28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
In the new rendition of the Sherlock Holmes films, Holmes and Dr. Watson are recast in a very different and one might add, a refreshing way. Their friendship is redefined on a more or less equal basis and benefit relationship. However, even in this recast of the original, Homes gets to share his brilliant thoughts with his faithful companion. In one of the episodes, Holmes critiques Scotland Yard’s approaches to investigation. He says: “People most often are trying to fit the facts into their theories. They should do it the other way around instead.”
Systematic theology is a human (I mean this in a positive sense) attempt to summarize in a systematic way a variety of scriptural witnesses about variety of topics discussed in the Bible. However, being a human attempt, even the best systematizing of the Bible is still based on theories.
There is of course no problem with theories as such. We need theories, because it is theories and systems that help us humans to make sense of things around us. We need cohesion and wholeness. In other words, we do need theories. The question is not if, but which theory do we accept and how do we test it to make sure that it is in fact accurate and true. If Holmes is right, then we tend (not only in criminal investigation) to try and fit the available facts into our theories, instead of adopting a posture of being willing to fit our theories to the available facts. In this sense, theology is no different from criminology.
Let us turn to John 6.28-31. These verses are regularly used, in Protestant circles in particular, to support and illustrate the historical reformation doctrine of “Justification by faith alone” as scriptural. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (a collection of questions and answers that was once used for children’s instruction and now is used for the preparation of ministers) asks, and then answers, the question about justification in the following way.
Question 33: What is Justification?
Answer: Justification is an act of God’s free grace in which he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ alone, which is credited to us and received by faith alone.
Most modern churches in the Protestant tradition would whole-heartedly agree with this statement and subscribe to the core Protestant doctrine that is called “Salvation by faith alone.” I would like to point out, however, that interpreting John 6.28 as scriptural proof of this theological construct (no matter how accurate) is nothing less than reading a later theological system, born from Catholic-Protestant debates of the 16th century, back into 1st century Jewish document. The first century context was clearly not aware of the theological tensions of the 16th century.
I will use italics to show the variety of available textual emphasis so that you can see how easily the meaning can change. Pay careful attention, because the nuances here make a major interpretive difference.
A Protestant version:
28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” – Viewed through the lenses of 16th century Catholic-Protestant debate this means “By what works of ours can we be saved from God’s wrath?”
29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. – Once again, viewed through the lens of 16th century Catholic-Protestant debate, this means “God grants people ability to believe and in this way justifies the believer – by faith alone”.
A likely original version:
28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” – Viewed through the lens of the first century’s Jewish movements, this means “How can we be faithful to the Covenant God of Israel?”
29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. – Once again viewed through the lens of the first century’s Jewish religious context, this means “You can be faithful to the Covenant God of Israel only by believing in his authorized representative (Jesus vs. hoi Ioidaioi leaders).
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30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?”
Now the truth comes out. The questions that sounded pious and sincere turn out to be the very same questions with which the hoi Ioudaioi in Judea and their Galilean representatives had already challenged Jesus. Note that according to this narrative, these are the very people who, a short time before, had seen the sign of the feeding of the 5000 men on the south shore of Sea of Galile.
So, it is not as if Jesus was refusing to substantiate his claims and his teaching ministry by miracles and signs. He showed them to the Galilean Jewish people of the Land, but not to the Jerusalem Temple authorities. The refusal to submit his candidacy for Messiahship to the Jerusalem authorities was at the core of this polemic.
31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ ” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
As was had already happened many times and will continue as we follow the story of Jesus, the Gospel of John will portray a variety of the representatives of the hoi Ioudaioi system as clueless and insensitive to the truth. Jesus will set the record straight.
First, he will argue that hoi Iudaioi do not understand the basic facts of the Torah they claim for their own – it was not Moses who gave bread to people, but Moses’ God.
Second, that the manna that God gave the ancient Israelites through Moses was but a picture of the real sustenance for the human soul – the incarnate, crucified and eventually resurrected Logos of Moses’s God. Jesus called the manna simply – the Bread of God.
