white officer black lives matter
You'll have to read to see what this image has to do with my post!

Paul, Isaiah, Yeshua, and Some Great Scholars: Day #1 at SBL

white officer black lives matter

You’ll have to read to see what this image has to do with my post!

SBL is the Society of Biblical Literature, and every year there is a joint conference with AAR, the American Academy of Religion. It’s 10,000 plus Bible scholars and theologians all in one place. There are something like a hundred parallel tracks for just about any topic you can imagine and some you’d never imagine.

I know the things you probably would be most interested in are the Paul Within Judaism sessions and scholars whose names ring out in Messianic Judaism as go-to people: Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, Karin Zetterholm, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, and Joel Willits. I also attend the Formation of Isaiah sessions and try to follow certain scholars I like.

Two of my favorite scholars are not here this year: Douglas Campbell (on sabbatical) and Hugh Williamson (not sure why he isn’t reading a paper).

I ran into Mark Nanos at the convention center yesterday, and also attended a session where he read a paper (I’ll tell you about it below). I told him I’m here with friends who are big fans and we were looking forward to hearing him speak. He said, “Don’t miss tomorrow, my paper on Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4. It’s new stuff!” He said he noticed I had returned to blogging and wished me well.

Dream Scenes as Type Scenes in the Hebrew Bible

Friday night I attended an emerging scholars in the Hebrew Bible session and heard a few great papers. The best, in my opinion, was on dream scenes in the Bible (Abraham, Abimelech, Jacob, Laban, Joseph, the cupbearer and baker, Pharaoh, Gideon, Solomon). She discussed the fact that these scenes fit the type that Robert Alter (The Art of Biblical Narrative) calls “Type Scenes.”

A type scene is like walking into a room and on the TV you see two men facing each other in 1800’s western garb with their hands on their guns staring at each other outside a saloon. You can, in one split second, know what kind of movie it is and basically what is about to happen. The same is true of these dream scenes and many common elements have not gotten the attention they deserve (such as the fact that usually the dreamer arises early to go and act on the dream). She brought out the artfulness of the biblical authors and noted that this artfulness goes against some critical theories (such as the one that says the three Abraham and Isaac scenes where they pretend their wife is their sister are unnecessary duplicates).

The scholar is Marina Hofman of Palm Beach Atlantic University. Some have asked and I think her paper can be found at IBR-BBR.org.

Where is Mosaic Torah in Isaiah?

Saturday morning I attended a session on Isaiah and the Torah. It is a little known fact that the book of Isaiah does not mention Moses and really says nothing about Sinai. The book of Isaiah makes much of David and Jerusalem, a little about Abraham, and uses the Exodus as a motif. But where is Moses and Sinai? Most of the papers were discussing the various places where Isaiah talks about the “torah.” Is this “the instruction” or does it mean “Mosaic Torah”?

To be brief I will just say this. I thoroughly enjoyed Todd Hibbard’s (“What is torah in First Isaiah?”) paper, in which he showed there is no connection between the references to “torah” in the first part of Isaiah (chapters 1-39) and the Mosaic Torah. The references are to prophetic torah (teaching), in other words, the messages of Isaiah the prophet.

I also enjoyed Archibald Wieringen’s paper in which he introduced an idea I want to investigate: that the whole book of Isaiah has an editorial strand that unifies it and that the editorial voice (which he calls the text-immanent author) guides the reader to understand the collection of Isaiah prophecies a certain way.

Rabbinic Literature, Jewish Story Parables, and Yeshua (Historical Jesus)

Saturday afternoon was a Historical Jesus panel presided over by Amy-Jill Levine. She is not reading a paper this year. It was our only chance to hear her speak (only 10 minutes though) and we would never have missed it.

But the great thing that happened for me at the Historical Jesus session was hearing R. Steven Notley. I’ve met him. And I admit I have been a skeptic about a certain idea: that you can use some parts of rabbinic literature to better understand Yeshua (Jesus). Notley completely changed my mind this year and also opened my mind to the possibility that Yeshua told his parables in Hebrew and that Hebrew may have been the common language more so than Aramaic.

