness 
of God, The "I" of the psalm is now a lone fugitive in the desert, 
where a person without a people is in real danger. Through the day 
he has been running from his enemies but now has been accepted 
by the wonderful host within the latter's encampment or household. 
Now he observes all the wonderful things being done for him, which 
of course he does not deserve. The host spreads out before him a 
table with plenty of food from which he can eat in perfect safety, 
though his enemies who have been chasing him are watching with 
greedy eyes just beyond the encampment. In a land where water is 
scarce, washing with perfumed oil was much appreciated, hence the 
anointing of the head with oil. The psalmist's cup is always full, a 
welcome thing after a hot, dry day. At this point the psalmist breaks 
off the description of God's encampment and exclaims: "Instead of 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 111 

enemies pursuing me, goodness and mercy pursue me, and that will 
be so all the days of my life. Consequently I have determined to make 
a choice; I shall now take up my abode in God's household to the end 
of my days." We know indeed that God is good. Yet when a psalmist 
pictures the goodness of God by means of these powerful symbols, 
and does so in a beautifully constructed poetic form, the result is 
a composition of great simplicity, but also of great power. One under- 
stands God's goodness intellectually, but much more one comes to 
know it in the biblical sense of that word "know." 

The Twenty-third Psalm is a specially beautiful product of the 
Israelite psalmist. Yet it does not stand alone, because all of the 
psalms when studied in this fashion speak to the whole being of man 
with a power possessed equally by no other devotional literature in 
tihe Bible. 1 


The prophet Jeremiah in one place tells us that all of the 
intellectual classes of Israel were angry with him because he had 
condemned them (Chapter 18:18). These classes were the priests 
who were in charge of the law and of religious instruction as a 
whole, the prophets to whom the word of the Lord came, meaning 
the interpretation of current life by direct inspiration, and the wise 
who were responsible for counsel. Neither history nor prophecy tell 
us very much about this class of intellectuals known as the wise men, 
nor do we know under what occasions their advice and counsel was 
given. Jeremiah, however, classes them with the priests and the 
prophets among the important circles of leadership in Jerusalem 
and has condemned them as unable to save the people by their 
counsel. As David was the patron of psalms and music in Israel, 
so Solomon was the traditional founder of the wisdom movement. 
He was not a theologian nor a particularly pious man. As pointed 
out in the description of his reign, he was a man of culture who was 
intensely interested in becoming a leader in the main stream of the 
world's cultural movements during his day. Thus, as I Kings 4:29- 

1 For an excellent and more detailed study of the Psalter see Samuel Terrien, 
The Psalms and Their Meaning for Today, New York, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1952. 

178 The Book of the Acts of God 

34 describes It, he cultivated wisdom and in so doing had close deal- 
ings with all of the wise men of the countries round about, particularly 
of the neighboring Canaanites, the Arabs in the desert, and the wise 
men of Egypt. He is said to have uttered "three thousand proverbs, 
and his songs were a thousand and five." There can be no doubt, 
therefore, that the wise men as an intellectual class were first 
encouraged and sponsored as a movement during the reign of 
Solomon. For this reason, the product of the movement bears his 
name as its sponsor. 

We now know from the literatures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, as 
uncovered by the archaeologists, that nearly every people of the 
biblical world had a great interest in the particular type of wisdom 
with which the wise men of the day were concerned. It is a wisdom 
of the world, a use of insight and common sense to discern how the 
world works and how we can best get along in it. Fundamentally, it 
is a character education movement, and, as we have discovered in 
our own time, this concentration on prudential ethics is able to flourish 
in a great variety of theological contexts. Thus Solomon could discuss 
ethics or matters of "wisdom" with an Egyptian or Canaanite, and 
not allow the theological differences between them to bother very 
much. The wise men were simply not deeply interested in theology 
in the way that Israel's historians and prophets and psalmists were. 

It is the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament which preserves 
a portion of the Israelite's wisdom. Like the Book of Psalms it is a 
collection made from previous collections. The heart of the book is 
in Chapter 10-22:16. The section is provided with a heading, "The 
Proverbs of Solomon." Chapters 25-29 are also said to be the 
proverbs of Solomon, but they represent a collection "which the men 
of Hezekiah King of Judah copied out." Chapters 30-31 are proverb$ 
from unknown men, presumably non-Israelite, "the words of Agur" 
and "the words of King Lemuel." As in the case of the psalms we 
are not to think that a psalm or a proverb bearing the name of 
David or Solomon necessarily means that he himself wrote or com- 
posed it. The ascription simply means that the works quoted are 
from a royal collection begun, sponsored, and supported by one of 
the kings in question. One of these collections was made at the end 
of the eighth century by the men of Hezekiah. We have no knowledge 
of when the other collections were made, nor do we know when they 
were first committed into writing. The present Book of Proverbs 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 179 

probably did not reach its final form much before the fifth century B.C. 
When we learn more about the writing of the wise men in the 
ancient Near East, the dependence of the Israelites upon their neigh- 
bors will be more apparent. Scholars have long believed that the 
collection of proverbs in Chapters 22: 17-24:22 is very close to a col- 
lection of proverbs in Egypt known as the "Wisdom of Amenemope." 
If the archaeologists ever find a collection of Canaanite proverbs, we 
shall undoubtedly find a number of closer resemblances. Both Egyp- 
tian and Israelite wisdom sayings are in the form of a large variety 
of short, epigrammatic, poetic lines that are sharp, to the point, 
and easily memorized. Furthermore, the form in which they are 
given is the speech of an old man to a young man, the former sharing 
his wisdom with the latter. It is impossible to give a close outline of 
the proverbs; there are hundreds of them, one rapidly following the 
other, each with its own point to make. For example: 

23:13-14 Withhold not correction from the child, 

For if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. 
Thou shalt beat him with the rod, 
And shalt deliver his soul from hell. 

24:28-29 Be not a witness against thy neighbor without cause, 

And deceive not with thy lips. 
Say not, I will do so to him as he hath done to me; 
I will render to the man according to his work. 

15:20 A wise son maketh a glad father, 

But a foolish man despiseth his mother. 

16:8 Better is a little with righteousness, 

Than great revenues without right. 

10:12 Hatred stirreth up strifes, 

But love covereth [Le., maketh atonement for] all sins. 

17:1 Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, 

Than a house full of sacrifices with strife. 

18:7 A fool's mouth is his destruction, 

And his lips are the snare of his soul. 

19:6 Many will entreat the favor of the prince, 

And every man is a friend to him that giveth gifts. 

The above few examples are sufficient to indicate the dominant 
interest of the compilers of the Book of Proverbs. These men were 

180 The Book of the Acts of God 

not interested in the great themes of Israel's history, such as the 
deliverance from Egyptian slavery, the gift of a land, the Sinai cov- 
enant, the covenant with David, God's use of the Assyrians and the 
Babylonians to punish his people Israel, nor in their restoration, nor 
in the great new age to come at the end of the current history, nor in 
the belief that Israel was a special people chosen by God with a 
mission to perform in the world. These great affirmations which so 
characterize the center of Israel's faith are completely absent from 
the interest of the wise men. Instead the concentration of attention 
is upon the best way for an individual to live in society; the wisdom 
is a series of prudential teachings, often beautifully phrased, frequently 
with profound insight into the ways of human nature. The teaching 
represents the distillation of ethical thought for the individual from 
among some of the finest people of the ancient world. Israel did not 
make up all of these aphorisms, but when she borrowed them from 
other sources such as Egypt, while contributing her own, she was 
forced to make certain theological changes in the setting in which 
proverbs were understood. In Egypt that setting was polytheistic, 
with the whole emphasis being upon preserving world order. The good 
man was thus the silent, obedient person who did nothing to disturb 
the order of society but kept it going its integrated way. The evil 
man was the passionate, willful person who was always acting in such 
a way as to disturb the current order. In Israel the model of the 
wisdom movement was the fear of the Lord. Reverence for God was 
believed to be the beginning of wisdom. The good man was then the 
righteous man in God's sight, while the bad man was the wicked or 
the fool who did not know the proper way of life or had forsaken 
the fear of the Lord. For the most part this is the sum of the theo- 
logical doctrine to be gained from the Book of Proverbs, with two 
exceptions. It is typical of character education movements that at 
some time or another certain members of the movement begin to 
make large claims for their ethical insights, thinking that by them 
the world is to be explained. In so doing they erect their own theo- 
logical system which can become a rival to that in which the move- 
ment has its particular setting. In Chapter 8 of the Book of Proverbs, 
for example, it is asserted that wisdom is the fundamental principle 
of the universe, by which alone it is to be understood. Wisdom is 
there spoken of as if it were a person and as old as creation. Yea, 
even before God created the world wisdom existed, and by wisdom 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 181 

God brought forth the heaven and the earth. Such a bold assertion 
would undoubtedly cause theological difficulty to men like Jeremiah 
in Israel, a difficulty overcome only when the wisdom of the wise, 
the word of the prophet, and the law or teaching of the priest were 
equated. This was what was to happen in the years to come, so that 
it is not improbable that the words in Proverbs 8:22 and verses 
following may have been influential in the composition of the prologue 
to the gospel of John. 

A second theological factor which was to give difficulty in the 
wisdom movement is one that is not so clearly stated as it is implied. 
That is that God runs the world in accordance with the principles 
of prudential ethics. If you obey all the wise men's aphorisms, choose 
the median way, never get out on anybody's limb, then God win 
reward you and you will be prosperous. If you do not do these 
things, then you will not be rewarded and God will punish you. 
Everything is just that simple. Whether the best of the wise men 
would have stated things this baldly is not at all probable. Yet it 
was the general tenor and implication of the wise men's teaching, 
and one cannot help comparing the life of Jesus, and even that of 
the prophets and apostles, who were willing to throw away their 
lives for the sake of the Lord, taking no careful and calculated 
account of how best to win friends and influence people. Nevertheless 
the Book of Proverbs was kept within the canon of scripture, in spite 
of the theological difficulties which it raised. In everyday life there 
is always an important place for prudential ethics, and ancient Jews 
and Christians both interpreted the various teachings of the wise men 
as part of God's ethical instruction of Ms people. 

There are two more books in the Old Testament which belong 
to that portion of the wisdom literature which has been preserved in 
our present Bibles. These are Job and Ecclesiastes. Yet these books 
can only be understood as products of theological controversy with 
some of the issues which the wisdom movement had been asserting. 
Job was written to explode the common notion of the wise men, and 
for that matter of most pagan peoples of the time, that deity rules 
the world in a moralistic way, so that one can assess his goodness 
in the sight of God on the basis of his prosperity. The author of 
Ecclesiastes is inclined to doubt nearly everything that the wise 
men have stood for. He claims that the pursuit of wisdom, like the 
pursuit of wealth, is vanity, and he fails to observe in the world any 

182 The Book of the Acts of God 

proof that the wise man is always happier and more prosperous than 
the man who is a fool or wicked. Neither of these books employs 
any of the central themes of Israel's faith regarding the Lord of 
history, his righteous purposes which will be fulfilled in a kingdom 
that is soon to come, and a chosen people with a mission in the 
world at this moment. The authors of both books stand within the 
narrow limits of wisdom's theological platform, and then proceed 
to show its inadequacy. 

The Book of Job is usually considered one of the great classics 
of all literature, a profound inquiry into the ways of God with men. 
The first two chapters form a prose introduction, and the last 
eleven verses of Chapter 42 form a prose conclusion. The inter- 
vening portion of the book is in poetry that is so elevated in style 
and so sophisticated in language and vocabulary that an accurate 
translation of the whole is today impossible. One can follow the 
general trend of the argument, but in many places one cannot trust 
the translation in detail, simply because a modern translator must 
often surmise or guess in difficult places. Job is the most difficult 
book in the Old Testament to translate, and that is surely a testimony 
to the high caliber of the author of the poetic sections. 

The book comes to us after a long history. The central figure, 
Job, is represented as a bedouin chieftain of the patriarchal type. 
His name and that of his friends belong to the class of names that 
were very common in the second millennium B.C., but they are not 
names which are typical of the first millennium B.C. We shall have 
occasion to point out that the prose introduction and conclusion in 
the present book are probably not by the same hand as the poetic 
section. Indeed the figure of Satan in the first two chapters leads us 
to a time not before the sixth century B.C. for the present form of 
the prose introduction. The figure of Satan does not appear in litera- 
ture before that date, and it should be noted that even here he is 
not conceived in the same way as he is to be in New Testament times. 
He is a lawyer in good standing in the heavenly court of God, whose 
job it is to try and test the motives of men, indeed, always to present 
matters in their worst light. Opposite him in the heavenly court was 
another angel whose function was to be the lawyer in the plaintiff's 
behalf, defending him against false accusations (ci Zechariah, Chap- 
ter 3). Scholars also believe that the Hebrew of the poetic sections 
is not earlier than the time between the seventh and the fourth 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 183 

centuries B.C. Even this has had a history, however, so that Chapter 
28, which is a remarkable poem on wisdom, and the Elihu speeches 
in Chapters 32-38 are insertions. Elihu is represented as a young 
man who has been listening to the conversations between Job and Ms 
friends and has become very disgusted that the friends are not able 
to set Job right. Consequently he delivers an address to answer and 
to solve the whole problem. Yet a close study of what he has to say 
indicates that the author who has devised Ms speeches is on a 
distinctly lower level than the author of the poetic dialogue as a whole, 
and he has very little to say that either has not been said before or 
that is not going to be said in the chapters which follow. The Elihu 
speeches are thus a contribution to the Job literature, but they do 
not represent its finest part. In other words, the essential story is 
a very old one going back into the second millennium. Indeed, the 
prophet Ezekiel mentions him as one of the great righteous and wise 
men of bygone ages (Chapter 14:14, 20), indicating that the story 
about him is a very old one. Yet the present written form is much 
later, and appears to be a compilation wMch uses fragments from at 
least two or three different editions of the story. 

The prose introduction begins with the statement that Job was 
a "perfect and upright" man, "one that feared God and eschewed 
evil." This is the basic presupposition on wMch the book rests. Job 
is assumed to be the ideal man, the finest type of man that the 
human race is capable of producing. The word "perfect" in the 
biblical original does not mean precisely what we mean by the same 
word. It does not mean that Job as a mortal man is not subject to 
sin; it means rather that he is a person of integrity, that he has a 
wholeness and wholesomeness about Mm, that he is the type of 
man whom God loves. In Job's final defense of himself in Chapter 
31, the author presents one of the finest summaries of what a good 
man is that the Old Testament contains. The goodness of Job is 
the basic given of the book; as the best man one can imagine, he gets 
into trouble, and the author vividly shows how inept are the answers 
of the wise men to such a person when he finds himself in distress. 

In alternate scenes in the heavenly court and on earth the intro- 
duction quickly presents the problem. God allows Satan to test Job's 
integrity. Satan strips him of Ms possessions, Ms family, and finally 
of Ms health, leaving him a miserable outcast. Yet through it all 
"Job did not sin with his lips" (Chapter 2:10). The general theme 

184 The Book of the Acts of God 

of the book is therefore set forth: it is the suffering of the good man 
in earth. It will be noted further that the prose introduction already 
has within itself the answer to this problem. The good man suffers 
in this life because God is allowing his faith to be tested. If he stands 
firm, we presumably infer that he will come through the period of 
testing with strengthened faith. This is a common biblical theme, 
but it does not reach the depths of insight presented by the poetic 
sections to follow. If the prose introduction were all that we had, 
we would say that the theme of Job is "God's testing of a righteous 
man." Yet when we turn to the poetic sections we find a deeper level 
of discussion wherein the central problem soon comes to be in Job's 
mind the sovereign goodness of God. In the midst of so much evil 
of earth where is God? How can one assume that he is good? 

The poetic section is cast in the form of a dialogue between Job 
and the friends who come from far away to comfort him. Note that 
they are not Israelites, that in the wisdom movement it is not 
necessary to be an adherent of Israelite faith in order to convey the 
counsel and comfort of the wisdom movement to a bereaved person. 
Job begins in Chapter 3 by setting forth his misery and devoutly 
wishing that he were dead or that he had never been born. Each of 
the friends then speaks to him, and after each Job makes a reply. 
Chapters 4-14 constitute the first cycle of speeches, Chapters 15-21 
the second cycle, and Chapters 22-27 the third. Chapters 29-31 are 
Job's final summary of the case, Chapter 28 being a poem which 
an editor has inserted on the source of wisdom. In Chapters 26-27 
some disruption of the material is apparent, and the third speech 
of the third friend, Zophar, seems to have become mixed with the 
words of Job. 

The first of the friends, Eliphaz, is represented as the kindest and 
wisest of the three. He begins very gently and suggests that God has 
always acted righteously in the earth, that the innocent have never 
perished, that no mortal man can be righteous before God, all men 
are sinners. The only thing that a person can do is simply to accept 
whatever lot God gives him, blessing God even for his reproving and 
chastening because in the end God will heal. In reply Job again 
quietly states his lament and asks for death. Then in Chapter 7 his 
misery so overcomes him that he begins to address God directly. He 
wants to know why God picks on him all the time: "What is so 
important about me that God pays so much attention to me!" "What 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 185 

is man, that thou shouldst magnify him . . . that thou shouldst visit 
him every morning and try him every moment?" God does not 
let him alone long enough to allow him to swallow Ms spittle! The 
second of the friends, Bildad, takes offense at these words and asks 
whether God actually perverts justice. How can Job disregard the 
whole knowledge of God which has come from the past experience 
of the human race, particularly as filtered through the wisdom move- 
ment? Job in Chapters 9-10 replies by throwing off all restraint. 
Of course he knows that God is all-powerful; there is no question 
about that because that is precisely the problem. He is so powerful 
that Job cannot even make a reply or a defense of his own case. He 
is so powerful that he is even irresponsible! Those who say that 
history is full of the righteousness of God simply disregard the fact 
that "the earth is given into the hand of the wicked." In fact, God 
seemingly destroys the blameless with the wicked and makes no 
distinction between them. At that point he ceases talking to his 
friends and turns directly to God and seeks answer from him directly. 
In Chapter 10:8 he voices the basic contradiction which his own 
predicament brings to the fore: God has made him, but now has 
turned about and is destroying him. He ends in complete despair, 
asking again why God brought him forth from the womb. 

The third Mend is Zophar. He is the most violent and hotheaded 
of the three, and in great sarcasm he replies in effect that Job is 
setting himself over against God and is committing blasphemy. Job, 
he says, is like a foolish man who will get understanding just about as 
soon as a colt of a wild ass is born of a human being, and no 
sooner! He tells Job to put away his sin, and when he can lift up 
his face without blemish, then he can be sure that all will be well with 
him. He thus accuses Job of gross sin; if he had not been a terrible 
sinner, he would not be in the predicament that he is in! This 
accusation has been implicit in the preceding speeches of the friends, 
but this is the first time it is directly made. In the theology of the 
Mends, the author of the poetic sections of the book has the wisdom 
movement attempting to explain individual human suffering. The 
stock answers are given: God chastens and tests people; all human 
beings are subject to what Christian theologians have called "original 
sin," that is, as human beings in an earthly society they cannot be 
perfect; further, history shows that God always blesses the righteous 
and punishes the wicked. To these common answers the very pre- 

186 The Book of the Acts of God 

dicament of Job is its own answer. Job is the ideal good man. It is 
true that he is a human being, and therefore subject to sin after the 
manner of men. But that does not explain why now he is having to 
suffer more than other men. It only raises the question as to whether 
God is just. Indeed, when the wise friends try to make continual 
defense of God by their old patterns of thought, they are actually 
telling lies for God (Chapter 13:4) and are only succeeding in 
proving that God is unrighteous. This point has now become one of 
the central issues in the debate. The power of God is not questioned; 
it is rather the seemingly unrighteous use of that power, God's cold- 
ness and refusal to give answer to Job when he calls upon him. 

In his extremity Job turns on his friends in bitter sarcasm: they, 
of course, are the people who have all wisdom, and then when they 
die there will be no more wisdom! In fact, it is characteristic of those 
who are comfortable and at ease to look down from their lofty 
heights in contempt at the poor person who is in misfortune (Chapter 
12:2, 5). The Mends, he says, are worthless physicians who are 
incapable of looking at facts honestly, and for that God in his time 
will surely rebuke them (Chapter 13:2-12)! Job then turns directly 
to God and casts his case in the form of a legal brief which can be 
used for his defense. Yet the trouble is that God will not answer 
him and will not allow him his day in court. He begs God not to 
terrify him, to answer him, to make known his fault; but there is 
no answer, so Job in Chapter 14 can think only of man's hopelessness. 
By contrast there is hope for a tree, which when cut down can sprout 
again from the root. But not so man. He is much more like the 
water in a lake or a river which, when it is gone, leaves nothing but 
dryness. If it were only true, that when a man dies he would live 
again, that would be something to wait for; that would be one's hope. 
Yet no sooner has Job expressed this intimation of a future than 
he sinks back into his despair. 

This brief summary of the first cycle of the debate by no means 
exhausts its depth, but at least the main issues are here presented. 
It is in this vein that the debate continues in the other cycles, with 
little that is basically new being added. It must be remembered that 
the author of the book is a poet who is not interested in arguing his 
question in a logical manner to a logical conclusion. As a poet he 
rather is examining the problem from every side, stating and restating 
it with all the vigor at his command, until both the problem and the 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 187 

inadequacy of the current wisdom movement to answer it are not 
only intellectually understood, but also deeply felt. Increasingly as the 
poem proceeds Job turns his attention directly to God, at one moment 
boldly appealing to him and at the next meditating within himself 
about his problem in relation to God. A climax is reached in Chapter 
19:25 when Job utters the words, "For I know that my Redeemer 
liveth." Unfortunately this passage stands in a context which cannot 
be clearly translated because the Hebrew is corrupt. The general 
tenor of it, however, is clear. Job is asserting his certainty that in 
the future in the heavenly court an angelic witness (cf. 16:19), a 
legal savior, will arise and take up his case and defend it in the 
heavenly court. He has hope for his future legal vindication. The 
Christian Church has always seen in this great affirmation of faith 
the figure of Christ, who is indeed precisely this: the witness in our 
behalf, our redeemer, mediator, and friend. 

Meanwhile the arguments of the friends become more and more 
traditional and less and less fresh, until it would appear that they 
have nothing more to say. In Chapters 29-31 Job makes the final 
summary of his case and at that point we await the conclusion, which 
is the expected appearance of God. The course of the poem is inter- 
rupted, however, by the insertion of the Elihu speeches referred to 
above. Finally in Chapters 3841 the Lord is represented as appearing 
and speaking directly to Job. At first glance the tenor and content 
of the speeches are a disappointment. The author does not present 
an answer to Job's problem. He rather presents a marvelous picture 
of the providence of God as shown in his control of nature. Most 
vivid of all is the picture of Leviathan in Chapter 41. From recent 
archaeological discovery of Canaanite religious literature in Syria 
we know that Leviathan was considered to be a dragon who lived 
in the sea, a seven-headed snake who could even be called Sea. In 
Canaanite mythology he was the personification of chaos, everything 
in the universe which was opposed to world order. In pagan theology 
the major problem was indeed the problem of order against disorder. 
The king of the gods had fought the dragon at the beginning of 
creation and annihilated him, thus bringing about world order. Yet 
this order is something that needs to be straggled for constantly. 
Thus while the battle was once fought and won, it needs to be 
refought and rewon every year. To the pagan the most important 
festival of the year was the spring festival in which this divine battle 

188 The Book of the Acts of God 

was depicted in a magical ritual so that security in nature could be 
assured for the coming year. In various poetic sections in the Old 
Testament we find allusions to this chaos-dragon myth, and it is 
poetically affirmed that the God of Israel was he who annihilated the 
dragon. The dragon represents the disorderly elements of the universe, 
and these are most clearly observed or symbolized in the unruly 
masses of water in the sea which can easily overcome the sailor. 
Who can control such a chaotic waste? What man can catch Leviathan 
on a fishhook and control hjm so that he does not break out in 
destructive furor? God is the only one who keeps Leviathan in 
control, and apart from that sovereign providential control we infer 
that Leviathan would rage and destroy, and man would be indeed 

The author has now made his main point. It is that the wisdom 
movement cannot answer the deepest problems of life. God does not 
always act in accordance with the moralistic dictums of the wise. 
The formula of the wisdom movement cannot explain all suffering. 
The reason is that there is a mystery in God's dealing with man, and 
in the last analysis no human formula is capable of resolving that 
mystery completely. Those who attempt falsely to defend God on the 
basis of the wisdom formula are simply putting one in a position 
where he must deny the justice of God. Hence the friends are roundly 
condemned and with them the whole wisdom movement in its basic 
theological affirmations. Yet at the same time Job's rashness in 
denying the goodness of God on the basis of his own individual 
suffering is also seen to be wrong. In Chapter 42:1-6 Job replies to 
God in effect that he has been speaking about things that he really 
knew nothing about. He. was, like so many people, one who had only 
heard of the Lord by the hearing of the ear, but "now mine eye 
sees thee." One cannot use his individual sufferings to deny the 
manifold evidence in God's world of his goodness. Without the 
goodness of God in creating and sustaining the world, man indeed 
could have no hope. Finally, the very fact that God chose to 
appear before Job is an act of grace. Job is comforted, not because 
he has an intellectual understanding of a problem which is hidden 
in the mystery of God, but because his own eyes have seen God and 
he can trust even where he cannot understand. 

The Book of Ecclesiastes is the most skeptical literature in the 
whole Bible. It is represented as the words of Solomon when he was 

The Devotional and Wisdom Literature 189 

an old man, having learned all there was to learn about life. Scholars 
generally date it, however, .somewhat later than the Book of Job in 
its present form, perhaps about 300 B.C. Like the Book of Job its 
content can only be understood as a part of the controversy brought 
about by the theological affirmations of the wisdom movement. The 
central word in the author's vocabulary is "vanity," a translation of 
a Hebrew word "nothing" or "nothingness." The author means by 
the use of it everything that is foolish, absurd, unprofitable. He begins 
by speaking about the weariness of life, of how everything repeats 
itself and there is nothing new. As a king in Jerusalem he searched 
after wisdom with all his heart and found that the whole thing is a 
vanity and a striving after wind. He sought out a life of pleasure and 
found that that was vanity. The same is the case with wealth and 
great possessions. It is true that wisdom excels folly as light excels 
darkness (Chapter 2:13), and yet it must be remembered that one 
thing happens to every man, whether he is wise or whether he is a 
fool: that is that he dies. As for the assertion that God punishes the 
wicked and rewards the righteous and that suffering is caused by 
God's testing of men to give them humility, the author notes that in 
every place of justice there is wickedness and he also notes that death 
is the great leveler of all men. The fate of a man, whether he is 
righteous or wicked, is the same as the fate of an animal. All die; 
all go to one place; all come from the dust and all return again to 
the dust. As for certain new notions about immortality that are 
coming upon the scene, the author further says, "Who knows about 
the spirit of man that the human spirit ascends up into heaven at 
death while the spirit of an animal goes down into the earth?'* 
(Chapter 3:16-2L) In fact when one sees all the oppression under 
the sun, one could well argue that the dead are much more fortunate 
than the living who are now alive! 

The author of Ecclesiastes is not a disbeliever in God. He believes, 
but he does not have much use for theology, certainly not for the 
type which the leaders of the wisdom movement have espoused. 
It is useless to try to talk about God's moral government of the 
world, or to penetrate into the secrets of life in relation to God. 
Whenever you try to figure things out, all you discover is vanity and 
foolishness. Nothing very much really makes sense. So what is one 
to do? Why, the one solid thing that a person has is his present life 
and the work and destiny which God has given him to fulfill at this 

190 The Book of the Acts of God 

moment. Therefore, there is nothing better for a man than that "he 
should eat and drink and find enjoyment in Ms toil." The author 
does not mean by this a seeking after irresponsible pleasure. God 
has made everything, yet not in such a manner that the mind of man 
can penetrate what God has been doing since the beginning of time. 
Man's lot is simply to enjoy the simple things of life which he has 
before him. Life's simplicities and the work which man is given to do 
these are God's gifts and everyone should eat and drink and take 
pleasure in them (Chapter 3:11-14). Do not try to penetrate the 
theological secrets of the universe. Simply accept the lot which God 
has given you and learn how to enjoy it in all simplicity. Let this 
advice be especially observed by the young. Watch out for your life 
and remember that God holds you responsible for what you do. 
Take life cheerfully as you find it and put away vexation and pain 
before old age begins to come upon you and it is impossible to have 
joy in anything! (Chapter 11:9 ff.) 

The author of Ecclesiastes is far more skeptical than is the author 
of the poetical portions of Job, but at the same time he has no depth 
to him. It is interesting that books like these are preserved within 
the canon of scripture. They are to be understood as rising within 
the wisdom movement, and pointing to the folly of human endeavor 
to explain all life on a moralistic basis. This does not mean that the 
ethical teaching of the wise men was wrong, but it does mean that 
prudential ethics and a dominant interest in how to win friends and 
influence people is no real clue to the meaning of God, history, and 
human life. The canon of scripture has included the best literature of 
the wisdom movement, and then included the Books of Job and 
Ecclesiastes as its corrective. It is interesting to observe that though 
the teaching of the wise men continued and though later collections 
of their teachings are to be found in the inter-Testamental books of 
Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon, there was never a need 
for men like the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes to write again. They 
had made their point, and they did not establish skeptical schools 
which perpetuated and elaborated their point of view. 


The Close of the Old Testament 

IN THE preceding survey we have mentioned all of the 
books of the Old Testament except a few which appear among the 
last group of writings in the Hebrew Bible. The little Book of Ruth 
is a charming story about the great-grandfather and the great-grand- 
mother of King David. It could well serve as a gentle reminder that 
David's great-grandmother was not an Israelite but a foreigner. It is 
believed to have been edited about the fifth century and put in its 
present form, though the story is a very old one. It was placed in its 
present position as an appendage to the Book of Judges in the Greek 
translation of the Old Testament. 

The Book of Lamentations is a series of poetical laments of great 
beauty and power about the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. 
They were in time appended to the Book of Jeremiah and some later 
Jewish rabbis even thought Jeremiah wrote them, though modern 
scholarship does not think this is very likely. 

The Song of Songs is a marvelous collection of love poetry. Very 
close parallels to it have recently been found in Egypt. It was pre- 
served, probably because it was very early allegorized. That is, it 
was interpreted not simply as human love between man and woman 
but as divine love between God and people. The Christian Church, 
for example, interpreted it as the love of Christ for his Church and 
the love of the Church for Christ. Most scholars typical of those 
working in this field do not believe that the original authors and 
collectors of the poetry had any such allegory in mind. They pre- 
sented a beautiful portrayal of human love at its best, and as such 
the book is today welcomed within the canon of sacred literature. 
The book is felt to be a post-exilic edition of much earlier poems, 
dating at least from the ninth century B.C. and perhaps earlier. 


192 The Book of the Acts of God 

The Book of Esther, perhaps to be dated around 300 B.C., pur- 
ports to record events which led up to the institution of a great 
festival, still celebrated among Jews as the Feast of Lots. The setting 
of the story is the time of the Persian King Xerxes (486-65 B.C.). 
The purpose of the book was evidently to provide a justification for 
the celebration of this festival which had no basis in the Old Testa- 
ment otherwise and had no religious significance. The festival, accord- 
ing to the book, was to be understood as a commemoration of the 
great deEvery of Jews in Persia from massacre. The story is mar- 
velously told, though at the end of the book the Jews are said to 
have turned on their enemies and carried out against them the 
massacre which had been planned for the Jews. The fact that God is 
not even mentioned in the book and that it does end with this vin- 
dictive spirit suggests the reasons why this book had more difficulty 
in getting into the Old Testament canon than any other. At least one 
sect of the Jews, the Essenes, seem not to have had it among their 
writings, and it was almost entirely ignored by the early Christian 
fathers in their comments upon the Bible. 

The last book of the Old Testament to be written was the Book 
of Daniel. Chapters 1-6 of that book present a series of very familiar 
stories about the adventures of Daniel and his companions in exile 
in Babylon during the early sixth century. Chapters 7-12 present 
four visions in which the history of the known world is portrayed in 
symbolical form from the time of the exile in Babylon to the final 
triumph of the saints of God. To understand this second section of 
the book it is necessary to make use of a commentary. The whole is 
very symbolic and cast in quite general terms until it comes into the 
Greek period of the third and early second centuries. At that time it 
becomes increasingly detailed, and the events are described with great 
care and accuracy, though in symbolic form, up until about 165 B.C. 
A close observation of the history of the time and of the point where 
the book ends have led scholars to date it about this period. 

The story was written at a time when the King of Syria, a man 
named Antiochus Epiphanes (175-63 B.C.), had decided to stamp 
out Judaism in Palestine as a needless disturbance in an empire that 
was otherwise culturally and religiously united. Shortly before this 
time he had entered the temple and desecrated it, turning it into a 
temple for the pagan god Zeus. This happened in 168 B.C., whereas 
the king died in 163 B.C. The book was written, evidently before 

The Close of the Old Testament 193 

his death, as a source of encouragement to the Jews who were 
undergoing severe trials of faith. God is on the side of all martyrs 
for his cause, and all those who stand firm in this crisis will see their 
hopes ultimately confirmed. When the king died, the temple was 
purified, and a festival celebrating this event is still observed by the 
Jews around the Christian Christmas season; it is called "the Feast 
of Lights." 

As is now well known, the oldest-known fragments of the Old 
Testament in Hebrew, and even a few in Greek, are the famous 
Dead Sea Scrolls. By the spring of 1956 some eleven caves in the 
cliffs by the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea had been found 
to yield manuscript material of great interest and importance for 
both the study of the Old and the New Testaments. The complete 
Book of Isaiah is excellently preserved in one complete scroll which 
dates about 100 B.C. In the fourth cave fragments of over 400 scrolls 
were discovered, one fourth of which were copies of biblical books. 
Most of these are readily distinguished because they are written on 
a much finer leather and are copied in a special book hand with 
more care than that given to other manuscripts. Every book of the 
Old Testament except Esther is represented in the discoveries. The 
oldest fragments are those of a manuscript of Samuel and another 
of Jeremiah dating from about 200 B.C. A fragment of Ecclesiastes 
dates from about 150 B.C. ^Several copies of the Book of Daniel 
have been found, one fragment dating less than 100 years from 
the time the book was written. Before the last decade it was never 
thought possible that we would get that close to the original manu- 
script of an Old Testament book. Most of the manuscripts date from 
the first century B.C. and the first century A.D. Other manuscripts 
from just before and after A.D. 100 have been found about twelve 
miles further south of the original find in caves of a valley called 
Wadi Murabba'at. 

These texts, when they are completely studied, will prove of 
exceedingly great importance for the translation of the Old Testa- 
ment. As a result of these discoveries and from other information 
previously known, it is now clear that the text of the Old Testament 
was carefully revised by rabbis and standardized at the end of the 
first and the early part of the second century A.D. One of the diffi- 
culties which translators of the Old Testament have had is how to 
get behind the standardized text which has survived through medieval 

194 The Book of the Acts of God 

into modem times, back into the days where variant readings in 
certain difficult passages still were preserved. When one has other 
choices of text to study, he can sometimes make out with more 
assurance what certain hard-to-understand passages may originally 
have been intended to say. The Dead Sea Scrolls, though mostly of 
a very fragmentary nature, introduce us to the period during and 
before the time of Jesus, when the Old Testament text at certain 
points was still somewhat fluid and not frozen into one pattern. 

The people of the scrolls, known in ancient times as the Essenes, 
were a sect of Judaism founded in the second century before the 
birth of Christ As previously mentioned, the one book of the 
Old Testament which has not yet been found in their library is the 
Book of Esther. This suggests that in the scripture of the Essenes 
the Book of Esther had not yet found a place, and was not to do 
so until the final decision of the rabbis at the end of the first cen- 
tury A.D. On the other hand the books of history, prophecy, and 
devotional and wisdom literature were all present, some in a num- 
ber of copies. While Ecclesiastes and Daniel were known, it is 
not entirely clear that they were considered canonical. The scholars 
working on the scrolls as of this moment are not entirely sure 
about the matter. This means that the Essenes in the time of 
Jesus held to the same group of Old Testament books as do Prot- 
estant Christians today, with the exception of two or three mar- 
ginal books whose position was subsequently to be decided. On 
the other hand, during the third and second centuries B.C., Jewish 
scholars in Egypt made a translation of the Old Testament into Greek 
for Jews who spoke Greek in their everyday life. These translators 
in Egypt included, among the books of the Old Testament which 
were considered especially sacred, a small group of literature which 
we call the Apocrypha. In other words, there seems to have been 
some disagreement between Palestinian and Egyptian Jews as to which 
of these marginal books at the end of the Old Testament period 
should be included among the sacred literature. When the Christian 
Church needed a Greek Bible it simply took over the Egyptian trans- 
lation of the Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). To this day 
the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches retain these 
marginal volumes in their Bibles, while the Protestants at the time 
of the Reformation went back to the list of sacred books as they 
were established by Palestinian rabbis, thus omitting the Apocrypha. 

The Close of the Old Testament 195 

The list of sacred books which are separated from other literatures 
and considered especially sacred is called the canon, as indicated 
in the Prologue. The very idea of a canon of sacred literature is some- 
thing new under the sun, and it is this idea which was responsible for 
the preservation of the Bible. The conception of a canon was appar- 
ently established in Judaism during the post-exilic period, when the 
Jews in Babylonian exile and in Palestine were industriously collect- 
ing their sacred literature, editing it, and seeking to live by it. Between 
the sixth and the fourth century, then, prophets were no longer as 
much needed in the popular conception as scholars in the scriptures. 
Ezra, it will be remembered, was typical of that development. This 
was the beginning of that intensive study of scripture which has been 
carried on by every generation among Jews and Christians from that 
time until this. The people of the Dead Sea Scrolls before and during 
the time of Jesus were ardent students of the Old Testament scripture, 
and many scrolls in the fragmentary portion of their library which has 
been recovered were commentaries on various of the sacred books. 

It is often asked why we today do not include other books in the 
canon. If, however, the argument of the Prologue and of the pages 
which follow has been considered closely, it will be observed that 
the Bible is first of all an interpretation of the life of the people in a 
particular age, an interpretation which explains this life as a special 
working of God. The Bible is not a series of abstract religious 
teachings. These events happened at this time and no other, and they 
will never be repeated in just this way. Nevertheless the knowledge 
of God here presented is of basic significance because it illumines 
subsequent history. On the other hand, it is true that the decision as 
to which of the marginal books at the end of the Old Testament period 
should be included and which should be omitted is a matter for 
human councils. The Book of Esther, for example, could be omitted 
from the Canon and I-II Maccabees, describing the independence 
straggle of the Jews during the second and early first centuries B.C., 
could be included, and nothing would be particularly changed. The 
classic forms of the faith as found in the history, the prophets, and 
the psalms remain the same. It is they which judge the marginal 
books and not the latter which judge the former. 

We must also observe at this point that the problem of the marginal 
books in the period between the Old and New Testamenjts suggests 
that the great period of Israel is over* little of creative significance 

196 The Book of the Acts of God 

is now happening. Yet how is a people to live by means of the old 
faith? The Old Testament ends with a number of unsolved problems, 
the chief of which is this one. We thus, as it were, are in a period of 
waiting, a time when various experiments may be expected, when 
various sects will arise, each with its answer as to how best to under- 
stand the relevance of the old faith. The Old Testament in itself is 
incomplete. How will it be completed, or, as the Christian would 
say it, how will it be fulfilled so that its expectations point to 
something that is secure and by which we have life? Nearly all 
of the Jewish sects disappeared except the one which survived as 
dominant That was rabbinic Judaism, which saw the Old Testament 
fulfilled and made relevant in the Talmud. For the Christian, however, 
Jesus Christ, as it were the "word" of God become flesh in human 
history, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, the end to which it 
was moving, and the summary of what God meant by it. To the 
Christian, then, the Old Testament is not the Bible apart from 
the New Testament, just as the New Testament is not the Bible apart 
from the Old. It is the whole of scripture, and that alone, which 
enables one to understand the work of God in Christ. 

Part III 



Historical Background From the 
Maccabees to Jesus 

THROUGHOUT RECORDED history Palestine has succeeded 
in maintaining her independence only during those brief periods when 
her more powerful neighbors were preoccupied elsewhere or under- 
going a temporary ecHpse. Only twice during the biblical period did 
that happen during the time of David and his immediate successors, 
and again during the first part of the period with which we are now 
concerned, the period of the Hasmonaean dynasty (143-63 B.C.) 
founded as a result of the Maccabean revolt. Like the earlier 
period, the second was one of transition. The Greco-Macedonian 
regime under the successors of Alexander the Great was in decline, 
but the Romans had not yet come on the scene. Hence there was 
a real though short-lived chance of Jewish independence and of 
national resurgence. 

Our chief source of information for this period is I Maccabees, one 
of the books of the Apocrypha, to supplement which we may 
occasionally use II Maccabees. 

I Maccabees, after a brief summary of Alexander the Great's 
conquests (1:19) and the subsequent division of his realms among 
his successors in the three kingdoms of Macedonia, Syria, and Egypt, 
comes to the Maccabean revolt, whose first beginnings and early 
phases are related in 1:10-2. The next main section (3:1-9:22) 
brings the story down to the death of Judas Maccabaeus, the leader of 
the rebellion. Chapters 9:23-12 deal with the career of his brother 
Jonathan, who succeeded him as leader, and the last section, Chapters 
13-16, give an account of Simon, the last of the three brothers. 

Two Maccabees covers part of the same ground (the years 176- 
66) from a different point of view. The author of the first book 


200. The Book of the Acts of God 

wrote from a national and patriotic point of view, with very little 
intrusion of the supernatural or even the theological, though his out- 
look is by no means secularist. He does believe that the Jews are 
God's chosen people, but the prophetic note is missing: the woes of 
Israel are laid at the door of her oppressors, never attributed to her 
own sins. Two Maccabees however is theological first and foremost: 
it relates history in order to show that Israel's woes are caused by 
her own sins and are God's judgment upon them. The two works are 
clearly independent, and the historical discrepancies have long 
exercised the minds of scholars. Nowadays it is generally recognized 
that I Maccabees, while not infallible, is closer to history, while 
II Maccabees may be used occasionally to supplement the evidence 
of the first book on matters of factual detail. 

A notable feature of I Maccabees is the use of speeches which are 
placed in the mouth of the leading dramatis personae. This was a 
common technique of contemporary historians, both Greek and 
Jewish. Opinion is divided as to their historicity. Were they com- 
posed by the author, or did he derive them from his sources? The 
most likely answer is that while some of their content may depend 
on reminiscence of what was actually said at the time, the speeches 
as they stand are the work of the author. More difficult is the question 
of letters and documents which the author purports to quote. Are 
they authentic? Are they the free composition of the author? Are they 
even subsequent interpolations? Each view has found its champions. 
Again, the most likely view seems to be that the author had docu- 
mentary sources at his disposal, but that he himself has written them 
up for effect. 

It was the third of the Maccabees, Simon, who first succeeded 
in establishing a really independent rule (143-35), not as king, 
however, but as high priest. True, he did not belong to the legiti- 
mate high priestly line. But, during the troubles, the last survivor 
of that line had escaped to Egypt to set up a temple (despite the 
Deuteronomic law of the central sanctuary) at Leontopolis, and had 
ended his days in the unedifying circumstances of a drunken brawl. 
The title of high priest was then conferred on Simon as an act of 
national gratitude for liberation, a natural enough procedure when 
one recalls that the only "rulers" with any semblance of power that 
the Jews had known since the exile were the high priests. 

