In an earlier post I engaged Chris VanLandingham’s (hereafter CV) reading of the Testament of Abraham (T.Ab.) in his recently-published dissertation, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul (Hendrickson, 2006). He has since responded:
Kevin Bywater: With regard to the Testament of Abraham, this text is pretty clear. The T.Ab. supports my thesis primarily for two reasons: only 1 in 7000 saved at the Last Judgment at 11:12 (A) and judgment according to deeds at 13:9-14 (A),. Even the judgment of the soul with equally balanced righteous and wicked deeds in chapter 12 supports my thesis. Your post doesn’t convince me that these texts should be read differently. And, as I state, 14:15 (A), whatever it means, shouldn’t supplant the straightforward readings of these three passages.
Here I’ll remark on (i) CV’s rhetoric, (ii) the genre of T.Ab., and (iii) the 1:7000 ratio in constellation with the three judgments.
(i) Rhetoric. It appears to me that CV has dismissed my critique and summarily restated his own reading, though this time with a more emphatic rhetoric.
- “…the text is pretty clear…”
- Given the diversity of views on these passages, the question of just how clear they are remains open. This leaves us with the difficult work of exegesis and argumentation.
- “Your post doesn’t convince me that these texts should be read differently…”
- Perhaps not, though it would have been instructive to see a more substantive engagement with the details of my critique.
- “…the straightforward reading of these three passages…”
- Sometimes “straightforward reading” is a cypher for “literal reading,” though that means different things to different people. It seems that CV wants to read the 1:7000 ratio with absolute literalness. That remains one of several questions about this text.
(ii) Genre. T.Ab. is a very dynamic text having humorous currents coursing throughout, with Abraham being the foil for much of it. For instance, he is the only one who does not recognize Michael the Archangel as an angel, while everyone around him sees Michael as supernatural. Then there is the time when Michael cries and his tears turn into precious stones which Abraham quickly pockets (!), and that without inferring Michael’s heavenly nature. And when it comes to making a deal with God, well, Abraham reneges on that as well. He simply will not die, though in the end Death takes him via a ruse! If the text is so evidently humorous – alternating with the darkly serious scenes – why read this comedic (parodic?) drama as though it were epistolary in nature? Perhaps there is a confusion of genres here.
(iii) The 1:7000 Ratio. In his retort, CV presents two major supports and one supplemental support, and reiterates (sans identification) his rejection of Kolenkow’s argument from T.Ab. 14:15 (which, perhaps, he misunderstood me to support). I addressed each of these points in my previous post. Here I’ll present some expanded considerations regarding the 1:7000 ratio, since that seems to be the centerpiece in CV’s reading of the text. Apart from that, readers will need to decide between our readings and arguments.
First, even if CV is correct that 11:12 cannot be mitigated by other texts (And why is that?), one response could be that T.Ab. is irresolvably inconsistent and bears witness to alternative and incompatible soteriologies. Perhaps we would then engage in a bit of theological archeology in the hopes of discerning and distinguishing the tensioned traditions now so tenuously wed in T.Ab.
If this were so, we’d then face at least two additional questions: Is not CV’s appeal to T.Ab. chastened by the presence of alternative and contrastive soteriologies, some of which are distinctly more merciful than CV’s strong reading of judgment according to deeds? And, if these tensions are resolvable (a possibility I deem likely), why grant 11:12 (regarding the ratio of 1:7000) hermeneutical hegemony over other features in the text? That positioning is increasingly dubious in light of the following considerations.
Second, within ch.11 we encounter such statements as, “And when [Adam] saw many souls entering through the narrow gate, then he arose from the earth and sat on his throne, very cheerfully rejoicing and exulting” (11:7; cf. v.10). We also read, “And they saw many souls being driven by angels and being led through the broad gate, and they saw a few other souls and they were being brought by angels through the narrow gate” (11:6; cf. v.11).
One must wonder, if there is scarcely one in seven thousand who are saved, how then could there be “many” making their way through this narrow gate? Perhaps the 1:7000 ratio is hyperbolic, especially given that there are “many” who succeed in passing through the narrow gate (11:7,10). Additionally, the presence and significance of the number “7000” supports this suggestion (cf. 17:18 where “about 7000 servants” die; 7:16 B, “seven thousand ages”; cp. the presence of the number seven, 4:3; 7:3; 17:14; 19:5, 7). When Abraham endures the visions of Death, while his 7000 servants perish (untimely deaths at that, 17:9, and later resuscitated, 17:11), we again encounter the ratio of 1:7000, suggesting a symbolic significance in the ratio.
Third, another consideration is that within 11:12 there is a qualifying element, namely that here we are reading of saved souls who are “righteous and undefiled.” This Adamic foyer is a sifting portal and not actually one of the three judgment scenes (hence CV misleads in terming this foyer “the Last Judgment”). Those souls who are not “righteous and undefiled” have yet to face their judgments and discover their final fates. The “righteous” souls apparently don’t have to course their way through the three judgments. To suppose that the Adamic foyer, or the first two judgments, imply the final fate of the souls is natural, though not adequate. (Perhaps the judgments illustrate a continuing sifting process wherein those sifted at the foyer pass to either life or the first judgment; those who fail there pass to the next judgment; those who fail there pass to the third and final judgment; and those who fail there fail forever.) It is only the final judgment, God’s judgment, that is final. I thus conclude with what I observed in the earlier post:
. . . 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, italics added).
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.
Postscript: After finishing this post I accessed Dale Allison’s commentary on Google Books. He posits a Christian redaction which added the stricter judgment elements. While I don’t concur with Allison’s conjecture, he has intuited the tensioned elements that CV seeks to gloss over with his own emphases.
As it stands, the pessimism of chap. 11 ill fits the rest of a book that features an inordinately tolerant deity includes recognition that some are neither just nor unjust (chaps. 13-14), allows Abraham to recall slain sinners back for a second chance (chap. 14), and teaches that suffering in this world can cancel it in the next (14:15, q.v.). Chap. 11, moreover, is not coherent. In vv. 7 and 10 “many” enter into life whereas vv.5 and 11-12 teach that only “few” do so. And the picture of Adam alternatively rejoicing and mourning surely presupposes that the damned do not outnumber the saved 7,000 to 1. It is almost inevitable that one posit a stricter, Christian revision of a more liberal Jewish original in which the numbers of those saved and those lost were much closer to equal. The conjecture gains credence not only because so many Christians . . . consigned the majority of humanity to damnation, but also because TA 11 clearly depends upon Matt 7:13-14 (cf. Luke 11:23), which was a very popular text in the early church… (Testament of Abraham, 239, cf. 23)