Where the world comes to study the Bible

A Review of “Some Observations on the Text-Critical Function of the Umlauts in Vaticanus, with Special Attention to 1 Corinthians 14.34-35,”

Related Media

above article by J. Edward Miller, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (2003) 217-36.

In 1995, New Testament Studies published a provocative piece by Philip Payne entitled, “Fuldensis, Sigla for Variants in Vaticanus, and 1 Cor. 14.34-5” in which the author argued that, in codex Vaticanus, a particular siglum indicated knowledge of textual variants by the scribe. That siglum was a horizontal bar in the margin of the text with two dots above it, which Payne coined as the “bar-umlaut” (an unfortunate term but one which has stuck due to this article). The article made quite a splash for it suggested that this famous fourth-century manuscript indirectly commented on dozens of textual variants known at that time, and thus that it contained valuable information about the state of the text of the New Testament in the fourth century. Payne took this one step further: he noted that the “bar-umlaut” at the line above 1 Cor 14.34-35 indicated that the scribe was aware that these verses were textually suspect. To Payne, this was a sufficient external basis to argue that, even though these two verses are found in all relevant extant manuscripts (though the Western witnesses place them after v. 40), they should probably be athetized.

This controversial conclusion led to a spate of responses—both pro and con—as well as a reexamination of codex Vaticanus (a.k.a. codex B).

The most thorough examination of Payne’s thesis, as well as an even bolder interpretation of the data, is Miller’s JSNT article. Inter alia, Miller argues “for the disjunction of the bar and the umlaut sigla by demonstrating their mutually exclusive functions: the bar is a section marker and the umlaut is a text-critical indicator” (219). What is remarkable about this conclusion is that instead of just a few dozen text-critical indicators in Vaticanus, Miller believes there are over 750 such indicators! If he is right, then Vaticanus is, in Miller’s words, “an early UBS text!” (219, n. 6) for it has about half as many text-critical notations as the modern UBS Greek New Testament, and more by far than any other ancient source, be it manuscript or father.

Miller demonstrates his point via four routes. (1) Old Testament “umlauts” are normally next to lines which modern texts of the LXX reveal as having textual variation (though Miller does not tell us which critical texts he is using). (2) Statistical probability in Matthew, used as a randomly selected control group, demonstrates that 59% of the “umlaut” lines correspond to variants listed in Nestle-Aland27 while the unmarked lines corresponded to variants only 27% of the time.1 In other words, the “umlaut” lines were more than twice as likely as unmarked lines to find textual variants in NA27. (3) Parallel passages provide significant evidence that the “umlauts” are indeed text-critical markers. For example, at Luke 10.1 and 10.17 B has ἑβδομήκοντα δύο while other witnesses have ἑβδομήκοντα. At both lines the “umlaut” appears, yet it does not appear in the seventy-eight intervening lines. As Miller notes, this is “convincing evidence that the scribe was employing the umlaut for text-critical purposes.” (4) Finally, Miller compares the “umlauts” in B against known textual variants. Although this method involves several shortcomings (as Miller notes), it is helpful to confirm that the “umlaut” in B does indeed indicate textual variation. The “umlaut” is found next to lines that involve well-known variants in Matt 5.22; Mark 1.2; John 7.39; 1 Thess 1.1; 2.7; etc. In sum, the evidence provided by these four tests “demonstrates that the hundreds of umlauts in the New Testament portion of Vaticanus were intended to signal the reader to textually uncertain lines. Furthermore, there is no so-called ‘bar-umlaut’ siglum. Rather, instances where the bar and umlaut accompany the same line of text are best regarded as coincidental” (231-2).

This is a remarkable and ably defended conclusion. By examining the data from four different angles, Miller has shown that, in all probability, codex B contains over 750 text-critical notations. These lines in Vaticanus now will need to be examined for what they might tell us about the state of the text in the fourth century.

Miller then revisits 1 Cor 14.34-35. He argues against Payne’s view that the siglum was placed beside the line preceding a multi-line variant. Instead, Miller argues, the “umlaut” was placed next to the line in which a variant was known to exist, regardless of whether that variant was a single word or several lines. Miller demonstrates this with illustrations from John 12.7; 16.14-15; Rom 11.6; and Jude 22-23, among others. He notes that “It is unlikely that the scribe would abandon this habit only in the case of 1 Cor. 14.34-35” (233). Payne’s lone example, apart from the siglum preceding 1 Cor 14.34-35, is in John 7.52. Payne argues that the scribe was aware of the Pericope Adulterae, yet an ancient variant (listed in Tischendorf’s 8th edition but not in NA27) occurs in the same line of John 7.52, involving a change from εγειρεται to εγηγερται. In light of this consistent practice in B, the “umlaut” at 1 Cor 14.33 does not indicate any knowledge of a variant in vv. 34-35.

Miller’s article involves an examination of the data that were neglected in Payne’s study. As such, his conclusions rest on a much more certain basis. I found his analysis sober minded and his arguments compelling. In the least, Miller’s study provides four important conclusions: (1) hundreds of text-critical decisions (not just dozens) made by an early professional scribe are accessible to scholarly examination, which gives us a unique window on the principles employed by this scribe. (2) Since many of these variants are found today only in later manuscripts, Miller believes they “can now be dated to the early-fourth century with some measure of confidence” (235). One issue not resolved by the study, however, is which variant is in view by the use of the “umlauts.” For example, if two variants show up in NA27’s apparatus for an “umlaut” line, which is in view? Further, even if only one variant showed up in the apparatus, how can we be sure that that variant is what B’s scribe had in mind? That this second problem is not just theoretical is confirmed by Miller’s third conclusion: (3) “[F]or those marked lines failing to yield extant variants, New Testament scholars must acknowledge the likelihood that some variants known to exist in the early-fourth century have been lost” (ibid.). (4) Ironically, though this same point was Payne’s argument with reference to 1 Cor 14.34-35, Miller has shown that although now-lost variants are noted hundreds of times in Vaticanus, the athetization of 1 Cor 14.34-35 is not among them.

Miller’s study may well mark a bold new chapter in textual research. Codex B needs to be reexamined for the rich data that it contains. Further, textual critics may wish to revisit scores of other ancient witnesses to see if they use a similar device to note textual variation. To date, only Vaticanus is known to have text-critical notations by the first hand. But few manuscripts have been examined with this objective in mind. Further, there are numerous unexplained sigla in the manuscripts of the New Testament. Perhaps among them are a few text-critical notations.

Several questions remain, however. For example, on what basis did this scribe note various variants? Were they simply those known to him or were they serious alternatives in his mind? What kinds of variants in terms of textual affinities are hinted at by the “umlauts”? That there are 140 such sigla in Acts may suggest that the Western readings were known to the scribe of B but rejected by him. But what other text-types can be postulated as underlying the variants that the scribe notes? Is he aware of any variants that show up only in the later Byzantine text for example? Finally, what does B say about several substantial and well-known variants? Does it place a siglum next to Mark 16.8 or John 5.3, for example? On this issue, I checked a handful of places (in a rather non-systematic investigation) in the recently published magisterial Vaticanus facsimile to see whether any “umlauts” appeared next to the line of several disputed texts. The results are tabulated below.

The first group of passages involve additional material that is not found in Vaticanus. Miller notes that “The Vaticanus scribe consistently places the umlaut next to the line supplying the beginning of a questionable reading, whether long or short (and whether the text is included in or omitted from Vaticanus)” (232). In other words, those doubtful passages lacking in B but known to this scribe are indicated by an “umlaut” next to the line in which said variant would have begun had the reading been in B.

There is no “umlaut” at the end of Mark 16.8 to indicate any of the longer endings, nor at Luke 23.34a to indicate recognition of the cry on the cross (“Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing”). John 3.13 has no “umlaut” where the wording “who is in heaven” would have gone. Likewise, John 5.3b-4 (lacking in B) has no “umlaut” where this text would have gone; so also Rom 8.1 (where later manuscripts have “who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”). In Eph 1.15, B lacks the wording “the love toward all the saints” as well as any siglum to indicate this variant. (Here, most scholars would assume that B erred via haplography, which would preclude the scribe’s knowledge of any variants because the shorter reading would have been an oversight. But that the shorter reading is in error is not a settled conclusion. Had there been an “umlaut” in the margin here, however, it would perhaps strengthen the case that B’s reading was intentional.) Miller notes a few places in B where the scribe seems to indicate additional material, but the above-mentioned passages are not among them.

Turning to variants which do not involve omissions in B, note the following. In John 5.2, the line which reads βραιστι βηθσαιδα πεν has an “umlaut” in the margin. Most likely, this is to indicate that βηθσαιδα is in doubt (NA27 prints βηθζαθα as the original reading here). In Rom 5.1 no “umlaut” appears next to the εχωμεν, a reading that was changed by a later hand to the indicative εχομεν. I, for one, had hoped for the “umlaut” here since I strongly suspect that the indicative is authentic. The benediction in Rom 16.25-26 (which is also found in some witnesses at the end of chapter 14 or chapter 15) is “umlaut” free—both here and at 14.23 and 15.33 (the other two locations where it is found in the witnesses). The second line for 1 Thess 1.7 (υμας τυπον πασιν) has a siglum, which most likely indicates knowledge of the variant τυπους.

The lack of “umlauts” noted in our brief non-systematic study might not tell us much (but the presence of them in at least two of the passages certainly does). Too many questions still need to be answered before we can make any firm conclusions from an argument from silence. But Miller’s study has provided the stimulus for our thinking, offering a new way to read this magnificent codex.

In sum, Miller’s study is a refreshing piece that takes Payne’s original insights one step further. In so doing, it may well become the catalyst for several other studies that unlock some of the treasures hidden for centuries in this most precious copy of the scriptures.

1 Miller critiqued Payne’s similar approach in which he looked at the “bar-umlaut” in relation to textual variation (p. 226, n. 29). In essence, Payne did not look at a control group which meant that the results of his study were not falsifiable.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism

The Translation of 2 Peter 1:19a

February 28, 2004

Various translations have taken a different tack on predicate accusative bebaiovteron in 2 Peter 1:19. Much hinges on the interpretation of this adjective. Consider the following translations (the rendering of bebaiovteron is in italics each time):

KJV: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts.”

NIV: “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

RSV: “And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” The ASV and NASB are similar.

NRSV: “So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

ESV: “And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

NAB: “Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

NET: “Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The translations above can be broken down into three different broad groups: (1) those that take the adjective as an attributive adjective modifying toVn profhtikoVn lovgon (so KJV); (2) those that take it as appositional to toVn profhtikoVn lovgon (so ESV); (3) those that regard it as a predicate adjective (NIV, RSV, NRSV, ASV, NASB, NAB, and NET). Within this third group there are differences which we will come to shortly. For now, the first two views need to be addressed. Taking the adjective as an attributive is virtually impossible since it stands outside the article-noun group. The construction is e[comen bebaiovteron toVn profhtikoVn lovgon. In such a construction, the adjective needs to be taken as predicate or perhaps as substantival (and thus appositional). To be sure, there are a few places in the NT in which an adjective stands in predicate position but has an attributive relation to the noun, but these are few and far between. There are no more than half a dozen of them.1 And when the text makes good sense taking the adjective as a predicate, there is no need to resort to seeing as an attributive. That is the case in 2 Peter 1:19. The KJV translation thus is in error here, as is often the case when the underlying Greek text involves the article.2

But what about the ESV? Perhaps the translators were truly seeing bebaiovteron as a predicate adjective; the resultant difference in sense between “we have the prophetic word as something more sure” and “we have something more sure, the prophetic word” is minimal. But it is somewhat surprising that a translation which is very much on the more literal side of the spectrum is here so loose when a more literal rendering is perfectly acceptable in English and indeed is an improvement stylistically! If the ESV translators regard bebaiovteron as appositional, then it seems that they have erred in two ways: first, as an adjective one would expect it to function in its typical adjectival capacity unless there is contextual or lexical warrant for taking it otherwise;3 second, as a substantival adjective here, one would expect it to have the article with it. In light of these considerations, the ESV translation must also be rendered less than satisfactory here.

Almost all other translations regard the comparative adjective bebaiovteron as the complement to the object toVn profhtikoVn lovgon (or more broadly as a predicate adjective to toVn profhtikoVn lovgon). This leaves us with two options (at least as far as modern English translations are concerned): “we have the prophetic word made more sure” or “we have the prophetic word as a more certain [thing].” The RSV, ASV, NASB, NIV, and NRSV opt for the former option while the NAB and NET opt for the latter. One of the fundamental points we wish to raise in this brief essay is that the rendering “we have the prophetic word made more sure” is unlikely from a grammatical standpoint.

The construction almost surely has the force “The prophetic word is (more certain/altogether certain)—and this is something that we all have.” The translation, which many scholars4 prefer, “we have the prophetic word made more sure,” is unparalleled in object-complement constructions. When the construction has this force, poievw is present (as in 2 Pet 1:10 [spoudavsate bebaivan uJmw'n thVn klh'sin kaiV ejkloghVn poiei'sqai]). That so many translations render this verse as though it meant ‘made more sure’ is remarkable.

Exegetically, what is at stake is the following: (1) If we render the clause as ‘the prophetic word made more sure’ then Peter is saying that the OT is verified and certified by the NT apostles’ experience. In one respect, this would mean that Peter would regard his own experience as more authoritative than the OT. (2) If we render the clause as ‘the prophetic word is more sure’ (which is certainly more plausible grammatically), then this would be saying that the OT was a more reliable guide to truth than Peter’s experiences, including his experience of the Transfiguration. (3) If we render the clause as ‘the prophetic word is thoroughly reliable’ then no comparison is being made between the OT and the apostles’ experiences. This, too, is grammatically more plausible than the first option.

The meaning, as construed in the NET and NAB, is that the OT that these believers had in their hands was a thoroughly reliable guide. Whether it was more certain than was even Peter’s experience on the Mount of Transfiguration depends on whether the adjective should be taken as a true comparative (“more certain”) or as an elative (“very certain, altogether certain”).

Some would categorically object to any experience functioning as a confirmation of the scriptures and hence would tend to give the adjective a comparative force, with the ‘prophetic word’ being the greater authority over the apostolic experience: “we have the prophetic word as [that which is] more reliable [than our own experience].” Yet Peter labors to show that his gospel is trustworthy precisely because he was an eyewitness of this great event. Further, to say that the OT scriptures (the most likely meaning of “the prophetic word”) were more trustworthy an authority than an apostle’s own experience of Christ is both to misconstrue how prophecy took place in the OT (did not the prophets have visions or other experiences?) and to deny the final revelation of God in Christ (cf. Heb 1:2). That is, because of the finality of revelation in Christ, the apostles may have viewed their own experience of him to have equal authority with the OT. However, one might argue that the NT authors rarely if ever viewed their own writings as scripture. This is true, but the clearest text in the entire NT that any author viewed part of the NT as scripture is found in this very letter! In 2 Peter 3:15-16 the author speaks of Paul’s letters as scripture. If this letter is authentic (i.e., from the apostle Peter himself), then such an assessment of Paul’s letters would be a remarkable admission.5 But for our present purposes it would do more than that: If Peter is calling Paul’s letters scripture, would that not imply that his own were equally authoritative?6

Where does this leave us then? We have already ruled out the attributive and appositional views as highly unlikely on a grammatical basis. The same is true for the ‘made more certain’ view, even though it could well fit contextually. But the grammatical gymnastics required to make it fit this text twist the meaning of the Greek more than it can bear. Contextually and theologically (that is, arguing from the apostolic perspective), it is unlikely to take bebaiovteron in a comparative sense (“we have the prophetic word as [that which is] more reliable [than our own experience]”). This leaves us with one option: the elative (the translation of the NAB and NET).

In sum, since syntactically the meaning that “we have confirmed the prophetic word by our experience” is improbable, and since contextually the meaning that “we have something that is a more reliable authority than experience, namely, the Bible” is unlikely, we are left with the meaning “we have a very reliable authority, the Old Testament, as a witness to Christ’s return.” No comparison is thus explicitly made. This fits both the context and normal syntax quite well.7 The introductory kaiv suggests that Peter is adding to his argument. He makes the statement that Christ will return, and backs it up with two points: (1) Peter himself (as well as the other apostles) was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration, which is a precursor to the Parousia; and (2) the Gentile believers, who were not on the Mount of Transfiguration, nevertheless have the Old Testament, a wholly reliable authority that also promises the return of Christ.

1 See D. B. Wallace, “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions in the New Testament” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979) for instances of such.

2 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville: Broadman, 1934) 756-57, notes this on the translation of the article in the KJV:

“The translators of the King James Version, under the influence of the Vulgate, handle the Greek article loosely and inaccurately. A goodly list of such sins is given in “The Revision of the New Testament,” such as “a pinnacle” for toV pteruvgion (Matt. 4:5). Here the whole point lies in the article, the wing of the Temple overlooking the abyss. So in Matt. 5:1 toV o[ro" was the mountain right at hand, not “a mountain.” On the other hand, the King James translators missed the point of metaV gunaikov" (Jo. 4:27) when they said “the woman.” It was “a woman,” any woman, not the particular woman in question. But the Canterbury Revisers cannot be absolved from all blame, for they ignore the article in Lk. 18:13, tw'/ aJmartwlw'/. The vital thing is to see the matter from the Greek point of view and find the reason for the use of the article.”

The reason the KJV translators misunderstood the force of the article was apparently due to the fact that they had much greater facility in Latin than in Greek. Since there is no article in Latin, and since the KJV translators used the Latin translation of Erasmus to help them with the Greek, the result was hundreds of errors in the translation that simply not did grasp the force of the Greek article.

3 See my essay on “The Text and Grammar of John 1.18” posted at for examples of substantival adjectives followed by nouns with the same concord.

4 Cf., e.g., J. N. D. Kelly, The Epistles of Peter and Jude (London: Black, 1969) 321; Dick Lucas and Christopher Green, The Message of 2 Peter & Jude (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1995) 80.

5 Most scholars deny Petrine authorship of this letter, and one of the major reasons is the statement in 3.15-16. Since no early church father until the second half of the second century called any part of the NT scripture, the problems of assuming Petrine authorship of this letter are very real: If authentic, why didn’t it apparently have any impact on anyone else’s assessment of the NT’s authority? I, for one, do think that Peter wrote this letter but that it was not well received initially nor in subsequent decades. Doubts about its authenticity arose immediately and persisted, and the lack of copying the letter effectively removed it from having much of an influence on patristic understanding of the nature of the authority of the NT.

6 In some respects, how one regards the authenticity of this letter may determine how he or she takes bebaiovteron: if this is a pseudepigraphical letter, it is possible that the author was not regarding his own writing as authoritative—especially if the church as a whole had not yet regarded the NT as scripture. Although allegedly from Peter, the author might see the OT as more authoritative than the apostolic experience. Thus, “we have the prophetic word as [that which is] more reliable.” But if from Peter, since he was treating Paul’s letters as scripture, the standard Jewish argument from the greater to the lesser would apply here: since Peter was an eyewitness to the Christ event, his apostolic voice would be no less authoritative than Paul’s. In this case, taking bebaiovteron as an elative would be the most natural. It is thus perhaps mildly surprising to find Bauckham among those who take the adjective as an elative since he rejects Petrine authorship for this letter (Richard J. Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter [Waco, TX: Word, 1983] 223).

7 Some exegetes deny that the use of the comparative adjective in an elative sense is at all normal (so Lucas and Green, The Message of 2 Peter & Jude, 80, n. 36). But “the elative sense in classical Greek was normally reserved for the superlative form, but in Koine the comparative has encroached on the superlative’s domain” (D. B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996] 300). Cf., e.g., Acts 13:31; 17:22; 2 Cor 8:17.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

The Text and Grammar of John 1.18

February 25, 2004

In Bart Ehrman’s provocative book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford, 1993), the author devotes five pages to a treatment of John 1.18 (78-82). Inter alia, he says this:

The more common expedient for those who opt for [oJ] monogenhV" qeov", but who recognize that its rendering as “the unique God” is virtually impossible in a Johannine context, is to understand the adjective substantivally, and to construe the entire second half of John 1:18 as a series of appositions, so that rather than reading “the unique God who is in the bosom of the Father,” the text should be rendered “the unique one, who is also God, who is in the bosom of the Father.” There is something attractive about the proposal. It explains what the text might have meant to a Johannine reader and thereby allows for the text of the generally superior textual witnesses. Nonetheless, the solution is entirely implausible.

