VanLandingham on Testament of Abraham

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In an earlier essay (pdf download here), as well as a follow-up blog entry, I discussed the contents of the Testament of Abraham, as well as some misreadings and misuses evident in several recent monographs (by Gathercole, Das and Bird). The discussion below presupposes some familiarity with T.Ab. on the part of the reader. I have provided a summary of the work in the downloadable essay linked above, and T.Ab. may be read here.

I’ve obtained another recently published monograph: Judgment & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (Hendrickson, 2006), by Chris VanLandingham (hereafter CV). He enthusiastically describes the T.Ab. as “the best evidence for my thesis” (169). His thesis is stated earlier in the chapter:

My specific contention in this chapter is that behavior determines one’s eternal destiny. In the final analysis, it is what one does that matters. At the Last Judgment, God evaluates an individual’s behavior during his or her lifetime so that good behavior results in the reward of eternal life while bad behavior results in damnation. Often the final decision regarding an individuals eternal destiny occurs at this time of judgment; nevertheless, even when one’s eternal destiny is determined before the Last Judgment (such as at one’s death), the requital at the Last Judgment depends, nevertheless, on deeds. (66)

When turning to T.Ab., CV states that every person is judged after death and that “[t]he only criteria for this judgment relies on deeds” (169). The first judgment determines “an individual’s eternal destiny,” and “[w]ith rare…exception, that is, in the case of the person whose righteous and wicked deeds balance equally on the scale (14:1-8, [Recension] A), there is no mercy at the judgment” (169). CV emphasizes that the judgment scenes in both Recensions (A and B) leave only a small number of people who will be saved (1:7000 in Recension A; even fewer in Recension B). “Since the judgment depends so strictly on the number of good deeds to bad deeds, each person is given a full life in the hope that they might accrue a greater number of good deeds. (In other words, God shows mercy, but not at the judgment.)” (169-70).

CV considers one major challenge to his reading, one put forward by A.B. Kolenkow:

Untimely death is the fate of most men and God has willed that untimely death means that a man will undergo no further punishment. Thus the picture of terrible judgment may be valid, but it is not relevant for most of mankind. (“The Genre Testament and the Testament of Abraham, in Studies in the Testament of Abraham, 147)

CV retorts that such a reading fails because at 11:12, Adam relays that one in seven thousand people is “saved.” He notes how those Abraham unmercifully killed

were actually punished only for a time and then given eternal life. The stated reason is that those whom God requites with physical death are spared eternal punishment at the post-mortem judgment (14:15). Based on this statement in 14:15, when one reads in the parallel section of part two describing seventy-two different ways to die and only one of them timely or, as we might say, “of natural causes” (20:1-2), it seems to suggest that those people who experience an untimely death will receive eternal life. Chapter 19 certainly gives the impression that most people die untimely. The natural conclusion would be that most people, as a result of their untimely death, receive eternal life. (170)

CV rebuts this argument, asserting that, “One should not assume that the angel of death always kills at God’s request or that every untimely death results from God’s retribution. The text remains silent on both of thee points” (170). Additionally, the argument from untimely deaths “creates an obvious contradiction between the two parts of Recension A: 20:1-2 would imply most people receive eternal life, perhaps even seventy-one out of seventy-two people, if the author believes that the ways people die are in equal proportion to one another. On the other hand, 11:12 states that only one out of seven thousand are saved” (170).

Evaluation

Surely correct is CV’s rejection of Kolenkow’s argument regarding untimely deaths and the grant of eternal life. Kolenkow has overread text. Yet CV’s premises for his rejection are misleading, and his reading of the text of T.Ab. is mistaken. This is in evidence in several ways.

(i) CV’s ad hoc interjection of an untamed and uncontrolled angel of death exhibits a desperate hermeneutical maneuver. Perhaps it provides us with an engaging thought experiment, a hypothetical case through which we could ponder how the drama of T.Ab. might unfold under alternative scenarios. Nevertheless, it is foreign to the narrative and can hardly be deemed the sort of maneuver either to elicit careful exegesis or to point up faulty exegesis. As CV admits, the text is silent on this. Therefore, the usefulness of such a fictive imposition eludes me.

