Insightful Jewish Interpretation of the Pentateuch: SBL Panel Discussion of Shai Held, The Heart of Torah

Rabbi Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute, an ecumenical egalitarian study center in New York City that he helped found in 2006, along with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Ethan Tucker.

My initial introduction to Shai Held was in January 2015 when he contacted me to discuss the imago Dei in Genesis 1, in preparation for a public lecture he was going to give on human dignity and police violence against African Americans. He had read my book The Liberating Image and wanted to clarify some aspects of the interpretation. We first communicated by email, then had a telephone conversation on the topic.

Since then I have attended the Hadar Institute (previously called Mechon Hadar) for two of their annual Executive Seminars and I wrote an initial blog about my experience.

Middleton with Rabbis Elie Kaunfer and Shai Held at Hadar, July 2016

Shai Held (son of Ugaritic scholar Moshe Held) has written an in-depth study of the theology of Abraham Heschel (Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) that explores the complexity of his thought. This is his published dissertation, written under the supervision of Jon D. Levenson at Harvard.

Held’s latest publication is The Heart of Torah, 2 vols. (Jewish Publication Society, 2017). This is a compilation of short theological-ethical essays on selected passages from the weekly Torah portion in the Jewish lectionary cycle. Volume 1 covers texts in Genesis and Exodus, while volume 2 covers texts in Leviticus to Deuteronomy.

I (along with approximately 7,000 others) subscribed to receiving these essays every week by email; and I have been profoundly moved by Held’s insights. So when I found out that the essays would be published in a two-volume collection, I contacted a number of Christian biblical scholars to join me in writing endorsements for the publication.

I have also organized a panel discussion on The Heart of Torah at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in San Diego this coming November. The panel will consist of both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars, who will share their responses to the book and its project. 

Although the exact date and time has not yet been set, this is the lineup of presenters.

Presiding:

  • J. Richard Middleton, Northeastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College

Participants:

  • Ellen Davis, Duke Divinity School
  • David Frankel, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies
  • S. Tamar Kamionkowski, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
  • Jacqueline Lapsley, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Dennis Olson, Princeton Theological Seminary
  • Marvin Sweeney, Claremont School of Theology

Response:

  • Shai Held, The Hadar Institute

This panel discussion is jointly sponsored by the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures program unit and the National Association of Professors of Hebrew.

Here is a newspaper article (The Times of Israel, September 2017) on Shai Held’s combination of Jewish piety and social ethics

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What Happens between Death and Resurrection? A Symposium on the Intermediate State

This post was updated April 2019.

On January 17, 2019 I participated in a Symposium on the “intermediate state.” This Symposium explored the question of how best to think about what happens to a Christian between death and resurrection.

Symposium on the Intermediate State: J. P. Moreland and J. Richard Middleton

The Symposium was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

My dialogue partner was philosopher J. P. Moreland, a famous supporter of “substance dualism” (the view that a person is composed of an immaterial soul and a body). He argued for the traditional view that our souls go to be with God (in heaven), awaiting the resurrection.

As a biblical scholar, I presented my position that the Bible doesn’t teach substance dualism, but rather a holistic view of the person, and that Scripture doesn’t clearly explain what happens between death and resurrection. I am therefore agnostic about the intermediate state.

My presentation focused on biblical exposition of these themes, with attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (absent from the body, present with the Lord) and Luke 23:39–43 (the thief on the cross). These two biblical texts are often taken as teaching an intermediate state. My exegesis of these texts attempted to show that they both address the final resurrection, not an intermediate state.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to have an explanation of what happens between death and resurrection. It is sufficient to trust that God, who is faithful, will bring those who are in Christ to the resurrection.

The raw video feed of the Symposium is found here.

