Our Blessed Mother & The Saints

The Non-Rule of Mr. Svendsen

by David Palm

The Burden of Proof

I want to say a few more words about the burden proof in this discussion of the meaning of hes hou in Matthew 1:25. As I fully expected, Eric Svendsen has tried repeatedly to shift the burden of proof to his opponents in this on-going discussion. But once again I urge the reader to recognize that it is Svendsen who is making the novel claim "that hes hou in all the literature of the two centuries surrounding the birth of Christ, when it means 'until,' always terminates the action of the main clause. That is an irrefutable fact" ("CAI's Continued Misrepresentations of the Phrase Hes Hou in Matthew 1:25", http://ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou.htm).

He has stated his claim in the form of a universal negative. All one need do is provide a single counter-example and Svendsen is proved wrong. On the flip side, he makes the positive claim that this is evidence of "semantic obsolescence", that one particular usage of this phrase fell out of the Greek language in the range of dates he studies. Svendsen's novel assertions are not supported by any other scholarly study. And therefore Svendsen bears the burden of proof to show that every counter-example can only be interpreted in support of his thesis and that the usage truly became obsolete. That is why he admits, quite candidly and correctly, that:

[I]f this usage for the phrase can also be found in literature contemporaneous to Matthew's gospel (i.e., the first century AD), then there can be little objection to seeing this same usage in the passage in question, and Mary's perpetual virginity becomes a strong exegetical option (WIMM, 77).

In the way he has stated his thesis, any example which bears the meaning "until with continuation" or "until with no regard to continuation or discontinuation" is sufficient to refute him, since he insists that every example shows a positive termination. He will, I predict, continue to shirk his burden as he continues to distance himself from his unequivocal claims, but I hope that readers in all camps will hold him firmly to it.

On Joseph and Aseneth

I have two points to make on the instance of hes hou in Joseph and Aseneth (henceforth J/A). First, although Svendsen and his supporters accuse us of wanting them simply to accept the verdict of the majority of twentieth century scholars on the dating of this book, we are actually asking for something else. What I have called for—as the bare minimum that one would expect from someone who constantly boasts of his supposed scholarly acumen—is a willingness to interact with the scholarly positions arrayed against him. This is especially so since Christoph Burchard, a man who dedicated his entire scholarly life to studying J/A and who is widely acknowledged as the top scholar on this topic, dates the book between 100 BC and AD 117, which is for all intents and purposes a mirror image of Svendsen's thesis range. Burchard arrived at this date range via thorough study and he establishes it with scholarly arguments. And let's recall again what other scholars have said of Burchard. Dr. Hagith Sivan describes Burchard as, "a scholar who has practically devoted most of his working life to J/A" (http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1998/1998-12-02.html). Dr. Mark Goodacre says that he is, "probably the most important Aseneth scholar this century" (http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/goodacre/aseneth/intro.htm) and one can readily see from the bibliography that Goodacre has compiled that this is so (http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/goodacre/aseneth/biblio.htm). Burchard is not the only scholar to hold this position, but he is certainly the most authoritative.

I heartily concur with Dr. Paul Owen who described Svendsen's approach to the dating of J/A as "silly obfuscation". I do not, as has been said in Svendsen's discussion forum, expect anybody simply to accept Burchard's position without critical examination. But it is truly remarkable that a "scholar" of the likes of Eric Svendsen deems it unnecessary to interact with a scholarly position that runs contrary to his thesis, even if that opinion was formulated by the world-renowned expert in the specific field of study. Gratuitous dismissal is sufficient for him. This indicates a perspicuous lack of both scholarly acumen and objectivity in relation to the evidence concerning hes hou. Frankly, it also reflects very poorly on those who evaluated and approved his thesis. I will have more to say about this in a moment.

The second thing that needs to be said about J/A is once more to emphasize that the reason Svendsen did not interact with this text as part of his study is that he was unaware of it until it was brought to his attention by John Pacheco, via Gerry Matatics. He has been challenged any number of times to admit this and he refuses. No one can reasonably argue that Svendsen is a shrinking violet, especially in defense of himself. I therefore take it as established until he says otherwise.

Additionally, the reason Svendsen did not know of J/A is enlightening. It is clear by now that he relied for his study exclusively on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) to locate texts and accepted without question TLG's dating of the various works it contains:

The fact that TLG excludes this document from first-century literature is indeed sufficient for the scholar. That's what TLG is for. It isolates ancient literature in a given time period, allowing the scholar to examine every occurrence of a grammatical construction within that time period (http://www.ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou_4.htm).

