The Ambiguity of Phoebe and Junia in Romans 16

Among Christians inclined to debate the propriety, or lack thereof, of women in church leadership roles, the examples of Phoebe and Junia in Romans 16 are important. Was Phoebe a deacon? If so, how can some churches exclude women from being deacons? Or was she a “servant of the church” instead? Was Junia an apostle (alongside Andronikos, with whom she was named)? Or was she merely known to the apostles? These are actually not easy questions to answer, and most people decide which interpretation best fits their theology, rather than the other way around. Here I will not resolve those questions, but try to explain the ambiguities which limit any interpretation. I will also not attempt to resolve the bigger and more contentious debate about women’s ordination, but instead I will conclude with what we should all be able to agree on.

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The Case of the Man who Slanders His Wife: A Sexist Biblical Law, or a Divine Mercy?

I recently read a portion of Deuteronomy which troubled me. Briefly, it mandates that a who man accuses his wife of not being a virgin when they married, and he’s wrong, should be fined and can’t divorce her, but if he’s right, she is to be put to death. This passage troubled me. I confess with Paul that the Law is good (Romans 7:12, 16; 1 Tim. 1:8). But that’s in general, and what are we to do with this passage in particular? It troubled me, but rather than skipping past it, I wrestled with it more, and I think it may in fact represent a divine mercy even to the slandered wife.

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Jacob’s Last Words to Joseph: Variations in Genesis 49:22

Genesis 49 contains Jacob’s last words to his sons before he died, and the bulk of the chapter is occupied by a poem in which he prophesies to each of his sons in turn. The longest section, also the second-to-last, goes to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers, and then after two decades had risen to high position in Egypt, reunited with his family, and preserved them alive during a famine, the reason why Jacob and his sons moved from Canaan to Egypt. But what did the dying patriarch say to his regained son? Despite a seeming agreement among modern English versions, they disagree with every ancient version, all of which disagree among themselves as well. Let’s look carefully at the evidence:

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A Brief Theology and History of Church Membership

I recently, for the first (and I hope last) time in my life, withdrew from membership in a local congregation in protest. I’m not the first person to do so, and indeed many people do so regularly, but I have been reluctant to do so, for a variety of reasons. But after much prayer and consultation with wise older Christians whom I trust, I became convinced that withdrawing from membership and finding a different local congregation was both right and important for me to do. So I started attending a different local church (virtually, due to the pandemic), and after a few weeks I met with an elder of my old church, and then submitted a letter informing the entire board of elders of my decision and the reasons for my decision. The response I received flabbergasted me, and included some fascinating theological and logical errors about local church membership, that I thought might be posted publicly in case anyone else encounters similar rhetoric.

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Fixing Biblical Arithmetic with Benjamin’s Sons

I’m a detail-oriented person. And I love the Bible, and I believe it’s true, really deeply and thoroughly true. But I’m hard-headed about accuracy. So it bugs me when things don’t add up in the Bible, literally. One passage that has always bothered me for as long as I’ve been a Christian is Genesis 46:26-27: after being told that Jacob’s descendants from Leah numbered 33 (v. 15), those from Zilpah numbered 16 (v. 18), those from Rachel numbered 14 (v. 22), and those from Bilhah numbered 7 (v. 25), and notice that 33+16+14+7 = 70, then we are told that 66 of his descendants went down to Egypt, Joseph and his two sons were already there, and the total number was 70. The problem is that 66+1+2 = 69, not 70. So where did the 66 come from? I may have just figured it out, and the key may lie with a comparison of the lists of Benjamin’s sons.

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English Versions vs. Ancient Versions Redux: The Second Negative Emotion in Genesis 45:5

Today I was comparing the ancient textual witnesses to Genesis 45:5, and I noticed a strange thing: all of the English versions that I consulted interpret the second negative emotion differently than all of the ancient versions, and indeed use a different grammatical structure in that interpretation. Technically, this is not a textual issue, since there is no evidence that the Hebrew text read anything other than it still reads, ʾal yiḥar beʿēynēykhem. Instead the question is what negative emotion is that, and how to translate it into English. By wrestling with this issue, I think I have finally come to understand why the English versions all rendered it the way they did, which provides an illustration of the strong influence of the King James Version on all other versions even today.