(ii) Additionally, there is no indication that untimely deaths caused without divine direction or approval subvert the principle of temporary punishment followed by the grant of eternal life. Quite the contrary. Abraham unpredictably and unmercifully kills a number of sinners while on his worldwide chariot tour. These people were killed neither at divine command nor according to divine desire; nevertheless, it was precisely these people who are granted life. In other words, the granting of life subsequent to untimely deaths occurs in the text precisely when such deaths are not divinely instigated. This alone creates great potential for dynamics quite contrary to CV’s thesis, though Kolenkow exaggerated the benefits. At best, CV’s response mitigates Kolenkow’s case. Yet CV’s assumption that untimely deaths lead to eternal life only when they are divinely instigated is falsified by the text. And the fact that some are granted life due to their untimely deaths shows that the CV’s reading of judgment according to deeds is too crass.

(iii) Also, CV has misread “the two ways” scene. He supposes that the righteous who are “saved,” at this point, are coterminous with those granted life after the final judgment. This is not so. In fact, “the two ways” scene is not, properly speaking, one of the judgments in T.Ab.; rather, it is the foyer to the three judgments. The first judgment is according to deeds and is overseen by Abel. The second judgment is overseen by the twelve tribes of Israel. It is only with the third judgment, the judgment of God’s “great and glorious Parousia” that there is “perfect judgment and recompense, eternal and unalterable, which no one can question” (13:4). Such emphatic descriptors imply that the results of the first two judgments may be temporary or reversible. Indeed, only of God’s judgment do we read that “fearful will be the sentence and there is none who can release” (13:7).

What T.Ab. does not tell us is at which point in this series of judgments those who die untimely deaths will be granted life. Presumably, since they were sinners, they would pass by Adam on the broad path, not being granted entrance through the narrow and straight path, and thus not “saved” at that juncture. And if their deeds are weighed before Abel at the first judgment, then surely there they would fail. It is unlikely that the second judgment, before the twelve tribes, would bring them success (though little is said about this judgment). It is in the third and final judgment, God’s judgment, that such souls could be granted life rather than death. Thus, CV’s strict reading of the weighing of deeds fails to appreciate this progression of judgments, conflates the foyer to the judgments with the judgments themselves, and collapses the three judgments into one – the first, the judgment according to deeds.

(iv) An oversight in CV’s reading of T.Ab. regards the effectiveness of repentance, conversion and the forgiveness of sins. He reads the judgment according to deeds in a crude fashion, presuming that this judgment is a raw tallying up of deeds over a person’s lifetime. Thus he supposes that conversion is available to sinners (10:14) only so they may balance out their previous bad deeds with future good deeds and thus succeed at the first judgment, the weighing of deeds. But within T.Ab. the logic of extending sinners’ lives so that they may repent/convert surely includes the forgiveness of sins, just as Abraham’s sinful and merciless slaying of the sinners was forgiven, not merely outweighed. The text bears no indication that the allowance for conversion is thwarted by old age, such that old age disallows the production of a sufficient number of good deeds to outweigh bad deeds.

In the end, if, as CV asserted, T.Ab. “presents the evidence for [his] thesis” (169), then it would appear that his thesis is quite vulnerable. A quick reading of his work on Romans 2 (215-32) points up similar problems, particularly in his diminishing (if not downright muting) of the place and value of repentance within that chapter. Perhaps I’ll read and write more in the future.

4 thoughts on “VanLandingham on Testament of Abraham

  1. It seems to me that VanLandingham is not able to distinguish between judgment “according to” works and judgment “on the basis of” works. It seems to me this is a necessary biblical distinction.

  2. Brooks, I wonder what Greek phrase you’d expect to find that would distinguish “according to” (Gr. kata) and “on the basis of.” I know there are some who attempt distinctions along these lines, but I don’t recall seeing an exegetical basis for it. Also, the cash value of the distinction is not often made clear. I imagine one could argue that a person is saved through union with Christ, and thus the forgiveness of sins, though one’s works must evidence that union. Then again, that doesn’t seem to be quite what Paul is arguing in Romans 2. Perhaps you could point to a resource that clarifies this. Thanks.

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