This gratuitous assertion betrays a truly amateurish approach to scholarly reference works. And from this unscholarly starting point, Svendsen errs further with this subsequent nonsensical leap:

Indeed, TLG is the single most accurate tool for not missing any relevant document. The reader should note the alternative Palm is suggesting here. He is demanding that I should have read every single ancient document in the original language-not only within the parameters of my time frame, but also several centuries on either side-rather than rely on TLG, a completely searchable, unpartisan tool that returns much more accurate results much more quickly (http://www.ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou_4.htm).

Of course I have never suggested, let alone demanded, any such thing. Svendsen's assertions are more gratuitous nonsense. However, I would affirm that the TLG, like any other scholarly reference work, needs to used prudently, not blindly. The editors of the TLG are not infallible. Obviously they needed to make decisions as to the chronological order of various texts, but the decisions themselves are susceptible to criticism and evaluation. Any scholar, in the true meaning of the term, expects this.

Furthermore, as scholarly as the TLG is, it is irrational (and convenient) to exalt its more general focus on a multitude of works as effectively beyond question, while simultaneously dismissing the renowned scholarship of Burchard who focused so exclusively and deeply on J/A, the text at issue. For Svendsen to insist that the fact that "TLG excludes this document from first-century literature is indeed sufficient for the scholar" is merely an attempt to divert attention from the fact that he didn't do sufficient homework—at least if he wants "Svendsen’s Rule" to be considered serious scholarship.

To summarize, we have in Joseph and Aseneth a text which:

1) Clearly runs contrary to Svendsen's thesis (he has never disputed that),

2) Is dated by the top specialist in J/A studies as sitting right smack on top of Svendsen's thesis range,

3) Svendsen missed because he relied exclusively on the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) to locate texts and accepted without question TLG's dating of the various works it contains,

4) Svendsen was completely unaware of until it was brought to his attention by a Catholic apologist whose research skills Svendsen is constantly denigrating. (Said Catholic apologist, by the way, found the J/A text using TLG, but he went on to do the necessary critical research into the text's dating.)

Svendsen now seeks to dismiss this original oversight—which he has compounded by his refusal to interact with the scholarly positions of specialists which stand against him—as of no consequence to the integrity of his work. I think honest onlookers of any theological persuasion will beg to differ.

The Apocalypse of Moses

On this text from the Apocalypse of Moses text very little more needs to be said. Svendsen insists that this text is unclear and that is his only out, since he cited it himself in his book. But the alleged lack of clarity is the product of desperation, not of any detail in the text. Without any positive indication to the contrary, Adam's injunction not to touch him "until the angel of the Lord shall say something about me," (compounded by the injunction to leave him alone) only applies to those to whom the injunction was delivered, viz. Adam's immediate audience. The text goes on to establish that they did not touch Adam even after the Angel rendered a verdict. Yes, as Svendsen pointed out, angels touched the body to prepare it for burial. But they were not and could not be part of Adam's injunction, which was directed to his family. Therefore, special pleading aside, this is a perfectly clear example of the use of hes hou without any cessation of the action of the main clause. Svendsen included it in his study, but he mistakenly categorized it as supporting his thesis. When read in its whole context, this text refutes him.

Matthew 18:34

After reviewing Svendsen's counter argument on Matt 18:34—that if the prisoner cannot pay the debt, then the condition of the secondary clause is never met—I am not afraid to agree this is the weakest of the several examples given that contradict his thesis. In this case—and only in this case—Svendsen's counter argument is not completely without merit. That being said, I do not intend to help Mr. Svendsen interminably focus everyone's attention on the weakest element of an overwhelmingly strong case against him. However, I will offer a brief critique of Mr. Svendsen's counter argument in order to illustrate that, even here, where I agree his opportunity for rebuttal was best, his argument is not open and shut as he would have everyone believe. In fact, Svendsen's greatest difficulty to overcome on this point is Svendsen himself.

The problem comes when we look at how he himself has summarized his thesis in his attempted rebuttal of Bob Sungenis:

I have never asserted that hes "always terminates the action of the main verb." Nor have I ever asserted that hes hou always terminates the action of the main verb. There are a few instances in the LXX where it clearly does not. All I have ever asserted-and continue to assert-is that hes hou in all the literature of the two centuries surrounding the birth of Christ, when it means "until," always terminates the action of the main clause. That is an irrefutable fact. If Sungenis had read my work he would have known this. If Sungenis has an example contrary to my proposed usage for this era, let him produce it-he can't because it doesn't exist ("CAI's Continued Misrepresentations of the Phrase Hes Hou in Matthew 1:25", http://ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou.htm).

One would suppose that this is an accurate restatement of Svendsen's thesis, coming as it does in a context in which he is supposed to be clarifying it. And if there was any doubt, he said virtually the same thing again in another rebuttal:

Nor have I ever asserted that hes hou always terminates the action of the main verb. There are a few instances in the LXX where it clearly does not. All I have ever asserted-and continue to assert-is that hes hou in all the literature of the two centuries surrounding the birth of Christ, when it means "until," always terminates the action of the main clause. That is an irrefutable fact ("Is CAI Qualified to Address Issues of the Greek Text? A Surrejoinder to Robert Sungenis' "Heos Who?"", http://ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou_2.htm).