…. It is true that monogenhv" can elsewhere be used as a substantive (= the unique one, as in v. 14); all adjectives can. But the proponents of this view have failed to consider that it is never used in this way when it is immediately followed by a noun that agrees with it in gender, number, and case. Indeed one must here press the syntactical point: when is an adjective ever used substantivally when it immediately precedes a noun of the same inflection? No Greek reader would construe such a construction as a string of substantives, and no Greek writer would create such an inconcinnity. To the best of my knowledge, no one has cited anything analogous outside of this passage.

The result is that taking the term monogenhV" qeov" as two substantives standing in apposition makes for a nearly impossible syntax, whereas construing their relationship as adjective-noun creates an impossible sense.1

Ehrman thus suggests that it is nearly impossible and completely unattested for an adjective followed immediately by a noun that agrees in gender, number, and case, to be a substantival adjective. His argument assumes that monogenhv" cannot normally be substantival, even though it is so used in v 14—as he admits. There are many critiques that could be made of his argument, but chief among them is this: his absolutizing of the grammatical situation is incorrect. His challenge (“no one has cited anything analogous outside of this passage”) is here taken up. There are, indeed, examples in which an adjective that is juxtaposed to a noun of the same grammatical concord is not functioning adjectivally but substantivally.2

The following are texts that show Ehrman’s view to be incorrect. I have only looked at a few NT books (John, the corpus Paulinum, James, 1-2 Peter, Jude). The texts are of two kinds: first, those in which a similar semantic situation as Ehrman sees in John 1.18 occurs, though it is not exactly the same (these will be explained below); and second, those in which exactly what Ehrman calls for occurs but the adjective is not modifying the noun. (Asterisked items are the clearest examples that invalidate Ehrman’s absolute rule.)

Category 1: Similar Structural Parallel

Rom 10:19: prw'to" Mwu>sh'" levgei (“at first, Moses says”): Although the adjective is not substantival, it is adverbial, and thus fits into the ‘impossible’ category that Ehrman says does not exist. The proper form would have been prw'ton (since accusative neuter adjectives can regularly function adverbially).

1 Cor 5:10: toi'" pleonevktai" kaiV a{rpaxin h] eijdwlolavtrai" (“with coveters and swindlers or idolaters”): Again, not exactly a parallel, but a noun followed by a substantival adjective followed by a noun (though all are joined by conjunctions) comes awfully close.

1 Cor 6:9: ou[te moicoiV ou[te malakoi; ou[te ajrsenokoi'tai (“neither adulterers nor effeminate nor homosexuals”): Same construction virtually as 1 Cor 5:10.

1 Cor 9:6: h] movno" ejgwV (“or [do] only I [and Barnabbas]...): here the adjective is functioning adverbially, similar to Rom 10:19.

1 Cor 12:29: mh; pavnte" ajpovstoloi… mhV pavnte" profh'tai… mhV pavnte" didavskaloi… mhV pavnte" dunavmei"… (“All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not [workers of] miracles, are they?”): The pronominal adjective pavnte" is functioning substantivally (though this is common for pronominal adjectives) and the noun following is functioning as a predicate nominative. These are good parallels, but are not as helpful as pure adjectives would be. However, the final word, dunavmei", though a noun that can mean ‘ruler,’ is here used in the sense of ‘miracle [-worker].’ This last clause may be unusual grammar, but it seems to be irrelevant to the situation at hand.

1 Cor 14:24: ti" a[pisto" h] ijdiwvth" (“a certain unbeliever or ungifted person”): this one with a conjunction between the two.

2 Cor 3:3: ouj mevlani ajllaV pneuvmati (“not with black [ink] but with the Spirit”): this one with a conjunction between the two (but cf. 2 Cor 9:7 et alii where a conjunction [postpositive gavr] separates the adjective from the noun).

Eph 5:5: pa'" povrno" h] ajkavqarto" h] pleonevkth": see 1 Cor 5.10.

*Col 1:2: toi'" ejn Kolossai'" aJgivoi" kaiV pistoi'" ajdelfoi'" (“to the saints and faithful brothers”) comes as close as any text to meeting the requirements that Ehrman says are impossible. The parallel is not exact, but an adjective in the construction ARTICLE + ADJECTIVE + kaiv + ADJECTIVE + NOUN. See discussion of this text in my dissertation.

1 Tim 1:13: blavsfhmon kaiV diwvkthn (with ‘and’ between) (but 1 Tim 2:5 illustrates that both gavr and kaiv can intervene between a modifying adjective and its noun [ei|" gaVr qeov", ei|" kai; mesivth" qeou' kai; ajnqrwvpwn])

**Heb 9:24: ouj gaVr eij" ceiropoivhta eijsh'lqen a{gia Cristov", ajntivtupa tw'n ajlhqinw'n (“For Christ did not enter a holy place, a copy of the true...”) Although “Christ” separates the adjective from the noun, this fits well the semantics that Ehrman says are impossible. The reason it does is precisely because a{gia is seen as substantival in the context. Does not John 1:14 do that for John 1:18?

Category 2: Identical Structural Parallel

John 6:70:kaiV ejx uJmw'n ei|" diavbolov" ejstin. Here diavbolo" is functioning as a noun, even though it is an adjective. And ei|", the pronominal adjective, is the subject related to diavbolo", the predicate nominative.

*Rom 1.30: katalavlou" qeostugei'" uJbristaV" uJperhfavnou" ajlazovna", ejfeuretaV" kakw'n, goneu'sin ajpeiqei'" (“slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents”—true adjectives in italics)

**Gal 3:9: tw/' pistw/' jAbraavm (“with Abraham, the believer” as the NASB has it; NRSV has “Abraham who believed”; NIV has “Abraham, the man of faith”). Regardless of how it is translated, here is an adjective wedged between an article and a noun that is functioning substantivally, in apposition to the noun.

*Eph 2:20: o[nto" ajkrogwniaivou aujtou' Cristou' jIhsou' (“Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone”): although ajkrogwniaivo" is an adjective, it seems to be functioning substantivally here (though it could possibly be a predicate adjective, I suppose, as a predicate genitive). LSJ lists this as an adjective; LN lists it as a noun. It may thus be similar to monogenhv" in its development.

*1 Tim 1:9: dikaivw/ novmo" ouj kei'tai, ajnovmoi" deV kaiV ajnupotavktoi", ajsebevsi kaiV aJmartwloi'", ajnosivoi" kaiV bebhvloi", patrolw/vai" kaiV mhtrolw/vai", ajndrofovnoi" (law is not made for a righteous man, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers [adjectives in italics]): this text clearly shows that Ehrman has overstated his case, for bebhvloi" does not modifypatrolw/vai" but instead is substantival, as are the five previous descriptive terms.

2 Tim 3:2: e[sontai ga;r oiJ a[nqrwpoi fivlautoi filavrguroi ajlazovne" uJperhvfanoi blavsfhmoi, goneu'sin ajpeiqei'", ajcavristoi ajnovsioi (“For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, ...”) Adjectives are italicized. Similar to 1 Tim 1:9; although it could be said that the adjectives are adjectival, they are not modifying the noun in question, but, like it, refer back to the subject mentioned earlier.

Titus 1:10: EijsiVn gaVr polloiV ?kaiV? ajnupovtaktoi, mataiolovgoi kaiV frenapavtai, mavlista oiJ ejk th'" peritomh'" (similar to 1 Tim 1:9; 2 Tim 3:2).

*1 Pet 1:1:ejklektoi'" parepidhvmoi" (“the elect, sojourners”): This text is variously interpreted, but our point is simply that it could fit either scheme for John 1.18. It thus qualifies for texts of which Ehrman says “no one has cited anything analogous outside of this passage.”

***2 Pet 2:5: ejfeivsato ajllaV o[gdoon Nw'e dikaiosuvnh" khvruka (“did not spare [the world], but [preserved] an eighth, Noah, a preacher of righteousness”). The adjective ‘eighth’ stands in apposition to Noah; otherwise, if it modified Noah, the force would be ‘an eighth Noah’ as though there were seven other Noahs!

Added to my examples are those that a doctoral student at Dallas Seminary, Stratton Ladewig, has culled from the NT: Luke 14.13; 18.11; Acts 2.5. As well, he has found several inexact parallels. See his Th.M. thesis, “An Examination of the Orthodoxy of the Variants in Light of Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture,” Dallas Seminary, 2000.

In light of these examples, we can thus respond directly the question that Ehrman poses: “when is an adjective ever used substantivally when it immediately precedes a noun of the same inflection?” His remark that “No Greek reader would construe such a construction as a string of substantives, and no Greek writer would create such an inconcinnity” is simply not borne out by the evidence. Keep in mind that we have only looked at a sampling of the NT, yet Ehrman suggests that “no Greek writer would create such an inconcinnity.” Yet if Peter, Paul, Luke, and John create such expressions, this internal argument against the reading monogenhV" qeov" is null and void.

It now becomes a matter of asking whether there are sufficient contextual clues that monogenhv" is in fact functioning substantivally. Ehrman has already provided both of them: (1) in John, it is unthinkable that the Word could become the unique God in 1.18 (in which he alone, and not the Father, is claimed to have divine status) only to have that status removed repeatedly throughout the rest of the Gospel. Thus, assuming that monogenhV" qeov" is authentic, we are in fact driven to the sense that Ehrman regards as grammatically implausible but contextually necessary: “the unique one, himself God…” (2) that monogenhv" is already used in v 14 as a substantive3 becomes the strongest contextual argument for seeing its substantival function repeated four verses later. Immediately after Ehrman admits that this adjective can be used substantivally and is so used in v 14 that way, he makes his grammatical argument which is intended to lay the gauntlet down or to shut the coffin lid (choose your cliché on the force of the connection with v 14. But if the grammatical argument won’t cut it, then the substantival use of monogenhv" in v 14 should stand as an important contextual clue. Indeed, in light of the well-worn usage in biblical Greek, we would almost expect monogenhv" to be used substantivally and with the implication of sonship in 1.18.

In conclusion, the internal arguments against monogenhV" qeov" in John 1.18 simply are not sufficient to overturn the strong external evidence in its favor. We have not here dealt with the external evidence, as that is considered to be the strong suit in the argument for the authenticity of this reading. But if the internal evidence is actually on its side as well, then what is to prevent us from rendering this reading in our English translations—and rendering it something like “the unique Son, himself God…”? The NET Bible, as well as other modern translations that adopt the reading monogenhV" qeov", stand vindicated in the face of this syntactical argument.

1 Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption, 81.

2 Another criticism is that Ehrman has too hastily asserted that monogenhv" cannot have the implied force of “unique son” as in “the unique Son, who is God” (ibid., 80-81):

“The difficulty with this view is that there is nothing about the word monogenhv" itself that suggests it. Outside of the New Testament the term simply means ‘one of a kind’ or ‘unique,’ and does so with reference any range of animate or inanimate objects. Therefore, recourse must be made to its usage within the New Testament. Here proponents of the view argue that in situ the word implies ‘sonship,’ for it always occurs (in the New Testament) either in explicit conjunction with uiJov" or in a context where a uiJov" is named and then described as monogenhv" (Luke 9:38, John 1:14, Heb 11:17). Nonetheless, as suggestive as the argument may appear, it contains the seeds of its own refutation: if the word monogenhv" is understood to mean 'a unique son,' one wonders why it is typically put in attribution to uiJov", an attribution that then creates an unusual kind of redundancy ("the unique-son son"). Given the fact that neither the etymology of the word nor its general usage suggests any such meaning, this solution seems to involve a case of special pleading.

The problem with this assertion is threefold: (1) If in the three texts listed above monogenhv" does, in fact, have both a substantival force and involves the implication of sonship, then to argue that this could be the case in John 1.18 is not an instance of special pleading because there is already clear testimony within the NT to this force. (2) Ehrman's argument rests on going outside of biblical Greek for the normative meaning of a term within the Bible. But since in the NT—as well as patristic Greek (see next footnote) and the LXX (cf. Judg 11.34 where the adjective is used prior to the noun that speaks of Jephthah's daughter; Tobit 3.15 is similar; cf. also Tobit 8.17)—monogenhv" often both bears the connotation of 'son' and is used absolutely (i.e., substantivally) to argue for a secular force within the Bible looks like special pleading! (3) To argue that an implied lexical force becomes “an unusual kind of redundancy” when the implication is brought out explicitly in the text requires much more nuancing before it can be applied as any kind of normative principle: on its face, and in application to the case in hand, it strikes me as almost wildly untrue. In grammar and lexeme, the NT is filled with examples in which the ebb and flow of implicit and explicit meaning intertwine with one another. To take but one example from the grammatical side: eijsevrcomai eij" is a generally hellenistic expression in which the increased redundancy (by the doubling of the preposition) gets the point across. It is found over 80 times in the NT, yet it does not mean “come-into into”! Yet, it means the same thing as e[rcomai eij", a phrase that occurs over 70 times in the NT. English examples readily come to mind as well: In colloquial speech, we often hear “foot pedal” (is there any other kind of pedal besides one for the feet?).

3 A quick look at Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon also reveals that the substantival function of this adjective was commonplace: p. 881, def. 7, the term is used absolutely (i.e., substantivally) in a host of patristic writers.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism

Matthew 16:20 among the Manuscripts: A Case Study in Scribal Habits

23 March 2003

“Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ” (Matt 16:20, NET Bible).

Immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), the Lord blesses Peter, telling him that his insight was not due to his own mental prowess but was brought to his consciousness by divine aid. Then, the Lord warns his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Christ. This is a common refrain in the Gospels, given especially to the disciples and demons (cf., e.g., Matt 12:16; Mark 1:34; 8:30; Luke 4:41; 9:21).

But there is a curious textual problem in v. 20. Most manuscripts (ͦlt;2 C W Ϡlat bo) have “Jesus, the Christ” (jIhsou'" oJ Cristov") here, while one (D) has “Christ Jesus” (oJ CristoV" jIhsou'"). On the one hand, this is a much harder reading than the mere Cristov", because the name Jesus was already well known for the disciples’ master—both to them and to others. And a standard principle of textual criticism is that, all other things being equal, the harder reading is to be preferred as most likely going back to the original wording. The question here is whether all other things are equal; that is, were there other forces at work that may have influenced scribes to add “Jesus” to “Christ”?


Whether he was the Messiah is the real focus of the passage. But the addition “Jesus” (either before or after “Christ”) is surely too hard a reading: there are no other texts in which the Lord tells his disciples not to disclose his personal name. And why would he? He was well known everywhere as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Frankly, the addition of “Jesus” here is so contrary to the context, both literary and historical, that it has nothing to commend it. Further, it is plainly a motivated reading in that scribes had the proclivity to add jIhsou'" to Cristov" or to kuvrio" (“Lord”), regardless of whether such was appropriate to the context. In this instance it clearly is not, and it only reveals that scribes sometimes, if not often, did not think about the larger interpretive consequences of their alterations to the text. Further, the shorter reading is well supported by ͦlt;* B L D Q ˦lt;1,13 565 700 1424 al it sa. These witnesses date from the early fourth century, and include representatives of all the early texttypes. Both externally and internally, the reading without “Jesus” is almost surely the original.


So, what lessons can be learned from this test passage? Three especially come to mind.

    1. The discipline of textual criticism simply cannot be done by a mere examination of manuscripts, regardless of what theory one adopts. An integration of the external data with internal considerations is absolutely necessary and vital if we are going to recover the original text.

    2. Both the literary context (one aspect of what is called intrinsic evidence) and known scribal habits (a.k.a. transcriptional evidence) are often at odds. Scribes did not always think through the macro-interpretive issues of their alterations. They often wrote in semi-conscious genuflective notations, especially when it came to descriptions of the Lord. And once these got into the text, they had a way pervading most manuscripts that would follow.

    3. Liturgical and devotional motivations had a much larger impact on the transmission of the text than some are willing to admit. This especially impacted the Byzantine manuscripts, but others were not immune. The Western text, and even to some degree, the Alexandrian, also suffered from liturgical pressure. The growth of the text was the natural result. Still, the New Testament is one of the most stable documents of the ancient world. Reading a manuscript from the fourth or fourteenth century reveals the same God and the same gospel. For this, all Christians can be truly grateful.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism

“Whom He Also Named Apostles”: A Textual and Narrative-Critical Solution to Mark 3.14

*Editor’s note: Chris Skinner earned his Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He was one of my interns there, and a great student of the scriptures. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in New Testament at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and is Associate Pastor of Perry Hall Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Chris would like any feedback on this essay that you would like to offer, in particular any areas where you think the argument could be strengthened.

Daniel B. Wallace, 22 January 2003

I. Introduction

The textual reading of Mark 3:14 in Nestle-Aland’s 27th edition of the Greek NT contains the phrase οὓς καὶ ἀποστόλους ὠνόμασεν placed in square brackets to indicate the “balance of probabilities” posited by the editorial committee.1 While many modern English translations are split over the insertion of this phrase, the majority of modern commentators on the Second Gospel have been decidedly in favor of its omission.2 Such a wide disparity among committees and commentators intimately acquainted with the nuances of NT textual criticism reflects the difficulties raised by the evidence for this verse and its various readings. There are a number of factors involved in evaluating this textual problem and the present study does not purport to offer the final word on the discussion. However, there does appear to be an acceptable solution to this problem that incorporates both textual and narrative-critical issues. This “two-pronged” approach to solving the textual problem in 3:14 is the focus of this short study.

II. External Evidence

The witnesses attesting to the bracketed textual reading in Mark 3:14 are B C* Θ f13 28 pc syhmg co. Some of the earliest and highest quality manuscripts are contained in this list. On the contrary, neither of the variant readings enjoys such widespread or such early manuscript support. The phrase is completely omitted by A C2 (D) L f1 33 latt sy sams and is placed after ἵνα ὧσιν μετ’ αὐτοῦ in W (Δ). Standing alone, the external evidence for the textual reading is practically insurmountable—a point almost conceded by the UBS committee.3 Not only is the NA27 reading attested to by a combination of some of the earliest and best witnesses, but the occurrence of the disputed phrase in W (late 4th/early 5th century) further bolsters a claim to the authenticity of the phrase on the grounds of early attestation. Thus, the external evidence points strongly in the direction of the bracketed textual reading. However, reliance upon external evidence alone does not represent the most balanced approach to an evaluation of this or any other textual issue.4 Therefore an examination of internal criteria is necessary to tip the scales in favor of one reading or another.

III. Internal Evidence

The primary contention of those who dispute the authenticity of the NA27 reading is that the phrase containing ἀποστόλους—a prominent term in only Luke-Acts and Paul—may have been introduced into the Markan narrative by way of Lucan influence (cf. Luke 6:13).5 That Mark consistently refers to the disciples as οἱ μαθηταί and as οἱ δώδεκα, rather than οἱ ἀπόστολοι is held to be implicit support for this assertion.6 Thus, as the argument goes, the transcriptional probability favors the reading that omits the term and that variant must then be regarded as the earlier reading. Taken at face value, this point appears to provide internal evidence with the strength to rival that of the external attestation, and creates a conflict between the two sets of evidence that begs for resolution. At this point, one must either proceed with the external evidence as the starting point, or acquiesce to the argument for interpolation.

Since the external evidence is weighty, it would be risky to disregard it at the outset. Therefore, it is necessary to deal with the claim of interpolation on internal grounds by (1) accounting for the term ἀπόστολος in the Markan narrative; and (2) explaining the nature of the omission in the other manuscripts. This will either bolster the argument for interpolation or effectively overturn the idea that the omission of the phrase reflects the earlier reading.

