18 Jun 2019

Let Strong’s/Thayer/McGarvey Rest in Peace: Use Good Study Tools

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Alexander Campbell, Bible, Exegesis, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Preaching, Reading
Headstone for Strong’s, Thayer, Edersheim, etc

This particular post is aimed at those who are teachers or preachers or who want to be serious students of the Bible.

One of my rabbis, longtime professor at Harding Graduate School of Religion, Dr. Jack P. Lewis, of blessed memory, said many times in his nasal tone,

Thayer and McGarvey have been dead and buried for over a century, it is time to let them rest in peace.”

This quip was not, and is not, a put down to either Thayer or McGarvey. It is simply a recognition that multiple revolutions have taken place in historical, biblical, linguistic and archaeological scholarship. Nearly one hundred and seventy years ago, Alexander Campbell stressed the same point as Dr. Lewis. Speaking on the genuine need of new translations the great reformer said,

The labors bestowed upon the original text, . . . the great advances made in the whole science of hermeneutics . . . since the commencement of the present century [19th], fully justify the conclusion that we are, or may be, much better furnished for the work of interpretation than any one, however gifted by nature and by education could have been, not merely fifty but almost two hundred and fifty years ago. The living critics and translators of the present day, in Europe and America, are like Saul amongst the people — head and shoulders above those of the early part of the seventeenth century.” (Alexander Campbell, Address to the American Bible Union Convention, 1852, pp. 583-584).

The revolutions in Greek and Hebrew scholarship even since the time of Campbell can be compared to the Copernican Revolution: the discovery of manuscripts like Codex Sinaiticus, publication of Vaticanus, the papyri, koine Greek, thousands of ancient clay tablets at Ugarit, Ebla, across Iraq, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so much more.

Much older scholarship is of value because it is historical not because it is accurate. That is older scholarship is often simply wrong. Along with being incorrect, a good deal of older scholarship reflects a pervasive, and deeply flawed, anti-Semitic prejudice that seriously distorts material in both Testaments.

I was reminded of that anti-Jewish prejudice this morning. I am reading the Gospel of Matthew. The Bible program on my pc has lots of “old classics” that are free (they are often free for a reason). So I pulled up the material from Alfred Edersheim’s Sketches in Jewish Social Life on a particular passage. The passage is a caricature at best.

So in a long discussion of the dress of the Pharisee and noting that Jews were incredibly modest, he discounts a number of texts in Scripture. Then he gets to tassels/fringe and phylacteries. Edersheim bodly declares

it is difficult to believe that He Himself had worn them.”

But why is it “difficult to believe” that Jesus wore phylacteries? That is the million dollar question. Because the prejudicial attitude the author brings to the text regarding Israel, the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. Jesus cannot look like a Jew because if he looked like a Jew then he might sound like a Jew and if he sounded like a Jew then he might think like a Jew. And if he looks like a Jew, sounds like a Jew, and thinks like a Jew then Jesus just might BE a Jew … but Jews are cartoon characters, foils for all the evils that the Protestant Reformation has delivered us from. This is why it was hard for Edersheim “to believe” what is explicitly in the text, as we shall see.

Edersheim’s description of the Pharisees is certainly done in the most negative way possible, but then he utterly disconnects Jesus from this typical Jewish way of dress that is actually commanded in the Torah. He does not discuss the multiple texts in the Gospels that clearly show Jesus did in fact wear phylacteries. But when you start off with a caricature of the Hebrew Bible and stereotypes of Jews then Jesus cannot have anything to do with that. Jesus in fact opposed that “Old Testament” ritualistic legalism of the Jews. This my friends is antisemiticism it is not biblical scholarship.

But the Bible says,

You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself” (Dt 22.12)

and “

Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner” (Num 15.37-38)

Matthew, Mark and Luke record that Jesus did exactly what the Torah instructed. Why? Because Jesus of Nazareth was, and remains, a Jew not a white European Protestant.

In contemporary scholarship, like Jodi Magness’s excellent, and archeologically grounded, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (Eerdmans 2011) we get a much more accurate picture of both the variety of Judaism in Jesus’s day and Jesus’s fitting squarely within it.

Thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, and archaeology, we know the Pharisees were hardly the extremists in Judaism – the Essenes were. We also know that Jesus had a great deal in common with the Pharisees – enough that he regularly had table fellowship with them. But not only scrolls were discovered in the Caves of the Judean desert. Amazingly, so were prayer shawls and tassels (fringe).