As we reread and reconsider John 6.28-31 in as much as we are able within the context of intra-Jewish polemic of the first century, we must be disciplined and adjust our theories to fit the facts, not the facts to our theories. We must learn to live with this methodology. As a result, our interpretations will be better, more faithful, and more true.
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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.
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Join the conversation (21 comments)
[…] Bible, we can easily read modern theological meanings into the ancient text that were in many ways foreign to the first century context. John especially is often read in this way, particularly against the background of 16th century […]
I was saved in English with a poor Biblical vocabulary. Hebrew is helping me to see the little things of God and grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ is. Thanks
I love the way the following: Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe ‘in him whom he has sent’ rather than ‘that you believe’….changes the emphasis from us to Yeshua
Thank you Dr Eli for the commentary on John6:28-30, I have come on board at this point…so I had to mentally adjust ….this is a great discipline for me…I am not Jewish but am drawn to the richness that it reveals….have read David Sterns Jewish bible for many years…is this accurate to the best possible narratives..?,blessings from heaven to you!!
Fiona, thank you so much for writing! Are you asking the question about what I think of David Stern’s works? Or am I misunderstanding you?
I think we all do that 🙂 If we are aware of such human interpretive tendencies, we can control ourselves in the process.
There was a lord who came into inheritance and sent a communication to all tenants that he would simplify the system of taxation to 1/5th. Some tenants argued over whether this was by number, weight or volume. The ‘number’ camp formed a co-operative to ensure that none had to give more than the 1/5th, and that they got the best 4/5ths. Some tenants rebelled and the lord called in forces to remove them from his land. A simple old man who could count to 5 understood was grateful and so valued his lord. He put aside 1,2,3,4 and 5th.. 1,2 and the last to his lord. When a lot came available and the lord looked over who was most productive to tend it, would the lord notice the simple old man?
I suspect all communication is best understood (interpreted, if you will) by love of the hearer for the speaker.
I love it when people speak to me in parables :-). I feel like disciples who had no clue about what Jesus was saying 🙂 :-). I am kidding. I think I get it. 🙂
Good comment, which is clearly put! Both secular and religious thesis tend to favour facts that support their theory, and brush aside the ones that don’t, which is actually dishonest!!
Context in every sense is most important. As to the Protestant thesis… this protestant values highly the conclusion to Paul’s writings as they strugged to sort out how Gentiles in far-flung places might be found ‘without spot’!
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:19-26)
Yes, we need theories to interpret the scriptures. The rules we use to do this are our hermeneutics. So what’s here the problem?
It is important to recognize the divisions within Christianity for a great part have arisen out of the fields of hermeneutics . It must be understood that one ‘s theological viewpoint is determined primarily by his hermeneutics. Thus a difference in hermeneutics will most likely lead to a difference in doctrine. After that our doctrine affects hermeneutics.
So problems in interpretation of the scriptures have their roots in doctrine – formed hermeneutics.
I think every problem in this field can be analysed in the basic rules of hermeneutic :
to build a bridge between the human writers and the bible-student in the Linguistical , Cultural,
Geographical and Historical gap.
Systematic theology reflect on coherence between dogmatic and moral theology.
Even though we need dogmatic and moral theology , today it is not always founded in the scriptures
and in the mentioned basic rules of true hermeneutics. I think in theology he have to move from less systematic theology to more biblical (based) theology .
Wikipedia “The traditional etymology of hermeneutics is derived from the Greek word ἑρμηνεύω (hermeneuō, “translate”, or “interpret”), and is of uncertain origin. It was introduced into philosophy mainly through the title of Aristotle’s work Περὶ Ἑρμηνείας (Peri Hermeneias, ‘On Interpretation'”
Of 18 verses in the NT using words derived from the Greek ‘hermeneias’ all but one refer to translating from one langauge to another. The exception is the writer to the Hebrews! Here it is,
“Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; Called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec. Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered (‘dusermēneutos’), seeing ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. (Heb 5:8-12)
It might be simpler to dump Aristotle’s ideas and follow Y’shua’s. He said “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” (Mark 10:15)
It means just reading what is written, understanding the context, and seeking to “keep to do” it, or apply it.
