Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Lesson in Basic Hermeneutics

From *The Skeptical Review*, 2002/May-June:

by Farrell Till
Hermeneutics is the science of interpreting written texts, especially those that claim to be sacred, and it seems that our old friend Roger Hutchinson is in need of a lesson in the fundamentals of hermeneutic theory. That Hutchinson would try again to postulate some far-fetched "solution" to a biblical problem is not at all surprising, but I must say that I was surprised that even he would resort to the absurd explanation that he proposed above to one of the many New Testament passages that taught the second coming of Jesus was imminent.

Readers will probably remember that Hutchinson attempted unsuccessfully last year to explain away the prophecy failure in Matthew 24:34, where Jesus said that "this generation will not pass away till all these things be accomplished." One of "these things" that Jesus had just mentioned was a clear description of his second coming, which he said would be accompanied by various astronomical signs and that all the tribes of the earth would see. Clearly that didn't happen in the lifetime of those to whom Jesus was speaking, so Hutchinson tried some of his verbal legerdemain to make this mean that Jesus was really saying that the generation alive whenever Jesus did return would not pass away till it had seen all "these thing," which would include the return of Jesus. Yeah, right. Whenever I read Hutchinson's "explanations" of what disputed biblical texts really meant, I can't help wondering why God didn't providentially arrange for Hutchinson to have been born in biblical times so that God could have chosen him to write at least some books of the Bible. Why, if the omni-one had done that, he wouldn't even have needed to "inspire" Hutchinson, who undoubtedly would have known how to explain everything clearly without divine inspiration.

Hutchinson's bizarre interpretation of Matthew 10:23 was prompted, of course, by his desire to remove from the New Testament another problem text related to the obvious belief of early Christians that Jesus would return in their own time, so before I analyze the text in Matthew 10 to show just how far-fetched Hutchinson's interpretation is, I am first going to show that the New Testament was so clear in teaching an imminent return of Jesus that only a fanatical inerrantist would even try to deny it. Matthew 24:34 has already received detailed analysis, so I will focus now on some of the other passages that taught the same thing.
Matthew 16:24-28 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
This text is clear enough that one would think that anyone could read it and understand that Jesus was promising to return before some of those in his audience had died, but because this prophetic promise did not happen, biblical inerrantists can't afford to accept the face value meaning of the statement. Thus, they postulate all sorts of fanciful "explanations" to try to make it not mean what it clearly says.

The last verse quoted above ended chapter 16, and the next chapter began with the incident known as the transfiguration, when Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him into a "high mountain," at which time Jesus was "transfigured," and as his face and garments were shining like the sun, Moses and Elijah appeared talking to him (17:1-3). Biblicists desperately looking for a way to resolve the problem in Jesus's promise that some in his audience would not die until they had seen him coming in his kingdom have tried to make the transfiguration scene the fulfillment of that promise, but this is a solution that is fraught with all kinds of problems.

First, Jesus said in the passage quoted above that he would come "with his angels in the glory of his Father." Even if inerrantists could twist the transfiguration into a coming "in the glory of his Father," there is the problem of the angels. The transfiguration text makes no mention of angels. The parallel accounts of this incident are in Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36, and neither one of these accounts mentions angels either. An element too important to the promise of Jesus in Matthew 16:27 is missing from the transfiguration scene to distort it into a fulfillment of the prophecy that Jesus would come before some in his audience had died.

Second, the context in which Jesus said that some standing before him would not die until they saw him coming in his kingdom made clear references to judgment. He asked what it would profit them if they should gain the whole world but lose their own souls [KJV] then he warned that the son of man would come with his angels and "reward every man according to his works" (16: 27). Clearly, the idea of a final judgment was being expressed here, but at the transfiguration, just as there were no angels, there was no final judgment either. In fact, no judgment of any kind was involved in this story, so how could this event have been the fulfillment of Jesus's promise in the preceding chapter?

Even more damaging to this fulfillment claim, however, is the fact that the transfiguration happened only six days after Jesus had said that some hearing him that day would not die until they saw him coming in his kingdom. With that promise, chapter 16 ended, and then the next chapter began with a clear dating of the transfiguration with reference to the speech just recorded: "Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white" (17:1).