Jesus chastised some Pharisees for having made large, showy, phylacteries and long tassels (Mt 23.5). Jesus did not criticize phylacteries and tassels. We read of Jesus’s own practice of wearing them …

a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages … came up to him [Jesus] and touched the FRINGE of his cloak” (Mt 9.20-21)

She came up behind him and touched the FRINGE of his clothes” (Lk 8.44)

the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all the sick … begged him that they might touch even the FRINGE of his cloak” (Mt 14.35-36)

wherever he went, into villages … they begged that they might touch the FRINGE of his cloak” (Mk 6.56)

What is most interesting is that all of the Gospels call the “fringe” kraspedon which is the very word the Septuagint uses to translate tzitzit or tassels in Numbers 15.37.

Many times, we modern western students of the Gospels simply pass over these texts because we do not understand what is going on. The Gospel writers simply assume that their readers know what is being described. The Gospel writers are, after all, Jewish themselves and the original audience of the Gospels are Jewish. The possible exception to this is Luke, but Luke is an exceedingly Jewish Gospel and most scholars believe Luke was a proselyte or God fearer at the very least.

But we already have a picture of what Jesus looks like, we have seen hundreds of paintings of him, and Edersheim flat out tells us that Jesus would not dare wear something so Jewish as phylacteries. The power of historical images of Jesus over us is explored in my article Picturing Jesus the Jew: How Project and Shape Theology.

But Jesus is not wearing frayed jeans. Jesus looks like a typical Jew. Jesus was critical of drawing attention to oneself rather than to God (this is not a uniquely Jewish problem look at the flashy suits and ties some Evangelical preachers have worn for generations). Jesus is a faithful Jewish rabbi.

It may be time to let Edersheim “rest in peace.” His material is not only inaccurate but it continues to foster the anti-Jewish prejudice latent in so much Christian reading of the Bible.

Let Adam Clarke, Matthew Henry, Strong, Thayer, the Pulpit Commentary, and more rest in peace.

We no longer use maps that have dragons on the edge. We do not use Roman numerals for doing algebra. We do not send people to the moon using astronomy and physics that has only five planets. We do not let doctors operate that have never heard of an x-ray or digital imaging technology.

Why, then, do we dream of preaching and teaching using sources that have never heard of koine Greek, Ugaritic, the Dead Sea Scrolls, that know nothing of the Apocrypha or Enoch or the myriad of modern discoveries that have radically changed what we know of the First Century of Jesus.

Interestingly enough, J. W. McGarvey, though old shared the same concern of Alexander Campbell and Jack Lewis for using up to date resources. For a list of good sources and suggestions on cultivating study see A Talk with McGarvey on Books, Reading & Preachers.

To paraphrase Paul, “Study good books to show yourself approved so you can then correctly interpret the word of truth.”

5 Responses to “Let Strong’s/Thayer/McGarvey Rest in Peace: Use Good Study Tools”

  1. Dwight Says:

    Very good article. We should let the Jews be Jews and not transform them into people they were not. The Early Church Fathers were largely anti-Jew, because they believed that the Jews killed Jesus and thus were flawed in their Jewishness. It is to our discredit that we read the scriptures, Old and New, and the early saints out of their Jewish context. The early saints didn’t understand it sinful to do the Jewish practices, like the latter ECF would come to the conclusion of. It might actually be of benefit to look at the fundamental Jews to get an idea of what Jesus looked like and what He did as He lived. This would be very instructional and enlightening.

  2. Glenn Browning Says:


  3. Les Taylor Says:

    Great thoughts. The concern to keep in touch with modern scholarship is important. Not that modern scholars are always right, but as you say, there are many discoveries that older generations simply did not have available.

    I’m a little surprised to see Edersheim’s writings described as anti-Semitic though. Wasn’t Edersheim a converted Jew himself? Not that one couldn’t have a bias against his own background. Nor am I saying you are incorrect in your assessment. I’m just surprised. I found his survey of passages considered as messianic to be helpful in analyzing prophecies of the OT that are often accused of being ripped out of context in the NT by certain progressive scholars.

  4. Mark S. McClain Says:

    And perhaps Vines—there are better lexicons. Also, Restorationists need to wholly embrace Biblical Theology in order to understand both testaments.

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