Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 2

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 2 of a term paper for my Church History class. And what fun it was to write! If you like learning and reading about heresy, you might enjoy it as well. If new and different perspectives turn you off, then I don’t imagine continuing to read this will be much fun. 🙂

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III(a).  The Ebionites: Sources, Origins, and Scriptures

Regretfully, though some church fathers attempted to characterize individual letters as reflective of Ebionite beliefs, no primary source material from self-proclaimed Ebionites survives today, if such writings were ever made.[1] Therefore, the only sources available for consideration are the writings of early church fathers who sought to identify the Ebionites as heretics. That these heresiological writings are significantly biased should be understood, but unfortunately, “the character of these sources has not been taken sufficiently into consideration when it comes to evaluating the information they contain.”[2] In some cases, obvious fabrications are purported to portray the Ebionites in a negative light, especially by the wildly imaginative heresy hunter Epiphanius. In other cases, biases are more subtle and stem from theological differences. Regardless, the writings of four church fathers—Iraneus, Origen, Eusebius and Epiphanius—comprise our pool of information most relevant to the Ebionites.[3] Each successive writer adds new (and possibly original) information about the sect, but all are dependent primarily upon Iraneus, who seemingly had the most direct contact with Ebionite groups or literature about them. But even with this approximation of source material taken into account, it is inescapable that all four church fathers wrote from the perspective that the Ebionites, as heretics who did not wish to truly understand Jesus[4], intentionally chose to falsify truths available to them in the gospels and the epistles of Paul.[5]

The common perception among proto-orthodox believers was also that heretical groups always derived from a heretical person after whom the sect was named. After all, such is the case with Marcionites (Marcion), Valentinians (Valentinus) and Basilidians (Basilides).[6] Therefore, it is understandable that several sources presupposed the existence of an “Ebion.”[7] However, even after this was known to be untrue, later writers—Epiphanius especially—still considered “Ebion” a key figure through which to disprove the heretical theology of the Ebionites. In reality, the Hebrew term ebionim and its Aramaic equivalent, ebionaye, are found in the Bible to essentially mean “poor ones.”[8] Furthermore, the terms connote or “refer to those in Israel who are looked down upon by the rich and powerful, and who expect to be delivered by the God of Israel in the present time or in the eschaton.”[9] In that sense, ebionim is a positive, even “honorific” term that would be willingly embraced to describe oneself in the same vein that the Pharisees (from Hebrew perushim, or “set apart”) and Sadducees (from Hebrew saddiqim, or “righteous”) chose their own monikers.[10] This designation paints an appreciable picture of the Ebionites: they valued their willful poverty to such an extent that it became the main quality by which they chose to become identified. Or rather, that “it was not so much the possession of goods itself which was sinful but rather the greed for ever new possessions and for becoming rich.”[11]

Not all heresiologists writing about the Ebionites were completely in the dark about the origin of their name, however. With his obvious understanding of the biblical Hebrew, Origen was the first to create a clever play on words, insinuating that the Ebionites were “poor in understanding” of both Jesus and Scripture—so much so, in fact, that their theology deliberately “makes others poor.”[12] Writers following Origen also enjoyed the puns on the Ebionites’ poverty while insisting that Ebion still existed through the Greek word Έβιωναιοι, meaning “followers of Ebion.”[13] Origen is also the first writer to suggest that multiple groups of Ebionites exist, since his own interactions with Ebionites did not always agree with the writings of Iraneus. For example, while the bulk of Ebionites are said to understand Jesus only as a human (not divine), Origen is aware that some “seem to embrace a different type of Christology.”[14] And given that ebionim is such a positive term, the possibility exists that several groups self-identified by this name, especially when Epiphanius describes Ebionite beliefs divergent from Iraneus’ norm.[15] Therefore, it must be asked: “Did everyone who held some, or even all, the doctrines classified as Ebionite really belong to a definable party or sect?”[16] The question is largely rhetorical; without primary source material, scholars are left to estimation. It seems, however, that Ebionite beliefs developed naturally from the life of Jesus himself, perhaps even around the same time that proto-orthodox writers and communities took shape. It is not out of the question that the beliefs of individuals and families could have been characteristically Ebionite outside of an Ebionite community.