Note that there is no mention in either of those summaries of Svendsen's thesis about meeting the condition of the secondary clause. This is just one more example of many in which Svendsen makes categorical, unqualified statements which are either false or which are true but undermine his thesis. One need only mention his treatment of achri hou (see discussion of this at http://www.catholic-legate.com/articles/heoserrors9.html), his categorical denial that hes hou (or any other grammatical construction) will be found in Greek lexica, and his assertion that non-terminative usages of hes hou in his date range makes "Mary's perpetual virginity . . . a strong exegetical option."

Suffice it to say, then, that if the two quotes above are accurate statements of Svendsen's thesis, the instance of hes hou in Matt 18:34 remains a problem for him, for, according to his Protestant theology, the man can never pay the debt and therefore there is no termination of the action of the main clause. If those paragraphs are not accurate restatements of his thesis, then let Svendsen say so plainly.

4 Maccabees 7:3

This text deserves to be cited once again, since it is such an outlandish example of Svendsen's duplicity in the study of hes hou:

For like a most skillful pilot, the reason of our father Eleazar steered the ship of religion over the sea of the emotions, and though buffeted by the storms of the tyrant and overwhelmed by the mighty waves of tortures, in no way did he turn the rudder of religion until [hes hou] he sailed into the haven of immortal victory (4 Macc 7:1-3).

This text was cited in Svendsen's book, but he lumped it in with the rest of the books of the LXX as being penned prior to 150 BC. His book contains not a single word to indicate that this book was written later than the main LXX corpus and falls smack in his thesis range. On his message board, I challenged Svendsen to tell us on his honor as a Christian when he first knew that 4 Maccabees was written inside his thesis range:

Just tell us on your honor as a Christian, Mr. Svendsen:

When did you first know about the existence of hes hou in Joseph and Aseneth?

When did you first learn that 4 Maccabees was written within your thesis range?

The part of his reply dealing with these questions ran as follows: "I have openly answered every question [David Palm] has posed, and have shown them to be completely irrelevant to the issue; and he has been unable to answer any of mine." Suffice it to say that Svendsen never answered either question openly in the course of our discussions in the forum. His answer can only be characterized as an outright lie.

Subsequent to the exchanges in the discussion board Svendsen has insisted that he knew that 4 Maccabees was written in his thesis range. This leads to the obvious question: why did he not make this clear in his book? It is a very telling omission.

Confronted with this text that sits well within his thesis range, Svendsen's only out is to assert that the text is unclear. And such an assertion can only be described as nonsense on stilts. I believe it is obvious, at least to any reader not desperately scrambling to uphold his crumbling doctoral thesis, that turning the rudder of religion in 4 Macc 7:3 is a metaphor for remaining true to the orthodox faith and that the haven of immortal victory is heaven. Thus, the author is asserting that Eleazar did not betray his faith even in the face of persecution and torture. Obviously, the author cannot have chosen hes hou to convey that Eleazar betrayed his faith after he had reached heaven.

However, to lay to rest once and for all Svendsen's gratuitous assertion that this passage is unclear, I challenge him to give us a credible counter-exegesis of this passage which defines "rudder of religion" and "haven of immortal victory" in such a way that Eleazar would turn that rudder after he reaches the haven. And since, to Svendsen, "credible" means whatever he happens to say, let him establish the credibility of any given counter-exegesis a little more objectively by citing even one Maccabees scholar who agrees with it. If he cannot manage this simple task, then this text stands as a clear counter example to his thesis, which lies well within his thesis range.

Furthermore, recall that the burden of proof is squarely on Svendsen to prove that this alternate interpretation is not only possible, but necessarily correct. As he has asserted a linguistic novelty in the form of a universal positive, it is his job to soundly disprove even the reasonable possibility of the obvious interpretation given above…..an interpretation which contradicts his thesis.

I believe this blatant oversight also raises further serious questions as to the level of scrutiny the examiners exercised before approving this "doctoral" thesis. It appears that none of the examiners who read Svendsen's work and approved it noted that this text obviously runs contrary to his thesis. Worse, it appears that not a single one of them noted the fact that Svendsen failed to make clear that this text was written within his thesis range. Apparently, his thesis evaluators subscribe to the same standards of excellence in scholarship as Svendsen himself. If he will divulge their identities, I will gladly convey the same sentiments to them personally.