  • Tom McCall (head of the Henry Center) opens the event at around the 16 minute mark.
  • Steve Matthewson (a local pastor) introduces the topic and the speakers at about the 17 ½ minute mark.
  • J. P. Moreland begins to speak just before the 21 minute mark.
  • My presentation begins at the 43 ½ minute mark. I had slides with some visuals and lots of biblical texts. However, you will see that the projection system wasn’t working properly.
  • The Q&A begins at the 1 hour and 11 ½ minute mark.

Our Focus Should be on the New Creation

My main point was that the intermediate state shouldn’t be the focus of our faith at all. Rather, biblical hope is for embodied resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth.

This is a point I made in my book on eschatology, A new Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014). In one of the chapters I included an excursus on the intermediate state (it was not central to the book’s argument), and I intended it merely as an exploration of the biblical evidence, not as an argument for a particular viewpoint.

Yet it is interesting that some reviews of my book brought up this excursus, often claiming to disagree with my position, even though my point was simply that there isn’t enough clear biblical evidence for me to affirm an intermediate state. Sometimes I wish  hadn’t put that excursus in at all, since it seemed to sidetrack some readers. But other readers have told me it was important for them.

The Henry Center’s Exploration of Theological Anthropology

I was invited to participate in this Symposium on the intermediate state not primarily because of my work on eschatology, but due to my prior involvement in the Henry Center’s three-year Creation Project.

Each summer the Center has had a conference (the Dabar Conference) on some aspect of the theme of Creation, and I have been involved every year.

In the first two years I was a paper respondent, in 2016 to Old Testament scholar C. John (“Jack”) Collins and in 2017 to philosopher-theologian William (“Billy”) Abraham, two very wonderful scholars, both of whom I was delighted to get to know.

This year I wrote a keynote paper for the Dabar Conference (June 2018), entitled “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview,” with two respondents (one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian).

The theme of the Creation Project (and thus of the Dabar Conference) this year (2018-19) is Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science.  But the Project extends beyond the Dabar conferences, and involves numerous other events.

It was because of my analysis of human mortality expressed in the Dabar paper (and a shorter version called “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” which was published on the Henry Center website) that I was invited to present my views at the upcoming Symposium.

This is the description of the Symposium (along with presenter bios) on the Henry Center website:

The resurrection of the body is one of the central doctrinal claims of the Christian faith. It is also the source of Christian hope when faced with the death of a loved one.

But what happens between now and then? When a child asks their parent where a departed loved one is “now,” how should Christians respond?

Do the souls of those who have died in faith go to be with the Lord now, awaiting to be reunited with their resurrected bodies?

Or are traditional Christian beliefs in an immaterial soul that is separable from the body misplaced—an unscriptural incursion of Platonic metaphysics that has misshaped our expectations of the afterlife?

The discussion will be followed by a pastoral response and extended audience Q&A on the theological and pastoral implications of the different views.

J. P. Moreland (PhD University of Southern California) is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It MattersThe Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

J. Richard Middleton (PhD Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

Date Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time 11am — 12:30pm CST
Location Main Campus

Hinkson Hall

This event was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust

What Happens between Death and Resurrection? A Symposium on the Intermediate State

This post was updated April 2019.

On January 17, 2019 I participated in a Symposium on the “intermediate state.” This Symposium explored the question of how best to think about what happens to a Christian between death and resurrection.

Symposium on the Intermediate State: J. P. Moreland and J. Richard Middleton

The Symposium was sponsored by the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in Deerfield, IL.

My dialogue partner was philosopher J. P. Moreland, a famous supporter of “substance dualism” (the view that a person is composed of an immaterial soul and a body). He argued for the traditional view that our souls go to be with God (in heaven), awaiting the resurrection.

As a biblical scholar, I presented my position that the Bible doesn’t teach substance dualism, but rather a holistic view of the person, and that Scripture doesn’t clearly explain what happens between death and resurrection. I am therefore agnostic about the intermediate state.

My presentation focused on biblical exposition of these themes, with attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 (absent from the body, present with the Lord) and Luke 23:39–43 (the thief on the cross). These two biblical texts are often taken as teaching an intermediate state. My exegesis of these texts attempted to show that they both address the final resurrection, not an intermediate state.