First, the argument for Lucan interpolation is significantly weakened in light of the fact that the disciples are explicitly referred to as οἱ ἀπόστολοι in Mark 6:30.7 This is the only other occurrence of ἀπόστολος in Mark and while its presence in the narrative is problematic for an overall discussion of the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, this undisputed reading in 6:30 sets a clear precedent for Markan usage of the term.8 Therefore, it is incorrect to flatly claim that Mark has no conception of “apostle”—however it is to be understood and however meager the evidence for it might be.9 The recognition of this fact casts serious doubt upon the assertion that the term must have been introduced under Lucan influence in 3:14. In fact, it seems possible that the disputed phrase was first used by Mark and then brought over into Luke during the composition of the Lucan narrative. Therefore, there is no reason to strictly assume the introduction of the term into the text by way of Lucan influence in light of the indisputable proof of its use in Mark 6:30.

Second, in evaluating the internal evidence, there is more here than meets the eye. The phrase καὶ ἐποίησεν δώδεκα is found in 3:14 and 3:16.10 It is notable that the majority of witnesses omitting the disputed phrase in v. 14 also omit the second occurrence of καὶ ἐποίησεν δώδεκα in v. 16.11 Second, the term ἀποστέλλῃ also appears in the final phrase of 3:14. The appearance of this repeated phrase (καὶ ἐποίησεν [τοὺς] δώδεκα) along with these two cognate terms (ἀποστόλους /ἀποστέλλῃ) all in such close proximity to one another would likely have been problematic for a copyist. There is the possibility then that parablepsis occurred resulting in scribal omission of both phrases in the weaker manuscripts.12 This would account for the rise of the omission and accords well with the weightiness of the external attestation for the NA27 reading.

Another point in support of the textual reading is the well-documented tendency of both Sinaiticus and Vaticanus to abbreviate rather than conflate. This is not infallible but is certainly an established rule of thumb to remember when approaching these two great uncials. In light of this tendency in both manuscripts, and in light of their agreement in attesting to the inclusion of the disputed phrase, the claim to an original shorter reading becomes even more difficult to maintain. Therefore, the bracketed textual reading stands out.

There is then, overwhelming external evidence in favor of the bracketed textual reading as well as a plausible answer on internal grounds for the rise of the variant which omits the disputed phrase. Before offering a final conclusion, there is one more internal issue that needs to be addressed. The intrinsic probability also strongly favors the NA27 reading but this can only be introduced in the context of an exegetical and narrative-critical discussion of the passage in question. It is to this area that we now turn.

IV. Exegetical Evidence

Discipleship is one of the more prominent themes in the Second Gospel and “the twelve” are often the vehicle for communicating the evangelist’s theology of the role and function of discipleship. At the narrative level, 3:13-19 is—along with 6:6b-30—a critical text for understanding the nature of discipleship within Mark. These texts constitute a set of bookends that picture the appointment of the twelve (3:13-19) and the consummation of their ministry (6:6b-30) in the overall context of the Gospel. Also, in these passages there exists both a disputed (3:14) and an undisputed example (6:30) of the term ἀπόστολος—the only two such occurrences in the Gospel of Mark. It is necessary then, to demonstrate the relation of these texts in order to show the linking of concepts and the exegetically significant use of the term ἀπόστολοςin both texts. This helps to further establish the authenticity of the textual reading on internal grounds.

According to 3:14, there was a dual purpose in Jesus’ appointment of the twelve. Jesus appointed them ἵνα ωσιν μετ’ αὐτοῦ but also ἵνα ἀποστέλλῃ αὐτοὺς κηρύσσειν καὶ ἔχειν ἐξουσίαν ἐκβάλλειν τὰ δαιμόνια.13 The twelve are thus observers of Jesus’ ministry from 3:20-6:6a and are participants in that ministry from 6:6b-30.14 After 6:30, the twelve are never again explicitly associated with the message of Jesus in the course of the gospel. This serves as a tacit reminder to the astute reader of the ongoing incomprehension of the twelve.

Between these two units there is the hope, the glorious success and ultimately, the failure of the disciples in the ministry to which they have been entrusted. Mark 3:13-19 represents the promise and the potential of the twelve, as they are hand picked by Jesus according to his two specific purposes. Mark 6:6b-30 represents the carrying out of that ministry by the disciples—”sandwiched” with the Baptist’s death—which culminates in a demonstration of the spiritual dullness of the twelve. This key Markan theme of failure rears its head once again in 6:30, in the disciples’ response after their ministry success: “the apostles came to Jesus and reported to him all that they had done and all that they had taught.”15 After having been μετ’ αὐτοῦ and after ministering by his authority, they have experienced great success, but have failed because they have taken credit for accomplishments that were brought about by an authority that was merely on loan from Jesus.

With the relation of these texts in exegetical and theological perspective, there are at least three clear internal links connecting these two pericopae. First, both sections begin with summary statements (3:7-12 and 6:6b) that are followed by material relating directly to the mission of the disciples (3:13-19 and 6:7-12, 30).16 Second, the term προσκαλέω is used in 3:13 and in 6:7 to indicate the summoning of the disciples by Jesus—each time at the outset of the pericope. In the former passage Jesus summons them for the first time, appointing them for special ministerial purposes. In the latter passage, he summons them that they might finally carry out the ministry to which they had previously been appointed. These two links are important for developing an appreciation for the relation between these pericopae, but it is ultimately the lexical linking of the noun ἀπόστολος and its verbal cognate in both texts that helps to bolster the above text-critical conclusions.

Assuming the authenticity of the bracketed textual reading, there is a lexical link created by two corresponding halves of an inverted symmetrical structure that binds the pericopae:

    [A] οὓς καὶ ἀποστόλους ὠνόμασεν (TITLE – the twelve are named apostles; 3:14)

      [B] ἵνα ἀποστέλλῃ αὐτοὺς κηρύσσειν (ACTIVITY – with the purpose of being sent; 3:14)

      [B] καὶ ἤρξατο αὐτοὺς ἀποστέλλειν (ACTIVITY – the twelve are sent; 6:7)

    [A] καὶ συνάγονται οἱ ἀπόστολοι (TITLE – the apostles return; 6:30)

There is here a quasi-chiastic pattern where four cognate terms are used in reference to the twelve and their ministry activity. This pattern begins with a titular form followed directly by a verbal form (both in 3:14). This verse serves as an introduction to the twelve as “apostles” who will eventually be “sent” to minister. The corresponding passage reverses the previous pattern with a verbal form (6:7) followed by the titular form (6:30). This text pictures the “apostles” returning from the ministry after having been “sent.” The inclusion created by this pattern serves to further highlight the thematic symmetry already at work in the two passages and depicts both the beginning and the end of the disciples’ ministerial career within the Second Gospel. Not only does this pattern reveal the narrative artistry of the evangelist, but more importantly, it provides internal support for the intrinsic probability of the reading bracketed in NA27.

V. Conclusion

It is clear from the history of the discussion on this textual issue that one set of data is not enough to solve the problem. It has been established here that: (1) there is strong external evidence in favor of the NA27 reading; (2) there are several plausible explanations of the internal evidence and a more than reasonable solution for the rise of the variant on internal grounds; and (3) exegetically, there are several critical links between the text containing the disputed use of the term ἀπόστολος (3:13-19), and the text containing the undisputed use of the term (6:6b-30)—a fact which lends support to the intrinsic probability that the bracketed textual reading is authentic. The most notable feature is the inverted structure that connects the two pericopae, creates thematic inclusion and pictures both the beginning and end of the ministerial career of the twelve within Mark.

The combination of this evidence goes a long way toward resolving this difficult textual problem. When everything is considered, the preponderance of the evidence in this case suggests that the textual reading οὓς καὶ ἀποστόλους ὠνόμασεν is the earlier reading and is probably authentic.

1 Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d. ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 69.

2 Translations that omit the phrase include KJV, ASV, RSV, NKJV, JB and NASB. Conversely, the NRSV, NAB, TEV, CEV, NIV, NLT, ESV and NET Bible all retain the phrase. Among the vast majority of commentators who reject the phrase are: C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (CGTC; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959), 127; R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 247; Joachim Gnilka, Das Evangelium nach Markus, 5th ed., (EKKNT II; Zurich/Neukirchen/Vluyn: Beniger/Neukirchener, 1998), 139 n:18; Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (BNTC 2; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 111; M.-J. Lagrange, Evangile selon Saint Marc (Etudes Bibliques; Paris: Gabalda, 1920); 58; William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 131 n. 41; Simon Legasse, L’Evangile de Marc (Lectio Divina Commentaires 5; Paris: Les Editions Du Cerf, 1997); 1:229; Ernst Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Markus, 17th ed., (Meyers Kommentar; Gttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967), 74; Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (AB 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 263; Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 77, 120-21; D. E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark (Pelican Gospel Commentaries; New York: Seabury, 1963), 116; Rudolf Pesch, Das Markusevangelium (HTKNT: Freibourg, Basel and Wien: Herder, 1976, 1977), 1:203 note a; Vincent Taylor, The Gospel according to St. Mark, 2d. ed. (London: Macmillan, 1966), 230. Cf. also John P. Meier, “The Circle of the Twelve: Did it Exist During Jesus Public Ministry?” JBL 116 (1997): 638, 639 n. 11. Dissenting from the majority are James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark (PNTC; Grand Rapids: 2002), 111-12, 113 n. 6; Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 (WBC 34a; Dallas: Word, 1989), 154, note a; Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 164; Dieter Lührmann, Das Markusevangelium (HNT 3; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1987), 71; and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 146.

3 “Although the words οὓς... ὠνόμασεν may be regarded as an interpolation from Luke (6:13), the Committee was of the opinion that the external evidence is too strong in their favor to warrant their ejection from the text” (Metzger, Textual Commentary, 69).

4 Much current text-critical methodology leads exegetes to consistently side with readings where there is agreement between א and B, apart from a consideration of other factors. While the agreement between these two great uncials is weighty, there are clear examples of passages where together, they do not preserve the best or earliest reading. A prime example of this is Rom 8:35 where both uncials read θεοῦ. Though the two agree, that reading is almost universally regarded as a scribal change from χριστοῦ in order to create agreement with Rom 8:39 (cf. Metzger, Textual Commentary, 458). Thus, the weight of these two uncials should always be tempered with a consideration of other factors, both external and internal. Other notable examples where agreement between these two uncials likely reflects a later development are Matt 27:16-17; Mark 1:27; 12:23; 14:68; Luke 18:24; and Phil 1:14.

5 Metzger, Textual Commentary, 69. See also Gnilka, Markus, 139; Hooker, Saint Mark, 111; Marcus, Mark 1-8, 263; Moloney, Mark, 77 n:11; Taylor, St. Mark, 230; and Meier, “The Circle of the Twelve,” 639 n:11.

6 Mark uses the term μαθητής 52 times when referring to all or part of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. See 2:15, 15, 23; 3:7, 9, 20; 4:34, 35, 38, 40; 5:31, 40; 6:1, 35, 41, 43, 48; 7:2, 5, 17; 8:1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 14, 27, 33, 34; 9:14, 18, 28, 31; 10:10, 13, 23, 24, 26, 32, 46; 11:1, 14; 12:43; 13:1; 14:12, 14, 16, 22, 32, 37; 16:7. The term δώδεκα ?is used twelve times in referring to Jesus’ disciples. See 3:14, 16; 4:10; 6:7, 43; 9:35; 10:32; 11:11; 14:10, 17, 20, 43.

7 To be sure, the use of the term is problematic for an overall discussion of discipleship in Markan theology. Discipleship is one of the major themes in Mark—as attested to by the sheer volume of material written on the subject—and any discussion of this topic must include the use of the term in 6:30 (even though it is not found anywhere else in Mark except in the present text under discussion).

8 Some commentators attempt to get around this by suggesting that the occurrence of the titular form in 6:30 is used solely for the purpose of creating inclusion with the verbal form in 6:7 (cf. e.g., Moloney, Mark, 119).

9 Contra Gnilka, Markus, 139 n:18.

10 The second occurrence of the phrase in v. 16 is καὶ ἐποίησεν τοὺς δώδεκα.

11 See especially A C2 D L f1 33 .

12 Regarding this internal evidence, a text-critical note in the first beta version of the NET Bible reads: “It is possible, given this close range of two verses, that a scribe’s eye could skip down to ‘he appointed twelve’ in v. 16 and cause him to miss the words ‘whom he named apostles’ in v. 14. Another factor which might increase this likelihood is the presence of ἀποστόλους here and ἀποστελλῆ [sic] in the next verse. The text would still read sensibly if a ms omitted both ‘whom he named apostles’ in v. 14 and ‘he appointed twelve’ in v. 16. Thus, the possibility of parablepsis arising from homoioarcton is likely” (The NET Bible, Biblical Studies Press, 2001, 1797-98). While this is certainly an attractive argument in favor of the position taken here, the manuscript evidence does not support the claim of homoioarcton. In support of this claim, we would expect at least one manuscript to completely omit all of v. 15, but there is apparently no manuscript that does so. [Editor’s note: the tc note in the NET Bible has been corrected here; indeed, the entire note has been reworked in light of Chris Skinner’s essay.]

13 There are two things being appointed here, each designated by a ἵνα clause. The first thing to which the disciples are appointed is that they might be “with him.” It is here that they receive the authority to minister. The second thing to which they have been appointed is that they might minister by his authority. Therefore, the second and third activities pictured here and connected by kai both fall under the general category introduced by the second ἵνα clause.

14 A growing number of recent commentators regard Mark 6:6b-30 as an intercalation or “Markan sandwich” passage. Cf. for instance, J. R. Donahue, Are You the Christ? The Trial Narrative in the Gospel of Mark (SBLDS 10: Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature, 1973), 54; James R. Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan Narratives,” NovT 31 (1989): 198, 205-06; H. C. Kee, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 54; Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 128-31; Robert M. Fowler, Loaves and Fishes: The Function of the Feeding Stories in the Gospel of Mark (SBLDS 54; Chico: Scholars, 1981), 114-32; Francis J. Moloney, “Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure” CBQ (2001): 647-50; Tom Shepherd, “The Narrative Function of Markan Intercalation,” NTS 41 (1995): 522-23, 527, 530, 534. Whether 6:6b-30 be regarded as an intercalation or not, the exegete must ultimately reckon with the fact the ministry of the disciples in 6:7-13 remains unresolved until 6:30.

15 There are three elements of this passage that support this picture of self-exaltation among the twelve. First, the verb ἀπαγέλλω is a strong verb typically used in contexts of public revelation. Second, while personal pronouns that would bolster this reading are conspicuously absent from the text, there is a double use of the relative pronoun ὅσα. Mark uses the relative pronoun at least four other times in the Gospel to make a clarifying point (2:26; 6:16; 13:20; 15:12). Therefore, there is good precedent for an understanding of its double use in this verse as making a clarifying point about the self-exaltation of the twelve. Third, the incomprehension of the twelve in the overall context of the Gospel easily lends itself to such a reading (not to mention, this “failure” occurs against the contrastive backdrop of the faithfulness of John the Baptist unto death). For a helpful exposition of several aspects of this reading, cf. Moloney, “Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure,” 660-61.

16 This pattern is widely recognized in the recent English commentary tradition. Cf. Edwards, Mark, 176; France, Mark, 245-46; Hooker, Saint Mark, 154; Marcus, Mark 1-8, 381; Moloney, Mark, 116.

Related Topics: Textual Criticism

Wittenberg 2002

This essay is more a travelogue than history, and more history than theology. But there is some history and some theology just the same. Caveat lector!

Note:The many pictures below are thumbnails of the original. Please wait for the page to load. You can click the pictures for a larger picture.


On 1 July 2002, my sabbatical year began. As I write this, I am looking out a large window in my apartment in Münster, Germany, on the third floor (though in Germany they call it the second floor) of the Humboldt Haus on Hüfferstrasse. Humboldt Haus is a residence for visiting scholars.

This sabbatical has been dedicated to New Testament textual criticism, the science of determining the wording of the original documents. This discipline is needed because we no longer possess the originals of any New Testament book, and because there are hundreds of thousands of differences among the extant manuscripts (MSS). Only by a careful sifting of the data, and a rigorous comparison of MSS, can one increase in certainty as to what the original text said. And, of course, for evangelical Christians, textual criticism is of extreme importance because we are, above all, a people of the Book. But we cannot know what it means or how to apply it unless we first know what it says.

My sabbatical year has already been quite thrilling. I have spent several weeks in Greece, including a week on the island of Patmos, where John wrote the book of Revelation. The Monastery of St. John the Theologian sits atop the island, looking quite imposing from any direction. This monastery-fortress is a millennium old, with walls fifty feet high in places! And the library of this ancient monastery is absolutely stunning. I spent some time in the library examining some of the Greek New Testament MSS there. Perhaps I will tell more of my experience on Patmos at a later date.

After Greece, I took a two-week breather back home, only to head out for Egypt at the end of August. The journey was a nine-day trip to Mt. Sinai, to St. Catherine’s Monastery. I had been planning this trip for three years, negotiating with the monastery by corresponding in modern Greek. Father Nicholas Katinas of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Dallas joined me, as did Dr. Timothy Ralston of Dallas Seminary. We spent a week looking at some of the “New Finds” manuscripts. These are manuscripts that were discovered in 1975 when a fire broke out at St. George’s Tower, revealing a hidden compartment. In the compartment were 1200 manuscripts and 50,000 fragments (all undamaged by the fire). Among the 1200 manuscripts are over 200 biblical manuscripts. Most exciting among the discoveries were leaves of Codex Sinaiticus, the fourth-century MS that Tischendorf carried off to Russia in 1844 and 1859. Sinaiticus contains the oldest complete Greek New Testament in existence—by 500 years! It now resides in the British Library in London. That’s another story. There are also over a dozen uncial MSS of the New Testament (uncial MSS are capital-letter MSS on parchment; all of them are dated no later than the tenth century and as early as the third century, making them quite valuable for determining the wording of the original). We were so privileged to spend a week in the library handling and examining these ancient treasures! But that report will have to wait for a later time as well.

I took one week off after Egypt, packed my bags and headed out for Münster, Germany. My wife, Pati, joined me for this trip (as she had for Greece). Why Münster? On the western edge of the old city is the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung, or the Institute for New Testament Textual Research. Founded in 1959 by Dr. Kurt Aland, this not-terribly-large four-story building houses microfilms and photographs of virtually all Greek New Testament manuscripts known to exist. A few decades ago, Dr. Eldon Epp noted that there are probably more textual critics at this institute than there are in the rest of the world. That situation has changed to some degree, but Münster is still the epicenter for New Testament textual studies. I am here working, in part, on exhaustive collations of MSS of Paul’s letters. Every variant is noted for each MS that is examined. By doing this kind of work, one can determine, to some degree, what a particular scribe’s tendencies were. For example, if one MS tends to have “Christ” where other MSS have “Lord,” its voice is discounted in places where other MSS join it in reading “Christ.” But if that same MS has “Lord” in disputed places, its voice is weighed more heavily. This kind of painstaking work has hardly been done on New Testament MSS, in large measure because there are very few who are both skilled in the task and have access to the photographs. On top of that, it is quite tedious work (especially because the microfilms are not easy to read, being cheap-grade photographs).

We’ve been here now for seven weeks. Pati and I are thoroughly enjoying our time in Germany. But we wanted to take a break and we decided to go to Wittenberg last week. We were there for four days, along with my assistant, Presian Smyers, who is helping me in the collation work on Paul’s letters.

The Autobahn

We rented a car since our only transportation to date has been two tired legs (per person) and one used bicycle each. We got out on the famous German Autobahn on the morning of 29 October, taking the A2 east to Berlin. It was my first time to drive in Germany; I wasn’t sure what to expect. Altogether we drove almost 1000 miles (nearly 1600 kilometers) in the six days that we had the car. I asked Pati to rate driving in America, Greece, and Germany in terms of how pleasant the experience was. Germany ranked by far the highest; Greece came in a rather distant third. The people in Germany are polite, respectful, and more patient than Americans. But, boy, do they drive fast! As is well known, the Autobahn has long sections of no speed limit. (But in many places the speed is limited to 120 kilometers or less.) We found ourselves going 160 to 180 kilometers for a good bit of the trip. It sure was fun! And we did not experience road rage except once (from someone who was obviously not German).


Our first stop was Berlin. We spent two days and one night there, hardly enough to take in much. The museums in Berlin are world-class, and the cafs are wunderbar. Unfortunately, many Americans have an image of Berlin that belongs to an era long gone.