Simon died a violent death in 135 and was succeeded by his son, 

Historical Background From the Maccabees to Jesus 201 

John Hyrcanus. Here I Maccabees fails us (see I Maccabees 16:23 f.) 
and we are thrown back upon Josephus* Antiquities and Jewish War 
(see below). Hyrcanus' long rule (135-104) was notable for three 
developments. The first was his own gradual advance from high 
priesthood to monarchy, the second the territorial expansion of the 
Jewish realm to include Samaria and Idumea (thus bringing in 
the territory which was to produce the Herods of the New Testament 
period), and the third the breakup of the old revolutionary party, 
the "Chasidim." The main section of this party, which developed 
into the Pharisees of the New Testament, dissociated themselves 
from the Hasmonaeans (as the new dynasty was called) because of 
their increasing worldliness and disloyalty to the original religious 
motivation of the revolution. The group which remained loyal to the 
ruling dynasty was the Sadducees, the priestly party, conservative in 
religion but liberal in culture, and not averse to the comforts of 
Hellenistic civilization. 

At his death, Hyrcanus was succeeded by his son Aristobulus, 
whose brief reign (104-3) was notable because he was the first 
Hasmonaean to take the title of "king" and because he added Galilee 
to his domains. Aristobulus, in turn, was succeeded by his brother 
Jannaeus (Hebrew, Jonathan), who also married his brother's widow, 
Salome or Alexandra. He reigned from 103 to 76. His military 
ambitions intensified the estrangement of the Pharisees from the 
ruling dynasty, as did also his growing partiality for the Greek way 
of life. If Alexander Jannaeus is to be identified with the "wicked 
priest" of the sectarian documents discovered in the Qumran cave, 
it would seem that the secession of the "covenanters" occurred during 
Ms reign. They seceded from the mainstream of the national life 
because they were equally dissatisfied with the ruling dynasty and 
with the Pharisaic protest against it. Neither of the existing parties 
was loyal to ideals of the revolution! 

When Jannaeus died, Alexandra, twice widowed, became queen 
regnant in Ms stead. As a woman she could not combine the office 
of Mgh priest with the monarchy, like her predecessors, so the former 
devolved upon her son, the feeble-minded Hyrcanus II. Her reign 
was peaceful and prosperous, but marked the beginning of the end 
the Romans by tMs time were approaching the scene. 

In 63 the Romans, under Pompey, laid siege to Jerusalem and 
conquered the Jewish people amid scenes of terrible bloodshed. 

202 The Book of the Acts of God 

Pompey added insult to injury by entering the holy of holies itself, 
though he did refrain from interfering with the temple worship. 
Judea thus passed under Roman control and was shorn of the 
Hasmonaean conquests. Hyrcanus II added to his high priesthood 
the political title of ethnarch: the short-lived monarchy was abolished. 
But the power behind the throne was a certain Antipater, the first 
representative of the notorious Herod family who caine from Idumea 
and soon established itself in place of the Hasmonaeans. A confused 
period followed, made even more so by the Roman civil war. During 
this period Antipater behaved very adroitly, changing sides from 
time to time, and always managing to keep on the winning side during 
the ebb and flow of the civil war. In the end his son Herod, the 
infamous Herod of the infancy narratives in the New Testament, was 
able to establish himself as ruler, a position which he strengthened 
by marrying Mariamne, a surviving princess of the Hasmonaean 
dynasty. His technical position was that of a rex sodus, or allied king, 
governing Ms own territory independently, and subject to Rome only 
in foreign affairs. Herod once more enlarged the Jewish kingdom by 
annexing a number of Greek cities, though without forcing them to 
adopt the Jewish way of life. At the same time, despite Ms pro- 
Roman and Hellenizing proclivities, he allowed Ms Jewish subjects 
to practice their religion freely, and in fact rebuilt the ruined temple 
at Jerusalem. Even this tactful behavior, however, failed to arouse 
any enthusiasm for Ms rule among Ms Jewish subjects. At best 
they merely tolerated it as the better of two evils, better, that is, 
than direct Roman rule. The Psalms of Solomon, wMch are not in 
the Apocrypha, reflect the popular mood at tMs juncture. They 
clearly disapprove of Herod, while the later ones look forward to a 
renewal of the Davidic monarchy under a "messiah" or anointed 
king. TMs popular expectation provides part of the background to 
the gospels and on the whole represents a form of future hope wMch 
Jesus consistently rejected. 

Herod's long reign, wMch was particularly troubled in Ms later 
years (the story of the massacre of the infants after the birth of Jesus 
is, if improbable on other grounds, at least in keeping with the 
character of Ms closing days), came to an end in 4 B.C. His kingdom 
was divided among Ms three sons, Archelaus taking Judea, Samaria 
and Idumea, Antipas receiving Galilee and Perea, and Philip being 
allotted Trachonitis and other parts. Of these, Archelaus was the 

Historical Background From the Maccabees to Jesus 203 

least successful: there was prolonged unrest, and Roman military 
intervention was necessary to bolster up Ms tottering throne. In the 
end, Roman patience was exhausted, for in A.D. 6 Archelaus was 
banished to Gaul and Judea placed under a procurator subordinate 
to the governor of Syria. Such then was the political situation obtain- 
ing in Palestine during the ministry of Jesus, when Pontius Pilate 
was procurator of Judea (A.D. 26-36) and Herod Antipas ruler of 
Galilee (see Luke 3:1). 


The Jewish Community 

JERUSALEM, FIRST chosen in the time of David to be the 
capital city of his realm, had by the time of Jesus become an interna- 
tional religious center like Rome today for millions of Catholics of 
her obedience. That explains why, in Acts 2, we find people present in 
Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost from all over the Mediterranean 
world. Since the captivity and exile in 586, people of Jewish origin 
had spread not only to Babylon, but to Egypt and then throughout 
the Mediterranean lands. Strabo's exaggeration was by no means 

Jews are to be found in every city, and in the whole world 
it was not easy to find a place where they had not penetrated 
and which was not dominated by them. Antiquities 14:115 

It is calculated that the Jews formed no less than 7 per cent of the 
population of the Roman Empire, and even allowing for their 
migrations and fertility, their expansion is a real problem and cannot 
be accounted for from these factors alone. Additional causes may be 
sought in the absorption of other Semitic people, in the action of 
Antiochus the Great in settling some two thousand Jewish families 
from Babylon in Phrygia and Lydia, in Pompey's transportation of 
Jewish prisoners of war to Rome, where after liberation they formed 
the nucleus of the Jewish community there. It was during this period, 
too, that the Jews took to trading and began to amass wealth, both 
factors which would have led to further settlements abroad. Lastly, 
we have to take into account the appeal of its religion, especially 
to women. This factor must not be exaggerated, however, for the 
number of people who were prepared to join the Jewish community 
by circumcision (or baptism in the case of women) was compara- 
tively small, most interested Gentiles preferring to remain on the 


The Jewish Community 205 

fringe as "God-fearers," attracted by the ethical monotheism of 
the Jewish religion but reluctant to submit to the more irksome 
restrictions of the ceremonial law. 

Something should be said about the organization of the Jewish 
people. The temple, as* already indicated, was their one proper 
center. Every Jew paid his temple tax. But looking back today we 
can see that the temple was no longer the real center of piety, except 
as a place of pilgrimage. The real center of their religious life lay 
elsewhere, in the local synagogue, so much so that the final destruc- 
tion of the temple in A.D. 70, far from destroying the Jewish religion, 
inaugurated a new period of vitality. 

As an institution the local synagogue (one could be founded 
wherever there were ten men) was fundamentally not a center of 
worship, but a school of instruction in the law. Apart from the formal 
worship of the temple, the family was the place of worship. The form 
of service in the synagogue was centered upon the reading of the law 
and its subsequent exposition, psalmody and prayer being incidental. 
The synagogue combined secular and religious functions, like the old 
Easter vestries in England, which not only appointed the church- 
wardens but also looked after highways and bridges! Their governing 
body consisted of elders (Hebrew, zekanim, which, translated into 
Greek as presbyteros, eventually gave us the English words "priest" 
and "presbyter"). The elders had power of excommunication. The 
worship of the synagogue was under the control of the "ruler of 
the synagogue," an official who figures in several places in the New 

There was a similar body running the affairs of the world-wide 
Jewry at the center known as the "Great Sanhedrin," the "chief 
priests and elders and scribes" of the gospels. There has been much 
controversy as to whether they could inflict the death penalty at this 
period. There is a contradiction within the New Testament on this 
point Acts 7, the story of the stoning of Stephen, clearly implying 
that they had that power, John 18:31 expressly stating that they 
had not. The best authorities seem to agree that they had in religious 
cases, and the point of John 18:31 will be that the Sanhedrin was 
determined to make the case of Jesus a political one. After A.D. 70 
even this limited right to inflict capital punishment was taken away. 


The Jewish Religion 

ONE OF the problems besetting the student of Judaism in 
New Testament times is that most of our direct evidence comes from 
a later date, for we have to rely mainly on the "Mishnah," a collection 
of traditional teaching first written down toward the end of the 
second century and consisting largely of sayings of rabbis of earlier 
dates, back to the time of Herod the Great. This evidence must be 
used with caution, for in the second century there was undoubtedly a 
natural tendency to idealize Judaism as it used to be in the days before 
the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 

Our second source of evidence is the New Testament itself. Modern 
Jewish scholars suspect its picture of first-century Judaism of bias in 
the opposite direction the early Christians naturally tended to be 
less than fair to their opponents. Here, however, it is necessary to 
distinguish between the various strata of the New Testament writings: 
yet the very writers most concerned with anti- Jewish polemic are the 
ones which were most familiar with it, namely, Matthew's special 
source, Paul, and the author of the fourth gospel. Moreover, the New 
Testament throughout emphatically insists that "salvation is of the 
Jews/' and much in contemporary Judaism was valued and preserved 
in early Christianity. 

Third, we have the two works of the Jewish historian, Josephus, 
his Jewish War, dealing with the revolt of A.D. 70, of which he had 
direct, firsthand knowledge, and his Antiquities, covering the whole of 
Jewish history up to his own times and published in the last decade 
of the first century A.D. Josephus however is always concerned to 
present Judaism in as commendable a light as possible for his cultured 
Greco-Roman readers, and therefore tends to soften its asperities 
and to draw a discreet veil over its distinctive features. 


The Jewish Religion 207 


We do however possess one work emanating directly from 
the scribal tradition in its early stage. This is the work known as the 
Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, as it is called in 
the Apocrypha, where the reader will find it. It was originally written 
in Hebrew at Jerusalem about 180 B.C. and consists of a collection 
of essays and maxims strung together in conscious imitation of the 
Book of Proverbs. It is striking that the author actually uses Ms own 
name and not a pseudonym like that appended to Proverbs before 
him and to the Wisdom of Solomon after him. His book is difficult 
to analyze because it is constructed on no definite plan; but he himself 
clearly divided it into two parts, Chapters 1-23 and 24-51, each 
part concluding with an acrostic poem. The original Hebrew was lost 
for many centuries, and the version in the Apocrypha was translated 
from a Greek rendering produced by the author's own grandson in 
Egypt about 130 B.C. Since 1896, however, some two thirds of the 
Hebrew text have been recovered. 

As the author himself tells us in 51 : 23, he kept a sort of finishing 
school for young men, a Beth ha-midrash, or house of instruction, in 
which it was Ms practice to deliver lectures without charging fees 
(the later rabbis practiced a trade to avoid living by their teaching 
of the law), as he tells us in verse 25. The book is a reproduction of 
his lectures, which arc partly the reapplication of the Mosaic law to 
the changed circumstances of contemporary life, and partly just the 
plain practical common sense of a shrewd observer of human life and 
manners. Much of it in fact reads very much like those handbooks 
for the "perfect gentleman" which were published in the eighteenth 
and nineteenth centuries. It may thus be said to mark the transition 
from the wisdom literature of the Book of Proverbs and the teachings 
of the early rabbis, a transition, as has been aptly remarked, "from 
the authority of inspiration to the authority of learning." Like 
Proverbs it is a Judaism which is less bound to the sacred history 
of God's redemptive acts and more concerned with the universal 
truths of piety and ethics. Yet, as the liturgical recital of 44:16- 
49:16 shows, this detachment from the redemptive history should 
not be exaggerated In another respect, too, it marks a transition: 
here for the first time we find wisdom identified with Torah, which, 

208 The Book of the Acts of God 

having originally meant "instruction," came to mean the law of 
Moses, and was then further expanded to embrace the whole of God's 
self-communication to man almost what we mean when we speak 
of "revelation." 

The best-known passage in the Wisdom of Sirach is the hymn of 
praise which begins with "Let us now praise famous men" (44: 1-15) . 
There is also a remarkable description of the high priest officiating 
on the Day of the Atonement in Chapter 50. 

The dominant concern of the Pharisaic movement was to preserve 
inviolate the Mosaic law and its way of life against the encroach- 
ments of alien cultures. Since that law had been given once for all 
through Moses there could be no new laws. Instead, the ancient 
laws, which had been intended for a more primitive society, had to 
be reapplied to later situations. In this reapplication there was no 
thought of introducing novelties: rather, the idea was to extract the 
real meaning of the law. The method adopted was that of casuistry. 

The procedure of the rabbis was to repeat the interpretations of 
their predecessors and to add to them new ones of their own, covering 
further contingencies in daily life. The type of question they dealt with 
is indicated by the discussion about plucking ears of corn on the 
Sabbath day (Mark 2:23 ft). There were lengthy and quite serious 
discussions as to precisely what was and what was not involved by 
"work" on the Sabbath. There was little attempt to search for an 
underlying principle behind the numerous commands and prohibi- 
tions. The two great commandments, love of God and love of the 
neighbor, were of course part of the law, but even in combination 
they were not accorded that central and unifying position which they 
were given in the New Testament. All this naturally led to legalism 
and scrupulosity, to a belief in the saving value of good works, and 
the consequent sense of pride which a doctrine of merit inevitably 
entailed. Yet we should not belittle the achievements of rabbinic 
Judaism. It was precisely because they were such good men that they 
incurred the radical criticisms of Jesus and Paul: 

I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is 
not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that 
comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did 
not submit to God's righteousness. Romans 10:2 f. (R.S.V.) 

It is an exaggeration to say, as has recently been asserted, that the 

The Jewish Religion 209 

rabbis completely abandoned the idea of sacred history, of a history 
of God's mighty acts towaxd his people. They still looked back to 
the exodus as the decisive event of redemption by which Israel was 
constituted. They did not altogether ignore the crucial fact that the 
observance of the law was meant to be Israel's grateful response to 
the prior action of God. They still had the Pentateuch, which included 
gospel as well as law. They still observed the feasts, especially the 
Passover, as the memorial of that redemption. And they still looked 
forward to a future in which God would inaugurate his reign on 
earth, and this hope indeed took the strongly historical form of a 
restored realm under a new king of David's line as Messiah. And in 
this restoration the experiences of the exodus would be repeated. Yet 
it is true to say that these beliefs were peripheral. Their chief interest 
like that of the wisdom literature was in individual ethics. 

Although the rabbis strove to maintain the purity of Judaism 
against the accretions of foreign culture, they unconsciously absorbed 
ideas from the alien world in which they had perforce to live. The 
influence of Hellenism was subtle and all-pervasive, and rabbinic 
Judaism assimilated ideas and even vocabulary from that suspect 
source. Sometimes this led to an enrichment of Jewish thought, 
sometimes to an obscuring of the authentic tradition of the Old 
Testament. Thus they came to hold the Greek doctrine of the soul, 
its metaphysical nature, its pre-existence and immortality* This 
doctrine they held rather awkwardly with the belief in the resurrection 
of the body, which had at an earlier date been adopted, perhaps, 
from Persian sources. But they never completely committed them- 
selves to the Greek view of the duality of soul and body. In many 
ways the New Testament is the reassertion of the authentic Old Testa- 
ment tradition over against the rabbinic distortion of it, for the 
New Testament reaffirmed the primacy of gospel over law, the basic 
importance of redemptive history, and the Hebraic doctrine of man. 


Until recently it has been difficult to assign the apocalyptic 
writings to any distinct group within Judaism- They have generally 
been vaguely associated with Galilee. The Pharisees were uninterested 

210 The Book of the Acts of God 

in it, for their hopes for the future, as we have seen, took a purely 
historical, this-worldly form. But we now know that the Qumran 
community was interested in this type of literature, for fragments of 
it have turned up among their remains. True, their own literary 
products, while accepting some of the features of the apocalyptic 
world view, are not in themselves apocalypses. And it would be as 
fallacious to suppose that everything found in the Qumran caves was 
the product of the community itself as it would be to suppose that 
every volume in a university library is the work of members of that 
university! Nevertheless, the international team working on the 
scrolls, together with other scholars who are studying the material, 
are finding themselves increasingly drawn to the conclusion that the 
apocalyptists belonged to the same wider group as the Qumran 
covenanters, and that the wider group in question was the Essenes 
(see below). Almost all of these experts seem to agree that the 
Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (see below), the Book of 
Jubilees, and the Book of Enoch (see below) are "Essene" docu- 
ments. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this position is 
that the Qumran documents show that the community used the same 
calendar as Enoch and Jubilees. Undoubtedly, the Qumraners had 
affinities with the group that produced the apocalyptic writings. 

The apocalyptic literature begins in the Old Testament with the 
Book of Daniel and blossoms forth into full flower in the "pseudepi- 
graphic" literature such as the Book of Enoch, IV Esdras, and the 
Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. Unfortunately, these are not 
readily accessible to the general reader, for they are not included in 
the Apocrypha: but they will be found in English translation in R. H. 
Charles's monumental Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Volume II. 

With the help of ideas originally derived from Persian religion the 
apocalyptists made a significant advance on the prophetic interpreta- 
tion of history by elevating it to cosmic dimensions. They believed 
in a cosmic dualism between the kingdom of God and the kingdom 
of evil. Unlike Persian dualism, however, which believed in a per- 
manent opposition between these two principles, the apocalyptic 
dualism was only provisional. Here they were true to Old Testament 
insights. God was still the Creator of the universe: there was a time 
when evil was not and God was. The kingdom of evil was the result 
of a rebellion within the created order on the part of Satan and his 
aneels. Moreover, this rebellion would last only as long as God 

The Jewish Religion 211 

permitted it to endure. Meanwhile, history was the scene of conflict 
between God and his angels and Satan and his. God was on the side 
of Israel, or at least of the faithful in Israel, while the devil employed 
as the instruments of his hostility towards God's people the suc- 
ceeding world empires. History was hastening toward a final catas- 
trophe in which the whole created order would collapse and a new 
heaven and new earth would be established by God on the ruins 
of the old, and the elect would be brought into everlasting bliss in 
his kingdom. The method of apocalyptic writers was to relate past 
history up to their own time in symbolic imagery, emphasizing the 
supernatural nature of the conflict behind the scenes. Then, as they 
reach the moment in history where they themselves are standing, 
they take a leap into the future. The conflict is intensified and spreads 
throughout the whole cosmic order. Sometimes an antichrist appears, 
the satanic counterpart of the agent of God's redemption. Then God 
himself intervenes, sometimes directly, sometimes, if our texts can 
be trusted (for they have been preserved by the Christian Church 
and are sometimes open to the suspicion of Christian interpolation), 
in the person of an agent of redemption called the "Son of man." 
He finally overthrows the last world empire and the powers of evil 
behind it, and establishes his reign throughout the universe. 

The teachings of the apocalyptists are generally couched in the 
form of visions granted to great biblical worthies of the past, such 
as Enoch, Moses, Baruch, and Ezra. The reason for this device is 
that the period of revelation was thought to have closed with the law 
and the prophets, and the only way in which the new teaching could 
be put across as revealed truth was by commending it in this way as 
part of the original revelation. There is an element of truth in this, 
for the apocalyptists are fundamentally true to the insights of the Old 
Testament. God is Creator and Lord of history, whose purpose is not 
just an abstract, eternal truth, but something to be realized at the 
end of history. 

A brief account of some of the more important apocalypses follows. 

1. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs 

This was written in Hebrew in the latter part of the 
second century B.C., though it now survives only in a Greek transla- 
tion. As its title suggests, it is cast into the form of farewell discourses 

212 The Book oj the Acts of God 

delivered by each of the twelve sons of Jacob. Each patriarch delivers 
a warning against the particular sin which marred his own life and 
exhorts his posterity to pursue the opposite virtue. Only Joseph 
and Issachar are exceptions for they could point to their own 
virtues for imitation. To this advice is added, except in the case of 
Gad, a number of apocalyptic predictions. 

This work is of importance for the study of the New Testament 
Its ethical teaching anticipates in some respects the ethical teaching 
of Jesus and the exhortations of the New Testament epistles. Its 
dualistic language about light and darkness, truth and falsehood finds 
a striking echo, even verbally, in the Johannine writings. 

2. / Enoch 

This is a higly composite document whose various parts 
were composed over the period of a century (165-63). Contempo- 
rary scholars believe that it was originally written, not in Hebrew, 
but Aramaic. It survives as a whole only in an Ethiopic translation 
of a Greek version, but much of the Greek version has been recovered 
in recent years. 

After an introduction (Chapters 1-5) there foEows a section 
(6-36) which recounts the fate of the fallen angels of Genesis 6:1-4, 
whom Enoch visits in their subterranean prison. Then comes a section 
known as the Parables or Similitudes of Enoch (Chapters 37-71). 
Three parables are presented, each of them on the theme of the Last 
Judgment. This section is of particular importance to the New 
Testament scholar, for it is seemingly the earliest evidence we have 
in Judaism of the figure of the Son of man as the agent of God's 
judgment and redemption. If we could be sure that this section of 
Enoch is pre-Christian, it would be an important clue to Jesus' use 
of the term Son of man. But it is not at all certain that this part of 
Enoch is in fact pre-Christian, for none of it has as yet turned up 
among our considerable Greek fragments of the work. Consequently 
it is possible that Jesus* use of the term represents an independent 
creative reinterpretation of the usage in Daniel 7:13, where it is the 
representative symbol of a corporate entity, the "saints of the Most 

After a section on astronomy (78-82), there follow two visions 
(83-90), the first relating the judgment of the world in the flood of 

The Jewish Religion 213 

Noah, and the second the history of the world, with special reference 
to Israel and to the time of the Maccabees. This section concludes 
with a vision of the Messianic age, which in this part is pictured as a 
permanent reign of God on earth. 

The last part of the book (Chapters 91-108) consists of miscel- 
laneous material, partly historical and partly apocalyptic. 

It will be seen that the teaching of the work, precisely because of 
its composite character, is far from uniform. In some parts the final 
reign of God is located on this earth, while in others it is pictured 
as beyond history, in the new heaven and new earth. 

The Book of Enoch has the distinction of being quoted in the New 
Testament (Jude 14f., which cites Enoch 1:9). 

This does not pretend to be an exhaustive account of the apoca- 
lyptic literature, but it introduces the reader to the content of the 
more important writings in the period between the two Testaments. 
The equally important IV Esdras is not considered here, since it was 
not written until the latter half of the first century of the Christian era. 


It has long been known that in addition to the main 
currents of Palestinian Judaism there were a number of "sects." 

Both Josephus and Philo (as well as the Roman writer, Pliny the 
Elder) speak of a group known as the Essenes. These seem to have 
been a community of ascetics, concentrated mainly in the Dead Sea 
area. They devoted themselves to a strict observance of the law 
according to their own interpretation of it, which however was dif- 
ferent from that of the Pharisees, with whom they were at variance. 
Speculation has long sought to connect John the Baptist with this 
group, but without any clear evidence. The whole subject of the 
Essenes however has been placed in a new light by the discovery 
of the Dead Sea Scrolls (see below). 

Josephus speaks of what he calls a "fourth philosophy" (sic: he is 
using a term which will appeal to his Hellenistic readers), though he 
does not tell us what it is. The common theory is that he was speaking 
of the Zealots, who figure in the synoptic gospels. These were the 

214 The Book of the Acts of God 

militant nationalists, who sought to overthrow the hated rule of Rome 
and to re-establish an independent Jewish state by force of arms. 
Outbreaks of rebellion occurred from time to time, beginning with 
that of Judas the Gaulanite (see Acts 5:37): the war of AJD. 66-70 
represents the climax and the revolt of Bar Cochba in A.D. 132 the 
final desperate attempt. Doctrinally, there was no significant differ- 
ence between the Zealots and the Pharisees: both groups were 
concerned to uphold the purity of the law against foreign accretions. 
The real difference was one of method. The Pharisees were quietists: 
they discouraged the use of force, much as they sympathized with 
the Zealots' aims. 

At least one of the followers of Jesus was a Zealot, namely Simon 
the Canaanite or "Zealot." It is possible that others were sympathetic 
to their ideals and even in some cases their methods. Judas Iscariot 
and the two sons of Zebedee (sons of thunder!) may have been 
attracted to both aims and methods, while Simon Peter, judging 
from the conception of Messiahship which he propounded at 
Caesarea Philippi, may have shared some of their aims. Jesus him- 
self seems to have exercised a peculiar fascination over some of these 
people and to have constantly shaped his program in conscious 
rejection of theirs. 


In 1896 there was discovered in the ruins of a "Genizah" 
in Cairo, that is, a room in a synagogue where worn-out copies of 
sacred writings were deposited, a manuscript which came to be known 
variously as the "Damascus Document," "Zadokite Work," or 
"Fragments of a Zadokite Work." It is the product of a group which 
called itself the "people of the New Covenant," which at some date 
migrated from Judea to Damascus under the leadership of a teacher 
called the "Star" (from Numbers 24:17). The exact date of the 
document and the history of this community were much debated 
between 1896 and 1947. Various dates between 170 B.C. and the 
end of the second century A.D. were suggested, while a few contended 
that the documents were a medieval forgery. But their obvious 
connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls now proves that they were 

The Jewish Religion 215 


So we come to the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. The 
romantic story of their accidental discovery in 1947 and of the 
subsequent discoveries in the same area since that date has been 
frequently told and need not be repeated here. The most authoritative 
and sober account will be found in Millar Burrows' The Dead Sea 
Scrolls (1955). There is also promised a book by Frank M. Cross, Jr. 
There are other accounts, some of them much more colorful and 
exciting, which however sometimes lack that scholarly caution which 
at this stage particularly should be observed in the treatment of the 
subject. Nor are we here concerned with the manuscripts or fragments 
of biblical and apocryphal and known pseudepigraphal works, the 
importance of which lies mainly in the textual field. We shall here 
confine our attention to four fairly complete documents from Cave I 
at Qumran on the northwestern edge of the Dead Sea, and to the 
light they throw on the beliefs and practices of the sect, particularly 
in relation to the study of Judaism between the two Testaments and 
to the origins of New Testament Christianity. There are four sectarian 

The Habakkuk Commentary 

The Manual of Discipline 

The War of the Sons of Light and 

the Sons of Darkness 
The Thanksgiving Psalms 

It is also quite certain that the Damascus Document mentioned above 
belongs to the same group of writings. To their evidence there must 
also be added the archaeological evidence of the ruined community 
center of Qumran, close to the cave of the original discoveries. 

These documents reveal the existence of a community with 
distinctive beliefs and a way of life of its own. Its founder was a 
"teacher of righteousness," who was considered a fresh and inspired 
interpreter of the original revelation in the Old Covenant. Under his 
guidance a group of Jews had separated themselves from what they 
said was "the habitation of perverse men to go into the wilderness 
to prepare the way of the Lord" The chosen wilderness was by the 
Dead Sea, where they studied their scripture intensively, wrote 
commentaries upon it, held all their property in common, lived 

216 The Book of the Acts of God 

together under a rigorous discipline while awaiting the end time, when 
God's universal rule would be established under the leadership of the 
royal messiah from the line of David and of the priestly messiah from 
the line of Aaron. Like the early Christians they believed themselves 
to be members of the New Covenant; in ideal they were the "poor in 
spirit" who followed the way (cf. Acts 9:2) under the authority of 
twelve laymen. 

The covenanters further believed, like the apocalyptists, with 
whom they certainly had close affinities, that the world was charac- 
terized by a provisional dualism of good and evil, of light and 
darkness which throughout history have been in conflict. When God 
created the world he made two warring spirits, the spirit of truth and 
the spirit of lying (ct I John 4:1-6), the latter being the Prince of 
Darkness, Satan. All men are predestined, as it were, to live under 
one of these spirits; hence all men can be divided into two groups, 
the children of light and the children of darkness. But the two worlds, 
as in the teaching of the apocalyptists, were not coeternal. The 
world of darkness came as a rebellion against the world of light, and 
was destined one day to perish. Thus we find certain affinities with 
later Gnosticism, but also certain differences which are even more 
important differences which the Qumran sect shares with early 
Christianity. For like both the Old and the New Testaments, the 
Qumran sect believed in one holy and righteous God. 

Two scholars, whose views have received attention recently in the 
press, have gone so far as to argue that the teacher of righteousness 
was actually regarded as Messiah, that he suffered death at the hands 
of the wicked priest, that he had risen again from the dead, and that 
he was expected to come again as Messiah at the end. It is doubtful 
whether the champions of this theory could have evolved it without 
the help of the New Testament! For it rests upon a forced and 
unnatural interpretation of the texts. There is no doubt whatever 
that both the royal and priestly messiahs of the covenanters were 
totally distinct figures from the teacher of righteousness. 

It is perhaps possible that the teacher of righteousness was regarded 
as the suffering servant along the lines of Isaiah 53. This is by no 
means certain, but if it was, his sufferings were interpreted as those 
of a martyr, atoning in value insofar as the deaths of all martyrs 
were atoning (a doctrine which arose in connection with the Mac- 
cabean martyrs) but not redemptive in the decisive way that the 

The Jewish Religion 217 

sufferings of Jesus are regarded as redemptive in the New Testament. 
The teacher was not the agent of redemption, whether during his 
earthly life or at a second coming. He was what he was called a 
teacher, offering a new interpretation of the Mosaic revelation, to be 
observed by the true remnant in preparation for the end. True, both 
Christianity and the Qumran community speak of the New Covenant. 
But for the Qumran sect, this is a covenant of law and promise, rather 
than the covenant of an aheady inaugurated redemption. 

The Qumran community organized its common life along lines 
which suggest certain features of the later Christian organization. 
The Damascus Document speaks of officials known as "visitors" or 
"assessors," the exact verbal equivalent of the New Testament epis- 
copoi or "bishops" (A.V.). But the distinctively Christian apostle, 
the bearer of witness to an already inaugurated redemption, is con- 
spicuously lacking. 

One of the salient features of their common life was the practice 
of ritual washings, for the performance of which they installed an 
elaborate system of water supply in their monastery. In addition to 
daily rites of purification, they practiced a baptism of initiation. 
There were also common meals in which bread and wine were used 
and which were regarded as anticipations of the Messianic banquet. 
These practices are striking adumbrations of the two gospel sacra- 
ments. But, in accordance with the sect's general theological trends, 
these rites are dominated by the "not yet" to the exclusion of the 
"already." They look forward, not both backward and forward, as do 
the Christian sacraments. 

Is there a direct connection between the Qumran movement and 
the early Church? This is quite possible, though the evidence is 
purely inferential. John the Baptist was active in a region not far 
from that of the community's monastery. He held certain ideas which 
exhibit an affinity with those of the Qumran sect, particularly his 
practice of baptism to gather a remnant to await the end. If there 
was any link between the two movements, that link must have been 
John the Baptist. But even if positive proof were forthcoming of 
such a connection, New Testament Christianity is no mere continua- 
tion of the Qumran movement. It has a wholly new understanding 
of redemption centered upon Jesus as the agent through whom it 
has been inaugurated, an understanding which vitally transforms all 
the other points of similarity with the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls. 

218 The Book of the Acts of God 

The history of the Qumran sect is difficult to trace from the scrolls. 
There are all sorts of vague historical allusions in the texts, but it is 
extremely difficult to pin them down to the known facts of history. 
Most likely it originated as a schism during the Hasmonaean period, 
perhaps not later than the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (see above). 
Like the other great movements within contemporary Judaism, it was 
an outcome of the great spiritual revival which began under the 
Chasidim. Were they identical with the Essenes (see above)? Of 
their general affinity with them there can be no question, though 
there are certain differences. Many scholars, possibly the majority, 
have no hesitation in accepting their complete identification. Perhaps, 
however, it would be safer to say that they were one branch within 
the Essene movement. 

To sum up, we may safely say that the Qumran covenanters were 
one of the several streams within first-century Judaism which made 
their contribution to New Testament Christianity. Their discovery 
has illuminated several aspects of primitive Christianity whose ante- 
cedents were previously difficult to trace, and which led scholars to 
look for precedents outside Judaism. They provided some of the 
ideas (whether directly or indirectly) and some of the customs which 
enabled the early Church to formulate its witness and obedient 
response to the act of God in Christ. But they do not and cannot 
undermine the uniqueness of that act. 


From a purely historical point of view it would be more 
appropriate to consider the movement initiated by John the Baptist 
as part of first-century Judaism and therefore as part of the inter- 
Testamental period, rather than as the first part of the New Testa- 
ment. Such a purely historical survey might also include the ministry 
of Jesus. For Christianity, properly speaking, does not begin until 
after the death of Jesus, by which the New Covenant was believed to 
be inaugurated. From the theological point of view, however, the 
act of God which culminates in the death and resurrection begins 
with the outpouring of the Spirit upon Jesus at his baptism by John. 
John is the "beginning of the gospel," and the apostolic witness to 

The Jewish Religion 219 

the act of God in Christ begins with firsthand testimony to John the 
Baptist (Acts 1:22). We prefer therefore to treat the ministry of 
Jesus as the opening of the New Testament, as the prelude to the 
Christian gospel, rather than as the epilogue of the inter-Testamental 

Yet it must be borne in mind that historically it is to the inter- 
Testamental period that both John and Jesus belong. For neither 
of them springs out of the blue, nor even directly from the Old 
Testament, but precisely from the interpretation and understanding 
of the Old Testament tradition which grew up in the period between 
the two Testaments. Thus a whole host of concepts appear in their 
teaching which cannot be explained solely from the Old Testament, 
but require a knowledge of the inter-Testamental development for 
their understanding. That is true of such concepts as the kingdom 
or reign of God, the age to come, the Son of man (possibly, see 
above), Holy Spirit (as a phenomenon of the age to come), New 
Covenant, etc. This is what makes the study of the inter-Testamental 
period so important for the student of the New Testament. A bridge 
is needed from the Old Testament to the New, and of that bridge the 
presence of the Apocrypha in the Bibles on Anglican lecterns is a 
fitting symbol and reminder. 


There are however two bridges from the Old Testament 
to the New. The first is Palestinian Judaism, which leads to Jesus 
and the earliest Church. The second is Hellenistic Judaism, which 
leads to pre-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity and to Paul himself. The 
chief center of this type of Judaism was in Alexandria in Egypt. 

Since Jewish settlers in foreign lands adopted the language of their 
new country, it was necessary to translate the Hebrew scriptures into 
Greek. This translation was produced gradually to meet the needs 
of synagogue worship, the Pentateuch being first translated some- 
where in the middle of the third century B.C. The difficulties involved 
in translating the scriptures from Hebrew into Greek are feelingly 
described by the grandson of Jesus, son of Sirach, in his preface to the 
Greek version of Ecclesiasticus: 

220 The Book of the Acts of God 

For things originally spoken in Hebrew nave not the same 
force in them when they are translated into another tongue: and 
not only these, but the law itself, and the prophecies, and the 
rest of the books, have no small difference, when they are 
spoken in their original language. (E.R.V.) 
The kind of problem posed for the translator is well illustrated by the 
attempt to render into Greek a word like kabod, the Hebrew word 
for "glory." This is a purely biblical concept, and there was no 
already existing word for it in Greek. The Septuagint translators 
decided to use the Greek word doxa. Now in Plato's writings the 
noun doxa, which derives from a verb meaning "to seem" or 
"appear/' is used to denote that which seems to be, "opinion," as 
opposed to that which is, "reality." In more popular usage it was 
used to express other people's opinions about a man, hence his 
"reputation." It was this popular meaning which suggested to the 
Septuagint translators the possibility of using it to render kabod, 
"glory." The result was that it came to mean almost the exact oppo- 
site of what it had meant in Plato. It also lost something of the 
dynamic quality of the original Hebrew, which denoted God's pres- 
ence in action, and became more static in meaning. 

Scholars have naturally debated the extent to which the Old Testa- 
ment suffered by being translated into Greek. Is the whole biblical 
revelation thereby transposed into a non-Hebraic, essentially Hel- 
lenistic key? Sometimes this was bound to happen. For instance, the 
sacred name Yahweh was translated Kyrios, the common word for 
"cult deity." This did not of course mean necessarily that Yahweh 
was regarded as just another of the "lords many" of the Greco- 
Roman world. Yet some of the pagan associations of kyrios were 
inevitably carried over, as can be seen from the ease with which 
Greek-speaking Christians adopted it as a title for the exalted Jesus. 
A transference of the name Yahweh to Jesus would have been un- 

On the whole, however, as the instance of doxa shows, it was 
the Greek words rather than the Hebraic meanings which suffered. 
Greek words were violently twisted in order to convey the biblical 
revelation, and thus the foundations were laid for New Testament 
Greek, a Greek which has suffered a further violent twist in order to 
convey the proclamation of the act of God in Christ. Our forefathers 

The Jewish Religion 221 

were not so far from the truth when they spoke of the "language 
of the Holy Ghost." 

Nevertheless, if the Jews who translated the Old Testament were 
fundamentally true to their faith, the way in which they held that 
faith and practiced it was bound to diverge from the way it was held 
and practiced in the homeland. To begin with, it was impossible to 
observe the law with the meticulous regard for detail which was 
possible in Palestine, at least in Pharisaic circles. There the dominant 
impulse was toward elaboration in order to bring every moment of 
life under the control of the law. In the dispersion, however, the 
opposite tendency was at work, namely the desire to reduce the 
law's demands to a minimum in order to mitigate the inconveniences 
arising from its observation in a pagan environment Thus, in ejBEect, 
three points, circumcision, the Sabbath, and the abstention from 
pork, became the distinguishing marks of the Jew abroad. While they 
held fast to the ethical prescriptions of the law and it was their 
high standard of morality which favorably impressed their pagan 
neighbors and attracted them to Judaism more than anything else 
they tended to fill in the blanks not covered by the precepts of the 
law by adopting the manners and customs of their neighbors. More- 
over, where Jewish morality coincided in spirit or precept with the 
best of pagan morality, they tended to present their ethical teaching, 
especially in the instruction of proselytes, in the language and forms 
of Hellenistic moral teaching. Thus we find such unbiblical words as 
"virtue," and the four cardinal virtues justice, prudence, temper- 
ance, and fortitude adopted as commonplaces of Hellenistic Jewish 
ethics, together with the "household codes," indicating the virtues to 
be cultivated by the various members of the family. 

Nor was theology unaffected. In addition to their higji standard of 
morality, the Jews of the dispersion were noted among their neigh- 
bors for their monotheism, their belief in one God. It was a time 
when the more serious-minded in the Gentile world were generally 
dissatisfied with the old anthropomorphic polytheism of the city- 
state cults. Men were looking either to the more spiritual cult 
deities, or, in philosophical circles, for a genuinely spiritual mono- 
theism. Thus Hellenistic Judaism enjoyed a favorable environment, 
not only for the preservation, but also for the propagation, of its 
faith in the one God. It was therefore not surprising that, just as 

222 The Book of the Acts of God 

Greek-speaking Jews took over the ethical notions, so, too, they 
adopted some of the theological notions of their philosophical con- 
temporaries. They adopted Stoic arguments against polytheism and 
idolatry and their "proofs" for the existence of God. They began 
to tfrlnV about what God was in himself, and to speak of his attributes, 
thus moving away from the biblical conviction that God could be 
known only in his actions. 

As the foregoing paragraphs have hinted, Hellenistic Judaism be- 
came a missionary religion. The statement in Matthew 23:15: 

. . . you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte . . . 


may be an exaggeration, as far as Palestine is concerned, but it was 
certainly true of the dispersion. This missionary expansion, as we 
have already had occasion to note, accounts in part at any rate for 
the enormous number of Jews scattered about in the Roman Em- 
pire. But the Jewish mission to the Gentiles was hampered by sev- 
eral impediments. While it appealed to the lower classes and to 
women in the upper classes of society, it made little appeal to the 
educated. This no doubt accounts for the limited clientele Paul 
found for the Christian mission when he came to Corinth: 

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise 
according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not 
many were of noble birth. / Corinthians 1:26 (R.S.V.) 

The chief obstacle to conversions was the requirement of circum- 
cision and the observance of the ceremonial law, even in its mini- 
mized form. Consequently many remained on the fringe of Judaism, 
accepting its faith in the one God, and endeavoring to live up to its 
moral standards, but hesitating to take the final plunge and become 
full members of the Jewish community. These are the "God-fearers" 
of the New Testament, who provided a fertile soil for conversions to 
the Christian gospel. 

We are fortunate in possessing a considerable body of Alexandrian 
Jewish literature, which has been carefully preserved, not by the 
Jews, but by the later Christian Church of that city. Since rabbinic 
Judaism became normative after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the 
Jews themselves suppressed the literary monuments of Hellenistic 
Judaism and left it all to the Christians. They even prepared new 

The Jewish Religion 223 

translations of the Old Testament in Greek, since the Septuagint had 
become a Christian book. The Apocrypha, as part of the Septuagint, 
was likewise left to the Christians, as well as the non-biblical 

The principal survivals of Alexandrian Judaism are the Book of 
Wisdom and the voluminous writings of Philo. The purpose of this 
literature was twofold. First, it was to keep the Jews loyal to their 
faith amid the subtle and all-pervading temptations, intellectual, 
moral, and religious, of the pagan world. The method adopted was 
to restate the biblical faith in terms congenial to the Gentile environ- 
ment The second purpose was to refute pagan arguments against 
Judaism and to commend the Jewish religion to the Gentiles as a 
reasonable faith. To this literature we must now pay brief attention. 

It is generally agreed that the so-called Wisdom of Solomon, one 
of the chief writings in the Apocrypha, was originally written in 
Greek. That means that it could not have been written, as it pur- 
ports to be, by King Solomon. The author was most likely an Alex- 
andrian Jew writing in the first half of the first century B.C., though 
some authorities would date his work later. The book falls into two 
main sections: 

CHAPTERS 1-9: These chapters set forth wisdom as the way 
of salvation and its rejection as the way to perdition. Chap- 
ters 6-9 describe wisdom as she is in herself. 

CHAPTERS 10-19: A recital of Israel's history, showing how 
wisdom had been her guide throughout, causing Israel to 
prosper and her enemies to fall. 

It is much debated whether the author of Wisdom had a firsthand 
acquaintance with Greek philosophy and, if so, to what extent it had 
penetrated his thought. His conception of wisdom is itself clearly 
a combination of Old Testament and Greek ideas. He starts with 
wisdom as she is depicted in the Book of Proverbs, especially in 
Chapter 8 of that work. Here wisdom means God engaged in creation 
and in the direction of the redemptive history. Wisdom is an aspect 
of God's being in action. This mainly poetical concept the author of 
the Book of Wisdom elevates to a quasi-personified reality, dis- 
tinguishable, though not distinct in being, from God himself (Wis- 
dom 7:25 f.). The ancestry of this line of thought is mainly Platonic. 
But to it the author further adds the Stoic conception of the Logos 

224 The Book of the Acts of God 

(literally, "word"; here, "reason") which is at once the divine reason 
within man, enabling him to acquire knowledge of the physical con- 
stitution of the world and its ways (Wisdom 7:15 ff,) and guiding him 
in his moral life (9:9b-13), and at the same time the principle of 
coherence immanent in the material universe (1:7; 7:24-27). From 
Platonism, whether or not he had a direct acquaintance with Plato's 
writings, he derives three notions concerning the soul: its preexist- 
ence; its incorporeal nature; and its immortality (3: Iff.; 9:151). 
He also regards it as "weighed down" by the body in a manner 
reminiscent of the Orphic and Pythagorian doctrine of the body 
as the soul's tomb: 

For a corruptible body weigheth down the soul, 
And the earthly frame lieth heavy on a mind that is full of cares. 