Josephus, Antiquities 8:4:1

Another text which deserves some commentary is a passage from Josephus' Antiquities. Once again Svendsen cited this reference in his book, but he miscategorized it. Here's the passage with the instance of hes hou marked:

The king himself, and all the people and the Levites, went before, rendering the ground moist with sacrifices, and drink-offerings, and the blood of a great number of oblations, and burning an immense quantity of incense, and this till the very air itself every where round about was so full of these odors, that it met, in a most agreeable manner, persons at a great distance, and was an indication of God's presence; and, as men's opinion was, of his habitation with them in this newly built and consecrated place, for they did not grow weary, either of singing hymns or of dancing, until [hes hou] they came to the temple; and in this manner did they carry the ark. But when they should transfer it into the most secret place, the rest of the multitude went away, and only those priests that carried it set it between the two cherubims [sic], which embracing it with their wings, (for so were they framed by the artificer,) they covered it, as under a tent, or a cupola (http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-8.htm).

There is no hint nor implication in the immediate or larger context that all of the people in the procession immediately "grew weary" of singing hymns and dancing as soon as they reached the Temple. In fact, it is not merely plausible but likely, in the context of a Jewish liturgical ceremony, that they continued to sing as they returned to their homes; nobody who knows anything about ancient liturgical celebrations is going to want to insist that they sang no "recessional" hymns. More significantly, when one looks up the version of this event in 2 Chron 5 it is stated explicitly that there was singing after arriving at the Temple:

When the priests came forth from the holy place (for all the priests who were present had sanctified themselves, without regard to divisions), and all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and their sons and kinsmen, clothed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps and lyres, standing east of the altar, and with them one hundred and twenty priests blowing trumpets in unison when the trumpeters and the singers were to make themselves heard with one voice to praise and to glorify the Lord, and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying, "He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting," then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God (2 Chron 5:11-14).

What they did after they and the ark reached the Temple is irrelevant to Josephus; he means only to convey that they sang and danced all the way to the Temple. This is an instance of hes hou with the meaning, "until [with no reference to continuation or discontinuation]" (and Antiquities was written c. AD 80). The use of hes hou in this text is exactly parallel to that in Matt 1:25 where, as even prominent Protestant NT scholars agree, St. Matthew is interested in telling us what happened before the birth of Christ and does not have what happened after in view at all. Thus we have one more instance, unambiguously dated within Svendsen's timeframe, which conveys a meaning of hes hou compatible with the traditional Christian understanding of Matt 1:25 upholding the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Dr. Paul Owen's comments

I am grateful to Dr. Paul Owen for introducing his own comments on this study of hes hou. John Pacheco had already advanced Acts 25:21 in his own paper and it was certainly gratifying to see his observations bolstered by the independent witness of Dr. Owen. And Dr. Owen has added an additional text to the mix, Luke 24:49. Here our Lord is concerned that all of the disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Dr. Owen is correct that this text, read in its immediate and more distant context, represents another instance of hes hou with the meaning, "until [with no reference to continuation or discontinuation]", which is all we have ever said is seen in Matt 1:25. These examples are particularly deadly to Svendsen's thesis since they occur right in the New Testament. Although I'm sure Svendsen will argue that these examples just aren't "clear" (see more on this below), the fact remains that Dr. Owen's exegesis of these passages is perfectly plausible. Therefore the same meaning in Matt 1:25 is perfectly plausible.

Svendsen's Quizzy

During my sojourn in Svendsen's Internet discussion forum, he sought to distract attention away from the evidence being presented by posting a little quizzy for me under the title, "Checking the honesty of David Palm". I stated in the forum that, while I found the questions interesting and would indeed answer, the answers obviously are contingent on the full array of arguments and evidence regarding hes hou (which Svendsen had not then seen) and therefore an answer was more properly deferred until all the evidence was on the table. Not surprisingly, given his rather transparent attempt to distract his forum denizens from the hard evidence that was being presented in refutation of his thesis, Svendsen balked at this response and shortly thereafter kicked me out of the forum. Still, since I said that I would answer his questions, here is his quizzy along with my answers:

(1) Can you provide just one instance of hes hou, unambiguously dated in Matthew's own day, that clearly bears the meaning you need it to mean in Matt 1:25?

Yes, 4 Maccabees 7:3. There are others, as we have seen, but you only asked for one, so there you go.

(2) If you can't find any--or even if you can find only one--what does that really imply for your position on Matt 1:25? (Please choose only one):

(a) It is a highly likely interpretation, hands down over all other options.

(b) It is the likely interpretation, having more weight than the other options.

(c) It is a possible interpretation, having no more or less weight than any other option.

(d) It is an unlikely interpretation, but it is still a possible one.

(e) It doesn't matter; as long as it can have that usage, it does have that usage in Matt 1:25 because Rome says it does.

