Response to Elton Hollon’s Critique of Full Preterism #5
The Question of Hellenization
Please be sure to read my previous installments in response to my friend Elton Hollon.
Another factor that must be considered is exactly how much the Hellenization of the early church, and even Judaism as a whole, had affected the understanding of apocalyptic language of the Tanakh. Numerous scholars have begun to take note of this very serious question.
Daniel Rogers in a college thesis, cites Tom Holland on the issue of Hellenization in the early church and its impact on hermeneutic:
There is no doubt these documents give fascinating insight into this period of Judaism, but their relevance for the New Testament message must be questioned… They assume there is a strict equivalence in terminology and themes found in these writings and in the New Testament. They use intertestamental texts as the key for understanding the New Testament texts. This presupposes they share the same theological outlook and their meanings are transposable. However, this understanding is flawed.
He goes on to explain that the interpretation of the Old Testament by the intertestamental writers was radically different from the New Testament writers. Just because common terminology is used does not mean that they shared the same theology (Holland, 2004, 24-26). Thus, Holland urges that one look at the Greek of the New Testament from a Hebrew perspective. That is, see how the Greek Septuagint translated the Hebrew Scriptures, and then use the original meaning of the Hebrew words in the interpretation of the New Testament Greek.
There is a pattern seen in the usage of language from 400 BC to AD 400. The inter-testamental Jews were under the influence of the Greeks. Then, John the Baptist, Jesus, and His disciples worked to bring the people back to thinking of things in Hebrew terms once more. Then, following the close of inspiration at the fall of Jerusalem, the church was Hellenized once more in the second century. As I demonstrate below, the usage of the apocalyptic language in the Tanakh was metaphoric and not intended to be taken literally.
Graydon Snyder says that Biblical eschatology is “radically disjunctive.”
It affirms the absolute validity of God’s promises to mankind through Israel and of the historical locus of its fulfillment; yet denies that present history or the present institutions of man could lead to its fulfillment.”…. “Paul proclaimed this eschatological form not only in terms of mythology of the cross, but also with a more full orbed apocalyptic framework. In the Hellenistic world this apocalyptic form was understandably misunderstood. In some instances it was literalized dualistically (i.e. the myth becomes a cosmology) so that a struggle between flesh and spirit resulted. In some instances it was misunderstood chronologically (i.e. the myth becomes history), so that an actual end of time was expected…the chronological misunderstanding resulted in a problem regarding the delay of the parousia to such a point that the community was forced to identify that disjuncture with the baptism or the birth of Jesus rather than to speak of a radical disjuncture yet at hand…in other words, the problem of the delay of the parousia is a problem only in so far as the early community misunderstood and literalized the apocalyptic.
The question therefore of the impact on Mark’s understanding of the language he incorporates comes to the fore. Was he drawing on a contemporary Hellenized literalization? Or was he, having followed Jesus’ teaching, utilizing the diachronic language of the Old Covenant prophets?
While I consider Bauckham inconsistent with his own statements, he iterates a critical hermeneutical idea:
Most New Testament scholars would now agree that the New Testament writings belong wholly within the Jewish world of their time. However much some may be in serious conflict with other Jewish groups, these disagreements take place within the Jewish world. Even New Testament works authored by and / addressed to non-Torah-observant Gentile Christians still move within the Jewish world of ideas. Their God is unequivocally the God of Israel and of the Jewish Scriptures that they treat as self-evidently their own. Jesus for them is the Jewish Messiah of Israel.”
The key question here is about “the Jewish world of their time.” While I totally concur that the NT writers belong to and wrote strictly within the world of Jewish thought, we have to consider whether that Jewish thought was contemporary (synchronic) Hellenized Jewish thought or the ancient, (diachronic) Tanakh based Jewish thought.
Hollon suggests that it is not appropriate to appeal to the OT usage of apocalyptic that is, in many cases demonstrably metaphoric, as we have shown. He suggests (p. 8) that when preterists appeal to the OT use of this metaphoric apocalyptic language that we are guilty of “an interpretive fallacy like the etymological fallacy, focusing on diachronic word usage from hundreds of years past rather than synchronic usage in contemporaneous texts.” He suggests that it is more hermeneutically sound to draw on the contemporary Jewish apocalypses rather than on the Tanakh (p. 9). We are told that “the Jewish apocalypses and the New Testament share numerous similarities, the new Testament is best understood as originating with Jewish apocalyptic” (p. 10).
This objection fails to note that the NT writers are emphatic in declaring that their eschatological hope was what those OT prophets foretold, and that they (the NT writers) were, through the Spirit, revealing the true meaning and the time of the fulfillment of those prophecies. This is the Raz Pesher hermeneutic noted above.
This objection likewise fails, it appears to me, to consider that the “contemporary texts” (circa 250 BCE – 230 CE) that Hollon appeals to were heavily influenced by Hellenization and not proper Hebraic (i.e. that found in the Tanakh) thought. This is precisely the problem explicated by Snyder, and Holland cited above, as well as other scholars. It is not surprising then that the NT did in fact differ from the Hellenized Jewish apocalypses in key ways. To reinforce the significance of this issue consider the words of N. T. Wright:
The historian may be tempted to oversimplify, not least because some of our key texts do so as well, seeing Judaism divided into those who kept the true faith and those who capitulated to Hellenism, as much in their thinking as in their un-compromised politics. Yet even those who resisted assimilation did so, in our period, from within what was inescapably hellenistic Judaism; by the time of the first century AD all the many varieties of Judaism were to a lessor or greater extent Hellenistic, including those anchored firmly in the soil and cult of Palestine.
Similarly, since it addresses Hollon’s point here, Holland offers this: “While the vocabulary of the NT could be found throughout the Hellenistic world, it did not have the same meaning when it was used in the religious sense within the Jewish community.”
When we consider the profound influence of Hellenization on the Jewish apocalypses of Jesus’ time in sharp contrast to the repeated NT statements of the NT writers that the source of their eschatology was in fact the Tanakh, I believe we have a right to reject the idea that a literalistic interpretation of the NT apocalyptic language (i.e. Mark 13) must be correct. It has to be proven therefore that we must posit a synchronic source of NT apocalyptic understanding rather than a diachronic, i.e. Old Testament meaning.
I suggest in light of this, and there is much, much more that could be discussed, such as the claim that the Greeks did not believe in resurrection at all, finding it ridiculous. But to explore that topic would take us too far afield, so I will simply make mention of it. I simply state that it is a misguided, ill-informed claim. This entire subject has a direct bearing on the topic of eschatology. Nonetheless, this will conclude this installment. If I – and the scholars cited herein – are correct about the profound impact of Hellenization on the Jewish world of the second century BC onward to Jesus’ day and afterward, I suggest that we must be more careful and cautious in an appeal to the external synchronic writings apocalyptic language of the first century. The true source for a proper understanding of the NT language of the Day of the Lord should be the Tanakh.
More to come!