9:15 (E.R.V.) 

An Old Testament writer could hardly have written this, for it 
assumes that the soul belongs to a higher order of being than the body. 

The Book of Wisdom is important for the New Testament 
scholar. St. Paul was clearly familiar with it, for there are a number 
of striking echoes of its language in the early chapters of Romans. 
Paul found particularly helpful on his missionary labors its apol- 
ogetic against idolatry and its attack on pagan immorality. Further, 
its "liberal" approach to the wisdom of the Greeks laid the foundation 
for the Alexandrian synthesis between biblical and Greek thought 
which reached its full flower in Origen, one of the greatest of the 
Church fathers. And its developed concept of wisdom provided the 
tools for Christological definition in the period of the great councils 
of the early Church. 

The other outstanding writer of Alexandrian Judaism is Philo, 
who flourished in the first half of the first century A.D. The bulk of 
his writings, some thirty-eight volumes, consists of commentaries on 
the Pentateuch. They are written to support the thesis that the 
Mosaic revelation contains in revealed and perfected form the phi- 
losophy and ethics of the best of Gentile thought. To achieve this 
end, he took over a method of interpreting ancient documents which 
had been worked out earlier by secular scholars at Alexandria and 
employed by them to refine the crudities of Homeric and other early 
mythology. This method was known as allegorical interpretation. 
While not denying the literal, historical sense of scripture, Philo 

The Jewish Religion 225 

discovers a hidden, more philosophical meaning in the text. For 
example, the patriarchs all become types of various virtues, the mi- 
gration of Abraham an allegory of the pilgrimage of man's soul. 
Philo borrowed ideas from a variety of sources from Platonism and 
Stoicism, and from the rather vague religiosity current in the mystery 
religions, and, as some hold, from early forms of Gnosticism. 

It is difficult to decide which element was constitutive for Philo's 
thinking. Was his theology fundamentally Jewish or Greek? He really 
desires to be loyal to the biblical revelation, but at times he slips al- 
most unconsciously into unbiblical ways of thought. For example, he 
conceives God's transcendence not so much in terms of action as 
a God who judges and saves, yet whose judgment and salvation are 
always beyond us and ahead of us as in terms of essence as a 
God whose being consists of a kind of supernatural "stuff," above and 
beyond all that we can know in this world. His exposition of I AM 
THAT I AM, "He who is" very easily slides into "that which is," the 
impersonal reality behind all phenomena. Yet on the whole these 
are probably no more than momentary lapses. God, then, is above 
and beyond his creation, utterly transcendent and unknowable. Yet 
he communicates with it, and does so by a series of mediators or 
principles of mediation. These mediators represent a curious amal- 
gam of Jewish, Platonic, and Stoic notions. There are the angels of 
the Old Testament and Judaism. There are the demons of popular 
Greek lore, the "forces" of Stoicism and the "ideas" of Plato. 
Presiding over them all as the chief mediatorial principle is the Logos 
(see above), who here takes over most of the functions exterior to 
man which are performed by wisdom in the Book of Wisdom. 
Philo preferred the concept of Logos to wisdom because Logos was 
masculine and wisdom (Sophia) feminine. The Logos was the first 
being created by God and was then used by him as the agent in 
creating the rest of the universe. It pervades matter as the source of 
its coherence and order. Man has a dual nature. Philo knew of the 
two stories of creation in Genesis 1-2 long before the nineteenth 
century critics! Genesis 1 relates the creation of the heavenly man or 
"mind," Genesis 2 the bodily aspect of man. The heavenly man 
dwells immaaently in the earthly man, imparting to human beings an 
element of divinity. Man's chief end is to know God. Here Philo 
exhibits a mystical strain derived from the welter of contemporary 
oriental and HeEenistic religiosity. By Ms mind or reason man can 

226 The Book of the Acts of God 

however know only that God is and know what are his attributes, 
chiefly in the form of what he is not. The authentic knowledge of 
God as he is in himself is conveyed only in moments of intense 
mystical awareness of metaphysical reality. All this sounds very un- 
biblical. Yet the conception of the word of God, implying a personal 
I-thou relationship between God and man is also found, and here 
Philo is true to the Old Testament. 

On the whole it would be true to say that Philo attempted more 
than he could achieve, He sought to construct a synthesis between 
the Hebraic tradition and the best of non-biblical philosophy and 
piety. He bequeathed his task to the Christian Platonists of Alexan- 
dria, who were as successful in achieving the synthesis he sought as 
it is humanly possible to be, 

Is Philo himself a bridge between the Old Testament and the New? 
Traces of his influence have been sought in the Pauline writings, and 
more definitely in the epistle to the Hebrews and in the Johannine 
literature. Whether such influence is proven is another matter. The 
utmost we can say for certain is that some of Philo's ideas were not 
peculiar to himself, and represent ideas generally current in the 
Hellenistic synagogues. Christian missionaries in the dispersion were 
bound to come to terms with them in one way or the other. On the 
whole, however, the differences between the Hellenistic Christianity 
of the New Testament and Philo's thought are more important and 
significant than the similarities. 


The Jewish historian Josephus was born in Jerusalem 
in A,D. 37 or 38, but since he wrote in Greek mainly for Gentile 
readers and sought to commend Judaism to them along Hellenistic 
Jewish lines, he belongs to Hellenistic rather than Palestinian Juda- 
ism. His method of doing so was by writing history rather than by 
philosophical or religious argument. 

His two main works, The Jewish War (seven volumes written 
shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70) and The Jewish Antiq- 
uities (the history of the Jews from the creation to the eve of the 
Jewish war) serve this apologetic purpose. He sought to present the 

The Jewish Religion 227 

history of the Jews in as favorable a light as possible, to demon- 
strate that in earlier times they had been held in great esteem and 
allowed religious freedom. Although chronologically he is contemp- 
oraneous with the New Testament writings, he serves as a bridge 
from the Old Testament to the New because he enables us to fill 
in much of the background of the inter-Testamental period. For the 
rise of Christianity itself he has little or nothing to tell us. In Antiq- 
uities 18:5 he corroborates the fact of John the Baptist's execution 
by Herod Antipas, and tells us that this took place in the fortress of 
Machaerus. Another long passage in 18:3, together with numerous 
passages in the Slavonic version of The Jewish War, purports to give 
accounts of Jesus. All of this material however is undoubtedly the 
result of Christian interpolation, and quite valueless. But there is 
one passage (Antiquities 20:9) which relates the execution of James, 
the brother of the Lord, and says explicitly that he was "the brother 
of Jesus, said to be the Christ." Many scholars have suspected thai 
this reference to Jesus was also a Christian interpolation. Yet the 
phrase "said to be" is remarkably restrained and is not quite the way 
in which Christians would have spoken of their master. They would 
have said outright that he was indeed the Messiah. In our view this 
is a genuine reference, and therefore Josephus does at least show an 
awareness that our Lord was a historical personage, who had a 

This must conclude our brief survey of the period between the 
two Testaments. It is largely the story of a great spiritual ferment 
which began at the time of the Maccabean revolt The movement 
thus released however soon broke up, and the fragments moved in 
different directions. Consequently its achievements were largely 
sterile. Yet it was out of the same spiritual ferment that, humanly 
speaking, Christianity also arose, and with the person of Jesus, 
interpreted as the decisive act of God, the new religion was able to 
give coherence to the genuine insights of the various streams in that 
spiritual ferment. Or, to change the metaphor, the Judaism of the 
inter-Testamental period provided the seed bed in which the gospel 
was planted and in which it could thrive in its early days as a 
tender plant 

Tart IV 

232 The Book of the Acts of God 

decisive act of God for us men and our salvation. Jesus had been 
sent by God into the world, at a particular time and particular place, 
into the Jewish world which was looking precisely for such an event. 
His death on Calvary was not just an ordinary human martyrdom, 
the heroic death of one who died for his beliefs rather than capitu- 
late to his enemies, but the act in and through which God had made 
available the forgiveness of sins and thus brought men back to a 
normal relationship with himself. God had raised this Jesus from the 
dead and thus inaugurated that new age for which the Jews had 
hoped. After the resurrection, Jesus had appeared as risen to his 
followers. These appearances brought home to them that the events 
they had witnessed, the life and death of Jesus, were the great act 
of God by which man had been redeemed. Thus, to the original 
disciples, the interpretation which they ascribed to that series of 
events was not one which they had thought out for themselves. It 
was one which had forced itself upon them from outside through the 
resurrection experiences. Moreover this interpretation of the event 
was not just an external piece of information communicated to them 
certainly, but leaving them otherwise just as they were. For, as they 
put it, the risen Lord had imparted to them his "Spirit." The Spirit 
was not some kind of supernatural substance. It was rather God 
acting upon them immediately, directly, and in a quite final way 
and making available for them the whole content of the salvation 
which the event had inaugurated. Moreover, this direct acting of 
God enabled them to proclaim to their contemporaries the event with 
its significance, so that they, too, might accept it as something done 
for them and, by thus accepting it, appropriate the blessings flowing 
from it for themselves or, as the disciples themselves expressed it, 
"receive the Holy Spirit" Those who accepted the proclamation and 
"received the Spirit" were thus brought into an already existing com- 
munity. As the Acts of the Apostles significantly expresses it, they 
"were added" that is to say, God placed them in an already exist- 
ing community, the community of the last days. 

Such was the nature of the earliest proclamation as it is recorded 
for us in the early chapters of Acts. But surely, the man in the street 
objects, the author of Acts is already writing from the standpoint 
of a somewhat later age, when the original religion of Jesus had been 
transformed into a religion about Mm. Such an objection however 

In the Beginning Was the Word 233 

can no longer stand the scrutiny of scholarship. To begin with, 
scholars have shown that the speeches in the early part of Acts (St. 
Peter's sermon at Pentecost, and even more strikingly the speech in 
Chapter 3) are clearly Greek translations of an Aramaic original, 
that is to say, of the language actually spoken by the earliest Chris- 
tians at Jerusalem. Thus they can hardly be dismissed as the free 
compositions of a later Greek-speaking Christian: the author must 
have derived them from some primitive source. That is not to say 
that they represent the exact words Peter said on those particular 
occasions. But they do represent the type of thing Peter and his 
associates did proclaim. A second point to be noticed is that the 
presentation of the earliest Christian message in these chapters tallies 
remarkably with the sort of basic preaching which St. Paul takes 
for granted in his letters to the churches. To this basic message Paul 
himself refers, moreover, as something he had "received" from others 
who were Christians before him (I Corinthians 15:3), and whose 
content he checked with the original apostles on a visit to Jerusalem, 
not, be it noted, soon after his conversion, but after many years* 
absence in the mission field, when he had had every opportunity to 
develop in his own peculiar direction (Galatians 2:1-10). The same 
presentation of Jesus and his history as the redemptive act of God 
underlies every one of the New Testament writings. The four gospels 
are really no more than expansions of this primitive outline of the 
event and its significance. The Acts of the Apostles is the account 
of how this preaching established the Christian community through- 
out the Mediterranean lands until finally it reached the capital of 
the Roman Empire itself. The epistles are expositions of the doc- 
trinal and ethical implications of the gospel message, written in order 
to deal with the practical problems of thinking and living which had 
arisen in the communities founded by that same preaching. Dr. 
A. M. Hunter was not far off the point when he wrote: "In the 
beginning was the kerygma" (The Unity oj the New Testament, 1943, 
p. 22: "kerygma" is the Greek word for the Christian gospel mes- 
sage, the proclamation of the redemptive act of God in Jesus Christ) . 
Present-day American scholarship does not always take kindly to this. 
Leading New Testament scholars here are still anxious to stress the 
"varieties of New Testament religion." There is of course much 
truth in this position. Not only are there varieties in the doctrinal and 

234 The Book of the Acts of God 

ethical superstructures which the various writers in the New Testa- 
ment erect upon the common basis we need only compare the 
Pauline epistles with the pastorals or still more with the epistle of 
St. James to see this, or again the presentation of St. Matthew's 
gospel with that of St. John. What is more to the point is that there 
are also varieties in the presentation of the basic formula itself. 
For instance, St. Paul attaches to the mention of the death of Jesus 
the interpretative addition that it happened "for our sins" (I Corin- 
thians 15:3), a feature which is notably absent from the formulation 
of the message in the speeches in Acts, while on th$ other hand the 
latter ascribe an importance to the life of Jesus before the crucifixion 
which is notoriously absent from Paul. Despite these varieties of 
formulation, however, the basic import of the proclamation is every- 
where the same. It may be summed up in the words: "God was in 
Christ." Jesus his person, and the series of events in which he was 
engaged is the redemptive act of God. 

It is worth noting that the primitive formulations of the basic 
Christian message contain in embryo all those features which the man 
in the street would like to dismiss as later accretions to the original 
simple gospel Primarily, the earliest Christian message is a religion 
about Jesus, not a reproduction of his religion. It is definitely a 
gospel of salvation, not a system of teaching on piety and ethics, 
ultimately detachable from the person of Jesus, even if originally 
started by him. An integral part of the proclamation is the apostles 
themselves as witnesses of the event, a feature which contains in 
embryo the later insistence that the ministry is an integral part of 
the gospel. For however we explain the relation of the Church's min- 
istry to the apostles, it certainly exists to perpetuate their witness to 
the event of Jesus Christ. And in the proclamation of the work of the 
Holy Spirit in the community we have the germ of the later articu- 
lated "sacramental system," as it is sometimes, though not altogether 
felicitously, called. Next, since the proclamation is the underlying 
basis of the whole New Testament, and since also it appeals to 
the Old Testament as well ("according to the scriptures"), it involves 
the acceptance of the whole Bible, both Old Testament and New, 
as an integral part of the Christian religion. Finally, the apostolic 
preaching is a summary remarkably like the early Christian creeds. 
Thus it will be seen that the preaching of the earliest apostles con- 

In the Beginning Was the Word 235 

tains in embryo all those features which the man in the street so 
often regards as accretions and perversions of basic Christianity, 
those four features which, as the Church sees it, delineate the content 
of Christianity: the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the 
creeds as summaries and safeguards of the Christian faith, the two 
gospel sacraments, and the ministry. All these features are present 
in embryonic form in the earliest Christianity. 




UNTIL QUITE recently, critical scholarship, both radical 
and conservative, has approached the gospels on the assumption 
that their primary purpose was to provide a historical account of the 
life of Jesus. Conservative scholars stressed the reliability of these 
accounts. They were, it was supposed, based directly (in the case of 
the fourth gospel, and possibly also in the case of the first), or at 
second hand (in the case of the second and third), on eyewitness 
accounts of the events they describe. Radical scholars distinguished 
between primary and secondary sources, and by a process of critical 
reconstruction sought to lay bare what they considered to be the 
original, authentic tradition about Jesus. The pendulum has now 
swung full circle/ The gospels, we are now told, are completely 
"kerygmatic" in character. That is to say, they are written, not to 
record history, whether for information or entertainment, but to pro- 
claim the good news of God's saving act in Christ. They are written 
"from faith to faith." They are written to serve the purposes of 
church life. It is useless to try to cut back behind the evangelical 
witness in the hope of rediscovering a "Jesus of history." In the 
gospels we can hear but the whisper of his voice and trace but 
the outskirts of his ways. Other scholars are discovering in the gospels 
elaborate symbolical patterns so artificially constructed that the ques- 
tion of their historicity is never so much as raised. If these views 
are correct, the gospels can be safely used, not as evidence for what 
Jesus said and did, but only as evidence for the beliefs of the Church 
at the time when they were written. 

There is much truth in these points of view. The primary pur- 


Jesus 237 

pose of the gospels is undoubtedly not historical or biographical, 
but to evoke faith. The explicit statement of the fourth gospel: "These 
things are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the 
Son of God; and that believing ye might have life in his name" 
(John 20:31) applies equally to the other three. But the pendulum 
has swung too fax. The dilemma is not a true one. It is not really a 
question of either-or, either history or proclamation. As is so often the 
case, it is a question of both-and: both history and proclamation. The 
proclamation involves an interpretation precisely of history, and the 
gospel material consists of historical traditions shaped and molded 
so as to convey the proclamation. It is quite legitimate to use the 
methods of historical and literary criticism which were forged dur- 
ing the liberal period in order to reconstruct the underlying history. 
It is not only legitimate: it is also imperative to do so. For if the 
Christian proclamation involves an interpretation of a particular 
history, we have a right to know what that particular history was. 
This does not mean that our reconstruction of the history will prove 
that the gospel's interpretation of that history is true. The truth of 
the Christian proclamation is always a matter for personal decision 
for those who hear it proclaimed in the Church. But at least we 
have a right to be assured that the decision we are invited to make 
is wholly consonant with the character of that history, and not an 
imposition upon it. After all, we might be invited to make an act 
of faith in the saving significance of the history of Humpty Dumpty, 
and in view of the nature of his particular history that would be an 
entirely arbitrary demand. What we want to know and have a right 
to know is whether the original history, so far as we can recover 
it, occurred within a similar frame of reference to that in which it 
is placed in the Church's proclamation. We shall not expect the 
frame of reference to be identical. After all, when we seek to go 
back to the history of Jesus we are seeking to penetrate behind the 
great forty days, behind the Easter experience which convinced 
the disciples that the history of Jesus was the revelation and redemp- 
tive act of God. After the first Easter, they inevitably and rightly 
read the previous history in the light of the new insight into its 
meaning which Easter had forced upon them, and all the accounts 
of Jesus are inevitably and rightly colored by that insight. The task 
of the historian is to penetrate behind that insight and to lay bare 
the course of the history as it was actually happening. This is a 

238 The Book of the Acts of God 

hazardous and delicate task, and many would deny its feasibility. 
But the nettle must be grasped. 

In the ensuing attempted reconstruction of the history of Jesus 
certain critical assumptions will be made. Some of them repre- 
sent the generally accepted results of modern scholarship, and, while 
others are much more debatable, they have, in the view of the writer, 
the sanction of probability. We shall assume that the first three gos- 
pels stand in a complicated literary relationship to one another, so 
that they cannot be accepted as three independent witnesses. The 
Markan gospel is the earliest of the three, probably written shortly 
before A.D. 70 and certainly not earlier than 65. We shall further 
assume that both Matthew and Luke are expansions of Mark, or 
possibly of an earlier and slightly different form of our canonical 
Mark, of which the canonical Mark is, like Matthew and Luke, an 
expansion, though less extensive than these. We shall assume that 
Matthew and Luke both used a further source or sources in addition 
to Mark, consisting of a collection or collections almost exclusively 
of sayings of Jesus. This material is conveniently designated "Q" 
(German, Quelle, source), though the writer prefers to speak of 
the "Q material" to avoid giving the impression that it was all 
derived from one written document now lost. Any attempt to date 
this material is mere guesswork. Some would place it as early as 
A.D. 50. Since Mark knew some of it, i.e., those parts in which Mark 
and Q overlap, that much at least will be earlier than Mark, that 
is, earlier than 65-70. But it is most improbable that Mark knew 
the rest of Q; it is difficult to suppose, for example, that he would 
have deliberately omitted such purple passages as the Lord's Prayer 
or the Beatitudes. So we conclude that the rest of the Q material 
was not available to Mark when he wrote, and will therefore assume 
that these collections of sayings were becoming generally available 
just about the time when Mark himself put pen to paper. This 
is quite plausible, since the impulse to literary activity would have 
come when the original eyewitnesses were beginning to die and when 
an interval seemed certain between their deaths and the return of the 
Lord. St. Peter, for example, was almost certainly martyred at Rome 
in A.D. 64. In addition to Mark and the Q material, both Matthew 
and Luke also had available special material of their own unknown 
to either of the other two synoptic writers. We designate this the 
"special Matthaean" and the "special Lukan" material respectively, 

Jesus 239 

thus avoiding the impression that it was necessarily derived from 
written documents. Thus the synoptic gospels actually provide us 
with four sources of evidence for the life of Jesus and his teaching. 
Of these Mark and the Q material must have been fixed in written 
form at an earlier period than the special Matthaean and special 
Lukan material. Mark and the Q material will therefore be treated 
as primary sources, and special Matthaean and special Lukan as 
confirmatory evidence. This is not to say that the presence of say- 
ings or deeds of Jesus in either of the primary strata is ipso facto 
a guarantee of their historical accuracy. Both collections are the 
outcome of a process of development in oral transmission, and the 
laws governing the development of oral tradition have to be rigor- 
ously applied. 

Lastly, there is the question of the fourth gospel. This is here 
regarded as the product of a post-apostolic Christian writing toward 
the end of the first century. The discourses, though they undoubtedly 
enshrine traditional sayings of Jesus comparable to those found 
in the Q material, are as they stand the composition of the evange- 
list, or, as some now think, brought over by him from an extraneous 
source. Very little therefore of the discourse material can be used 
as evidence for the teaching of Jesus. But the narrative material in 
the fourth gospel appears to be derived from a body of oral tradi- 
tion similar to that contained in the basic strata of the synoptic 
gospels. Some of it appears to be quite primitive and may well be 
used to supplement, and even on occasion to correct, the evidence 
found in the other gospels. 

We shall eschew any attempt to write a connected life of Jesus. 
Since the basic material of the gospels consisted, in the stage of oral 
transmission, of isolated episodes originally detached from one 
another, such a procedure would be impossible. All we can say is 
that the broad outline of St. Mark's gospel, viz., that Jesus' ministry 
began with his baptism by John at the Jordan and that after this he 
proceeded to teach and to preach and to heal in Galilee, that he 
gathered around him an inner circle of followers and finally trans- 
ferred his activity to Jerusalem, where, at the instance of the Jewish 
authorities he was executed by the Romans on the charge of being 
a revolutionary messianic pretender, is substantially correct, since it 
is corroborated by the earliest preaching as we find it recorded in the 
Acts of the Apostles. Beyond that, each separate episode and each 

240 The Book of the Acts of God 

saying and parable has to be considered on its own merits, and its 
original setting is in each case a matter for discussion. 


The earliest Church proclaimed that God had acted 
directly and decisively in Jesus. Jesus also had a proclamation. But 
it was understandably different from that of the earliest Church. He 
proclaimed, not that God had acted decisively, but that he was in 
process of acting and was about to act decisively: 

The time is fulfilled, 

and the reign of God has drawn nigh; 
repent, and believe in the good news. 

Mark 1:15 

Jesus shared a common world outlook with his contemporaries. He 
thought in terms, not so much of two worlds a higher, spiritual 
world and a lower, material one but of two ages this age, and 
the age to come. This present age is under the thrall of the powers 
of evil, who exercise a qualified sovereignty beneath the absolute 
rule of God. There will however be a final denouement, when 
God will defeat these powers of evil and inaugurate the age to come, 
his own unquestioned and unqualified de facto reign in a new heaven 
and a new earth. It is in the context of this world view that the 
proclamation of Jesus is to be understood. But there is a new, dis- 
tinctive feature in his proclamation. The reign of God is not just 
something looked for in the future. It is already "at hand": it has 
already "drawn nigh/' It is impending more than that, although 
lying in the imminent future, it is already impinging on the present, 
already operative in advance, just as in the twilight before the dawn 
the sun, though not yet risen, is already making its appearance 
felt. The Markan summary quoted above is probably due to the 
evangelist himself, though his formulation is taken from the actual 
recorded words of Jesus elsewhere in the basic strata (compare 
Matthew 10:7 and Luke 10:9, from the Q material). In the Markan 
jummary Jesus is not made to ifofr the drawing jiigh of the reign 
>f God explicitly with Ms own emergence and proclamation. But it 

Jesus 241 

is clear that Jesus saw precisely in his own proclamation the first 
sign of this dawning act of God. The proclamation was inaugurated 
by his own baptism in Jordan at the hands of John. "The law and 
the prophets were until John: since that time the reign of God is 
proclaimed" (Luke 16:16; cf. Matthew 11:12-13, which is probably 
the original form of this saying, though the Lukan form is here 
quoted as it brings out the original import of the saying more clearly) . 
If the account of the descent of the Spirit of God upon Jesus at 
his baptism ultimately rests on the personal testimony of Jesus him- 
self, we should see precisely in that descent of the Spirit (which is 
essentially a part of the Jewish hope concerning the last times) the 
point at which the future reign of God began to impinge upon his- 
tory. From that point, as Jesus proclaims it, God is laying bare 
his holy arm to inaugurate his reign. This does not however mean 
that now the reign of God has actually begun in the fullest sense. 
It has drawn nigh, so near that it is already operative in advance. 
That energy of God which in a decisive act will assert his sovereign 
reign is already at work in the preaching of Jesus. But the decisive 
intervention still lies in the future. 

The announcement of the coming reign of God demands a radical 
decision: "Repent, and believe in the good news." "Follow me." 
This is a demand for a complete reorientation of a man's life, an 
unreserved commitment of himself to the future act of God. Men 
had hoped that they might themselves engineer the reign of God by 
a scrupulous observance of the Jewish law or by taking military 
action and driving out the Romans. They had thought the reign of 
God a matter for apocalyptic dreams, and not a force already to be 
reckoned with in the present. Now they must do a rightabout-turn. 

This demand for a radical decision is reinforced by a series of 
parables, each of which is intended to challenge the hearers with 
the necessity of a drastic decision. Many of these parables have been 
handed down in the oral tradition with no indication of the original 
context in which they were first uttered, and in the course of trans- 
mission have been given a new and different application. A common 
tendency was to reapply them in order to inculcate some ethical or 
religious lesson needed in the life of the Church. But by applying 
the laws by which oral tradition develops it is often possible to 
recover the original form and purport of these parables and to fit 
them tentatively into a setting in the historical ministry of Jesus. We 

242 The Book of the Acts of God 

can then see that the purpose of these parables was not to convey 
some rather obvious religious or moral lesson of a purely general 
character, but to provide a prophetic comment on the challenge of 
a concrete situation in the ministry of Jesus. They reveal what it 
is God is doing in the ministry of Jesus and challenge men to accept 
or reject what God is doing. 

Take for instance the well-known parable of the sower. This has 
been transformed into an allegory about the different ways in which 
converts to the missionary church turned out after their conversion. 
This is achieved by the addition of the allegorical interpretation in 
Mark 4:14-20. Originally, however, it contained one point, and 
one point only: the contrast between the wastage during the sowing 
and the abundance of the harvest. That men reject the message of the 
coming reign of God will not preclude its coming. The assumption is 
that the ministry is the period of the sowing: the harvest is the 
still future decisive coming of the reign of God. 

The parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29), by 
contrast, seems to have survived more or less in its original form. 
Perhaps that is why Matthew and Luke did not use it: it did not 
readily lend itself to reapplication to their own contemporary situa- 
tions. This parable suggests that the activity of Jesus is like the 
secret growth before the harvest. It is the preliminary activity of God 
which presages the manifest establishment of his reign. The parable 
contains both a warning and an encouragement. It warns followers 
of Jesus against taking matters into their own hands, like the zealots, 
in order to expedite the coming of the reign. They must, like the 
farmer, be content to wait. It encourages them to hope that the 
apparent insignificance of what Jesus is doing is nevertheless the 
ushering in of that reign. 

The situation presupposed by the twin parables of the mustard 
seed and the leaven is similar (Mark 4:30-33 and parallels, Matthew 
13:33 = Luke 13:20-21 [Q material]). Obscure beginnings can 
lead to mighty issues, and the ministry of Jesus, for all its apparent 
insignificance, is the sign of the coming of the reign. 

The parable of the fig tree (Mark 13:28-29) interprets the min- 
istry of Jesus in a similar vein. It is like the springtime, when the 
sprouting of the leaves contains the promise of impending summer. 
So, too, the little parabolic sayings about the cloud and the south 
wind (Luke 12:54-56; cf. Matthew 16:2-3). The cloud has appeared 

Jesus 243 

in the sky: the shower is imminent. The south wind is rising, and 
at any moment there will be scorching heat. So in the ministry of 
Jesus, God is at work in a preliminary way, preparing to inaugurate 
his reign. 

Several of Jesus' parables are concerned with the seeking and 
saving of that which was lost. Pre-eminent among these are the 
three parables in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the 
prodigal son. In Jesus' proclamation of the dawning reign of God, in 
his fraternizing with the outcast, the publicans and sinners, who were 
more receptive to his message than the respectable, God is actively 
seeking and saving those who are lost and gathering them for his 
kingdom. Here is a condemnation of the self-righteousness of the 
scribes and Pharisees. 

Sometimes the urgency of the decision is reinforced with a challenge 
to drastic action: Let the dead bury their dead! No man putting his 
hand to the plough and looking back is fit for the kingdom of God. 
If your hand offends you, cut it off; it is better to enter into life with 
one hand rather than having two hands to be cast into eftrnal fire. 
Like a merchant discovering a goodly pearl or a hidden treasure, 
who sells all he has to gain the prize, so must men surrender every 
obstacle to acceptance of the good news. Other parables contain the 
warning that soon it will be too late. Among these are the parable of 
the ten virgins (Matthew 25: 112) and the parable of the waiting 
servants (Luke 12:35-40). It is easy to see how the Church later 
took up these parables and reinterpreted them as warnings to be 
prepared for the second coming of the Lord. Originally their future 
reference was to the impending crisis of the coming reign of God. 


Decision to accept Jesus' message involves total commit- 
ment to the demands of God. Men's lives must be put entirely at 
God's disposal. God's demand brooks no qualifications: "Ye have 
heard that it was said to them of old time . . . but I say unto you . . ." 
There is no area of life which is immune from the demand of 
obedience, no moment when the disciple has done all that the Lord 
requires of him so that he can have a little time ofi for himself. Every 

244 The Book of the Acts of God 

moment, whether it be filled with outward action or only inward 
thought and desire, is claimed by God. This radical ethic cannot be 
divorced from the proclamation of the coming reign of God: it is 
an integral part of that proclamation. It is difficult not to agree with 
Dr. Albert Schweitzer when he designates the ethics of Jesus as 
"interim ethics," for this is precisely what they were the demand 
of God for the interval between Jesus' proclamation and the con- 
summation of God's redemptive purpose. This radical ethic is summed 
up in the demand: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy 
heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind; and thou shalt 
love thy neighbor as thyself." Jesus does not offer a complete system 
of ethics. He propounds no list of ideals or virtues which a man can 
go away and cultivate by himself. What he offers is a series of illus- 
trations of what the demand of God involves in concrete circumstances. 


The proclamation of God's dawning reign was accom- 
panied by acts of healing which Jesus regarded as signs of the coming 
reign. That he did actually perform such actions is beyond all reason- 
able doubt In the course of oral transmission some of the actions 
ascribed to him have been exaggerated, and some of the popular 
legends of local wonder-workers (like the story of the Gadarene 
swine) got attached to him. But that does not alter the fact that 
Jesus did actually perform such healings. His contemporaries clearly 
understood that there was a difference between John the Baptist and 
Jesus in this respect, for "John did no miracle," and none was ever 
ascribed to him a circumstance which shows that it was not inevitable 
for a tradition of miracles to gather round a religious leader. That is 
not to say that we can be sure that any particular healing recorded 
in the gospels actually occurred. Each case must be decided on its 
own merits. The important question for the reader of the gospels to 
ask is not: How can the miracles be scientifically explained? but: 
What significance did Jesus attach to them? Traditional orthodoxy, 
as in Paley's Evidences, regarded the miracles as "proofs" of Christ's 
divinity. But such an answer is framed in quite non-biblical categories. 
The New Testament never speaks of the "divinity" of Jesus as a kind 

Jesus 245 

of metaphysical, abstract quality. Nor do the gospels treat the miracles 
as proofs in a legalistic sense. The liberal answer was that Jesus per- 
formed the miracles out of human compassion. Now the motive of 
compassion is certainly present in the gospels. We read in our Bibles 
at Mark 1:41 that Jesus had compassion on the leper. In Mark 6:34 
and 8:2 Jesus has compassion on the multitude before he feeds them. 
The later strata tend to multiply such references to the compassion 
(Matthew 20:34, Luke 7:13), and it is possible that the original 
reading in Mark 1 :41 was "was angry" and not **was moved with 
compassion." So the emphasis on Jesus' compassion is surprisingly 
slight If we are to find the real significance of the healings in the 
mind of Jesus, we must look elsewhere. Fortunately, the Q material 
provides two comments of Jesus on this very subject. The first is to 
be found in Matthew 11:2-5: 

Now when John had heard in prison the works of Christ, he 
sent two of his disciples and said unto him: 

Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? 
Jesus answered and said unto them: 

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: 
The blind receive their sight 
and the. lame walk, 
the lepers are cleansed, 
and the deaf hear, 
the dead are raised up, 
and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 

At first sight Jesus' reply appears to be no more than a summary of 
what he was doing. Closer examination however reveals that his reply 
is carefully couched in the language of Isaiah 35 and 61. These 
chapters give descriptions of the signs which are to precede the deci- 
sive act of God in redeeming his people. In other words, Jesus 
interprets his healings precisely as signs of the dawning reign of God. 
The second passage which brings out clearly Jesus' own interpre- 
tation of his miracles is the so-called "Beelzebub Controversy" in 
Luke 11:17-22 Matthew 12:25-29. This culminates in the pro- 

If I by the finger [Matthew: Spirit] of God cast out devils, 
then is the kingdom of God come upon you. 

There are two points to be noted here. First, it is generally agreed, 

246 The Book of the Acts of God 

in view of St. Luke's special interest in the Holy Spirit, and the 
unlikelihood that he should have suppressed such a reference in the 
source before him, that Matthew's "by the Spirit" is secondary and 
Luke's "by the finger" is original. Now this striking anthropomorphism 
is perhaps best understood as a subtle allusion to the use of the same 
phrase in Exodus 8:19. Confronted by the plagues which Moses is 
inflicting on the recalcitrant Pharoah and his people, the Egyptian 
magicians complain that the disasters which have befallen their land 
are due to the "finger" of God. The plagues of Egypt were preliminary 
demonstrations of power leading up to the final denouement of the 
exodus itself. Hence by assigning his exorcisms to the "finger" of 
God, Jesus is interpreting them as preliminary encounters with the 
powers of evil which, as the plagues prepared the way for the exodus, 
are ushering in the reign of God. The exorcisms are the preliminary 
binding of the "strong man" so that his house can be spoiled (see 
Mark 3:27 and note how our other primary source agrees in the 
interpretation of the exorcisms). Second, the exorcisms are a sign 
that the reign of God has "come upon" men. This means that the 
reign of God, which, as we have seen, is to be inaugurated by a 
decisive event in the future, is already making itself felt in the present. 
Such, then, is Jesus* own interpretation of the meaning of his heal- 
ings and exorcisms. They are neither proofs of his transcendental 
origin nor simple humanitarian acts of compassion: they are signs 
of the coming reign of God. 


But Jesus' mission, as he himself conceived it, was not 
exhausted when he had proclaimed the coming reign of God and 
performed signs of its impending advent. It was not enough to call 
men and women to follow him and to invite the outcasts of society 
to sit at meat with him. His mission, as he saw it, extended beyond 
this preliminary activity to the performance of the decisive event in 
and through which God would inaugurate his reign. 

Our earliest gospel, St. Mark's, indicates a change in the type of 
teaching delivered by Jesus after Peter's confession at Caesarea 
Philippi as compared with that before it. Before Caesarea Philippi, 

Jesus 247 

Jesus' message was directed to the multitudes: after that point it is 
directed mainly to the inner circle of the disciples. The content of 
the teaching also changes. Before Caesarea Philippi it was a proclama- 
tion of the impending advent of the reign of God: from this point it 
becomes an explicit prediction of his own death. Now there are many 
New Testament scholars who are firmly convinced that this change is 
due to Mark himself. But since the change comes in the episode of 
Peter's confession itself (Mark 8:27-33) and is an integral part of 
that narrative; and since also (as I have argued elsewhere in my 
Mission and Achievement of Jesus, p. 54) the episode of Peter's 
confession is firmly anchored in the tradition, the notion of a change 
in the type of Jesus' teaching is not a purely Markan contraction. 
A further difficulty about these predictions of the passion is that 
some of them are couched in terms which strongly suggest that they 
are written up in the light of subsequent events. It is hard for instance 
to resist the conclusion that such a prediction as that in Mark 
10:33-34 is not influenced by a knowledge of the details of the 
passion story: 

The Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, 
and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and 
shall deliver him to the Gentiles: and they shall mock Mm, and 
shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: 
and the third day he shall rise again. 

Not only does this prediction betray a knowledge of the details of 
the passion. The terms in which it refers to the resurrection ("he 
shall rise" instead of "he shall be raised," i.e., by God) also suggests 
a later hand. On the other hand there are other predictions which are 
of a purely general character and which do not necessarily betray 
a knowledge of the passion story. It is possible therefore to shorten 
our line of defense, and to claim that at least these predictions are 
authentic. Even this reduced claim however does not satisfy every- 
one. It is pointed out that all the predictions are confined to one 
stratum of the gospel material, namely to Mark. The only exception 
is Luke 17:25, which is probably editorial. More significant, there are 
no predictions whatever in the Q material. This is a strong argu- 
ment. But it must be remembered that the Q material is not a gospel: 
it contains no passion narrative. It contains mainly sayings of 
Jesus which were used in the instruction of catechumens for mem- 

248 The Book of the Acts of God 

bership in the Christian Church. Since therefore it contains no pas- 
sion narrative, there is no particular reason why it should contain 
predictions of the passion, for they were irrelevant to its purpose. 
Mark is in fact the only primary gospel we have; 1 that is to say, the 
only document consisting of a passion narrative prefaced by an out- 
line of Jesus* ministry. Hence the critical argument, while strong, is 
not decisive. Of course, in the nature of the case it is impossible to 
achieve complete certainty, but there does seem to be good reason 
for accepting the authenticity of the purely general predictions. Put 
together, these predictions run as follows: 

(The Son of man) must suffer many things, and be rejected 
and set at naught, and delivered up into the hands of men, and 
they shall kill him. (For he came) not to be ministered unto, 
but to minister, and to give Ms life a ransom for many, 

The language of this cento is throughout colored, not by a knowledge 
of the details of the passion, but by the description of the fate of 
the suffering servant in Isaiah 53. It suggests that Jesus conceived 
Ms death as a necessity laid upon him in fulfillment of that destiny. 
It will be noticed that this is no new idea. The mission of the 
servant was already present to Jesus' mind from the moment of his 
baptism, where the voice from heaven strongly recalls the language 
of Isaiah 42: 

Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. 

Mark I;ll, cf. Isaiah 42;l 

His proclamation of the impending reign of God recalls the proclama- 
tion of the impending divine intervention which is the burden of the 
later chapters of Isaiah. Even the word for "has drawn nigh" in his 
proclamation of God's reign strongly recalls some of those passages, 
e.g., Isaiah 56 :lb: 

My salvation is near to come, 

and my righteousness is to be revealed. 

The teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, as Professor 
William Manson has strikingly shown (Jesus the Messiah, 1943, pp. 
86 f.) draws upon the description of the servant. The healings and 

1 Holders of the "proto-Luke theory" will disagree. They maintain that there 
was an earlier form of Luke consisting of Q plus special Lukan material 
before the Markan material was added. 

Jesus 249 

exorcisms as we have seen are interpreted by reference to Isaiah 61. 
Thus the figure of the servant gives a unity to all that Jesus said and 
did from the moment of his baptism to the moment of his death 
upon the cross. Remove that background, and his life breaks up into 
a series of unrelated fragments. 

There are oth^r predictions of a different kind in the special 
Lukan material. There is, first, a prediction so indirect in character 
that its authenticity can scarcely be doubted: 

I am come to cast fire upon the earth: and what will I, if it 
is already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; 
and how am I straightened till it be accomplished! 

Luke 12:49-50 

In Mark 10:38 Jesus is again represented as speaking of his death 
in terms of a baptism. The presence of this idea in two strata of the 
gospel material strongly suggests that the notion has its roots in a 
very early tradition, which may quite possibly go back to Jesus 
himself. Indeed, it fits in perfectly with the argument of the preceding 
paragraph, that Jesus saw in his baptism by John the call to fulfill 
the total role of the servant, including that of rejection and suffering. 
A second saying in the special Lukan material merits attention: 

Go and say to that fox, Behold, I cast out devils and per- 
form cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I am per- 
fected [R.S.V.: finish my course], Howbeit, I must go on my 
way today and tomorrow and the day following: for it cannot 
be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem. Luke 13:32 f. 

Here is a public declaration on Jesus' part that his ministry is not 
exhausted in the healings and exorcisms which occupied its earlier 
part. There is a further necessity laid upon him, which includes his 
dying at Jerusalem. If his prophetic activity was of a peculiar kind, 
namely to be the prophet of the coming reign of God, it follows that 
his death as a prophet must be similarly linked to that coming reign. 
His dying, no less than his preaching, teaching, and healing, must 
have an intimate connection with the coming reign. What precisely is 
that connection? To answer this question we must examine the sayings 
of Jesus at the Last Supper. 

For none of the words of Jesus which relate to his death is so 
clear and explicit as those which he uttered at his final meal with 

250 The Book of the Acts of God 

his disciples. Of the varying versions in which these sayings have been 
handed down and subjected to development owing to the pressure 
of the growing liturgical practice of the Church, there is good reason 
to suppose that the three Markan sayings are of special antiquity: 

1. The "bread word": This is my body. 

2. The "cup word": This is my blood of the covenant. 

3. The "prediction": I will no more drink of the fruit of 
the vine, until I drink it new in the reiga of God 

Of course Jesus would have spoken at much greater length at the 
meal, and if as Mark holds, that meal was actually the Passover; or if, 
as is more likely, it was an anticipated Passover, antedating the actual 
Passover, as St. John holds, by twenty-four hours, Jesus would have 
delivered a lengthy discourse called the "haggada," in which the 
elements employed at the Passover celebration were related normally 
to the events of the exodus. On this occasion however Jesus makes 
a striking change. He transfers the symbolism of the elements from 
the exodus to his own death. The three Markan words may thus be 
best regarded as a summary of the contents of that longer discourse 
which Jesus had already delivered. The words "body" and "blood," 
mentioned separately, indicate that it is his death which Jesus has 
specially in view. This death is to be accomplished for the "many," 
a phrase which recalls what is said of the servant's suffering in Isaiah 
53:11-12. This does not mean "for a considerable number" but, in 
accordance with Semitic idiom, "for all men." The benefits which are 
to be conferred on all men by Jesus' death are defined as a "cove- 
nant." Now the inauguration of the New Covenant was an accepted 
feature of the coming reign of God since Jeremiah: 

Behold the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a 
new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of 
Judah . . ." Jeremiah 31:31 

We now know from the Dead Sea Scrolls what a vital part the idea 
of the New Covenant played among certain of Jesus' contemporaries. 
There were those who thought that the New Covenant had already 
been inaugurated. Jesus however declares that it is his death, his 
blood, which will inaugurate the expected covenant. Jesus, it seems, 
had never spoken of the covenant before. It looks like the sudden 
introduction of an apparently new motif. But the impression is no 

Jesus 251 

more than apparent. For it was also part of the Isaianic servant's 
function to inaugurate the covenant: 

I ... will . . . give thee for a covenant of the people . . . 