With an understanding of the sources concerned with the Ebionites and the origin of their name in hand, it is possible to delve deeper into Ebionite beliefs, starting with the texts they predominantly ascribed as authoritative. First and foremost, as Jewish Christians, the Ebionites especially revered the Hebrew Bible[17], and in doing so, did “their best to expound [on the prophetical writings] diligently,” per Origen.[18] Earliest attestation from Iraneus also holds that the Ebionites used a form of Matthew as their only gospel, portions of which may have been translated into Aramaic.[19] Interestingly enough, Iraneus also comments on the Marcionites in his chief writing about the Ebionites; in doing so, he alleges that Marcion’s followers have “mutilated” the gospel of Luke. Significantly, Iraneus includes no similar claim about the Ebionites’ treatment of Matthew.[20] However, he notes that the Ebionites accept neither the other three gospels nor Paul, given that they disagree with his stance on Gentile observance of the Torah and that they are partial to the Jewish portrayal of Jesus in Matthew alone.[21]

Writing more than a century after Iraneus, Eusebius affirms that the Ebionites rejected every Pauline epistle, but curiously claims that “they used only the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews and made small account of the rest.”[22] Whether Eusebius possesses firsthand knowledge of a different gospel used by the Ebionites or he is linguistically making a veiled reference to the well-known Jewishness of Matthew is uncertain, but this is the first instance where “a patristic writer attributes a non-canonical, ‘special’ Jewish-Christian Gospel to the Ebionites.”[23] Epiphanius would later harmonize the accounts of Iraneus and Eusebius, explaining that the Ebionite gospel was really just Matthew with the significant omission of the first two chapters, which includes both the birth narrative and the genealogy of Jesus.[24] However, Epiphanius apparently did not know what the Ebionites called their gospel. For the sake of clarity, modern scholars often refer to it unofficially as the Gospel of the Ebionites, though it most likely did not originally take on such a name.[25] Perhaps the most interesting quality of the Ebionite gospel, however, is that it harmonized parts of the baptism of Jesus, which would take on special significance for the sect:

As careful readers have long noticed, the three Synoptic Gospels all record the words spoken by a voice from heaven as Jesus emerges from the water; but the voice says something different in all three accounts: “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17); “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11); and, in the oldest witnesses to Luke’s Gospel, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” (Luke 3:23). What did the voice actually say? In the Gospel of the Ebionites, the matter is resolved easily enough. For here the voice speaks three times, saying something different on each occasion.[26]

Only in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures are we able to conclude, therefore, that the Ebionites used their accepted writings to inform their beliefs. Given their disregard for Paul and their well attested revisions to Matthew—removing the first two chapters, possibly rendering the rest into Hebrew or Aramaic and revising the baptismal story—it is unavoidable that they used their accepted beliefs instead to inform Scripture.


[1] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[2] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 419.

[3] Ibid., 427. A number of writers, including Tertullian and Hippolytus, based their knowledge of Ebionites solely from information taken from Iraneus without adding new claims; because of space considerations, they are regrettably excluded from this study.

[4] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 431.

[5] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 164.

[6] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 420.

[7] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 99.

[8] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 421.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church, trans. Douglas R. A. Hare (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 11.

[11] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 102.

[12] Ibid., 99-100; Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 444.

[13] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 425.

[14] Ibid., 422.

[15] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[16] Robert M. Grant, Jesus After the Gospels: The Christ of the Second Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 80.

[17] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 101.

[18] Origen, as quoted in Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 428.

[19] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 102.

[20] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 435.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Eusebius, as quoted in Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 446.

[23] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 446.

[24] Ibid., 458.

[25] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 102.

