Written, Inspired and Profitable

The Bible provides minimal help for anyone trying to write a description of it for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. As a result, such descriptions typically claim more than the Bible discloses about itself.[1]

When formulating a declaration about Scripture, I recommend adhering to the following guidelines:

1) Echo the language which Scripture uses to speak about itself.

2) Reflect an appreciation of how ancient Jews viewed the Bible—the fountainhead of their literary heritage.

3) Demonstrate an awareness of and appreciation for the achievements of text-critical scholarship, since they constitute a foundation on which all modern English translation rests.[2]

A key New Testament passage for discussing the nature of Scripture is 2 Tim. 3:16-17:

All Scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.[3]

A reader well versed in the New Testament will recognize that the above translation reflects the content of a footnote appearing in some English editions. Preferring the note’s alternate wording for the purpose of this essay, I have rendered the passage’s opening phrase as “All Scripture inspired by God” as opposed to “All Scripture is inspired by God.”

Behind the word “Scripture” stands the Greek word γραφή, which is related to the verb γράφειν (to write). Scribes transmitted Scripture by transcribing it. Being written, it was intended to be read (aloud). One can, therefore, characterize Scripture as having a scribal-literary quality. These two verses also establish a close bond between inspiration and profitability for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. When speaking about inspiration, I make a habit of speaking about Scripture’s profitability for instruction or training in the next breath. These concepts are two sides of the same coin and should not be separated one from the other.

At the end of the passage, the desired objective is stated: to prepare a person for an effective life of doing. Although not explicitly mentioned in the immediate context, teachers do have a role to play in the program. Scripture’s usefulness for teaching and training depends not only on the inspiration of the text, but also on that of the teacher. Just as a score of music is ultimately only as good as the conductor who leads, so it is the case with the Bible and those who teach and preach it. A popular rabbinic story about Ben Azzai makes a similar point by tapping the imagery of a different metaphor. On one occasion, while he sat and taught, fire glowed around him.[4]  Ben Azzai’s spontaneous combustion harks back to the giving of God’s fiery Torah. In other words, his auditors were witnessing a sublime event, which was less dramatic, but similar in essence to the one which the original recipients of the Torah at Mt. Sinai had experienced.

1 Chron. 28:19 is a short verse about a text containing building instructions for the temple and its furnishings. It literally says: “All [the specifications of this plan] are in writing and they [come] from the hand of the Lord. I am responsible to explain [them].” At first glance, this verse seems to have little relevance for a discussion centering on 2 Tim. 3:16-17; however, in light of a Talmudic passage, both verses actually address similar issues.

Rabbi Yeremiah once taught the following in the name of another:

[Consider] the scroll which Samuel entrusted to David. It was given in order to be expounded. What is the proof? All of this in writing—This [refers] to its scriptural-literary character. From the hand of the Lord—This [refers] to the Holy Spirit. I am responsible to explain—From this [we learn] that it was given to be expounded.[5]

These remarks belong to a discussion about canonicity. For his part, Rabbi Yeremiah reminded his colleagues that the prophet Samuel gave David a scroll which possessed three defining characteristics of Scripture:[6]

1) The scroll was “in writing,” thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

2) The scroll came “from the hand of the Lord,” meaning that it was inspired like Oral Torah.

3) The scroll was given in order “to be expounded,” meaning that it could serve as the objective of exegesis, thereby distinguishing it from Oral Torah.

The same elements are present in 2 Tim. 3:16-17. The Greek word γραφή (graphae) conveys the idea that Scripture is written. The Greek word θεόπνευστος (theopneustos, i.e., God breathed) parallels the idea of coming “from the hand of the Lord” (i.e., God delivered). The former is regularly called divine inspiration, whereas the latter could be described as divine manipulation. Interestingly, Rabbi Yeremiah attributed this manual act to the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the association of θεόπνευστος with the Holy Spirit (i.e., πνεῦμα ἅγιον) is easy to make, because of the shared etymology. The clause “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” looks like an expanded, but equivalent way of saying “for expounding.”