Isaiah 42:6 

Moreover the idea of the covenant was integrally linked with the idea 
of the coming reign of God, which as we have seen, was central to 
the proclamation of Jesus and his conception of his mission. And the 
connection between the two motifs, covenant and kingdom, is clinched 
by the saying recorded in Luke 22:29, which may indeed have been 
the original form of the covenant saying before it got attached to the 
cup word: 

I appoint unto you a kingdom, even as my Father appointed unto me. 

Here the verb translated "appoint" comes from the same root as the 
Greek word for "covenant," so that we might translate: 

I covenant unto you a kingdom, even as my Father covenanted unto me. 

What Jesus "covenants" to his followers at the moment when he 
consecrates himself to die for them is the reign of God. The same 
connection of thought appears in the third Markan saying which we 
have called the "prediction." There is a similar saying in the Lukan 
tradition of the Last Supper which Luke connects with his first cup: 

I will not drink from the fruit of the vine, until the reign of 
God comes. Luke 22:18 

Whichever form, Markan or Lukan, may be the earlier, Jesus here 
declares his solemn resolve to abstain from partaking of wine until 
the reign of God be inaugurated. Here is another indication that for 
Mm his death is the decisive event which will turn the scales of 
history, and through which God will inaugurate his reign.' It was to 
this end that Jesus willed deliberately to expose himself to death 
upon the cross. 


We have been careful up to this point to avoid asking 
directly the question: Who was Jesus? Up to now, all that has been 

252 The Sook f the Acts 

clear is that he appeared among his contemporaries as a prophet and 
as an unconventional sort of rabbi who, without explicitly announcing 
himself as such, conceived his mission from start to finish in each of 
its several aspects in terms of the servant of Isaiah, The gospels 
however represent Jesus as speaking of himself as "Son of man," 
while other speakers in the gospel narrative are made to address Mm 
as "Son of God," "the Christ," "Son of David," and "Lord." Do any 
of these titles, all of which are clearly meant to imply Messianic 
status, have any sanction in the mind of Jesus himself? Was he 
conscious of being more than a prophet, of being the Messiah of 
Israel? Did he publicly make such a claim? Or did the later Church, 
in its confession of faith in him as the redemptive act of God, read 
back the Christological titles into the tradition? This problem has 
been a subject for endless debate during the past fifty years or more, 
and it would be idle to pretend that it has been solved. Let it be said 
at once that in our view the truth of the Christian confession of faith 
in Jesus as the redemptive act of God does not rest upon the his- 
toricity of Jesus' Messianic consciousness or claims. It was (as we 
shall see) the resurrection which brought the earliest disciples to this 
faith, not the teaching which he delivered in his earthly life. And we 
believe in Jesus as the redemptive act of God because we have made 
a decision of faith in the apostolic preaching as it is continued in the 
life of the Church, not because we are persuaded that the Jesus of 
history claimed to be so. Thus we can approach the subject without 
undue anxiety as to its outcome. 

To begin with, we must insist that we know next to nothing of 
Jesus* inner life. To attribute to him a "Messianic consciousness" is 
to use the gospels as evidence for that which they cannot of their very 
nature supply. They are not psychological biographies but proclama- 
tion. Nor was the Jesus of history, so far as we can reconstruct his 
history, concerned publicly to assert any claim to exalted status. He 
was concerned rather to do a work and to fulfill a mission which he 
believed to have been laid upon him. Yet of course this sense of 
mission, which we have deduced from his outward actions and his 
explicit interpretation of them, involved certain presuppositions about 
his own personal status. 

First, there are certain episodes, such as the baptismal and tempta- 
tion narratives, the transfiguration and the agony in the garden of 
Gethsemane which suggest that Jesus regarded himself as standing 

Jesus 253 

in a peculiar filial relation to God. This filial relationship is not 
conceived in terms of metaphysical origin or of exalted status, but 
of vocation and obedience. This conception of sonship is deeply 
rooted in the Old Testament tradition. Israel was in this sense the 
son of God (Exodus 4:22b-23a), and as the personal representatives 
of the nation Israel's kings were likewise sons of God (II Samuel 
7:14; Psalms 89:26). Obedience meant for Jesus something more 
specific: it meant the vocation to fulfill the role of the suffering 
servant of Isaiah. Jesus never claimed to be either Son of God or 
suffering servant. It was not a question of claim at all, but a vocation 
to be fulfilled in obedience. 

But did Jesus directly identify himself with the Son of man? The 
sayings which speak of the future coming of the Son of man do not 
directly identify Jesus with him, and as a matter of fact the clearest 
of them expressly distinguishes between Jesus and that figure: 

Whosoever shall be ashamed of nie and my words 

in this adulterous and sinful generation: 
Of him shall the Son of man be ashamed 

when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. 

Mark 8:38 

Yet this very saying makes it clear that there is an intimate connection 
between Jesus and the Son of man. Jesus is an earthly figure: he is 
simply the bearer of the "words" that is, the proclamation of the 
impending reign of God. The Son of man, on the other hand, is an 
exalted figure who "comes" in "glory." Yet it is precisely men's 
acceptance or rejection of Jesus' message which will determine 
their acceptance or rejection by the Son of man at his coming. None 
of the other sayings which speak of the Son of man as coming in 
glory need necessarily imply an identification or indeed any close 
connection between Jesus and the Son of man. Consider for instance 
the most famous of them all, which occurs in the reply of Jesus to the 
high priest's question, "Art thou the Messiah?": 

I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the 
right hand of power, aad coming on the clouds of heaven. 

Mark 14:62 

This saying could imply that the Son of man was a figure quite distinct 
from Jesus. After all, Jesus was on earth, while the Son of man was to 

254 The Book of the Acts of God 

come on the clouds of heaven. There are however other sayings which 
speak of Jesus in his ministry as the Son of man (e.g., Mark 2:10, 
2:28; Matthew 8:20 ~ Luke 9:58 [Q material]), and a further set 
in Mark which speaks of the Son of man, obviously Jesus himself, as 
destined to suffer, die, and rise again, these last being the predictions 
of the passion which we have already discussed in another connection. 
Since these last two sets of sayings identify Jesus with the Son of man, 
whereas the first type, which speaks of his future coming in glory, does 
not, it is not surprising that some scholars regard the second and 
third types as later creations of the Church and not as authentic 
sayings of Jesus. It is however possible to reconcile all these sayings 
and retain them as original sayings of Jesus. This can be done if we 
suppose that Jesus believed himself to be, not already the Son of 
man in the full sense how could he be, since the Son of man was a 
glorified, heavenly figure, while Jesus was on earth? but Son of man 
designate. In a hidden way, by anticipation, he is already during his 
ministry exercising some of the functions of the Son of man. Never- 
theless he will not be manifested as such until he has entered upon 
Ms glory after his suffering. Jesus' attitude to the title "Son of man" 
corresponds exactly with his proclamation of the coming reign of 
God. That reign is still in the future, yet it is already mysteriously 
active in advance in him, Similarly Jesus is not yet the Son of man, 
but in him the Son of man that he is to be is already active in advance. 
And just as it is through his death that the reign of God will be 
decisively inaugurated, so, too, it is through his death that he himself 
will be decisively enthroned as the Son of man. 

As for the other Messianic titles in the gospel narrative, it is 
significant that Jesus never uses them directly of himself. When Peter 
at Caesarea PMlippi addressed to him the momentous words: "Thou 
art the Christ" (i.e., Messiah, Mark 8:29) Ms confession receives 
a surprisingly cool reception. True, our view of that incident is 
colored by the Matthaean version, in which Peter is duly praised 
(Matthew 16:17); but Matthew 16:17-19 has been inserted into the 
Markan account from a different context. Jesus neither accepts nor 
rejects Peter's confession, but enjoins Mm to silence and hastens on 
to speak of his impending sufferings. The implication is that to speak 
of Jesus as the Christ would be premature. Instead, they must con- 
centrate on the business in hand, wMch is to go up to Jerusalem for 
the passion. The way is left open for the confession of Jesus as the 

Jesus 255 

Christ or Messiah after the passion, but that must come as the spon- 
taneous expression of the Church's faith in the full light of the 
resurrection. It is as if Jesus must fill the title with distinctive content 
of Ms own before it can be safely used of him. Otherwise it could 
only be misleading, and suggestive, perhaps, of a political revolu- 
tionary. In fact, it has been recently suggested that that is exactly 
what Peter meant at Caesarea Philippi. Later, at his trial before the 
Sanhedrin, Jesus, according to Mark, answers the high priest's, 
"Art thou the Christ?" by a straight "I am." It is possible that the 
actual answer was not so direct as Mark suggests. Both Matthew 
and Luke have toned it down. Matthew has, "Thou hast said," the 
equivalent of "It's your word, not mine, and it all depends on what 
you mean by it." Luke prefers a different version, which he has 
probably derived from his special material. To the question, "Art 
thou the Christ?" which is put by the whole Sanhedrin, not, as in 
Mark and Matthew, by the high priest, Jesus is made to answer "If I 
tell you, ye will not believe." Then follows a second question, "Art 
thou the Son of God?" (since "Son of God" does not seem to have 
been a current Jewish title for the Messiah, there is probably Christian 
coloring here), to which Jesus gives a similar reply to that in Mat- 
thew: "Ye say that I am." There are good reasons for supposing 
that the qualified reply is nearer to history than Mark's straight 
affirmation. 2 Even in Mark, however, Jesus hurries on to speak, not 
of his present status, but of the exaltation of the Son of man in glory, 
thus implying that the term "Christ" can only be applied in a proper 
sense to the exalted Son of man, not to Jesus as he was on earth. 
For that again could only imply that he was a political revolutionary. 

There is a similar shelving of the title "Lord." While it seems that 
Jesus was already addressed as "Lord" in the vocative in a purely 
honorific sense, where it means little more than our modern English 
"sir," he did speak in a purely academic debate on the doctrine of 
Messiahship about the exalted Messiah as David's Lord (Mark 
12:36). This title, "the Christ," was not applicable to him during 
his earthly life, since it could rightly be used only of the exalted 
Son of man. 

This same debate indicates that Jesus did not accept the title 

2 Since the above was written, O. Cullmann in his The State in the New 
Testament has maintained that Mark mistranslated the original Aramaic, which 
said: "You say so,'* that is, precisely, "It's your word, not mine." 

256 The Book of the Acts of God 

"Son of David" as an adequate designation of the exalted agent of 
redemption. It is quite possible that he, with the rest of his family, 
believed himself to be of Davidic descent, but this can have had no 
important bearing on his conception of his destiny. Certainly, if 
applied by him during his earthly life it could only create the false 
impression that he was a political revolutionary. 

The upshot of this investigation is that Jesus was not concerned 
to offer his disciples a ready-made Christology or doctrine of his 
person. Rather, as we have seen, his purpose was to accomplish a 
mission: first to proclaim, and then to accomplish the decisive event 
through which God would inaugurate the reign of God in the age 
to come. Yet at least it may be said that he provided a framework of 
interpretation in which the Church could later assess and proclaim 
his achievement. But the meaning and content of the Church's 
confession would be given by the events themselves, not by any 
preconceived Jewish doctrine of Messiahship or even by any dkect 
teaching on the part of Jesus. 


The Earliest Church 


THE STATEMENT that "God raised Jesus from the dead" 
is most baffling for the historian. Although in form it is the statement 
of an event, it is not strictly speaMng an event in history at all. It is 
a confession of faith and a proclamation, not a historical report. No 
one saw Jesus being raised from the dead. What the historian can 
deal with is the occurrences through which the disciples came to 
believe that God raised Jesus. These occurrences must be sharply 
distinguished from the resurrection itself, of which they are only the 
external and visible signs, or, to adapt Karl Earth's vivid metaphor, 
the craters left by the explosion. The visible signs in question are the 
empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. With regard to 
the empty tomb we cannot be sure how far it goes back in the 
tradition. If the statement in St. Paul's preaching that he "was 
buried" is inserted in order to imply that his burial was reversed at 
the resurrection, the empty tomb must belong to the pre-Pauline 
tradition. And if Psalms 16 provided one of the testimonies which 
was used in the earliest preaching ("Thou shalt not suffer thy Holy 
One to see corruption"), then the empty tomb must be pronounced 
a very early tradition indeed. Its importance in the Christian testimony 
however is not so much historical as symbolic. It provides a comment 
on the resurrection appearances: they are the appearances not simply 
of one who survived death, as though the appearances were on the 
level of a spiritualist stance, but of one who has overcome death and 
reversed its sentence. With regard to the appearances themselves the 
historian cannot pronounce with regard to their objective validity. 
But he can be sure that the disciples underwent certain experiences 


258 The Book of the Acts of God 

which gave them the conviction that God had raised their master 
from the dead Otherwise he is left with an insoluble problem on his 
hands. Without some intervening "x" some additional impact upon 
the disciples subsequent to the death of Jesus, it is impossible to 
explain how the earliest disciples were reassembled to proclaim with 
boldness that Jesus was the redemptive act of God. These Easter 
experiences did take place, whatever their precise nature and however 
as men of faith or unbelief we choose to explain them. As historians 
we may call them visions. If we call them "objective visions," meaning 
thereby that there was something "at the other end" which caused 
them, we are venturing beyond the realm of history into the realm 
of faith. For the "object" here is not susceptible of historical 

Nor can the historian adequately reconstruct the course of events 
between the death of Jesus and the inception of the Christian preach- 
ing. He cannot with any degree of certainty assign either time or 
place to the appearances. Our accounts in the gospels are clearly 
the result of a long process of divergent oral development. The 
earliest tradition about the sequence of events is that received by 
Paul at his conversion within five years of the crucifixion and 
recorded in I Corinthians 15:3 and verses following. Here a series 
of appearances is listed as follows: 

1. To Peter 

2. To the Twelve 

3. To 500 brethren 

4. To James 

5. To all the apostles 

6. To Paul 

Nothing is said of the location of these appearances, whether at 
Jerusalem or Galilee, and no attempt is made to date them. But the 
fact that Paul can include among them his experience on the road to 
Damascus at least shows that they were not in principle confined 
to one place, and also that they did in principle close with the fifth 
appearance, Paul's own being that to one "born out of due time." 
Nothing appears to be said about Pentecost or the outpouring of the 
Holy Spirit. It has been attractively suggested that the third appear- 
ance to the five hundred brethren was the Pentecost event. Be that 

The Earliest Church 259 

as it may, we should not be guided too much by the Lukan chronology 
of Ascension Day and Pentecost as related in Acts 1-2. The account in 
John 20 shows that the giving of the Spirit was not a single, unique 
event confined to Pentecost, for John can place the giving of the 
Spirit to the Twelve at the second appearance listed by Paul. 

We may suggest a tentative reconstruction as follows. In the 
earliest tradition, before the accounts began to diverge in the process 
of oral transmission, the resurrection and ascension were regarded as 
a single indivisible "suprahistorical event." God raised Jesus and 
exalted him to his right hand, and it was as both risen and exalted 
that he was apprehended by the disciples in their post-Easter experi- 
ences. This series of encounters which incidentally, as some of the 
later accounts suggest, may have taken place at their common meals, 
when they met together and broke bread had for them a number 
of consequences. 

First, the encounters brought to them the insight that the total 
event of Jesus, his ministry and death, was the redemptive act of 
God. This insight did not burst upon them as something entirely 
new and unprepared for. It did not therefore appear as an arbitrary 
interpretation imposed upon the facts. For it was akeady prepared 
for by the frame of reference in which Jesus had during his life on 
earth interpreted his mission, Le., the way in which he had related it 
to the coming reign of God. Jesus had proclaimed that God was 
acting preliminarily in his ministry, and that shortly he would act 
decisively. The resurrection appearances brought home to the dis- 
ciples that God had in fact so acted decisively in the death of Jesus, 
that he had in fact inaugurated his reign. All this is deducible from 
the language in which the earliest Church proclaims what happened 
after the death of Jesus. They assert that "God had raised Jesus from 
the dead." Now the language of "resurrection from the dead" is 
derived from Jewish hopes about what would happen when the 
reign of God came. Hence in saying that Jesus had been raised from 
the dead, the early Church was thereby testifying to its belief that 
God had in fact inaugurated his reign. This function of the resurrec- 
tion as revelation is further attested by those Lukan passages which 
speak of the risen Jesus as unfolding to his disciples the meaning of 
scriptures (Luke 24:25-26; 44-46) and as showing them how it 
was necessary for the Christ to suffer and enter into his glory. The 
impact of the resurrection encounters revealed to them the place of 

260 The Book of the Acts of God 

the history of Jesus in the whole process of God's redemptive 

Second, with this new insight came the impulse to proclaim the 
event thus apprehended, a feature deeply embedded in the tradition 
of the resurrection appearances. This aspect of the resurrection 
appearances is implied in the numerous "missionary charges" which 
the risen Jesus is made to deliver (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 
16:15-18; Luke 24:471; John 20:221, 21:15-17), and is directly 
attested in Paul's own interpretation of his encounter with the risen 
Christ on the road to Damascus (Galatians 1:151). As the first 
recipient of a resurrection appearance, Peter is the primary bearer 
of the apostolic preaching of Jesus. As such he is the rock on which 
the Church is built (Matthew 16:18. The original context of this 
famous saying may well have the resurrection appearance to Peter) . 
Closely associated with him are the rest of the Twelve, with whom 
Peter received the second appearance. The witness even of later 
recipients of the resurrection appearances must conform to that of 
the Twelve, and especially to that of Peter; otherwise it is "in vain" 
(Galatians 2:2). 

A third outcome of the resurrection appearances is what the 
disciples called the "gift of the Holy Spirit," To them was not only 
committed the message: their proclamation of it is itself the direct 
activity of God, and the direct prolongation of his saving act in 
Christ. The Lukan scheme has conveyed a rather misleading impres- 
sion, and it is tempting to suppose that each and every appearance 
of the risen Christ involved not only the commission to proclaim the 
good news, but also the empowerment to proclaim it. 

Fourth, the resurrection encounters carried with them a sense of 
incompleteness. The reign of God had indeed been inaugurated, but 
it had not yet come in its fullness. The earliest Church expressed this 
insight by saying that the exalted Jesus would "come again" (Acts 
1:11). The resurrection appearances look forward to the "consum- 
mation of the age" (Matthew 28:20). How far was the teaching of 
Jesus himself during his earthly ministry responsible for this belief 
that he would return as the Son of man? There are, as we have already 
seen in the foregoing chapter, a number of passages which speak of 
the Son of man "coming" in glory. But do they mean the coming again 
(a word which is never used in the primary sources), and do they 
mean Ms coming from heaven to earth? The crucial saying in this 
connection is the reDlv to the high priest; 

The Earliest Church 261 

Ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power 
and coming in on the clouds of heaven. 

The answer consists of two quotations, from Psalm 110:1 and 
Daniel 7:13. The Daniel passage speaks not of the coming of the 
"one like unto a Son of man" from heaven to earth, but of his coming 
to the ancient of days. It has been suggested that the meaning is the 
same in Mark 14:62. At first sight this seems to be precluded by 
the fact that it is preceded here by a reference to the Son of man's 
being seated at the right hand of power, the obvious inference being 
that the one is to precede the other in temporal succession: first a 
period at the right hand of power, and then a coming to earth. A sug- 
gestion has recently been made, however, that the two quotations 
from Psalm 110 and from Daniel 7:13 are alternative images for 
the same thing, namely Christ's exaltation in triumph to heaven. This 
is certainly a possible interpretation. There are also a number of 
parables which speak of a return of the Lord, like the parable of the 
ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-11) and the parable of the waiting 
servants (Luke 12:35-40). But Professor Joachim Jeremias has 
recently shown that these parables have undergone considerable 
development in transmission. Originally they were warnings of an 
impending crisis (the coming of the reign of God) in quite general 
terms, and they have been transformed into teaching about the second 
coming (see Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 1954, pp. 39-52). We 
are left then with the possibility that Jesus spoke not of the return 
of the Son of man but of his "coming" in triumph to heaven. 

Did Jesus himself expect the final consummation to come immedi- 
ately after his death? The question is difficult to answer. The passages 
which speak of the "coming" of the Son of man may imply that he 
did so, though they give no exact chronology. On the other hand there 
are passages which suggest that the death of Jesus would inaugurate 
for the disciples a period characterized by their testimony to the 
event of redemption and by their suffering and persecution for 
the gospel's sake. This would imply an interval between the death 
of Jesus and the final consummation. It was the resurrection which 
straightened things out for them for the time being. It showed that 
Jesus had already entered into his glory, but that the reign of God, 
though inaugurated, had not yet been consummated. They expressed 
this sense of incompleteness by the (mythological) language of the 
return or "coming" of Jesus as Son of man. 

262 The Book of the Acts of God 

It is the period from Easter through Pentecost which creates the 
Christian preaching and determines its pattern, and which therefore 
creates the Christian community. The preceding history of Jesus is 
not in itself to be treated as part of the data of New Testament 
theology, but rather its prelude. It can be taken up and worked into 
the content of the Christian message only when interpreted in the 
light of the Easter revelation. For the message of Jesus was that God 
was about to act decisively: the Christian proclamation is that God 
has so acted. This explains the difference between the proclamation 
of Jesus and that of the earliest Church. It answers the problem which 
caused so much trouble to scholars during the liberal period and 
still causes trouble to the man in the street why was it that the 
religion of Jesus was replaced by a religion about him? There is, 
we must frankly and without hesitation admit, a real difference 
between the two. But the difference was caused, not by the mistaken 
notions of the earliest disciples, but by the act of God in the revelation 
of Easter. 


It is sometimes maintained that the accent of the earliest 
Church's preaching lay upon the future; that it proclaimed only the 
future coming of the Messianic redeemer, just like Judaism; and that 
the only essential difference was that the Church identified him with 
Jesus of Nazareth. Then, at a slightly later stage, we are told, it came 
to be realized that Jesus was already reigning in Ms exalted state as 
Messiah. It was only in the later Hellenistic churches that the earthly 
life of Jesus came to be interpreted as a Messianic life. Then the 
conceptions of his pre-existence and incarnation were brought in 
from gnostic sources. 

Such a presentation of the development of the Christian proclama- 
tion is not really fair to the evidence. The earliest preaching, as we 
have seen, is probably of the kind attributed to Peter in Acts 3 : 12-26. 
In language and conception it possesses a rugged antiquity which 
makes it difficult to believe that it is a free composition of the author 
of Luke-Acts. It presents Jesus as the new Moses, glorified by the 
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the first Moses was. Like 
the first Moses, too, the new Moses was a "holy and just one" and a 

The Earliest Church 263 

"prince." The new Moses has by his work inaugurated "these days," 
the last times foretold by the whole prophetic succession as an interval 
for repentance before he returns again. At this point, with the mention 
of the final consummation, the analogy with the first Moses breaks 
down, for Moses did not live to lead his people into the Promised 
Land. Then will come the "times of refreshing/' the "rest" in the 
consummated reign of God corresponding to the entry into Canaan, 
the "times of the restitution of all things." The new experiences upon 
which Israel may now enter thus correspond to the experiences of 
their forefathers when Moses brought them out of Egypt, but before 
they actually entered Canaan. The decisive act is accomplished: the 
consummation is still awaited. 

Thus even the earliest Christian preaching locates the decisive act 
of God not in the future, but already in the past. Further, it will be 
seen that the interpretation which this primitive preaching gives to the 
person of Jesus is formulated within the same framework as that in 
which Jesus had conceived his own mission. Jesus had conceived his 
mission as that of the prophet-servant, who by fulfilling his mission 
would enter upon the exalted status of the Son of man. Peter's sermon 
presents Mm as the one who had now accomplished the mission of the 
prophet and servant like unto Moses and was as a result now inaugu- 
rated as the glorified Son of man. Indeed, since the exodus theme, as 
we saw in the previous chapter, played a part in Jesus' utterances 
about his mission, it is tempting to infer that Jesus himself had already 
combined Deuteronomy 18:15 (the prophet like unto Moses) with 
the suffering servant of Isaiah. Jesus' own implicit Christology was 
designed to express what God was in the process of accomplishing, 
whereas the Christology of the earliest Church asserts what God 
had already decisively accomplished and what, he was shortly to 

The basic pattern of the Church's proclamation is thus already 
set. The later variations and developments in the preaching are due, 
not to additions or changes, but to a striving for more adequate 
expression of the same basic insight: God was in Christ. Jesus and 
his history were the final saving act of God. The first step in the 
development of Christology is indicated in the other speech of Peter 
in Acts 2:36: 

God hath made this same Jesus, whom ye crucified, both 
T.ord and Christ. 

264 The Book of the Acts of God 

The earlier speech stated that Jesus was predestined to return as 
Christ: the new insight is that he is already reigning as such. I suggest 
that this new insight is due to reflection on what was involved in the 
gift of the Holy Spirit, which receives a much stronger emphasis than 
in the speech in Chapter 3. If the risen Jesus had given the Spirit to 
his disciples, he must be already Lord and Christ. The speech of 
Chapter 2 thus adumbrates a line of thought which through St. Paul 
is to reach its culmination in the fourth gospel. The offer of the 
Holy Spirit to those who accept the preaching is not of course new. 
It is already contained in the statement in Acts 3:26 that "God, 
having raised up his servant Jesus, sent him to bless you" the con- 
tent of the "blessing" being the benefits of the redemption, which 
are precisely equivalent to the gift of the Holy Spirit. This gift is the 
enjoyment in advance of the "seasons of refreshing from the presence 
of the Lord," the blessings of the consummated reign of God, 

The Reception of the Message 

The earliest preaching contained a challenge to repent 
For the Jewish audience this meant that they must readjust their 
whole attitude to the event of Jesus. They must repudiate the national 
decision which had rejected him as an impostor and realign them- 
selves with the decision that he was the final, saving act of God. 
Repentance thus issues in faith the positive acceptance of Jesus 
as the act of God. This decision once made, the recipients of the 
message will be admitted to the blessing which flows from the event 
(Acts 3:26), or, in the language of Chapter 2, they will receive the 
Holy Spirit. Was this admission already from the beginning accom- 
plished by baptism in water? Chapter 3 which, as we have seen, is 
probably the earliest account of the primitive preaching makes no 
explicit reference to baptism, but only the speech in Chapter 2 of 
Acts, which is probably slightly later. We cannot be sure whether it 
is meant to be implied in Chapter 3 or not. I suggest that Luke has 
omitted any reference to baptism in Chapter 3 because in the context 
he has used it for it is not an evangelistic speech, but an explanation 
of the miracle at the beautiful gate. We therefore see no reason to 
doubt that baptism was practiced from the very first. How did it 
originate? Later tradition included a charge to baptize among the 

The Earliest Church 265 

commands of the risen Christ (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). We 
cannot be sure that this was part of the earliest tradition. But Jesus 
himself had already in his earthly teaching defined the whole range 
of his ministry, culminating on the cross, as the working out of the 
implications of his baptism at the hands of John (see above, p. 241). 
That is why he called his death a "baptism." His gift of the Spirit 
after the resurrection to his earliest disciples was their baptism, for 
it was their total immersion in the redemptive event. A similar 
immersion in the redemptive event must follow for those who received 
the preaching of the apostles, and it was natural for the earliest 
Church to take over the outward sign by which Jesus had been 
initiated into his redemptive work by John the Baptist and whose 
import Jesus had transformed by his death on the cross. In the tradi- 
tion of the post-resurrection command to baptize there is this element 
of truth, that the use of baptism, like the preaching of the gospel 
message, was the result of the impact of the period from Easter to 
Pentecost. The act of God in Jesus must not only be proclaimed: men 
and women must be brought, through the ministry of the first wit- 
nesses, into the same intimate relation to it as the first witnesses 
themselves had enjoyed by their direct contact with Jesus, "beginning 
from the baptism of John, unto the day that he was received up." 

The Common Life of the Earliest Christians 

The author of Luke Acts summarizes the common life 
of the earliest Christian community at Jerusalem in the classic words: 

They continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and 
fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and the prayers. 

Acts 2:42 

The Christian life was centered upon a common worship. First 
there was the apostles' teaching. As well as the missionary preaching, 
samples of which are provided by Peter's sermons in Acts 2 and 3, 
there was regular pastoral preaching at the gatherings of the com- 
munity of the type which the Hellenistic churches later designated 
paraklesis, that is, exhortation or encouragement. This would involve 
the application of Old Testament passages to Jesus and his history 
as the redemptive act of God. Some of the narrative portions of the 
Old Testament were expounded as types depicting in advance 

266 The Book of the Acts of God 

the pattern of God's act in Christ, while some of the prophetic 
portions would be interpreted as direct predictions of the coming of 
the redemption in Christ. In fact, there are indications in the New 
Testament that the earliest Christians gathered together a series of 
"testimonies/' Old Testament passages which were applied to the 
event of Christ. Another activity undertaken in connection with 
pastoral preaching was the recollection of episodes from the Mfe of 
Jesus and the shaping of them as a continued proclamation of the 
redemption. Thus for instance stories of Jesus' healings were recol- 
lected and preserved in order to preach to the community that this 
same Jesus, now risen, was still stretching forth his hand to heal men 
and women in the life of the Church. For the Church lived entirely 
upon the "word," that is, upon the proclamation of the event of 
redemption. That event must be continually proclaimed anew to 
the community that it might be kept in being precisely as the Church, 
and not degenerate into a purely human community. Thirdly, the 
connected narrative of the Lord's passion was constructed and recited 
in the gatherings of the community: "As often as ye eat this bread, 
and drink this cup, ye do shew forth the Lord's death till he come" 
(I Corinthians 11:26). 

In addition to this pastoral preaching there was also need for 
direct teaching on points of doctrine and behavior. This teaching was 
later called by the Greek-speaking churches didache. The need for 
materials led the earliest Christian leaders to collect and preserve 
the sayings of Jesus to serve as guidance for problems of thought 
and behavior. Thus for instance, Christians wanted to know whether, 
now they had entered the reign of God, they were under obligation 
to pay taxes to earthly rulers. The story of the tribute money gave 
the answer: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and 
unto God the things that are God's-" Or again, how to meet the 
scribal charge that Jesus could not be Messiah, since the Messiah was 
the son of David and a political ruler? The episode now recorded in 
Mark 12:25-37 would deal effectively with this problem. 

While the "fellowship" or common life had its focal point of 
expression in worship, it was carried into everyday life by the sharing 
of all things in common, as in the Qumran community. This was not 
due to any economic theory, nor was it a fixed law. Rather, it was 
a spontaneous expression of Christian "agape" or love. The sin 

The Earliest Church 267 

of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10) was not their refusal to 
comply with a law, but their attempt to deceive not only the com- 
munity, but God himself (verse 4) . Later on, the changed conditions 
of life in the Greek cities would lead to the tacit abandonment of this 
particular expression of communal life without controversy, and the 
substitution of almsgiving and hospitality as expressions of Christian 

Then there was the "breaking of the bread." Being Jews, the 
earliest Christians would naturally begin the chief meal of the day 
with the breaking of bread. This meal took place in the late afternoon 
or early evening. The breaking of the bread would also be preceded 
by the recitation of a prayer in which the name of God was blessed 
for the gift of daily food. But in the case of the early Christians the 
thanksgiving would be enriched with elements derived from their 
earlier table-fellowship with Jesus, and particularly from what he had 
done at the Last Supper. It would recall not merely the mighty act 
of God which had brought the Israelites into Canaan and thus enabled 
them to enjoy the fruits of the land, but the mighty act of God in the 
passion and resurrection of his servant Jesus, by which they had been 
brought to enjoy the blessings of the reign of God, shortly to be 
accomplished by the return of that servant in glory. We are told in 
Acts 2:46 that the early Christians ate their bread with gladness and 
singleness of heart. The word for "gladness" is almost a technical 
term for the joy of the age to come. This suggests that the daily 
common meal was thought to be an anticipation of the day when 
Jesus would return to consummate the reign of God. Hence the 
prayer Maranatha, "Come, O Lord" (I Corinthians 16:22; cf. Reve- 
lation 22:20). Was wine invariably used at the meal? Jewish custom 
was to drink wine only at festivals and on the eves of the Sabbath 
(Friday evenings). Since apparently the Christians transferred their 
weekly festival from the Sabbath to the first day of the week, they 
may have transferred the use of wine to Saturday evening (or early 
Sunday, according to Jewish reckoning). Certainly this is what 
happened on Gentile soil, when also the daily breaking of the bread, 
which was a purely Jewish custom, was dropped. As a result of this, 
bread and wine both came to be used invariably in the Gentile 
churches, whereas in the Jerusalem church wine was used only on 

268 The Book of the Acts of God 


The earliest disciples spoke Aramaic, and they believed 
that the gospel message need be preached only to Israel. They were 
not opposed to the admission of Gentiles on principle, but, in accord- 
ance with Jewish ideas, believed that such Gentiles as were destined 
to be saved would be given their chance after the return of Christ. 
This seems to have been the view of Jesus himself (Matthew 8:111 
Luke 13:28 f.)- Hence for the time being no attempt was made to 
extend the gospel message to the Gentiles. But the preaching was not 
confined to Aramaic-speaking Jews, If it did not happen already at 
Pentecost, as Acts suggests, it was not long after that Greek-speaking 
Jews were brought into the fold (4:36). So eager were they for the 
gospel message, which had for them no doubt attractions which the 
rigid Judaism of Palestine lacked, that a considerable number of them 
were converted and they became a force to be reckoned with. 
Tensions gtew up between the two sections, and the Hellenistic 
section had to be provided with leadership of its own. It is inaccurate 
and an anachronism to call the Seven "deacons"; not only does Luke 
refrain from calling them so, but their task turns out to be that of 
extending the apostolic preaching. Under the creative leadership of 
Stephen certain new emphases in the Christian preaching were 
evolved. Stephen's speech in Acts 7 is notable for the new self- 
consciousness of the Church. The earliest Aramaic-speaking Chris- 
tians had probably already called themselves the Church, for Matthew 
16:18, if not an authentic saying of Jesus, emanates from the earEest 
community. But they regarded themselves as the true remnant within 
Judaism, and except for their preaching and distinctive common life, 
they shared the life of Israel as a whole, particularly in the worship 
of the temple. Stephen and his associates, however, see themselves in- 
volved in a radical breach with Israel and particularly with its temple. 
The Christian community is thus on the way to evolving a quite 
distinctive life of its own, and the foundations are being laid for 
the Gentile mission. 


Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 


THUS THERE grew up, after the dispersion of the Church 
consequent to the martyrdom of Stephen, a new version of Chris- 
tianity, distinguishable from the original Palestinian version. Its center 
was at Antioch and its language Greek. It took over much of the old 
Palestinian tradition, as we can see from the synoptic gospels. These 
latter all spring from this Hellenistic milieu so far as their language 
is concerned, yet reflect, except in the editorial sections, the traditions 
of the earliest Aramaic-speaking church. The communities of these 
churches were mixed, containing a nucleus of Greek-speaking Jews, 
a larger proportion of proselytes (converts to Judaism) and God- 
fearers (Gentiles interested in Judaism, but uncommitted), and a 
fringe, perhaps, of immediate ex-pagans. It is natural that Hellenistic 
Christianity, as well as taking over much of the earliest tradition, 
also adopted much of the outlook and practice of the Hellenistic 

Our evidence for this type of Christianity is somewhat meager. 
The New Testament is overshadowed by the presence within it of no 
less than fourteen Pauline or near-Pauline writings. There -is singu- 
larly little material of a Hellenistic character earlier in date than the 
Pauline writings and therefore indubitably free from Pauline influence. 
Yet Paul himself, before he launched out on his own individual, 
creative line, was nurtured precisely in this type of Christianity, and 
therefore it should be possible, by extracting those parts of his epistles 
where he appears to be reproducing the presuppositions from which 
he started and not developing special teaching of his own, to recon- 
struct something of this pre-PauMne Hellenistic Christianity, It should 


270 The Book of the Acts of God 

also be possible to discover something from the synoptic gospels 
themselves, where the authors are arranging and commenting and 
editing the Palestinian tradition to meet the needs of the Hellenistic 
churches, thus molding it to give the gospel each his own particular 
interpretation. Lastly there are non-Pauline Hellenistic writings later 
in date than Paul. These include not only some of our canonical 
documents, such as the non-Johannine catholic epistles (I, II Peter, 
Hebrews though this perhaps has one foot in the Pauline camp 
together with James and Jude), and writings of the sub-apostolic age 
which did not find their way into the canon, such as the first epistle 
of Clement, the epistle of Barnabas, the epistles of Ignatius, and the 
Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. The Johannine litera- 
ture is left out of account in this reconstruction, since it represents a 
distinctive development of Hellenistic Christianity parallel to, though 
later than, the Pauline. 


In the non-Jewish world Christian preaching could not 
start, as in a purely Jewish environment, with the Jewish hope and 
proceed from thence to the direct proclamation of Jesus as the saving 
act of God in history. It had to begin further back with the preaching 
of the one God. Fortunately there were predecessors in this field. 
In its approach to potential converts from the Gentile world the 
Hellenistic synagogue had already devised an apologetic against 
idolatry and a defense of monotheism. To do so it drew upon the 
arguments of "natural theology" which had been elaborated by the 
Stoic philosophers. The law and order of nature contain a revelation 
of the one true God and a refutation of polytheism and idolatry: 

" We . . . bring you good news, that you should turn from 
these vain things [Le., idolatry] to a living God who made the 
heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them . . . 
he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and 
gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, satisfying 
your hearts with food and gladness. 

Acts 14;15b-17 (R.S.V.) 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 271 

A more literary approach, adapted to an intellectual audience, is 
found in the speech attributed to St. Paul by the author of Luke-Acts 
during his visit to Athens and the Areopagus: 

"Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very 
religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects 
of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 
'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, 
this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and every- 
thing in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in 
shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as 
though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men 
life and breath and everything. And he made from one every 
nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having deter- 
mined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, 
that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after 
him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for 

*In him we live and move and have our being'; 
as even some of your poets have said, 

'For we are indeed his offspring.' 

Being then God's offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity 
is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and 
imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, 
but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because 
he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world hi right- 
eousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has 
given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead." 

Acts 17:22-31 (R.S.V.) 

It will be noticed how this speech traverses ground familiar to Stoi- 
cism and to Jewish apologetic, no doubt winning the assent of the 
audience, until it takes a sudden turn at the end, and speaks of the 
event of redemption, which produced a division among the hearers. 
That this was precisely the approach of Paul himself is confirmed 
by his own words in the epistle to the Romans: 

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because 
God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world 
his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has 
been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. 

Romans 1:19-20 

272 The Book of the Acts of God 

and then there follows a polemic against idolatry. TMs "natural 
theology" is of course not an addition to the Christian proclamation. 
It was akeady presupposed in the earliest preaching of Jesus as the 
act of God. For that act was the act of the God who had created 
the heaven and the earth, and of the God who had directed the 
previous history of Israel. But for a Gentile audience this requires 
explicit statement, otherwise they cannot understand that Jesus Christ 
is the act precisely of God, of him who made the heaven and the 
earth. Thus the proclamation of God as Creator does not spring from 
cosmological speculation, but from the proclamation of the event of 

Later on a development most clearly seen in the Pauline and 
Johannine writings, though the casual way in which Paul introduces 
it, as well as its presence in the epistle to the Hebrews, suggests that 
it may be a pre-Pauline development the creation and the event of 
Jesus Christ are riveted more closely still by the application to Christ 
of the wisdom concept. Christ becomes the pre-existent wisdom of 
God through whom God made heaven and earth. TMs makes even 
clearer what was already implicit from the start, namely that it is the 
Creator-God who acts in the event which is Jesus Christ. 

Pagan idolatry was the source of pagan vice (Romans 1:24-32; 
note the "therefore" in verse 24). Repentance therefore acquires a 
more specific content in the relation to the moral life as compared 
with what it had meant for the Palestinian Jews. It meant, not 
simply a reassessment of the national crime of Israel in executing its 
Messiah, but, more concretely, the "renunciation" of pagan vices 
(see below). 

In the proclamation of the event of redemption itself there were 
necessary changes. The term "Messiah," even in its Greek dress as 
"Christos," was unintelligible to the Greek world. "Christ" therefore 
became to all intents and purposes a proper name, thus leading to 
the familiar "Jesus Christ." The old term "servant," which had been 
applied to Jesus particularly in relation to his earthly life and passion 
in the earliest Palestinian tradition (Acts 3:13 R.S.V.), survived only 
in the stylized archaisms of the liturgy (Acts 4:27 R.S.V., cf. the 
Didache and the ordination liturgy in Hippolytus). It was generally 
replaced by the term "Son of God." Thus, according to some scholars, 
the original Aramaic in the voice at the baptism and transfiguration of 
Jesus had been "Thou art [or "This is"] my Servant." For the author 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 273 

of Mark, "Son of God" has become the typical designation of Jesus, 
even in his life on earth. To the Greek convert it would, especially 
when accompanied by the miracle stories, have conveyed the asso- 
ciations of the "divine man" a holy figure who in virtue of his 
holiness was able to work miracles. This would not of course have 
been the belief of Mark himself: for Mm Son of God, like all the 
titles of exaltation, meant the agent of the redemptive act of God. 
What has happened in effect, however, is that even for the evangelists 
the exalted status of Jesus, which in the earliest tradition was dated 
from the resurrection, is now pushed back into the earthly life. 
Quite naturally and properly that life is now being viewed through 
the spectacles of the resurrection. 

Moreover, the earliest Church, taking its cue from the apocalyptic 
teaching about the agent of redemption, believed that he had been 
predestined from the beginning of the world. Thus for instance we 
read in the earliest speech in Acts of "the Christ appointed [literally, 
foreordained, appointed beforehand] for you." A foreordained mes- 
siah pre-existed as it were in the mind of God. This kind of pre- 
existence is implicit in the tradition from the beginning, and was 
perhaps even present to the mind of Jesus in his use of the term 
"Son of man," That of course does not mean that he thought of 
himself as really and objectively pre-existent before his entry into 
the world. The passages which suggest that he did are confined to 
the fourth gospel and are clearly later tradition. What it means is that 
he conceived his own role as predestined by God. In Hellenistic 
Christianity however this ideal type of pre-existence is developed into 
a "real'* objective pre-existence. 

It is generally held that this step was taken by St Paul, and that 
he was led to do so because of his identification of Jesus with the 
wisdom of God as agent of creation. But while the wisdom motif 
accounts for the association of Christ with the act of creation as its 
agent, it seems that it is not in connection with that motif that the 
idea of "real" pre-existence first enters in, but rather witfr the notion 
of Christ as the Son of God. This is clear from a passage which 
may well be a pre-Pauline formula: 

God sent forth his Son, born of a woman , . 

Galatians 4:4 

We suggest therefore that it was pre-Pauline Christianity which first 

274 The Book of the Acts of God 

took the step of positing a pre-existence of its Lord, and that it did 
so in connection with his title of Son of God. 

