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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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“You Have Heard of the Perseverance of Job”

So says the epistle of James, chapter five, verse eleven: “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (NIV) The Greek word here translated perseverance is hypomone, and appears in such passages as Lk 8:15; 21:19; Ro 2:7; 5:3; 8:25; 15:4; 2Co 6:4; 1Ti 6:11; 2Ti 3:10; Heb 12:1; Jas 1:3-4; 2Pe 1:6; Rev 2:2, 19; Gal 5:23, where it is variously translated as “patience,” “perseverance” and “endurance.” Notice that it appears earlier in the book of James, two occurances near each other at the opening of the book.  Those occurrences are our best clues as to what James means when he uses the term later.  James writes (NIV):

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

To James, hypomone is more than just surviving tragedy, more than just pushing through.  It’s a certain kind of faith-filled acceptance that leads to spiritual maturation, an unshakable inner peace that means the disciple has no need for anything else–his great faith has brought him contentment even in trial.

“You’ve heard,” says James, “that Job had this quality.”

Huh?  Does that strike anyone else as a bit odd?  Maybe more than a bit?  For all his wonderful qualities, Job doesn’t demonstrate the kind of faithful acceptance that James seems to be encouraging here.  In fact, if Job did that, there wouldn’t really be much of a book there.  I mean, sure, he comes across this way in the opening prose framework (1:21, 2:9) but then you have 39 chapters of Job demanding answers, complaining, railing against the injustice of his plight.  He starts by cursing the day of his birth:

“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck? (Job 3:11-12)

It doesn’t seem right that James would point to the person who said these words as an example of the kind of attitude that faithful people should have under adversity.  And it’s not like he’s shining with contentment and the peace that passes understanding by the end of his monologues.  Not even close:

My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I am a brother of jackals,
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black and falls from me,
and my bones burn with heat.
My lyre is turned to mourning,
and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. (Job 30:27-31)

This seems doubly odd when you do have some genuinely impressive examples of faithful perseverance in hardship, like Joseph or Daniel.  Why not point to one of them rather than Job, the classic existential struggler of the Hebrew Bible.  Have you ever wondered what James is up to here?  It’s almost like he’s not thinking of the Job we know at all, as though there were some other Job on his mind, one who was known for, above all things, patient accept of trial.  A Job like this one:

1 And when Satan saw that he could not put me to despair, he went and asked my body of the Lord in order to inflict plague on me, for the Evil one could not bear my patience. 2 Then the Lord delivered me into his hands to use my body as he wanted, but he gave him no power over my soul. 3. And he came to me as I was sitting on my throne still mourning over my children. 4 And he resembled a great hurricane and turned over my throne and threw me upon the ground. 5 And I continued lying on the floor for three hours. and he smote me with a hard plague from the top of my head to the toes of my feet. 6 And I left the city in great terror and woe and sat down upon a dunghill my body being worm-eaten. 7 And I wet the earth with the moistness of my sore body, for matter flowed off my body, and many worms covered it. 8 And when a single worm crept off my body, I put it back saying: “Remain on the spot where thou hast been placed until He who hath sent thee will order thee elsewhere.” 9 Thus I endured for seven years, sitting on a dung-hill outside of the city while being plague-stricken.

What’s that?  It’s the opening of chapter five of The Testament of Job, a Jewish work that dates somewhere around 1BC-1AD, and tells a story roughly similar to canonical Job, if you subtract all of Job’s complaining and add in a ridiculously exaggerated level of patience and acceptance over a long amount of time.  If you are reading about extreme patience from someone named Job with whom a late first century Jewish audience would be familiar, chances are it’s from the Testament of Job, not bitter, flailing canonical Job.

But wait, for that to be possible the New Testament would have to be willing to allude to non-canonical Jewish literature.  And that can’t happen, can it?

But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9, referencing 1 Enoch)

Oh.  Right.

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