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What do you do with zombies in Matthew? A call for help

I can just imagine it. I’m hanging out at home, trying to relax, when someone knocks on my front door. Normally I would just sit quietly and hope they go away. But, for some reason, this time I actually get up.



Aren’t you dead?

Yup. Now be quiet and pay attention. I have something important to tell you.

Okey dokey. Dead guy tells me to pay attention. I’m paying attention. Of course, I’m also reaching behind the door for my pitchfork, or whatever zombie killing devices they used in ye old Israel.

The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Mt. 27:52-53)

There’s been a lot of discussion about this passage in the last few days. And, I have to admit, that I’ve never been terribly comfortable with it. What exactly are we supposed to make of a bunch of dead people who suddenly walk out of their tombs and go sight-seeing in Jerusalem?

Some years back I got into a discussion about this passage with a friend. And, I argued at the time that I thought maybe this should be interpreted non-historically. I hadn’t really studied the passage, so it was just speculation, but I pressed on it a bit and tried to argue that Matthew was using this as a symbol of a deeper theological truth. Many friend kept pushing back, though, and after a while I realized that I was only doing that because this passage seemed too weird to be true. Zombie sightseers? Really? That’s just too weird.

But, here’s the problem. “Too weird to be true” just isn’t a very good argument.

Of course, the story raises some interesting questions. Why don’t the dead come out right away? Why do they wait until after the resurrection? What happens after they go into Jerusalem? Do they just hang out for a while, or do they turn to dust at midnight? And, why doesn’t anyone else talk about this stuff? Shouldn’t more people be commenting on such an amazing event? Why is it only in Matthew?

But, although those are interesting questions, none of them really say anything about whether this actually happened. They just re-emphasize how weird this story is. And, I believe lots of things that seem pretty weird to many people: the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection being rather high on that list. Those are weird, but I still believe them. Why is this any different?

Too-weird-to-be-true isn’t going to cut it.

But, quite a few people think there are reasons for reading this text non-historically. And, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their arguments go beyond my feeble too-weird-to-be-true “argument.” As we’ve seen over the last few days, Michael Licona holds this position, and both Mike Bird and John Byron have stated that they agree.

So, my question is: Why? Can anyone provide a good reason for reading Mt. 27:52-53 non-historically? I’m not even all that concerned with whether you agree with the argument, as long as it’s a good (or at least interesting) one. What are the best reasons for reading this passage as anything other than historical narrative? And, just to be clear, it has to be better than too-weird-to-be-true.


Zephaniah as the link between Babel and Pentecost

Exegetes and theologians have long argued that Pentecost should be seen as a reversal of Babel – the scattering of the human race through the proliferation of languages healed through the unifying power of the outpoured Spirit. But, if these are two events are key bookends in redemptive history, doesn’t it seem odd that relatively little is said about this in the intervening narrative? Does the OT have any concept of Babel as a problem in need of resolution, or is this a brand new theme suddenly tossed into the mix at Acts 2?

These are the questions that Paul Pastor raised in the paper he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Paul is an MA student at Western Seminary, and the paper was a summary of his MA thesis, “Echoes of ‘Pure Speech’: An Intertextual Reading of Gen. 11:1-9; Zeph. 3:8-20; and Acts 1-2.” Paul has graciously allowed me to upload the complete thesis here.

The basic thrust of Paul’s argument is that Zephaniah 3:8-20 provides the intertextual link between Babel and Pentecost. As  he summarizes:

Pentecost as a reversal of Babel has been widely seen by exegetes since the early days of the Church. However, these two stories are by no means simple “bookends” with empty narrative space between them. Rather, it shall be shown that an extremely significant instance of textual connection comes from the often overlooked text of Zephaniah.

