Surrejoinder to VanLandingham

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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.

You be the judge, if you care to be. T.Ab. is available online in English translation (both recensions, though without versification) and Greek text (both recensions). Do let me know your thoughts.

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)

7 thoughts on “Surrejoinder to VanLandingham

  1. I’ve just read through the Testament of Abraham for the first time, and read the related pages in VanLandingham’s work and your blog posts and his response.

    The quibbles you seem to have with VanLandingham’s exegesis strike me as irrelevant. Sure, VanLandingham might be screwing up on some of the details of the exegesis but even a complete moron reading the text could see that it teaches rewards and punishments of people according to their behavior.

    VanLandingham’s thesis that it is what one does that matters is clearly (and surely undeniably?!) supported by the Testament of Abraham. Sure, he may have made a few minor errors in interpretation of particular passages, but that strikes me as irrelevant since the work clearly and consistently supports his thesis.

  2. Andrew: Yes, T.Ab. affirms “rewards and punishments of people according to their behavior”, though that isn’t all that it affirms. CV’s thesis is more than that “what one does…matters,” as he explains: “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” (66); “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, parenthetical remark original). CV’s thesis is not simply that behavior matters but that it alone determines the outcome at final judgment (perhaps with rare exceptions).

    This is not clearly affirmed by T.Ab., at least not as simply stated (as Allison also observed, see excerpt above). There are mitigating factors at work within T.Ab.: conversion (even later in life), repentance, the forgiveness of sins (and what calculus do we apply here in factoring in forgiven sins and judgment according to deeds?), untimely death, and also Abraham’s intercession. Each of these appears to mitigate CV’s more extreme reading of “judgment according to deeds.”

    Neither does the 1:7000 ratio overturn these observations, as I argued above. That there are successive judgments, with only the final one being final, suggests that the other judgments are not as unqualified as we might suppose. If the earliest judgment were determinative, then the following judgments would be redundant. That some are granted life due to their untimely deaths (and this need not be a huge number), though they are not categorized in the judgment scenes, implies room for greater grace than one might first suspect.

    In the end you may deem my observations “irrelevant,” my reading of the text as somehow below that of “a complete moron,” and the elements of T.Ab. I question as “clear,” even “undeniably” so. I see the situation as more complex, more dynamic, and even unexpectedly gracious. But thanks for the continuing conversation.

  3. So you agree that VanLandingham’s thesis that what one does matters is supported by this work. But you are upset by the comments he makes about the strictness of the judgment as he sees it depicted in Testament of Abraham, because he doesn’t seem to be allowing for conversion, repentance and forgiveness and thus he sees Testament of Abraham as teaching a very extreme and uncompromising judgment according to deeds. That’s what you seem to be saying.

    I’m left wondering whether you’ve fully read his book, because your comments are simply proving his wider thesis. He takes the view that Jewish sources teach a judgment by works and that this judgment can and does take into account repentence, forgiveness, and mercy. He sees these sources in general as teaching that if people repent and change their ways, God will in turn forgive their past sins and treat them according to their new self. He sees God’s love and mercy as having a role to play in the judgment.

    “A Last Judgment according to deeds suggests nothing that might affirm or deny God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love.” (VL, 171)

    His overall thesis is that the Jewish sources depict the final judgment as being primarily deed-based. He argues that this does not stop things like repentance and forgiveness being taken into account, and that the Jewish sources in general are not ultra-legalistic and do take such things into account. Yet the level of leeway allowed does not change the fact that in the Jewish sources the primary criterion of judgment is deeds.

    When he looks at the Testament of Abraham he seems to view it as a little bit unusual because it doesn’t depict much in the way of mercy and forgiveness at the judgment compared to other works he has dealt with. (eg The angel weighs the soul on the balance scales right down to its tiniest deed and only by Abraham’s meddling is the soul not assigned its appropriate fate) Now you are taking issue with his surprised observation about the apparent lack of mercy and forgiveness depicted, and I think you have a point here to some extent. But in doing so, you are simply proving VanLandingham’s overall thesis more strongly. You end up making the T. of A. fit perfectly with VL’s overall thesis that the criterion of the judgment is by deeds but that this does not stop repentance etc being relevant. Yet you seem to be under the rather strange belief that by disproving VanLandingham’s exegesis on this technicality that you have somehow damaged his overall thesis. Which leads me once again to wonder if you’ve read his book or only read the section dealing with the T. of A.