We now have the benefit of consulting not only an early Christian epistle, but also a conceptual parallel from Talmudic literature before formulating a description of Scripture for inclusion in a Statement of Faith. Ideally, our declarations should echo the content of this old Jewish concept to which the New Testament author subscribed and which the editors of the Jerusalem Talmud included in their compilation. Being inspired (i.e., emanating from the Holy Spirit) and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training are intrinsic attributes of Scripture. These two attributes allow the Bible to play an indispensable and salubrious role in the life of Jewish and Christian communities of faith. When an inspired (and learned) teacher expounds the biblical text, it becomes like a living spring whose cathartic and curative waters nourish, refresh, and stimulate the community, and no matter how often revisited, they remain plentiful and efficacious.

  • [1] An earlier version of this essay was entitled A Jewish Comment about Scripture.
  • [2] Compare the NAB and NASB.
  • [3] Another article that addresses this point is my “Toward an Inerrant View of Scripture.”
  • [4] Lev Rabbah 16:4.
  • [5] J. Meg. 70a (ch 1:1) (Krotoschin ed.).
  • [6] I have benefited from Jose Faur, Golden Doves with Silver Dots: Semiotics and Textuality in Rabbinic Tradition (Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, 1986).

Jesus’ Attitude to Poverty

Revised: 21-Apr-2013

In light of Jesus’ demand of the rich young ruler to relinquish his entire fortune, one might assume that Jesus demanded this of every disciple; however, it is not certain that Jesus viewed poverty as the ideal state.

Certain circles within the Judaism of Jesus’ day took the view that there was something spiritually beneficial in poverty per se, that it was a mark of God’s special favor to be poor.[1] Given Jesus’ admission that “the Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” and the accusation that therefore he was a “glutton and a drunkard,”[2] it seems unlikely that Jesus would have been accepted in such circles. He possessed too much of the moderation that characterized main-stream Pharisaism.[3]

There are a number of passages in the synoptic gospels which suggest that Jesus may have held extreme views regarding wealth, but on closer examination one finds that this probably was not the case.

No Fixed Abode

And Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[4]

This could indicate that Jesus was abjectly poor. However, it more likely reflects the typical life of a first-century sage who was constantly traveling and thus had no fixed abode.

Hatred of Mammon?

No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.[5]

“Love” and “hate” are not always the absolute terms in Hebrew that they are in English. “Love,” when contrasted with “hate,” can mean “to put first, to prefer.”[6] In Luke 14:26 (parallel to Matthew 10:37), for instance, Jesus is quoted as saying that a disciple must “hate” his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters and even himself. Surely Jesus only meant that his disciples must love him above their families and themselves. To “hate” money in any absolute sense is foreign to the general teaching of Jesus and the writers of the New Testament. As Paul said in 1 Timothy 6:10, it is the love of money, not money itself, that is the root of all evil.

Sacrificial Giving

He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury; and he saw a poor widow put in two copper coins. And he said, “Amen! I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all the living that she had.”[7]

This is probably not an endorsement to give away all one’s money. Jesus praised this poor widow because, even though she had given only two small coins, her gift was more sacrificial and proportionately larger than that of the people who had donated much larger sums. Jesus seems to be making the same point as that found in Tobit 4:8-9: “If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion…so you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity.”

Empty Pockets

Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals….[8]

The impression created here is that Jesus instructed his disciples to live in poverty. This is strengthened by Peter’s reply in Acts 3:6 to a beggar who asked for alms: “I do not have silver and gold….”[9] One must realize, however, that the disciples did have sandals, bags and purses—they simply were told not to take them on this particular journey. Jesus intended his disciples to be supported during this preaching journey by the families that hosted them.[10]

Tomas Castelazo, "Old lady at San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico" (Wikimedia Commons).
Tomas Castelazo, “Old lady at San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico” (Wikimedia Commons).

In addition to being supported during their travels by hospitable families, Jesus and his itinerating band of disciples were also supported by some of the women who accompanied them, such as the wife of one of Herod Antipas’ officials. According to Luke 8:3, these women “served them by their wealth.” Obviously, Jesus had not required these women to distribute all their wealth to the poor, otherwise they would have had nothing to share with Jesus and his disciples.