[26] Ibid.

David and Solomon: A Royal Ideal

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 15. Enjoy!

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The people Israel have come a long way since Yahweh found Abram settled in Haran and promised to make his name and his nation great throughout the earth (Gn 12:1-3). These humble beginnings led to oppression in Egypt and deliverance in Canaan, but the Israelites came to find that the quandary of governance was almost as problematic as the distress of bondage. Their demand for a king produced the anointment of Saul in spite of all of Samuel’s warnings about the ills of fallible royalty (1 Sm 8:10-20). Yahweh raised up David after Saul proved to be his own worst enemy, and through David Israel began to shine among the nations of the world. In David and Solomon, has Israel reached the pinnacle, or is Yahweh giving his tempestuous people a taste of the proverbial apple to teach valuable lessons? This reflection paper will examine the issues associated with Israel’s most exalted kings and their lifestyles of untold “blessing.”

As recorded in 2 Samuel and the beginning 11 chapters of 1 Kings, David and Solomon are accustomed to hosting expansive feasts, offering lengthy prayers, amassing incredible opulence, and in Solomon’s case, building a temple to the Name of Yahweh with unfathomable excess. And while majestic bounty like silver, gold and precious stones were to be expected in Solomon’s palace, it seems that not even “apes and baboons” were outside of his desire (1 Kgs 10:22 NIV). The question becomes: Where was Yahweh in all of this? Perhaps he foretold that David’s son and successor would be the one to build a temple to his name, and obviously he must have allowed it to happen, but did he actually sanction Solomon to import countless cedar logs in exchange for basic staples like olive oil and grain when undoubtedly the poor and needy were among the tribes of Israel? It seems only natural to conclude that the details regarding both the temple and Solomon’s palace were not ordained by the one and only God but rather dreamed by a polytheistic king operating without checks and balances on his rule. As Victor P. Hamilton cleverly remarks, “[Solomon’s] is a life filled with profits but devoid of prophets.”[1]

As if his 700 wives and 300 concubines were not enough (1 Kgs 11:3), Solomon continued to laugh in the face of Yahweh by conscripting both Israelites and foreigners into selecting raw materials and building God’s temple (1 Kgs 5:13-18; 9:15-23). That the NIV text refers to both of these instances as “forced labor” and not “employment” presents a significant redactional clue that either God or later generations (or both) understood the absurdity in the situation. Surely Yahweh did not lead the Israelites from slavery in Egypt so Israel could itself take slaves in preparing to exalt the name of Yahweh! Hamilton, with a wink toward the declaration of Jesus (Mt 11:30), takes solace in that “for Solomon’s laborers, the king’s yoke is easy and his burden is light.”[2] But forced labor is still forced labor. Nobody in the history of the world has ever been pleased with compulsory, unreimbursed work. In this light, the Queen of Sheba’s remark to Solomon—“‘How happy your men must be!’” (1 Kgs 10:8 NIV)—exhibits a special sort of irony.

Certainly, no stupid human becomes as rich as Solomon. But is his wisdom the cause of his riches, as Yahweh apparently says in a dream (1 Kgs 3:11-13), or rather the redactional effect of his lifestyle? Regardless, these demonstrations of power and riches become the highest good for an Israelite people who, while in exile, expect certain characteristics of the prophesied Messiah. Jesus was hard to accept because he didn’t match expectations. The Jews wanted reclamation of what they had lost, not redefinition of a proper life with Yahweh. An unfortunate consequence of the lifestyles of David and Solomon was the unconscionable question asked of Jesus by his bewildered disciples just before he returned to God in heaven: “‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:6 NIV).


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 380-381.

[2] Ibid., 394.

Heresy or Reasonable Theology? The Ebionites: Part 1

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

You are reading Part 1 of a term paper for my Church History class. And what fun it was to write! If you like learning and reading about heresy, you might enjoy it as well. If new and different perspectives turn you off, then I don’t imagine continuing to read this will be much fun. 🙂

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There probably is more truth to the early heresy than we realize.