Presian and I went to the Staatsmuseen (national museum) to look at MSS, while Pati went shopping. We had the opportunity to examine two ancient uncial MSS, but no more since the MSS had been temporarily moved. After the MS discovery tour, we went to Checkpoint Charlie, the place where East Berlin met West Berlin. It was an eerie feeling. The Berlin Wall had been constructed in August 1961; it kept East Berliners from getting into the west. Some people, however, had to cross the lines in either direction. Checkpoint Charlie was the principal place where this occurred. Of course, we are all familiar with the many stories of tragedy and triumph, of the hundreds of people who did escape from East Berlin and made it to freedom (or who died trying). Many of these folks got out through Checkpoint Charlie by stealth, hiding in ingenious compartments. One of the most successful stories was of a Volkswagen Beetle that had the compartment below its trunk hollowed out so that people could hide there. Several folks escaped from the tyranny of Communism in this manner. The VW “bug,” along with hundreds of other artifacts from the Cold War, was on display at the museum next to Checkpoint Charlie (known as “Der Haus am Checkpoint Charlie”). I marvel at what lengths people will go, what incredible risks they will take, for the sake of freedom.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin

On 10 November 1989, East Berlin was officially open. Shortly after that, the wall was torn down. East Berliners (and East Germans) were free at last! The date is significant, though not intentional: November 10 is Martin Luther’s birthday. East Germany was freed 506 years to the day after Martin Luther was born.


Reformation Eve

We left Berlin on the evening of 30 October, driving the 100 or so kilometers south to Wittenberg. We had reserved a hotel room at the L & K Pension, about two kilometers from the town square. We made our reservations through the city’s website (, just a couple of weeks earlier. I was surprised at how easy it was to reserve a room there, especially since we were going to be staying through the end of the month (and, therefore, over Reformation Day). I thought, in light of the fact that we could get two rooms in the same very small hotel (one for Pati and me, and one for Presian), that perhaps the celebrations would be minimal, that few visitors would come to town on this historic day. I am so glad that I was wrong! Wittenberg had thousands of visitors on Reformation Day, and the town was ready for it. I found out that only the private hotels off the beaten path (known as pensions) were not full. We had chosen a pension because of price, not realizing that this would be the only way we could get a room in Wittenberg. The L & K was very pleasant, with a surprisingly large room for two. It is a new building a block from the new Stadthalle (city hall). With real parking places and a decent breakfast, the $45 a night for two was a great bargain. I recommend this pension to you. But be warned: they only take cash. And if you arrive after 8 p.m. (like we did), no one will be there to greet you. The room key will be tucked away in some hidden place (they will tell you about this one or two days before your arrival; make sure to access email before you arrive). Finally, like so much of what used to be East Germany, they don’t speak English at the L & K. Come with a dictionary and some patience. And perhaps pick up a few German phrases before you go.

After we deposited our bags in the room, we drove down to the main drag. Quite a bit of Wittenberg is still intact as it was in medieval times. But there are newer buildings next to older ones, and buildings in ruins from neglect. World War II was not the cause: only two bombs dropped on the whole city. It looked to be more recent than that. Indeed, during the Cold War, Wittenberg was under Communist rule. This city, whose name means “white mountain” (so named for the sand found in the region, perhaps from the Elbe River which Wittenberg touches), ironically has factories on the edge of town with smokestacks, billowing with white smoke day and night. This ugly sight has become the new ‘white mountain’ of Wittenberg. But the industry of the Communist era is being replaced, once again, by tourism. Yet even eleven years after the east collapsed, there are still only 120,000 visitors annually to the epicenter of the Protestant Reformation. (And half of them, it seemed, showed up on Reformation Day!)

In the two streets that constitute the downtown area proper almost everything is well preserved. After we parked the car, we went to one of the newer restaurants in town, the Schlossfreiheit, built in 1683, 200 years after Luther’s birth. In this cozy little restaurant, we enjoyed a fabulous meal at a very reasonable price. On the menu was “Luther Bier,” a dark beer that was allegedly similar to the kind that Luther enjoyed. The more I learn about this great saint, the more I like! I picked up a postcard that had a saying of Luther’s (although I don’t know the source; perhaps Table Talk?): “Wer viel Bier trinkt, schlft gut. Wer gut schlft, sündigt nicht. Und wer nicht sündigt, kommt in den Himmel!” (The one who drinks much beer sleeps well. He who sleeps does not sin. And he who does not sin goes to heaven!”) One of the things about Luther that I love so much is that he was not pretentious; he was down to earth. He belonged to that rare breed known as ‘guy-next-door Reformer.’

Even after 10 p.m. there was quite a bit of activity near the Schlosskirche (Castle Church), the church on whose main door Luther put up his 95 theses. The door was open, but a guard in medieval dress was posted. And, curiously, the people milling around the church were teenagers. Hundreds of them. We found out later that annually scores of youth come to Wittenberg as confirmands in the Lutheran church. This year over 700 youth were there. They were allowed inside to spend the night in this historic church. We were excited about what the next day would reveal.

Reformation Day

We woke the next morning, 31 October, in anticipation of seeing some of Christianity’s most important sites. After a solid German breakfast, we headed out for the town square. As we drove, I began to reflect on the historic occasion. Five hundred years ago, the University of Wittenberg was founded. Within ten years, a bright young monk named Martin Luther joined its faculty. His doctorate was conferred in the Schlosskirche in October 1512. And 485 years ago on this day (31 October 1517) Luther marched two kilometers down the street from the monastery where he lived to the Schlosskirche and nailed his 95 Theses to the large double wooden door. (It was the custom of the day to post announcements on the church door.) He titled the flyer “Disputation of Dr. Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” In this post, he asked for a public debate: “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Therefore, he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.”

That debate never came. Shortly after Luther posted his theses, someone tore down the sheet, and copies of it soon got to printers throughout Europe. Within weeks, over 100,000 copies of Luther’s manifesto had been printed. The Reformation was born!

To be sure, certain parts of the famous 95 Theses were worded quite strongly. But other parts were in praise of the pope and his policies, and appeared to be no more than a plea from a Catholic monk for a little sanity and sanctification in the matter of indulgences. Altogether, the 95 Theses do not yet show the clear reasoning about justification by faith alone that Luther would be known for. But they opened Pandora’s Box, and were a public display of incredible bravado in the face of a politico-religious authority that ruled all of life. It was Luther’s heart and head that started the Reformation. One without the other would not have done the job.

We parked the car and walked to the town square. As we turned the corner and saw the square we were immediately transported back half a millennium. The sights, smells, and sounds were all medieval. The city has done a lovely job of preserving this heritage, and the town square is the right place to have it, since that is a well-preserved medieval site as well.

Town Square with Pati and Presian in foreground, kiddie ferris wheel in background

Woman constructing brick oven for day’s festivities

Medieval Wittenberg on TV!

Making our way through the crowds, we got down to the Schlosskirche. This church was built in 1490. It was thus virtually new in Luther’s day. The large double-wooden door where Luther nailed his 95 Theses, the most famous door in Europe (known as the Thesentür), has long since disappeared. It was replaced in 1858 by a double brass door with Luther’s theses written on it. Using my sanctified imagination, I thought about the events that transpired 485 years ago this day. Luther most likely came from the monastery or the university (next door to the monastery), made his way down the long Collegienstrasse (almost two kilometers from the monastery to the Schlosskirche), with hammer and theses in hand. He was fed up with the practice of indulgences that, in essence, excused only the wealthy from purgatory and turned paupers into everyone whose hopes for the afterlife made their existence on earth miserable.

In a little antique bookstore on Collegienstrasse, I saw a painting that captured well the feeling of that day. (Unfortunately, the painting was not for sale.) It was of a young monk walking away from the door of the Wittenberg church, with hammer in hand, looking determined, ready for a battle. A number of townsfolk were standing around, pointing and gawking at what he had just posted. There was obviously an air of excitement. Off to the corner was another monk, but with a rather dour look on his face: trouble was brewing, and Luther was the brewmeister! This monk was obviously opposed to Luther and he knew well what the implications of Luther’s act meant. Of course, this painting is a bit romanticized: the theses were in Latin and most of the townsfolk probably did not understand their meaning. Within weeks, however, the 95 theses had been translated into German.

Schlosskirche Door, with mural above showing Luther and Melanchthon worshiping at the foot of the cross

Here I am in front of the Thesentür, with much the same expression that Luther probably had when he posted it.

The tower of the church overlooks all of Wittenberg, rising to 88 meters high at the top of the spire. On Saturday, 2 November, I took the 287 or so steps up to the top where I could see the sites. I was quite surprised at the beauty and majesty of this famous church. I expected it to be a little parish church, but it was truly magnificent. Wrapping around the tower today are the first few words, in German of course, of Luther’s most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” It may well be that the tower was the inspiration for Luther’s hymn, although its present form was not completed until the late 1800s.

The altar in the Schlosskirche

View of town from tower

This is a view of the town of Wittenberg from the tower of the Schlosskirche. Both main roads lead to the Schlosskirche; its tower can be seen plainly anywhere along these roads. The twin-towered church in the background is the Stadtkirche where Luther regularly preached; in front of it is the town center. The last building on the right whose outline is visible [just beyond the orange-tiled roof of the university] is Lutherhalle, the Augustinian monastery where Luther made his home.

After the visit to the Schlosskirche, we traveled up Collegienstrasse to the opposite end, to Luther’s home. If you are expecting a small, quaint one-story medieval brick home, you are in for a surprise! Luther lived in the Augustinian monastery, a rather large complex right next to the university. Within seven years of the beginning of the Reformation, the monastery was dissolved. Eight years later, in 1532, the building was granted to Luther by the elector of Saxony. Lutherhalle became his home for the rest of his days. He and his wife, the former nun, Katharina von Bora (sixteen years his junior), made a home here starting in 1525. They had six children, four of whom reached adulthood. But Luther and Kthe (or “Katie,” as he affectionately called her) did not occupy the entire Lutherhalle. They lived in a small portion of the former monastery, leased out several rooms to students, and allowed some rooms, including the large auditorium, to be used as classrooms.

Lutherhalle boasts the largest collection of Reformation art and artifacts in the world. Unfortunately, when we were there, the building was undergoing renovation and a little archeological spadework. Virtually all of the artifacts had been removed. The outside of the building was completely covered with tarps. But Luther’s Stube or heated room (with a large oven) where he studied and ate with his students (and where the conversations in his famous Table Talk took place) was still furnished to some degree. (It was unfortunately so crowded that I could not get very good pictures of it; but below is one of the oven.) The building was open only for a couple hours on Reformation Day; we made sure to visit it.

Katie on the go! (Statue of Katie von Bora in the courtyard of Lutherhalle.) I have a wife like that, too

The auditorium in Lutherhalle where lectures to as many as 400 students were delivered.

The oven in the Stube where Luther ate with his students, studied, and presumably had his ‘tower experience’.

Just a few doors down the street is Melanchthon’s home. Philipp Melanchthon was Luther’s right-hand man, coming to the university in 1521. Born Philipp Schwarzerdt (“dark earth”), his name was changed by his great-uncle, the famous classical scholar Johannes Reuchlin, to its Greek equivalent, Μελάνχθων. Melanchthon had earned his bachelor’s degree by age 14 (1511) at the University of Heidelberg, his master’s degree at Tübingen before the age of 17 (1514). He was extremely intelligent, and especially gifted in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. At first, his career was in ancient Greek, but after he met Luther he became interested in theology. The mind of Melanchthon and the heart of Luther were a powerful combination! In a large measure, Melanchthon was the brains behind the initial stages of the Reformation. He penned the great Augsburg Confession of 1530, the first official Protestant articles of faith. The statement on justification is worthy of mention: “They [the church] also teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by his death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in his sight. Rom. 3 and 4.”

Melanchthon was a popular professor. He sometimes filled his lecture hall with 200 students to teach them Greek! Melanchthon also wrote the first ‘modern’ Greek grammar (as well as a Latin grammar), an introductory text to enable students to grasp the language. His battle cry, ad fontes (“back to the sources!”), became the battle cry of the Reformation. His desire was to strip away fifteen centuries of tradition and get back to what the New Testament teachings were all about. To do this, he had to get behind the Latin Vulgate, behind the church fathers, behind the papacy and ecclesiastical layers, to the Greek New Testament itself. The Greek New Testament is indeed the source of truth. Melanchthon was on the right track.

Melanchthon’s home was built for him in 1539 by Johann Friedrich, the Elector of Saxony, after Melanchthon had received offers from several other universities in Europe. As the “teacher of Germany,” Melanchthon was a national treasure. Wittenberg had to do all it could to keep him at their university. It is a four-story, narrow building on Collegienstrasse, significantly larger than the tiny home he and his family had been used to up till 1539.

Melanchthon’s house from the herb garden

Melanchthon’s Stube—a study, dining room, and living room

Melanchthon lived, studied, ate, fellowshipped with friends and students, and died in this Stube

After a delicious dinner at the Schwarz Br Kartoffelhaus (“Black Bear Potato House”) on the main drag, we retired for the evening. This restaurant dates back to the time of Luther; they claim that it was one of Luther’s favorites.

We were exhausted from scurrying back and forth all day, taking in sites, pondering the significance of a lone brave act by an Augustinian monk so many years ago. That act set the world on fire! It was a gutsy move to challenge the corruption of the church, and it began to unravel the western world’s view of authority that it had held for many centuries, one based on tradition. Luther argued that revelation was a higher authority than tradition. People jumped on the Lutheran bandwagon for their own reasons, not all of them noble and pure. Many joined Luther because it gave them a political or financial advantage; some joined him because they embraced the truth of his convictions as their own. Who then could have imagined that Protestantism would become the third great branch of Christianity (after Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy), and would in fact outgrow the other two put together?

A Day Trip to Dresden

To a large degree, the discipline of textual criticism is an application of Melanchthon’s motto, ad fontes. For in this discipline, we are trying to recover the original text of the New Testament by examining the most ancient documents we can find. I thought about Melanchthon and his passion for truth when I took a side trip to Dresden on Friday, 1 November. I visited the university library to examine the famous Codex Boernerianus, the ninth-century Greek-Latin diglot of Paul’s letters (Gregory-Aland 012, a.k.a. Codex Gp. This is now housed in the brand new (finished in October 2002) university library (Staats Universittsbibliothek). The manuscript librarian, Dr. Thomas Haffner, was extremely helpful. What a joy it was to look at this ancient MS! I had seen the “pseudofacsimile” before, a reproduction of the text done in 1909, but never the real thing. Inside the cover of the book was a sign-up sheet covering a period of 96 years (1901—1996). During that time only 21 people had examined the MS (all but one with German names). The longest gap was from 1970 to 1992, followed by one from 1936 to 1948, mute testimonies to the ravages of malevolent political regimes.

There are several pages on this MS that are virtually unreadable, and a few where the scribe had scraped clean his parchment, leaving nothing in its place. To date, those blank places have not been able to be read. But there is a new technology that can recover the text that used to be there. Known as multi-spectral technology (MSI), it has been used successfully by Dr. Greg Bearman (a professor at CalTech) on the Genesis Apocryphon to decipher 200 words that were completely unrecoverable by any other means. Dr. David Armstrong, a classics professor at the University of Texas has also used it to read some of the charred remains of the Herculaneum papyri. This technology is opening doors that have been long closed. There are over 100 Greek New Testament MSS that have been scraped and reused for different purposes. Known as palimpsests, these MSS have an undertext that is often undecipherable. But with MSI, that undertext will be able to be read. How exciting it is to live at a time when new discoveries will be made because of new technology! (It is almost incredible to think about: we know that discoveries will be made, we know how to make them, and we even have the MSS. All that is required is permission from the libraries and monasteries that possess these ancient treasures.) A few years ago, a famous textual critic declared that no new discoveries were left to be made in this field. However, not only are there hundreds of yet-to-be discovered MSS, hiding in the recesses of ancient monasteries, but there are also a good number of known MSS whose texts have not been completely legible... until now. Not only palimpsests, but also papyri, water-damaged MSS, and many other hard-to-read MSS can benefit from MSI. If you’ve read this far, your interest in the scriptures is no trivial thing. I ask you to consider praying for libraries and monasteries to open their doors to qualified individuals who can take MSI photographs, finally giving the world the words of these precious texts that have been hidden from us for so long! The promise of this new technology is one of the reasons I founded the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts this year (CSNTM). It became incorporated on 13 September 2002. If you’d like to find out more about the Center, simply visit the website,, or write to me directly.

Besides Codex G, I also wanted to examine some of Dresden’s other Greek New Testament MSS. I was grieved to learn that four of the university’s Greek New Testament MSS had been destroyed in World War II. Seventy-five percent of this beautiful city was destroyed in that great and terrible war. And even the priceless libraries did not escape unscathed. There was something of an unwritten agreement between the Allies and Axis powers not to bomb universities, to preserve knowledge and learning and beauty. For whatever reasons, this unwritten agreement was not always followed. I can’t tell you how heartsick I am to learn of the destruction of these precious scriptures, irreplaceable treasures that they are! And even though the tragedy occurred before I was born, the news hit me as though it happened yesterday. I believe that one of the highest priorities of these libraries and monasteries should be to make high-resolution photographic copies of these treasures (or allow someone else to make them), and preserve them off-site. Only in this way can the pain of loss be somewhat lessened. When the great library of Alexandria burned up many centuries ago, mankind lost much of its knowledge of the ancient world. The real tragedy is that this same kind of thing happens today (on a smaller scale, of course), even though it can be avoided. (A few years ago I was studying at a world-class university on my last sabbatical. I asked for photographs of the university’s Greek New Testament MSS. To my amazement, two thirds of the MSS had never been officially photographed! If libraries and monasteries will take the simple step of getting their documents photographed, and then placing the photographs off-site, repeats of the Alexandria fire and the ravages of war can be partially avoided.)

After a good day in Dresden, we headed ‘home’ to Wittenberg, about 150 kilometers away. We would spend yet another day in the city that Luther built (known today, appropriately, as Lutherstadt) before returning to Muenster.

Back to Wittenberg

Saturday, 2 November, would be our last day in Wittenberg. We visited the Schlosskirche once again, and took more time to see things that we had to rush through two days earlier. Inside the Schlosskirche are two grave markers just below the podium. One is Luther’s and the other is Melanchthon’s. The place where Luther staged a battle for the whole world to see ironically became his final resting place.

Nearly half way down the Collegienstrasse from the Schlosskirche is the town square. Erected in this square are two statues, one of Luther and one of Melanchthon. And towering above the square is the Stadtkirche (town church), St. Mary’s, where Luther frequently preached. This became the first Protestant church. It was the first church since anyone could remember in which the laity as well as clergy fully participated in the Lord’s Table, partaking of both the bread and the wine.

Luther’s statue in the town square

Melanchthon’s statue in the town square

The Stadtkirche in the background and the town square in the foreground, on Reformation Day, 2002

Final Thoughts

All in all, the trip to Wittenberg was an incredible experience. I’ve had a good amount of time to reflect on the significance of a single act that started the Protestant Reformation. Today’s world is quite different from Luther’s in many ways, and yet there remain the epistemological and practical questions regarding authority and truth. Nearly 500 years after Luther took his stand, Protestants and Catholics are beginning to wrestle with reconciliation. Gestures have been made on both sides. Language is toned down, and there is an increasing recognition that each branch of Christendom (including Orthodoxy) has a contribution to make—and even that no single branch has a corner on the whole truth. On the one hand, evangelical Christians have to ask themselves what ‘faith alone’—that great clarion call of the Reformation—really means. Is the doctrine of justification by faith alone a necessary doctrine for salvation, so that all those who do not embrace it explicitly are damned to hell? Or is it an important clarification of the gospel which is nevertheless not the core of the gospel? Our attitude toward one another within Christendom depends on how we answer this question. One of the interesting facets of this question has to do with the methodological battle cry of the Reformation, ad fontes. Indeed, when we go back to the scriptures, it does indeed seem clear that Paul has a doctrine of justification by faith alone. But that doctrine is not as easy to find in James, Peter, or Jude. Yet Paul seemed to accept these other apostles, along with their theological commitments, as genuine and true. But if they did not see things quite the same way as Paul did, who are we to insist on beliefs and formulations that just might exclude even some of the apostles?1

In truth, Luther was a Paulinist. He held to a canon within the canon. Paul’s letters, especially Romans and Galatians, were the crown jewel of Luther’s theology. Is that altogether a bad approach? Is it possible to hold to a canon within the canon and yet to embrace a high view of scripture? And should Paul be considered the capstone of theological articulation? These are important questions that we must wrestle with. Further, by replacing tradition with revelation as the ultimate authority, Luther opened a Pandora’s Box whose implications he could hardly have anticipated. If revelation is the ultimate authority, then how should we interpret it? If we are to use reason—as Luther even hinted at at the Diet of Worms in 1521—then does this not make reason a higher authority than revelation? And if reason has this kind of power, what does this say about total depravity and the noetic effects of sin? How can a Christian reconcile the use of reason to grasp the meaning of scripture with a mind that has been tainted by sin? Although the Catholicism of Luther’s day was terribly corrupt, the value it placed on tradition was not altogether a bad thing. Protestantism gave rise to liberalism when reason usurped the throne of revelation. During this time, Catholicism remained far more conservative. And today, evangelicals and Catholics generally have much more in common than either of them has with liberal Christianity. In the least, this complex tapestry of western Christianity is not yet finished. The Weaver has more to do. And we all must humbly bow before him as he does his work in our lives both individually and corporately.

