Day: 24 June 2013

a confused France and Morris dancing?

At present, because I have a little spare time before my viva, I’m reading two different commentaries (as you do): one on Matthew (by R.T. France) and the other on 1-2 Thessalonians (by L.L. Morris). In both I was struck by particular lines of argument on specific points (different ones, of course) and was, quite frankly, unimpressed. My umimpressedness was not necessarily due to the specific arguments themselves, rather it was because of the underlying (and unexplained/unjustified) reasons supporting them. Let me explain.

To France:
A common approach for associating Mark’s Gospel with a Gentile (i.e. non-Jewish) audience is to point out the frequent authorial explanations of Jewish practices and terms (e.g. Mk 5.41; 7.3-4, 34; 12.18; 15.22, 34, 43). The gist of the argument is: Mark would not need to offer such explanations if he were writing to a (predominantly) Jewish audience. Fair enough.

A similar line of argument is used (albeit in the opposite direction) for associating Matthew’s Gospel with a Jewish audience: apart from the decidedly Jewish genealogy (and its usage), the persistent appeal to the Hebrew scriptures, and the allusive parallels between Jesus and Moses (or Mosaic traditions); Matthew leaves unexplained the key Jewish practices and terms (e.g. Mt 1.21; 5.22; 15.2; 23.5; 27.6), and he employes ideas and concepts that would resonate strongly with a Jewish audience (e.g. “son of David”, “kingdom of heaven”, “lost sheep of the house of Israel”). Thus, so the argument goes: the best explanation for this is that Matthew is writing to a (predominantly) Jewish audience–a line of argument that France adopts (and obviously accepts). Again, fair enough.

But then France says this (pp. 68-69–emphasis added):

Alongside this very striking concentration on introducing Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament runs a higher note: Jesus is the Son of God. This, one of the main themes of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole, is clearly implied by his stress on the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit (1:18, 20), and by the name Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23), and becomes explicit in 2:15 and 3:17, from which it is taken up to become the central theme of the testing of Jesus in 4:1-11.

Here’s what troubles me: when he addresses 1.23 in particular, specifically the name Immanuel and its emphatic links with Isaiah (see pp. 79-80), France says nothing about Matthew’s need to offer a translation of the name. (NB: France leaves off the key bit of the verse–i.e. “which translated means”). Why would a term like “Immanuel”, with strong ties with Isaianic (i.e. Jewish) prophecy need to be defined for a (predominantly) Jewish audience? More to the point: why does France (p. 17) allow for a shared understanding between Matthew and his audience of the name “Jesus” (1.21) yet not offer the same allowance for Immanuel? I’m asking in earnest; I’m not trying to be cheeky (for once).

To Morris:
One of the more sticky passages in Paul’s letters is 2Thess 2.6-7, particularly the identity of the so-called “restrainer”. I’ve been working on a slightly longer post dealing with that particular translation, so there will be more details about it later. For now, suffice to say that commentators have almost categorically translated the term, κατεχω as “restrain”. But this is not the only translation. Morris, thankfully, acknowledges the three possible ways in which κατεχω can be used (p. 130):

The verb can mean (a) “to hold fast” (as in 1 Thes 5:21), (b) “to hold back” (as in Phm 13), (c) “to hold sway” (if intransitive).

While I am grateful for Morris recognizing these possibilities, something not usually done, he immediately goes on to say this (p. 130–emphasis added):

D.W.B. Robinson argues for this third meaning, but the verb does not have this meaning elsewhere in the New Testament and not many have been convinced.

With all due respect to Morris (and I do respect a lot of his work), this twofold response is not a good counterargument; it’s not even a good argument. The second part operates on the (unjustified) assumption that wide acceptance of a particular translation equals right/correct translation. That seems to be flirting dangerously with argumentum populum. But it’s the first part of Morris’ counterargument that bothers me.

Just because κατεχω is not used intransitively elsewhere in the New Testament does not exclude the possibility that Paul is using it intransitively here in 2Thess 2.6-7.[1] Not only is Paul known for hapax legomena, but he is also know for taking familiar terms and applying to them rare (if not obscure) meanings (cf. e.g. 1 Cor 2.4). Moreover, in arguing for the authenticity of the eschatology in 2 Thessalonians, Morris acknowledges that “[Paul] is just the kind of thinker to come up with an idea that nobody else in the early church could have produced” (p. 27). So, if creativity is allowed to Paul on the concept level, why does Morris not extend the same allowance at the word level–especially when there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Paul was lexically creative? Besides, being create with concepts seems to require creativity in language to articulate those concepts.

[1] Yes, I do think Paul wrote 2 Thessalonians. Don’t agree with me? No worries; you are entitled to do so. Don’t like it? Sorry you feel that way.