—Dr. Fred Shively, October 4, 2010

I.  Introduction

In response to the ministry of Jesus, it seems that some Jews came to identify him as the Messiah while maintaining their distinctly Jewish beliefs. For almost two centuries, scholars have found these early Jewish Jesus followers—Jewish Christians, if you will—“theologically interesting,” if for no other reason than their chronological proximity to Jesus himself.[1] After all, despite the sense of a personal relationship with Jesus said to be attainable through prayer, a fact that all must admit is that historically speaking, we know of Jesus’ actual identity “only indirectly, through his effects.”[2] Certainly, the gospel accounts of Jesus and his sayings can get us closer to the historical Jesus, but given that they were written some three, four, five or six decades after his death, these, too, are part of Jesus’ “effects.” Additionally, when confronted with the contents of these gospels, it must be conceded that Jesus was incredibly hard to understand at times. His primary mode of public teaching appeared to be parables. As intentionally ambiguous forms of dialogue—or rather, labyrinth-like stories that were apparently meant to have several possible endpoints on purpose—these parables strengthen the supposition that Jesus traveled from place to place communicating predominantly in riddles.[3] With this in mind, the plurality of viewpoints about both the message and the person of Jesus seems not only excusable, but also completely understandable.

“But it was, [Jesus] said, in his life and in ones like it that the Kingdom of God was revealed, that the Jewish god of justice and righteousness was incarnated in a world of injustice and unrighteousness.”[4] In terms of the theologically interesting Jesus followers of antiquity, can we regain the kingdom orientation that has, for many centuries, been lost? In light of Dr. Shively’s epigraph[5], is it furthermore possible to recover the truth in the named heresy of early Jewish Christianity, and the Ebionites in particular? The probability of success for such an effort is reduced significantly in that scholars have no extant firsthand knowledge of the Ebionites after the conclusion of the third century.[6] However, I agree with other scholars who are less discouraged by these roadblocks than they are encouraged by the possibilities of uncovering fresh perspectives of truth and genuinely authentic faith constructs. In accordance, this essay will strive to define the proper context for Jewish Christianity, both in general and, more importantly, as it relates to the Ebionites. I will attempt to positively identify those ideas and practices that were assuredly Ebionite by considering the sources preserving their origin, legacy of beliefs and ideological and theological development before finally offering my personal insights and reflections on this significant group of early Jewish Christians. In short, I hope to give the Ebionites an objective and subjective voice pertinent for modern scholars and laypersons alike.

II.  Defining and Identifying Jewish Christianity

As scholars seeking to gain and produce insights on post-biblical times, it is unavoidable that we are like motorists attempting to drive a truck forward while looking solely at a rear-view mirror. While occasionally we gain an insightful perspective from a new or undiscovered source, we must admit that, like a driver scanning to his side-view mirrors, we are still looking backwards. And though our lives might not be at stake in this pursuit, we must be cautious not to cause scholarly wrecks, whether intentionally or by accident. It is through this vehicular metaphor that the term “Jewish Christianity,” with its adjectival partner “Jewish Christian,” developed in the academic lexicon. Certainly devised with innocuous intentions, the category was meant to designate Jewish believers in Jesus who continued to live an otherwise Jewish way of life.[7] However, such a broad scope proves confusing when one considers the different sets of beliefs that could qualify as “Jewish Christian.” How many Old Testament laws, exactly, would a community of believers have to follow to be regarded as Jewish Christians? Would Paul, the top Christian thought leader of the first century, also be a Jewish Christian? Does not the reverence for Hebrew Scriptures and the worship of the one and only true God—the Jewish God—make even today’s believers Jewish Christians? Or does a Jewish Christian need to follow every last law in the Mosaic purity code?