1 For my own take on the difference between Paul and the other New Testament writers, see my essay, “Is Intra-Canonical Theological Development Consistent with a High Bibliology?” This was originally an Evangelical Theological Society paper, delivered in March 2002 at the southwestern regional meeting held in Dallas.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

Viewing Fonts on (Including Greek and Hebrew)

Many of our studies have Greek, Hebrew and transliterations of those and other languages. In order to see the words correctly, you need to download and install the Galaxie Software BibleScript fonts.

You can get them by going to Galaxie Software.

In order to change the size of the font on the site, you'll need to change your settings in your browser.

Changing the font sizes in Internet

Many of our studies have Greek, Hebrew and transliterations of those and other languages. In order to see the words correctly, you need to download and install the Galaxie Software BibleScript fonts.

You can get them by going to Galaxie Software.

In order to change the size of the font on the site, you'll need to change your settings in your browser.

Changing the font sizes in Internet Explorer

  • Go to Tools.Internet Options
  • Click on Accessability
  • Then check the box that says Ignore font sizes specified on web pages
  • Click ok, then ok again

Consideration of Contexts in the Translation Philosophy of the NET Bible: Discussion and Examples

Assistant Editor, NET Bible


The ultimate objective of the NET Bible is to be accurate, readable, and elegant. The interplay of these three qualities has produced a translation that is useful to many different Christians from different traditions and walks of life. However, translation work does not occur in a vacuum. Although the NET Bible is not related to any prior translation, either as a direct revision or conscious imitation, it continues a long, vibrant history of English Bible translations. Within this living stream of tradition, many things have occurred. The English language has changed, so of necessity certain phrases which were elegant and powerful years ago are no longer so and must be modified so that they communicate effectively to today’s readers. Our understanding of the language of the Bible has improved greatly, so now we are better able to translate the original texts. Cultural and historical problems have been explained more fully. All of these factors work together to enable the translator to produce an English version that speaks more clearly to the contemporary reader than those versions that came before. It is the prayer of the translators and editors of the NET Bible that this translation will in fact do just that.

Within the history of English Bible translation, however, many concepts, verses, and phrasings have remained static. This is usually grounded in a belief that the traditional wording is the best way to translate the underlying text, but often there are other reasons for this stability. Theological interpretations can be imposed on a text and thereby freeze the translation when in fact there may be compelling reasons for a different rendering. Research into biblical languages often reaches an impasse, and translations may remain static simply because our understanding of the language has not progressed enough to find a better alternative. Sometimes texts are static because of the readers: certain texts become so well known and loved that translators and editors are reluctant to change them for fear of causing offense. If different English versions translate passages similarly because of consensus about the meaning and the best translation equivalent, the tradition has reached a state that is worthwhile to maintain. But if different English versions translate passages similarly for the wrong reasons, then Bible readers are not helped in their task and ultimately God is not honored.

The NET Bible has translated many passages in ways similar to other versions, but sometimes in ways very different. In fact, the editors have fielded many comments and questions about particular verses that are different from other English versions.1 Consequently, it is appropriate to explain the translation philosophy of the NET Bible as it relates to the above issues and to illustrate that philosophy from various passages. Of the three principles mentioned above, accuracy is the one that will be the focus of this discussion. The translators and editors have worked to make the NET Bible accurate, but within a very specific context and framework. The NET Bible seeks to be accurate by translating passages consistently and properly within their grammatical, historical, and theological context. The interplay and proper understanding of these three contexts has produced some distinctive translations within the NET Bible. By explaining these we hope to help the Bible reader understand more fully the translation task undertaken to produce the NET Bible, but even more importantly to understand more fully the Bible itself.

The Role of Contexts in Translation

As a translator approaches a passage there are a number of contexts that must be considered. They can be summed up under three broad terms: grammatical, historical, and theological.

Grammatical context involves a natural, accurate understanding of the language of the original text which provides parameters for how language functions and which meanings are possible and probable for a given text. This is what most naturally comes to mind when translation work is done. It is the primary work of the translator to determine what meaning is expressed in the original language and how that can best be expressed in the target language. Understanding in this area has improved immensely over the last several years, especially with the advent of computer tools for language study. One of the primary goals of the NET Bible has been to stay abreast of current research in this area. The footnotes in the NET Bible often refer to recent articles, books, and dissertations that have new data regarding how biblical languages function. As our understanding of these languages improves, naturally it will affect the translation of particular passages.

Historical context involves an understanding of the peoples, cultures, customs, and history of the times in which the Bible was written. As with the grammatical context, the historical context provides parameters for understanding the meaning of passages in the Bible and how they should be translated. It looks at the historical background and events of the text to provide a good balance for possible interpretations and meanings of a text.

Theological context is the understanding of God and his work that a particular author would have at the time he wrote a particular passage of scripture. In a manner similar to historical context, theological context provides parameters for deciding upon the meaning of a text and the best way to translate it. The Bible was written over a period of about 1500 years. During this time, theological understanding changed dramatically. Moses did not know and understand God the way Paul did. This does not mean that Moses knew God in a wrong way and that Paul knew him the right way; it simply means that God had revealed more about himself over time, so Paul had a fuller understanding of who God was and what he was doing in the world. When translating an earlier passage of scripture, the translator should take into account that the theological understanding of the author will be different from that of a later author.

As implied above, these three concepts form a limited hierarchy. Grammatical context is the most important because it deals with the nuts and bolts of the language which convey meaning which ultimately can be translated. For example, in English one cannot communicate to a reader that the sky is blue by writing, “The tree is green.” The words and phrases that make up this sentence can only communicate a limited meaning, and this is defined by the grammar, the syntax of the phrases, the meanings of the individual words, and other similar considerations. Understanding the grammatical context is the most important task of the translator, for the meaning is found in these words and phrases. The translators and editors of the NET Bible translate a passage with precedence given to the grammatical context. The historical and theological context provide a reasonable system of checks and balances; they help the translator decide what is the most probable meaning of the original text and how that meaning should be translated. They do not drive the translation; instead they guide it so that the most probable meaning is conveyed.

A very important concept for understanding the translation philosophy of the NET Bible and how these three contexts work together is progressive revelation. Simply put, progressive revelation recognizes that God reveals himself—his nature as well as his word, plans, and purposes—over time. He did not reveal everything about himself and what he was doing in the world all at once; instead he graciously revealed more and more as time went on. Later revelation serves to complement and supplement what has come before. The relation of this reality to translation work creates a great deal of tension, especially as it relates to the theological context, because certain earlier passages are clarified by later ones. Does the translator render the older passage with a view to the clarification that the later passage brings, or does the translator concentrate solely on the native context of the older passage? The translators and editors of the NET Bible have generally chosen to do the latter for a variety of reasons. A translation that takes into account the progress of revelation will be true to the three contexts discussed above. It is also very beneficial to the Bible reader to have the progress of revelation accurately represented in the translation of particular texts. This helps the reader see how God has worked through the centuries, and it helps the reader to stand more accurately in the place of the original recipients of the text. Both of these are very instructive and inspirational, and they help the reader to connect with the text in a more fulfilling way.

Examples from the NET Bible

What follows is a discussion of particular passages in the NET Bible—how they have been translated and why. The goal of this section is to show how the translators and editors have put the aspects of the translation theory discussed above into practice. The translators and editors believe these issues are important for readers of the Bible to grasp, so all these passages have extensive notes regarding these issues.

Genesis 3:15

Genesis 3:15 has had a long history of interpretation. At issue presently is whether this text refers to a single entity in conflict with another single entity, or whether groups are in view. The text of the verse in the NET Bible is as follows:

And I will put hostility between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; they will attack your head, but you will attack their heel.

A cursory reading of this passage indicates some major differences between the NET Bible and other traditional translations of this passage: the pronouns used here are plural, while many other translations have singular pronouns (“he will attack your head...”). The editors have received several comments about this verse, most of which point to this difference and ask whether it is valid since it seems to preclude a common interpretation of this verse, namely, that Jesus himself is in view. Here is where the interplay between the three contexts and progressive revelation is useful in determining the proper meaning and translation of this verse. The grammatical context is a primary factor in determining the meaning: the noun translated as “offspring” is a collective singular noun, meaning its grammatical number is singular but in reality it represents more than one thing (analogously, the word “army” in English is similar). The singular pronoun and verb which follow agree grammatically with this collective singular noun. To clarify the collective sense of the pronoun, the translation uses the English plural pronoun “they.” The theological context, informed by progressive revelation, supports this translation. At this time, the future coming of the Messiah had not been revealed, neither to the initial participants of the narrative nor to the author of the book. Therefore, it would be foreign to the original context to bring that meaning back into the passage in translation. The grammatical context and the theological context work together to yield the present translation. This is not to deny that Jesus came and eventually defeated Satan at the cross through his death; that is proclaimed clearly in later passages. However, that concept is foreign to the grammar and historical setting of this passage.

Isaiah 7:14

This verse has also seen a great deal of discussion in the history of interpretation. The text of the verse from the NET Bible is as follows:

Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.

The most visible issue surrounding this verse is the translation of the Hebrew word עַלְמָה (’almah). The NET Bible uses the phrase “young woman,” while many translations use the word “virgin.” The arguments center upon two main points: the actual meaning of the term as it is used in Hebrew, and the use of this verse in the New Testament. There is a great deal of debate about the actual meaning of the Hebrew word. However, in the New Testament when this verse is cited in Matthew 1:23 the Greek word παρθένος (parthenos) is used, and this word can mean nothing but “virgin.” Therefore, many people see Isaiah 7:14 as a prophecy about the virgin birth with Matthew 1:23 serving as a “divine commentary” on the Isaiah passage which establishes its meaning. The interplay of these issues makes a resolution quite complex. It is the opinion of the translators and editors that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 means “young woman” and actually carries no connotations of sexual experience, so the grammatical context of the verse in the Old Testament is in our opinion fairly straightforward. Neither does the historical context of Isaiah 7:14 point to any connection with the birth of the Messiah: in its original historical context, this verse was pointing to a sign for King Ahaz that the alliance between Syria and Israel which was threatening the land of Judah would come to nothing. The theological context of Isaiah 7:14 is also limited: it is a presentation of God’s divine power to show himself strong on behalf of his people. The role or birth of the Messiah does not come into view here. So the historical and theological contexts of the verse support the grammatical: the word עַלְמָה (’almah) means “young woman” and should be translated as such. Within the book of Isaiah itself, however, the author begins to develop the theological context of this verse, and this provides a connection to the use of the passage in Matthew. In Isaiah 8:9-10 the prophet delivers an announcement of future victory over Israel’s enemies; the special child Immanuel, alluded to in the last line of v. 10, is a guarantee that the covenant promises of God will result in future greatness. The child mentioned in Isaiah 7:14 is a pledge of God’s presence during the time of Ahaz, but he also is a promise of God’s presence in the future when he gives his people victory over all their enemies. This theological development progresses even further when another child is promised in Isaiah 9:6-7 who will be a perfect ruler over Israel, manifesting God’s presence perfectly and ultimately among his people. The New Testament author draws from this development and uses the original passage in Isaiah to make the connection between the child originally promised and the child who would be the ultimate fulfillment of that initial promise. The use of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 draws upon the theological development present in the book of Isaiah, but it does not change the meaning of Isaiah 7:14 in its original context.

Passages Involving πίστις Χριστοῦ and Similar Expressions in Paul

The phrase πίστις Χριστοῦ (pistis Christou) is a difficult one to translate. The issue centers on the relationship of the genitive noun Χριστοῦ to the head noun πίστις: is the genitive subjective or objective? That is, is the emphasis of this phrase on Christ as the one who exercises faith (subjective) or on Christ as the one in whom others have faith (objective)? Traditionally these phrases have been interpreted emphasizing Christ as the object of faith; “faith in Jesus Christ” is the traditional translation. However, in recent years an increasing number of New Testament scholars are arguing from both the grammatical and theological contexts that πίστις Χριστοῦ and similar phrases in Paul (Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16, 20; 3:22; Eph 3:12; Phil 3:9) involve a subjective genitive and emphasize Christ as the one who exercises faith or faithfulness: “the faithfulness of Christ.” A wider glance at the use of the noun πίστις in the rest of the New Testament shows that when it takes a personal genitive that genitive is almost never objective. Certainly faith in Christ is a Pauline concept, but Bible scholars have begun to see that in Paul’s theological thought there is also an emphasis on Christ as one who is faithful and therefore worthy of our faith. The grammatical and theological contexts are not decisive, and either translation is possible. The editors decided to follow the subjective genitive view because a decision had to be made—“faith of Christ,” a literal translation, communicates very little to the average reader in the context—and because scholarship in this area is now leaning towards this view. The question is certainly not closed, however, and if further research indicates that the grammatical or theological context proves decisive for the other view, the translation will be modified to reflect that.


The NET Bible strives to be accurate in its translation. This involves careful attention to the grammatical, historical, and theological contexts and the connection of the progress of revelation to all of these. We believe that being faithful to the original context of each Bible passage makes the reader more aware of how God works with his people, and it makes for a fuller experience when reading the Bible. It is our prayer that the NET Bible will help all who read it to know the scriptures better and then act upon what they learn.

1 The editors of the NET Bible encourage comments about the translation. Comments can be sent to NET Bible Comments.

Related Topics: NET Bible, Text & Translation

An Open Letter Regarding The NET Bible, New Testament

N.B. This article was published in Notes on Translation 14:4 (2000): 1-8, and is used by permission.

In Notes on Translation 13:4 (1999): 42–54, Phil Fields wrote a review entitled, “The NET Bible, an Important New Bible Study Tool.” Because of the impact of this article as well as many other contacts with SIL in the last two years, the NET Bible editors have received a great deal of input from field translators, scholars, and layfolks. As Phil Fields’ review notes, the NET translation team is listening to any and all suggestions on how to improve this translation. This is the first translation in history that has been open to outsiders to investigate and criticize while it is in process. In other words, it is the first translation ever to be beta-tested!

Hundreds of thousands of people have seen the NET Bible at its website,, and many of them have contributed suggestions. (To send your input to the editors, go to our comments database)1 From high school students and non-native speakers of English to doctoral students and world-class biblical scholars, we have received compliments, suggestions, questions, and criticisms. All of this input is important to us because the Bible is meant for the masses; the challenge of reducing the best scholarly insights into language that the average English reader can grasp means that responses from both ends of that spectrum are crucial in making a Bible translation both accurate and readable. Among Wycliffe and SIL members, a special thanks must go out to Wayne Leman: his hundreds of e-mails to the editors, systematically working through various New Testament books, have been immensely valuable. And, of course, Phil Fields’ article, to which this is a response, has been quite helpful as well.

Largely because of the input from field translators, we have become more sensitive to several issues. We have also come to see more clearly the multitude of translation objectives that different groups bring to the task. This present article is intended to address some of those issues, show how the NET Bible has already improved because of input from SIL translation personnel and others, and to articulate more clearly what our objectives are in this work. No translation of the Bible will satisfy everyone. Indeed, no committee-produced translation will completely satisfy even all those who worked on it. And even though the NET project has several stated principles, these must not be seen as occupying airtight compartments. The ultimate objective of the NET Bible is to be accurate, readable, and elegant. Yet these three principles are all too often in conflict with each other. Even a universal taxonomy will not work, because some passages pose special problems (such as liturgical use, familiarity, connections with the Old Testament, theological richness, and the like) that would override any rigid taxonomy.

As an illustration of the complexity of competing principles, consider the Lord’s declaration in Mark 1:17: “I will make you fishers of men.” This wording, found in the KJV, RSV, NASB, NIV, REB, and ultimately going back to Tyndale, is familiar to church-goers. But in modern English it communicates a meaning that slightly deviates from the point: Jesus did not just want his apostles to evangelize adult males, but all people (the Greek is ποιήσω ὑμᾶς γενέσθαι ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων). But there is a second problem with this verse: “fishers of men” is archaic. The NRSV opts for “I will make you fish for people.” This resolves the two problems of the older translations, but introduces two others. First, it sounds as if Jesus will force the disciples to “fish for people”; second, the conversion of the objective genitive to an object of the preposition results in a subtle shift from a focus on a new occupation to a mere activity. The NLT and TEV get past the first problem but not the second (“I will show you how to fish for people,” “I will teach you to catch people”). So, how best to solve the dilemma? The full meaning of Jesus’ declaration includes both non-exclusive evangelism and implications of an occupational shift. It is too cumbersome to express this as “I will make you fishermen of people,” though the archaism is removed. Nor is it correct to translate this as “I will make you fishers of mankind” because that would imply a mission to gentiles which the disciples could not have conceived of at this time in redemptive history. This text illustrates the clash of the translational objectives of accuracy, readability, and elegance. At bottom, we believe that the great value of the NET Bible is its extensive notes that wrestle with such issues, for the footnotes become a way for us to have our cake and eat it too. But on this passage—for now—we have settled on the translation, “I will turn you into fishers of people.” We have retained an archaism both because of its familiarity and because the alternative “fishermen” was too inelegant. The object complement construction was rendered “turn you into fishers” instead of “make you fishers” both because of its clarity and the hint of the disciples’ conversion as a prerequisite to their new occupation. We chose not to go with the more natural but less accurate rendering of “I will teach you to catch people.” In this passage, accuracy was more important than readability or elegance. But a decision was not easy; we are still open to suggestions.

Consider another passage, Romans 3:22, in which the controversial expression διὰ πίστεως ᾿Ιησοῦ Χριστοῦ was rendered “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” Virtually all other English translations have “through faith in Jesus Christ” here. A decision was difficult, but the NET editors felt that scholarly opinion has been turning toward a subjective genitive view in the last twenty years. In addition to researching the issue, we were also concerned with producing a translation that represented the best of current scholarship. So we corresponded with scholars who have written on this problem—in England, Canada, Australia, and the United States. Fields’ review of the NET praised our treatment here because we had the courage to go with our convictions. But he contrasted this with our handling of 2 Peter 2:12, where, because three plausible interpretations present themselves, we chose to leave the translation ambiguous. He comments (1999:52): “If one is going to have the two stated aims in translation of faithfulness and clarity, one must have the courage to make choices in the translation[The translators] have left the more literal form in the text, with the result that none of the possible interpretations of the text is clearly communicated.” What he does not realize is that this is exactly what we intended to do: the meaning of the original at this point is both sufficiently ambiguous and capable of a variety of interpretations that we felt it best to leave to the English reader the same interpretive options that the reader of Greek has. That is a part of the “faithfulness” objective.2 This is quite different from Romans 3:22, for there a neutral translation—“by faith of Jesus Christ” (the KJV rendering)—would communicate a nonsensical meaning. The NET editors make an interpretive choice if a more literal rendering is nonsensical or if there is something of a scholarly consensus on the meaning of the text. What we did in both Romans 3:22 and 2 Peter 2:12 is consistent with this principle.