Now if the fulfillment of Jesus's promise to his audience had come only six days later, that would mean that Jesus had, in effect, said, "Verily, I say to you, there are some standing here who will still be alive six days from now to see the son of man coming in his kingdom." That meaning would be completely contrary to what was obviously Jesus's intention, to warn his audience that his return was so imminent and certain that it would happen when some in the audience were still alive. If, however, he meant that some would see him coming in his kingdom just six days later, there would be nothing at all remarkable about that, because almost everyone hearing him could have been expected to live six more days.

Furthermore, only Peter, James, and John-probably the closest of Jesus's associates-were with him at the transfiguration, so this fanciful spin on Jesus's promise to return in the lifetime of "some" in his audience reduces it to a ridiculously unremarkable "prophecy." The obvious intention of the statement was to say that Jesus's return would not happen immediately but was nevertheless imminent enough that some standing in the audience would live long enough to see it. To protect their inerrancy belief, biblicists have distorted what was intended as a "sign" to Jesus's audience and made it nothing more than an unspectacular portent to just three of his closest friends, who presumably were already convinced of his messiahship (Matt. 16:16ff) and therefore needed no sign.

One day is as a thousand years to God: Throughout the New Testament, writers warned their readers that Jesus was returning soon. The following are just some of the texts that spoke of an imminent second coming.
James 5:7-8 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
1 Peter 4:7 The end of all things is near therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.
1 John 2:18 Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour.
The failure of these promises eventually proved embarrassing to the church, and so follow-up epistles (some of which scholars recognize as forgeries) were written to explain why Jesus had not yet returned. The apostle Paul, for example, had told the Thessalonians in his first epistle to them that they could expect to be caught up in the air to meet Jesus at his return (4:13-18), but a second epistle (thought by some scholars to be a forgery) offered an explanation for why this had not yet happened. A "falling away" had to come first, "Paul" explained, before Jesus returned (2 Thess. 2:3ff).

The best known of these damage-control passages is in 2 Peter, which mainstream scholars almost universally consider a forgery. As noted above, "Peter" had warned in his first epistle that the "end of all things is near," but by the second century, the delay in fulfilling this promise had evidently become a problem that some anonymous writer felt the need to address, because "mockers" were scoffing at the promise of Jesus's return and asking why things were continuing as they were from the creation with no indication that Jesus was coming again (3:2-4). His "excuse" for the delay has been quoted by biblical inerrantists probably more than any other scripture when they are confronted with passages that taught an imminent return.
2 Peter 3:8-10 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
So there you have it. The reason why Jesus had not returned then and the reason he still has not returned, despite promises in the New Testament that his return was "soon" or "at hand," is that the return of Jesus will be "soon" in the sense that God measures "soonness," and with God one day is as a thousand years.

The absurdity of this argument should become immediately apparent to anyone who understands that the purpose of writing is to communicate ideas. A very fundamental principle of writing is that the writer should always keep in mind the comprehension level of those who will be reading the written message. Specialized vocabularies should be used only if the writer knows that the readers will be sufficiently educated to understand such words otherwise, the writer should seek to communicate his ideas in words that the readers will understand. Fundamentalist "apologists," however, would have us believe that an all-knowing deity ignored this basic principle of writing when he "inspired" his chosen authors to record his "word" to guide humanity throughout the Christian era and on till the end of time. Instead of directing these writers to use a vocabulary that would be understood by humans, he had them use words like soon, near, shortly, at hand, etc. in senses that would be understood only by the omniscient inspirer. The writer of the gospel of John said that he had written the things in his book "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:31), so surely with this purpose in mind, God had inspired this author to use language whose meanings would be understood by those who read it. Otherwise, God would have been defeating his purpose in having the book written in the first place.

It is the height of folly to think that an omniscient deity, wanting all men to be saved, would have "inspired" instructions for salvation to be written in language that was comprehensible to him rather than to the humans the message was intended for. This, then, is a major flaw in the fundamentalist claim that Jesus will indeed return "soon" or "shortly" in the sense of a thousand years being like just one day to God. Presumably God would know when this return would take place, so in warning humans that the return was "near" or "at hand," those terms had to have been used in the way that human readers would understand them or else we are left with a god who inspired in his "word" vitally important instructions that only he would understand. Why tell early Christians that Jesus would return soon if they were not going to understand what soon meant?