But how did that Church come to take that important step? It 
has been suggested that the notion of real pre-existence had already 
been adopted into the Church from Gnostic circles, whose agent of 
redemption was a really pre-existent figure who became incarnate 
in the world in order to effect the redemption. There is nothing that 
need shock us in such a possibility. The Church was looking round 
for adequate concepts in which to express its basic conviction that 
"God was in Christ," and everything was grist to its mill. It is this 
central faith which remains constant, while the expression of it was 
a matter of trial and, if not of error, then at least a discarding of 
inadequate concepts and those which proved to be unsuited to the 
changed environment in which the gospel had to be proclaimed. But 
the theory of Gnostic provenance appears to break down on chrono- 
logical grounds. While certain tendencies similar to those which 
appear in the full-fledged Gnostic systems of the second century were 
present already in Hellenistic, and, if certain interpretations of the 
new scrolls from the Qumran caves are to be trusted, even within 
some types of Palestinian, Judaism, we cannot certainly include the 
presence of the pre-existent Redeemer among them. That figure, so 
far as our present evidence goes, emerges only in second-century 
Gnosticism, and chronology would favor the view that this idea was 
taken over from Christianity into Gnosticism, and not vice versa. 
Rather we must suppose a process of internal development within the 
Church. It was led to move from the conception of ideal to real 
pre-existence because it found in this a more adequate expression of 
its basic faith. If God was present and acting in Christ, then the 
Godhead as such which was in him must, if it was Godhead at all, 
be really pre-existent. This will have to be our tentative conclusion 
for the present. Further knowledge of contemporary Judaism, both 
Palestinian and Hellenistic, may later enable us to track down more 
precisely the origin of this important step. 

It is frequently maintained that the earliest Church glossed over 
the death of Jesus and concentrated its attention on the resurrection. 
Further, eucharistic piety, we are told, centered on the presence of 
the risen Christ rather than on his death. On this view it was St. Paul 
who first emphasized the saving significance of the cross, both in his 
preaching and in Ms sacramental teaching. But the very early devel- 
opment of the cup word in the institution narrative (this is my blood 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 275 

of the covenant which was shed for many) indicates that to the 
death of Jesus was ascribed a redemptive significance from the very 
first Yet there was undoubtedly in Hellenistic Christianity a shift of 
emphasis. More stress was laid upon the death of Christ as a sacrifice. 
The following passages are places where Paul is reproducing tradi- 
tional formulae of a liturgical character: 

Christ, our passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 

/ Corinthians 5:7 

... the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put 
forth as an expiation in his blood. Romans 3:24b-25a 

Compare also: 

Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering 
and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:2 (R.S.V.) 

Much prominence is given in the Pauline epistles to the notion 
that by his death Christ won the decisive victory over the powers 
of evil. This mythological notion was not a feature of the earliest 
preaching, and the popular attribution of illness to evil spirits which 
forms the background of Jesus* exorcisms is of a different order. 
Yet Paul never develops Ms own characteristic thinking along these 
lines, and the probability is that the conception of the demonic powers 
is something which tie held in common with other Greek-speaking 
Christians. This cosmic dualism has often been ascribed to Gnostic 
sources, from which they supposedly infiltrated into the Hellenistic 
synagogues and thence to Hellenistic Christianity. But the Dead Sea 
Scrolls indicate the presence of such a dualism already in some ver- 
sions of Palestinian Judaism, and it was probably derived ultimately 
from Persian rather than from Gnostic sources. 

Hellenistic Christianity developed its own missionary vocabulary. 
The Christian proclamation is called the "gospel," good news. Jesus 
had already used the verb **to gospel." To the Greco-Roman world 
the word "euangelion" would mean the proclamation of a ruler (as 
the King of England is proclaimed publicly in every town and city 
at the beginning of a new reign). In Christian usage it means the 
proclamation of the reign of God in Christ. Another new word is 
"kerygma," or preaching, denoting not the activity of preaching, but 
the content of the message. The acceptance of and adherence to the 
Christian message is called "pistis," faith. 

The earliest Church was conscious of itself as the community of 
the last days, the true remnant of Israel, and as we have seen, there 

276 The Book of the Acts of God 

was probably akeady in use a Semitic word (exactly what word is 
uncertain) for "Church." The Greek-speaking Christians adopted the 
word "ecclesia" for themselves. This is one of the two terms which 
were employed in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the 
Septuagint, for the congregation or people of Israel, the other term 
being "synagoge." It is easy to see why the Christians did not gener- 
ally use the other term (an exception is James 2:2). Not only was 
it too popular among the Jews, but its meaning had become restricted 
to the local congregation; whereas the Christians needed a word to 
express their consciousness of being the one holy people of God, 
of which each separate congregation was a local manifestation. 

For the instruction of the new converts the Hellenistic Church 
took over the patterns of catechetical teaching which had been 
worked out in the synagogue for the instruction of proselytes. These 
included, on the negative side, a list of pagan vices to be "renounced" 
or "put aside," and, on the positive, the duties of the Christian life. 
Here use was made, as already in the synagogue, of the Stoic "house- 
hold codes," which were circulated by peddlers in the ancient world, 
like Old Moore's almanacs today, and which listed the duties of 
husbands, wives, parents, children, and slaves. Naturally the Church 
also made use of the sayings of Jesus as their predecessors in Pales- 
tine had done (hence the preservation of the Q material in its Greek 
dress, and the numerous echoes of the sayings of Jesus in the 
"paraenetic" or ethical sections of the New Testament epistles). 
It is striking how little there is which is specifically Christian in this 
ethical teaching. Much of it was to be found in the best of Judaism 
and even of Stoicism. The distinctiveness of the Christian ethic lay 
chiefly in its motivation. The Christian life was the expression of 
gratitude to God for what he had done in Christ; "Be ye kind to 
one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for 
Christ's sake hath forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). 


Both the theology and the practice of baptism underwent 
a. number of changes. For the primitive Church, baptism had been 
performed in the name of Jesus, and its benefit defined as the remis- 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 277 

sion of sins, and, normally at any rate, the gift of the Holy Spirit. 
Corresponding to the introduction into the preaching of God as 
Creator, the baptismal confession and the word of administration 
was expanded in the Hellenistic churches into the familiar threefold 
formula: "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the 
Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19; cf. also the Didache). St. Paul can 
also speak of baptism as a symbolical participation in Christ's death 
and resurrection, and does so in terms which suggest that the idea 
was not his, but of others before lum' ("Know ye not . . . ?" in 
Romans 6:3, to a church he had never visited) . Such ideas have been 
frequently ascribed to the influence of the mystery religions, in whose 
rites the initiate sacramentally shared the fate of the cult deity. Yet 
the idea was already implicit in the primitive Christian interpretation 
of Christ's death as itself a "baptism," and also in the idea of 
baptizing "in the name of Jesus." There is no need to go to extra- 
neous sources for the notion, though we may suppose that it would 
have the more readily commended itself to those brought up in the 
atmosphere of the mystery religions. It therefore had a pedagogic 
value which led to its increasing emphasis. In any case it was given 
a moral content strikingly absent from the mystery religions. To die 
with Christ meant the concrete abandonment of the vices of pagan 
living; and rising with him, though not to be consummated until 
Christ's return, meant the day-to-day endeavor to lead the Christian 
life of obedience. It is commonly supposed that there is at least a 
trace of influence from the mystery religions in the strange practice 
of being baptized for the dead, but this passage (I Corinthians 15:29) 
will be discussed later (see p. 310). It is probable that the rite of 
baptism was administered with increasing elaboration of ceremony 
and ritual. We may suppose there was already an explicit renuncia- 
tion of the pagan vices and a solemn profession of faith, first in 
Jesus as Lord, and later in the threefold name. Here is the origin of 
the baptismal creed. Another addition to the rite was a laying on of 
hands (Hebrews 6:2; cf. Acts 8:17; 19:6), which was associated 
with the gift of the Holy Spirit. This was by nature an additional 
ceremony designed to underline part of the whole wealth of meaning 
contained in the immersion in water. 

The regular place of worship was still in the homes of the faithful, 
as indeed it would continue to be until the edict of toleration under 
the Emperor Constantine in A.D. 313 enabled Christians to build 

278 The Book of the Acts of God 

special places of worship. But the liturgical action was progressively 
emancipated from its primitive setting in the bosom of Jewish 
domestic piety and took on more of the formality of public worship. 
This was particularly the case with the first part of the Christian 
service-, which centered upon the ministry of the word. First there 
would be readings from the scriptures, as in the Jewish synagogue, 
though the culmination would be the reading of the specifically 
Christian material, and not of the law, as in the synagogue. This 
Christian material would consist of letters from Christian leaders 
which had reached the congregation, a practice which may have 
originated in the Pauline churches and spread from there to others. 
It would also include parts of the material which found its way even- 
tually into our written gospels, especially the passion narrative. After 
the Jewish model the readings would doubtless be interspersed with 
psalm singing, which would encourage the Christological interpre- 
tation of the psalms so common in the New Testament. This would 
be followed by a sermon, a "word of exhortation," of which the 
epistle to the Hebrews is an example. Opportunity would also be 
given for the exercise of prophecy and even for speaking with tongues. 
Since the Hellenistic churches could no longer meet, as at Jerusalem, 
for the daily breaking of the bread, these meetings would be con- 
fined to the first day of the week, the Lord's day (I Corinthians 16:2; 
Acts 20:7; Revelation 1:10). Hence the use of wine became regular 
on every occasion when the eucharist was celebrated. If the Pauline 
churches were the first to detach the rite with the bread and cup 
from the common meal (where the bread was blessed at the begin- 
ning and the cup at the end) and thus to telescope the two blessings, 
other churches must soon have found it advisable to follow suit. 
Both parts of the eucharist would then precede the common meal, 
as is probably the case in the Didache. The eucharistic rite of the 
Hellenistic churches must have been somewhat as follows: after the 
faithful had saluted one another with a holy kiss and all unworthy 
or unqualified persons had been excluded ("If any love not the 
Lord Jesus, let him be anathema" I Corinthians 16:22), the "presi- 
dent" would take bread and wine, and recite a prayer of thanksgiving 
for creation and redemption. A good description of the scene and 
of the content of the thanksgiving is given in Revelation 4:2-11. The 
thanksgivings would be followed by a petition "Maranatha," "Come 
Lord Jesus" (I Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 22:20), and conclude, 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 279 

like all Jewish prayers, with a doxology and an amen said by the 
whole congregation (I Corinthians 14:16). The whole rite is thus 
fundamentally Jewish in structure and conception. There is no trace 
of any influence from the mystery religions, except in the notion that 
the unworthy reception of communion might lead to physical death 
(I Corinthians 11:30). Even this notion however is fundamentally 
ethical and not magical. There is no belief that the eucharistized 
bread and wine are supernatural substances with mysterious potencies 
of their own. Such a notion does not intrude until the time of St. Cyril 
of Jerusalem, who in the fourth century began to speak of the conse- 
crated elements as "making your hair stand on end." Rather did 
the early Church believe in a real coming of Christ to his people in 
and through the action of the rite. In response to the recalling of 
the mighty acts of God in Christ, recited in the eucharistic prayer, 
God made them present to the congregation. 

In the earliest Church the ministry of the word was in the hands 
or under the control of the apostles. For the Greek-speaking Chris- 
tians of the Jerusalem Church there was a devised, as we have seen 
(above, p. 268), a subordinate ministry, to which no specific title 
was given. Not long after, we find mention of "elders" at Jerusalem 
(Acts 11:30), an institution doubtless borrowed from the synagogue. 
In Acts 14:23 we are given the impression that the same form of 
organization was adopted in the churches of the Pauline mission. 
From this we would naturally infer that the same type of organiza- 
tion was employed in the pre-Pauline Hellenistic churches. Yet it is 
often contended that the evolution of the "elders" was a post-Pauline 
development, and that the references to them in Acts are an anachro- 
nism. The chief argument in support of this view is that Paul in 
most of his epistles appears to ignore any local ministry, and writes 
to the congregations direct. Moreover, in I Corinthians 12 and 
Romans 12 (cL Ephesians 4) he appears to envisage a quite different 
type of ministry, the free or charismatic ministry, in which everyone 
in the congregation exercised Ms spiritual gifts. The truth of the 
matter is that these passages are not really referring to ministries 
at all, but to the exercise of functions in the community. In practice 
the "charismatics" would doubtless have been found mainly among 
the "elders." Paul indeed refers himself to "them that are over you 
in the Lord and admonish you" when he writes to the Thessalonians 
(I Thessalonians 5:12). la writing to the Corinthians (the very 

280 The Book of the Acts of God 

epistle which talks so much of charismatics), he says of the house 
of Stephanas that "they have set themselves to minister to the saints" 
and exhorts the Corinthians to "be in subjection to such" (I Corin- 
thians 16:15f.) And in writing to the Philippians he speaks of 
"bishops and deacons." So we can scarcely doubt that both the 
Pauline and pre-Pauline churches were governed in the absence of 
the apostles by a local committee of "elders" (with which at this 
time "bishop" was synonymous). We now know that the Qumran 
community, like the community of the New Covenant at Damascus, 
had officers called "visitors," "overseers," or, in Greek, "episcopoi." 
Therefore it is much more likely to suppose that this type of organ- 
ization was already evolved while the nascent Church was still in 
close contact with its Jewish origins, rather than that it consciously 
revived a Jewish form of organization after the death of Paul. Still 
less likely is it that it adopted, as has been suggested, a form of 
organization from Hellenistic secular life. Both titles, "elders" and 
"bishops," sprang direct from Judaism. It is natural to suppose that 
when a church was first founded the founding missionaries appointed 
elders, while afterwards the elders themselves would be responsible 
for maintaining their numbers, as in the Jewish synagogues. 


In their present form all three synoptic gospels are the 
products of the non-Pauline Greek-speaking churches. Attempts have 
been made from time to time to discover Pauline influences in Mark, 
and tradition has traced a connection between the Pauline evangel 
and the third gospel, which it ascribed to Luke, the companion of 
Paul. But much that has been thought to be Pauline in both these 
gospels is really common apostolic Christianity. The synoptic gospels 
consist of three strata. The first is the authentic sayings of Jesus 
himself, which are translations into Greek from the original Aramaic. 
These of course are firsthand evidence for the teaching of Jesus, and 
have been used as such in Chapter II. Then there are the narratives 
about him, which existed in the form of isolated fragments (peri- 
copae). These took shape in the Aramaic Church, for the most part, 
and have been used as evidence for the beliefs, interests, and activities 

Non-PauUne Hellenistic Christianity 281 

of the earliest Aramaic Church in Chapter III. There is a third 
stratum, which is the work of the Greek-speaking evangelists them- 
selves. This consists of their selection and arrangement of the 
pericopae and the editorial links which they have provided. This 
third stratum will now be used to throw further light on the beliefs 
and interests of the non-Pauline Greek-speaking churches. 

L Mark 

The major impulse behind the writing of the gospels was 
to preserve the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ at a time when it 
was in danger of being lost as a consequence of the decease of the 
original witnesses. But the gospel writers were more than the editors 
of a tradition. They were also concerned to interpret it and apply 
it to the needs of the Church of their day. 

The material Mark had at his disposal consisted of a connected 
passion narrative and a collection of originally isolated episodes 
from the life of Jesus. There are stories about Jesus, such as the 
baptism, temptation, transfiguration, triumphal entry, and the cleans- 
ing of the temple. There are the so-called pronouncement stories, 
which culminate in a significant saying of Jesus for the sake of which 
the whole episode is narrated, such as the story of the tribute money, 
which culminates in the pronouncement "Render unto Caesar." 
There are miracle stories pure and simple, whose climax is the 
miraculous action of Jesus, such as the healing of Jairus' daughter. 
There are parables of Jesus, and aphorisms, such as those collected 
at the end of Chapter 9. Some of this material had probably been 
gathered together before Mark. That is why it appears in blocks 
conflict stories in Chapters 2:1-3:6 and 11:27-12:37, parables 
in Chapter 4:1-34, miracle stories in 4:35-5:43. 

What is the theology which Mark seeks to inculcate by his arrange- 
ment of this material? It is that Jesus is present among men as the 
hidden Messiah. The acts and teaching of Jesus are a series of epiph- 
anies or manifestations of his exalted status. He appears on earth as the 
Son of God incognito. But those who penetrate behind the incognito 
fail to discern it aright. The demons realize that he is the Holy One 
of God. But they are commanded to silence: it is only after the 
resurrection that the true meaning of Jesus' exalted status will be 
perceived. Amazement and wonder are evoked in the crowds, but 

282 The Book of the Acts of God 

no genuine comprehension. For them all things are "done in 
parables" that is to say, they are dark enigmas. But to the chosen 
disciples it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God. 
Yet even they fail to discern it aright. Peter's confession at Caesarea 
Philippi is at best only a partial insight, for it ignored the necessity 
of the cross, and at worst a satanic temptation, for "Christ" could 
mean a political revolutionary. 

From this point it becomes clear that the final epiphany will come 
only as a result of the cross. The whole ministry thus appears under 
the guise of a series of preliminary and misunderstood epiphanies, 
each of which prefigures the final epiphany of the cross and resur- 
rection, which in the person of the centurion leads the Gentile world 
to confess Jesus as the Son of God, and to a life in the inaugurated 
reign of God in which the believers witness to him amid persecution 
and martyrdom and await the final consummation. But even the final 
denouement is left mysteriously hanging in the air. The risen Christ 
does not appear to his disciples (Mark 16:9 and following verses 
of course are not part of the original text, and it is best to assume 
that Mark deliberately ended his gospel at 16:8), but his reunion 
with the disciples in Galilee is foretold. The fulfillment of this 
promise is not recorded because Mark identifies it with the final 
consummation: the Church is still awaiting that consummation, while 
the tribulations foretold in Chapter 13 and which precede the return 
of the exalted Christ take place. Mark's gospel contains a message 
for a persecuted missionary Church. 

2. Matthew 

Both Matthew and Luke, by their incorporation of a 
considerable body of teaching into their gospels, have deviated from 
Mark's classical pattern which appears in John. Indeed, one might 
regard the teaching material as the real content of Matthew, and 
the Markan narrative as its external framework or scaffolding. 
The teaching is arranged in five main blocks. The first is the Sermon 
on the Mount, the new law for the Christian community. The second, 
in Chapter 10, is the missionary charge, which represents the march- 
ing orders of the Church's ministry. The third block is the parables 
of the kingdom, in which kingdom and Church are practically 
equated. The fourth block is commonly called the "address to the 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 283 

community" (Chapter 18). The fifth block is concerned mainly with 
the last things and the final consummation (Chapters 23-25). Each 
of these blocks of teaching concludes with a similar formula: "now 
when Jesus had finished these sayings" (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 
26:1). Then follows the narrative of the passion and resurrection, 
which inaugurates the universal teaching mission of the Church: 

Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, bap- 
tizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of 
the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever 
I commanded you. Matthew 28:19 f. (E.R.V.) 

in which the "things I have commanded you" represent the content 
of the five blocks of material distinguished above. A recent critic 
has aptly designated St. Matthew's gospel as a "Manual of Discipline," 
comparable in character and purpose to the recently discovered 
document of that name among the Qumran scrolls. 

3. Luke 

It is impossible to consider St. Luke's gospel apart from 
its sequel in Acts. Luke writes professedly as a historian, and not 
only as an evangelist; but it is a theological history which he is 
concerned to present. Jesus Christ represents not the end of history, 
as in Mark, but the decisive event which set in motion a new period 
in the history of God's redemptive purpose. This history is the story 
of what God has done through his Holy Spirit, who is the initiator 
of each succeeding step. This work of the Spirit is depicted as it is 
outlined in Deutero-Isaiah as the work of bringing the good news of 
God's loving-kindness to the human world, to the poor and needy, 
of binding up the brokenhearted. It is the Holy Spirit who initiates 
the entrance of Jesus into the world, through whom this work of 
the Holy Spirit becomes not a promise but an actualization. The 
universality of the salvation thus inaugurated is declared in the 
angelic message to the shepherds: 

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will 
towards men who are the objects of his good pleasure. 

The same theme is taken up by the aged Simeon as he holds the 
infant Jesus in his arms: 

284 The Book of the Acts of God 

A light for the revelation of the Gentiles. 

The revelation is not an abstraction or an idea, but the salvation 
of God made concrete as an event in the person of Jesus. Jesus 
himself delineates the same program at the inception of his ministry 
in his sermon at Nazareth, which Luke has deliberately removed 
from its Markan position to serve as a frontispiece for the whole 
ministry of Jesus himself and then of Christ in the Church: 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, 
because he hath anointed me 
to preach the gospel to the poor; 
he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, 
to preach deliverance to the captives, 
and recovering of sight to the blind, 
to set at liberty them that are bruised, 
to preach the acceptable year of the Lord. 

Luke 4:18 f. 

The rest of Luke-Acts is the execution of this program. First, 
Jesus concentrates his message particularly upon the outcast and 
poor, the needy and the oppressed. Then he associates others with 
this mission, first the Twelve and then the Seventy, thus prefiguring 
the Church's later extension of the mission, first by the apostolate, 
and then by the ministry of the elders. Then Jesus interprets his 
activity in the three exquisite parables of the lost sheep, the lost 
coin, and the prodigal son (Chapter 15). In the great movement of 
God to man, initiated in the ministry of Jesus, God rejoices to seek 
and save the lost. The same theme is continued in the parable of 
the Pharisee and the publican (18:9fL) and in the story of Jesus 
and Zacchaeus (19: Iff.). As for Matthew, so for Luke, Jesus is 
the second Moses, but it is Moses the prophet and servant and agent 
of God's redemption rather than Moses the lawgiver who makes his 
special appeal to Luke. So Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to accomplish 
his "exodus" (the Greek word for "departure," R.S.V., at 9:31), 
for it cannot be that a prophet should perish out of Jerusalem 
(13:33). It is through this event that the universal mission of the 
Church, prefigured in the ministry of Jesus, is set in motion. The 
decisive nature of the cross is disclosed in the beautiful little story 
of the penitent thief (Mark had let them both die railing on Jesus), 
in whom the need of all mankind is concentrated. 

Non-Pauline Hellenistic Christianity 285 

So, the decisive event accomplished, the mission can be extended 
through the impulse, guidance, and power of the Holy Spirit, which 
had empowered Jesus himself in his prefigurative ministry, in the 
witness of the apostolate and the Church: 

Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all 
Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the 

The rest of Acts portrays the fulfillment of this mission. The author 
is not really interested in writing the history of the early commu- 
nities, still less the biographies of the Church's earliest leaders, such 
as Peter or Paul. One by one he drops his heroes like hot cakes as 
soon as they have served his purpose. Hence the uselessness of 
inquiring whether Luke intended to add a third work which should 
include the martyrdom of Paul. What he is really interested in is 
bringing the gospel to Rome. When that is done, the Church's mission 
is in principle complete. Luke then is not an ordinary kind of 
historian: he is a theological historian. Yet his theology has a pro- 
foundly human content. The gospel comes to meet the real needs of 
the Greco-Roman world, of the poor, the sick, the outcast, and the 
women, of the Gentile sunk in superstition, idolatry, and vice. 
Humanitarianism is not the whole of the gospel, but it is a part of it. 
Luke never cut his humanitarianism adrift from its theological 
moorings, nor does his gospel stand alone. 

To sum up, therefore, we have not three gospels, but one gospel 
proclaimed in three different ways. For Mark, Jesus is the Son of 
God whose power and glory are revealed precisely in his weakness 
and humiliation, an encouragement for a church in its hour of perse- 
cution and tribulation. For Matthew, Jesus is the lawgiver, who has 
replaced the law of Moses by the new law, and the old Israel who 
rejected him by the Christian Church. For Luke, Jesus is the universal 
Savior, who is proclaimed as such to the whole world in its need* 


St. Paul: The First Theologian 


THE KING JAMES version of the New Testament gives us 
fourteen epistles of St. Paul. Of these, it is all but universally agreed 
(outside the Roman Catholic Church, which is officially committed 
to its Pauline authorship) that Hebrews is not by Paul, Of the rest, 
the pastorals (I~H Timothy, Titus) , at any rate in their present form, 
are generally thought to be the work of a later hand. This view will 
be accepted here, though the basic nucleus of II Timothy is assumed 
to be a genuine farewell letter of Paul written shortly before Ms 
martyrdom at Rome. Ephesians is often thought to be the work of an 
unknown genius and devoted follower of St. Paul, though the present 
writer must confess that he sees no decisive reason for the rejection 
of its Pauline authorship, and would prefer to regard it as a circular 
letter written by Paul to a number of his churches at the end of Ms 
life and representing the crown of Ms theology. In deference to prevail- 
ing critical opinion, however, Ephesians will be used only as con- 
firmatory evidence for the Pauline theology exMbited in the indubit- 
ably genuine letters. A few critics still reject II Thessalonians and 
even Colossians. In the opinion of the author these doubts are hyper- 
critical, and these letters will be accepted here as genuine. Two 
Corinthians is assumed to be a composite document, consisting of 
parts of three different letters written by St. Paul on three different 
occasions (see below). 

The dating of the genuine epistles presents a number of delicate 
problems, none of wMch is capable of definitive solution. In particu- 
lar, the date of Galatians is hotly disputed. Some regard it as the 
earliest of the epistles, dating it before 50: others place it anything 
up to five years after 50. The latter view will be taken here, on the 


St. Paul: The First Theologian 287 

ground that its affinities lie with the other controversial epistles, 
particularly with the "severe letter" of II Corinthians 10-13. The 
captivity epistles (Philippians, Colossians, and, if genuine, Ephesians) 
are sometimes placed in a hypothetical imprisonment at Ephesus 
ca, 54-57. This however involves compressing practically the whole of 
the known correspondence of Paul into these three years, and 
therefore raises more difficulties than it solves. There is indeed much 
to be said for placing Philippians here, though on the whole it still 
seems preferable to place it in the Roman captivity and to regard 
it as close in time and atmosphere to the genuine parts of II Timothy, 
on the assumption that there was only one Roman imprisonment. 
Colossians is markedly different from the controversial epistles and 
appears to presuppose a development of St. Paul's thought in response 
to a totally new situation. We therefore prefer to place this also in 
the Roman captivity, and since Philemon is closely linked with Colos- 
sians, it too must be placed here. 

This then will be our hypothetical dating of the epistles: 1 


51 I-H Thessalonians Corinth 

54 II Corinthians 6:11-7:1 Ephesus? 

55 I Corinthians Ephesus 
56-57 II Corinthians 10-13 Ephesus 

Galatians Ephesus 

58 II Corinthians Macedonia 

Romans 1-15 Corinth 

Romans 16 (to Ephesus) Corinth 

61-63 Colossians Rome 

Philemon Rome 

Ephesians Rome 

64 Philippians Rome 
II Timothy (the genuine parts) Rome 


The pre-Pauline church had a message. It had a body of 
catechetical teaching. It had an intense common life centered upon 

1 The very different chronological scheme recently proposed by John Knox 
rests upon an excessively skeptical attitude to Acts. 

288 The Book of the Acts of God 

its worship. But it did not have anything in the nature of a thought-out 
theology. It was Paul who appeared as the first significant thinker of 
the early Church. He alone of the New Testament writers, so far as 
we can tell, had had a real theological training. Even if, as some think, 
that statement in Acts that he had sat at the feet of Gamaliel is 
unfounded, it is clear from his writings that Paul was familiar with 
Jewish exegesis of the Old Testament, both rabbinic and Hellenistic. 
An instance of such familiarity is to be found in I Corinthians 10:4; 
rabbinic exegesis had concluded that since the rock is mentioned on at 
least three occasions, it must have traveled around with the Israelites 
in the wilderness. In speaking of the "rock that followed them" Paul 
clearly accepts that interpretation, though he adds that the rock was 
Christ. Again Galatians 4:21 uses an allegorical interpretation of 
Hagar in a Hellenistic fashion. The call to be a rabbinic or Hellenistic 
Jewish theologian, however, was one that Paul had to surrender and 
to count but dung for the gospel's sake. He abandoned theology in 
order to become a missionary. Yet he did not cease to be a theologian. 
The marks of his training were too deeply imprinted for that. Im- 
mersed as he was in the practical problems of a missionary, he still 
approached these problems with the mind and the techniques of a 
trained theologian. This means that his theology is not of a systematic 
character: it is definitely ad hoc and occasional, thrown off to meet 
the concrete situations of the mission field. If he made the sacrifice of 
an Albert Schweitzer, his work presents the quality of, say, a Bishop 
Lesslie Newbigin, rather than of a Karl Earth. In seeking therefore 
to systematize Paul's theology we are inevitably doing violence to the 
material. But it is a risk which must be taken if we are to see Paul 
as a whole, and, so long as we recognize the ragged edges without 
trying to smooth them out, little harm will be done. Paul was indeed 
too great to be invariably consistent. 


Where shall we start in an attempt to reduce Paul's 
theology to some sort of order? Traditional Protestantism has ranged 
everything under the rubric of justification by faith. We ought not, 
however, to be misled by the prominence of that doctrine in the two 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 289 

controversial epistles, for in the other nine it is barely mentioned. 
After all, it was the error of the "Tubingen School" to regard the Paul 
of Galatians and Romans as the only true Paul, with the consequent 
rejection or at least questioning of those epistles which failed in their 
view to reproduce that doctrine. More recently "in Christ" has been 
taken as the key concept to Paul's thinking. This is far more prom- 
ising. But the concept "in Christ" is part of a wider scheme. It needs 
to be balanced by "in Adam." It is part of a whole scheme of redemp- 
tive history, and it is this conception which brackets together both his 
theory and his practice, both his labors and his writings, both his 
missionary work and his theological thinking. Here, in redemptive 
history, we have the real key to Paul's life and thought. 

Paid conceived himself to be the key figure in a vital stretch of 
God's purpose in history. The gospel had been offered to the Jews 
and rejected by them. Therefore it must be preached to the Gentiles. 
When the Gentiles have received it and have been incorporated into 
the Church, Israel will be provoked to jealousy and change its mind. 
Israel will then come into the Church, and Christ's return will bring 
the consummation. All this must happen very shortly. This explains 
the haste with which Paul rushes around the world. Not that he 
envisages the complete evangelization of the Gentile world. Rather, 
it must be done representatively by establishing the gospel at the nodal 
points of communication in the provinces, and finally at the very 
center of the empire, at the imperial court itself. The importance Paul 
attached to the collection of funds for the "saints" at Jerusalem 
should be understood in the light of this. It was meant as an impres- 
sive demonstration of the success of the Gentile mission, to provoke 
Israel to jealousy and to hasten its repentance and the return of 
Christ. Thus Paul conceives himself as the chosen agent of this crucial 
stage in redemptive history. 

But this stage is part of a larger whole, stretching back into the 
past and forward into the future when God should be all in all. It 
begins with the creation of the world. Paul was perhaps the first 
Christian thinker to bring creation explicitly into connection with the 
redemption. The preaching and catechetical teaching of the pre- 
Pauline churches had indeed prefaced the event of redemption with the 
declaration that the God who acted redemptively had also created 
the world. But Paul goes further, linking the creation with him who 
was also the agent of redemption. To do this he employed the con* 

290 The Book of the Acts of God 

cept of the divine wisdom. In the Old Testament, wisdom is sometimes 
personified as the agent through whom God created the world. Thus 
in Proverbs 8:22 and following verses Wisdom cries: 

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, 

Before his works of old. 
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, 

Or ever the earth was. 

Before the mountains were settled, 

Before the hills was I brought forth: 
While as yet he had not made the earth. 

Then I was by Hm as a master workman. 

Compare Wisdom 9:9; Ecclesiasticus 24:9 (E.R.V.) 

In such passages wisdom appears as antecedent to all creation, the 
master workman co-operating with God in the act of creation. It thus 
acquires a kind of "hypostatization," that is to say, it is distinguish- 
able from the being of God without however being ontologically sepa- 
rate. Such conceptions were widely developed in later Judaism, both 
in Palestine and in the Diaspora, owing to the increased emphasis on 
the transcendence of God, and they lay ready to have as tools for 
St. Paul to express what he had found in his encounter with the event 
of redemption in Christ St. Paul transfers just this conception of 
Wisdom to Christ in Colossians 1:15 and following verses: 

He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all crea- 
tion; for in bto all things were created, in heaven and on earth, 
visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principal- 
ities or authorities all tilings were created through him and for 
him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 


Nearly all these phrases can be paralleled in the wisdom philosophy of 
late Judaism. Why does Paul boldly transfer them to Christ? Certainly 
not from any taste for cosmological speculation. He was a busy mis- 
sionary, not a speculative philosopher. Rather, it was because of the 
concrete situation he was faced with at Colossae, where, under the 
influence of an incipient Gnosticism, extravagant claims were being 
advanced for other mediatorial principles, principalities and powers 
(2:15) and angels (2:18). But there is more to it than that. Paul 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 291 

rejects the Gnostic speculation because it cuts right across the basic 
Christian experience. The God whom the Christian community had 
encountered in Christ was the selfsame God who created the universe. 
Creation and redemption are both his acts, and redemption is the 
redemption of that same universe which he had created. Redemption 
is not redemption out of the universe, but redemption of the universe. 
Redemption in Christ is the culmination of the series of God's acts 
which began with creation. 

In creating the universe, God's original purpose was that man 
should reflect his image and share his glory. But, as Paul explains 
in Romans 5:12 and following verses, by a concrete act of dis- 
obedience man lost this image and glory, and forfeited the relation- 
ship with God to which he had been destined. Adam was doubtless for 
St. Paul an individual, but as the first individual he included all his 
posterity. In expounding the consequences of this primal act of disobe- 
dience, Paul avails himself of a rough and ready anthropology and 
psychology, which though it may be totally unscientific, is nonetheless 
profound. Man is "flesh" as well as "mind" or "spirit." This involves 
a certain dualism, but not an ultimate one. God is the Creator of 
both, and the one cannot exist in man without the other. The mind, 
as St. Paul explains in Romans 7:25, serves as a kind of telephone 
exchange, apprehending the demand of God and passing on the com- 
munication to the flesh. The flesh is morally neutral, not intrinsically 
evil. It is the instrument by which man acts in the external world. 
Mind and flesh are animated by "soul," and man in his totality can 
be called a "soul." Mind and flesh are not individual to each man, 
but each man partakes of so much mind and flesh, which is bounded 
off from the rest by the body. "Body" means, in effect, man as 
organic individuality, almost what we mean by personality. What God 
intended was that man as mind should receive the communication of 
his commands, pass them on to man as flesh, and the flesh act in 
obedience to the communication. Adam's act of disobedience intro- 
duced a distortion, however, and the primal act of disobedience 
involved all his descendants in a state of sin. Sin is more than the 
concrete wrongdoings of individuals: it is a state of being, a uni- 
versal condition of man. It is a state of arrogant defiance against the 
will of God. It is an objective condition independent of man's con- 
sciousness of it and sense of responsibility for it. In fact, it becomes 
an objective power outside of man but controlling him, so that every 

292 The Book of the Acts of God 

action he takes is under its control. Every impulse of man, even his 
intrinsically good impulses, are the impulses of fallen man. The chink 
in the armor through which sin enters man is the flesh, which though 
morally neutral is weak and easily surrenders to sin. Hence all 
behavior "after the flesh" becomes sinful behavior. This state in turn 
affects the mind, which becomes the "mind of the flesh" and thereby 
hostile to God. 

We have seen that Paul attributes this state of affairs to Adam's 
primal act of disobedience. This was the Palestinian answer to the 
problem of sin. Elsewhere however he employs the Hellenistic Jewish 
answer (Romans 1:18 ff.). According to this, man was created with 
the capacity to know God but turned his back on him, worshiping 
the creature rather than the Creator, or in other words succumbed to 
idolatry. As a consequence man came under the dominion of the 
demonic powers of which the idols are the visible expression. Thus 
there was a corporate turning away of man from the worship of the 
true God, and that is the origin of sin. These two answers to the prob- 
lem of the origin of sin are not in the last resort irreconcilable, though 
St. Paul was not concerned to reconcile them, since he had no inten- 
tion of building a theological system. 

As a consequence of his fallen condition, man comes under the 
"wrath" of God. That is to say, his relationship to God becomes a 
perverted one. Instead of basking in the sunshine of God's presence, 
he is under a cloud and in darkness, cut off from communion with 
him (Romans 1:18; Cdlossians 3:6). This state of excommunication 
from God's presence receives its final seal and ratification in death. 
Death, for St. Paul, is not merely a biological fact, but the seal of 
man's final separation from God: 

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and 
death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all 
men sinned. 

Romans 5:12 (R.S.V.) 
Compare also verse 21: sin reigned in death. 

Actually, however, death comes to have two distinct though related 
meanings. Death is the physical end of life. In this sense it is the 
wages of sin. Yet at the same time it is a condition of man prevailing 
already during his life. The first sense is the objective seal of the 
second, a fitting symbol of that final separation from God which is 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 293 

already taking shape during man's life in sin and under God's wrath 
on earth. 

This perverted condition spreads to the whole universe. The whole 
creation was subjected to "vanity," that is, futility and frustration, and 
has been groaning and travailing together until now (Romans 
8:18 15.)- Man, Paul maintains, has dragged the universe down with 
him. Can we give this any intelligible meaning today, or must it be 
jettisoned as outworn mythology? Is the evil we see in the universe 
around us nature red in tooth and claw really to be attributed to 
man's fall? This much at least may be supposed, that our relation 
to the natural world had been distorted by our perverted condition, 
and therefore it appears to us other than it would if our state were 

But man was not left to himself. God continued to communicate 
his demand to man's mind, and though man was impotent to obey, 
the communication registered itself in the guilty conscience (Romans 
2:15; cf. 1:20). Conscience, for St. Paul, acts only as a judicial 
faculty after action, not as a legislative faculty before. As a result, 
man suffers from a fundamental malaise; he can never forget that 
things are not what they ought to be, and retains the hope that some- 
day the situation will be rectified. But man, even with the law of 
God written on his heart, is incapable of escaping from the dominion 
of sin. The rectification can only come from the outside. That is just 
what God has done, not by one act, but by a series of acts, all of 
which conform to a consistent pattern and will culminate in a decisive 
act, the coming of Jesus the Christ. The first act of the series was the 
call of Abraham, who was selected and given the promise of the seed 
which would bear God's purpose in history. Abraham was then as 
good as dead, ninety years old. There was nothing in him on which 
God could build. It was a fresh, creative act, an act of pure grace, 
to which Abraham could only respond by faith, that is, by abandon- 
ing every attempt to act himself and allowing God to act upon him. 
Since there was no precondition in Abraham, since his part was 
solely a matter of faith, it followed that the call was in principle uni- 
versal. No one could qualify, only God could create the qualification, 
and therefore it was implicitly open to all. The call of Abraham might 
seem to involve a narrowing down of God's purpose, but in ultimate 
effect it meant the widening out of it to include all men. This pattern 
of selection for ultimate inclusion repeats itself throughout the history 

294 The Book of the Acts of God 

of Israel. In the second generation Ishmail is rejected and Isaac 
becomes the bearer of the seed, while in the third Jacob and Esau are 
similarly treated. 

There comes now however an event which forms an erratic boulder 
in the Pauline scheme. It is the giving of the law through Moses. It 
does indeed belong to the same historical line, for Paul is at pains to 
stress that it occurred precisely 430 years after the promise to Abra- 
ham. But it does not conform to the same pattern. It is not a rein- 
forcement of the promise, but a reinforcement of the condemnation of 
Adam. It was not given directly, but mediately by the hand of angels 
(here Paul follows a rabbinic legend). This giving of the law to 
Israel is not altogether easy to fit in with Paul's other suggestion 
that there was a general law given to all men in nature, since it 
causes him to assert that during the period between Adam and Moses 
there was no law, and therefore no imputed sin. But this is just 
another indication of the lack of system in his thinking. The law does 
indeed interrupt the execution of the pattern of salvation through call 
and response, faith and grace which had been initiated in Abraham, 
but in the end it subserves the same ultimate purpose. It sharpens 
the sense of sin and the need for a redeemer. Thus it acts as our 
"tutor" (R.S.V., "custodian") to bring us to Christ. How the com- 
mandment in practice acts as a "custodian" to lead us to Christ is 
indicated in Romans 7:7-19, which however is one of the most 
controverted passages of the New Testament Is this a piece of 
spiritual autobiography? If so, is St. Paul talking of his experience 
as a Pharisee under the law, or of his life after he became a Christian? 
The first alternative seems to be ruled out by the way in which 
elsewhere St. Paul seems to have been perfectly satisfied with his 
achievements as a Pharisee. He was, he says, touching the law, 
blameless, having progressed far beyond his contemporaries in its 
observance. Since the Reformation, scholars have often been 
tempted to interpret Paul's experience in the light of Luther's, and 
this danger should be avoided. It is equally improbable that Paul 
is talking of his experiences as a Christian. He generally lays so much 
stress on the blessings of salvation he already enjoys in Christ that 
it is hard to believe that all Christ had wrought for him was a sharp- 
ened sense of frustration, however much that austere possibility may 
appeal to the "Barthian" mind. Accordingly it is best to take the T' 
ia this passage as "man under law apart from Christ," that is, 

St. Paul; The First Theologian 295 

primarily, though not exclusively, Israelite man. Sin, man's egotistic 
impulse, is present before man is confronted with a commandment, 
"thou shalt not," but is not consciously recognized until the con- 
frontation takes place. Through the law comes the knowledge of 
sin (Romans 3:20). Paul can even say that the law actuaEy incites 
to sin (Romans 5:20; cf. Galatians 3:19). This may seem an 
overstatement, but it is sometimes true to experience. Everyone 
knows the story of the boy who never thought of stealing the next- 
door neighbor's apples until his father told him not to. The law 
therefore reduces man to an impasse: "O wretched man that I am! 
Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Since the law 
demands total and radical obedience to the will of God, all men 
stand under a curse. Israel differs from the rest of mankind in that 
it bears the promise of ultimate release from the impasse, and also 
in that through the possession of the Mosaic law and not merely the 
natural law written on the heart the human predicament is more 
sharply manifest in Israel. Even these are God's gifts, and Israel has 
nothing about which to boast. 

At this point Paul takes over the proclamation of his predecessors 
in Christ. In the life of Jesus, culminating in his death and manifested 
in its redemptive significance through the resurrection, God has now 
acted decisively to avert the impasse. We see here Paul's special 
contribution to Christian theology. He brings the Christian message 
into vital relation with man's innermost predicament. He is the first 
"existential" theologian. Yet he achieves this without forfeiting the 
corporate objective elements in the early Christian proclamation and 
in its church life. He does so by keeping the salvation of the indi- 
vidual within the framework of a redemptive history. The modern 
"existential" understanding of Paul, though often illuminating on the 
subjective side of man's appropriation of the event of redemption, 
fails to do justice to the Pauline synthesis between his new insights 
and the tradition within which he worked them out. 

St. Paul presents the theology of salvation under five main images: 
redemption, justification, reconciliation, victory, and sacrifice. None 
of these lines of thought seems to have been his own innovation. 
All of them were probably taken from the liturgical vocabulary of 
the Church. But Paul gives to each of them an existential profundity 
which hitherto they had lacked. 

