Tag Archives: noah

The New Testament and the Testament of Job

Now, am I 100% certain that James isn’t alluding to canonical Job when he talks about the “perseverance of Job”?  Well, no.  But I am pretty certain that something more than just canonical Job is in view.  I am no expert in Jewish culture of the 1st century, but we do know that New Testament writers can be aware of and allude to the broader scope of Jewish literature available to them.  There are some Biblical figures (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Job for starters) who inspired additional literature outside of the Biblical books that we are familiar with, and these books clearly held some currency in the time of the New Testament.  We also need to remember that this is a period with a low literacy rate, so when James says “you have heard of the perseverance of Job,” that’s precisely what he means–you guys have heard stories about Job’s patience.  He may not be referring to a specific text as much as an oral tradition that strongly linked “patience” to Job as his most noted quality.  But it’s hard to imagine that The Testament of Job hasn’t either originated or strongly reinforced that link, and if James has one specific written text in mind, I’m putting my money on Testament rather than canonical Job.  The former make a huge point out of Job’s calm acceptance and perseverance; the latter simply doesn’t.

This analogy isn’t perfect, but readers of the New Testament need to remember that first century Judaism was a lot more like Catholicism than evangelical Protestantism.  You have mystic groups, ascetics, extra-Biblical traditions and alternative texts all living alongside or in tension with the approved religious hierarchy.  When a Catholic talks about Mary, they are tapping into a whole stream of images, references, doctrine and devotional literature that ultimately originates with the presentation of Mary in the gospels, but with so many accretions that most Protestants feel that they don’t recognize that Mary at all.  Everyone understands that when a Southern Baptist sings “Mary Did You Know?” and a Roman Catholic sings “Ave Maria” there’s a sense in which they are addressing the same person, but in many ways they really aren’t.

And when James says “you’ve heard of the perseverance of Job,” he probably isn’t excluding canonical Job from that reference (again, you can find support for the patience tradition in the prose framework) but he’s almost certainly including much more as well.

You can see the same thing in 2 Peter 2:4-9:

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; 6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men 8 (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— 9 if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.

Scholars have noted many similarities between 2 Peter and Jude, not least of which is that they both allude to 1 Enoch–that’s where this weird bit about angels in gloomy dungeons comes from.  Similarly, there is nothing in Genesis about Noah preaching, but it was well-known in Jewish tradition, especially in the Sibylline Oracles, which record one of Noah’s sermons in 1:148-198.  And when I read Genesis, canonical Lot doesn’t come across as particularly righteous (getting drunk and impregnating his own daughters falls somewhat short of praise-worthiness),  but the Lot of Jewish tradition was one of the good guys:

Jewish tradition interpreted Abraham’s plea on behalf of the righteous in Sodom (Gen 18:23–32) as referring to Lot (Pirqe R. El. 25; Gen. Rab. 49:13), and so could speak of him as a righteous man (Wis 10:6; 19:17: δίκαιος; cf. 1 Clem 11:1: Philo, Mos. 2.58). His exemplary deliverance from the fate that overtook his wicked fellow-citizens is mentioned in Wis 10:6; Philo, Mos. 2.58; and 1 Clem 11:1, which seem to belong to the same paraenetic tradition as 2 Pet 2:4–9.

-Richard J. Bauckham, vol. 50, Word Biblical Commentary : 2 Peter, Jude, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 252.

It is beyond reasonable dispute that the New Testament epistles include non-canonical information about Moses, Noah, Lot, and angels.  Does it seem like a stretch to think the same thing is at play with Job?  Not to me.

So it’s a bit simplistic to say “James mentions Job, therefore Job must be historical.”  First of all, even if there were no extrabiblical Job traditions, a New Testament reference is no proof of historicity.  Suppose James had written “you have heard of the compassion of the Good Samaritan”?  That’s completely intelligible and serves as the basis for moral exhortation, but without requiring that the Samaritan was a historical person.  All that is required is that there is a known religious tradition that includes a Samaritan story, and that the tradition was accepted as relevant for moral instruction.  James isn’t citing Job because he necessarily thinks Job is historical.  He may not have even thought about it one way or the other.  The “patience of Job” tradition is a shared cultural inheritance he and his audience both know, and it is relevant for the instruction he is giving.  That’s about all that citation proves: shared knowledge and relevance.  If someone really wants to posit that a New Testament allusion necessarily implies historicity, then I guess you get your trump card for claiming strict historicity for canonical Job and Jonah, but you are also going to get, at bare minimum, 1 Enoch, the Assumption of Moses, and the Sybilline Oracles in the process.  If citation proves historicity, things get really interesting in a hurry.