Obviously I don't need to choose one of those five, because in Svendsen's own words if we can establish the usage in St. Matthew's own day then "Mary's perpetual virginity becomes a strong exegetical option". We have established that usage in more than one instance, therefore he has provided his own answer to the question above.

Still, I would like to pursue this particular quizzy question a bit further, as I think it will help clarify some methodological matters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I did not know about the Old Testament, or the New Testament and the only text I had before me was this single sentence: "And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son; and he called his name Jesus."

Now remember, I'm reading this text completely in isolation; I don't know who Joseph, Mary, or Jesus are and I have no other context. Now we all admit that the word "until" most often implies the cessation of the action of the main clause; this is true in Greek, it's true in Latin, it's true in English, and I imagine it's true in every language. And in this case the sentence says that a man takes a woman as his wife and we all know that in ordinary marriage unions between ordinary men and women, sexual relations take place within those unions. So which of Svendsen's choices would I choose? Choice "d" of course.

But a good Christian exegete does not read a single sentence in isolation. He rightly reads the sentence in the context of the whole book and indeed in the context of the whole Bible. When we read the larger context of this sentence, we find out that these are not ordinary people at all. The woman has conceived a child without relations with a man; she has conceived by the Holy Spirit, a unique event in all of human history. This woman is going to bear the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in her womb and she will be in a mother/son relationship with Him throughout His earthly life. We can say, prima facie, that no human being on earth has ever had more intimate contact or a closer relationship with God the Son than that.

Now it might seem clinched by other verses in St. Matthew's gospel (esp. Matt 13:55) that there were other blood siblings of Jesus. But on further scrutiny it isn't so clear. Comparison of Matt 13:55 with Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 suggests that Simon and Jude, at least, are sons of another Mary, the wife of Clopas. Combine this with other more subtle details, such as the Blessed Virgin's otherwise strange response to the angel's annunciation in Luke 1:34, the implausibility of Jesus being bossed about by younger "siblings" (John 7:3) and Jesus' giving of his mother to John (rather than to blood siblings) at his death (John 19:26-7). From these details I believe the interpretation that Joseph and Mary did not have relations after the birth of Jesus moves up at least to Svendsen's choice "c" and thus the meaning of hes hou in Matt 1:25 would fairly be seen as "until with no view toward continuation or discontinuation".

In the broader ancient Jewish tradition, it was lawful and commendable for a man to abstain from relations with his wife if he was to dedicate himself to the study of the Torah. Also, according to ancient Jewish tradition, the priests abstained from relations with their wives for seven days prior to their service in the Temple (Babylonian Talmud, Tract Yomah, Chpt. 1). The rabbis taught in the midrashim and the Talmud that Moses, because he saw God face to face on a regular basis, also abstained entirely from further relations with his wife.

Three things did Moses do of his own understanding, and the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval...he separated himself from his wife [footnote: Entirely, after the Revelation]... And 'he separated himself from his wife': What did he interpret? He applied an a minori argument to himself, reasoning: If the Israelites, with whom the Shechinah spoke only on one occasion and He appointed them a time [thereof], yet the Torah said, Be ready against the third day, come not near a woman: I, with whom the Shechinah speaks at all times and does not appoint me a [definite] time, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave His approval? Because it is written, Go say to them, Return to your tents, which is followed by, But as for thee, stand thou here by me." (The Babylonian Talmud Seder Mo'ed, Shabbath, Vol. II, tr. Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, Rebecca Bennet Publications, 1959, p. 411-412)

This was one of the three things which Moses did of his own accord, but which received the full approval of God. He separated himself from his wife, because - said R. Simeon b. Yohai - Moses thus reasoned to himself: 'If in connection with Mount Sinai, which was hallowed only for the occasion [of Revelation], we were told: Come not near a woman (ib. XIX, 15), then how much more must I, to whom He speaks at all times, separate myself from my wife?' R. Akiba said: [No!] it was God Himself who told him [to separate himself from his wife], for it says, With him do I speak mouth to mouth (Num. XII, 8). R. Judah also said that it was told him directly by God. For Moses too was included in the injunction, 'Come not near a woman,' thus all were forbidden; and when He afterwards said: 'Return ye to your tents' (Deut. V, 27) He permitted them [to their husbands]. Moses then asked: 'Am I included in them?' and God replied: 'No; but As for thee, stand thou here by Me' (ib. 28). (Midrash Rabbah Exodus, XLVI. 3, tr. Rabbi Dr. S.M. Lehrman, Soncino Press, NY, 1983, p. 529; Cf. also Midrash Ki Tissa, http://www.jewishgates.com/file.asp?File_ID=427; thanks to Jacob Michael for these references).