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A Text-Critical Puzzle in Genesis 45:1

I find textual criticism of the Bible to be a delightful pastime. I get to compare what the different ancient versions of the Bible say, and try to understand where their divergences come from! And so often the differences are very minor, even nitpicky. On the other hand, especially with Old Testament textual criticism, I am finding that while almost all differences are trivial, it can be difficult to arrive at a strong argument for which reading was likely original. (In one example I encountered today, Genesis 44:32, every witness presents Judah using a different pronoun as he refers to his father as “my/our/his/the father” – except the Vulgate which rephrased the verse. It is probably impossible to reason clearly for one possessive pronoun rather than another, but fortunately it is clear that they are all referring to Jacob.) The difficulty of identifying the clearly superior text makes it all the more satisfying when one can do so, and I think I figured out such a case in Genesis 45:1 today.

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Sins of Thought

Among the many things that have become clearer to me over the past year or more, it is that many people are easily deceived. So easily, in fact, that it makes me wonder if they wish to be deceived, in certain ways and in certain directions. The fact is that we sinful people are not rational actors, but we sin not only in our actions but also in our thinking and our ways of understanding the world. Some sins of thought are obvious, such as self-aggrandizement (making myself the hero of every story). A philosophy professor once told me that the “noetic effects of sin” primarily consisted in thinking too highly of oneself. Self-deception, including over-simplification of necessary nuance, is likewise a sin in the realm of thought. Of course coveting and lust are sins of thought, though not precisely what interests me here. Rather, in the past few years I’ve learned to recognize a few key thought patterns among people I know and people I observe which effectively serve to prevent recognition of the truth.

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What’s in a Name? A Comment on the Pentateuch, History, and Modern Scholarship

In Exodus 6:2-3, God says to Moses, “I am YHWH; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty [Shaddai], but by My name, YHWH, I did not make Myself known to them.” This would straightforwardly lead us to expect that Moses might refer to God as YHWH (usually translated “the LORD”), but that Abraham would not. The frequent use of the name YHWH in the book of Genesis (e.g. in Genesis 12:1), describing times before Moses lived, might be ascribed to Moses’s own authorial voice. More challenging to explain, however, is when Genesis depicts God as revealing this name to Abram (e.g. Genesis 15:7), Abraham as invoking this name (e.g. Genesis 14:22) himself, and even using it in naming a place (Genesis 22:14). What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?

Famously, this discrepancy was the justification for the “Documentary Hypothesis” which denied the traditional view of Moses’s authorship of the Pentateuch and instead argued that multiple different documents (the two earliest of which were distinguished by calling God different names, the Yahwist using the name YHWH [“the LORD”] and the Elohist using the word Elohim [“God”]). In Wellhausen‘s influential formulation, the Yahwist document dated only from Solomon’s court in the 10th C BCE and the Elohist from the following century, both of them authored many centuries after the events they claim to describe. This explanation dominated modern scholarship on the Pentateuch from the late 19th to the late 20th C, until the consensus collapsed under the criticisms of even more iconoclastic scholars who deny any historical reality in the first five books of the Bible, and see them all as products of period of the Babylonian exile of the Jews (in the 6th century BCE) or even later. There is now no consensus, it seems, among scholars of the Pentateuch about the origins of the text, although most are very skeptical of any claims that they represent historical reality.

In this post I will present a curious feature of a few proper names, which certainly do not “refute” any of the various scholarly positions taken, but might be suggestive of an alternate approach.

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Ignoring the Context can be Deadly

A long time ago, Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness, when he faced some of the gravest challenges to his leadership of his entire career. His first cousin, Korah, accused him of arrogance and refusing to recognize the holiness of God’s people (Num. 16:3). Two of Korah’s supporters, men of Reuben named Dathan and Abiram, refused to answer Moses’s summons, accusing him of failing to fulfill his promises to them: “Is it not enough that you brought us up from a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness? Do you also have to appoint yourself as ruler over us? Furthermore, you didn’t bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey or give us an inheritance of fields and vineyards” (Num. 16:13-14). They accused Moses of lying to them when the evidence of their own senses told them that Moses was a failed prophet: “Will you gouge out the eyes of these men?” (Num. 16:14). Though they did not use the term, you could easily imagine these critics of Moses accusing his followers of being “sheeple.” Yet soon thereafter Korah, Dathan, Abiram, their families, and all their followers were dead. Why? What’s so wrong about speaking theological truth (Korah)? What’s so wrong about believing in the sense of your own eyes (Dathan and Abiram)? Their fault was that they disregarded the context, used the truth to lie, and thereby encouraged rebellion against God.

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