296 The Book of the Acts of God 

1. Redemption 

The discovery of papyrus fragments from Egypt in the 
early decades of this century raised enthusiastic hopes that at last all 
the problems of early Christian language would be solved. The use 
of the term "redemption" was found to be common in the papyri in 
connection with the manumission of slaves. In those days slaves used 
to acquire their freedom by depositing the sum for the ransom in 
a temple treasury so that they became nominally slaves of the god, 
but in effect free. This process was known as "redemption." No 
doubt this current usage helped early Christian preachers; they 
were using words already familiar to their hearers (cf. Galatians 
4:1-4). But after the first flush of enthusiasm it has become 
increasingly clear that contemporary secular usage is not the sole or 
even the main clue to the great New Testament words. The main 
quarry from which the early Christians drew was in fact the Greek 
translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. But they did not 
simply take over the Old Testament words: these words received a 
radical twist in meaning by the impact of the event of Jesus Christ. 
Now in the Old Testament the words "redeem" and "redemption" 
are applied to God's mighty act of bringing the Hebrews out of 
Egypt and constituting them his people (see e.g., Deuteronomy 7:8; 
I Chronicles 17:21, etc.). The word is again picked up to express the 
mighty act of God in restoring his people from the Babylonian exile 
(Isaiah 44:23). This return from Babylon raised high hopes: now 
at last God would establish his reign on earth. But the return proved 
a disappointment. The reign of God failed to materialize: Israel was 
still weak and subject to foreign rule. So the great words which had 
been used for the return were shelved for the future: someday God's 
reign would indeed be established. They become part of Israel's 
future hope. Someday God would redeem Ms people. It is in this 
sense that the term is picked up in the gospels. The final redemption 
is now at hand. Thus the Benedictus announces: 

God ... has [a prophetic perfect, equivalent to "God will"] 
visited and redeemed Ms people. Luke 1:68 

And in Luke 21:28 we read: 

Now when these things begin to come to pass, look up and 
raise your heads, because your redemption draweth nigh. 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 297 

Jesus proclaimed the impending advent of the redemption, and the 
earliest Church doubtless continued Ms proclamation as it looked for 
the return of its Lord. But as its insight deepened and as it grew to 
appreciate what God had already done for them in Christ, it began 
to see that the redemption had already begun: God has redeemed his 
people. There is no need to suppose that it was St Paul who first took 
this step, for it was akeady implied in the earliest Church's belief 
that the Holy Spirit had been outpoured as a consequence of Christ's 
finished work. 

Now on this background in redemptive history it becomes clear 
that for St. Paul it is not the salvation of the individual which is 
primary, but the reconstitution of the people of God in the last days 
through the death and resurrection of Christ. The individual is trans- 
lated into this community through his baptism, but the redeemed 
community is akeady there. It is in this setting that the redemption 
of the individual takes place, not in the non-historical setting of 
existential experience. 

2. Justification 

Does justification mean that the individual is made just, 
as etymologicaliy it ought to mean, or does it mean that the individual 
is accounted just? Does St. Paul teach the Catholic doctrine of infused 
righteousness or the Protestant doctrine of imputed righteousness? In 
either case, justification is conceived as an individual affair. Once 
again the term must be set upon the background of the Old Testa- 
ment. First, we must notice that the phrase "righteousness of God," 
so prominent in Paul's discussion of justification, denotes not a quality 
or attribute of God, but his concrete action. It is the event whereby 
God delivers his people, as, for example, in Second Isaiah in restoring 
the exiles to their homeland: 

My righteousness is near, 
my salvation is gone forth. 
Isaiah 51:6 

Here "righteousness" and "salvation" are in synonymous parallelism, 
as they are again in Isaiah 56:1 and in Psalm 98:2. This salvation 
is the act whereby God vindicates his people by delivering them from 
their oppressors. This is the background on which we must understand 
Paul when he says: 

298 The Book of the Acts oj God 

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart 
from the law ... the righteousness in Jesus Christ for all who 
believe. Romans 3:21 

The verb "to justify" is used in the Old Testament for the action of 
God's righteousness, thus understood: 

He is near that justifieth me. 
Isaiah 50:8 

God justifies Israel in that he vindicates her, restoring her to her own 
land. To justify therefore, in its most characteristic Old Testament 
sense, means to vindicate by an act of deliverance. Now in Pauline 
thought the primary object of God's act of righteousness or vin- 
dication is, as in the Old Testament, not the individual, but the 

[He] was delivered up for our trespasses, 
and was raised for our justification. 

Romans 4:25 

This last text is especially interesting, for it shows, first, that the use 
of justification as a term for Chrisfs work probably does not originate 
with Paul, since this is most likely a pre-Pauline formula. Second, it 
suggests that the source of the idea lay in Isaiah 53:11, where it is 
said of the servant that he will "justify many." The individual is justi- 
fied, vindicated, or delivered by being brought into the justified, 
vindicated community, the community which before him lives in a 
right relation to God. The occasion in which men are transferred 
into this community is of course baptism (I Corinthians 6:11, where 
"washed," "sanctified," and "justified" clearly refer to the same 
occasion) . 

It is clear, then, that justification cannot mean that a man is "made 
righteous" in an ethical sense. Rather, he is put into a community 
where he may grow in righteousness by "becoming what he is." This 
process is often conveniently referred to as sanctification. This how- 
ever, as I Corinthians 6:11 shows, is to introduce a distinction of 
language foreign to St. Paul, Justification and sanctification have 
already been attained as a present reality in baptism. Yet these are 
anticipatory realizations of the blessings of the age to come. Justifica- 
tion and sanctification are given in advance of the last day at the 
moment of baptism; they have to be striven for constantly in ethical 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 299 

endeavor, and will be finally attained only at the consummation. For 
only then will the Christian "become what he is." 

3. Reconciliation 

Since man apart from Christ exists under the wrath of 
God, he is as it were at war with him. He is "estranged and hostile 
in mind, doing evil deeds.'* He is in a state of rebellion against God 
(Colossians 1:21), an enemy of God (Romans 11:28). This objec- 
tive condition has however been terminated by the act of God in 
Christ, and an objective condition of "peace" put in its place: 

. . . while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by 
the death of his Son. . . . Romans 5:10 (R.S.V.) 

God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. 

II Corinthians 5:19 

This does not necessarily mean that by accepting Christ the individual 
attains peace of heart. Paul the Christian can still say "without were 
fightings, within were fears." It means that God by his act in Jesus 
Christ has established a new people constituted no longer by rebellion 
against God, but by that event itself. This new status may result in 
"peace" and "joy" in the subjective sense, but that condition is the 
consequence of the objective status of the new community, not 
identical with peace in its objective sense. 

4. The Appropriation of Chrisfs Redeeming Work 

It is through faith, and faith alone, that men appropriate 
what God has done for them in Christ It is througjh faith that men 
enter the redeemed, justified, and reconciled community. Faith, in 
Pauline language, is always set in opposition to works. By works 
Paid means all human activity undertaken to establish for oneself 
one's righteousness with God In the moment of faith all such attempts 
are abandoned, and Gocf is allowed to do for us what we cannot do 
for ourselves. What that means is seen most clearly in the story of 
Abraham already discussed above (see p. 293). Is it God who is the 
object of faith, or is it Christ? St Paul says both, and both amount 
to the same thing. For it is through Christ that God acts redemptively 
toward us. Thus faith is not a disposition of the human soul, regard- 

300 The Book of the Acts of God 

less of its object. It is directed toward a specific event. The formula 
"justification by faith" cannot therefore mean a feeling that we are 
in a state of conversion or bliss. It is rigorously directed toward the 
redemptive event. It is the event, or rather the act of God in that 
event, which saves, or justifies, not faith. Faith is the necessary 
precondition on the human side for the reception of the benefits 
which flow from the event. Justification by faith is shorthand for 
"justification through the grace and love of God in the event of Jesus 
Christ, apprehended by faith." 

The event by which we are redeemed, justified, and reconciled is 
defined as the act of God's love. Love is not a timeless quality, or an 
attitude of benevolence of a quite general kind. Love is event: 

[He] loved me, and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20 

The New Testament word for this love is agape, which expresses the 
wholly unmotivated, uncaused quality of God's activity towards us 
in Christ. The classical description of this love is to be found in 
Romans 5:6 and following verses: 

For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ 
died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one 
die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare 
to die. But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while 
we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

The act of God can also be described as his grace. Here is another 
term which has been much abused in Christian theology and piety. 
Sometimes it is thought of as a kind of fluid poured into the soul in 
doses. Sometimes it is thought of as the help of God which in a 
vague sort of way enables us to be good. But in St. Paul's thought 
it is quite rigorously bound to the act of God in Christ. It is thus 
unmerited aspect of God's love in that event. It is exhibited concretely 
in Ms "sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3). 

God sent forth his Son. Galatians 4:4 

He spared not his Son, but delivered him up for us all. 

Romans 8:32 

The event, of Jesus Christ has a double character. On the one hand 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 301 

it is an act of human obedience wrought out in the historical order. 
This aspect is particularly stressed in the passage which contrasts 
the disobedience of Adam with the behavior of the Christ (Romans 
5:12-21). Adam is the head, not only chronologically first, but also 
representatively inclusive, of the old, sinful order of humanity. Christ, 
on the other hand, is the head, in the same representative and 
inclusive sense, of the new humanity. In the famous passage, Philip- 
pians 2:5-8, the obedience of the Christ is again stressed. Here the 
death of the Christ is the culmination of a whole life of obedience 
wrought out on the plane of history. On the other hand it is precisely 
in and through this historical act of obedience that God's grace is 
exhibited that is, not only demonstrated as a possibility in human 
life, but actualized towards mankind. That this should be so is a 
paradox, and a paradox which can only be discerned in faith. 

But the cross in its double aspect is not to be isolated from the 
resurrection: "wherefore God highly exalted him." This does not 
mean that God steps in at the last minute like the deus ex machina 
in a Greek tragedy and reverses the situation, so that it becomes the 
exact opposite of what it was. Rather, it means that he sets his seal 
upon the Son's obedience, declaring and revealing it to be in fact 
what it is, the exhibition of his own grace. The death and resurrection 
of Jesus thus form a complex, indissoluble event. It is this total 
complex we mean when we speak of the event of Jesus Christ. The 
pre-medieval Church clearly appreciated this Pauline insight in its 
triumph crucifixes, in which Jesus is portrayed, not naked and 
suffering, but clothed in majesty and crowned with glory on the 
cross. St. John's gospel will give even sharper expression to this 

We inevitably ask: how did the death of Jesus have precisely this 
redemptive significance? Is this just an arbitrary interpretation 
imposed by the decision of faith upon an unlikely event, or is it 
possible to give a rationally intelligible answer to this question of 
how the death of Jesus effects our reconciliation, justification, and 
redemption? If we hope from St. Paul a cast-iron theory of the atone- 
ment we shall be disappointed. What he does offer however is two 
lines of thought along which faith may try to understand itself. 
One line is the use of the language of victory, the other the language 
of sacrifice. 

302 The Book oj the Acts of God 

5. Victory 

Paul took over from Ms predecessors the mythological 
notion that the universe, including man, was under the thrall of 
demonic powers, the thrones, principalities, and powers, and that 
Christ's death was the victory which delivered us from their thrall. 
This is not new, but what Paul does is to bring these powers down 
to existential level by including among them "sin" and the "law." 
One feels that it is these powers which really matter: the others are 
just conventional imagery, often used because heretics asserted that 
they were equal mediators with Christ. Thus Paul speaks of God's 
"sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh" (or: "to deal 
with sin," or: "as a sin-offering") by which God "condemned sin in 
the flesh" (Romans 8:3). In other words, by invading the enemy- 
occupied territory (flesh, which was occupied by the enemy, sin) and 
by refusing himself to come under the power of the enemy, preserving 
Ms obedience inviolate to the last, Jesus defeated the enemy. Sin put 
in its claim against Jesus, as it did against every member of the human 
race, but tMs time it went too far. The triumph of Jesus is sealed by 
the resurrection, in wMch he emerges victorious from the enemy- 
occupied territory. 

... the death that he died, he died unto sin once, but the life 
he lives he lives to God. Romans 6:10 (R.S.V.) 

TMs, we may object, may have been true for Jesus himself, but how 
can it affect our lives? How can his victory be ours, except by its 
power to inspire imitation? Paul's answer is that Jesus was not just 
an individual, but the representative Man, the head of a new human 
race. What happened to him happened potentially to all men in Mm, 
and becomes effective in men when in baptism they are "united with 
him in a death like Ms" and when the "old self is crucified with him 
so that the sinful body might be destroyed" (Romans 6:5 f.)- 
The second new demonic power is the law: 

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become 
a curse for us for it is written, Cursed be everyone who hangs 
on a tree. Galatians 3:13 (R.S.V.) 

Paul's argument may not sound very convincing today, but we should 
try patiently to follow Ms meaning before rejecting it out of hand. The 
law pronounces a curse on those who fail to observe it (Deuteronomy 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 303 

27:26): it also pronounces a curse on those who are hanged on a 
tree (Deuteronomy 21:23). Hence, argues Paul, Christ did not 
deserve the curse, because he kept the law, yet was hanged on a tree 
and so had to suffer the curse. What happened was that the curse of 
the law came down upon the head of one who was completely 
innocent, and in so doing overreached itself. Henceforth it lay 
impotent, exhausted and defeated. How this can affect the lives of 
others subsequent to Jesus is indicated in the following verse, 
Galatians 3:14: 

. . . that in. Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come 
upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the 
Spirit through faith. 

It is by being "in Christ," that is, in the new humanity of which he 
is the head, that his victory over the power of the law is shared by 
us, so that we live by the Spirit and not by the law. 

Although Paul here uses mythology, it is mythology brought within 
the range of Christian experience. Christian devotion has always 
adored the cross as the nadir of God's condescension to seek and save. 
Here he stooped to the lowest and most bitter depths of human 
plight, and in sharing it transformed and overcame it. But apart from 
our incorporation into the new humanity in Christ, of which he is the 
head and representative, the whole notion still remains mythological, 
for it cannot otherwise be brought into vital connection with our lives. 

6. Sacrifice 

The other line of thought, that of sacrifice, is one in which 
St. Paul is mainly content to repeat the language of the tradition, 
particularly that of the liturgical tradition (I Corinthians 11:25) 
without elaborating it any further. It was the author of Hebrews who 
made the distinctive contribution along this line (see below). Thus 
Paul often speaks of the "blood" of Christ in a way which suggests 
that it is synonymous with his sacrificial death (Romans 5:9; cf. 
Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:20). He also speaks quite vaguely of 
Christ's death as "an offering and sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling 
savor" (Ephesians 5:2). It is difficult to read out of these passages 
any specific theological import. There are however two passages 
which merit further consideration. The first is: 

304 The Book of the Acts of God 

For our sake he made him ta be sin ... 
// Corinthians 5:21 (R.S.V.) 

This may mean that Christ is regarded as a "sin-offering" (one of 
the recognized categories of Jewish sacrifice since post-exilic times), 
the purpose of which was to make an atonement for sins of negligence 
by removing their effects. If this is what is meant in 5:21, and not 
the simpler sense "to deal with sin," it suggests a line of thought 
which comes out more explicitly in our second passage, Romans 3:25: 

. . . whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood. (R.S.V.) 

This is a much controverted passage. The word represented by 
"expiation" could also be "propitiation." Propitiation is an act of 
man directed toward God with the purpose of rendering God propi- 
tious or favorable toward man. Expiation on the other hand is an act 
directed not toward God but to the sin: the stain of the sin is removed 
by Applying the blood of the victim which removes the stain 
by its holiness. It is claimed that "propitiation" is a pagan concept, 
while "expiation" is the Old Testament conception. It is thus con- 
tended that St. Paul meant "expiation," in the sense that God did 
for man what he could not do for himself, namely by the blood of 
Christ remove the effect, particularly the guilt of sin. Since God is 
the initiator of the action, he could not be also its object. This fits 
in quite well with what St. Paul has to say elsewhere about God as 
the initiator of the Son's mission, and about the Son's death as the act 
of God's love and grace. Attractive as this view is, it seems to rob 
Paul's doctrine of the atonement of its profundity and to ration- 
alize Paul's doctrine of the wrath of God. Of course the initiative 
comes from God. But what he initiates is precisely the propitiation 
of his own wrath! Man could not do it, so God in his mercy under- 
takes to do for man what he cannot do for himself. In the person of 
his Son he undergoes the extreme consequence of man's sin, which 
is to exist under the wrath of God, to be cut off from God's presence. 
On this interpretation Romans 3:25 becomes a theological comment 
on the meaning of the Markan cry from the cross: "My God, my God, 
why hast thou forsaken me?" For in this cry we see God in the person 
of his Son enduring precisely that separation from God which is the 
consequence of sin and which is exactly what is meant by the wrath 
of God. To speak of "expiation" is to do less than justice to what 
God has done for us in Christ. So we must hold fast to the traditional 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 305 

conception that, for St. Paul, Christ's death is a propitiatory sacrifice 
initiated by God himself. 

7. The Resurrection 

We have already noticed how for St. Paul the death and 
resurrection are linked in indissoluble unity as forming together the 
event of redemption; Paul may have seen this more clearly than his 
predecessors. The earliest Church at Jerusalem tended to by-pass the 
death of Jesus as an unfortunate episode and to hurry on to the resur- 
rection. On the other hand Paul's Greek-speaking predecessors (as 
witness the eucharistic tradition which Paul received) were perhaps 
in danger of detaching the death from the resurrection and considering 
it as the event of redemption apart from the resurrection. Paul holds 
the two together as a single, indivisible event with two facets. 

He has also a surer grasp than his predecessors on the representa- 
tive nature of the resurrection. Christ rose, not just as an individual, 
but as the second Adam, the head of the new humanity, the "first 
fruits of them that slept": 

For as in Adam all die, 

even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 
But each in his own order: Christ the jBrst-fruits, and 
afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. 

1 Corinthians 15:22-23 

The resurrection is for St. Paul the inauguration of the process of the 
last times: it is the beginning of the body of Christ, the Church, which 
is incorporated into his risen body. 

Thus with the resurrection a new phase of redemptive history is 
inaugurated. Previously the purpose of God had been to select and 
narrow down his elect until the bearer of his purpose was the one 
man hanging on the cross on Good Friday. There was the sole 
representative of Israel, the true Israel who rendered that perfect 
obedience to the law which Israel failed to show. But on Easter day 
the true Israel is raised again from the dead, henceforth to include 
all who by adhering to the redemptive event by faith and baptism 
are incorporated into that risen body. First comes Peter, the rock on 
which all others are built, then come the Twelve and the rest of the 
Jerusalem disciples. Then come the repentant members of Israel, 
the faithful remnant who turn to Christ. It is at this point that Paul's 

306 The Book of the Acts of God 

mission comes in; the result of this is to bring in the Gentiles: this is 
the stage of redemptive history reached in the Pauline epistles, and 
of which the writing of the epistles is itself a part. 

8. The Spirit and the Church 

St. Paul took over from his predecessors the concept of the 
Holy Spirit. From the earliest days, as we have seen, the Church 
had believed that the Spirit was poured forth upon it, an energetic 
activity of God in the last days* making possible the distinctive activi- 
ties of the Christian community. In particular, this energy was 
displayed concretely in the Church's proclamation of the event of 
redemption, and in the signs which accompanied and confirmed the 
message. The Hellenistic Church would be particularly inclined to 
see the work of the Spirit in ecstatic phenomena, such as the speaking 
with tongues, instead of in the more intelligible utterances of 
prophecy. It would also think of the Spirit less as an occasional 
invasion of the energy of God, and more as a kind of supernatural 
fluid or substance. 

St. Paul takes up all these notions of his predecessors, but radically 
transforms their evaluation. In two passages he draws up lists of 
the manifestations of the Spirit's activity: 

/ Corinthians 12:8 ff.: 1. utterance of wisdom. 

2. utterance of knowledge 

3. faith 

4. gifts of healing 

5. working of miracles 

6. prophecy 

7. discernment of spirits 

8. kinds of tongues 

9. interpretation of tongues 

/ Corinthians 12:28: 1. apostles 

2. prophets 

3. teachers 

4. workers of miracles 

5. healers 

6. helpers 

7. administrators 

8. speakers in tongues 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 307 

There is a rough correspondence between the two lists, and in particu- 
lar it is noticeable how the speaking with tongues comes at the bottom. 
How does St. Paul arrive at his scale of values? His criterion is what 
"builds up" the Church, what fosters its corporate life. Thus 
prophecy, which, unlike speaking with tongues, is intelligible, builds 
up the life of the community. Knowledge on the other hand "puffs 
up." Men start to claim possession of special inside knowledge, which 
others have not got, and it leads to a sense of superiority and cliquish- 
ness. But there is an even more excellent way which Paul is inspired 
to delineate in the immortal thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians. 
Love, agape, is the supreme gift of the Spirit which must inform all 
the other gifts, and without which all the others are useless and 
futile, since without it they cannot contribute to the building up of 
the community life. Here is Paul's supreme contribution to the under- 
standing of the Holy Spirit. It is not really new, for the common life 
of the community was the immediate outcome of Pentecost: what was 
new was the conscious realization that this common life was the work 
of the Holy Spirit. Here, indeed, was the permanent substitute for 
the temporary Christian "communism" of the earliest days. The 
linking together of love and the Spirit brings together the two facts 
of Jesus and the Spirit, for the event of Jesus Christ is itself the act of 
God's love, while the work of the Spirit is the extension of that love 
in the community: 

. . . God's love has been poured into our hearts through the 
Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Romans 5:5 (R.S.V.) 

Once more it is necessary to underline the corporate conception of 
the Holy Spirit and of Christian love. The Holy Spirit is not a gift 
merely to the individual to make him better: it is the energy of God 
which fosters a common life in a community. And Christian love is 
not the exercise of individual virtue: it is the intense life of the 
community in mutual fellowship. 

9. The Church 

It has been impossible to speak of St. Paul's theology of 
redemption without speaking also of the Church. That is because the 
Church is itself part of the gospel, part of what God has done in 

308 The Book of the Acts of God 

When St. Paid speaks of "church" he most commonly means a 
local congregation: "the church of God which is at Corinth," etc. 
Later on, he, or a close disciple of his, speaks of the Church as a 
universal society (Ephesians). It is tempting to suppose that there 
was a process of addition, that the local communities, at some 
later stage, federated themselves together as a universal society. 
But that is far from the truth. "Church" in St. Paul, as indeed from 
the earliest times, does not really mean a local community, but the 
one people of God recreated from the Old Israel by God's act in 
Christ. This being so, there can only be one people of God. But the 
one people of God manifests itself in local embodiments, each of 
which can be called a "church," and a number of them "churches." 
There could only be one embodiment of the one people in any particu- 
lar place, and in New Testament times there were not a number of 
competing denominations, each either claiming to be the sole local 
embodiment of the one true Church, or totally ignoring its relation 
to a universal society. 

It is in connection with his belief that the Church is part of the 
event of redemption that Paul speaks of it as the body of Christ. For 
both Paul's doctrine of redemption and his doctrine of the Church 
rest upon the fundamental conception of Jesus Christ as the head 
of the new humanity, representing and including the redeemed in 
himself. Here is the ultimate source of the idea of the body of Christ. 
No doubt the immediate source of it was eucharistic: 

The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the 
body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we who are many are 
one body, for we all partake of the same loaf. 

/ Corinthians 10;16b-27 (R.S.V.) 

St. Paul saw in the eucharist the renewal of the Church's incorpora- 
tion into the body of the crucified and risen head. Thus the term 
"body of Christ" is not a sociological one, suggesting that Christians 
form a corporate society like any other human group, but a Christ- 
ological one: for it depends on the event of redemption, in which 
the agent of it is the representative head of the new humanity. 

10. The Sacraments 

The Christian proclamation announces an event in history 
apprehended as the redemptive act of God. That event is the consti- 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 309 

tutive factor in the whole life of the Church. It is by drawing men 
and women into relation and contact with that event that they are 
drawn into the new life created by the event. This drawing of men 
and women into the event is itself a renewal of the event itself, and 
follows the pattern of the event in that it possesses a double character. 
On the one hand, the drawing of men and women into the event is a 
visible occurrence, and on the other hand it is the invisible act of God, 
apprehended by faith. The visible event takes the form of immersion 
in water and emergence therefrom. The invisible act of God, which is 
the renewal and application of the original redemptive act, is the 
translation of the candidate out of Ms old existence characterized by 
sin, which is separation from God, into the new existence which will 
be finally his, at the consummation, but which is already available 
to him in advance in the life of the Church from the moment of his 
initiation. This is the meaning of Paul's exposition of baptism in 
Romans 6:1-6. For him baptism has the same two-sidedness of the 
original event of redemption: the one side visible, the other percep- 
tible only to faith. Apart from faith, baptism remains an external 
human action devoid of theological significance. Moreover, it needs 
to be constantly renewed in the decision of faith and in the rendering 
of concrete obedience: 

So you must also consider yourselves dead unto sin, and alive 
to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal 
bodies. Romans 6:11-12 (R.S.V.) 

Notice how all the verbs in this passage are in the subjunctive and 
future tenses: this shows that for St. Paul the baptismal transaction 
was not, as in the mystery religions, magical and final, but dependent 
for its realization in constant moral endeavor and for its consumma- 
tion only at the end. In I Corinthians 1:17 Paul speaks with apparent 
depreciation about baptism: 

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the 
gospel . . . 

This passage however must be read in its context. Paul is denying that 
there is a mystical power inherent in the minister, binding him to the 
initiates, as in the mystery religions. Rightly understood, baptism 
is the decisive moment in the Christian life, and Paul can appeal to 
it as such. But it is the decisive event only when it is surbordinated 

310 The Book of the Acts of God 

to the preaching of the gospel, that is, to the act of God in Christ 
which the gospel proclaims. In I Corinthians 15:29 Paul introduces 
an idea which at first sight seems very close to those of the mystery 

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of 
the dead? 

Here Paul seems to sanction, or at least refrains from condemning, 
the practice of undergoing a second baptism of a vicarious kind on 
behalf of dead friends and relations. But in view of the immense 
importance he attached to personal decision this seems incredible. 
An attractive and simple explanation of the practice has recently 
been offered: what was happening was that previously unbaptized 
people got baptized themselves in the hope of joining their (already 
baptized) Christian friends and relations at the resurrection. This 
interpretation fits in perfectly with the general argument of the 
passage, which is to prove that the Corinthian Christians by their 
own behavior attest to a belief which in theory they are bent on 

Paul speaks of the eucharist only in five passages, all of which are 
in related chapters of the same epistle (I Corinthians 10:3-4; 10:16- 
17; 10:21; 11:23-34; 14:16). Had it not been for various practical 
problems confronting the church at Corinth we should not have had 
even these references, and critics would have contended that the 
Pauline churches never knew of the eucharist! This shows how 
unwarranted such a procedure would be. Indeed, we have already 
observed that the language in which St. Paul speaks of the death of 
Christ blood, redemption, sacrifice, etc. is rooted in the language 
of the liturgy. Hence it would be quite wrong to relegate the eucharist 
to the periphery of Paul's theology. 

As I Corinthians 14:6 shows, the eucharist, like the common meals 
of Judaism, began with the recital of a prayer of thanksgiving. The 
rubric "Do this in remembrance of me" indicates the content of 
the thanksgiving: it was a recalling and reciting on what God had 
done in Christ. In accordance with Jewish notions, such a recalling 
would evoke from God an act whereby he made what was recalled a 
present reality. Thus in the eucharist the redemption became a present 
reality in anticipation of its consummation at the return of Christ. 
Paul's comment on the rubric is: 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 311 

As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you pro- 
claim the Lord's death until he come. / Corinthians 11:26 

The event of redemption is rendered present by God as the faithful 
partake of the hallowed food, and its being present is assured by the 
Lord's promise: "This is my body . . . this is the new covenant in 
my blood." These words are to be interpreted in the category of 
event, rather than of substance. Body and blood are not things, but 
the event of Christ's sacrificial death. Hence Paul's comment on the 
dominical promise: 

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation 
in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a 
participation hi the body of Christ? 

/ Corinthians 10:16 f. (R.S.V.) 

(NOTE: The order, cup-bread, is a puzzle. In view of 11:23-25 this 
cannot have been the order of the Pauline celebration. Why then 
the change? Perhaps Paul is writing when the blessing of bread and 
cup has coalesced after the removal of the intervening meal: as a 
consequence of this the blessing of both bread aixd cup would precede 
the breaking of the bread, as in the later liturgies.) 

The communion is thus a real participation, in the sacrificial 
death. The ensuing argument of Chapter 10, with its analogy 
from pagan sacrificial meals, shows that Paul presupposes this. The 
communion is a real participation in which the sacrifice is not 
repeated, but brought out of the past into the present. 

The interim character of the eucharist, implied in the phrase 
"until he come" (I Corinthians 11:26), is stressed in I Corinthians 

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers ... all ate the 
same supernatural food and all drank the same spiritual drink. 


The manna and the water from the rock are here treated as types 
of the food and drink of the holy communion. It was the rabbinic 
doctrine that the Messianic age would reproduce all the features of 
the exodus. For Paul, who believes the Messianic age to have dawned 
already, the wanderings of Israel in the wilderness, bounded as they 
were on the one hand by the exodus and on the other by their entry 
into the Promised Land, are the type of the Church's existence 

312 The Book of the Acts of God 

between the times, between the Messiah's death as the Christian 
exodus, and the second coming as the entry into the consummated 
kingdom of God. 

Finally, we note a characteristically Pauline emphasis on the 
corporate significance of the eucharist: 

Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, 
for we all partake of the same loaf. / Corinthians 10:17 

Since the bread was the effective sign of the body of Christ, and since 
all by partaking of that bread partook of the sacrificial event through 
which the crucified body of Jesus passed, the Christians are thereby 
incorporated anew into that event. The doctrine of the body of Christ 
is thus inseparable from the cross and resurrection of Christ. The 
important thing about the Church is not that it is the body of Christ 
(i.e., a sociological group belonging in some way to Christ), but that 
it is the body of Christ; that is to say, it depends for its whole 
existence on the event of Jesus Christ. 

1L The Person of Christ 

We have deliberately left the Pauline teaching about the 
person of Christ until now, for Christology, in the New Testament, 
is a confession of faith in what God has done in Jesus, a grateful 
acknowledgment that he is the event of salvation. We must study the 
redemption before considering the agent of the redemption. This is 
especially true of St. Paul's presentation of Christ's person, for his 
specific insights here derive from his distinctive understanding of the 
salvation which God has wrought for us in him. That understanding, 
as we have seen, centers upon the conviction that we are saved, not 
individually, but corporately, as a human race. Paul's doctrine of the 
person of Christ expresses just this, as we can see from the new slant 
which he gives to the traditional titles for Jesus which he inherited 
from his predecessors. 

We have already seen (above, p. 272) how the Hellenistic Church 
before Paul dropped, except in liturgy, the term "Servant" for Jesus, 
and replaced it by the term "Son," a title which was extended to cover 
the pre-existence, earthly life, and exalted state of the agent of 
redemption. Paul takes over this concept and combines it, as we 
have seen, with the wisdom concept. As the pre-existent Son, Christ 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 313 

is also the agent of creation. But the concept of his sonship is widened 
to include the redeemed as well. By receiving the Spirit of God, which 
is also the Spirit of Christ, and granted as the result of his redeeming 
work, the believers are adopted into the same sonship: 

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. 
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery again, to fall back 
into fear, but you received the spirit of sonship. When we cry 
Abba, Father [the intimate address which no Jew before Jesus 
ever dared to use in addressing God, Mark 14:36] it is the 
Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children 
of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs 
with Chirst. Romans 8:15-17 (R.S.V.) 

God sent forth his Son ... so that we might receive adoption 
as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of 
his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba, Father!". So through God 
you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son then an heir. 

Galatians 4:4-7 (R.S.V.) 

The earliest Church, following the hints of Jesus himself, identified 
him in his exalted state with the apocalyptic Son of man. But in the 
Hellenistic churches this term was no longer intelligible, and in 
the developing gospel tradition it became equivalent to a simple 
self-designation of Jesus. A good instance of this is Matthew 16:13: 

"Who do men say that the Son of man is?" (R.S.V.) 

eliciting the reply which would be almost tautological in the earliest 
tradition: "You are the Christ." It is as if the reply to the question 
"Who am I, the agent of redemption?" were "You are the agent of 
redemption." The title "Son of man" had obviously become useless 
as a confession of faith, and as such was dropped. Paul, however, 
revived its original theological content and put it to constructive 
use. Avoiding the literal translation, he speaks of Jesus as "man." 
Jesus is the last, or second, Adam the second man: 

"The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam 
became a life-giving spirit. / Corinthians 15:45 

The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second 
man is from heaven . . . Just as we have borne the image of the 
man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. 

Ibid., verses 47 ff. (R.S.V,) 

314 The Book of the Acts of God 

Thus Paul uses the idea of the Son of man, or man, to express his 
favorite notion of the close connection between Christ and the 
redeemed. Similarly in Romans 5 he brings out the contrast between 
the first and second man and the representative and determinative 
character of their respective histories: 

For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have 
the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man 
Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like 
the effect of that one man's sin. For the judgment following 
one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following 
many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man's 
trespass, death reigned fhrough that one man, much more will 
those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of 
righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. 

Then as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all men, 
so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for 
all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made 
sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous. 

Romans 5:15-19 (R.S.V.) 

12. The Consummation 

Although Paul had a very high conception higher it would 
seem than any of his predecessors, whether Palestinian or Hellenistic 
of what Christ had already achieved for us and made available for 
us in the Church, there is a "not yet" which runs through every- 
thing he says about our present Christian status. All the blessings 
which flow from the event of redemption are only an anticipation, a 
first installment, a pledge of that which shall be at the consummation: 
"Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart 
of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him" 
(I Corinthians 2:9). Consequently there is a future hope which is 
not just tacked on at the end of Paul's theology, but colors everything 
he has to say of what we already have in Christ. 

This future hope can be analyzed under two headings, Ms hope 
for the universe and his hope for the individual within that universal 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 315 

The Hope for the Universe 

Paul came to hold, if Romans 11:25 is meant to imply a 
fresh insight, that the rejection of Israel was not final. First, as a 
result of his own mission, the "fullness of the Gentiles" was to be 
gathered in. Does this mean "all" Gentiles, or the full number of those 
predestined? His use of "aE" in verse 32 seems to imply a universal 
redemption. But this hardly meant that he expected to cover the 
whole Gentile world and to be universally successful. Rather, Paul is 
thinking representatively in a manner strange to our way of thinking. 
He believes that by planting the gospel in every center of the Roman 
Empire the Gentiles will be representatively converted. 

The next stage is that "all Israel" will be shamed into repentance 
and finally accept Jesus as its Messiah: 

A hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full num- 
ber of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel shall be saved. 

Romans ll:25-26a (R.S.V.) 

But this is not an inevitably determined plan such as could give 
rise to false security. The Gentiles in particular are warned to note 
the severity as well as the kindness of God. If he can reject the 
natural branches after a thousand years or more, he can also reject 
those who have only recently been grafted in contrary to nature! 
Paul's plan of future history is not meant as an exact forecast: it is 
rather an affirmation that God is what he is, and that being so Ms 
purpose will ultimately triumph. At the same time the individual must 
make his own response of faith and obedience: if he fails to do so, 
he will be cut off . Here is no easygoing universalism, but a dialectial 
tension between two apparently contradictory affirmations of faith: 
one in the ultimate triumph of God's plan of salvation, and the other 
the urgent requirement of faith and obedience, made urgent by the 
awful possibility of being cut off. 

When the fullness of the Gentiles has been gathered in and all 
Israel has been saved, the cosmic scheme is completed by the return 
of Christ and the reconciliation of the discarnate intelligences hostile 
to God. The things in heaven and the things on earth are brought 
within the sphere of God's redemptive purpose, and all things are 
summed up in Christ. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. 

316 The Book of the Acts of God 

According to the scheme outlined in I Corinthians 15 Christ finally 
hands over the kingdom to the Father, that God may be all in all. 
Here Paul is using the traditional mythology of the millennium, or 
thousand years' reign of the Messiah. This shows how little we should 
try to pin him down to an exact forecast or harmonize the pictures 
he gives of the end. He uses traditional imagery to express the 
certainity of God's ultimate triumph. 

The Hope for the Individual 

Although, as we have seen, the believers already share the 
future life here and now by accepting the message, by baptism and 
eucharist, and by their daily endeavor to lead the Christian life, yet 
the final, decisive moment of resurrection lies in the future. But 
when will the individual attain to that resurrection? Where Paul 
speaks unequivocally, he places it, not at the death of the individual, 
but at the second coming of Christ. Those who die before that coming 
are "asleep" (I Thessalonians 4:13-15). That is to say, they are in 
an intermediate condition, no less than those who are still alive, who 
also exist between the times. They, too, like those who axe still in 
the flesh, are awaiting the resurrection. Like those in the flesh, 
however, they are still in Jesus, still in his body. But death does 
bring a change. They are "unclothed" or "naked" (II Corinthians 
5:2-3). In other words, they have been divested of the relics of this 
body of sin and death, which already from the time of their baptism 
had begun to decay. To this extent, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21) 
and to depart and be with Christ is far better. For with death the 
conflict between the flesh and the Spirit comes to an end. But in this 
intermediate state they have not yet attained to final salvation. For 
that, the dead must wait until Christ's return (I Thessalonians 4:16), 
when they will rise before the living, and those who are still alive will 
be caught up with them to meet the Lord in the air. All, living and 
departed, will then be clothed upon with the "building from God, a 
house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (II Corinthians 
5:1). Here Paul seems to mean something more than an individual 
resurrection body. The language which he uses to describe it echoes 
what is said elsewhere about the true temple of God. He seems to 
mean that at the resurrection the individual's incorporation into Christ 
will be complete and final. And when he speaks of the "spiritual 

St. Paul: The First Theologian 317 

body" (I Corinthians 15:44), he does not mean a body made up of 
some supernatural material, but rather a perfect instrument adapted 
to the perfected communal life in Christ. Then Christ "will change 
our lowly body to be like his glorious body" (Philippians 3:21). 

It is sometimes maintained that St. Paul's ideas about the future 
life underwent a development. Whereas in the earlier letters (I Thes- 
salonians and I Corinthians) he allowed for an intermediate state, he 
later assumes (II Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1:21) that the indi- 
vidual will pass straight from this life to his final consummation at 
death. But II Corinthians 5 shows that he still caters for an inter- 
vening period of "nakedness," and elsewhere in Philippians (3:21) 
he still places the consummation for the individual at the second 
coming. There can hardly therefore have been any essential change 
of teaching. Rather, it would seem that Paul is using two not alto- 
gether consistent mythological schemes, not as a forecast of the 
future, but in order to express different things he wants to say about 
our life in Christ here and now. We know that our life in Christ 
here and now is not what God means it ultimately to be: it contains 
a pledge of its ultimate consummation as well as a sense of its incom- 
pleteness. Death must also bring us nearer on our road to completion, 
for then we shall have ceased to be vulnerable to sin, which attacks 
us through the flesh. Yet at the same time it is not until the whole 
of the human race, and indeed not until the whole universe has been 
reconciled to God that our being in Christ can be perfect. We without 
them cannot be made perfect. Thus we cannot take St. Paul's state- 
ments about the future as blueprints of God's plan. 


After Paul 

IN THE non-Pauline churches the period of consolidation 
after the death of the apostles led to an outburst of literary activity 
which culminated in the writing of our three synoptic gospels. In the 
Pauline churches there was a parallel movement, which took the 
form of collecting, editing, expanding, and, in some cases, adding 
fresh letters to St. Paul's correspondence with his churches. 


Even if, as we are still inclined to believe, Ephesians was 
written by St. Paul himself, it represents the first move in this direc- 
tion. For it sums up the stage in redemptive history which had been 
reached by the apostle's completed mission. Jew and Gentile have 
been brought into the one Church: 

But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been 
brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who 
has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall 
of hostility . . . Ephesians 2:13 /. (R.S.V.) 

This concern for the unity of Jew and Gentile in the one Church 
shows that the letter must have been written, if not during St. Paul's 
lifetime, then at least not long after. For after the destruction of 
Jerusalem, Jewish Christianity was virtually isolated, and the main 
body of the Church became almost exclusively Gentile. A later writer 
would have taken it for granted that the Gentiles were in the Church, 
and would not have been interested in their unity with the Jewish 


After Paul 319 

members. The epistle is full of the genuine Pauline amazement that 
the Gentiles (!!) should be in the one body. 

But the unity of the Church, though a given fact, is also a constant 
task. For the unity of the Church is only a fragile anticipation of the 
final unity when God shall be all in all. It is constantly threatened by 
human sin, and has constantly to be renewed. There is one body and 
one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father 
of us all. These are objective, given facts. But the unity of the Spirit 
must be "maintained" and built up until we all attain to a subjective 
unity, the "unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, 
to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of 
Christ" and that can never be fully achieved, that remains a con- 
stant task, until the final consummation. This unity can be built up 
only by a constant return to the foundation of the apostles and proph- 
ets, that is, to their joint witness to the act of God in Christ. Here 
is the concern, at the moment when the apostolic generation is dying 
out, to maintain the apostolicity of the Church. It is a concern which 
will reach its fulfillment in the establishment of the New Testament 
canon with the episcopate as its guardians. 


This document, though certainly not by Paul, comes from 
a circle in close touch with the Pauline (13:23; there is no reason 
to suppose that this verse has been added to give the document a 
Pauline coloring; it is too faint for that). Hebrews calls itself, not 
only an epistle, but also a "word of exhortation" (13:22). "Exhorta- 
tion" is pastoral, as opposed to evangelistic, preaching. It is the 
kind of sermon, or series of sermons, one would have heard at 
the ordinary Sunday worship of the church, consisting of exposi- 
tions of scripture. The writer was evidently a person of almost 
apostolic authority, for he can address a group of Christians over 
the heads of their local leaders (13:7, 17). He has heard of the 
situation in this group and has sent off a copy of some of his 
recent sermons, because he believes they have a direct bearing on 
the situation of the group. It is tempting to see in the reference 
to persecution in 10:32 and verse following an allusion to Nero's 

320 The Book of the Acts of God 

famous persecution of Christians at Rome in A.D. 64. The group 
concerned will then have been in the local Roman church, a fact 
which is also suggested by the allusion to "those from Italy" in 
13:24. It will have been written when the persecution was still a 
memory, but a receding one. A year around 85 would appear to be 

The Christians are in danger of lapsing, not into Jewish temple 
worship, as was traditionally supposed, but into indifference. As the 
Royal Air Force used to say, they are "getting browned off." The 
cause was their failure to progress to a mature grasp of the Christian 
faith. So the situation must be met by providing "solid food" (5:14). 
They must leave the "elementary doctrines of Christ" and "go on to 
maturity." The solid food is an exposition of Christ as the true 
high priest The (heme itself is not altogether a novelty, for it lay near 
to hand in the earliest preaching. On an external level, it was sug- 
gested by the early application (perhaps by Jesus himself) of Psalm 
110:1 to Christ. Since, according to a well-known rabbinic principle, 
the citation of one verse implied to application of the succeeding 
verses to the same subject, Psalm 110:4 was already applicable by 
implication to Jesus: 

Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek* 

But there was also a deeper, more inward root in the early preaching. 
This is that Christ died for our sins, and that his death was the 
sacrifice inaugurating the new covenant. It is these elementary doc- 
trines which form the basis of the mature teaching here offered. 

But the author never loses sight of his hortatory purpose: his 
doctrinal exposition is subsidiary to the hortatory. He wishes to 
demonstrate the finality of the event of redemption. There is no going 
back upon it: the event took place once and for all, and if believers 
drift away from faith in it they can never be reinitiated. There is no 
"second repentance," This does not mean it is impossible to repent 
of post-baptismal sin: it means that there can be no second initiation 
for the lapsed. To establish the finality of the redemption, the author 
makes an elaborate comparison between Christ's high priesthood 
and that of the Levitical ministry established under Moses, and 
recorded in the Pentateuch. It is a purely scriptural argument based 
on the Levitical legislation, and we cannot infer from it either that 

After Paul 321 

the temple was still standing or that the group addressed was in dan- 
ger of returning to temple worship. The author has in mind partly 
the daily offerings, but chiefly the annual ceremonies of the day of 
atonement. The Levitical priesthood is at once the pattern for Christ's 
high priesthood (or rather it is the typical foreshadowing of it) and 
an imperfect and totally inadequate pattern. It pointed to the end 
which it was intended to accomplish, but was powerless to accomplish 
it. That end is defined as access or approach to God, forgiveness of 
sins, and "perfection." All these definitions mean communion with 
God in worship and life. 