It will be argued that the Babel narrative of Genesis 11:1-9 is accessed and developed by Zephaniah 3:8-20; and that that text in turn provides a guiding paradigm of Babel-reversal that is utilized by Luke in the Pentecost account of Acts 2. Seen in this way, Zephaniah’s prophecy provides an indispensable link between the two texts of Genesis and Acts; simultaneously looking back into the seminal history of the covenant community and forward to the radical in-breaking of the Spirit at the harvest feast of Pentecost.

Intertextual “echoes” of themes and motifs will be traced at length through the three texts, noting linguistic parallel, narrative similarity, and intertextual dependence for the developing trans-biblical narrative.

The thesis that follows is a fascinating example of intertextuality in biblical exegesis. After a brief summary of his intertextual method, Paul argues that the Babel narrative itself is “incomplete,” leaving the reader in suspense as the story never comes to satisfactory resolution. Paul then argues Genesis forms the clear backdrop for much of Zephaniah, setting the stage for identifying further intertextual connections between the two books.

The heart of Paul’s argument comes in the third part of the thesis, where he identifies a number of textual connections between Gen. 11 and Zeph. 3. In my opinion, intertextual linkages like this always bear the burden of proof as they need to establish real textual connections rather than mere linguistic or thematic similarities. And, Paul does a remarkable job of identifying and defending the connections at work, though you’ll have to read the thesis for yourself to follow all the different lines of argument that he offers.

Finally, Paul turns his attention to Acts 2, arguing that Acts 2 bears many of the same textual markers as the first two passages. Given the strong thematic and linguistic connections, Paul concludes that Luke intends for his readers to see Acts two as the conclusion of a narrative arc that begins in Gen. 11 and runs through Zeph. 3.

And, to wrap everything up, Paul offers a few closing words on how a study like this can impact the life and praxis of faith communities:

It is my sincere hope that this study may also impact the thinking and practice of our local churches and communities of faith. I believe that when scripture is seen with the literary intricacy and vitality that a study of this type highlights, it is compelling and powerful for those who cling to the scriptures as the word of God. The narrative excellence in view here, the thorough intentionality, and the development of a single coherent narrative across the span of centuries and as the product of three very different communities of faith should capture the attention and imagination of modern believers.

Here are a few brief ideas for what the practical and responsive outworkings of this study could look like: Our thoughts about national and international unity should be profoundly influenced by the paradigm offered in these texts. True unity is only possible across ethnic, social, lingual bounds by the power of the Spirit and for the purpose of a shared service and worship of God.

This study is a reminder that truly, “All scripture is profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV). The Hebrew Bible is frequently under read by Christian readers, and the Latter Prophets even more so. This section of our Bibles is rich with powerful imagery, concept, and nuance, coloring our theology and worldview. It ought to be increasingly read.

In addition to this, it ought to be increasingly taught and preached. Our pastors and teachers ought to carefully interact with this literature both for its compelling content, as well as the dramatic role that it plays in the over arching scriptural meta-narrative.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Cyril vs. Theodore – exegetical grudge match or hermeneutical harmony?

[We are continuing the process of posting papers from last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. In this paper, Andy Peloquin argues that the divide between Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methodologies is not as great as commonly believed.]

The Exegesis of Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia: A Play in Three Acts

There is a common conception that characterizes the method of exegesis in Alexandria and Antioch as allegorical versus literal, respectively. However, recent study indicates that this may not be as simple as it sounds. Therefore to illustrate the precariousness of this premise, this study focuses on two of the most exegetically notable individuals that represent each school from the fourth to fifth centuries: Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and how they compare with the ‘stereotypes’ of the exegetical methods from their respective schools. In order to do this, three areas are examined: the general Alexandrian and Antiochene exegetical methods; the exegetical distinctives of Cyril of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia as they compare to these general methods; and as a point of illustration, a comparison of each of their works, in this case, their introductions to commentaries on the book of Jonah. It is shown that this simplification of these schools does not in fact hold up under scrutiny and that the positions of the exegetes were far more nuanced than this classification suggests.

A study in text/event typology…kind of

[Andy originally posted this in the comments for our discussion on allegorizing our new header. But, it was so much fun that I thought it deserved to be a post in its own right.]