In the end, I don’t believe that we need to have an explanation of what happens between death and resurrection. It is sufficient to trust that God, who is faithful, will bring those who are in Christ to the resurrection.

The raw video feed of the Symposium is found here.

  • Tom McCall (head of the Henry Center) opens the event at around the 16 minute mark.
  • Steve Matthewson (a local pastor) introduces the topic and the speakers at about the 17 ½ minute mark.
  • J. P. Moreland begins to speak just before the 21 minute mark.
  • My presentation begins at the 43 ½ minute mark. I had slides with some visuals and lots of biblical texts. However, you will see that the projection system wasn’t working properly.
  • The Q&A begins at the 1 hour and 11 ½ minute mark.

Our Focus Should be on the New Creation

My main point was that the intermediate state shouldn’t be the focus of our faith at all. Rather, biblical hope is for embodied resurrection life in the new heavens and new earth.

This is a point I made in my book on eschatology, A new Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014). In one of the chapters I included an excursus on the intermediate state (it was not central to the book’s argument), and I intended it merely as an exploration of the biblical evidence, not as an argument for a particular viewpoint.

Yet it is interesting that some reviews of my book brought up this excursus, often claiming to disagree with my position, even though my point was simply that there isn’t enough clear biblical evidence for me to affirm an intermediate state. Sometimes I wish  hadn’t put that excursus in at all, since it seemed to sidetrack some readers. But other readers have told me it was important for them.

The Henry Center’s Exploration of Theological Anthropology

I was invited to participate in this Symposium on the intermediate state not primarily because of my work on eschatology, but due to my prior involvement in the Henry Center’s three-year Creation Project.

Each summer the Center has had a conference (the Dabar Conference) on some aspect of the theme of Creation, and I have been involved every year.

In the first two years I was a paper respondent, in 2016 to Old Testament scholar C. John (“Jack”) Collins and in 2017 to philosopher-theologian William (“Billy”) Abraham, two very wonderful scholars, both of whom I was delighted to get to know.

This year I wrote a keynote paper for the Dabar Conference (June 2018), entitled “Death, Immortality, and the Curse: Interpreting Genesis 2–3 in the Context of the Biblical Worldview,” with two respondents (one a biblical scholar, the other a theologian).

The theme of the Creation Project (and thus of the Dabar Conference) this year (2018-19) is Reclaiming Theological Anthropology in an Age of Science.  But the Project extends beyond the Dabar conferences, and involves numerous other events.

It was because of my analysis of human mortality expressed in the Dabar paper (and a shorter version called “Humans Created Mortal, with the Possibility of Eternal Life,” which was published on the Henry Center website) that I was invited to present my views at the upcoming Symposium.

This is the description of the Symposium (along with presenter bios) on the Henry Center website:

The resurrection of the body is one of the central doctrinal claims of the Christian faith. It is also the source of Christian hope when faced with the death of a loved one.

But what happens between now and then? When a child asks their parent where a departed loved one is “now,” how should Christians respond?

Do the souls of those who have died in faith go to be with the Lord now, awaiting to be reunited with their resurrected bodies?

Or are traditional Christian beliefs in an immaterial soul that is separable from the body misplaced—an unscriptural incursion of Platonic metaphysics that has misshaped our expectations of the afterlife?

The discussion will be followed by a pastoral response and extended audience Q&A on the theological and pastoral implications of the different views.

J. P. Moreland (PhD University of Southern California) is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why It MattersThe Blackwell Companion to Substance Dualism, and Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview.

J. Richard Middleton (PhD Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam) is Professor of Biblical Worldview and Exegesis at Northeastern Seminary. He is the author of A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, and The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

Date Thursday, January 17, 2019
Time 11am — 12:30pm CST
Location Main Campus

Hinkson Hall

This event was made possible through the support of a grant from Templeton Religion Trust