Several arguments are adduced to demonstrate the inadequacy of 
the Levitical ordinances. The high priests were mortal men, so 
that they must constantly be replaced by successors. They had to 
offer their sacrifices repeatedly, yearly or daily. They were sinners who 
needed to offer for themselves as well as for the people. Their offerings 
consisted of the blood of animals, which could never take away 
sins but could only deal with technical breaches of the ritual law. 
Moreover the Old Testament itself contained the promise of a superior 
priesthood, one which was not Levitical, but "after the order of 
Melchizedek," whose superiority to the Levitical is deduced, rather 
curiously and unconvincingly to our modern ways of thinking, from 
the story of Abraham's payment of tithes to Melchizedek in Genesis 
14:17-20. In contrast to this, Christ died only once, and now exer- 
cises his high priesthood forever. He was sinless and did not need 
to offer for himself. What he offered was not the blood of bulls and 
goats, but his own blood, the offering of the obedience of a perfect 
will even unto death. As a result he has consecrated for us a new 
and living way, a new covenant by which we have forgiveness of 
our sins and access to the presence of God. 

How exactly the death of one man, even of a sinless man, can 
remove our sins, their guilt, and their power, the author does not 
and probably cannot explain. His conviction is based on the Christian 
experience in worship, doubtless in eucharistic worship, which knows 
that in Christ the barrier of sin which prevents access to God is 
done away with. Of course the "altar" in Hebrews 13:10 is not the 
later piece of church furniture, but the place where the Church 
obtains access to the true altar of God's presence surely is in the 
eucharistic action, to which verse 15 also clearly alludes: 

322 The Book of the Acts of God 

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of 
praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his 

Is the writer of Hebrews a Platonist, who thinks in terms of two 
worlds, a heavenly and an earthly, hi which all visible phenomena 
are copies of heavenly realities? Has the author abandoned the early 
Christian dualism of two ages for one of two worlds? Some of his 
vocabulary has an undoubted Platonic ring: 

e.g.: copy 



greater and more perfect 

not of this creation 

not made with hands 

But the similarity to Platonic scheme is apparent rather than real. 
To begin with, these antitheses are not applied, as in the Platonic 
scheme, to the universe generally, but only to the temple and its 
furniture. It is only these that are copies of heavenly realities. Second, 
the author of Hebrews bases his dualism directly on the text of 
scripture, Exodus 25:40, which he quotes at 8:5. Here it is stated 
that God showed Moses the pattern of the sanctuary he was to con- 
struct. On the basis of this verse rabbinic Judaism had already postu- 
lated the objective existence in heaven of the pattern tabernacle. 
Moreover there is a further set of antithetical terms which are tem- 
poral in character and alien to the Platonic scheme: 




shadow/good things to come 

and three other temporal words: 

covenant (an institution of redemptive history) 
at the end of the world 
once for all 

It would seem that there is a curious unresolved tension in the author's 
thought between two worlds and two ages. He clearly thinks of two 
worlds, though he does not extend his cosmology to the whole uni- 
verse, but only to the apparatus and institutions of redemptive history; 

After Paul 323 

at the same time he speaks of two ages, in which the second is not 
only a manifestation on earth in temporal succession to the first, but 
also remains a reality "up" in heaven. There is however a similar 
combination between the two worlds and the two ages in Jewish 
apocalyptic literature. The realities of the age to come are con- 
ceived as pre-existent up in heaven and as being manifested on earth 
at the end. Thus there is the picture of the New Jerusalem coming 
down out of heaven, a picture which finds its way into the Apocalypse 
of the New Testament. It is along these lines that the affinities of the 
author of Hebrews are to be sought, not in Alexandrian Platonism. 

There is a second much debated problem, not altogether unrelated 
to the first. Where precisely does the author locate the sacrifice of 
Christ? Was it offered once at Calvary, or is it offered eternally in 
heaven? Is it an event in history at a fixed point of time, or is it 
suprahistorical? Protestants, with the exception of high Anglicans, 
have generally taken the first view, Catholics the second. 

Both sides can quote passages from Hebrews to support their 
case. The truth however would seem to Me somewhere between the 
two extremes. For the author of Hebrews, Christ's sacrifice was 
clearly a once-for-ali event in history, not an eternal offering in 
heaven. Every word which speaks of Ms act of offering is in the past 
tense (e.g., 9:28; 10:12). And a number of times he stresses that 
this offering was made "once" or "once for all" (e.g., 9:12, 28; 
10:10). The Catholic argument that if Christ is "high priest for 
ever" he must be perpetually offering himself in heaven is an inference 
which the author of Hebrews never makes and which flatly contra- 
dicts his express statements to which we have just called attention. 
Yet and here the conventional Protestant case likewise is at fault 
this sacrifice of Christ was not confined to the moment of Calvary. 
The argument in 10:5-10 makes it clear that the offering of Christ 
was an extended process, beginning with the moment when he "entered 
the world" (verse 5) and concluding with the moment when he "sat 
down at the right hand of God" (verse 12). The offering was the 
total, indivisible event of his life-death-exaltation. 

Yet the author makes it clear that Christ remains a priest "forever" 
(6:20, etc.). This cannot, as we have seen, mean that he is perpetu- 
ally offering himself in heaven. What it does mean will be apparent 
when we recall that even for the author of Hebrews the offering of 
sacrifice is not the sole, even if it be the central, function of priesthood. 

324 The Book of the Acts of God 

The high priest helps those who are tempted (2:18). He shows 
sympathy with our weaknesses (4:15) and deals gently with the 
wayward and ignorant. Most important, he makes continual inter- 
cession for his own (7:25). Clearly Christ has plenty to do, as it 
were, in heaven, quite apart from offering sacrifice, and he does it 
as high priest. This additional work we might call the "pastoral" 
side of the priestly function. But the ground and basis of the con- 
tinued pastoral work in heaven is the once-for-all priestly work of 
offering. That is why the author of Hebrews brackets both parts, the 
strictly sacerdotal and the pastoral, the once-for-all work on earth and 
the continued work in heaven, under the rubric of high priesthood. 
What the author is trying to say is that God's redemptive act in Jesus 
Christ is not just an event of past history; it has a perpetual efficacy, 
and is the ground of our relation to God which is realized in Christian 
worship. In a mythological language which he derives from the Jew- 
ish sacrificial system the author of the Hebrews expresses this con- 
viction by saying that Christ, having offered himself in the event of the 
cross and ascension, now intercedes for his Church on the strength of 
that offering, pleading for us and pleading his sacrifice for us. This 
is exactly the theology expressed in Charles Wesley's eucharistic 

O thou, before the world began, 
Ordained a sacrifice for man, 
And by th' eternal Spirit made 
An offering in the sinner's stead; 
Our everlasting Priest art thou, 
Pleading thy death for sinners now. 

Thy offering still continues new 
Before the Righteous Father's view; 
Thyself the lamb for ever slain, 
Thy Priesthood doth unchanged remain; 
Thy years, O God, can never fail, 
Nor thy blest work within the veil. 
Hymn A. & M., 554 

The imagery is all derived from the Jewish sacrificial system. Many 
other cultures have known priesthood, and to them it should be 
possible to make the meaning of Hebrews intelligible. In Christian 
countries it is only intelligible so long as priesthood is a living reality 

After Paul 325 

in the Church. Where the representative priesthood of the ministry, 
as the concrete, focal point of the priesthood of the whole body, is 
denied, the final result is the denial of the priesthood of Christ himself, 
since it has become unintelligible. 


We should beware of exaggerating the difference between 
the genuine Pauline epistles and the pastorals. The difference between 
the theology of the two has been grossly exaggerated, to the detriment 
of our understanding of both. It is just not true to assert that whereas 
Paul teaches justification by faith, the pastorals teach justification 
through the sacraments. As we have already seen, there is no antith- 
esis in Pauline teaching between faith and sacraments, but between 
faith and works. The pastorals' doctrine of salvation is good 

God* who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in 
virtue of our works, but in virtue of his own purpose and the 
grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus. // Timothy 1:9 

That does not however mean that they were by Paul. It will be 
assumed here that II Timothy is an expansion by a later writer of 
the farewell written by Paul himself, no doubt to Timothy, just before 
his martyrdom in Rome. The original letter consists of the personal 
elements, such as 1:1-3 and 4:9-18, but definitely excludes all the 
passages referring to church order and to heresy. There is very little 
to suggest that Titus is also an expansion of a personal note of Paul, 
and nothing whatever in I Timothy. These letters were written to claim 
the authority of St. Paul for the measures needed to combat an early 
form of Gnosticism. Such tendencies were akeady emerging when 
Paul wrote Colossians. How they originated we do not know, but 
it is possible that they infiltrated the early Christian churches via 
the Hellenistic synagogues. These "Gnostics" support a false cosmic 
dualism by misapplying the Old Testament, and express it by an 
ethic of asceticism. The author's method of combating this teaching is 
by maintaining the apostolic tradition. This tradition is to be handed 
on by a ministerial succession: 

326 The Book of the Acts of God 

. . . what you have heard from me before many witnesses 
entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 

// Timothy 2:2 

The later pastorals (Titus and I Timothy) give these tradition-bearers 
the name of "elder" or "bishop." It is gratuitous to assume that the 
author is innovating. He is rather systematizing the loose arrange- 
ment of the Pauline churches which already prevailed during St. 
Paul's own lifetime (see above, p. 00). Nor is the idea of tradition 
new. Since the Christian message was testimony to an event, and 
since others besides the original eyewitnesses had to bear testimony 
to it, it could hardly be otherwise. Hence the Jewish notion of handing 
on tradition via a line of accredited tradition-bearers found a place 
in Christianity from the start. Since the apostles were still alive during 
the first generation, this tradition need only be handed on by them 
to their converts, and they themselves could constantly remind the 
churches they founded, when they were in danger of letting the tradi- 
tion slip or were blind to its implications. This is what the Pauline 
letters are really doing. But as soon as the apostles begin to dis- 
appear from the scene, the problem of perpetuating the tradition 
becomes important, and the leaders of the local churches begin to 
assume a new and understandable importance as the means by which 
the tradition is preserved and passed on intact. It is to just this situa- 
tion that the pastorals bear witness. Their author stands for stabiliza- 
tion rather than for creative innovation. 


The little epistle of St. James is one of the most disputed 
writings of the New Testament. Here the division of opinion is not 
that of radicals versus conservatives, but runs right through the 
critical camp itself. For some, this is the earliest writing of the New 
Testament, by James, the Lord's brother, affirming a position which 
was later controverted by St. Paul in Galatians and Romans. Others 
regard it as the work of St. James, but written after the Romans and 
designed to refute it. Still others regard it as a later, perhaps much 
later, pseudonymous document written not so much against Paul's 

After Paul 327 

own position as against some of his followers who ignored certain 
features of their master's teaching and pressed others to their logical 

Here we assume that James is the product of a HeEenistic Judaism 
in close touch with Palestinian tradition at a time after Paul. The 
epistle is not directed against an ultra-Pauline party, for his epigoni 
approached more nearly to the position of "James" himself, judging 
by their utterances in the pastorals. Rather, James represents a mis- 
reading of Paul's position in Romans, emanating from a time when 
the Pauline epistles were being collected and circulated even in non- 
Pauline churches. 

The author, then, is engaged in a dispute, as he imagines, with St. 
Paul, but with a St. Paul whom he does not really understand. Paul 
had asserted that man was justified by faith alone. It was of course 
Luther who added the little word "alone" in Romans 3:28, but 
Hebraic idiom would mean that this was not merely a true exegesis, 
but also a correct translation. St. James would have interpreted Paul's 
statement just as Luther did, but unlike Luther he rejects it and seeks 
to disprove it This he achieves by using the same part of Old Testa- 
ment history, the story of Abraham, to prove the exact opposite: 
"by works is a man justified, and not by faith only" 

James, of course, is arguing at cross purposes with Paul. To begin 
with, the sense he attributed to "faith" is quite different: 

Thou believest that there is one God ... the devils also be- 
lieve and tremble. James 2:19 

Faith for him is intellectual assent to theological propositions, not the 
moment of passivity in which God is allowed to act upon the helpless 
sinner. Rightly understood, the Pauline doctrine of justification by 
faith alone does not exclude the necessity of good works: there is no 
dichotomy between faith and obedience. For faith brings a man 
into a relation with God in which obedience becomes a genuine 
possibility for the first time. Disobedience is actually a falling away 
from faith. Apart from faith, it is true, works cannot justify, but 
obedience is the natural and inevitable expression of the relationship 
which faith is. Again, St. James' idea of justification is not the same as 
St. Paul's. Paul, with his firm grasp of the benefits we already enjoy in 
Christ in anticipation of the final consummation, places justification 
at the beginning of the Christian life. James, whose grasp of life in 

328 The Book of the Acts of God 

Christ is deficient when compared with Paul's, places justification at 
the end of the process. Partly of course, this is a difference in ter- 
minology; but it is also partly due to James' failure to grasp what we 
already have in Christ. This raises the question: Was James really 
a Christian at all? It is not surprising that many critics have thought 
that James is really a Jewish work with a few Christian interpolations. 
Closer examination however reveals that James is much more Chris- 
tian than appears at first sight. He is the "servant of the Lord Jesus 
Christ" he accepts Jesus not only as a man, but as Lord and Christ 
(cf. 2:1). By a concrete act of choice (no doubt James is thinking 
of baptism) God has brought men into a relation with the redemptive 
event and made them heirs of his kingdom. This concrete act is an 
act of begetting which makes them the first fruits of his creatures, the 
advance guard of redeemed humanity (1:18). The faithful are gath- 
ered by that act into the "Church," consisting of "brethren" (James 
1:2, etc.). It has a ministry of elders who anoint the sick with oil 
to heal them. In this Church prayer is practiced, and forgiveness 
of sins is offered. Finally, like other New Testament Christians, 
James looks forward to the coming of the Lord (5:7), when the 
salvation inaugurated in baptism shall be consummated and the 
faithful who persevere will receive the crown of life which the Lord 
has promised to them that love him. Thus, where James betrays his 
doctrinal presuppositions, they are those of the redemptive history 
such as we find in the rest of the New Testament. But the bulk of the 
epistle consists of ethical exhortation, though it must never be for- 
gotten that this is set in a pattern of redemptive history. Moreover 
the content of the ethical teaching is derived from the pattern of 
catechetical teaching which was used by the Hellenistic churches 
generally for the instruction of candidates for baptism, and like that 
teaching draws upon traditions of the sayings of Jesus such as we 
find in the Q material in the gospels. All this has to be remembered 
in an assessment of James. It is as unreasonable to expect the full 
doctrinal aspect of the Christian message in James as it is to expect 
a passion narrative in Q. We cannot therefore use James as evidence 
of a non-redemptive form of Chrstianity, of purely ethical version of 
the gospel, or as evidence of the "simple" gospel as it was before Paul. 
James is avowedly teaching (didache) and not proclamation 
though it clearly presupposes the proclamation. Thus James does 
not give us the whole of Christianity. What it presupposes is found 

After Paul 329 

elsewhere in the New Testament. Yet it has an important place 
in the canon, for it supplies a necessary corrective to a one-sided 
appreciation of Pauline theology. Some ages in church history have 
needed the Pauline message to recall it from an excessive emphasis on 
"works," whether ecclesiastical and monastic asceticism or liberal and 
humanitarian activism. Other ages have needed to be recalled from a 
formal orthodoxy to the true conception of faith, to a realization that 
faith without works is dead. For some ages the epistle of St. James 
has been an epistle of straw. But other ages before and since Luther 
have needed it as a priceless pearl. 


The so-called first epistle of Peter can hardly have come 
from the pen of the apostle himself: its good Greek and Pauline doc- 
trine militate against the traditional view. Most American critics 
desire to place it quite late, largely because of the references to 
persecution. But we do not know enough about persecution in the 
first century to preclude an early date. Apart from this, all the critical 
problems are sufficiently accounted for if we take the epistle at its 
face value and assume that it was written by Silvanus with the 
authority of St. Peter behind him (5:12). Perhaps Paul has already 
suffered martyrdom, and Silvanus has undertaken to write to the 
churches of Asia Minor from Rome ("Babylon" in 5 : 13 is most likely 
a cryptogram for Rome). No longer having the authority of Paul 
behind him, he seeks instead the imprimatur of Peter. 

The first part of the letter, from 1 : 3 down to 4:12, contains material 
from what looks like a baptismal homily. Note the constantly recur- 
ring motifs from the pattern of catechetical teaching, such as is found 
in the Pauline epistles and in James: 

1:13: gird up your minds . . . 

2:1: put away . . . 

2:11: abstain from . . . 

2:13: be subject . . . 

3:1: be submissive . . . 

2:18-3:7: servants . . . wives . . . husbands 

330 The Book of the Acts of God 

Note also the direct references to baptism: 

1:3: hath begotten us again . . . 

1:18: You know that you were ransomed from the futile 
ways inherited from your fathers . . . (R.S.V.) 

1:22: having purified your souls . . . (R.S.V.) 

1:23: being born again . . . 
2:2: as new born babes . . , 

2:10: now have obtained mercy 

2:10: Once you were no people but now you are God's 
people; once you had not received mercy but now 
you have received mercy (R.S.V.) 
[N.B. the repeated antithetical parallelism in this 
last quotation suggests that this actually comes 
from a baptismal hymn of Semitic origin.] 

3:21: Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of 
dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a 
clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus 
Christ. (R.S.V.) 

By baptism the converts have been admitted to the priestly people 
of God: 

Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an 
holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to 
God by Jesus Christ (2:5) 

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy 
nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises 
of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous 
light. (2:9) 

The baptized have been brought into a liturgical community, whose 
focal point of existence is the offering of the sacrifice of thanksgiving, 
the great eucharistic prayer which recites before God the mighty acts 
of redemption. But this offering is the focal point of a total existence: 
their life must be holy (l:15f.)> a holiness which expresses itself 
in the concrete behavior of daily life as delineated in the ethical 
injunctions of this epistle. 

The author transforms this baptismal homily into an encyclical 
letter by prefacing an address (1:1 ff.) to the Pauline churches of 
Asia Minor and by adding an appended exhortation (4:13-5:14) to 
stand fast in face of persecution which may break out in Asia Minor 

After Paul 331 

as it has already broken out in Rome. While it would be injudicious 
to use this epistle as evidence for St. Peter's own theological position, 
it gives an interesting view of common sub-apostolic Christianity of 
a non-Palestinian type which has learned something from St. Paul 
but lacks his depths and his own special interests. Thus we find the 
Pauline catchword "in Christ" but without the depths of Paul's 
corporate understanding of the redemption. The Christology also 
lacks the developments we find in Paul, e.g., Christ as the wisdom 
of God and agent of creation. Does the author believe in Christ's 
pre-existence? In 1:20 he writes: 

He was destined before the foundation of the world but was 
made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. 


"Destined" is precisely the primitive form of the pre-existence doc- 
trine (see above, pp. 273, 274), ideal rather than real, in the mind of 
God rather than objective. This is perhaps the strongest evidence of 
Petrine affinity, and in any case it is the strongest argument against 
a second-century dating. It is also perhaps significant that the author 
never speaks of Jesus by the characteristically Hellenistic title "Son 
of God." His Christology moves within, the primitive framework, 
with its conception of Jesus, predestined as Son of man in the mind 
of God, servant of the Lord in his incarnate life, manifest Son of man 
from the moment of the resurrection, and to return again as Son of 
man at the end. The Christology at any rate is thoroughly Petrine. 


The typical problems of the sub-apostolic age were, first, 
the combating of false teaching of a Gnostic type; second, the pres- 
ervation of the apostolic tradition in face of this danger; third, the 
delay in the return of Christ; and, fourth, persecution. 

Jude, like the pastorals, is concerned with the first and second of 
these problems. The author, whoever he may have been, and when- 
ever he may have written, is not a creative thinker. Here he stands 
in marked contrast to the author of the Johannine literature, which 
is dealing with a parallel situation. His method is that of party 

332 The Book of the Acts of God 

politician in an election campaign to call his opponents names 
(verses 4, 8, 10, 12, 12 f. ? 16, 18 ff.)- Then he cites a number of Old 
Testament examples of dire judgment and examples thereof from the 
apocalyptic book of Enoch (9:14), threatening his opponents with 
the like damnation. Unlike the author of the pastorals, who has a 
practical end in view that of establishing a systematized ministry of 
tradition-bearers all Jude can offer is exhortation: the recipients 
are "earnestly to contend for the faith that was once delivered to the 
saints." They are to "build themselves up on their most holy faith." 
Phrases like these excite the irritation, not only of our liberal 
but also of our neo-orthodox scholars, bent as they are on empha- 
sizing the "varieties of New Testament religion." Such objections fail 
to do justice to the unity which underlies the variety. There was a 
faith once delivered to the saints, not indeed (and here the liberals 
and neo-orthodox are perfectly right) the whole articulated system 
of Catholic dogma, but faith in Jesus as the redemptive event and 
act of God, by which our salvation has been inaugurated and is to be 
consummated. This faith is found in all the strata of the New Testa- 
ment, from the earliest sermons in Acts to the Johannine literature. 
The author redeems the vitriolic quality of his polemics by these fine 
phrases about New Testament faith, and by the noble doxology with 
which his pamphlet concludes (verses 24-25). 


Hardly a scholar outside the Roman communion maintains 
the Petrine authorship of II Peter. For one thing the author "lays 
it on too thick." He calls himself "Simon Peter" (1:1). He claims 
to be a witness of the transfiguration (1:16-18). He speaks patron- 
izingly of "our brother Paul," and parades his own claim to be an 
apostle. But he betrays himself by his obvious dependence on the 
synoptic gospels for the details of the transfiguration, and by his 
evident knowledge of the Pauline corpus (3:16), which was clearly 
known to his readers and many others besides himself and was by 
now known as "scripture," that is, accepted as canonical. All this 
suggests a date later than that of the early apostolic fathers, and 150 
could hardly be too early. 

After Paul 333 

The author is wrestling with the third problem of the sub-apostolic 
age, the delay in the return of Christ. Where is the promise of his 
coming? Ever since the fathers fell asleep all things have continued 
as they were from the beginning of creation. The Johannine litera- 
ture is wrestling among other things with the same problem, but, 
unlike II Peter, in a highly theological and constructive way. Two 
Peter's method, while not creative, is interesting. He will not aban- 
don the hope of the return of Christ. Indeed, he reiterates it in all its 
stark crudity by lifting almost bodily the apocalyptic passages from 
Jude, where however, as we have seen, they are employed for the 
quite different purpose of threatening false teachers. And then II 
Peter plays Ms trump card: 

One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand 
years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise. 


God's time scheme is so different from ours (Psalm 90:4). The 
primitive belief in an impending event of the exalted Christ may 
thus retain all its pristine urgency. 


The Johannine Literature 


TRADITIONALLY, THE Johannine literature includes the 
book of Revelation, the Gospel according to St. John, and the first, 
second, and third epistles of John. Most scholars today would assign 
the Apocalypse to a different author from the rest of the Johannine 
literature. While the gospel is written in part in Greek which bears a 
marked Semitic coloring, the evangelist shows, where he writes on his 
own, that he can write very good Greek. The seer however writes in 
such execrable Greek (including even grammatical solecisms) that 
we might describe it as "refugese," the kind of language spoken by 
an elderly emigree banished to a foreign land and forced to acquire 
late in life a new tongue which he has never succeeded in mastering. 
Perhaps he had fled from Jerusalem after its destruction in 70 and 
settled at Ephesus. Yet there are also striking affinities with the 
fourth gospel. Both have favorite phrases, such as "keep the com- 
mandments." Both draw on a common stock of Old Testament 
testimonies (e.g., "They shall look upon him whom they pierced," 
from Zechariah 12:10, cited in John 19:37 and Revelation 1:7). 
Theologically however they are poles apart. The seer frankly accepts 
the crudest pictures of the end from Jewish apocalyptic. The extent 
to which he consciously regards them as symbolic is problematical, 
but since the inner core of the work appears to present the same 
series of events under a number of different images, it is likely that 
he meant much of it to be taken symbolically. By contrast, the 
author of the fourth gospel, while deliberately retaining the future 
hope as the ultimate rounding off of the process of redemptive his- 
tory (e.g., 5:28 f.), is so convinced of the decisiveness of the salva- 


The Johanrdne Literature 335 

tion already inaugurated that he tends to minimize the other aspect 
of the "not yet." It may of course be objected that the same author 
passed through two phases in his thinking and that the gospel repre- 
sents its ultimate outcome. But such a view raises further problems 
as to the nature of the theology of the gospel as a whole. If that 
theology can come to rest finally (and there are at present signs 
that it may) in a Palestinian environment, it might conceivably be 
possible to reopen the question of the affinity between the Apocalypse 
and the gospel. But that time is not yet. 

The Apocalypse is the product of a very concrete situation, and 
is written directly to cope with it. The author, exiled in a time of per- 
secution from his own church (1:9), sees a vision on the Lord's 
day and is bidden to report it to the seven churches of Asia Minor. 
He prefaces the report with a letter for each of the seven churches 
in turn. In these letters he deals with the local variations in the over- 
all situation. 

The central core of the book (4:1-22:5) defies analysis. The 
series of visions of the final denouement of history are inextricably 
confused. Basically, of course, the apocalyptic scheme is simple 
enough. First, there was to come the period of the Messianic woes, 
then the reign of Antichrist, then the coming of the Messiah, with 
(as here) or without a thousand years' reign on earth, and then the 
final consummation with the new heaven and new earth. But the 
author has probably, as we suggested above, presented the same 
series of events under a number of different images. 

Did the author actually see all these visions in detail? Or did he 
have a single vision, the exact content of which we can no longer 
discover but which may be fairly represented in the opening chapter, 
and did he then expand it with conventional apocalyptic imagery 
which he quarried from his predecessors, Old Testament, Judaic, and 
Christian? The latter suggestion would seem most likely. Another 
strong ingredient is the liturgical material. It is as if the author, cut 
off from the Church's worship on the Lord's day, meditates upon 
its offering of praise and thanksgiving which is counterpart of the 
heavenly liturgy. We have found the same line of thought in Hebrews, 
whose connection with the apocalyptic world view has already been 
suggested. Hence the visions open with a scene which reproduced 
in heaven the setting of primitive Christian worship. God the Father 
is seated on the throne, like the president at the eucharist, the four 

336 The Book of the Acts of God 

and twenty elders are seated in a semicircle on either side, like the 
elders of the local church; the four living creatures correspond to the 
deacons, and the great liturgical prayer includes the Sanctus (Chap- 
ter 4). More liturgical material is to be found at 5:9-10, 12, 13b; 
7:12; 11:17; 15:3b; 19:1-8. Also reflected is the belief that in the 
eucharist Christ comes in anticipation of his final coming: 

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. 

This is the same prayer as the Maranatha of I Corinthians 16:22. 
Compare also: 

I will come . . . and sup with him, and he with me. 3:20 

This liturgical concern is an important psychological clue to the 
seer's mental processes. It is as he meditates on a Sunday morning 
on the liturgy of his home church that its true significance for the 
times in which he lives dawns upon him: it is the anticipation of the 
final consummation, and thus provides the springboard for the apoca- 
lyptic drama which the work unfolds: 

Thou art coming, at thy table 

We are witnesses for this; 
While remembering hearts thou meetest 
In communion clearest, sweetest, 

Earnest of our coming bliss, 
Shewing not thy death alone, 

And thy love exceeding great, 
But thy coming and thy Throne, 

All for which we long and wait. 

Hymns A. and M. t 
Standard Edition, 203 

The Apocalypse has suffered alike from its would-be friends and 
its foes. Its friends have too often taken it as a blueprint forecast of 
the later historical crises in which they themselves have lived. The 
intention of the author was not however to forecast the downfall of 
Hitler, Stalin, or any of the later tyrants of history. He was speaking 
of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did collapse, but only 
after three more centuries, not immediately as he thought. And when 
it did collapse, it was succeeded, not by the end, but by further cycles 
of history. Yet the book has a permanent significance. It is wholly 
legitimate to deduce from its understanding of history certain 

The Johannine Literature 337 

principles of wider application for each succeeding crisis in history. 

Its foes too have treated the Apocalypse badly. Both in the 
ancient Church and in the modern, voices have been raised against 
the inclusion of the Revelation in the New Testament. It has been 
stigmatized as sub-Christian because of its insistence on the wrath 
of God and everlasting hell-fire, and above all because of the vin- 
dictive attitude toward the Church's persecutors, so patently at vari- 
ance with the Sermon on the Mount. 

The latter point we should readily concede. The author, under- 
standably and humanly in his own situation, does fall short of true 
Christian charity, which extends even to the enemy. But so have other 
Christians before and since, and it is good to be reminded that even 
the inspired writers of the New Testament were after all men of 
flesh and blood. Nor need we complain, since we have the Sermon 
on the Mount with which to correct Revelation 6:10. Yet perhaps 
this is not the whole story. The author's cry, "How long?'* proceeds 
not from a mere impatient lust for vengeance, but from a heart- 
felt self-identification with the purpose of God, imperfectly ex- 
pressed, no doubt, but in essence identical with the prayer, "Thy 
kingdom come." With regard to the wrath of God and hell-fire, it is 
to be observed that the author is at one with the rest of the New 
Testament, even with the teaching of our Lord himself. Separa- 
tion from God (or is it the anguish and misery in his presence 
which springs from unrepented sin?) is always a grim reality and 
an ultimate, final possibility. And even the Apocalypse does not 
seek to frighten men into repentance by the threat of hell-fire, nor 
does it claim to know in advance who is destined to its flames. It 
is thus far removed from the corybantic effusions of the gospel halls. 

We have to remember that the Revelation is part of the canon, 
not the whole of it. No more than any other New Testament writing 
does it claim to enshrine the whole apostolic witness to the event of 
Jesus Christ. Even the epistle to the Romans needs the corrective of 
James. But to justify its place in the canon the Apocalypse must have 
something distinctive and positive to offer. Has it? We have already 
suggested that it provides the principles for a Christian understand- 
ing of history. And it shows that the liturgy is not something whose 
significance is confined to the four walls of the sanctuary or to the 
individual human soul. It is at once the revelation and the accelera- 
tion of the whole cosmic drama which is history. It is its revelation, 

338 The Book oj the Acts of God 

for here Christ comes as the King he will be, disclosing the temporary 
character of all human government and the final triumph of his 
redemptive purpose. It is its acceleration, for in the liturgy men and 
women are already taken up into a foretaste of that beatitude which 
is to be finally theirs. 


Of all New Testament problems the Johannine problem 
is the most intractable. James, which is also problematical, remains 
one of the peripheral New Testament writings. Johannine Christianity, 
not only because of its bulk, but also because of its own intrinsic 
quality, is central. For, together with the Pauline writings, it repre- 
sents one of the two creative achievements of New Testament 
theology. Hence the problem cannot be ignored. 

The problem revolves round three main issues, none of which, can 
be discussed in detachment from the other two. First, there is the 
problem of authorship, second, the affinities of the author's thought, 
and, third, its interpretation. 

/. Authorship 

Tradition is very strong, almost unanimous from the end 
of the second century, that the fourth gospel was written by St. John, 
the beloved disciple, son of Zebedee, and that he was the author at 
least of the first epistle, together with the Apocalypse (though early 
tradition is by no means unanimous on this last point). Since the 
early part of the last century, however, more and more critics have 
questioned and rejected the traditional authorship. They have pointed 
to the historical discrepancies between the fourth and the synoptic 
gospels (which latter were taken to be earlier and therefore, especially 
in the case of Mark, more historical) . If Mark was what it seemed to 
be, the memoirs of the apostle Peter, how could John also be 
apostolic? For the Johannine Jesus commutes between Galilee and 
Jerusalem, whereas the Markan Jesus spends his time wholly in 
Galilee until his final visit to Jerusalem for the passion. The Johan- 

The Johannine Literature 339 

nine Jesus delivers lengthy discourses, written in the same style as 
that of the evangelist himself (see the editorial sections 3:16-21, 
31-36), Consequently there would be a Johannine problem even if 
we did not possess the synoptics. The Jesus of the synoptics, on the 
other hand, delivers vivid parables and oracular sayings. The content 
of his message, in the synoptics, is the approach of God's reign; in the 
fourth gospel it is his own advent, already as revealer and redeemer. 
The Johannine Jesus declares his Messiahship from the outset and 
is openly acknowledged as such. The synoptic Jesus adopts a very 
equivocal attitude toward the question of his Messiahship, to say the 
least. The thought world of the fourth evangelist appears to be 
Hellenistic and mystical, that of the synoptics Palestinian and con- 
crete. The traditional view of the authorship was far less unanimous 
than its supporters had assumed. Most vulnerable was its lateness, 
not before 180. Previous writers who might have been expected to 
mention the gospel fail to do so and are strangely silent about its 
existence, even where they appear to echo its thought. Moreover, the 
earliest witnesses to the fourth gospel are the second-century Gnostics. 
There is also some evidence to suggest that John bar Zebedee suffered 
an early martyrdom. 

Defenders of the tradition were undaunted. They not only upheld 
the external tradition against the arguments mentioned above, but 
pointed to a whole series of internal factors which showed, as classi- 
cally formulated in Westcotf s famous "concentric proof," that the 
gospel was the work of a Jew, a Palestinian Jew, an eyewitness, an 
apostle, John the son of Zebedee himself. An awkward corollary, 
which the conservatives tended to shirk, was that if this was so, John 
must be more historical than Mark. 

During the present century there has been considerable modifica- 
tion of tide conservative defense, though in Britain there are still a 
number of reputable scholars who maintain substantially Westcotfs 
position, and many who from the pulpit still quote sayings of the 
Johannine Christ as irrefragable evidence for his teaching. This 
modified conservatism has discovered another John, the Elder, 
a second generation disciple of John bar Zebedee at Ephesus. John 
bar Zebedee was responsible for the authentic factual elements, and 
John the Elder for the discourses, though these were to some extent 
at least based on the witness of John bar Zebedee and the teaching 
of Jesus. Meanwhile, on the critical side, our whole attitude to the 

340 The Book of the Acts of God 

synoptic tradition, and especially to Mark, has changed. We now see 
that Mark is not just straightforward history, but a string of originally 
isolated fragments arranged in such a way as to provide a theological 
interpretation of Jesus, no less than the fourth gospel. The synoptic 
gospels, no less than John, were written that men might believe that 
Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that, believing, they might 
have life in his name. On the other hand, there has also been on the 
critical side an increasing disposition to recognize the value of some 
at least of the historical traditions in the fourth gospel. Thus there 
has been at any rate a partial rapprochement between the conserva- 
tive and critical positions. But a final conclusion about authorship 
must be deferred until we have considered other aspects of the 

2. Affinities of Thought 

Is "John" a Palestinian Jewish, Hellenistic Jewish, or 
purely Hellenistic thinker? And with which stream in these various 
types of thought is he to be connected? This is perhaps the most 
thorny of all the Johannine problems. 

The case for Palestinian affinity rests upon two lines of argument, 
linguistic and theological. While it would be an exaggeration to claim 
as some have done that John is simply a translation from, Aramaic, 
it is clear that the language has a high degree of Semitic coloring. 
This is true both of the narrative portions and of the discourse 
material. In the narrative, for instance, the sentences frequently begin 
with the verb, the subject following (e.g., 1:45 reads, not "Philip 
finds Nathanael," but "finds Philip Nathanael") In the discourses 
we find frequent examples of Hebraic poetical forms; for instance, 
6:35 exhibits synonymous parallelism. These facts must be taken 

Much more has been learned during the present century about 
rabbinic Judaism. Many sayings of the rabbis have been studied, and 
some throw considerable ligjit on sayings in the fourth gospel. For 
instance, almost every statement made in the Prologue (John 1 : 1-14) 
can be paralleled by what the rabbinic writers say about the Torah, 
or Law of God, considered as God's revelation of himself. The state- 
ment "Abraham saw my day and was gjad" (8:56) becomes 
intelligible when we read the rabbinic statement that Abraham was 

The Johanrune Literature 341 

granted a vision of all the days to come, including that of the 
Messiah. Beyond all doubt, the author was closely acquainted with 
this type of thought. Yet there is much, too, which finds no parallel 
in the rabbinic writings. Clearly, this is not an exhaustive clue. 

A far more comprehensive explanation of the fourth gospel's affini- 
ties is offered on the Hellenistic side, namely, Gnosticism. Gnosticism 
was traditionally the name given to certain second-century deviations 
opposed by such orthodox fathers as Irenaeus and Epiphanius. Of 
later years, however, it has come to be used in a much wider sense, 
to denote a syncretistic religious philosophy, antedating Christianity 
and influencing it from quite early days as it had influenced Hellenis- 
tic Judaism before it. It is a movement which crystallized itself in a 
number of differing schools of thought, all of which however exhibit 
the same fundamental outlook. Its basis was a dualistic view of the 
world. There was an upper world, eternal, real, and good, and a 
lower world, temporal, unreal, and evil. The upper world was the 
sphere of mind, the lower of matter. Man belonged to both orders. 
Human souls had pre-existed in the upper world, and it was their 
misfortune to have been allied with human, material, and evil bodies. 
Creation was in fact a fall. But man was offered deliverance from 
this fallen state already in this life. This could be achieved by the 
acquisition of "knowledge'* (gnosis), which was brought down from 
the upper world by a heavenly redeemer, who came down into the 
lower world in a sort of pseudo-incarnation. This knowledge consisted 
of information concerning the upper world. Those who received the 
revelation were delivered from the bondage of the material body and 
recovered the immortality which was theirs before creation. Thus 
their return to the upper world was assured at death. 

John, it is claimed, was deeply influenced by this scheme of thought, 
and sought to restate the Christian gospel in terms of it by transferring 
it to the event of Jesus Christ. The discourse material of the fourth 
gospel, from the prologue onward is simply the adaptation of actual 
Gnostic material. It is admitted that there are crucial differences 
between the Gnostic systems and Johannine theology. For John, the 
redeemer is a real historical figure of the recent past, whose incarna- 
tion was a reality, not an appearance. This redeemer could be weary 
(4:7) and hungry (4:31); he could weep (11:35) and suffer thirst 
(19:28 ci 4:7). Finally, he died a death whose physical reality was 
attested by the water and blood which flowed from his side (19:34). 

342 The Book of the Acts of God 

The content of the revelation is different. It is not a body of factual 
information about the upper world, but simply the revealer himself, 
a person. Response to the revelation is not just predetermined fate, 
dependent upon whether one is a person of the right sort, with the 
divine spark of heavenly mind, but a matter of free, personal decision, 
although paradoxically it is predestined. And the state of salvation 
manifests itself differently, in personal love and obedience, rather 
than in the selfish enjoyment of knowledge, with a consequent sense 
of superiority over other mortals. 

It will be seen that the appeal to Gnostic affinities does not under- 
mine our confidence in the uniqueness and Christian character of the 
fourth gospel. In fact, it strengthens that confidence. If we question 
this explanation, we do so on historical grounds, not because we feel 
it destroys the value of the gospel. The real trouble about this solution 
is that nearly all the evidence which we have about it comes from 
the second century onward, from such writings as the Odes of 
Solomon, the recently discovered Jung Codex, the Hermetic, Mani- 
chean, and Mandaean writings. That such tendencies were already 
apparent within Judaism is indeed shown by Philo, and within 
Christianity by Colossians and the pastorals. So we cannot simply 
write off Gnosticism as a purely post-Christiaa phenomenon. What 
we cannot say for certainty is what this pre-Christian Gnosticism 
contained, since it is impossible to distinguish what second-century 
and later Gnosticism borrowed from the Johannine writings, and what 
the Johannine writings borrowed from pre-Christian Gnosticism. This 
is pre-eminently true of the figure of the Gnostic redeemer. The newly 
discovered Jung Codex contains a document which shows that even 
as late as circa 150 there was no heavenly redeemer in that particular 
form of Gnosticism, In fact it would seem that this figure is a 
Christian importation into later Gnosticism. 

Another difficulty is that in the form in which it is generally stated, 
the Gnostic argument places John on the side of Hellenism or 
Hellenistic Judaism, and does insufficient justice to his undoubted 
Palestinian affinities. There are some critics who feel that the Dead 
Sea Scrolls offer a solution of our difficulty. These show that many 
of the features were already present in at least one type of first- 
century Palestinian Judaism. A number of striking parallels between 
the fourth gospel and the new documents have turned up. First, there 
is the dualism: in both the Qumran writings and the fourth gospel 

The Johannine Literature 343 

this dualism is both ethical and monotheistic, not metaphysical as in 
the Gnostic systems we discussed in the last paragraph. Such terms as 
"spirit of truth" and "spirit of error," "sons of light" and "sons of 
darkness," "to do the truth" are common to both Qumran and 
Johannine literature. Enthusiasts have jumped to the conclusion that 
the author of the fourth gospel had been a member of the Qumran 
community, or was at least familiar with their writings, and that here 
at last we have the clue to the riddle of Johannine Christianity. Such 
a conclusion would take us far beyond the present state of the evi- 
dence. This much at least may be said, however, that first-century 
Palestinian Judaism was a far richer, more complex affair than we 
had guessed (ci also the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs which 
also exhibits remarkable affinities with John) and that somewhere 
here must have been the matrix in which the thought of the fourth 
gospel took shape. This however is only a possibility, not an assured 
result, but it may at least indicate the line that critical opinion will 
increasingly follow in the next decade or so. At the same time we do 
well to pay heed to Hoskyns' warning: "the (Fourth) Gospel refuses 
to come to rest in any haven provided by historical . . . analysis." 
That is because the dominant factor is neither Palestinian nor Hel- 
lenistic, but Christian. Whatever the basic framework, it has been 
violently distorted to proclaim the event of salvation in Jesus Christ. 

3. Literary and Oral Sources 

Once the traditional view of the authorship had been 
abandoned, the question of sources naturally came up for debate. For 
a long period the possibility of a literary relationship between John 
and all the synoptics was canvassed. Later, opinion seemed to settle 
down in favor of the use of Mark only. Now an increasing number 
of scholars, on good grounds, believe that John used none of the 
synoptic gospels. Rather, he is drawing on a tradition parallel to 
but independent of the synoptic. 

Following recent suggestions, we should be inclined to distinguish 
three sources: (a) a "sign" source, which included the basic narrative 
material of Chapters 1-12, (b) a series of revelation discourses, (c) 
a passion narrative; (c) may be a continuation of (a). It is source 
(b) which is most problematical. Was this taken over from some 
kind of Gnostic or Jewish sectarian source, possibly liturgical? Was 

344 The Book of the Acts of God 

it taken from a previous Christian source? Or was it composed by the 
evangelist himself? Quite possibly the right answer is a combination 
of all three. 

4. Authorship Final Conclusion 

The Palestinian affinities of the author do not in themselves 
vindicate the traditional authorship. Rather, the author seems to 
stand at the end of a process of oral tradition in a manner similar 
to Mark. If we feel able to square this with the traditional authorship, 
we must still maintain that the gospel is the interpretation of a 
tradition, not a straightforward historical account. That an eyewitness 
should have given such an interpretation is not beyond the bounds of 
possibility, since ancient methods of writing history were so dif- 
ferent from ours. On the whole, however, it is better to assume that 
the author is a Christian of the second generation, but one who, as 
Hoskyns has suggested, was "so created by the apostolic witness that 
he was veritably carried across into their company." It is in this 
sense that we must interpret the fourth gospel's patent claim to 
apostolicity: "We beheld his glory": "That which ... we have heard, 
which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and 
our hands have handled . . ." (I John 1:1). 