“A Study in Alexandrian and Antiochene Text/Event Typology: The Scientia et Sapientia Blog Banner as ‘Text’ in Light of Its Historical ‘Event’ in the Source Material of the Norwegian versus Russian Documentary Hypothesis. The use of a semester’s class work in vainglorious attempts at humor.”

The banner heading for the blog Scientia et Spientia stems from a long debated ‘text’ picture of the Norwegian tale Three Billy Goats Gruff. It is the purpose of this paper to show that this ‘text’ picture can best be understood and interpreted by using proper Patrisitc typology in conjunction with the relationship of the ‘text’ of the picture to the ‘event’ it depicts, the ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’, or more truthfully, to the Russian source material ‘Three Gruff Serfs’ from which the Norwegian story was based.

This banner heading picture is derived from the classic Norwegian folk tale ‘Three Billy Goats Gruff’ (De tre Bukkene Bruse). A little known fact about this story is that is that the Norwegians plagiarized it from Russia stemming from their involvement in the Great Northern War (1700-21). As allies, it was normal for interaction between the foot soldiers and of course they shared stories around the campfires in the cold Northern winters. The Russian story, три грубоватый крестьянин (Three Gruff Serfs), was a very popular Baltic village story about three disheveled serfs who were trying to escape from the land. In trying to row cross the river that marked its boundary, they were waylaid by a treacherous vodyanoy, the slimy ‘grandfather’ of the river who was wont to take souls into the depths to become his watery slaves. The three desperate serfs were able to cheat him by indicating that they were merely scouts for their lord who would be coming over the river shortly to claim territories beyond it. They insinuated that a lord makes a far better slave then three lowly serfs. Furthermore, these rapscallions indicated that they would assist him in capturing their lord by calling to him from the other side. The vodyanoy knew how shrewd the local lord was and that he was always looking for more land to occupy. He also knew he would make a nice collection to his underwater menagerie. He agreed and let them pass. On reaching the far bank the serfs shouted out their freedom and mocked the vodyanoy’s stupidity and then went in their way.

Now the Norwegians at this time were in need of some serious cultural identity. Having been pummeled by their neighbor Sweden for the last one hundred years, they were just now unifying and coming out from under the Swedish influence. They took this story as their own, contextualizing it to their own environment, substituting their local troll for the Russian vodyanoy. Of course trolls live under bridges so they put a bridge over the river. It is not clear why they substituted three goats for the three serfs but scholars believe that it was because of the penchant for Norwegians to avoid morality tales involving humans, opting for the more Aesop like animal fable. Additionally, the popularity it engendered led to changing it from a deception based story in order to teach children they can be clever without lying (i.e. in the three goats, each one asked not to be eaten because the next one was bigger and thus fatter. The third one was big enough to kick the troll and escape. They did not lie, but used their wits to extricate themselves). Since this story there has been a great debate raging on the border between Norway and Russia about whose story it is. There was little evidence until a document was discovered in Soviet Leningrad that was likely penned during the early years of St. Petersburg (c. 1705) that tells the story of три грубоватый крестьянин. This indicates that indeed it was first a Russian story. This document, titled Codex Lenigradis Gruffius, now resides in the State Hermitage Museum.

While some may contend that such a dependence on both the original three Goats Gruff story as well as extra three-Goats-Gruffian material is antithetical to an appropriate understanding of this picture (that we should be able to derive all we need to know from the picture itself) in fact we are not committing any false dependence on background information. Thus the ‘event’ of three goats/serfs is not placed above, in any way, the importance of the ‘text’ of the picture. Rather the redactor (artist) has pieced together a pictorial narrative that has to be understood by its source material unless frivolous interpretation is engaged in. Thus we need to look at interpretive methodology and to properly ‘exegete’ this picture. As any good exegete knows, allegoria, as used by the early Alexandrian exegetes like Philo and Origen, is replete with fantastical relationships in texts to show tangential relationships without considering the text in context. Therefore, a more proper exegesis would be to examine it in light of typos, which exegetes from both the Alexandrian school (e.g. Cyril of Alexandrian) and Antiochene school (e.g. Theodore of Mopsuestia) would regard as appropriate.