A more likely explanation for language such as this in passages about the return of Jesus is that the writers sincerely believed that his return was imminent, and so they wrote what they believed. As time passed, however, some anonymous writers recognized the need to do damage control, and so they forged epistles to "explain" that all warnings of an early return of Jesus should be understood in the sense that God measures time. Regrettably, gullible Christians have bought this "explanation," so after another thousand years have passed, will people living then see warnings in church literature that Jesus is coming soon? I sincerely hope not, because there must be a limit to how long the church can hope to perpetuate this myth.

The lesson in hermeneutics: Having established that the New Testament clearly taught an imminent return of Jesus, I can now turn to Hutchinson's attempt to explain away another text that has proven embarrassing to inerrantists intent on denying that Jesus himself claimed that he would return in the lifetime of those living then. Hutchinson said that context is important to understanding the Bible, and I couldn't agree more. Inerrantists enjoy accusing skeptics of ignoring biblical contexts, but I'm going to show Hutchinson that if he had taken his own advice, he would not have distorted Matthew 10:23 as badly as he did.

Central to Hutchinson's "interpretation" of this text is the premise that the instructions of Jesus in this chapter were equivalent to his command in the so-called "Great Commission" that his disciples should "go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15 Matt. 28:19), but an examination of the context of Matthew 10:23 will show that Jesus had no such intention. The "commission" here began with instructions to go only to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." A juxtaposition of the two "commissions" should be sufficient to show even Hutchinson the difference.
The Great Commission: And he [Jesus] said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved but the one who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:15). 
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-19).
The limited commission: These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'" (Matt. 10:5).
Clearly the "Great Commission" pertained to people of all nations, Jews and Gentiles alike, but the limited commission was restricted only to Jews, i.e., the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus specifically stated in the limited commission that the disciples were not to go among the Gentiles or even into any towns of the Samaritans. They were to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Had Hutchinson taken his own advice and considered the context in which Matthew 10:23 appears, he would not have made the mistake of equating this text with the Great Commission.

Hutchinson claimed that Jesus picked the 12 disciples to whom he gave this commission so that they could be "in charge of carrying out his work after he was gone." They, according to Hutchinson, were to teach others "those things that Jesus had taught them" and this "cycle would continue so that the work that Christ had begun would continue until His return," but just where does the text say all of this? When Hutchinson was trying to make Matthew 24:34 refer to whatever generation would be alive when Jesus finally returned at some time in the distant future, I pointed out that the language of this chapter does not support this far-fetched interpretation. The literary form of the chapter was a speech that Jesus gave to his apostles after they were leaving the temple. Throughout the chapter, he spoke to the apostles as evinced by the consistent usage of the second person plural verbs and the plural pronoun "you" [humas and its derivatives in Greek]. Since the distinction between singular you and plural you must be determined by context in modern English, the simplest way to see that Jesus was addressing a plural audience in Matthew 24 is to read the text in the KJV or ASV, which used the now archaic plural ye. "YE shall hear of wars and rumours of wars," Jesus said, but "see that YE be not troubled" (v:6). "YE shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake" (v:9). "But pray YE that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day" (v:20). "So likewise YE, when YE shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors" (v:33). The continual usage of the second person plural pronoun throughout this speech indicates that Jesus was speaking of what his audience, i.e., his apostles, would see and experience and not what would happen to a distant generation.

In the same way, the second person plural pronouns in Matthew 10 show that Jesus was telling his disciples what they would do and say on this "limited commission" and not what, as Hutchinson claims, the disciples would teach others to do in a cycle that would continue until Jesus returns. "And as YE go," Jesus told these disciples, "preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 10:7). "Freely YE have received," he continued, "freely give" (v:8). "And into whatsoever city or town YE shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy and there abide till YE go thence, and when YE come into an house, salute it." (vs:11-12). "And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when YE depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet" (v:14).

The "ye" pattern continued on through the rest of the passage, and the only grammatical conclusion to draw is that the "twelve" in verse 5, where Jesus began his instructions, is the antecedent of every YE that Jesus used, because there is no language in the text to justify claiming that somewhere along the way in his speech Jesus stopped speaking to his chosen twelve in order to give instructions to the "others" whom Hutchinson thinks the twelve were to "teach" so that the cycle could be continued until Jesus returned. If I am wrong in this grammatical analysis, then Hutchinson should point out the exact language in the text that signaled a point of transition where Jesus stopped speaking to the twelve in order to give instructions to those who would continue the "cycle."