    Thus I can only reiterate my view that your criticisms of the details of VanLandingham’s handling of T. of A. seem irrelevant to his overall thesis and that you and he seem to agree with me that it teaches a judgment by deeds.

  4. Andrew: What we are enjoying is a moderate disagreement among students of Second Temple Jewish literature. I’m not upset, mind you, though you seem intent to ratchet up the discussion into some sort of verbal altercation. I’m not at all interested in that since heightened emotions tend to cloud our judgment of texts and arguments. So, on to our discussion.

    CV’s reading of T.Ab. seems to me to diminish the gracious features and misconstrued the judgment series (the weighing of deeds is but the first judgment), thus producing a tendentious reading of T.Ab. Yet, I don’t recall inferring anything directly about CV’s larger thesis, as you imply. My focus is on his apparent (mis)reading and (mis)use of T.Ab.

    Now, admittedly, I’ve not read his entire book, cover to cover, though I’ve read enough that I feel I’ve got a reasonable handle on his overarching thesis. Again, though, my focus is upon his engagement with T.Ab.

    Now, while CV acknowledges the presence and allowance for conversion, repentance, and the forgiveness of sins, it seems that he marginalizes these in order to press on with his thesis, at least when it comes to T.Ab. I’ve yet to come across his discussion of how we see, or might see, the forgiveness of sins vis-a-vis final judgment according to deeds in T.Ab. (or any other Second Temple literature – though I’ve not read his entire book). Perhaps some Second Temple texts don’t answer that question directly, but there is doubt that it must be a consideration in our reading of them. Otherwise we may be engaging in atomistic readings of these texts and otherwise committing any number of exegetical fallacies.

    To assert, as CV does, with regards to T.Ab., that God grants people longer lives so that they may produce enough good deeds to outweigh bad deeds is something I do not find evident in the text.

    “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” (169-70).

    This seems to be a maneuver facilitating a rather tendentious reading of T.Ab., just as his proposal that the angel of death may not deal out death according to divine will, and thus such untimely deaths may not be answered by divine.

    “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).

    Such ad hoc interpretive interjections may divert the actual trajectories of these texts. Indeed, these sorts of interjections seem intent to diminish how repentance, forgiveness, and conversion, factor into the final analysis.

    So, you are supposing that my analysis of CVs reading and use of T.Ab. is a microcosm of what I’d argue about his thesis more generally. Perhaps it would be, if I engaged the remainder of his thesis, but it isn’t what I’ve argued thus far. Perhaps it is my suspicion; but that is where it remains. For now, I’m addressing T.Ab. alone.

    Thanks for the conversation. Let’s keep it civil.

  5. Kevin,
    As I said before, I don’t have any issues with your comments about the details of VanLandingham’s treatment of Testament of Abraham. In general, I agree with the views you have expressed about these details and disagree with VanLandingham’s.

    The issue I have with some of the things you have said is that you seem to draw an unwarranted generalization from the fact that VanLandingham is wrong about a few exegetical details to the conclusion that the Testament of Abraham does not support VanLandingham’s general thesis.

    You write “I don’t recall inferring anything directly about CV’s larger thesis, as you imply.” Yet in your previous post on the subject you wrote:
    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…”
    ….In the end, if, as CV asserted, T.Ab. “presents the best evidence for [his] thesis” (169), then it would appear that his thesis is quite vulnerable.

    It is that last comment in bold that I take issue with. I observe the concept of judgment according to deeds is present in TofA and hence conclude it supports VL’s thesis. I observe that throughout the work TofA depicts behavior as the primary criterion for reward and punishment. VL’s claim that the work is the best evidence for his thesis therefore strikes me as entirely plausible, no matter how many details he’s wrong about.

  6. Andrew: Thanks for the conversation. I suppose we’re back to where we began.

    I think that my criticisms of CVs reading of T.Ab. remove it from supporting his thesis, as I argued in my original post. You are not persuaded of this. Others will have to judge.

    As for my indirect comment about CV’s thesis, I merely reiterate that if T.Ab. is “the best evidence” for CV’s thesis, then it appears his thesis is vulnerable – though perhaps other texts provide the necessary support. I gladly admit, though, that in that comment, I was keying off CV’s superlative claim for T.Ab.‘s support. It was, admittedly, a provocative point. Again, though, I suspect others will have to judge between our disagreements.

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