It is markedly clear that the artist is depicting the uncertainty that the first goat of the story is undergoing in facing the prospect of crossing the bridge. It is not clear if he knows in fact that the troll resides under said bridge, but there is some evidence that would lead us to conclude that he did. One such textual indication is in the gathering of the crows. There would be no other reasons for three crows to gather save for the expectation of a goat-gruff carcass to feast upon. It is also clear that the goat would probably have seen the smoke rising from the pipe. This is not some naturally occurring fire smoke which would be in a more billowing pattern. Instead it is a tight curl of smoke wafting up to the sky, which is plainly indicative as sourced from a pipe.

Now, knowing the background here helps us get a better understanding of the ‘text’. By the Norwegian tale, we know that the goats had eaten all the grass on their side and were looking to the sweet, sweet grass on the other. It would be safe to assume that the troll indeed took up residence and has in fact unceremoniously dispatched many previous goats, whether gruff or not, who attempted crossing to the sweet, sweet grass fields that lay beyond (in fact, Gustavus Nordmank, the late Norwegian Classics scholar, surmised that the troll in fact actually planted and cared for these fertile fields to lure such goats to cross the bridge, however, there is debate on this matter, but it stands as an interesting hypothesis.) Additionally, we know that the small goat is clever and so he would understand the meaning of the smoke emanating from under the bridge. Therefore from the literal ‘text’ of the picture, it is clear we have a nervous and yet willing goat ready to partake of the juicy grasslands across the bridge.

However, according to Alexandrian and Antiochene practice, we know that there is also a deeper meaning to this picture. This meaning is rooted in the typos relationship tied to the original Russian story. Thus it is very evident that the three serfs are a type to orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. Their trip on the boat is a type to the movement of these from a place of slavery (their serfdom) to a place of lush new hope, i.e. they go from a place of where they are misused in the service of scholastic hegemons, to a fertile place where they can grow and prosper together in freedom. The boat therefore is the connecting device between the former and the latter. The vodyanoy is a type to the ignorance of the world that would rather suck down these three and make them a slave to the world system, in other words to make them a slave to ‘the man’.

The Norwegian derivation, however, alters this understanding a bit since it sends the goats one by one over the bridge. Thus indicating that these are separate entities and any one in particular could be taken out by the troll. This would give us a completely different interpretation. Instead, we can easily assume that the artist, and here we can faithfully use some Origenian thought, had the truth of the Russian story in mind, whether conscious or not, that could be revealed to those understanding the mystery that is contained within the ‘text’ picture. Thus he expressed in the familiar Norwegian garb, the actual typology of the original Russian event. Thus the single goat represents all three orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy united together. The bridge is the journey from the empty fields of vain academic pursuit to the lush fields of where the three can freely be expressed for the betterment for all. The troll stills represents the attempt of ‘the man’ to derail this effort. Thus from our use of typology and a proper understanding and use of the original source material, we can see that the text reveals to us that scientia and sapientia, represented in the three ‘orthos’ of the goat, have at time languished in periods of drought, but that the successful crossing of the bridge, i.e. the reading of the blog, will open the visualize to a new understanding of their importance united together and thus ‘fatten’ his mind and ministry.

A final note is in the often, and to be honest, overwrought discussion of the meaning of the words on the bridge. There have been numerous articles stating the meaning and significance both of their inclusion and placement on the bridge. However, it is abundantly clear that this was not part of the original artists work and can be ascribed to later artistic addition. It serves as a later gloss to try to explain the meaning of the bridge. Thus we should omit this variant reading and stay with the original ‘text’ picture.

It was a holiday morning, what can I say.