Markus Bockmuehl summarizes the OT and extra-biblical evidence:

While rabbinic evidence is admittedly scant, it is at least worth noting the occasional estimation of sexual abstinence as an expression of purity and holiness: e.g. Moses and the Israelites at Sinai (Exod. 19:15; b.Shab. 87a; Aboth R. Nathan A 2; T. Ps.-J. Num. 12.8); cf. David and his men in 1 Sam. 21:4. M.Yeb. 6.6 implies that sexual abstinence is permitted to men who already have children, and to women. As early as Jer. 16:1-4, the prophet is instructed not to marry. (Markus Bockmuehl, "Let the dead bury their dead" (Matt. 8:22/Luke 9:60): Jesus and the Halakhah", The Journal of Theological Studies, Oct 1998; http://artfuljesus.0catch.com/bockmuehl.html, fn 77.)

There is lively debate in the broad arena of New Testament studies on how much weight such cultural details should be given in the interpretation of the NT. Nevertheless, such data create a greater degree of plausibility that a pious couple, selected by God to play an absolutely unique role in salvation history and who lived daily in the presence of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, would indeed abstain from marital relations. A modern interpreter may find that a strange concept, but I think he would find it difficult to prove that pious ancient Jews would find it a strange concept. On the contrary, I think that the cultural data indicate that they would consider it the most normal and natural response to such incredible events. Thus, these data begin to push us toward option "b", even if they do not get us completely there.

But what about the larger Christian tradition? Does a good Christian exegete read the NT without reference to the larger context of perennial Christian thought? The vast majority of Christian exegetes down through history would not countenance such an approach. Dr. Timothy George (dean of Beeson Divinity School, a Protestant institution), for example, states that, "The massive consensus of thoughtful Christian interpretation of the Word down through the ages (and on most matters of importance there is such a thing) is not likely to be wrong" ("What We Mean When We Say It's True," Christianity Today, Oct 23, 1995, 19).

And just such a massive consensus of thoughtful Christian interpretation of Matt 1:25 in favor of the perpetual virginity of Mary exists. This includes not only all of the prominent Church Fathers, the early Councils, and the medieval luminaries, but embraces all of the major founders of Protestantism, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Wesley, et al. Will Svendsen really conclude that these men were so inept at NT exegesis that they could not see what he considers plain and obvious?

A personal anecdote will flesh out just how significant this Christian consensus is. One night, during the time when I was still an evangelical Protestant but was examining the claims of the Catholic Church, I could not sleep. So I went into my study to find a book to read. My choice that night was an unfinished commentary on the Epistle of St. James by the nineteenth-century British scholar, F. J. A. Hort (The Epistle of St. James: The Greek text with introduction, commentary as far as chapter IV, verse 7, and additional notes. London: Macmillan & Co., 1909.) Hort was one of the famed "Cambridge Triumvirate", sharing that designation with two other eminent NT scholars, B. F. Wescott and J. B. Lightfoot. Their work in numerous areas on both the NT and the early Church Fathers was seminal and remains important to this day.

I turned to the first pages of the book and my eye lighted on Hort's discussion of the identity of the "brothers" of Jesus Christ. "Ah," I thought, "Hort will certainly give the Catholic Church a run for her money on this one!" I read with interest as Hort carefully examined all the NT evidence and laid out each possible view. And then I sat there stunned as he concluded that the best harmonization of all the NT evidence is that the "brothers" are not blood siblings of our Lord. Needless to say, Hort is not a scholar who can be lightly fluffed off by the likes of Eric Svendsen. But I can just hear the response now: "Oh, but if only he had read my thesis...yada, yada, yada."

The bottom line here is that reading Matt 1:25 in the context of this massive Christian consensus—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant—pushes our answer to Svendsen's quizzy at least to "b", with a strong nudge toward "a".

Finally, no good Christian exegete would want to read a passage of the Bible out of harmony with the teaching of the Church that Jesus Christ established. While it is a separate issue, the fact remains that the Scriptures and the larger Christian tradition witness to the fact that our Lord established a visible, authoritative Church which enjoys the Holy Spirit's guidance throughout history. Once one becomes convinced of this, only a fool would interpret the Scriptures contrary to this divinely established authority. This gives certainty—beyond all scholarly machinations, but not, as we have seen, contrary to the hard evidence or just because "Rome says so"—that our interpretation of Matt 1:25 is correct. To denigrate this teaching of the Church in such a way, so as to imply a capricious, autocratic decree that demands robotic acceptance without rational cause, is to have it exactly backwards. The Church "says so" in this case precisely because the evidence is overwhelming and trustworthy.

The quizzy continues:

(3) Using methodologies from NT exegesis only, can you explain what you think the difference is between adopting a position that is "highly likely" based on the exegetical evidence, one that is "probable" based on that same evidence, one that is "possible," and one that is "unlikely"? Further, can you explain what the acceptable criteria would be for distinguishing these categories?

