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Is Repentance a Biblical Idea? Interview with David Lambert

My colleague David Lambert, who teaches Hebrew Bible in my department, has recently published and interesting and important book with Oxford University Press, on the question of when the idea of “repentance” entered into the biblical tradition.  His answer is quite novel and surprising.  I have asked David to post some of his views on the blog.  The following is an initial foray into that, by way of an interview that he has done.   If you have questions or comments about the interview, please make them!  David is on the blog now and will respond, either in replies or by following up with new posts.

Here is the interview:


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 (Oxford University Press, 2016), 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 in its various possible senses, e.g. regret over past sin, didn’t really appear in 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.

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?

A great deal of the book focuses on addressing this question with regard to these practices and others. To give you just a few examples, 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.


David’s book How Repentance Became Biblical can be purchased on Amazon.com, at the following address:  : http://www.amazon.com/How-Repentance-Became-Biblical-Interpretation/dp/0190212241/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1452903064&sr=8-1&keywords=how+repentance


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  1. talmoore
    talmoore  January 19, 2016

    The concept of repentence only really begins to make sense when we realize it’s analogous to the relationship between a subject/vassal and a king. That is to say it’s a matter of shifting and returning loyalties. So, let’s say you’re the king of a relatively small kingdom–let’s call it Israel–and you’re kingdom is sandwiched between two much greater kingdoms headed by much more powerful emperors–let’s say they’re the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Assyrian emperor. To use the proper nomenclature you have to swear an oath of fealty to one of these suzerains. Of course, you can only devote yourself to one or the other, because these two powerful leaders are hostile to each other. So who do you choose? Well, you can monitor the political winds to make a calculated guess. You can ask a prophet to ask the gods for advice. You can choose arbitrarily and hope fortune is on your side. If you’ve chosen wisely, you’ll know soon enough (the Bible is filled with monarchs who clearly chose poorly).

    Once this dynamic has been established, you now have the option of sticking with your suzerain or switching loyalties to the other. Let’s say you start off loyal to the Pharaoh. But then the Assyrian emperor decides to go to war against Egypt and Egypt loses. The Assyrian emperor gives you a new choice: swear loyalty to him or get replaced (and likely killed). Being a sensible person you switch sides. But then the Assyrian empire starts to weaken and it seems that you can switch your loyalty back to the Pharaoh without fear from the Assyrians. Do you? Well, it’s still not quite so easy. There’s still the matter of betraying the Pharaoh during your (and his) moment of weakness. How do you fix that? Simple. You humble yourself before Pharaoh. You confess that you were weak-willed and you ask the Pharaoh for forgiveness. In essense, you repent. That’s repentence.

    So when ancient Jews, such as John the Baptist and Jesus were talking about repentence–t’shuva, returning to God–THIS is what they meant. They meant it in the sense of humbling yourself before God as a subject humbles himself before his king, asking for forgiveness so as to get back in his good graces. When the Jews abandoned their laws and adopted the customs of the gentiles, they, in effect, turned their backs on God–i.e. switched fealty from God to the gods of other nations–and to return to God they must: humble themselves (wear sackcloth and ashes), admit their moment of weakness (confess their sins), ask forgiveness (repent) and swear loyalty again (profess their faith). It’s the same process. The same dynamic. The same ritual. The only difference is God is the (supposedly) both the greatest king of all kings and incorporeal.

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 20, 2016

      These are all great points. I actually spend some time in the book talking about the suzerain-vassal relationship. The point here is that this “humbling” process changes over time. Even the term “humbling” is somewhat problematic, because it focuses to some extent on how we think about ourselves, on our inner self-assessment. In the Bible, when you “humble” yourself, you are publicly demonstrating for all that you are inferior to the king/deity who stands before you. You mark that inferiority on your body through your physical stance (lying on the ground), as well as your garb in certain circumstances, e.g. sackcloth and ashes. In other words, it’s political and about power dynamics. Now, I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they talk about “repentance,” and it’s not what’s meant in most Jewish and Christian texts around the turn of the Common Era. So there’s an important element of development here, and I’m hoping to expand on that in a future post.

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      MMahmud  January 20, 2016

      Interesting. So they had to repent for setting up rivals to God. Seems to be a huge topic in the OT, “not imitating the other nations around them.”