Why have I been skeptical about a historical connection between rabbinic parables and Yeshua? It’s because the rabbinic material isn’t written down until 300-500 years after Yeshua. Think about that time gap. The world changes a lot in three to five centuries. But as many know, the rabbinic material had been circulating orally for a long time before it was written down. I never doubted pre-rabbinic stories circulated in Yeshua’s lifetime. But I had not considered the evidence that there has to be a connection. Here in short is the evidence:

  • The word mashal (in Hebrew) and parabolé (in Greek) are never used of story parables until the Gospels and rabbinic literature.
  • Jewish story parables are only found in rabbinic literature and the Gospels. They are not in Josephus, Qumran, Apocrypha, Philo, or anywhere else.
  • All Jewish story parables are told in Hebrew, even in Aramaic documents.
  • The tellers of the parables are mostly Galilean Hasidim (holy men) and not rabbis. (Sometime I will do an article on the Hasidim and how they differ from rabbis).

I should probably do a blog on Notley’s paper and be more complete. He and a scholar at Bar Ilan University translated all 456 story parables from rabbinic literature and it is available from Carta with Hebrew and English.

Paul, Peter, and the Incident at Antioch

Finally, and perhaps I have saved the best for last, I got to sit in on the Paul and Judaism sessions where Mark Nanos, Magnus Zetterholm, Joel Willits, and Paula Frederiksen politely dialogued about differing interpretations of the “Incident at Antioch” which Paul tells us about in Galatians 2.

To better understand what I am going to say, you should probably have the text in front of you: Galatians 2:11-21.

Some big questions everyone has about this story:

  • Is this a case of Paul throwing out Judaism in favor of the new religion of Christianity? The prevailing reading makes the mistake of saying yes.
  • What was the issue that caused Peter to withdraw? Unkosher food or something else?
  • What did Paul mean when he said to Peter, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile . . .”? Was Peter disregarding the Torah and Jewish norms?
  • What did Paul mean by “through the law I died to the law?”

I hope in a short write-up to help you basically understand what all four scholars said. If you’re new to this issue, my explanation might be too short to cover all your questions.

All four scholars agreed: we should assume that Paul and Peter remained Jews and kept Jewish norms. In case anyone doubts this agreed upon conclusion, I recommend getting the book Paul Within Judaism edited by Mark Nanos.

All four scholars agreed that the issue was not about unkosher food. It is unthinkable that Paul or Peter would eat unkosher food to begin with and the passage says the issue had to do with commensality (social mixing) not food. Peter had been “with” the Gentiles (what Frederiksen calls the ex-pagan pagans) but “withdrew” from them.

Nanos thinks the issue had to do with seating arrangements for meals where Jews and Gentiles ate together. This may seem weird but in the ancient world formal meals often had a hierarchical seating arrangement (tons of evidence). Probably the usual custom was for Gentile “guests” (i.e., read “second class attendees”) were seated in the lower status section at Jewish meals with Gentiles present. He thinks “ones from the circumcision” were local Galatian Jews (synagogue officials) who objected to the equality at the Messianic Movement’s meals.

Zetterholm had a slightly different focus. He felt that in popular Jewish opinion, Gentiles were not to be trusted to really have forsaken idolatry. They were thought to be morally impure, worshippers of idols. He thinks James and the others at the Jerusalem Council had not thought through the application of their ruling that Gentiles are legitimated as righteous in Christ (Acts 15) and when they saw the mixed seating at meals were shocked.

Willits had yet another focus. He saw the issue as Peter’s fear that he would begin taking on Gentile ways and become a sinner if he kept mixing socially with Gentiles. He felt that Peter had some strong Pharisaic influence and was becoming a hardliner.

Frederiksen said they were all basically right but slightly wrong. She said Nanos’s evidence about seating arrangements was overstated and that pagans who still practiced idolatry were welcomed into synagogues and even got good seats. She thinks the issue was whether the household they met in was Jewish or Gentile. Specifically, the problem was meeting in Gentile homes where the wife was married to a non-believer. Such homes, she stated from her expertise with the archaeological evidence, were full of pagan symbols and idols. She said signs of pagan religion were everywhere in non-Jewish homes and society. Paul, she claims, was so into the equality of Gentiles, he felt it was okay to have meetings of the believers in homes with pagan symbols around.

