Why no one should ever cite “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10) to justify neglect of the needy.

A student in my 1-2 Thessalonians class just pointed out that Congressman Stephen Fincher recently used 2 Thessalonians 3:10 (“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” NRSV) as a justification for cutting food stamps. This text does seem to be a favorite of those who argue that the hungry should simply feed themselves.

Here are a few reasons why I think this is a misguided use of 2 Thess 3:10. The list begins with general observations and gradually works down to specific arguments from 2 Thessalonians.

1. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that the Christian Bible has something to say about how to live. If this is the case, one wonders why this particular verse should be given so much weight when there are so many other passages enjoining liberality. For example,

Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:42) [Note: give to everyone, not simply those who seem sufficiently industrious to us]

Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. (Luke 6:30)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27)

Is not this the fast that I choose: to…share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

There are many, many more similar examples. Why should 2 Thessalonians 3:10 do away with all this?

2. Those who cite this verse presumably believe that Paul in particular has something to say about how they should live their lives. If this is the case, then it might be helpful to check one’s interpretation by what Paul says about the poor on other occasions. To take one particularly vivid example, see 2 Corinthians 9:13:

Through the testing of this ministry [i.e. the collection to aid Christians in Jerusalem] you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others

For Paul, generosity to all people brings glory to God (more anon on this. It is the topic of my current book project).

3. If I refuse to give to someone who asks of me because of 2 Thess 3:10, I am acting on the supposition that the person asking for help is in need because he or she is lazy. Most of the time, however, we don’t have the slightest idea what led a person to the point of asking others for help.

The late fourth-century bishop John Chrysostom unmasks the lack of charity in the assumption that a beggar isn’t really in need (apologies for the old translation – I don’t have time to make a fresh one):

But what say they? He is an impostor. What sayest thou, O man? Callest thou him an impostor, for the sake of a single loaf or of a garment? But (you say) he will sell it immediately. And dost thou manage all thy affairs well? But what? Are all poor through idleness? Is no one so from shipwreck? None from lawsuits? None from being robbed? None from dangers? None from illness? None from any other difficulties? If however we hear any one bewailing such evils, and crying out aloud, and looking up naked toward heaven, and with long hair, and clad in rags, at once we call him, The impostor! The deceiver! The swindler! Art thou not ashamed? Whom dost thou call impostor? (In epistulam ad Hebraeos, Schaff)

The point is this: chances are you don’t know why the person is in need, and it is cruel to assume the worst. Moreover, we waste money on ourselves all the time. Why not waste it on someone else for a change?

Chrysostom frequently speaks against those who are over-curious about the goodness of those to whom they give. This is to “take away the greater part of almsgiving, and will in time destroy the thing itself. And yet that is almsgiving: it is for the sinners, it is for the guilty. For this is almsgiving, not to have mercy on the successful, but on those who have done wrong!” (In epistulam ad Hebraeos 63.88).

4. When μηδὲ ἐσθιέτω is translated “let him not eat” (ESV) it almost sounds as if Paul is saying that the Thessalonians should block the lazy from getting food: “Don’t let him eat!” The sense of the third person imperative is rendered more adequately by the NRSV: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” The agent that will keep such a person from eating is not specified, which leads to point #5:

5. Paul’s command (assuming he is the author) to work in 2 Thess 3:10 is directed primarily toward Christians in Thessalonica who are refusing to work, not to hardworking people who need to stop giving to beggars.

6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (3:6-12)

These are able-bodied Christians who appear to be living off the generosity of others. Paul wants them to get to work. He is not saying that aid should be withheld from beggars or any other anonymous have-nots. This point bears repeating: Paul is not saying what most people today seem to think he is saying. The best interpretation of verse 10 is Paul’s restatement of the point in verse 12: hey lazy people, start working!

It is interesting to note that ancient readers of Paul frequently applied these words to themselves as a reminder to work hard so as to not burden others (e.g., Athanasius, Vit. Ant. 3; Chrysostom, De stat. 12.5; Jerome, Epist. 17.2, 24.4; Augustine Op. Mon. 1.1; John Cassian, De Instit. Ceonob. 1.5). Those who pass judgment on the industriousness of people they don’t know miss the point.

6. There are a number of competing theories attempting to explain why certain people weren’t working. Without going in to all the details here (time permitting, I’ll update the post with the specifics of the argument later), it should be noted that there is some reason to believe that the laziness in Thessalonica was due to the mutual support of the Christians there. Paradoxically, then, the favorite verse of those who oppose charity actually attests to the early Christian habit of sharing possessions.