5. The Johannine Writings An Interpretation 

Assuming, with most scholars, that the first epistle and the 
fourth gospel are by the same hand, we may find in the epistle a 
glimpse of the situation in which Johannine Christianity took shape. 
Certain deviationist leaders had split away from the churches over 
which the writer had oversight: 

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they 
had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but 
they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were 
not of us. / John 2:19 

These secessionists denied that Jesus was the Christ (2:22), which 
probably means that though they believed in a Christ or redeemer, 
they did not identify him with the man Jesus; they denied his coming 
in the flesh (4:3). They asserted that he came by water only, not by 

The Johannine Literature 345 

water and blood (5:6). In other words they were Docetists who 
denied the reality of the incarnation, perhaps believing that the 
Christ-spirit descended on the man Jesus at his baptism (hence 
the reference to water in 5:6) but withdrew from him before the 
crucifixion (cf, "not by blood" in 5:6). 

The author of the Johannine literature realizes that it is not 
enough to call his opponents names, like the author of Jude, nor even 
to organize machinery for the perpetuation of the tradition, as in the 
pastorals. The only effective reply will be a theological one of con- 
structive restatement. For there was point in what the secessionists 
were trying to do: They were trying to find the right vocabulary in 
which to proclaim the gospel to the Hellenistic world. This vocabu- 
lary was to be found in Gnosticism. But like so many who have at- 
tempted at restatement since, they were in danger of throwing out the 
baby with the bath water, of undermining the event of redemption 
itself. John therefore sets himself to use their language, insofar as it is 
sanctioned by the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, not in order 
to jettison or undermine, but to proclaim the event of redemption. 

The theme of the fourth gospel is that revelation, the self-disclosure 
of God to man, is to be found in the man Jesus, and in Mm alone. He 
alone possesses the prerogatives and attributes which the Gnostic 
secessionists would offer to their unreal redeemer. The gospel opens 
with a hymn of revelation, the prologue. That this is a Christian 
adaptation of a pre-Christian Gnostic hymn to a revealer is a plausible 
suggestion, borne out by the rhythmical character of these verses, 
which enables us to distinguish between the hymn and the evangelist's 

In the beginning was the Word, 
and the Word was with God, 
And the Word was God. 

He was in the beginning with God. 

AH things were made by him, 

and without him nothing was made. 

That which was made, in bitn was life, 
and the life was the light of men. 

And the light shines in the darkness 
and the darkness has not overcome it. 

(NOTE: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 
He came for a testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all 

346 The Book of the Acts of God 

might believe through him. He was not that light, but came to 
bear witness to the light.) 

He was the true light 

which lightens every (man) coming into the world 

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, 
yet the world knew him not. 

He came to his own 

and his own received him not 

But as many as received him 

he gave to them the power to become the children of God. 

(NOTE: (that is) to those who believe on his name, who were 
born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of 
man, but of God.) 

And the Word became flesh, 

and dwelt among us 
And we beheld his glory, 

glory as of the only begotten of the Father, 
Full of grace and truth. 

The prologue asserts that Jesus, and not other claimants, particu- 
larly, for some reason, not John the Baptist, was the revelation of 
God. Why John the Baptist? Had the secessionists gone over to a 
John-the-Baptist sect which had erected a whole system of Gnostic 
beliefs upon him? The existence of a Baptist group at Ephesus is 
attested in Acts 19. Here is an attractive speculation, but it lacks 
proof. The revelation of Jesus is disclosed in his "flesh," that is to 
say, in the whole observable history of Jesus, not only the moment 
of the incarnation, or Bethlehem, but the whole history culminating 
in Calvary and to be recorded in the gospel. That flesh, that history 
is the "word" or revelation of God. But the history of Jesus is seen 
as revelation only in the light of the resurrection. Hence the whole 
gospel will be written under the signature of the resurrection. It is 
not a straightforward history of Jesus, for that would be flesh, and 
would profit nothing, but history rewritten in the light of the resur- 
rection. The Christ who speaks in the fourth gospel is the risen Christ. 
The Christ who acts in the signs is performing pointers to what 
his work shall be in the death and resurrection and in the life 
of the Church as risen Lord. This may seem an arbitrary way of 

The Johannine Literature 347 

treating history, but as a matter of fact all history involves inter- 
pretation in the light of its subsequent outcome. If for instance we 
were to describe the history of Germany from 1933 to 1939, we 
could do so properly only in the light of what happened on Septem- 
ber 1, 1939, namely as a series of steps toward Hitler's conquest of 
Europe. Before that date it seemed that that history was a series 
of attempts to redress the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, but 
to describe it as such today would be wholly wrong* The same holds 
good of the history of Jesus. A sound-track film would describe the 
preaching, healings, exorcisms, and tragic outcome of a prophet. But 
that would be just "flesh," not word. The resurrection however dis- 
closes this history to be the redemptive act of God. The process of 
rewriting began already in the synoptic gospels, and in the oral 
tradition before them. In John however the original history has 
become completely impregnated with the interpretation. Thus, while 
in one sense, in the purely past-historical sense, the synoptic gospels 
are nearer to history, in a higher sense that is, on the level of 
significance the fourth gospel is the truest to history. It describes 
the history of Jesus as faith came to know it after the resurrection. It 
proclaims the flesh of Jesus to be what it is, the word of God. 

Hence the prologue, which shows that this same word that became 
incarnate in Jesus is the word through whom God made the universe, 
is not just a piece of cosmological speculation, but the evangelist* s 
way of saying that the God who reveals himself is none other than 
God himself, none other than the Creator. The God in Jesus is not 
an intermediary being, but: 

God's presence and Ms very self, 
And essence all divine. 

Jesus is the Creator-God-directly-acting-in-history. The second half 
of the prologue, from verse 5 onward, indicates the two possible 
responses to the revelation. Many of his "own," that is, mankind, 
rejected him, but some received him and were given the privilege of 
rebirth from above. Here is one of the dominant themes of the 
gospel the division of those who accept and those who reject 
the revelation. 

The rest of the chapter is often regarded simply as a review of the 
Messianic titles. But it is more. John and his disciples are made to 
give their testimony to Jesus as the revelation, and in that testimony 

348 The Book of the Acts of God 

their function is exhausted. This subserves the same apologetic depre- 
ciation of the Baptist which we detected in the prologue. 

Then, after this introductory chapter, which presents Jesus and 
him alone as the revelation of God, there follows the so-called Book 
of Signs (Chapters 2-12), of which traditionally there are seven: 

TABLE A: 1. Cana of Galilee, 2:1-12 

2. The nobleman's son, 4:47-54 

3. The pool of Bethesda, 5:1-16 

4. The feeding of the five-thousand, 6:1-14 

5. The walking on the water, 6:15-21 

6. Siloam, 9:7-7 

7. Lazarus, 11:1-44 

All these episodes seem to be derived from the evangelist's sign 
source (see above, p. 343). There are other episodes of a narrative 
character which may also have been derived from that source; 

TABLE B: 1. The Cleansing of the temple, 2:13-16 

2. Nicodemus, 3:1-12 

3. The Samaritan woman, 4:142 (but 

heavily interlarded with the evange- 
list's dialogue material) 

4. Peter's confession, 6:66-71 

5. Jesus at the feast of the tabernacles, 

7-8 (again heavily interlarded) 

6. Jesus at the feast of the dedication 

10:22-23; 40-42 

7. The Sanhedrin meeting, 11:47-54 

8. The anointing at Bethany, 12:1-9 

9. The triumphal entry, 12:12-19 

10, The Greeks at the feast, 12:20-22 

The evangelist's method is to take these signs from his source and 
to rearrange them in the order he requires. For example, the cleansing 
of the temple seems to have been shifted from a point immediately 
after Table B.9 (ie., after the triumphal entry) to a point immedi- 
ately after Table A.I (i.e., immediately after the marriage of Cana 
of Galilee. Two reasons lead to this suggestion. First, in all the other 
gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the cleansing of the temple is 
firmly fixed at a point after the triumphal entry and therefore at the 
end, not at the beginning, of the ministry. Second, A.2, the nobleman's 

The Johannine Literature 349 

son, is expressly called the "second sign," whereas, as it now appears 
in the fourth gospel, it is actually the third, following A.I and B.I. 
This slip in enumeration can be easily explained if in the author's 
source A.2 was the second sign, following immediately after A.I. 
The dislocation will then have been caused by inserting B.I between 
A.I and A.2. No doubt there has also been a process of selection, 
since there are references to other signs not recorded (e.g., 2:23; 
3:2; etc., and the explicit statement in 20:30). The evangelist's 
method is to select and arrange such signs as he needs and to farce 
them with dialogues or discourses. Sometimes, as in the case of Cana 
of Galilee, the only addition is a brief editorial remark; sometimes it 
is a brief dialogue, as in the cleansing of the temple, plus an editorial 
comment. The fullest and most characteristic form however is where 
the sign provides the springboard for an extended dialogue or dis- 
course. Thus we get: 

1. Dialogue on rebirth (3:121) attached the pronouncement 

in verse 3 

2. Speech of John the Baptist (3:25-36) annexed to incident 

of John and his disciples 

3. Dialogue on the water of life (4:9-15) and worship in the 

Messianic age (4:2026), together with dialogue with 
the disciples on the Christian mission (4:3538), annexed 
to the Samaritan woman 

4. Debate on Jesus' authority (5:17-47), annexed to the sign 

of the pool of Bethesda 

5. Discourse and interpolated dialogue on the bread of life 

(6:31-65), annexed to the feeding of the five thousand 

6. Discourse on Messiahship (7:16-52; 8:12-59), annexed to 

feast of the tabernacles 

7. Trial scene, a dialogue annexed to the healing of the 

blind man at Siloam, and expressing theme of judgment 

8. Discourse on Good Shepherd, no narrative setting (10) 

9. Dialogue in the Lazarus episode (11) 

10. Dialogue on necessity of passion, annexed to the Greeks at 

the feast (12:3-36) 

11. Concluding summary of teaching in the Book of Signs 


Such an analysis shows how imperfectly the plan of this part of the 
gospel is carried out. One would expect an orderly succession of 

350 The Book of the Acts of God 

episodes with dialogues or discourses attached. Instead, some episodes 
have a minimum of interpretative addition, others have an excess 
(e.g., Chapters 7-8) and one discourse floats in mid-air without an 
episode of its own. It is not surprising that many have undertaken 
extensive rearrangements of the text But there are as many proposals 
for such rearrangement as there are advocates, and an objective test 
for them has as yet to be offered. So it is best to assume that the 
gospel is in an unfinished state, the result perhaps of gradual compo- 
sition over a number of years, and broken off possibly by old age or 
death, and given out to the world by the author's disciples in the 
final shape it had reached (21:24). 

Is there any progression of thought in the discourses? To some 
extent there is, though we must avoid imposing a pattern of our own 
on an ostensibly unfinished work. After the first and introductory 
chapter there follows a series of events and discourses intended to 
outline in advance the significance of Jesus' finished work. Thus 
Cana of Galilee indicates that the old Jewish order of purifying is 
to be replaced by the new and final purification. Then comes the 
cleansing of the temple: the old order of purification replaced, there 
will follow a new order of worship, in which the temple at Jerusalem 
is replaced by the temple of Christ's body. In Chapter 3 entrance to 
this new order is secured by a rebirth or birth from above through 
the Spirit. This introduces one of the salient themes or plots of the 
gospel, the process by which the new order of the Spirit is made 
available to the new community. Jesus himself is first endowed with 
a plenary inspiration of this Spirit (1:23 1; 3:34), Men require to 
be initiated into this life in the Spirit by a rebirth from God (3:8), 
but the Spirit is "not yet," not until after Jesus has performed the 
decisive event by which it is released, i.e., his death, by which he is 
glorified (7:39). Later, and only in the context of the impending 
passion, does Jesus speak at length of the Spirit which the Father 
will send as a consequence of his own "going away," that is to say 
once more, his death. Then, when that decisive event has been 
accomplished, the risen Christ breathes the Spirit into his own 
(20:22) to fulfill the mission of the Paraclete a& outlined in the 
farewell discourses. 

In Chapter 4 further light is thrown on the new order to be consti- 
tuted by Christ's work of revelation and redemption. The new temple 
having been established, there win be a new order of worship, "in 

The Johanrdne Literature 351 

spirit and in truth." This does not simply mean that the Church's 
worship will be one of sincerity of heart and consequent independence 
of set forms. It means, rather, worship offered to God in and through 
the event of Jesus Christ, who is himself the truth, i,e,, the faithfulness 
of God to his redemptive purpose, and who by the event releases the 
"Spirit," not the spirit of man, but the extension of the redemptive 
work of Christ. 

The dominant theme of the discourse in Chapter 5 is the new 
life to which men are to be raised by the saving death of Christ. The 
healing at Siloam had taken place on the Sabbath day, which was 
the type of the "rest that remaineth to the people of God" in the age 
to come. This chapter is also important because It exhibits the future 
quality of the new life: it is not a timeless, mystical state, but a 
present anticipation of a life which will be fully realized at the final 

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all 
that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; 
they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and 
they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. 
5:23 f. 

So far from being a crude survival of primitive teaching about the 
end, it is such verses as these which give point to the other, more 
spiritualized teaching about the realization of the end already here 
and now. The same tension between the "already" and the "not yet" 
is exhibited in the next chapter, 6. This resumes the theme of wor- 
ship in the new age. In this worship there is, if it is offered in 
spirit and in truth, a feeding on the bread of life, typified by the 
manna of the exodus. The living bread is the person and event of 
Christ. It is by constantly assimilating this person and event that 
men and women enjoy already here and now that life of the age to 
come which will not be theirs in the fullest sense until the consum- 
mation. Hence the constant reiteration of "I will raise him up at the 
last day." This bread from heaven is now available because it is 
flesh and blood, which means the life of the Redeemer made available 
through Ms sacrifice. At first sigjht it looks as though there is a 
transition in verse 52 or 54 from purely spiritual language about the 
bread of heaven to the crude materialism of the flesh and blood. 
Some scholars have even gone so far as to suggest that the materialism 

352 The Book of the Acts of God 

is from the hand of an ecclesiastical redactor. It is not however a 
violent transition but a clearer definition of meaning. The movement 
from bread to flesh and blood is the same movement which we find 
in the other discourses which speak of a preliminary "not yet" which 
can only become an "already" in the event of the cross. The bread 
of heaven can only be made available if it be flesh and blood, that 
is to say, if it pass through sacrificial death. No doubt it is the sacra- 
mental usage which suggested the terminology, but the sacrament is 
not his immediate concern. Rather, it is the event of Jesus Christ in 
its totality, which includes not only the coming down of the bread 
from heaven (the incarnation), but also the flesh and blood (the 
sacrificial death). 

Chapter 7 has for its background the feast of the tabernacles. Many 
themes jostle one another in the discourse material. There is the theme 
of healing on the Sabbath, which is carried over from Chapter 5, and 
makes plausible though not imperative the rearrangement of these 
chapters in the order 5, 7, 6, (but see above, p. 350). There is the 
Christological theme of Jesus' origin, whether it be an observable 
historico-geographical origin in Bethlehem or a mysterious origin 
which can only be described as a "sending" from One who is above 
history and geography. This theme shows the evangelist's familiarity 
with Jewish speculations about the Messiah. There was a current 
notion that the Messiah was concealed somewhere on earth and that 
he would emerge from his hiding place only at the end. Then comes 
the theme most immediately suggested by the feast of tabernacles 
(verses 37 ff.), on the last day of which a libation was poured out in 
the temple. Jesus is made to declare himself, his person and history, 
which culminates in his death, as the source of the "Spirit," which the 
water used^in the ceremony suggests. The various themes in this 
chapter are drawn together by the overshadowing event of the cross, 
which here appears in twofold aspect: on the one hand it is the Jews' 
rejection of the Revealer, and on the other hand the event through 
which the saving revelation is to be made available to man. 

In Chapter 8 various themes again jostle one another. Like the 
previous chapter, it consists of discussions between Jesus and 
the Jews. As before, the cross dominates the discussion (verses 20- 
22; 28, 37, 40, 44). Again the Jews, in rejecting and killing the 
Revealer, are providing the occasion for the event which will be their 
judgment and the salvation of the believers. There is further discus- 

The Johannine Literature 353 

sion of the authority of Jesus, why his words and deeds are indeed 
the act of God. His words and deeds are this because they rest upon 
his sending from above (verse 23). This throws further light on the 
event of the cross; because it is the act of the Son's obedience to 
the mission of the Father it is the act of God himself. Finally, the 
paradoxical nature of the cross as the act of God is demonstrated 
by the discussion about Abraham, which leads to the tremendous 
pronouncement: "Before Abraham was, I am" (verse 58). The life 
and death of Jesus is the veritable act of God who was before all 
history, and particularly before the redemptive history of Israel. 

Chapter 9 presents Jesus as the light of the world. As such, he 
brings a crisis, a sifting among men: that they which see not might 
see; and that they which see might be made blind (verse 39). There 
is further discussion about the transcendent origin of the event and 
person of Jesus (verses 4, 17, 29-33, 36-38; 39). The shadow of 
the approaching passion lies less heavily over this chapter, but it is 
hinted at in the words: "As long as I am in the world, I am the light 
of the world.** He will be taken away, and because he will be taken 
away, he is the light of the world. And there is still the hostility of 
the Jews to remind us of the cross. 

Chapter 10 is chiefly about the good shepherd. It is important to 
realize that the good shepherd is what he is because he lays down 
his life for the sheep (verses 11, 15). Thus the image illuminates 
the meaning of the cross. Further, it speaks of other sheep who must 
be brought into the fold. Here is the first appearance of a theme which 
will reappear in Chapter 12 in the episode of the Greeks at the 
feast that the cross is to inaugurate the world-wide mission of 
the Church. During that mission there will be the constant danger 
of false teachers (we recall the situation of I John) to which the whole 
Johannine theology was developed as a response. The false teachers 
are such because they fail to relate thek converts to the event of 

Chapter 11 returns to the theme of the resurrection already intro- 
duced in Chapter 5. But it also rivets this theme more clearly to the 
cross. The raising of Lazarus itself provides the direct occasion for 
the Sanhedrin's decision to get rid of Jesus (the connection between 
the two is of course theological, not historical: the ultimate reason 
why the Jews condemned Jesus is because he came to bring redemp- 
tion) . This may be worse history than Mark's account, which makes 

354 The Book of the Acts of God 

the decision of the Sanhedrin consequent upon the cleansing of the 
temple, but it is profounder theology. 

Chapter 12 brings together three episodes which are designed to 
demonstrate the universality of the redemption inaugurated by the 
cross. At the anointing we are told that the house was filled with 
the odor of the ointment, symbolizing the filling of the world with the 
fragrance of the gospel (cf. II Corinthians 2:14-16). The triumphal 
entry is used to symbolize the universality of the response to the 
event of Jesus Christ. It evokes the scandalized comment of the 
Pharisees: "Behold, the whole world is gone after Mm." Finally, 
there is the scene of the Greeks at the feast, which culminates in the 
pronouncement: "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all 
men unto me" (verse 32), a typical Johannine double-entendre, 
referring both to his lifting up on the cross and his exaltation into 
heaven, which manifests the true significance of the cross. 

Thus the first part of the gospel is designed to offer, not so much 
a progression of thought, as a series of different approaches to the 
same topic, the event of the cross, illuminating it from many different 
angles. The ground of the evangelist's concern with this event is not 
simply that it occurred in past history, or even that he seeks to evoke 
an understanding of it considered as an event in past history. Rather, 
it is because the event of Jesus Christ is perpetually made a present 
reality in the life of the Church: in its preaching of the gospel mes- 
sage, in its administration of the two sacraments, in its conflict with 
false teaching, and in its witness to the truth. But the event thus 
perpetuated still awaits final consummation at the end. As the "not 
yet" of the ministry points to an "already" of the cross, so the cross 
inaugurates a new "not yet" which becomes an "already" only at 
the final consummation. 

6. The Farewell Discourses 

If the shadow of the cross looms large over the whole of 
the ministry up to Chapter 12, that is even truer of the next chapters, 
13-17. Here speaks, not the Jesus who will suffer, but the Christ who 
has suffered: "Be of good cheer, / have overcome the world." The 
Church has shown a true insight by using these chapters as the quarry 
for its liturgical gospels in the period between Easter and Pentecost. 
These discourses are notorious for the disorderly arrangement of 

The Johannine Literature 355 

the material. One theme after another (e.g., mutual indwelling, the 
Paraclete, and petitionary prayer) is introduced, dropped, and later 
resumed. Then there is the curious cry at the end of Chapter 14, 
"Arise, let us go hence," suggesting the conclusion of the discourse 
but followed by two further chapters of discourse covering much 
the same ground as before. Here is a wonderful opportunity for 
rearranging the text! It is more likely however that this is another 
sign of the unfinished state of the gospel. Chapter 14 and Chapters 
15 and 16 may represent two alternative drafts of the farewell 
discourse which the evangelist designed eventually to fuse together. 
Also we have to remember the mental processes of John. As the first 
epistle already shows, he tends to think round a subject. Instead of 
advancing in an orderly manner and building up an argument step 
by step, he takes up a theme, examines it from a number of different 
aspects, and returns to his starting point almost, but not quite, for 
there is a perceptible deepening of apprehension. It is a method of 
thinking which has aptly been described as "spiral." 

We have seen that the "ideal" pattern of the fourth gospel, though 
it is not consistently carried through, is that a sign or work of Jesus 
should be followed by a discourse or dialogue. This same pattern 
persists in the section we are now considering. For the farewell 
discourses are really an extended commentary on the foot washing. 1 
Like the other incidents, this episode is almost certainly derived from 
the tradition. Another version of the same tradition is to be found at 
Luke 22:24-27. In its original setting, as indicated by the Lukan 
version, as well as by the saying in John 13:14, it was intended as 
an example in humility directed against the strife of the disciples as 
to who should be the greatest. The fourth evangelist however has 
reinterpreted it as a sign of the event of redemption in its totality. 
He prefaces the narrative with the declaration: "Jesus, knowing that 
the Father had given all things into his hand, and that he was come 
from God and went to God . . ." It is to symbolize this coming from 
God and going to God that the foot washing is related. Jesus had 
come forth from God: he had divested himself of the glory which 
he had had with the Father before the world was made (17:5). So he 
lays aside his garments. But the incarnation does not exhaust the 

1 May it be that the discourse material in Chapters 13-14 was intended to go 
with the foot washing, while the alternative, Chapters 15-16, beginning as they 
do with the allegory of the vine, were intended to go with the narrative of the 
institution of the eucharist? 

356 The Book of the Acts oj God 

divine act: it is the prelude to an even greater self-emptying. So 
Jesus washes the disciples' feet, thus symbolizing the purification 
from sin which is to be wrought by the shedding of his blood. Then 
he resumes his garments and sits down again, thus symbolizing the 
resumption of his glory. The foot washing is the most perspicuous of 
all the signs, but, like them all, its meaning is not perceived until the 
event to which it points is accomplished: "What I do, thou knowest 
not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.'* The farewell discourses 
then follow as a disclosure, as it were, from the other side of the 

It is curious that St. John does not relate the institution of the 
eucharist There is no reason to attribute this to any anti- or non- 
sacramental tendency on his part. Rather, just as the transfiguration 
is, as it were, spread all over the earlier part of the ministry without 
being directly related, so the whole meaning of the institution is 
spread over Chapters 13-17. 2 For in the institution of the eucharist 
as related by the synoptists Jesus initiates his disciples into the 
meaning of his death: it wiU inaugurate the new covenant in the reign 
of God. John achieves the same purpose and achieves it more 
thoroughly by 4he discourses which follow the foot washing. 

Do the farewell discourses add anything new or represent any 
advance in thought? They are certainly not a mere repetition of what 
was said in Chapters 1-12. If the earlier part of the gospel represents 
the public proclamation of the event of redemption, the middle part, 
Chapters 13-17, disclose the inner meaning of that event in the life 
of the Church. Here the act of God in Christ is interpreted as the 
event which sets in motion a community marked by an intense 
common life of Christian love (13:3435). It is a life of mutual 
indwelling: the Father dwells in the Son and the Son in the Father; 
the disciples dwell in the Son and through dwelling in him dwell in the 
Father. This love and mutual indwelling however are not meant to 
be taken in a mystical sense. They are expressed in concrete 
obedience to the will of God. The Son dwells in the Father by laying 
down his life; the Christians manifest their indwelling in God through 
Christ by keeping the commandments of God (14:15; 15:10 ff,, 
etc.). Specifically, these commandments are that they should "bring 
forth fruit," that is, to bear witness to the act of God in Christ and 
secure the adhesion of converts to it, and that they should love one 
2 For another possibility, see above p. 355, footnote. 

The Johannine Literature 357 

another. In fulfillment of its mission, the Church will undergo perse- 
cution and suffering, being hated by the world like its Master 
(15:18-21; 16:1-3). Meanwhile, it will be necessary for the Church 
to "ask" for the divine assistance, and since such asking will be in 
the "name" of the Son, that is, linked to the execution of God's 
redemptive purpose, such prayers will be answered (14:13; 15:7; 
16:23, 30), In this connection, great prominence is given to the 
work of the Holy Spirit (14:16-18; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-10; 16:13- 
14) . First, we note that the mission of the Spirit is directly consequent 
upon the Son's "going to the Father.** It is the event of Ms exaltation, 
in the double Johannine sense of the word, which releases to the 
Church the gift of the Spirit. He is sent by the Son (16:7) or by 
the Father in the Son's name (14:26). Thus the Spirit is no inde- 
pendent religious phenomenon, but rigorously controlled by God's 
act in Christ, perpetuating that act in the Church's witness to it 
(15:16; 16:8-11) and in its inner apprehension of its meaning, and 
bringing to remembrance the words of Jesus (16:13-14). The fourth 
gospel itself is a product of the Spirit's work: the words of Jesus are 
brought to remembrance and their deeper meaning disclosed (16:12), 
the deeper meaning which could not be apprehended until the event 
itself had fully occurred. But such knowledge is never an addition 
to the original revelation: "he will take of mine and shew it unto 
you." The Spirit will also disclose the 'things to come," such as we 
find in the Apocalypse, a further indication that the Apocalypse 
belongs to the same school as the gospel. 

The question naturally arises: what has become of the return of 
Christ at the end of the world? It seems to have been dissolved 
completely in the resurrection appearances ("I will see you again," 
16:22) and in the coming of the Paraclete ("I will come unto you" 
in 14:18b is almost synonymous with "he shall give you another 
Comforter" in verse 16). Moreover, this coming of the Comforter 
will "abide" with the disciples "forever" (14:16). It would however 
be wrong to conclude that the whole idea of the second coming is 
eliminated As elsewhere in the New Testament there is a tension 
in the function of the Spirit On the one hand he points back to the 
decisive event of Jesus Christ On the other hand he also points 
forward to the "things to come." As the Apocalypse shows, the 
"things to come" are none other than the final consummation. This 
aspect of the "not yet" is more clearly expressed in the high priestly 

358 The Book of the Acts of God 

prayer which contemplates the final union of Christ with his own 
in heaven after the period of their witness on earth: 

Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be 
with me where I am; that they may behold my glory which thou 
hast given me. 17:24 

This expresses the same hope which St. Paul has expressed in the 
cruder traditional language in I Thessalonians 4:16. John has "de~ 
mythologized" the second coming; but he has not eliminated what it 
stands for, he has interpreted it. He thus preserves the authentic 
New Testament tension between the "already" and the "not yet." 

7. The Passion Narrative 

In Chapter 18 the evangelist embarks upon the narration 
of the passion. John's version, while often parallel to the Markan and 
particularly to the special Lukan versions, is actually dependent upon 
a special tradition of its own, which enables us to correct or supple- 
ment the other accounts at a number of points. Thus the passion takes 
place one day before the Passover. The examination before Annas 
is a plausible correction, for it was more likely a preliminary exam- 
ination than a trial, and we know from Josephus that he was at that 
time the power behind the high priestly throne. The dialogue with 
Pilate about Jesus' kingship is plausible, apart from the introduction 
of the specifically Johannine motif of witness to the truth. The 
episode of the Mother of the Lord, the breaking of the legs of the 
two thieves, and the incident of the water and the blood appear to 
rest on tradition, rather than upon deliberately concocted symbolism. 
For the most part, the evangelist is content to let the narrative 
speak for itself. Only at one or two points does he venture to offer 
distinctive theological comment, the definition of Jesus' kingship in 
terms of witness to the truth and the cry, "It is finished." These two 
insertions serve to tie up the passion narrative with the preceding 
discourse material. The discourses had exhibited Jesus as the truth 
of God. But what is truth? It is not a series of propositions about God 
or the heavenly world. It is the faithfulness of God to Ms redemptive 
purpose, and is disclosed in the giving up of his Son to the cross. 
"It is finished" proclaims that the redemptive event, foreshadowed 
and interpreted in the earlier part of the gospel, has now been 

The Johannine Literature 359 

8, The Resurrection 

Since the death of Jesus Is itself the ^orifying and exalta- 
tion of the Redeemer, and the going of the Son to the Father, it has 
been felt that there is no logical place for the resurrection narratives 
and that they are merely a concession to tradition. But this is a 
complete misconception. So far from being otiose, the resurrection 
appearances are intended precisely to reveal the meaning of the 
cross, to exhibit it as the lifting up of Jesus, his going to the Father, 
and Ms glorifying. The cross is not visible as such apart from the 
revelation conveyed in the Easter event. It is the Easter event which 
discloses the true significance of the cross, and it is only in the light 
of the Easter event that the words and deeds of Jesus are perceived 
in their true meaning. Hence the constant reiteration throughout the 
gospel of the fact that the apostolic apprehension of their meaning 
was "not yet," a "not yet" which becomes an "already" only at the 
resurrection (1:51; 2:22; 3:12; 12:16). Hence, too, the various 
sayings about the Paraclete, who will come only after the resurrection 
to recall what Jesus has said and done and to disclose its meaning. 

Thus all the words and works of Jesus as recorded in the fourth 
gospel presuppose the revelation contained in the resurrection. With- 
out it there would be no fourth gospel, just as there would be no 
synoptic gospels either. Only so could the Church proclaim that Jesus 
was the Christ, the Son of God, that, believing, men migftt have life 
in his name. 


Epilogue: The Unity of the 
New Testament 

THAT THE twenty-seven books of the New Testament 
exhibit a considerable variety, no one will deny. But it is equally 
important, as we have seen, to appreciate their underlying unity. For 
it is precisely in its unity that the authority of the New Testament 
lies. That unity lies in its testimony to Jz$jis^Om$t^m whom God 
wrought the decisive act of redemption which the Church now enjoys, 
and to whose completion it looks forward in the final consummation. 
And it is this testimony to that act which is preserved for the Church 
in the New Testament and which thus becomes the touchstone and 
source of its preaching. In all twenty-seven books the one event 
shines forth in its kaleidoscopic impact upon the Church of the 
apostolic age. All the New Testament documents witness to that act 
as the inauguration of the process of redemption, but all of them 
equally, bear witness to the "not yet" it still awaits its ultimate 
consummation. It is the faithful preservation of this witness in tension 
that gives the New Testament both its unity and its apostolic author- 
ity. In some writings more emphasis is placed on the "already." That 
is pre-eminently the case with the fourth gospel. In others the 
primary emphasis is on the "not yet." That is notably the case with 
the earlier Pauline writings and the Apocalypse. But never unless 
we are prepared to resort to the butcher's knife and postulate the 
nefarious hand of an ecclesiastical redactor do we find the tension 
completely eliminated in favor of either side. It is surely significant, 
too, that the two extremes appear either in the same author (St. 
Paul) or in the same school (the Johannine literature). There was a 
faith once delivered to the saints, the faith in Jesus Christ who came 
and will come: Jesus, in whom we have salvation already, and in 
whom our salvation will be consummated. 


Index of Biblical References 


9:20, 21 



















































56, 57-60 





2:16, 17, 

18, 23 58 


66, 69 y 74 









3:6, 7 






3:7, 21 






3:14, 15 









42, 75, 89 




61, 63 


70-71, 76 















4:23, 24 



71, 72, 75, 89 







14:4, 18 






















25:12, 19 


























17:2, 3 




Index of Biblical References 














75, 86, 87 



24:6, 10 



















79, 101 

II Samuel 





1:17 ff. 






3:6 ff. 












7:14 114, 






11-12 114, 115, 














I Kings 























4:29-34 177-78 











8 121, 







31:15 ff. 




8:10-13, 30 










78, 145 



16:28-11 Kings 




17-11 Kings 11 
















21 114, 










II Kings 







I Samuel 

14:25, 28 


















Index of Biblical References 


(II Kings) 







127, 149 

12:2, 5 



181, 290 



















I Gimmicks 






10 ff. 









II C&ronicles 


116, 173 















172, 173 





1:16-17, 19- 
































7:14, 25 




9:2, 6 









10:5 ff. 






























40:12 ff. 




40:22-23, 25 


110:1, 4 
















Index of Biblical References 




















45:1 ff. 








14:14, 20 











5$ 166-67, 216, 


44:4 ff. 






































5:30-31 156-57 






















3:1 ff. 






7:15 ff. 








7:25 f. 









2:12-14, 28-29 






9:15 f. 






















37:11 ff. 












38:14 ff. 




51:23, 25 


Index of Biblical References 




165, 277 



28:19 f. 




















243 f 261 













I Maccabees 



13:28 f. 










2:23 ff. 









243 } 284 













16:23 f. 




18:9 ff. 




19:1 ff. 












8 2 







24:47 f . 













260, 268 


253, 261 


344 , 359 




















4:18 L 

















Index of Biblical 




349, 353 














































































205, 268 







5:6 344-45 







14:16-18, 18b, 

26 357 









5:28 f . 


15:10 ff. 






15:16, 18-21, 26 357 











16:1-3, 7-10, 

8- 357 





11, 12, 13-14, 



6:52, 54 


22, 23, 30 









7 348, 












7:37 ff. 










8 348, 





8:20-22, 28, 37, 




1:18 ff. 


40, 44 





8:23, 58 


20:22 f . 
















9:4, 17, 29-33, 






36-38, 39 












10:11, 15 




4:3, 9, 22 


10:22-23, 40-42 






Index of Biblical References 




311 ] 


















4:4 273, 





266, 311 






















6:5 L 



279, 310 
233, 234 


5:2 275, 





277, 310 






8:15, 17 
8:18 f. 

300, 302 

15:45, 47 ff. 
16:15 f. 

267, 278 

1:21 316, 




10:2 f. 





II Corinthians 



















2:15, 18 






1 Corinthians 









I Thessalonians 












96, 275 








1:15 f. 


II Timothy 











10:16 . 






10:16-17, 21 













Index of Biblical References 


I Peter 

14 f. 




1:1 1 






329, 330 

I John 



1:15 ., 18, 22, 

23 330 

















2:2, 5, 9, 10 


9:12, 28 


2:11, 13 


10:5-10, 12 





10:10, 12 










13:7, 17, 22, 

23 319 











II Peter 





1:1, 16-18 






5:9-10, 12, 

13b 336 








1:2, 18 











4, 8, 10, 12, 12 f., 332 





16, 18 ff., 24- 







267 f 278 

Index of Names 

Aaron, 80, 141 

Abel, 64 

Abner, 115 

Abraham, 39, 41, 55, 66-67, 68-76, 

Absalom, 175 
Achan, 107 
Adam, 55, 54, SOI 
Agur, 178 

Ahab, 114, 119, 123 ff. 142 
Ahaz, 114 
Ai, 104-5 

Alexandra. See Salome 
Amenemope, Wisdom of, 179 
Amos, 119, 127, 143 E, 168 
Ananias, 31, 267 
Anath, 30 
Anathoth, 159 
Antioch, 110,269 
Antiochus Epiphanes, 192 
Antiochus the Great, 204 
Antipas, 202-3, 227 
Antipater, 202 
Apsu, 55 

Arameans, 66, 108 
Archelaus, 202-3 
Areopagus, 271 
Aristobulus, 201 
Ashtoreth, 30 
Athanasius, 48 

Athens, 271 

Baal, 30, 55, 125 
Balaam, 40, 87 
Bar Cochba, 214 
Barth, Karl, 257, 288 
Baruch, 158, 211 
Bathsheba, 114, 115 
Bedouins, 79 
Bethel, 104-5, 143 
Bethel, Little, 16 
Beth ha-midrash, 207 
Bildad, 185 
Book of Signs, 348 
Brunner, Emil, 34 
Burrows, Millar, 215 

Caesarea Philippi, 214, 247, 254, 255, 


Gain, 64, 65 

Canaan, 20, 21, 24, 55, 103 ff. 
Canon, 39 
Celsus, 73 
Charles, R. BL, 210 
Chasidim, 201 

Chronicler, the, 43> 44, 131 ff. 
Constantine, 277 
Cross, Frank M., Jr., 18, 215 
Cyrus the Persian, 165-66 



Damascus, 31, 124 

Daniel, 44 

Darwin, Charles, 30 

David, 19, 20, 21, 24, 41, 42, 84, 88, 

104, 111, 112, 173 
Dead Sea Scrolls, 17, 44-45, 148, 193, 

215, 342-43 
Debir, 104 
Deborah, 40 
Didache, 270, 277 
Docetists, 345 

Ebal Mountains, 102 

Ebenezer, 112 

Eden, 58, 59 

Edom, 104, 167 

Eli, 157 

Eliezer o Damascus, 67 

Elihu, 183 

Elijah, 80, 114, 124 ff., 142 

Eliphaz, 184 

Elisha, 80,124&, 142 

Elohist, 42 

Enlil, 30 

Ephesus, 334 

Epiphanius, 341 

Esau, 53, 294 

Essenes, 192, 194, 210, 213 

"E" stratum, 42 

Eve, 53, 54 

Ezra, 92 

Frank, Erich, 35 n. 

Gad, 212 
Galilee, 104 
Gamaliel, 288 
Gerizim Mountains, 102 
Gibeon, 105 
Gideon, 107 
Gorner, 148 

Index of Names 

Habakkuk, 154 

Hagar, 71, 288 

Haggai, 134, 167 

Hammurabi, 92 

Hamrath, 124 

Haran, 66, 67, 129 

Hazar, 104, 105 

Hebron, 105 

Herod the Great, 23, 201, 202 

Hezekiah, King, 127-29, 132, 149, 

157, 178 

Hiram, King, 83, 121 
Hiroshima, 109 
Hunter, A. M., 233 
Hyrcanus, John, 201 
Hyrcanus II, 201 

Iddo, 132 
Idumea, 201 
Iran, 129 
Irenaeus, 341 
Isaac, 53, 66, 68, 294 
Isaiah, 128, 132, 143 
Ishmael, 53, 294 
Ishtar, 30 
Issachar, 212 

"J," 41 

Jacob, 40, 53, 66, 67, 76, 83, 88, 294 

Jairus, 281 

James, 227 

Jannaeus, 201 

"JE," 42, 44 

Jehoiachin, King, 160 

Jehoiakim, 114 

Jehu, 126, 127, 132 

Jereboam, 123 

Jereboam II, 143, 168 

Jeremiah, 129-30, 153 

Jeremias, Joachim, 261 

Jericho, 104-5 

Jerusalem, 87, 104, 130, 204 ff. 

Index oj Names 

Jezebel, 119, 123fL, 142 

Joab, 115 

Job, 14, 31, 183, 186 

John Mark, See Mark 

John the Baptist, 170, 213, 217, 227, 


John the Elder, 839 
Jonah, 168-70 
Jonathan, 84, 114 
Joseph, 67, 69, 76, 212 
Josephus, 25, 201, 206, 213, 226 E 
Joshua, 39, 43, 85 
Josiah, King, 100, 128-29, 153, 157 
Judas the Gaulanite, 214 
Jude, 48 
Jung Codex, 342 

Kadesh-Barnea, 86, 87 
Khirbet Qumran, 44 

Laban, 67, 83, 88 
Lamech, 64, 65 
Lemuel, King, 178 
Leontopolis, 200 
Levi, 79, 132 
Leviathan, 55, 187 
Lot, 70 

Luther, Martin, 154 
Lydia, 204 

Maccabeus, Jonathan, 199 
Maccabeus, Judas, 199 
Maccabeus, Simon, 199 
Machaerus, 227 
Manson, William, 248-49 
Marduk, 55 
Mariamne, 202 
Medes, 129 
Megiddo, 122, 129 
Mencken, H. L., 15 
Mendenhall, George E., 89-91 
Merneptah, Pharoah, 104 


Mishnah, 206 
Moab, 87, 104 
Moses, 31, 40, 41, 79, 80, 96-97, 

99 E, 211, 294 
Mount Carmel, 126 
Mount Horeb. See Mount Sinai 
Mount Sinai, 20, 39, 86, 96, 100 

Naboth, 114, 126 
Nahum, 153 
Nathan, 114 

Nebuchadnezzar, 130, 134, 158 
Necho, Pharoah, 129 
Nehemiah, 44, 133E 
Newbigin, Lesslie, 288 
Ninevah, 129, 169 
Noah, 53, 64 

Obadiah, 167 
Odes o Solomon, 342 
Omri, 124 iff, 
Origen, 224 

Paley, 244 

Paul, 34-35, 47, 63, 71, 72, 96, 224, 

288 ff. 
Peter, 260 ff. See also Caesarea 


Pharisees, 201, 213 
Philip, 202 
Philistines, 111 
Philo, 213, 223-26 
Phoenicians, 109 
Phrygia, 204 
Pisidia, 111 
Plato, 40 

Pliny the Elder, 213 
Pompey, 201-2, 204 
Pontius Pilate, 23, 203 

"Q," 47, 238 
Qarqar, 124 


Qumran, 45, 46, 210. See also Dead 
Sea Scrolls 

Rachel, 67 

Sadducees, 20 

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 279 

St. Thomas Aquinas, 35 

Salome, 201 

Samaria, 124, 201 

Samuel, 157 

Sanhedrin, 205 

Sapphira, 267 

Sarah, 67, 71-72 

Satan, 182 ff. 

Saul, King, 84, 111, 112 

Schweitzer, Dr. Albert, 244, 288 

Semites, 53, 66 

Shalmaneser, 125 

Shear-jashub, 152 

Sheba, Queen of, 120 

Shecham, 100, 102, 105, 106 

Shem, 66 

Shemaiah, 132 

Shiloh, 106, 111, 157 

Sidon, 108, 124 

Simeon, 283-84 

Sirach, 207-8 

Smith, William Robertson, 75 

Solomon, 41, 42, 83, 112, 116-17, 

119, 120 ff., 177-78 
Sophia, 225 
"Star," the, 214 
Stephen, 268 
Strabo, 204 

Index of Names 

Tacitus, 25 

Talmud, 138, 196 

Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, 

210 ff., 343 
Thebes, 79 
Tiamat, 55 
Torah, 136, 207-8 
"Tubingen" School, 289 
Tyre, 108 

Uriah, 115 
Uzziah, King, 132 

Wadi Murabba'at, 193 
Wesley, Charles, 324 
Williams, Albert N., 29 
Wilson, Edmund, 17 
Wisdom of Sirach, 207-8 

Xerxes, King, 192-96 

Yahweh, 41 
Yahwist, the, 41, 42 
Yehud, 133 

Zadokite Work, 214 
Zealots, 213-14 
Zechariah, 134, 167 
Zedekiah, 114, 159 
Zephaniah, 153 ff. 
Zerubbabel, 117, 134, 167-68 
Ziggurat, 64 
Zophar, 184, 185 

1 32 092