There are, in fact, many times where an author intentionally uses an ambiguous expression, employing double entendre, puns, and the like. To collapse these texts into a single meaning is to destroy part of the author’s meaning. “The love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14 is one such instance;3 Paul’s frequent “in Christ” formula is another.4 Another broad example is the use of the divine passive and other oblique references to deity. This is a large category of uses that many translators (not to mention ancient scribes!) simply do not feel comfortable with leaving as is. But to add the name of God in many places is to destroy the author’s intentional literary subtlety—he is purposefully engaging the readers to think about who is behind the scenes. Philippians 4:13 affords a classic example: “I am able to do all things through the one who strengthens me.” The TEV and NLT have “Christ” here—a rendering which paints with black and white what Paul originally communicated with a full palette of colors; further, it may even be referentially inaccurate (perhaps the Spirit is more in view).

At issue here is whether clarity about the essential meaning, or fidelity to the fuller meaning, is more important. (Further, clarity often moves toward naturalness but away from elegance and rhetorical power.) To field translators (i.e., those who are making a first translation in a language where no Scriptures have previously been available), often the former is the higher priority. To those who translate into major European languages, especially English, and particularly with the goal of providing a Bible that is suitable both for study and pulpit reading, the latter is more important. It is this very issue—and the assumption that the NET editors have the same goals as field translators—that has produced the majority of Fields’ negative examples. For example, he criticized our handling of Ephesians 2:8 (“by grace you are saved”) because it used religious jargon; apparently he prefers the translation of God’s Word: “God saved you through an act of kindness”—a translation that, though clearer, has decidedly softened the full force of the apostle’s words.

Yes, it is true that the NET editors strive to rid this translation of religious jargon. On the other hand, if a term or phrase has both a certain theological import and is repeated in a number of contexts, then deletion of that expression may become a hindrance in seeing the rich tapestry of biblical revelation.

A similar issue faces us when it comes to figures of speech: Do we retain the fuller meaning or clear the figure and opt for its basic idea? If the figurative language communicates nothing to the modern English reader, then we must opt for an alternative. But if the figure is part of English usage or can be understood from the context (even if this may require some effort), the NET translation usually retains it. (Again, this goal is different from that of field translations in situations where there has been no previous exposure to the Scriptures.) Thus, in Matthew 3:8 the NET has “produce fruit that proves your repentance” both because fruit-bearing is a very common biblical idiom that is linked to several passages and because its meaning is clear enough from the context. (This can be objectively tested with the intended audience.)

At the same time, since those responsible for this new translation are primarily exegetes, our perspective is often so entrenched in the first-century world that we are blind as to how the English reader would look at the text today. Exegetes tend to produce a wooden translation without realizing it. That’s a weakness that SIL folks and others can help us overcome significantly. Your sensitivity in these matters is legendary. And we have already changed the text in hundreds of places because of such input. On the other hand, sometimes field translators (or anyone whose work is not primarily in exegesis), thinking that they have grasped the meaning of the text well enough, will make alterations in the wording that actually misconstrue the author’s intention. Several popular English translations already do this. The NET Bible is a conscious effort to be natural and idiomatic while retaining the full meaning of the original if at all possible. We almost always have greater freedom in narrative than in didactic literature, but suggestions are welcome for every genre.

A word is necessary here about those who have produced the NET Bible and about the latest revision. All of the scholars who worked on this translation teach biblical exegesis in seminaries and graduate schools. Further, the original translator for each book was chosen in every instance because of his work in that particular book—often extending over several decades. Many of the translators have participated in several other translation projects as well. Hence, the notes alone are the fruit of hundreds of thousands of hours of research.

In the last sixteen months, another revision of the NET New Testament has been under way. The version on which Fields’ review was based was produced early in 1999. The NET team has made thousands of changes to the text and notes of the New Testament since that last version, most of which move toward a more idiomatic and/or elegant rendering. Again, much of the impetus for such alterations has come from Wayne Leman and those he sent our way. We have enjoyed genuine mutual cooperation in this endeavor. We have also received a great deal of input from laypeople, such as high school students, Sunday school classes, English stylists, and others. All of the translators were encouraged to read their translations out loud to their families and others. How a text sounds is just as important as how it reads. Even though this kind of exchange has been encouraged, the final decisions have always been in the hands of the editorial team because communication of meaning is at stake.

As illustrations of the decision-making process in the revision, consider the following. A reader sends in a suggestion that the wording in Mark 3:27 is confusing: “enter into the house of the strong man.” Although the article is found in Greek, the expression is generic, and English often—and increasingly so—uses an indefinite article to communicate a generic idea. Thus, something that was quite clear to the translators was confusing to lay readers. The wording was changed to “a strong man’s house.” Here is a classic example of the reason why a symbiotic relationship is needed for this translation project: the problem here is easily overlooked by exegetes. Again, a reader sends in a suggestion on Luke 1:64 where the NET has: “Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue released, and he spoke, blessing God.” The reader correctly notes that this is a Semitism, but incorrectly suggests that a simpler, more natural rendering would communicate the same meaning. The reason a simpler expression (such as the NLT and TEV have) changes the meaning is that, as one of the assistant editors noted in discussing this point, “[Luke] slowed the whole thing down by speaking of the opening of the mouth and the loosing of the tongue. The point is that his vivid description recalls Isaianic language and is important for it sets up motifs consistent with the arrival of the kingdom in Luke-Acts including loosened tongues and praising God. The language heightens the miraculous aspect of what happened, which seems lost somewhat in this reader’s suggestion.” It could be added that the first two chapters of Luke are intentionally Semitic in tone and wording—even though this style of writing was somewhat foreign to Luke!—and that one of our tasks is to reflect as faithfully as possible both the meaning and the “feel” of the original for modern readers. The challenge of the editors is to listen to readers’ suggestions and filter them through solid exegesis, bending as much as possible toward natural, idiomatic English, but without destroying motifs, themes, and theologically rich expressions.

Besides interacting with input both from without and within, the chief issue the NET editors faced in this latest revision was a rigorous comparison of the synoptic Gospels. First, a completely color-coded synopsis of the Greek text was constructed along the lines of William Farmer’s Synopticon (i.e., exact parallels were highlighted in the same color, inexact parallels were underlined in the same color; what color was used depended on which combination of gospels were parallel). John’s Gospel was also compared, and the whole process was based on the critically constructed text that stands behind the NET New Testament. The Greek comparison alone took several hundred hours to do. Then, a comparison of our current translation of the synoptics was made against the Greek synopsis. If the Greek of two or more Gospels was the same, then either the corresponding English needed to be the same or else justification for the differences needed to be made. Indeed, many times the similarities in the Greek were only snippets, and the English collocations were sufficiently different that harmonization was linguistically inappropriate. But at other times, the differences in the English were not justified. As far as we know, the NET Bible is the only English translation that has gone through such a rigorous process of synoptic (and Johannine) comparisons. (Some translations that would be expected to have done something like this [viz., the more literal ones] would be so inconsistent as to render παιδίσκη in the pericopae about Peter’s denials as “maid,” “servant-girl,” and “slave-girl”—Matthew 26:69, Mark 14:66, 69, Luke 22:56, John 18:17—when there is absolutely no reason for a different rendering each time.) The last step in the process was to have conformity of notes in parallel passages when appropriate. Each of these steps increases the labor exponentially; the whole process took over a year to complete.

One of the elements that contributes to good writing is the use of collocations that draw the reader into mental engagement with the author. But this is often in tension with other factors in a translation that may be the first and only translation a group of people will have for decades. Hence, field translators do not always have the luxury of retaining the theological richness and rhetorical power of the original text. Because they have the noble task of making the Bible plain and simple for those who have not heard, literary quality and/or literary level must often be sacrificed at the altar of clarity. This philosophy of translation has been transferred, without the deepest reflection, back into English Bibles in the last several years. The impetus toward simpler sentences and vocabulary, conversational or even vernacular English, and the removal of theological jargon seems to come largely from linguists and translators. I think that is commendable to a degree, and I have often told my students that the first translation of the Bible into a language must be of this ilk. The problem, as I see it, is that the philosophy that should drive field translation has been brought over into European-language Bibles, when the religious heritage of speakers of these languages is often decidedly different from that of language groups where first translations are being made. In fact, I would say the religious heritage of English-speakers—especially in America (where this translation will have its greatest impact)—comes close to what the first readers of the New Testament had.

In sum, I am grateful to Phil Fields for the stimulus his review provided, and for the many who have come forward to assist us in this great task. We continue to ask for your assistance because the mutual cooperation benefits us all. And with nearly three quarters of a million words in the text and notes, the NET team needs all the editorial and proofreading help we can get!


Farmer, William. 1969. Synopticon: The Verbal Agreement between the Greek Texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke Contextually Exhibited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fields, Phil. 1999. The NET Bible, an important new Bible study tool. Notes on Translation 13(4): 42–54.

Moule, C. F. D. 1977. The Origin of Christology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1 The NET Bible is available on-line at It may be downloaded free of charge. The New Testament (with over 16,000 footnotes and 800 pages of text) may also be purchased in paperback, hardback, or leather-bound ($24:95, $34:95, and $44:95, respectively), or as a Logos-searchable CD with the search engine included ($39:95). The beta version of the Old Testament is also available at the website and will shortly be available in other formats too.

2 It is a non sequitur that faithfulness in translation leads to “the courage to make choices in the translation.” The courage to make choices is really more a part of the clarity objective. Hence, Fields’ error in his critique of the NET translation of 2 Peter 2:12 is that he assumed a certain taxonomy of principles because he saw it played out that way in other places. This led him to see certain inconsistencies that were not there. To be sure, there have been and still are many inconsistencies in the NET! And that is why we seek the help of SIL and others in this great task of translating the Bible into English afresh.

3 The meaning is probably both “Christ’s love for us” and “our love for Christ”—that is, the genitive is probably both subjective and objective, or plenary. It is Christ’s love for us that produces our love for him.

4 The meaning of this expression is multivalenced, picking up our incorporation into Christ in some places, an eschatological note in others, not to mention individual and corporate notions, etc. The language, in some ways, is distinctively unGreek. And yet, the very fact that it is a bit mysterious was intentional: the readers had to probe to uncover the depths of this expression. Much like puns or figures of speech, to reduce “in Christ” to a flatter expression would be to destroy part of its meaning. C. F. D. Moule made much of this idiom in his magnum opus, The Origin of Christology (1977). His chapter on the incorporated Christ shows how English readers have seen this expression as bizarre—just as Greek readers did! He points out that one simply is not in another person. The language, however, is meant to show that Christ though a man is more than a man; the language points to him as deity. Field translators would probably prefer to reduce this to something else. I have no quarrel with that; but for a translation in English, I believe we should usually maintain the idiom and let English readers grapple with its force just as the original readers had to.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)

The Kingdom in Matthew

Related Media


The concept of the kingdom looms large on the pages of Scripture. Herman Ridderbos thought it so important that he declared: “The whole of the preaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles is concerned with the kingdom of God.”1 Robert Saucy echoes the point: “While mentioned far less often in the epistles, the ‘kingdom of God’ still qualifies as the summary of the apostolic teaching.”2 John Bright has even stated that “the concept of the Kingdom of God involves, in a real sense, the total message of the Bible.”3

Yet despite its importance, perhaps no other theme of the gospels has invoked greater confusion and controversy. There is no agreement on such basic questions as: What is the very nature of the kingdom of God? Is the kingdom of God different from the kingdom of heaven? Has the kingdom arrived? If not, why not and when will it come? What did Christ teach about the kingdom? These questions and more like them have engendered much debate in the theological world.

The purpose of this article is to evaluate the kingdom of God as it is espoused in the gospel of Matthew. I have chosen this topic for four basic reasons. First, attempting an overall survey of the kingdom would be a massive undertaking beyond my present capabilities. Second, Matthew is a hinge book, linking the Old and New Testaments, and so the presentation of the kingdom in the first gospel is extremely important. Third, the concept of the kingdom is prominently featured in Matthew; in fact, it is the theme of the book.4 Finally, although the advent of progressive dispensationalism has refocused attention on the kingdom of God, most of the detailed attention has been given to Luke.5

Chapter Two, lays a foundation for this study by providing a brief overview of various views of the kingdom from a systematic theology perspective. Chapter Three looks at the coming kingdom as it was announced by Jesus, and John before him, primarily in chapters 3 and 4 of Matthew. Chapter Four looks at the kingdom that “has come,” as espoused in Matthew chapters 12 and 13. Chapter Five looks at kingdom living, as Jesus explained it in chapters 5 through 7 (the Sermon on the Mount) and later in chapters 18 and 19. Chapter Six reviews the consummation of the kingdom when Jesus ushers in the millennial reign, as described principally in chapters 24 and 25. In Chapter Seven, I draw several modest conclusions from this study and suggest areas for additional study.

Chapter Two:
A Survey of the Kingdom of God in Theology

In this brief survey of the various theological viewpoints on the Kingdom of God, I examine first the critical-historical debate. I then turn to the three major views of Evangelicalism, the kingdom-future perspective of revised dispensationalism, the kingdom-now perspective of classical reformed or covenant theology, and the increasingly popular kingdom-already-but-not-yet perspective of historic premillennialism and progressive dispensationalism.

The Critical Historical Debate

Nineteenth century liberal theologians Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack believed that the kingdom of God is not something to be established in the future, but is now present in the form of the “brotherhood of man,” the infinite value of the individual soul, and the ethic of love. To them, the apocalyptic element in Jesus’s teaching was the “husk” that contained the “kernel” of his real message of love.6 Hence, the predominant liberal view was that the kingdom of which Jesus spoke was a present ethical kingdom.

Johannes Weiss rejected that view. He wrote in The Preaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God that Jesus was “thoroughly eschatological, futuristic, and even apocalyptic in his outlook.”7 According to Weiss, Jesus expected the kingdom to come in the immediate future by a dramatic action of God.8 Thus, Jesus’s ethical commands (including the Sermon on the Mount) were interim rules in anticipation of the imminent kingdom, not rules of conduct given for all time.9 Albert Schweitzer picked up where Weiss left off. He interpreted the whole of Jesus’s preaching as being permeated with a conviction of the approaching kingdom. He called this interpretation a “consistent eschatology.” According to Schweitzer, a future heavenly kingdom was at the base of Jesus’s preaching even from the beginning of his ministry.10 However, in the end, in Schweitzer’s view, Jesus was traumatized by “the delay of the parousia” and he thus died in despair and disillusionment.11

C.H. Dodd gave eschatology its next major reorientation. He believed the kingdom had already arrived, calling his system a ‘realized eschatology.’ According to Dodd, the kingdom is a transcendent order beyond time and space that has broken into history in the mission of Jesus.12

The debate over “kingdom future” or “kingdom now” continues to rage. This is true in evangelical circles as well. The three views discussed below are representative.

Revised Dispensationalists—Thy Kingdom Come!

Revised dispensationalists13 have traditionally characterized the kingdom of God as consisting of an earthly theocratic kingdom promised to Israel in the Old Testament. It is the thousand year reign of Christ on earth.14 They believe that Jesus offered the kingdom to the Jews, but that Jesus’s own people rejected the offer, and so, instead of establishing the kingdom, Jesus postponed it until the second coming. In the meantime, he established the “mystery form” of the kingdom during the “inter-advent age,” in which “Christ rules spiritually in the hearts of believers without fulfilling the prophecies of the kingdom on earth.”15 As John Walvoord has stated:

Jesus had been offering the kingdom in the form of offering himself as the Messiah and King of Israel. This offer had been rejected, as God had anticipated, and ultimately this rejection would lead to the cross of Christ, which was part of God’s plan for the redemption of the world. On the divine side this was no change of plan, but on the human side it was a change of direction regarding fulfillment of the kingdom promise.16

Revised dispensationalists thus believe that the kingdom promised in the Old Testament (what I call the eschatological kingdom) will be established in the millennium at which time Israel will be converted and Jesus will sit on David’s throne. Both inauguration and consummation of the kingdom are future in orientation.

Revised dispensationalists have been particularly vigorous in proposing that the entirety of the eschatological kingdom of God will come in the future, as Jesus returns and ushers in the millennium. Charles Ryrie has emphatically declared that the kingdom is not the church, the body of Christ.17 Rather, the kingdom is future:

What would those people [the Jews of Jesus’s day] have understood the kingdom to be? The Messianic, Davidic kingdom on this earth in which the Jewish people would have a prominent place.18

The kingdom is “physical, glorious and powerful.”19

The gospel of Matthew factors prominently in the revised dispensational scheme of the kingdom. As Walvoord stated in his commentary on Matthew, the very purpose of the first gospel is to “explain[] why the prophecies relating to the kingdom of Christ on earth are delayed in fulfillment until the second coming.”20 It “was designed to explain to the Jews, who had expected the Messiah when He came to be a conquering king, why instead Christ suffered and died, and why there was the resulting postponement of His triumph to His second coming.”21

Reformed Theology—Thy Kingdom Came (Mainly)!

Covenant theologians agree that Christ will return as He promised and that, when He does, He will bring in the fullness of the kingdom. Nevertheless, in contrast to revised dispensationalists, that is not their emphasis. They focus on the belief that the kingdom has already arrived. Charles Hodge is representative of this view. He said, with respect to the nature of the kingdom:

First, it is spiritual. That is, it is not of this world. It is not analogous to the other kingdoms which existed, or do still exist among men. It has a different origin and a different end. Human kingdoms are organized among men, under the providential government of God, for the promotion of the temporal well-being of society. The kingdom of Christ was organized immediately by God, for the promotion of religious objects. It is spiritual, or not of this world, moreover, because it has no power over the lives, liberty, or property of its members; and because all secular matters lie beyond its jurisdiction. . . . The kingdom of Christ, under the present dispensation, therefore, is not worldly even in the sense in which the ancient theocracy was of this world.22

More recently, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote:

It is a kingdom which is to come, yes. But it is also a kingdom which has come. ‘The kingdom of God is among you’ and ‘within you’; the kingdom of God is in every true Christian. He reigns in the Church when she acknowledges Him truly. The kingdom has come, the kingdom is coming, the kingdom is yet to come. Now we must always bear that in mind. Whenever Christ is enthroned as King, the kingdom of God is come, so that, while we cannot say that He is ruling over all in the world at the present time, He is certainly ruling in that way in the hearts and lives of all His people.23

The New Geneva Study Bible sharpens the contrast between reformed theology and revised dispensationalism. It states that “the kingdom or the reign of God is what the Old Testament prophets awaited: God’s display of His sovereignty in the redemption of His people.”24 Thus, with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the “spread of the good news to all nations,” the Old Testament promises of God “have been largely fulfilled for us, although we still await their complete realization when Christ returns in judgment.”25 “The kingdom came with Jesus and is known wherever the lordship of Jesus is acknowledged.”26

Historic Premillennialists and Progressive Dispensationalists:
Thy Kingdom—Already but Not Yet!

A growing number of conservative theologians have refused to be boxed into either a “kingdom future” or a “kingdom now” emphasis. Beginning with Herman Ridderbos and George Ladd, these theologians embrace a “both/and” approach to the kingdom—postulating that the kingdom of God has already arrived in an inaugural form, but has not yet fully been consummated, and will not be until Christ’s second coming.27 This “already/not yet” approach has drawn proponents from dispensational, historic premillennial and reformed camps, so much so that Richard Gaffin has observed that it “has now virtually reached the status of consensus.”28 This position is well represented by New Testament commentators such as D.A. Carson and progressive dispensationalists such as Craig Blaising, Darryl Bock and Robert Saucy. As Bock stated:

What emerges is a picture of a career [of Jesus] that comes in stages as different aspects of what the Old Testament promises are brought to fulfillment at different phases of Jesus’s work. One might characterize these phases as the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of Jesus’s career, or by reference to the kingdom, as the invisible and the visible kingdom of God.29

Progressive dispensationalists, in particular, claim that they offer “a corrective” to both revised dispensationalism and covenant theology because “covenant theologians of the past have tended to overemphasize the ‘already’ in their critiques of dispensationalism, while underemphasizing the ‘not yet.’“30

The gospel of Matthew is an integral component of the “already/not yet” eschatological scheme (though Luke appears to have been emphasized in progressive dispensational writings because of the particular expertise of Darrell Bock with respect to the Luke/Acts texts).31 D.A. Carson declared in his seminal commentary on Matthew that a “constant theme” of the book is that “the kingdom came with Jesus and his preaching and miracles, it came with his death and resurrection, and it will come at the end of the age.”32

As this short survey demonstrates, there are a wide variety of interpretations and explanations of the nature and purpose of the kingdom program of God. In 1958, J. Dwight Pentecost wrote that it was “almost impossible to make one’s way” through the maze of interpretations.33 This task has not gotten any easier in the forty subsequent years, and any interpreter must remain humble in attempting to maneuver the maze. Yet Pentecost pointed the way out when he observed that the truths relating to the kingdom will not be found in examining the writings of men but only by an inductive study of the Word of God.34 Accordingly, I now turn to the book of Matthew and its treatment of Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom.