7. Chrysostom notes that after Paul tells the lazy to work, he adds that everyone should continue to “do good”: “Hearest thou not what Paul saith? For after saying, “He that worketh not, neither let him eat” (2 Thess. 3:10), he says, “But ye be not weary in well doing.” (2 Thess. 3:13.)” Chrysostom returns to 2 Thessalonians 3:13 repeatedly in his homilies and commentaries because he understands it to be a command to continue to give charity:

Let us not therefore fall away into cruelty, but let us listen to Paul, saying, “Be not weary in well doing;” (2 Thess 3:13) let us listen to the Lord, who saith, “Give to every man that asketh of thee,” and, “Be ye merciful as your Father.” And though He hath spoken of many things, He hath nowhere used this expression, but with regard to our deeds of mercy only. For nothing so equals us with God, as doing good (On Matthew, Schaff)

I was skeptical when I first encountered this interpretation, but I have since become persuaded. The language of “doing good” carried the connotations of generosity. For instance, In 1 Timothy widows are to be known for their good works (ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς) and to devote themselves to good works (εἰ παντὶ ἔργῳ ἀγαθῷ), specifically, nourishing children, hospitality, washing feet, and helping the afflicted (5:10). The rich are to “do good and be rich in good works (ἀγαθοεργεῖν, πλουτεῖν ἐν ἔργοις καλοῖς), generous and sharing” (6:18). The phrase “he does whatever good he can” (ποιεῖν ὅτι δύναται ἀγαθόν) appears frequently in inscriptions honoring benefactors, who are called the “noble and good man” (ἄνδρα καλὸν καὶ ἀγαθόν), one who “does the good.” See also Galatians 6:9.

It appears that Chrysostom, a native Greek speaker, was on to something. I think we can agree with him that Paul was hoping that the lazy person “will soon be rid of his idleness, and you of your cruelty” (ibid.).

Are the labels liberal and conservative helpful in biblical studies?

The editor of America magazine has banned the use of the labels liberal and conservative for theological reasons. In the comments section many complain that these labels do in fact describe the factions in contemporary Catholicism. Avoiding these terms won’t make the divisions go away (or so it is argued).

These comments miss the point. The words liberal and conservative are not neutral descriptors. When used by Americans they presuppose and reinforce the binaries of American politics. The point is not that it’s better to be moderate or irenic. The point is more fundamental: it turns out that the liberal/conservative binary is not helpful for describing everything under the sun!

I wonder if it would be a good idea to avoid using these labels in biblical studies as well. I remember Mark Goodacre pointing out in his PhD seminar on the Synoptic Gospels that Q-skepticism was not an inherently “liberal” or “conservative” position. For instance, if there is a literary relationship between Luke and Matthew it raises additional questions about the historicity of the birth narratives. And so on. Labeling scholarly hypotheses conservative or liberal clarifies nothing and runs the risk of obscuring the more important question of whether a good argument has been made.

Book reviewing sins

I am continually surprised at the poor quality of academic book reviews. With the help of a few friends I’ve compiled this working list of the weakness that I/we find most annoying and common.
1. The glorified table of contents. The review is a chapter by chapter summary without any substantive engagement. The contents of most books can be easily discovered online. There is no longer need for a “review” giving this information. (Confession: the first review I ever wrote was one of these). I’m not suggesting the chapter-by-chapter model is inherently flawed, only that pure summary frequently crowds out analysis.
2. Irrelevant or nitpicking complaints. The reviewer is careful to note that one typo on page 312. This distracts from substantive engagement. Also, it’s good to remember that reviews are important for tenure. This is not the time to be petty.
3. Cliché summary statements. For example, things like “This is sure to become a standard work for years to come” [in addition to being hackneyed, this comment is almost always false].
4. Yellow-bellied refusal to express one’s own opinion regarding the strength of the arguments. This is frequently expressed with the almost tautologous cliché, “Some arguments are more convincing than others.”
5. Condemnation of arguments without stating a single reason why or without explaining what the argument was. Thus, “The arguments of chapters 4 and 5 were less convincing.” Ok. Why?
6. Predetermined outcome. The book has no chance of success because it doesn’t adhere to the favored method or the personal commitments of the reviewer. For example, the book uses post-colonial criticism which the reviewer thinks is a waste of time. Or, the book is written by and for conservative Calvinists, which the reviewer thinks is an affront. Or, the book shows signs of having begun as a dissertation, which causes the reviewer to sniff. If a reviewer thinks any of these things is bad, he or she should write an essay about that (“Why Post-Colonial Criticism is Dumb”). Don’t review a book if you can’t read it on its own terms.
7. Focusing most or all of the review on a secondary or subsidiary argument. This is a temptation when the secondary argument relates to the reviewer’s own interests or expertise. It is understandable when responding off the cuff, say, to a paper at a conference, but not in a published review.
8. Irrelevant self-reference. The reviewer gratuitously reminds us of his own work.
9. Stodgy prose.