In this regard, it may be more beneficial to speak of Jewish Christianities in the plural form, because just as variant beliefs fostered numerous Christianities in the first centuries after Christ’s death, many Judaisms also existed during the time of Paul.[8] In a manner reminiscent of the quintessential handshake problem from middle school mathematics, we can determine that the faith possibilities are nearly endless when considering the numerous theological questions resulting in dissent. To illustrate, think of this plurality of perspectives in terms of Jewish sects of antiquity and modern Christian denominations. In this example, Jewish believers in Jesus could develop as Pharisaic Wesleyans, Catholic Zealots, Pharisaic Calvinists, Sadducean Evangelicals, Pharisaic Methodists, Lutheran Essenes, and so forth. All such groups would fall under the construct of Jewish Christianity, thereby necessitating the need for more specificity.

Finally, in coining this Jewish Christianity, scholars created a designation with which no one—neither present-day followers of either religion nor those Jewish believers in Jesus of antiquity—would readily identify.[9] In that sense, it is nothing more than a “rubber bag term,” one that is as offensive as it is meritless.[10] The term also induces divisiveness from people of other ethnic backgrounds who would come to believe in Christ. We might call these converts Gentile Christians—though in some communities, such as that of the Ebionites, these people were required to be circumcised and follow Hebrew law.[11] Therefore, the term is not inclusive to Jewish Christians by ideology, but rather, by ethnicity.[12] Though I use the term sparingly, I also do so regretfully.

With these limitations in mind, it becomes necessary to elucidate reasons that an examination of early Jewish believers in Jesus focuses so narrowly on the Ebionites. Notably, the Ebionites are especially intriguing for scholars given that they “maintained that their views were authorized by the original disciples, especially by Peter and Jesus’ own brother, James.”[13] If this assertion is true, the earliest Ebionites are only one step removed from Jesus, essentially placing them on par with Paul and the canonical gospel accounts. Additionally, the application of Jesus’ life and message appeared to have been the chief concern of the Ebionites, whose name derived from their willingness to intentionally accept lives of poverty.[14] As described by Luke, the early church in Jerusalem is revered not for its specific theological convictions, but rather for its adherence to the commands of Jesus and apostolic teaching: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. . . . They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:44-47 NIV). Though this account is most certainly exaggerated with nostalgia and romanticism[15], with a little bit of imagination, such actions could also quite easily be attributed to the Ebionites. But with more space, I would surely prefer to undertake a thorough exploration of multiple groups who existed around the time of the Ebionites, such as the Marcionites, Nazoreans, and various Gnostic factions. Perhaps this will develop into the subject of my graduate thesis in the semesters to come.


[1] Oskar Skarsaune, “Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity—Problems of Definition, Method, and Sources,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, eds. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 7.

[2] Craig C. Hill, “The Jerusalem Church,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts, ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 42.

[3] Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), xxi; 76-77.

[4] John Dominic Crossan, “Historical Jesus as Risen Lord,” in The Jesus Controversy: Perspectives in Conflict, also by Luke Timothy Johnson and Werner H. Kelber (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999), 45.

[5] Dr. Fred Shively, interview by author, Anderson, IN, October 4, 2010.

[6] Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 462.

[7] Skarsaune, “Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 5.

[8] Donald A. Hagner, “Paul as a Jewish Believer—According to His Letters,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 99.

[9] Skarsaune, “Jewish Believers in Jesus in Antiquity,” in Skarsaune and Hvalvik, 4.

[10] Ibid.; Jackson-McCabe, introduction to Jewish Christianity Reconsidered, 3.

[11] Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 100.

[12] Hill, “The Jerusalem Church,” in Jackson-McCabe, 41.

[13] Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 100.

[14] I will elaborate on the origin of the Ebionites’ name on pages 5 and 6 of this essay.

[15] Richard A. Horsley, Sociology and the Jesus Movement (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 107.

Samuel, Saul, and David Afresh; Jesus, Nah.

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 8. Enjoy!