Chapter Three:
The Coming Kingdom Proclaimed

Matthew mentions the “kingdom of God” four times in his gospel. He mentions the “kingdom of heaven” thirty-three times. The term “kingdom” is used seventeen additional times.35 Obviously, then, God’s kingdom is a central theme of Matthew’s gospel. Although Walvoord and Vine believe the kingdom of heaven can be distinguished in some fashion from the kingdom of God,36 the vast majority of theologians recognize that the terms are synonymous.37

The Coming Kingdom
Prophesied By John The Baptist

The kingdom of God is introduced to us in Matthew through the ministry of John the Baptist. John had two roles. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. In his prophetic ministry, he strongly castigated the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders. He was also the herald who came before the king, announcing his impending presence. He was Jesus’s forerunner.

Matthew 3:2 encapsulizes John’s basic message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This, our first encounter with the kingdom concept in Matthew, is a pivotal one. Here, at the beginning, we must grapple with several thorny foundational questions.

What did the term “kingdom” mean in the Old Testament?

It seems to me that much of the scholarly discussion of the kingdom of God is at such an abstract level as to be essentially meaningless. Alva McClain has well stated: “The great ideas of the Bible are concrete rather than abstract, and such terms as the kingdom of God are intended to convey meanings which are pertinent to actual situations in the world of reality with which men are somewhat familiar.”38 My goal here is to examine the term “kingdom” in a concrete way.

It is customary to speak of a kingdom (basileia) as being made up of two component parts: [1] an authority to rule and [2] the realm or territory over which the king’s reign is exercised.39 Vine, for example, speaks of the kingdom as being [1] sovereignty, royal power, dominion and [2] the territory or people over whom a king rules.40 Strong similarly states that the kingdom consists of “royal power, kingship, dominion, rule” and “the territory subject to the rule of a king.”41 Bauer, Gingrich and Danker call the kingdom [1] “kingship, royal power, royal rule” and [2] “the territory ruled over by a king.”42

This two-fold division undoubtedly stems from the Scriptural two-fold depiction of the kingdom. It is first of all viewed as a universal, eternal, timeless kingdom (1 Chron. 29:11-12; Ps. 10:16; 29:10).43 The kingdom is second of all viewed as a “theocratic” or “mediatorial” kingdom.44 These two perspectives are aspects of one holistic kingdom and should not be rigidly separated into separate kingdoms; indeed, Daniel 7:13-14, 27 combines them. Nevertheless, McClain has profitably written with respect to the latter:

The mediatorial kingdom may be defined tentatively as the rule of God through a divinely chosen representative who not only speaks and acts for God but also represents the people before God; a rule which has especial reference to the human race (although it finally embraces the universe); and its mediatorial ruler is always a member of the human race.45

Old Testament theology can be summarized under the central theme of this mediatorial kingdom. From the beginning of history, God worked through appointed mediators in administering the mediatorial kingdom.46 The mediatorial kingdom was in its incipiency during the time of the patriarchs. It began as a historical matter during the time of Moses and continued through the early great leaders of Israel such as Joshua and Samuel. It reached a height of glory during the reigns of Israel’s first three kings. The reigns of David and Solomon in particular “typify the ideal of God’s earthly kingdom during the Mosaic dispensation.”47 Its Old Testament close was recorded in the book of Ezekiel, when the Shekinah glory left the temple in Jerusalem as the covenant people of God were carried off into ignoble exile as judgment for their apostasy (Ezek. ch. 8-11).

Yet, at the same time, God graciously revealed to his faithful remnant that the glory would one day return and that, one day, the kingdom would once again be established on earth, in the city of Jerusalem. On that day, God would “dwell in the midst of the children of Israel forever (Ezek. 43:7).48 Through the prophetic books of the Old Testament, a small stream of prophecies about the coming eschatological kingdom of God soon became a raging torrent.

In the Old Testament revelation about the coming kingdom, there was a “deep note of mystery in the career of the coming King.”49 The Old Testament reveals a striking dichotomy in the person of the King. He is presented as coming in glory to reign on the earth. Yet he is also presented as a man of sorrow, despised and rejected of men; wounded, bruised, afflicted and dying for the iniquities of men (Isa. 53). He is the great shepherd of Israel, yet he is smitten by the sword of God, and the sheep are scattered (Zech. 13:7; cf. Isa. 40:9-11). He is Messiah the Prince of Israel, ruler of the nations, yet he is “cut off” and has nothing which belongs to his regal glory (Dan. 9:25, 26).50

It is also important to understand that the Old Testament prophets revealed that the coming kingdom would be primarily spiritual in nature. As McClain said:

It will bring personal salvation from the hand of God (Isa. 12:1-6), divine forgiveness for sin (Jer. 31:34), provision of God's own righteousness for men (Jer. 23:3-6), moral and spiritual cleansing, a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek. 36:24-28), inward harmony with the laws of the kingdom (Jer. 31:33), recognition by men of all nations that Jehovah is the true God, the God who is able to answer prayer (Zech. 8:20-23), the restoration of genuine joy and gladness to human life (Isa. 35:10), and the pouring out of God's Spirit “upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28).51

In sum, the mediatorial kingdom of the Messiah, as prophesied in the Old Testament, is “material and spiritual, sacred and secular at the same time.”52 As McClain put it, the kingdom:

is spiritual; with effects which are ethical, social, economic, political, ecclesiastical, and physical. To single out any one of these important aspects, and deny validity to the others, is to narrow unwisely the breadth of the prophetic vision and to set limits upon the possibilities of human life on earth under God.53

What was the nature of the kingdom of heaven as John the Baptist saw it?

As noted in chapter two, there is a strong split of opinion among conservative theologians on even the nature of the kingdom. Reformed theologians believe the kingdom to be primarily spiritual. Dispensationalists of all stripes believe it has a strong material or territorial element. Commentators on Matthew likewise have espoused a wide variety of views on the nature of the kingdom proclaimed by John. For example:

  • Walvoord believes that the kingdom refers to the “climax of world history” which would be “an everlasting kingdom.” It would include “all who profess to be subjects of the King.”54
  • France believes that the kingdom is “the establishment of God’s rightful sovereignty in judgment and in salvation.” It is the Messianic age.55
  • Carson likewise stated that the kingdom was “the manifest exercise of God’s sovereignty, his ‘reign’ on earth and among men.”56

Who is right? Walvoord’s statements seem incomplete. As we have seen, the eschatological kingdom was prophesied to be holistic in nature, and that is how John would have understood it. There is no reason to believe that John held to anything other than the same view of the kingdom as did the Old Testament prophets. He expected a physical reign, but with an acutely spiritual focus. This is evident from his message of repentance (3:2), his urging of the people to confess their sins (3:6), his scathing words to the Pharisees that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:10; NIV). It is also evident from John’s prophecy concerning the work of the coming King—he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire (3:11).

Like the other Old Testament prophets before him, John did not differentiate between the imminent coming of Christ for salvation purposes and the future coming of Christ in the consummation of his kingdom. This is to be expected, of course, since he did not have the framework to conceptualize one Messiah with two comings separated by a vast gulf in time.57 As Ladd put it, John “looked for a single, though complex, event of salvation-judgment.”58

What did John mean when he said that the kingdom of heaven was “at hand?”

There is a longstanding debate over the meaning of the phrase “at hand” (eggiken). There is certainly a variety of views on the subject.

  • On the one hand, Walvoord believes John taught that, in the person of the coming Messiah, “the kingdom was being presented to Israel and to the world.”59 He states: “The kingdom being at hand meant that it was being offered in the person of the prophesied King, but it did not mean that it would be immediately fulfilled.”60
  • At the other end of the scale, C.H. Dodd argued that the phrase “at hand” in 3:2 equalled the phrase “has come” in 12:28.61
  • Offering a somewhat mediating view is France, who observed that the NASB phrase “is at hand” does not do justice to the perfect tense of engizo which literally means “has come near.” In his view, the phrase “introduces a state of affairs which is already beginning and which demands immediate attention.” In his view, even the Anchor Bible’s “fast approaching” is too remote. The time for decision “has already come.”62
  • Carson as well adopts this view, asserting that “with Jesus the kingdom has drawn so near that it has actually dawned.”63
  • Interestingly, Glasscock (a dispensationalist) appears to agree, stating that “the major point in the proclamation was that the kingdom promised by God through Messiah was at hand because the Messiah was in the world.”64

Certainly, the bare notion of an “offer” of the kingdom does not go far enough. John viewed the kingdom as “future, but close at hand.”65 It was “approaching in time” and “approaching in space,” but it had not yet arrived.66 The sense appears to be one of an inevitable and imminent approach that could not be halted, similar to that of a freight train bearing down on a car stalled on the railroad tracks. The same word is used in Matthew 26:46-47, where Jesus told his sleeping disciples, “Arise, let us be going; behold, the one who betrays Me is at hand! “ Verse 47 says, “while He was still speaking,” Judas came up to betray him. As Darrell Bock well summarized:

The point seems to be that with the coming of Jesus and the preaching of the message he commissions, the kingdom has arrived. Even if one prefers the sense of “approach,” the kingdom is at least very near.67

Accordingly, John undoubtedly believed the advent of the earthly kingdom was imminent. The Messiah would usher in salvation and judgment. John’s pronouncement intentionally caused quite a stir among the Jewish people of Palestine. He set the stage for the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.

The Coming Kingdom Proclaimed By Jesus

When John was put in prison, Jesus began his public Galilean ministry. Matthew 4:17 records that “Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’“ It is evident that Jesus explicitly adopted John’s message as his own. Matthew 4:23 also states that Jesus “went throughout Galilee . . . preaching the good news of the kingdom.” His teachings were accompanied by “healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people” (Mt. 4:23; also Mt. 9:35). As with Matthew 3:2, several questions arise with respect to these verses.

Did Jesus mean the same thing John meant when he referred to the kingdom? While most scholars agree that John the Baptist had the Old Testament concept of kingdom in mind when he spoke of the kingdom of heaven, the question of whether Jesus meant the same thing has been hotly debated.68 Saucy states:

Most interpreters have understood him to mean by the kingdom of God . . . something akin to the realm of spiritual salvation presently enjoyed in the church. In contrast to John’s understanding of ‘the apocalyptic hope of the visitation of God to inaugurate the Kingdom of God in the age to come,’ Jesus’ meaning is said to be ‘no apocalyptic Kingdom but a present salvation.’ The ‘nationalistic elements in the Jewish concept of the kingdom’ are purged away ‘to lay stress on the spiritual elements.’69

Saucy rightly takes issue with this interpretation: “It is inconceivable that Jesus, knowing the understanding of his hearers, would not have immediately sought to correct their thinking if he in fact had another concept of the kingdom in mind.”70 Accordingly, it simply cannot be said that Jesus “purged” the nationalistic elements of the kingdom from his message. He never ignored the final consummation of the kingdom or even the uniquely Jewish flavor of the millennial reign (see Mt. 24-25).

The key to interpreting Jesus’s view of the kingdom is to understand that Matthew 4:17 and 4:23 are summary statements of Jesus’s message. When that message is considered as a whole, it is apparent that Jesus’s teachings on the kingdom had a two-fold emphasis: (1) the standard of conduct for the kingdom now and (2) the final consummation of the kingdom later. As discussed later in this paper, Jesus made it clear that the kingdom would not be consummated during His first advent. His focus on the spiritual dimensions of the kingdom, the righteousness of kingdom citizens, was not to the exclusion of the millennial period, but in conjunction with and preparation for it. As Saucy states: “The full Old Testament kingdom that had been proclaimed prior to that time was not going to be established now; the kingdom would, however, be present in the world in spiritual power during the interim.”71

What did Jesus mean when he said the kingdom was at hand?

John believed that a unified kingdom (salvation and reign) was imminent. As explained above, Jesus did not modify John’s basic message. He did, however, in the course of progressive biblical revelation, break it out into its temporal components and emphasize each element separately.

Phase 1: At times, Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being present in the person of the king. This aspect was more than “at hand;” it had already arrived. (Mt. 12:28).

Phase II: At other times, Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being present in a “mystery” phase, which appears to refer to more than himself and less than the final consummation. It is valid to speak of this aspect of the kingdom as “at hand” in the sense of being inevitably inaugurated. (Mt. 13).

Phase III: At still other times, Jesus spoke of the kingdom in its fullness. (Mt. 24-25). This final culmination of the kingdom was “at hand” only in the sense that it could come at any moment, but no one—not even Jesus—knew the day or the hour (Mt. 24:36). Only the Father knew the time or epochs which he had fixed by his own authority (Acts 1:6-7).

By breaking out the different phases of the kingdom into their temporal components, Jesus did indeed diverge from the message of John the Baptist.

The Coming Kingdom Proclaimed By The Disciples

In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus called his twelve disciples together and commissioned them to go throughout Israel preaching the message that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt. 10:7). The content of their message was identical to the message of Jesus and John before him. Carson is undoubtedly right in assuming that “repent” is not mentioned but presupposed.72 The kingdom was to be authenticated by the same miracles performed by Jesus: healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those who have leprosy, and driving out demons. (Mt. 10:8). This foreshadows Phase II of the progressive eschatological kingdom development—the mystery phase, in which the kingdom is played out through the work of kingdom citizens after the ascension of Jesus into heaven.

Chapter Four:
The Inauguration of the Kingdom

The Kingdom Advances

In Matthew 11, the imprisoned John the Baptist has heard of Jesus’s teachings and miracles, and he sent several disciples to ask whether Jesus was the Messiah or whether he should expect another. (Mt. 11:1-3). John was likely baffled by Jesus’s teachings regarding the kingdom because he had envisioned the kingdom (as did the Old Testament prophets) as a unified event of salvation and judgment. He expected the Messiah to bring both political and spiritual redemption to the people of Israel. Jesus’s emphasis on the spiritual aspects of the kingdom, seemingly to the exclusion of the political element, did not fit his conception of what the Messiah would be like. He needed comfort and reassurance.

Jesus provided it. He told John’s disciples to go back and report to John the many Messianic signs performed by Jesus—“the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt. 11:4-5).

Then Jesus said something enigmatic. He told the listening crowd, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt. 11:11). Jesus thus drew a sharp line between John and the kingdom citizen. Both France and Carson believe Jesus was saying in this statement that John stood outside the kingdom of heaven.73 Jesus was not suggesting that John was not a believer; rather, his point was that John was the last of the Old Testament saints and, as such, he stood on the threshold of the eschatological kingdom. This implies that the kingdom was yet future during John’s public ministry.

Then Jesus said something even more strange: “And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.” (Mt. 11:12). The phrase “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence” (NASB) has been variously interpreted. The NIV states that the kingdom “has been forcefully advancing.” The verb biazetai holds the key to the correct view. Carson believes that it supports the NIV rendering of the passage because it is in the middle form.74 This implies that “the kingdom has come with holy power and magnificent energy that has been pushing back the frontiers of darkness.”75 Moreover, instead of violent men taking over in a negative sense, forceful men take hold of the kingdom in a positive sense. As Carson sums up this difficult passage, “from the days of the Baptist—i.e., from the beginning of John’s ministry—the kingdom has been forcefully advancing . . . . But it has not swept all opposition away, as John expected.”76

Carson thus views this verse as teaching that during John’s time of ministry, the kingdom of God was inaugurated.77 France similarly interprets this verse as meaning that John’s fate was “the foretaste of the conflicts which are already beginning to affect the new order” and that “God’s kingdom is clearly seen as already present, as a force sufficiently dynamic to provoke violent reaction.”78 In other words, the kingdom had come in some preliminary way at the time Jesus began his public ministry, after John had been put in prison (Mt. 4:12), through Jesus’s powerful preaching and miracles.

The Kingdom of God Has Come Upon You

If there is any doubt remaining that the kingdom of God has arrived in an inaugural sense with the first advent of Christ, Jesus swept it aside by proclaiming in Matthew 12:28 that “the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Saucy has said in this regard:

Though the emphasis of the teaching of Jesus was on the futurity of the kingdom, His total message concerning the kingdom also included its presence and the possibility of men and women entering the kingdom now. He said it was present in the power of the Holy Spirit when He cast out demons (Matt. 12:28), and therefore it can be understood as having been present in all His miraculous works.79

Hence, Jesus’s driving out demons, by the power of the Holy Spirit, “prove[s] that the kingdom age has already dawned.”80 The words “has come upon” (ephthasen) suggests an arrival which catches unawares.81 Interestingly, Glasscock agrees: “the only logical conclusion was that the kingdom of God had come.”82

How had the kingdom of God come during Jesus’s earthly ministry?

Blaising and Bock summarize:

Whereas Jesus advances the tradition of the Old Testament prophets by predicting the coming of the eschatological kingdom with Himself as Messiah, there are some occasions in the Gospels when He speaks of the kingdom as being present in His own day. In these sayings, the kingdom is present in the sense that He Himself, the King of that kingdom, is present among them, displaying in Himself and in His activity the characteristics of the eschatological kingdom.83

They distinguish the kingdom as present in Jesus’s pre-cross ministry from the kingdom in its post-cross sense:

The difference . . . is not only a difference between His service of suffering and His future glory, but also the difference between the kingdom being in Jesus and the kingdom being universally established. The kingdom was revealed in and through Jesus’ activity. It was quite dynamic, being seen in displays of His power. However, He did not at that time institute the kingdom as an abiding structure for the world. It was only after the cross that He inaugurated certain aspects of the kingdom in an institutional sense.84

Revised dispensationalists disagree. Although Walvoord does not treat 12:28 in his commentary on Matthew, Pentecost interprets the verse to mean that “since Christ did cast out demons by God’s power, it must be concluded that His offer of the kingdom was genuine and He was its bona fide King.85 In my view, this does not do justice to the passage. The sense is that the kingdom has “just arrived.”86 God's kingdom has come; it is present in his person.87

Revised dispensationalists consider chapter 12 to be a pivotal passage to their central tenet that Jewish rejection of Jesus resulted in a postponement of a kingdom offer. As Pentecost has asserted, “the nation had rejected Him and the kingdom had to be postponed.”88

Many critics have had trouble with the idea that the kingdom was placed in abeyance because of the rejection of the Jewish religious leaders. Their critique has, for the most part, focused on the divine side of the equation. For example, Ernest C. Reisinger declares:

My Bible knows nothing about a God who does not have power to perform His plan. The God of the Bible is sovereign in creation, sovereign in redemption, and sovereign in providence. He is all-wise in planning and all powerful in performing.89

Kenneth Barker likewise asserts:

I would not use such terminology. The omniscient, sovereign God never ‘postpones’ anything. Israel’s rejection of their Messiah at his first advent—and along with him, the full expression of the theocratic kingdom at that time—was foreseen by God and, in fact, was part of God’s plan to accomplish redemption through the “sufferings of Christ.90

Walvoord defends the postponement view against these attacks by stating that “what is postponed from a human standpoint is not postponed from the divine standpoint” because “with God, all contingencies and seeming changes of direction are known from eternity past, and there is no change of God’s central purpose.”91 Walvoord should be applauded for recognizing that God’s redemptive plan for humanity was centered around the cross and that His plan never changed. Still, the question remains: given this truth, why use postponement language at all? Indeed, from the “human standpoint,” was the kingdom really postponed?

It seems to me that, even from a human perspective, a postponement of the kingdom is hard to square with the biblical data. If the kingdom was postponed in chapter 12, why did Jesus say in Matthew 12:28 that the kingdom “has come”? In addition, why did he proceed in chapter 13 to discuss the nature of the kingdom in his parables?