What else?

While I curse the darkness I should note that The Marginalia Review of Books is lighting a match.

Update: a friend mentioned a common variation of #6: “the review that spends most of its space, or an inordinate amount it, criticizing the book for not saying what the reviewer wishes or thinks the book should have discussed, or might have discussed. While sometimes valid, these sorts or remarks, often framed as critiques, are really just wishes that the author had written a different book (probably because it just occurred to the reviewer that this different book might have been more interesting to him or her).”
Or, as another friend describes complaints about omissions: “‘It would have been nice to see the author do x’. While this is a legitimate complaint if the author has neglected a major issue or been tendentious in his selection of evidence, more often than not this complaint is a projection of the reviewer’s research interests. [Esteemed prof] suggested this was a way of avoiding critical engagement with what the author sets out to do and does. The key question is, does the omission reasonably fall within the ambit of the task the author has set for herself or not?”

Here’s an article making some similar points regarding peer review.

Eastern Christianity is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of NT Scholars

This summer I’m doing an independent study on Paul with a few students. One of the students (who knows her church history) noted today that certain Paul scholars have a tendency to use “eastern Christianity” as a construct on which to project all the mysterious, wonderful things that “western Christianity” has failed to be. “Ah, I know what I’m saying might sound strange,” these scholars assure us, “but that’s because you’re trapped in the blind alleys of the western church. In the eastern church [cue the sound of Eastern Orthodox monks chanting] they’ve always understood this.” The problem with these claims is that they are rarely based on evidence, such as actual eastern texts or liturgy. The eastern church is the mysterious other that embodies all that we could be if we just broke out of our Augustinian/Thomist/juridical/Latin/(counter)Reformation (fill in the blank) straitjackets.

I love the eastern fathers, and I’ve learned a lot from contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, so I’m not suggesting for a moment that we in the west don’t have much to learn (though sometimes NT scholars blame things on “the western church” which are also common in the east – such as Marian piety – or name theological foci as more or less exclusively eastern – such as theosis – which are found in distinctively western figures as well). Again, the trouble is not in seeing that we have a lot to learn from the east. The trouble is the way NT scholarship treats the east like a manic pixie dream girl.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a stock character in movies, was defined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown:

Dunst embodies a character type I like to call The Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see Natalie Portman in Garden State for another prime example). The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not given any purpose or inner life of her own. She exists only to help a male character break out of his boring, despondent ways so he can grow up and let loose and see how cool life really is. She is not a real person. (Here’s a video with a helpful critique).

I’m tempted to talk about the analogous role of Catholicism in much Pauline studies (the two-dimensional bad guy! No matter what he says, he’s wrong), but I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

James McGrath: you need a PhD to understand the Bible

[It's not the elitist idiocy that it sounds like.]
James McGrath rightly points out that no modern English speaker has access to the Bible without the prior work of scholars:

Do you need a PhD to understand the Bible?
Short answer: yes.
But a longer answer is called for. And the longer answer includes the fact that you need more than one PhD to understand the Bible.
When I say you need a PhD, I don’t necessarily mean that you yourself need to earn a PhD, much less several. But you will need multiple people with PhDs involved in the process. You will not understand the entire Bible without people who have expertise in Hebrew and expertise in Greek. Not just a smattering, not just a copy of Strong’s concordance or an interlinear. In order to get from the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek text to an understanding in English, you need linguists, experienced translators, and also scholars of history who can clarify cultural and historical references, all involved in the process.
When these individuals have done their job well, you can pick up an English translation, read it, and it will not seem hard to understand at all. Indeed, it may be so deceptively easy that you manage to ignore the hard work that went into producing the text you hold in your hands.

See the whole post here.
McGrath goes on to note how galling it is when anti-intellectualist folks quote the Bible – in English – to show how they don’t need scholars.

I would suggest that a closely related ecclesiological point follows from McGrath’s discussion. Just as Bible-wielding folks who say they don’t need scholars conveniently ignore where their translation came from in the first place, those who say they don’t need Church tradition conveniently ignore where the canon of Scripture came from. It did not slide off a rainbow sometime in the first century. For a helpful discussion of the formation of the NT canon, see Harry Y. Gamble, The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning.

For a discussion of why many of us are frustrated by the fact that we don’t have unmediated access to the Bible, see David B. Hart at his ornery best: “Religion in America: Ancient and Modern” in The New Criterion March 2004.

John Barclay on Paul and Gift

Here is a lecture that John Barclay gave earlier this month at the inauguration of a new Centre for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St Mary’s University College in London (HT: Mark Goodacre).