Apparently, therefore, Jesus viewed money as a means for good and not only a hindrance to piety. Merely being wealthy did not prevent one’s spiritual growth; it was the pursuit of wealth as one’s primary goal in life that prevented entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. One senses a similar attitude behind the praise in the Talmud for the fabulously wealthy Nakdimon (Nicodemus) ben Gurion who, while remaining wealthy, was also very generous in his giving.[11]

No Earthly Treasures

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust devour, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven….[12]

Although this appears to be an instruction to flee from wealth and would seem to indicate that Jesus felt money was inherently evil, it actually is nothing more than Jesus’ typical exhortation to prefer the things above, to love the Kingdom of Heaven more than family, wealth, etcetera. In Jesus’ view, wealth and the Kingdom of Heaven were not necessarily mutually exclusive, as can be seen from his comments in Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and his righteousness and all these things will be yours as well.”

Jesus did not condemn a man who happened to be rich. The attitude he expressed was identical to that found in Derech Eretz Zuta 3:3: “If you have been favored with mammon, use it for alms as long as you have it. Obtain [literally, ‘buy’] with your mammon this world and world to come.” It is precisely this idea that lies behind Jesus’ exhortation in Luke 16:9 to “make friends for yourselves with the mammon of unrighteousness so that when it fails, you will be received into the eternal habitations.”

The Choking Tentacles of Riches

And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.[13]

Although Jesus taught that riches might choke the spiritual growth of some disciples, he listed riches as only one of the choking “thorns,” and it is doubtful that he meant to give the impression that spiritual unfruitfulness was the necessary result of riches in every case. A man’s wealth need not be a spiritual hindrance to him if he uses it to help the poor.

The Rich Can’t Get In

How difficult it is for those who have possessions to come into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to come into the Kingdom of God.[14]

On the surface, Jesus appears to be saying that it is impossible for anyone who is wealthy to receive eternal life. Actually, this metaphor of the camel and the needle’s eye is only another of the verbal caricatures that Jesus loved to use. Jesus is saying here no more than what he said in Luke 16:13: One cannot love, that is, put first, two masters. A disciple must choose what is more important to him—mammon or God. As long as a disciple’s wealth is not more important than God, as long as it does not prevent him from serving God, then a disciple is free to have possessions.

Giving Up One’s Wealth

You lack one thing more. Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.[15]

This is the only recorded occasion on which Jesus made such a demand, and it seems likely that it was tailored specifically to the condition of the man’s heart. Jesus knew that this rich man’s money was the most important thing in his life, and because the man loved his possessions more than studying Torah at Jesus’ feet, the test of discipleship for him was to give up his wealth. It was not a universal test, and Jesus did not make such a demand of others, even of other rich men. Another prospective disciple might have been asked to give up profession or position in life to prove that he had in fact put the Kingdom of Heaven first.[16]

  • [1] The Hasidim were perhaps the most influential proponents of this philosophy in first-century Israel. These were a stream of Galilean sages who were close in theology to the Pharisees while at the same time in tension with them because the Hasidim emphasized the doing of good deeds more than the study of Torah. Shmuel Safrai carried out extensive research on the Hasidim. He contends that Jesus, although not a Hasid, was similar to the Hasidim in many ways. Safrai argues that Jesus, like the Hasidim, idealized poverty: Jesus lived a pauper’s life, and also demanded of his disciples that they give up all their material wealth. See Safrai’s, “Jesus and the Hasidim.”

    Many outstanding scholars have held Safrai’s view regarding Jesus’ attitude toward wealth. In his commentary on the synoptic gospels, Claude Montefiore quotes Kirsopp Lake (apparently in agreement with Lake): “Professor Lake has said: ‘I think Jesus clearly taught that riches ought to be rejected and given to the poor. He not only said so quite definitely to the rich man who asked his advice, but he denied the possibility (apart from the special act of God) that rich men can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I have not the smallest doubt but that Jesus said this and meant it. I do not believe that he meant it as exceptional teaching. Poverty was his rule of life, yet I do not think it is the right rule of life, or that it is practicable if civilization is to continue’ (The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow [1925], p. 155)” (C. G. Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels, [2d ed.; London: Macmillan & Co., 1927], 2:559-60).