As Jacob Michael has already pointed out, this set of questions is purposely worded in order to trap the one answering. Let's take that first phrase, "methodologies from NT exegesis". I invite the reader to examine a volume like Stephen Neill's The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (expanded by Tom Wright and a really excellent read, by the way) and then answer the question, Is there really some authoritative list of "methodologies from NT exegesis" on which all credentialed NT exegetes agree? Does Mr. Svendsen really believe that such a list exists? Where might we find this authoritative list?

Of course, no such list exists. What Svendsen should have asked for instead was an answer to his question using only "methodologies from NT exegesis of which I, Eric Svendsen, approve." Then we would have had the true thrust of the question.

The fact is that there is no list of agreed-upon methodologies and, further, the notion that one can apply some set of methodologies and repeatedly arrive at scientifically controlled meanings for NT texts is a pipedream. Textual criticism is about as close as one gets to a truly objective method and even here there are subjective elements which end in committees of text critics voting on individual variants. From there the methodologies become increasingly subjective. Let me cite again NT scholar E. Earle Ellis:

The meaning of ancient texts no less than other aspects of historical knowledge is never free from the subjective factors with which the interpreter comes to and pursues his task. What appears probable to one interpreter will be improbable to another. The failure of the historical-critical method, after two hundred years, to achieve an agreed meaning for any substantial biblical passage underscores that fact and makes a more modest attitude incumbent upon all biblical scholars. (emphasis added)

I am sure that I will now be accused of holding the position that New Testament exegesis is entirely subjective, so let me state clearly that I do not hold that position. But it is very important that we remain fully cognizant of the subjective nature of many aspects of New Testament studies. We have a perfect example right before us. Although lexical and grammatical studies are less subjective than certain other aspects of New Testament research, even here subjective elements can play prominently. In our current study, it is Svendsen himself who has purposely capitalized on subjectivity to try to help guard his thesis. He has done this by insisting that any counter-example raised by his opponents must be "clear". This allows him subjectively—and gratuitously—to insist that any counter-example lacks clarity and is therefore not really evidence against him. He has done this most obviously with 4 Macc 7:3 which is why I have sought to introduce a more objective standard of clarity by challenging Svendsen to propose a counter-exegesis of that passage which he can buttress with the opinion of even one specialist in Maccabean studies. My prediction is that he will let this particular challenge stand unanswered and will by default establish the clarity of 4 Macc 7:3.

As Ellis notes above, there is not a single substantial passage in the entire Bible which the historical-critical method has rendered "clear", in the sense that there is a universally agreed-upon meaning for it. Thus, the notion that there is such a thing as an objective, scientific exegesis of the New Testament ranks right up there with the notion that Darwinism is a scientifically established fact. Like the Darwinist who sneers at the supposed scientific navet of the believer in special creation, the disciple of the historical-critical method looks with scorn and derision on the "ignorant peasant" who dares to suggest that the "methodologies of NT exegesis" are not the end-all and be-all and indeed that they often contain serious flaws. Whereas the Darwinist theory demands that there should be millions of missing links, the Darwinist cannot point to a single one. So too the practitioners of the historical-critical method claim that its superior objectivity and scientific precision will net great precision in the explication of texts, whereas in reality no agreement has been reached on the meaning of a single one. And the scientific establishment likes to present a unified front to the public, while in fact, as Pope John Paul II has said, it is much more accurate to speak of "theories of evolution" rather than one theory of evolution. So too men like Svendsen like to speak of the "methodologies of NT exegesis" as if a unified, agreed-upon set of methodologies existed, whereas in fact there is no such agreement among practitioners of NT exegesis (and this is, of course, an obvious shortcoming of Sola Scriptura itself, but that is another, although closely related, issue).

Finally, it is true that Svendsen's approach to the New Testament—like the approach of the Darwinist to the created order—teems with unacknowledged presuppositions and subjective judgments. And this obviously colors the outcome of his approach to the New Testament and even, as we have seen, to texts outside of the NT whenever he has an anti-Catholic thesis he needs to uphold.

Back to the quizzy:

(4) What significance is there for the exegesis of a NT text when a theologically insignificant word or phrase that consistently bears a certain connotation in NT and Hellenistic usage shows up in the passage that is being exegeted? What do we normally do with such a word or phrase? Which option below best describes NT exegetical method? (Choose one):

(a) In NT exegesis, we normally apply the consistent meaning we find elsewhere unless something in the context of the passage itself prevents us from applying that meaning.

(b) In NT exegesis, we normally look around in literature outside the immediate time period to see if we can find another meaning; and if we find one, we would normally prefer that rare and anachronistic meaning over the consistent usage we find in the the [sic] NT and Hellenistic writings.