There was one part of the lecture that I found particularly helpful. Barclay notes that there is a tendency to speak of God’s grace as “perfect grace,” “sheer grace,” or “pure grace” without specifying what it is we mean. Barclay identifies six ways that a gift might be perfect: 1) superabundance; 2) singularity, that is, the gift is given in a purely benevolent spirit; 3) priority, that is, it is not obliged by a previous gift; 4) incongruity, the gift is given without regard for the worthiness of the recipient; 5) efficacy, the gift accomplishes what it is supposed to accomplish; 6) non-circularity, that is, it escapes reciprocity. No return is necessary. This sixth item is of particular interest to moderns (something I discuss with respect to Matthew’s Gospel here).

“Gift” or “grace” could be perfected in one or more of these ways without necessarily implying any of the others. Thus, Barclay warns, “Common perfecting terms [such as "pure" grace or "unmerited" grace] can mask deep differences in meaning. To speak of pure grace may mean its singularity – God is nothing but benevolent – or it may mean its non-circularity – God’s grace seeks no return – or indeed some other of its six perfections…Every time you see people use the term ‘free grace’ or ‘pure grace’ or ‘unconditional gift’ or whatever, you need to say ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’ because they often mean very different things.”

Wages of Cross-Bearing finally arrived!

I’m glad to see that lots of libraries already have it, but I was beginning to feel like I was going to be the last person to see it. Here’s the first paragraph of the conclusion:

A sizeable stream of Matthean scholarship has been at pains to show that, like a good Kantian, Jesus did not use the hope of heavenly treasure to motivate his followers; that Matthew’s Lohngedanken can be fitted into a Pauline framework; that the parable of the workers in the vineyard is the hermeneutical key to everything else Jesus says – or, at the very least, that the parable of the workers in the vineyard was central for the historical Jesus. I have sought to show how unhelpful these claims are for understanding Matthew. The central burden of this study, however, has not been to rectify previous misunderstandings but to articulate Matthew’s vision of the divine economy in its late first-century Jewish context and also to show that some of the Gospel’s central claims about Jesus emerge from this conceptual matrix and should be understood in light of it. (p.199)

For more information go here.

Or to De Gruyter.

Amazon.de has the entire introduction available for preview. Click “hier reinlesen und suchen.”


2013 SBL presentations

I’ll be presenting in the Synoptic Gospels section and the Paul and Judaism consultation in Baltimore.

The title of my presentation for the latter is “‘I Seek Not the Gift, but the Interest That Increases in Your Account’: Almsgiving in the Pauline Corpus.”

Here is the title and abstract for the Synoptic Gospels section:

Payday Advances: the Intra-Synoptic Debate on the Deferral of Rewards

Discussions of eschatology in the Synoptic Gospels usually posit a gradual relaxation of eschatological tension from Mark to Matthew and then to Luke. Scholarship has focused on matters such as Matthew’s emphasis on the sustaining presence of Christ with the Church (Matt 1:23; 18:20; 28:20) and Luke’s alleged de-emphasis on a future return of Christ, but has neglected the intra-Synoptic debate regarding the question of when God will reward disciples for renouncing earthly possessions to follow Jesus. Will God reward disciples for their suffering now or will God withhold such comfort until return of the Son of Man? Mark says that those who renounce their possessions will receive a hundred times as much “now, in the present time, and in the age to come eternal life” (10:30). Matthew conspicuously omits any mention of recompense in the present, delaying all repayment until the “new age” (19:28-29). Matthew also claims that this coming repayment is imminent (16:27; cf. Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). The First Gospel thus heightens the contrast between present suffering and future consolation and increases the hope that this consolation is at hand. Luke’s Gospel moves in the opposite direction: he repeats Mark’s promise that divine recompense will be enjoyed both “in the age to come” and “in this time” and then elaborates on this promise by depicting the immediate salvific effects of charitable deeds (19:8-9; Acts 9:36-10:48, esp. 9:39 and 10:2-4). This paper will examine this Synoptic debate in relation to the Tannaitic belief that certain good deeds, including almsgiving, earn a reward that accrues interest which is enjoyed in the present, while the principal is saved for the world to come (m. Peah 1:1; cf. b. Shab. 32a.). The Synoptic Gospels do not slide directly from fervent eschatological expectation to a more relaxed view. Though Luke expands Mark’s promises of present-day rewards, the disjunction in Matthew between present suffering and eschatological consolation is far more acute than has been recognized.

Old Duke friends in the new issue of JBL

The new JBL is out and it contains articles by two friends of mine from Duke:

Already/Not Yet: Eschatological Tension in the Book of Tobit

Jill Hicks-Keeton

P. Duk. inv. 727r: New Evidence for the Meaning and Provenance of the Word Προσήλυτος

Authors David M. Moffitt and C. Jacob Butera

Sure, there are other interesting articles, but I would start with these two.