The discussion afterward was lively. These scholars all learned from each other and we all learned from them. I asked Dr. Frederiksen why the solution could not have been to allow meetings in Gentile households where the head of household was an ex-pagan and idols and symbols had been removed. She answered that she thinks Paul would not have settled for that. He was so into Gentile equality he would not accept a middle solution.

I guess I want to clarify two points, ways that Nanos sees the passage in Galatians 2:

  • What does it mean that Peter “lived like a Gentile”? Nanos says it means “recognizing the equal status of Jew and Gentile.” Peter used to mix socially and indicated his belief in equality. This was more like the way a Gentile would think. I might add another thought about the meaning of those words. “Live like a Gentile” could mean “have the life of the age to come like a Gentile.” In other words, Paul could mean by the phrase that Peter used to indicate that the source of his (eternal) life was the same as that of Gentiles in Christ.
  • What did Paul mean by “through the law I died to the law?” I like Nanos’s answer. Willits thinks it means Paul rejected Pharisaic rigorous views but did not reject Judaism. Nanos, who has the better case, I think, believes Paul meant “I died to the interpretation of the law that makes Gentiles less than equally legitimated as righteous before God.” In other words, Paul doesn’t mean “I died to the whole concept of Torah and now have a lawless life.” He meant he had died to a specific understanding of a law and that this had revolutionized his understanding.

I loved the way Nanos related this to the civil rights issues in our day, such as “Black Lives Matter.” He showed a picture of a white police officer in uniform at a rally holding up a “Black Lives Matter” sign. This guy could be compared to Paul. He caught a lot of criticism from the usual racist types for betraying his whiteness. He got criticism from many for disrespecting his cop uniform. But the thing about this guy, Nanos said, is he went to work the next day still wearing the uniform. He was not rejecting his whiteness or his officer-ness. He was making a statement about equality and saying the unbalanced social situation in which Americans find themselves needs to change. He was in that moment, holding the sign, a White living Blackly, just as Peter was a Jew living like a Gentile.


  1. Oh man!!!!!!

    I wish I was there!!!! Sounds fantastic Derek!

    Thanks for the overviews…very good!

    Did you see Lois Tverberg there ?

    Oh and concerning being open to Hebrew being the common language rather than Aramaic…. welcome to the dark side 😄Lol!

    Stephen Notley is a great scholar…I had the opportunity to sit and study under him several times in my younger years. My mentor Dr William Bean was friends with Notley and would bring him out for conferences and lectures.

    After reading your review I told my wife Karen “Next year I want to go to SBL!”

    She said, nonchalantly, “okay” lol!

    So Lord willing I will see you there next year!🙂

  2. Awesome food for thought Derek…I love having a representative at such an important event. Thank you!

  3. This sounds highly interesting! Thanks for sharing some topics. I like the comparison with the police officer. You have convinced me already that Paul never abandoned Torah or Judaism, but certainly after his encounter with Yeshua he saw everything in a new light as pointing toward Messiah.
    Have a good time at the conference!

  4. On Gal 2:19 (died to the Law/Torah), I think this is a ref. to Ron 7:1-6. As I see it, based on Instone-Brewer’s analysis in his masterwork on divorce, Rom 7:1-6 is Paul trying to get himself out of a corner he has painted himself into. He has just explained how gentiles (including the “divorced” Ephraimites of N. Israel) can be a part of the new covenant. But practicing Jews are still in the Sinai covenant and God being a covenant keeping God has given them no reason to leave it. However, the covenant is ended in death (water baptism), so Paul and fellow Jews can join with Jesus in the new covenant. And they serve God in the new way of the Spirit (writing the Torah on their hearts where one wants to keep it), instead of the written code (which by itself gives no power to keep it, it just shows where one falls short when one fails to keep it).

    1. Well said, Donald Johnson! The Torah required death as a penance for sin, and simultaneously, the way was cleared for new life to be enacted in Messiah Yeshua by His shed blood and by the oversight, intervention and guidance of His Ruach HaKodesh… His Holy Spirit. That is because these were the only possibility for Paul, or any man, to live a life ratified by Torah.

  5. Excellent stuff, Derek. Thank you soooo much for summarizing the insights you are gleaning from.the conference!

  6. The problem with buffets is not the amount of the food offered or the quality, but the size of our belly and appetite. Bon appetit!

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