The obvious answer to this is "a", but Svendsen is really begging this question since, once again, he presumes the correctness of his thesis on hes hou. But his thesis is wrong, as the evidence shows.

I look forward to your answers. I think they will be quite telling. ES

I hope you weren't disappointed, Mr. Svendsen.


Svendsen has made sweeping and unqualified claims with regard to the semantic range of hes hou:

Due to semantic obsolescence, it is a grammatical fact that there is not even one instance in which hes hou or heos hotou bears a “continuation” nuance (when it means "until") in the NT or in the contemporaneous Hellenistic literature of that era. The semantic range for hes hou in that era excludes the “continuance” nuance that the construction bore in earlier times. ("Is CAI Qualified to Address Issues of the Greek Text? A Surrejoinder to Robert Sungenis' "Heos Who?"", http://ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou_2.htm).

He insists that this nuance fell out of the Greek language to the extent that, by St. Matthew's day, it would have sounded downright strange to any native Greek speaker:

By the time we reach A.D. 50 (the approx. date Matthew wrote his gospel), anyone speaking or writing hes hou intending the "continuance" nuance would sound just as strange to his contemporaries as someone today speaking and writing in King James English would sound to us ("CAI's Continued Misrepresentations of the Phrase Hes Hou in Matthew 1:25", http://ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou.htm).

It appears that he waffles a bit on at least one instance (4 Macc 7:3), but he asserts that it is statistically irrelevant to his case:

Using a best case scenario (one that is most favorable to the Roman Catholic view), the percentage of occurrence for the proposed Roman Catholic usage is 7% in the period before 100 BC, and less than 1% in the period between 100 BC and AD 100. That’s quite a difference. (http://www.ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou_4.htm)

It would be quite a difference—although even then not necessarily statistically significant, due to the very small sample group—if only Svendsen was right. But in fact, we have found six examples in which, all special pleading and dodging behind subjective judgments of clarity aside, hes hou is used with the meaning "until [and continuing]" or "until [with no reference to continuation or discontinuation]". At least six examples out of a total relevant population of fifty-six instances (biblical-15/non-biblical-39+2) in the time frame makes 10.7%. By this count, this usage is actually more likely in Svendsen's thesis range than it is in the period before, which was calculated by Pacheco to be 9.6% (5/52)! Thus the number of counter-examples we have presented is more than sufficient to show, not only that the "continuation nuance" occurs in the period under study, but that it occurs often enough as to be statistically indistinguishable from the prior period most notably represented by the LXX.

Moreover, we have also shown that the "continuation nuance" continues to occur in Greek literature following Svendsen's thesis range. In discounting the significance of the post-period evidence, Svendsen once again reveals the severe deficiency of his methodology:

[L]ater usage is irrelevant to the point, but earlier use shows us the etymological changes that led to the current usage. I could have stuck to the NT period itself and that would have been completely acceptable to the issue of usage, but I wanted to note the kinds of changes in the phrase that led up to its usage in Matthew's day. All subsequent usage is, of course, completely anachronistic to first-century usage and is therefore irrelevant (http://www.ntrmin.org/sungenis_and_heos_hou_4.htm)

But the post-period usages are in fact extremely relevant to his insistence that he has found an example of "semantic obsolescence", that this usage fell completely out of the Greek language: Contrary to Svendsen's assertions, Greek writers continued to use the phrase with a continuation nuance, completely oblivious of "Svendsen's Rule". Indeed, as eloquent and learned a native Greek speaker as St. John Chrysostom uses hes and hes hou interchangeably and is apparently unaware that this should have, on Svendsen's accounting, sounded exceedingly strange to him and his listeners. Thus, far from being irrelevant, as Svendsen asserts, these post-AD 100 examples are the final stroke felling his insistence that he has found an example of semantic obsolescence. The evidence shows decisively that at no time between the years 300 BC and AD 500 did the usage of hes hou with a "continuation nuance" fall out of Greek parlance. Simply put, Svendsen managed to foul up every aspect of this investigation. And now, to recall a line out of a Mel Brooks movie, his sentiment seems to be, "Gentlemen, I have to save my phony-baloney thesis!"

I now ask the reader, no matter what his theological persuasion might be, to recall again Svendsen's words concerning the implication of these counter-examples to his thesis:

[I]f this usage for the phrase can also be found in literature contemporaneous to Matthew's gospel (i.e., the first century AD), then there can be little objection to seeing this same usage in the passage in question, and Mary's perpetual virginity becomes a strong exegetical option (WIMM, 77).

"A strong exegetical option." Much as he might wish that he had never written these words, write them he did. I suspect many people are watching intently to see if he is man enough to stand by them. I sincerely pray that he is.

David Palm
February 5, 2004

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