It is a grammatical fact that if a text is rewritten to substitute antecedents for pronouns within the text, the intended meaning of the writer will not be altered. With that in mind, I am going to rewrite this text from beginning to end and pair the antecedent twelve with all of the second-person pronouns, i. e., ye [nominative case] and you [objective case] in order to show what the obvious meaning of the text is.
These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not [you twelve] into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter not [you twelve]: but go [you twelve] rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. and as [you twelve] go, preach [you twelve], saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal [you twelve] the sick, cleanse [you twelve] the lepers, raise [you twelve] the dead, cast out [you twelve] devils: freely [you twelve] have received, freely [you twelve] give. Provide [you twelve] neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in [the] purses [of you twelve] Nor script for [the] journey [of you twelve], neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat. And into whatsoever city or town [you twelve] shall enter, inquire [you twelve] who in it is worthy and there abide [you twelve] till [you twelve] go thence. And when [you twelve] come into an house, salute it [you twelve]. And if the house be worthy, let [the] peace [of you twelve] come upon it: but if it be not worthy, [you twelve] let [the] peace [of you twelve] return to you. And whosoever shall not receive [you twelve], nor hear [the] words [of you twelve], when [you twelve] depart out of that house or city, [you twelve] shake off the dust of [the] feet [of you twelve]. Verily I say unto [you twelve], It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city. Behold, I send [you twelve] forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be [you twelve] therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But [you twelve] beware of men: for they will deliver [you twelve] up to the councils, and they will scourge [you twelve] in their synagogues And [you twelve] shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles. But when they deliver [you twelve] up, take no thought [you twelve] how or what [you twelve] shall speak: for it shall be given [you twelve] in that same hour what [you twelve] shall speak. For it is not [you twelve] that speak, but the Spirit of [the] Father [of you twelve] which speaketh in [you twelve]. And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And [you twelve] shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. But when they persecute [you twelve] in this city, flee [you twelve] into another: for verily I say unto [you twelve], [You twelve] shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come (Matt. 10:5-23).
Unless Hutchinson can point to another antecedent for the second-person plural pronouns in this text, and grammatically justify that antecedent, he will have to agree that the substitutions above convey the intended meaning of the text, and so he will be left without any basis for arguing that Jesus was charging the twelve to teach "in turn" others who could continue the cycle till Jesus returned.

The coup de grace: This analysis of the text should be sufficient to convince any reasonable person that these were instructions that Jesus delivered to a group that he had selected for a mission to be done in his own time, but if Hutchinson still insists that Jesus was giving a "charge" that is still being carried out today, I challenge him to explain verses 19-20, where Jesus said that the ones [ye] who were to carry out this mission should "take no thought how or what they [ye] shall speak: for it shall be given them [you] in that same hour what they [ye] shall speak" and that it would not be them [ye] speaking but the "spirit of their [your] father" speaking in them [you]. If Hutchinson thinks that this mission is still being carried out in Israel today, as those who have been taught to continue the cycle of preaching to the lost sheep of the house of Israel go through the cities of Israel, does he also believe that these successors to the twelve don't have to take any thought to what they shall speak because it is being given to them "in that hour" what to say? Does he think that when these successors speak, it is not they who speak but the "spirit of the father" speaking in them? If not, why not?

Other problems: We know that there are Christian missionaries in Israel today, so if Hutchinson thinks that these are successors of the twelve, who are working to "continue the cycle" until Jesus returns, maybe Hutchinson can tell us if they are following the instructions that Jesus gave in Matthew 10. Do they, for example, "heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, [and] cast out devils" (v:8)? If so, could Hutchinson document for us an example of when these successors have raised the dead on their mission to Israel? Do they take with them no money or wallet on their journeys and no shoes and only one coat (v:10)? Do they depend upon staying in the houses of those who receive them rather than seeking their own lodging in hotels or motels (v:11)? When they encounter opposition, do they shake the dust off their feet and go on to another town (v:14)?

The point is that the context that Hutchinson mentioned in his article will show that the instructions in this chapter were spoken to first-century contemporaries of Jesus and obviously not to those who live in a different time under different circumstances. Only someone with a desperate agenda like Hutchinson's would think that these instructions are still being carried out today.