    Vincent Taylor comments on Mark 10:21: “Commentators are right in saying that Jesus does not demand the universal renunciation of property, but gives a command relative to a particular case. Nevertheless, as Lohmeyer, 211, points out, Jesus Himself appears to have chosen a life of poverty; He wanders to and fro without a settled home (Mk. i. 39, Lk. ix. 58), His disciples are hungry (Mk. ii. 23, viii. 14), women provide for His needs (Lk. viii. 3), and His disciples can say Ἰδοὺ ἡμεῖς ἀφήκαμεν πάντα καὶ ἠκολουθήκαμέν σοι [Behold we left everything and followed you] (Mk. x. 28)” (The Gospel according to St. Mark [London: Macmillan & Co., 1952], 429). Here, Taylor first seems to agree that Jesus did not idealize poverty, then qualifies his view by quoting another scholar.

    Shmuel Safrai has noted: “Hasiduth [the belief and practice of the Hasidim] is generally associated with the conception of humility” (“Teaching of Pietists in Mishnaic Literature,” The Journal of Jewish Studies 16 [1956]: 17, note 13). It seems likely that in a number of rabbinic passages the word עֲנִיּוּת (aniyut) refers not to poverty but to humility. This certainly is true of its usage in Seder Eliyahu Zuta 3 (p. 176), where the poor “whom humility [not poverty] becomes” are contrasted with the haughty:

    Scripture says: “You will save a humble people, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low” [2 Sam. 22:28]. “You will save a humble people”—this refers to the people [of Israel] whom humility becomes. “Your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low”—these are the [heathen] nations of the world.

    Notice how much stronger is the saying of Elijah in the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 9b, when aniyut is taken to mean humility rather than poverty:

    The Holy One, blessed be he, went through all the good qualities and the only one which he found that was good enough to give to Israel was humility.

    Even the popular saying recorded in Leviticus Rabbah 13, “Humility becomes Israel like a red strap across the breast of a white horse,” falls flat if aniyut is translated as poverty.

  • [2] Matt 11:19.
  • [3] For an excellent survey of the Pharisaic view that, in general, poverty is an evil, see Israel Abrahams’ chapter, “Poverty and Wealth,” in Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels (2 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917, 1924; repr. in one volume by Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1967), 1:113-117.
  • [4] Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58.
  • [5] Luke 16:13.
  • [6] For examples of this Hebraic nuance of “hate,” see LOY 48: Demands of Discipleship, Comment to L5.
  • [7] Luke 21:1-4.
  • [8] Luke 10:4.
  • [9] Also supportive of Safrai’s view is the fact that in Acts 2:44-45 we read that the early believers sold their properties and possessions and held all things in common. Compare the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and Acts 4:34-35. However, note that Peter told Ananias and Sapphira, “While you owned the property, was it not yours to do with as you pleased?” In other words, their only sin was in pretending to have donated the full amount of the property.
  • [10] Compare Luke 10:7.
  • [11] See b. Ketubot 66b-67a. Nakdimon was one of the three wealthiest men in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 66 A.D. (b. Gittin 56a).

    The Talmud likewise showers praise upon the convert King Monobaz of Adiabene (mid-first century A.D.) for his generosity in helping those in need. When criticized for dissipating the kingdom’s treasures accumulated by his ancestors, Monobaz replied: “My ancestors stored up below, but I am storing up above…my ancestors gathered for this world, but I have gathered for the world to come” (b. Bava Batra 11a; cf. Mishnah, Yoma 3:10; Tosefta, Yoma 2:3; Genesis Rabbah 46:10; Josephus, Antiquities 20:75, 92-96).

