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Repentance and the Bible: A Q&A with David Lambert

Many people assume that repentance is and always has been a substantial part of the Bible, but that has not always  been the case. In the following interview between Luke Drake, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and David Lambert, an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of How Repentance Became Biblical: Judaism, Christianity, and the Interpretation of Scripture, the two discuss how repentance came to be seen as a part of the Bible, and the early history of repentance as a concept.

How did you first decide to write about repentance?

For a long time, I had been interested in the kinds of narratives that we tell about our lives. We often see ourselves as experiencing not just developmental growth, from childhood to adulthood, but also spiritual or moral progress. What surprised me as a historian was that, despite its importance to us today, this sense of personal development—individual biography—was not always obvious in Judaism and Christianity, especially in their earliest formulations. One important exception seemed to be the concept of repentance, so I set out to study it.

And, what did you find?

Well, actually, what I found was that repentance didn’t really appear in all of the places that I expected. I noticed this first with regard to fasting in Hebrew Bible. People fasted for all different kinds of reasons, including mourning the dead. Fasting was especially common in contexts of prayer, often without any connection to sin. But, for many of us today, fasting is all about atonement and feeling sorrow for sins. I also came to realize that the biblical, prophetic phrase—’return to the Lord’—which we have come to associate with repentance and from which the Rabbis claimed to derive their notion of repentance, teshuva, had little to do with repentance in its original context.

The New Testament sources also appear to differ in striking ways over the role of repentance. There seems to be some disagreement: did Jesus preach repentance or not? Finally, I found it significant that, in the Bible, Adam and Eve never bother to repent as a way of dealing with their sin, and Noah never warns his generation about the Flood. But, Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible, from around the turn of the Common Era, made a concerted effort to read repentance into these narratives and many others. All of these discrepancies clearly pointed to the fact that something important was going on!

It seems like a big part of your claim is that we read repentance into the Bible, a tendency you label ‘the penitential lens’. Could you tell us more about how this ‘lens’ works?

Sure. The first thing to realize is that the importance of repentance as a concept within Judaism and Christianity means that scholars of the Bible, from ancient to modern times, are predisposed to seeing repentance as biblical. The Bible, after all, is often assumed to be a source of our values. And there is remarkable agreement, even among contemporary academics, that phenomena such as fasting, prayer, confession, and prophecy all involve repentance in some way, even though repentance as a concept is never mentioned.

Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Image credit: Jonah Preaches to the Ninevites by Gustave Dorѐ. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Even more interesting, however, are the particular strategies we use for reading repentance into the Bible. So, for instance, you have a commandment that the Israelites fast and afflict themselves on the day that the high priest cleanses the Temple—the Day of Atonement. Our impulse is to assume that such bodily performances are significant in so far as they express inner feelings of sorrow, which the text, in fact, shows no interest in depicting. Or, again, we’ll read some utterance of the prophet, Amos, declaring that Israel is doomed because of its sin and say to ourselves that there must be some deeper purpose behind the prophet’s words: he must really be trying to get Israel to repent and save themselves.

In both cases, we’re convinced that a good reading of the passages demands that we look beyond the actual words of the text. But why do we do this? Really, it has more to do with our contemporary notions of the self than with the Bible. We tend to think of ourselves as having a split between mind and body, with the mind (or ‘soul’, or ‘heart’, or ‘self’, or whatever you want to call it) being our dominant and most essential component. So when we analyze human behavior, we tend to look past it and see it as a way of expressing what really matters, namely what is ‘inside’. We also tend to view religion as deeply concerned with moral and spiritual improvement, so we assume that the prophets’ words must be aiming at this greater good even if nothing in their language or context suggests so.

If biblical practices such as fasting and confession were not about repentance, what were they about?

I mentioned earlier the connection between fasting and prayer. If you were King David, say, and wanted to save your condemned son, you had a fundamental problem. God responds to the needy. But, you’re a powerful king! For David to have any hope of God responding to his appeal, he needs to become like someone who is afflicted. To do so he descends from his throne, removes his royal robes, and fasts. Fasting is not about self-expression but is a ritual means of changing your very identity or status as a person: you’re someone on the brink of death. Or, again, when you approach someone and declare, ‘I have sinned against you‘, the aim of your utterance is not so much to express sorrow, which is completely absent in the standard confessional formula, but to declare that you exist in a state of culpability vis-à-vis the person against whom you have sinned—you are at their mercy. This move sets up the possibility for forgiveness through repayment or other forms of reconciliation.

So when does repentance first start to appear?

Repentance has some antecedents in the Hebrew Bible, but it only comes into its own as a product of the Hellenistic period, when Jews lived under Greek and then Roman rule. For instance, as a technique for self-improvement, repentance or metanoia, in Greek, was particularly important to the forms of Platonism represented in the writings of Philo and Plutarch. However, the important point here is less a question of the origins of repentance but how and why it became such a pervasive, basic component of both Judaism and Christianity, each of which promote the power of repentance and incorporate it into their lexicon of religious terminology. So much more can be said, but the basic point was that you could enter a group through a mental act rejecting your past life and remain within it, even after possible sin, through the same. And so an idea was put forward, one that remains to this day, that a real transformation in identity is possible—that ‘repentance’ exists—and that it can be used as a powerful tool for self-governance, our selves monitoring and reprimanding our own selves.

Recent Comments

  1. Lou Dubin

    I believe the definition of repented cell is totally different than this gentleman portrays.
    Biblical repentance is a “change of mind”!
    Changing from believing that my works can have any efficacy in my salvation, to agreeing that nothing I do can earn me salvation , and only Christ’s blood shed at the cross paid the price completely for sin for all who believe on His name.
    Ephesians 2:8-9 states it clearly.

  2. David Lambert

    Really, it would be helpful to take a look at the discussion of the definition of “repentance,” especially in Christian scholarship, that’s found in chapter 7 of the book. Defining repentance as a “change of mind” is indeed one common definition that actually dates back to Luther, interestingly enough. In fact, that might not have been the original sense in the New Testament and doesn’t appear to be the sense of the important phrase “return to the Lord” in the Old Testament.

  3. Dr. Steve Galegor

    I would be interested on Prof. Lambert’s take on Mark 1:14-15. The response to Jesus’ kingdom preaching required” repent and believe.” Is there discussion of this in the book.

  4. David Lambert

    Mark 1:14-15 is indeed an important passage and is discussed in the book along with a number of other passages from the Gospels and the New Testament. It’s particularly interesting that Jesus’ core message, according to Mark 1:14-15, has to do with repentance, whereas nowhere else in Jesus’ subsequent interactions in Mark is there any mention of his urging people to repent. I discuss this odd discrepancy in the book.

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