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As with any historical text, understanding the Bible is a continuous process of consuming, defining, observing, reasoning and interpreting, both through one’s own lens and the perspectives of wiser thinkers and teachers. Such is especially the case when considering that the overwhelming majority of Bible readers around the world are at least one step removed from the original languages of the texts, to say nothing of their inherent detachment from the nebulous original manuscripts. Therefore, those reading the Bible only in English must be extremely careful of grasping too tightly to individual precepts or, in the case of biblical characters, identifying qualities and labels. In addition, these readers should be willing to defer to scholars who definitively comprehend the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek of the Bible as well as its proper context. With these suggestions in mind, this reflection paper will explore the prevailing societal willingness and unwillingness to re-imagine biblical concepts and persons.

Rightfully so, Victor P. Hamilton is seemingly eager to embrace fresh, explanatory concepts for characters and events in 1 Samuel when encountering conflicting claims.  For example, he harmonizes the contradictory accounts of Samuel’s tribal background by suggesting that though Samuel was an Ephraimite by birth, descendants remembered him functionally as a priestly Levite.[1] This explanation is entirely conceivable, as later generations undoubtedly went through their own process of consuming, defining, observing, interpreting and reasoning with Scripture that engendered new conclusions. Moreover, those involved in writing and redacting 1 Samuel interestingly begin the account of Saul as a post-growth spurt “impressive young man,” rather than from birth (1 Sm 9:2 NIV). Accordingly, readers are not informed of any reasons Kish and his wife give Saul his name, but Hamilton is willing to fill this gap: just as Hannah asked for offspring, the Israelites asked for a king like the other nations. The names of both Samuel and Saul retain enough of the Hebrew framework of “ask,” sh’l, to fit this bill.[2]

Several chapters later in 1 Samuel, readers find the account of Goliath’s lyrical tyranny and David’s apparent bravery (1 Sm 17:4-54). Especially noteworthy, however, is that outside of 1 Samuel, David is not always named as the giant-slayer.[3] There is no easy way to account for the conflicting reports that Elhanan killed Goliath and possibly Goliath’s brother Lahmi, too (2 Sm 21:19, 1 Chr 20:5). Hamilton approaches this mixture of traditions by suggesting either that David had Elhanan’s assistance in battle, or that he-who-tamed-Goliath was always disputed, possibly by a false associative attribution of Elhanan’s deed to the future military leader and “national hero.”[4] If so, this apparently did not sit too well with the Chronicler, who credited Elhanan only with Lahmi’s head.

Hamilton displays an appreciable willingness to reinterpret biblical events and characters – both where discrepancies do and do not exist – in light of logic, thematic ambiguities and the perspectives of informed scholars. While the average Christian finds no problem with doing this for Samuel, Saul, or David, re-imagining Jesus is a whole different ballgame. This, despite the fact that he was an apocalyptic prophet who expected some of his followers to see the end of the age (Mt 16:28), admonished everyone to keep his Messianic identity a secret (Mk 16:29-30), never in the Synoptic gospels claimed equality with God and frequently spoke in intentionally ambiguous riddles.[5] Perhaps we should cease our willingness to so flippantly re-imagine Old Testament characters or also open up the floor to fresh perspectives about Jesus.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 213.

[2] Ibid., 215-216.

[3] Ibid., 262.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler: The Power of Ambiguity in the Gospels, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), xxi.

Ruth and Boaz Doing Whatever on the Threshing-Room Floor

For Old Testament, we students reflect weekly on “some topic, aspect or concept” from the volumes and volumes of assigned reading. I am limited to one single-spaced page each week, and in every case I’ve been forced to cut myself off from writing. So read knowing that my thoughts are manifold!

If you are interested in more selections from my School of Theology Coursework, follow the link to the category of SOT Coursework. I have also set up a new category for these Old Testament reflection papers called OT Weeklies. If all goes well, each new reflection paper will be posted automatically at 2:00 p.m. each Monday, when my Old Testament class convenes.