As to division based on “interpretation” one might note these comments…
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. (Rom. 16:17)
For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? (1Cor. 3:3)
For first of all, when ye come together in the congregation, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. (1Cor. 11:18-19)
But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of.(2Peter 2:1-2)
The fact that Greek god of ancient Medicine Asclepeus had daughters whose names included hygiene does not mean we are not use the greek concept of Hygiene today. I live in Israel and hygiene here is of utmost importance! All of this is to say that your take on this is rather simplistic and inconsistent to my my mind. The verses you equated from the Bible are to be applied to keep our interpretation in check and submitted to the Lordship of the King. They do not as such contradict to engage in the interpretation. In your comments as a matter of fact you are doing a lot of interpretation, its just you are not aware of it and for some reasons call it the simply “following Y’shua”. It is simple to call your interpretation “following Y’shua” and all other opinions “interpretation”, but I don’t think its fear. :-). Also, please keep all your future comments to 1-2 paragraphs. It helps the read to successfully get to the end of the point.
Weren’t the Ancient Greek concepts of hygiene based on a theory of the 4 elements? I am wary now of modern ideas of hygiene, as they have led to chemical overloads. By contrast cleanliness (washing with water and burying poo as set out in the Torah) is important.
English we say “The devil is in the details” :-), in Hebrew we say “God is found in little things”. So, I think the meaning of any given word no matter where it derives its roots is what is important. It is less important what it meant back then, it is more important what it means now. If the concept is pagan now, it ought to be rejected. If it used to be pagan then, but then was redeemed there is no reason to reject it.
Keep up the good work. Keep on explaining things as simple communication in context. Thank you.
Thank you for your kind comment. Blessings and peace, Dr. Eli
Jannet , to serve you. It was there in O.T. and N.T., as is done and have be to do.
This does’t make your parable of the simple old man (point 4 below) of a lesser value.
I get that too. But are you kidding me here? I don ‘t think so.
(1) Old Testament Hebrew and Aramaic
A) Pathar – to open up; (fig.) interpret ; explain (a dream)- Genesis 40,184.108.40.206; 41,220.127.116.11)
B) Pitrhon – interpretation; explanation (Gen. 40,18.104.22.168 )
C) C) Miliytsah – an aphorism; also a satire, interpretation (Proverbs 1,6; Habakkuk 2:6)
D) Luwts – to make mouths at; to scoff; hence, to interpret or (gen.) to intercede (Gen. 42,23; Job 33,23) (II Chron. 32,31; Isaiah 43,27)
E) Sheber – a fracture; a breaking; a solution (of a dream) Fig. – interpretation Judges 7,15
F) Peshar – (Aramaic) interpretation ; explanation Dan. 2,22.214.171.124.126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52; 4,184.108.40.206.19.24; 5,220.127.116.11.16.17.26; 7,16; Ecclesiastes 8,1 (Hebrew)
G) Tirgam – to throw over; transfer; translate (interpreted) (Ezra 4,7)
(2) New Testament Greek
(A) Hermeneuo – interpretation ; explain in words ; expound ; translate . John 1,18.104.22.168; 9,7; Hebrews 7,2
(B) Hermeneia – interpretation; explanation (1 Cor. 12,10; 14,26)
(C) Diermeneuo – to interpreted or explain thoroughly; to interpreted fully ; expound (Luke 24,27; Acts 9,36; 1 Cor. 12,30; 14,5.13.27)
(D) Diermeneutes – a thorough interpreter (1 Cor. 14,28 (some mss. Hermeneutes)
(E) Dusermeneutos – hard to interpreted, hard to be unserstood (Hebr. 5,11)
(F) Methermeneuo – to translate into , to interpreted (Mt. 1,23; Mk. 5,41; 15,22.34; John 1,42; Acts 4,36; 13,8
(G) Epilusis – a loosing, a solution, an explanation, interpretation (2 Peter 1,20)
Thanks, Charles. eli
I’ll look at the list in context, God willing unless Messiah comes on the First day.
“How can we be faithful to the Covenant God of Israel?”
The Israelites responded saying we will do all that the Lord commanded us after The Ten Commandments were read. I wonder if today evangelism is weakened by using the Bible to point out sin only, rather than pointing out that people can become faithful to a better way of living through faith in Jesus?