The Greek word "telew": Hutchinson even made an appeal to Greek to support his claim, but I found it amusing that someone who doesn't know how to transliterate the Greek omega would think we would be impressed with this appeal. The Greek letter omega was pronounced as the long "o" in English and should therefore be transliterated with this English alphabetic character and not with the "w," which resembles it. Hence, the proper transliteration of the word would be "teleo" and not "telew." This root of telesete, which was translated "gone through" in Matthew 10:23, did convey the sense of finishing or completing, but this doesn't do anything to help the spin that Hutchinson is trying to put onto this text. My analysis above shows that Jesus had commanded the twelve to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and to search out in the cities they entered those who were willing to receive them into their homes, but whenever they encountered opposition that refused to hear them, they were to shake off the dust of their feet and to go elsewhere to preach (vs:11-14), so substituting "finished" or "completed" for "gone through" in verse 23 would not materially affect the meaning of the statement. The verse was simply conveying a sense of urgency. Jesus was coming back soon, so the twelve should not waste time on those who were not receptive to them. They should just leave and go elsewhere, because Jesus would be returning so soon that they would not be able to finish or complete their mission before "the son of man be come." To try to make this mean, as Hutchinson has done, that all of the towns and cities would not be converted before the return of Jesus, and since all towns and cities in Israel still haven't been converted, the prophecy of Jesus has not failed is a resort to desperation. Jesus was simply telling the twelve that his return was imminent, and so they should not waste time that they didn't have trying to preach to those who wouldn't listen. This interpretation is entirely consistent with all of the passages explicated above that taught the return of Jesus was "near" or "at hand" and would happen "soon." Hutchinson's spin on the verse is simply an exercise in verbal gymnastics in order to remove a discrepancy from the Bible.

Furthermore, Hutchinson's spin on this verse conflicts with another New Testament claim. He claimed that those "who have tried to preach the gospel to the Jews can testify that their efforts have been resisted," and "(t)hey have not been able to go through all the cities of Israel preaching the gospel and will not be able to do so before the second coming of Jesus" (p. 5, this issue). The final part of this statements argues from an assumption that Hutchinson couldn't possibly know is true, because he has no way of knowing what might happen in the future. How could he possibly know that circumstances would not change between now and whenever this Jesus of his decides to return that would make it possible for Christian missionaries to preach their "gospel" throughout Israel. As a matter of fact, that appears to be happening now, because I have read many Jewish complaints about the efforts of Christian missionaries to proselyte Jews in Israel, and have seen many articles written to tell Jews how to reply to the claims of these missionaries. Since we live in an age of rapid communication through radio, television, and the internet, I seriously doubt that there would be any significant number of Jews in Israel who have not heard about Jesus.

If, however, we assume that religious and political circumstances in Israel now prevent Christians from preaching their gospel in Israel, all Jews in Palestine once heard the gospel or else the apostle Paul made a mistake in Colossians 1:21-23.
And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblamable and unreprovable in his sight: if ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven whereof I Paul am made a minister....
We know, of course, that nothing like this ever happened, because no evidence exists that the so-called gospel was ever preached at that time in Japan or North and South America or Australia, and various other regions. I suspect if Hutchinson were presented with this problem he would take the usual inerrantist track and argue that Paul meant only that the gospel had been preached to every creature in the known world, even though he clearly said that it had been preached to every creature under heaven, and the countries and continents mentioned above would certainly be "under heaven."

If we accept this popular inerrantist explanation of this problem and grant for the sake of argument that Paul meant only every creature in the then known world, Hutchinson would still be left with a problem in his effort to resolve the failed prophecy in Matthew 10:23, because what is now Israel was a region that was certainly in the known world of Paul's time. Hence, Hutchinson must say that the gospel was preached to all the Jews in Palestine or else Paul made a mistake. If Hutchinson takes his course, however, he will have to surrender his claim that Jesus was referring in Matthew 10:55ff to the preaching of the gospel, because if this text was referring to the same kind of preaching commanded in the Great Commission, then either Jesus or Paul erred. Jesus said, according to Hutchinson's spin that the gospel would not be preached to all the lost sheep of Israel before the son of man returned, but Paul said that the gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven.

Ah, the pitfalls that come with trying to defend the claim that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant "word of God"? 

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