Revised dispensationalists appear to be inconsistent in holding that the eschatological kingdom was postponed in chapter 12 but that another “mystery form” of the kingdom was presented in chapter 13. For example, Merrill Unger states that the kingdom of heaven is “now being consummated in this present age” as described in the “seven ‘mysteries of the kingdom’“ in Matthew 13.92 John Walvoord says that “in Matthew 13, the kingdom in its present mystery form is revealed, that is the rule of God over the earth in the hearts of believers during the present age when the King is absent.”93 But where is the evidence that the form of the kingdom in Matthew 13 is a separate kingdom from the eschatological kingdom prophesied by John and announced as “at hand” by Jesus? Isn’t it better to simply view the “mystery” as the revealing of a heretofore hidden phase of the same eschatological kingdom declared as “upon you” in Matthew 12:28?

Moreover, Matthew 12:28 is not the only verse to support a presently inaugurated kingdom. Matthew 19:12 also refers to the inaugurated form of the kingdom. There, in teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus made the following comment: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” Jesus’s point was that some believers can remain single rather than get married “for the sake of the kingdom” or as Carson puts it, “because of its claims and interests.”94 This must be a reference to the present kingdom (Cf. Mt. 22:30).

Matthew 16:27-28 also appears to discuss the inaugurated form of the kingdom. There, Jesus told the disciples that “there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” Although some commentators take this enigmatic passage to refer to the Transfiguration,95 it seems to me that Carson is right in observing that this would be “an extraordinary way to refer to Peter, James and John, who witness the Transfiguration a mere six days later.”96 The better fit is that this is “a more general reference . . . to the manifestation of Christ’s kingly reign exhibited after the Resurrection in a host of ways, not the least of them being the rapid multiplication of disciples and the mission to the Gentiles.”97

The Mystery of the Kingdom

In chapter 13, immediately after the rejection of his Messiahship by the Galilean Pharisees, Jesus teaches in parables. Parables were designed to reveal the truth to believers and hide the truth from unbelievers (13:13-15). Jesus told his disciples, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted” (13:11). Walvoord states that the parables in Matthew 13 were designed “to reveal the mysteries of the kingdom.” He believes that these mysteries were hidden in the Old Testament and revealed in the New Testament. They “deal with the period between the first and second advent of Christ and not the millennial kingdom which will follow the second coming.”98 After the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus as Messiah and the resulting postponement of the kingdom, Jesus introduced “a new method of teaching.”99

Carson essentially agrees that the rising opposition to Jesus encouraged his greater and greater use of parables. However, he disagrees that there was a “sudden switch in method.”100 Jesus had taught in parables before (cf. Lk. 5:36; 6:39). Carson also disagrees that the kingdom undergoes a radical shift with the mention of mystery.”101 On the other hand, he agrees that Jesus introduced a “new truth” about the kingdom:

[T]he ‘mystery of the Kingdom is the coming of the Kingdom into history in advance of its apocalyptic manifestation.’ That God would bring in his kingdom was no secret. All Jews looked forward to it. ‘The new truth, now given to men by revelation in the person and mission of Jesus, is that the Kingdom which is to come finally in apocalyptic power, as foreseen by Daniel, has in fact entered the world in advance in a hidden form to work secretly within and among men.102

The mystery phase is thus not a separate kingdom from that which preceded it and that which will follow; it is a phase or form of the same eschatological kingdom. It is “the presence of ‘sons of the kingdom’ (that is, people who truly belong to the eschatological kingdom) in the world prior to the coming of the Son of Man.”103

What do the parables teach about the mystery phase of the kingdom?

The parable of the soils (Mt. 13:3-9) teaches that the mystery phase will involve some who believe and many who will not believe.104 The parable of the weeds (Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43) explains how the kingdom can be present in the world while not yet wiping out all opposition.105 Jesus’s explanation in verse 41 is interesting. He says that, “at the end of the age,” the Son of Man will “weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil” (NIV). This suggests that the kingdom exists before the Son of Man returns to establish his millennial kingdom. The parable of the mustard seed (Mt. 13:31-32) explains that, while the kingdom has a small beginning, it is organically connected to the kingdom in its future glory.106 This organic development militates against speaking of the inaugurated and consummated phases of the kingdom as separate kingdoms. The parable of the yeast (Mt. 13:33) has essentially the same meaning. The parables of the treasure and pearl speak of the supreme importance and value of the kingdom.107 The parable of the householder shows that Jesus’s teachings are new and revolutionary (Mt. 13:52).108 The old treasure is the already revealed prophecies about the kingdom. The new treasures are the new knowledge imparted by Jesus with regard to the mystery phase of the kingdom. The new complements the old to create one “treasure,” the kingdom of heaven.109

Chapter Five:
Kingdom Living

The Sermon on the Mount

By now, it should not be surprising that there are many views on the proper interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. If the kingdom is solely future in orientation, then the logical conclusion is that the Sermon is not intended for believers of any age other than the millennial period.110 Quite understandably, most dispensationalists recoil from such a view, holding instead that the “full, non-fudging, unadjusted fulfillment” is for the millennial age, but that the Sermon is “applicable and profitable” to believers in the church age.111 How this can be true without adopting a non-literal hermeneutic of the Sermon is unclear.

The better view, it seems to me, is that the Sermon on the Mount describes the righteous character of a kingdom citizen—one who is living in the kingdom as it exists in its mystery phase here and now (cf. Mt. 5:20). France called the Sermon a “manifesto setting out the nature of life in the kingdom of heaven.”112 Lloyd-Jones calls it “a perfect picture of the life of the kingdom of God.”113

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went to great pains to emphasize the spiritual elements of the kingdom. As Carson has observed, the “unifying theme of the sermon is the kingdom of heaven.” For example, the theme of the kingdom envelopes the Beatitudes. The first Beatitude is “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3), while the last is “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:10). This suggests to Carson that the intervening Beatitudes are kingdom blessings as well.114

The theme of kingdom is also at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer (“Thy kingdom come”) (Mt. 6:9). Carson has stated that to pray this petition is “simultaneously to ask that God’s saving, royal rule be extended now as people bow in submission to him and already taste the eschatological blessing of salvation and to cry for the consummation of the kingdom.”115 The kingdom “is breaking in under Christ’s ministry, but it is not consummated till the end of the age.” We should therefore pray “for its extension as well as for its unqualified manifestation.”116

The theme of kingdom is similarly prominent in terms of a kingdom citizen’s perspective (“seek first His kingdom and His righteousness”) (Mt. 6:33). Carson puts it well: “To seek first the kingdom . . . is to desire above all to enter into, submit to, and participate in spreading the news of the saving reign of God, the messianic kingdom already inaugurated by Jesus, and to live so as to store up treasures in heaven in the prospect of the kingdom’s consummation.117

Finally, at the close of the Sermon on the Mount, the theme of kingdom is closely aligned with salvation (Mt. 7:13-14). Jesus alone decrees who will enter into the kingdom (Mt. 7:21-23). Hence, Carson notes that the Sermon on the Mount equates entering the kingdom with entering life.118

Jesus’s Later Teaching on Kingdom Living

At the close of his earthly ministry, Jesus came back to the topic of kingdom living. In Matthew 18:1-4, Jesus instructed his chosen disciples on humility: “[U]nless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (See also Mt. 19:14). He taught that a kingdom citizen must continuously and repeatedly forgive others (Mt. 18:21-35).

Matthew 19:23-26 also points out the spiritual predominance of Jesus’s kingdom teachings. Jesus told his disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples understood by this time that the kingdom involved more than a mere political reign. As Glasscock observed: “Their question, ‘Who then can be saved?’ revealed the connection in their mind between entering the kingdom of heaven (v. 23) with being saved (v. 25).”119

Chapter Six:
The Consummation of the Kingdom

Although Jesus’s teachings during the first part of his ministry, as recorded in Matthew, focused on the presently inaugurated aspects of the kingdom, Jesus certainly did not neglect the topic of fulfillment of the kingdom. For example, in Matthew 8:11-12, Jesus foreshadowed the fact that, in the millennial kingdom, Gentiles would be included while the Jews who rejected their Messiah would be left out. This same teaching was repeated in Matthew 21:42-43.

As Jesus’s death grew closer, his teachings on the end of the age grew more prominent. Hence, Matthew 24 through 25 contain the Olivet Discourse, a discourse about the coming culmination of the kingdom given by Jesus during His last week before the crucifixion. In Matthew 24:3, the disciples asked Jesus, “what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Glasscock states that “the end of the age” is a clear reference to “the closure of Israel’s rebellion and the beginning of the glorious kingdom.”120

Jesus responded by describing in significant detail the end of the age: the Tribulation period (Mt. 24:4-25), the Second Coming of Christ (Mt. 24:26-31), and the regathering of true Israel at the beginning of the millennium (Mt. 24:36-41).121 Jesus then offered several parables to demonstrate the certainty of his coming. (Mt. 24:42–25:30). Matthew 25:31-46 describes the judgment on the Gentile nations that closes the end of the age and ushers in the millennial period. Matthew 25:34 states that Jesus will invite Gentiles into the kingdom which had been “prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Glasscock rightly notes:

The kingdom Messiah is establishing will include the Gentiles, and not as a last-minute adjustment to God’s plan but determined from the very foundation of the world (katholes kosmou). The messianic kingdom, therefore, was predetermined, before the world was put into operation, to be a place for the human race to experience the divine kingship of God’s Anointed.122

In Matthew 26, Jesus and the disciples were eating the Passover meal and Jesus instructed the disciples on the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. At this time, he told them, “But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Mt. 26:29). In other words, Jesus will not participate again in the Lord’s Supper until “the consummation” when he “will sit down with them at the messianic banquet.”123

Chapter Seven:
Some Closing Thoughts on the Kingdom

What does all this mean? It seems to me that the following points can be concluded from the teachings on the kingdom in Matthew’s gospel:

    1. The kingdom of God in Matthew is unified and holistic. All at the same time, it is spiritual, material, ethical, social, political, physical and ecclesiastical.

    2. At the same time, the kingdom has temporal components.

    3. The kingdom’s nearness was tied to the first phase of Jesus’s earthly ministry. In proclaiming that the kingdom was “near,” Jesus suggested “not that the kingdom has arrived in fullness but that signs of its initial stages have come.”124

    4. The kingdom began to arrive with Jesus’s ministry (Phase 1). It was present in the person of the King and the dynamic power that He exercised over demons, disease and death.

    5. The kingdom advanced, and continues to advance, in its mystery phase (Phase II) during the inter-advent age. It is played out through the work of kingdom citizens during this present age. The Sermon on the Mount and other standards of kingdom living articulated by Jesus apply completely and directly to kingdom citizens in this inter-advent age.

    6. The consummation of the kingdom of God on earth in the form of a thousand year millennial reign (Phase III) is the ultimate goal in biblical history. This event ushers in the final eternal state.125

Several additional observations are also required.

First, this “already - not yet” framework, described above, is a dispensational framework. It does not lead to amillennialism or historic premillennialism. Indeed, dispensationalism has always been an evolving system, continually correcting weaknesses exposed through the criticism of others. This is one of its strengths.126

Second, many revised dispensationalists implicitly adopt an “already - not yet” approach but refuse to use the terminology, presumably, out of fear of being associated with George Ladd. But as Bock stated in Israel, Dispensationalism and the Church: “One should not fear ‘already and not yet’ terminology since all Bible students accept its presence in soteriology: ‘I am saved (i.e., justified) already—but I am not yet saved (i.e., glorified) is good theology.”127

Third, Matthew does not directly address the issue of whether Phase II of the eschatological kingdom is a Davidic phase or something less. Revised dispensationalists affirm that the “mystery form” of the kingdom is spiritual in nature. However, they are not willing to say that it is the same as the eschatological kingdom to come. In contrast, progressive dispensationalists hold that Jesus is already inaugurated as the Davidic king and is now reigning on the throne of David.128 This is probably the principal distinguishing point between the two forms of dispensationalism.129 However, resolution of this issue can only come from an exegetical study of Acts.

Fourth, there appears to be a clear link between the coming of Phase II of the kingdom and the eschatological coming of the Holy Spirit. This needs to be studied in more detail.

The debates over the nature of the kingdom of God will continue. However, a careful, exegetical study of the use of the kingdom in Matthew provides at least a framework for continued study. The kingdom came in the presence of Jesus Christ as King. It advances through the lives of kingdom citizens in the present age. It will come fully and completely with the second advent of Jesus Christ. Come, Lord Jesus.

1 Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1962), p. xi.

2 Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), p. 81.

3 John Bright, The Kingdom of God (New York: Abingdon Press, 1953), pp. 7, 197, quoted in Herman A. Hoyt, "Dispensational Premillennialism" in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 64.

4 D. A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), p. 101.

5 See Darrell L. Bock, "The Reign of the Lord Christ" in Blaising & Bock, ed., Dispensationalism, Israel, and the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992); Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994-1996).

6 George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, revised, Donald Hagner, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993, reprinted 1997), p. 55; Ridderbos, p. xii.

7 Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983-1985), p. 1157.

8 Ibid.

9 Ridderbos, p. xiv.

10 Erickson, p. 1158.

11 Ladd, p. 55; Ridderbos, p. xix.

12 Ladd, p. 56; Ridderbos, p. xxxi.

13 I use this term to describe those dispensationalists who followed and modified the system of Darby, Scofield and Chafer. Revised dispensationalists wrote primarily from the 1950s through the late 1970s (though some are active into the present). Their numbers include John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost. See Craig A. Blaising and Darrrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), p. 22.

14 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), p. 148.

15 John F. Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), p. 218.

16 Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies, p. 207. See also Herman A. Hoyt, "Dispensational Premillennialism," in The Meaning of the Millennium, p. 85-90.

17 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, p. 97.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid, quoting Mark Saucy, "The Kingdom of God Sayings in Matthew, Bibliotheca Sacra, 151 (April-June 1994): 196.

20 John F. Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1974), p. 9.

21 Ibid, p. 13.

22 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology vol. II (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, reprinted 1995), p. 604-05.

23 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959-1960, reprinted 1997), p. 16.

24 New Geneva Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), note on Matthew 3:2 "kingdom of heaven."

25 Ibid.

26 "The Kingdom of God" in Ibid, p. 1638.

27 See generally, Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1962); George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, revised, Donald Hagner, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993, reprinted 1997).

28 Richard Gaffin, "A Cessationist View" in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, Wayne A. Grudem, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), p. 29.

29 Bock, "The Reign of the Lord Christ," p. 46.

30 Ibid.

31 See Darrell L. Bock, Luke, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994-1996). The companion volume on Acts is forthcoming.

32 Carson, p. 101.

33 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1958), p. 427.

34 Ibid, p. 427-28.

35 G.E. Ladd, "Kingdom of Christ, God, Heaven" in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), p. 607.

36 Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 30; W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), s.v. 'Kingdom', reproduced in Biblesoft, PC Study Bible [CD-ROM] (Seattle Wash. 1992-1996).

37 E.g., Ed Glasscock, Matthew, Moody Gospel Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1997), p. 70; Carson, p. 100; Ladd, "Kingdom of Christ, God, Heaven," p. 607; Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, ed. Geoffry Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1985, reprinted 1992), s.v. "basileia."

38 Alva McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part I" Bibliotheca Sacra 112, no. 145 (1955) (republished on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Oak Harbor, WA, 1997).

39 See, e.g., G.E. Ladd, "Kingdom of Christ, God, Heaven," p. 608.

40 W.E. Vine, Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (republished on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Oak Harbor, WA, 1997), s.v. "basileia."

41 Strong's Enhanced Lexicon (republished on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Oak Harbor, WA, 1997), s.v. "basileia."

42 Bauer, Walter, Gingrich, F. Wilbur, and Danker, Frederick W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, republished on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Oak Harbor, WA, 1997), s.v. "basileia.".

43 Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 428-432; McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part I" Bibliotheca Sacra, 112, no. 445 (1955).

44 Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 433-445; McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part I" Bibliotheca Sacra, 112, no. 445 (1955).

45 McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part I" Bibliotheca Sacra, 112, no. 445 (1955).

46 Paul Enns, Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1989), p. 35.

47 Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), p. 217.

48 McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part I."

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

51 Ibid.

52 Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 220.

53 McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part I." See also Herman A. Hoyt, "Dispensational Premillennialism," in The Meaning of the Millennium, p. 82-84.

54 Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 30.

55 R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 90.

56 Carson, p. 100.

57 McClain, "The Greatness of the Kingdom - Part III" Bibliotheca Sacra, 112, no. 447 (1955).

58 Ladd, "Kingdom of Christ, God, Heaven," p. 609.

59 Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 30.

60 Ibid, p. 38.

61 Carson, p. 117.

62 France, p. 90-91.

63 Carson, p. 117.

64 Glasscock, p. 70.

65 Bauer, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, s.v. "basileia."

66 Ibid, s.v. "eggizo."

67 Bock, "The Reign of the Lord Christ," p. 40.

68 Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 83.

69 Ibid, p. 83-84.

70 Ibid, p. 87; Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 241.

71 Saucy, p. 86.

72 Carson, p. 245.

73 France, p. 194; Carson, p. 265.

74 Carson, p. 266.

75 Ibid.

76 Ibid, p. 267

77 Ibid, p. 266.

78 France, p. 196.

79 Robert Saucy, "The Presence of the Kingdom and the Life in the Church," Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 145, issue 577 (1988) (republished on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Oak Harbor, WA, 1997).

80 Ibid, p. 289. See also Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, p. 249.

81 France, p. 209.

82 Glasscock, p. 270.

83 Blaising and Bock, p. 248.

84 Ibid, p. 251.

85 J. Dwight Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), p. 206.

86 Bauer, Walter, Gingrich, F. Wilbur, and Danker, Frederick W., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 1979, republished on CD-ROM by Logos Research Systems, Oak Harbor, WA, 1997), s.v. "phthano."

87 Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, ed. Geoffry Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1985, reprinted 1992), s.v. "phthano."

88 Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), p. 367. See also Hoyt, p. 85-90.

89 Ernest C. Reisinger, Lord & Christ (Phillipsburgh, NJ: P&R, 1994), p. 22.

90 Kenneth L. Barker, "The Scope and Center of Old and New Testament Theology and Hope" in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, p. 315 n.50.

91 Walvoord, Major Bible Prophecies, p. 207.

92 Merrill Unger, New Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988), s.v. 'Messiah', reproduced in Biblesoft, PC Study Bible [CD-ROM] (Seattle Wash. 1992-1996).

93 Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 30-31.

94 Carson, p. 419.

95 E.g., Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 126.

96 Carson, p. 380.

97 Ibid, p. 382.

98 Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 97.

99 Ibid, p. 96.

100 Carson, p. 304.

101 Ibid, p. 101.

102 Ibid, p. 307.

103 Blaising and Bock, p. 254.

104 Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 99.

105 Carson, p. 317.

106 Ibid, p. 318.

107 Ibid, p. 328-29.

108 France, p. 231.

109 Blaising and Bock, p. 254.

110 In fact, this was the view of L.S. Chafer and the original Scofield Bible. See Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1995), p. 99.

111 Ibid, p. 100. See also Walvoord, Matthew - Thy Kingdom Come, p. 44-45.

112 France, p. 106.

113 Lloyd-Jones, p. 16.

114 Carson, p. 132.

115 Ibid, p. 170.

116 Ibid.

117 Ibid, p. 181-82.

118 Carson, p. 101.

119 Glasscock, p. 393.

120 Glasscock, p. 464.

121 See generally Pentecost, Things to Come, p. 275-280.

122 Glasscock, p. 490.

123 Carson, p. 539.

124 Bock, "The Reign of the Lord Christ," p. 40.

125 Robert Saucy, p. 81.

126 See Craig A. Blaising, "Development of Dispensationalism by Contemporary Dispensationalists," Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 145, issue 579 (1988).

127 Bock, "The Reign of the Lord Christ," p. 46.

128 See Blaising & Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, pp. 174-194.

129 See Ryrie, Dispensationalism, pp. 167-170.

Related Topics: Christology, Dispensational / Covenantal Theology, Eschatology (Things to Come), Theology Proper (God)