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Side Note: Regarding Adam, Job and Jonah

The three sections of the Old Testament that are most widely considered to be generally parabolic or mythopoetic rather than largely historical are Genesis 1-11, the book of Job and the book of Jonah.

Let’s take Genesis 1-11 first:

Lucas Cranach's <i>Adam and Eve</i>

Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

There’s a pretty clear break between Genesis 11 and 12 as we move out of primordial epic into the lives of the patriarchs.  We’re done with talking snakes, magic trees and flaming swords, and into something that isn’t straight history but definitely seems to be based on historical persons.  There is a groundedness to Abraham that isn’t present earlier.  The rest of the Old Testament seems to acknowledge this break as well:  there are forty-two references to Abraham after the book of Genesis, but only one definite reference to Adam (1 Chron 1:1).  Noah fares little better, with a total of three references (1 Chron 1:3-4; Isa 54:9; Ezek 14:14-20).  The stories of the patriarchs shaped the religious life of Israel far more than the primordial history did.  Even more striking, there are 121 Old Testament references to Moses that come after the Pentateuch.  While the patriarchs continue to be referenced, it is the exodus event that serves as the foundational narrative for Israelite society.

I mention this in part to point out that that the internal evidence in the Bible suggests that the earliest stories weren’t given nearly the “weight” in Israelite tradition that modern conservatives assign to them.  If you grew up in a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical context, you probably heard countless proclamations that the creation narrative is the foundation of our faith, and that everything stands or falls with the way that we interpret the creation week, Adam and Eve, and the flood.  Yet the scriptures treat Exodus as the primary story, with the patriarchal accounts as prequel, and 1-11 as prequel to that.  It’s not that they are disregarded–not at all–but it’s Moses who is the big deal in Jewish thought, not Adam.  They simply didn’t have as much riding on whether Adam was historical as we seem to.

When it comes to Job, I think it’s pretty clear why many people, even quite conservative scholars, treat it as ahistorical.  With the exception of the prose framework (chapters 1 and 2, and 41:7-17), the whole book is written in long dramatic monologues with a highly stylized a poetic sensibility.  No one really talks that way–sitting around taking turns doing spontaneous soliloquies.  It could be that it is a drama based on a historical event (like Shakespeare’s histories) but there’s certainly no compelling reason to assume so.  Within the larger canonical context, it strikes me as a story that was intentionally designed to counter a legalistic reading of Deuteronomy that insists that tragedy is always the result of sin.  Job is set up as the perfect foil: “So there was the man who was super righteous!  Really, really righteous!  God himself said he was the most righteous man on the whole earth!  And then tragedy happened!  Really, really awful tragedy!  The worst tragedy you’ve ever heard of!  And he had these three friends who tried to interpret it within their theological framework.  But they were all wrong!  Here’s what they said….” When you have a text with dramatic/poetic form and an extreme situation that is perfectly designed to raise theological questions, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this is intended to be historical.

And then there’s Jonah.  A lot of folks consider Jonah a fable because of the part where he is swallowed by a great fish.  I see their point, but that’s not the issue for me.  I’m not really interested in spending a lot of time in a debate about miracles.  The more salient point, I think, is that Jonah, similar to Job, seems to be another story designed expressly to challenge bad theology.  Jonah is an extremely unsympathetic character.  He whines, he rebels, he gets upset when the Ninevites repent:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The kicker is when God withers a shade bush, exposing Jonah to the sun, and Jonah again gets angry.

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

This is another story that intends to undermine self-serving religion.  A Hebrew prophet is acting like a whiny infant because God is being gracious and loving! He wants God to be harsh and vindictive with his enemies, but continually gracious to him and his friends.  He even quotes the great faith confession of Exodus 32:4 disapprovingly.  Again, this strikes me as a parable to raise pertinent theological questions–and to expose a self-serving theology as base and infantile.  Read Jonah against the backdrop of the other minor prophets, and it’s an obvious outlier.  I think the parabolic nature of the story is obvious in the greater context.

My friends who insist on the historicity of these three texts have a quick rejoinder, one that to them seems insurmountable.  Adam, Noah, Job and Jonah are all mentioned in the New Testament.  Because the New Testament writers (and Jesus himself!) reference them, they must therefore be taken to be historical accounts.  I’ll address that in a future post.

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