What follows is my reflection paper from the week of November 1. Enjoy!

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The account of Ruth at the threshing-room floor (Ru 3:6-15) strikes me as a bizarre, logic-defying story. When considering whether the narrative is a historically accurate representation of an actual interaction between Boaz of Bethlehem and Ruth the Moabitess, I could not help but conclude that I was actually reading a cover-up for sexual impropriety. How could an unmarried, drunk forty-something[1], upon awakening up from his euphoric stupor, resist a foreign woman who both uncovered and took rest by his “feet,” a term used and understood to mean “genitalia?” Was he plagued by a hangover? Surely something mischievous may have taken place; even Ruth and Boaz were concerned with how the scene might appear if gossip reached the town square (Ru 3:14). But in attempting to research further support by which to decode this chapter’s sexual innuendo, I found that the author of Ruth constructed a literary masterpiece contrastive to Genesis 19 in order to exemplify both Ruth and Boaz as law-abiding all-stars. This reflection paper will elaborate on the fantastic hidden elements of Ruth 3.

A mountain of research suggests that chronologically, thematically and grammatically, Ruth may have originally been included at the end of the book of Judges, and was only removed later to form its own book.[2] But for Warren Austin Gage, lending the most credence to this theory is the correlation between the sin of Gibeah (Jgs 19) and Ruth 3 as a unit reflective of Genesis 19.[3] For example, in the stories of both Gibeah and the destruction of Sodom (Gn 19:1-28), men of the city seek visiting male strangers for sexual gratification, only for the host to offer two women as a substitute, “suggesting that the author of Judges intended his hearer to identify the sin of Gibeah with that of Sodom.”[4] That leaves the account of Lot and his daughters in their cave as a parallel to Ruth and Boaz at the threshing-room floor. If we take the texts at face value, Lot’s daughters act unlawfully, while Ruth retains her honor. Gage especially appreciates that Lot’s daughters receive their father’s seed, while Ruth receives only Boaz’s grain.[5] Boaz redeems Ruth, but in a sense, her upright actions both redeem and set the proper example for Moab, which had its beginnings in the incestuous act of Lot’s conniving older daughter.

Upon returning to Bethlehem, Naomi takes it upon herself to resolve basic problems through the instrument of Ruth. The first problem – a lack of food – is solved by sending Ruth to glean for barley in Boaz’s fields, which is consistent with Mosaic Law (Lv 23:22). On the other hand, in order to solve the more difficult problem of offspring, Naomi encourages Ruth to approach Boaz alone at night on the threshing room floor while wearing her finest clothes, and only after he had partaken in food and drink. What she asks of Ruth in this case is entirely inconsistent with Mosaic Law, and Boaz is intricately aware of this.[6] Though he must wait until the following day, Boaz responds by addressing the legal proceeding at the town gate and by first offering both Ruth and the fields of Elimelech to the unnamed nearer kinsman (Ru 4:1-12).

What really happened at Boaz’s threshing-room floor? Did Ruth give him a biblical booty call? If she didn’t, would she have if Boaz told her to do so, as Naomi instructed (Ru 3:4)?  For the author, who must have been uniquely aware of the situation he was penning, these questions were apparently less important than presenting Ruth and Boaz as standard-bearers, as personified examples of Mosaic Law gone right. By design, Boaz is a covenant-keeper and kinsman-redeemer, whereas Yahweh rewards the submissive Ruth with a son, Obed.


[1] Victor P. Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 198.

[2] Warren Austin Gage, “Ruth Upon the Threshing Room Floor and the Sin of Gibeah: A Biblical-Theological Study,” Westminster Theological Journal 51, no. 2 (Fall 1989), 369-370.

[3] Ibid., 370.

[4] Ibid., 371.

[5] Ibid., 373.

[6] Charles P. Baylis, “Naomi in the Book of Ruth in Light of the Mosaic Covenant,” Bibliotheca Sacra 161, no. 644 (October-December 2004), 430.