  • [12] Matt 6:19-20.
  • [13] Matt 13:22; Mark 4:18-19; Luke 8:14.
  • [14] Matt 19:23-24; Mark 10:23-25; Luke 18:24-25.
  • [15] Matt 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22.
  • [16] The Kingdom of Heaven is a collective term used by Jesus to refer to his apprenticed disciples. One probably should not draw conclusions about what Jesus advocated for normal life from what he demanded of those select few whom he called to a rigorous life of in-service training. Would Jesus, for instance, have made it a general rule that acceptance of his teaching precluded burying one’s father or mother? Stern demands such as those Jesus made of the rich man (Luke 18:22) were directed towards potential disciples, not the general public. It should also be noted that discipleship was not usually permanent. Although a disciple’s internship sometimes lasted for years, it was essentially temporary, a period of life devoted to intensive study of Torah.

New Testament Canon

When discussing the question of inspiration of Scripture, it is important to consider also the way in which the church determined which books were from God and which were not. Most of us take for granted that the New Testament always had twenty-seven books. We may be vaguely aware that Paul mentions a letter he wrote to the church in Laodicea (Col. 4:16) and that there might have been a third letter to the church in Corinth, but beyond that we assume there were no other writings.

In fact, the writing of the books included in the New Testament was spread over a period of more than half a century. However, not all of these books were accepted by the churches as coming from God until about three hundred years after they were written. During that period there were other books, written roughly at the same time as the twenty-seven New Testament books, which were accepted by some churches as inspired.

One of the earliest acknowledgments that parts of what we now call the New Testament were to be considered as holy Scripture alongside the Hebrew Bible comes in the words of Peter, when he sets writings of Paul together with “Scripture,” in other words the Hebrew Bible: “…just as our dear brother Paul wrote to you, using the wisdom that God gave him…. There are some difficult things in his letters which ignorant and unstable people explain falsely, as they do with other passages of the Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

First Lists

The first actual attempt to draw up a list of books to be accepted was made by a man named Marcion in the middle of the second century A.D. Marcion, under the influence of gnostic teaching, rejected the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible could be the same as the God and Father of Jesus. The Jewish God, he said, was a God of wrath and judgment, while the God revealed by Jesus is a God of love and compassion. Following this essentially anti-Semitic idea, Marcion rejected all of the Jewish Scriptures. He then accepted as truly inspired and authoritative only the writings of Paul (ten books, not including the letters to Timothy and Titus) and the bulk of the book of Luke. Because he believed that Jesus only appeared to be a man and to suffer (a view known as Docetism), he rejected the first two chapters of Luke which speak of the birth of Jesus. Marcion was declared a heretic even in his own lifetime.

By the end of the second century there was wide (but not yet universal) acceptance of all but four of the books which make up our New Testament. The so-called Muratorian Fragment dates from that time and omits Hebrews, James and 1 and 2 Peter. The eastern and Egyptian churches were also slow to accept 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation. The name “New Testament,” describing the apostolic books of the church, was first used in about 193 A.D. by an unknown author writing against the heresy of Montanism.

Even as late as the early fourth century, the church historian Eusebius was able to point out that books like the Shepherd of Hermas, Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas were accepted by some churches, while books like Jude, 2 Peter, Revelation and Hebrews were omitted by some (Ecclesiastical History III, 25). This situation is indeed reflected in some extant ancient manuscripts. For example, the Peshitta (Syriac), which dates from the fourth or fifth century A.D., omits 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation.

Final Canon

It was not until the year 367 A.D. that the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius listed the twenty-seven books which we now accept as the New Testament canon. The word “canon” derives from the Semitic root meaning a reed (kaneh) as a unit or standard of measure (cf. Ezek. 40:5). It was first applied to a set of biblical writings in the fourth century. Up until that time there had been no council or committee which sat down to decide which books were to be accepted by the whole church and which were not. The process was an organic one stretching over that period of 300 years. The main factors which ultimately determined whether a book was to be placed in the “New Testament” were 1) having been written by an apostolic figure, and 2) acceptance by long usage among the churches.

In certain respects, the process which led to the fixing of the canon is one of the outstanding statements of the inspiration of tradition and the wisdom of God manifest collectively in his church. While God had used individual writers to record the books themselves, the actual acceptance of those books as being from God was subject to a long transition, a process of testing. We might say that the Holy Spirit was allowing the collective wisdom of the church to test the books to see whether they were from God (cf. 1 John 4:1).