      I wonder what Jews today believe about repentance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Christianity itself influenced Judaism.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  January 22, 2016

        MMahmud, as a Jew myself I can tell you that repentence in Judaism in usually thought of in terms of returning to the Torah. That is, a Jew “returns” by returning to the Laws. A great example of the repentence idea in Judaism is the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a movement that tries to get secular, non-observant Jews to “return” to Shomer Torah, or Torah observance. All those other repentence elements (humbling, confession, profession of faith, appeal for forgiveness, etc.) are kind of built-in to Jewish practice already and assumed.

  2. John4
    John4  January 19, 2016

    OK, David. Sounds interesting. Maybe I *have* read repentance into texts where it wasn’t there. So, I went back and re-read Jonah, a text I particularly associate with repentance:

    And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
    When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
    When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

    Sounds to me like repentance associated with fasting, David. All shall turn from their evil ways and so on. Am I missing something here?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 20, 2016

      Well, yes, I think you might be, as was I when I first started on this project. And that’s why I decided to write the book! I discuss the Jonah passage extensively there, and there are a couple of things that need to be said, though it really requires a close reading of the book and the argument there. First of all, there is frequently a process of removing sin in the Bible. To be sure, that’s important. The question is whether it relates directly to the meaning of fasting and whether that process of removing sin is the same as what appears around the time of emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. In the case of fasting, you’ll see that, in the order of the passage, the people fast, pray, and then turn away from sin. In fact, fasting seems to be more about prayer in the Bible. What we find frequently there is that you need to pursue two different kinds of activities simultaneously: 1) appealing to the deity and 2) removing sin. One appeals to his mercy, the other to his justice. Neither works without the other, but they each have their own logic. I hope to say more later about the definition of repentance and why “turning away from sin” in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is different than “repentance” as it appears in Second Temple Judaism and, especially, the New Testament and rabbinic Judaism.

      • John4
        John4  January 21, 2016

        Okie Doke. I see where you’re coming from on this. Thx, David. 🙂

      • Avatar
        prince  January 23, 2016

        Okay David… so what is the definition of repentence?

  3. Hastings
    Hastings  January 19, 2016

    Just ordered the book. Sounds very interesting and informative.

  4. Avatar
    SteveWalach  January 19, 2016

    David —

    Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia) can mean a change of mind and change of conduct, “change of mind and heart” or “change of consciousness.”

    In the Hebrew, one word for “repent” is “shuv” which means “to return,” or to make a 180 degree turn — back to God, perhaps?

    “Shuv” and “metanoia” have a similar thrust, that is, to reorient oneself from the usual and return to that which is special, unique, sacred. As you imply in your post, reorienting oneself, say, to the divine is different than asking forgiveness, which has a different Hebrew root and it is that meaning which has evolved into the commonplace meaning of “repent” today.

    So, what say ye to the more metaphysical notion of the word repent? Could it be understood as a turning away from idols (as in Ezekiel 14:6) — stone statues, which are then destroyed, or could it also be a turning away from idols created by mind and desire — reputation, power, wealth — which also serve to misdirect sincere seekers if their ultimate goal truly is a connection with the ineffable YHWH?

    Is there evidence to suggest that repenting was more of an internal event with a goal of spiritual reunion, which in the end brought the repentants more in touch with the Shekinah (Hebrew) or Holy Spirit (more Christian) that dwells within?

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 20, 2016

      Great questions. I see some differences between these two terms, Hebrew “shuv” and Greek “metanoia,” that I hope to explore in a future post. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, “turning away from sin,” which uses that shuv term, usually entails physical abandonment of wrongful activities or property (e.g. idols, stolen goods). What develops later on is a more internal notion of what needs to transpire. What starts to matter is how you *feel* about your past life and what you’ve done. As I said, I hope to discuss these points further sometime soon.

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    SidDhartha1953  January 19, 2016

    Fascinating! If ancient Hebrews did not think of themselves in dualistic terms (body-soul, body-mind, body-spirit, etc.) did they think of their gods as entirely physical beings who happened to be invisible? If not, did they seem to struggle with the contradiction of physical humans interacting with bodiless gods?

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 20, 2016

      Excellent question. Actually, they did have a much more material sense of their god’s presence. He could even come down and talk to them! We see that in Genesis 18: three men show up at Abraham’s doorstep, and one of them turns out to be God! We also see that in their temple sites. They really believed on some level that God was located in the temple, even though he was not exactly contained or circumscribed by the temple.

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    Pattycake1974  January 20, 2016

    Ezekiel 18:21 “But if the wicked person turns from all the sin he has committed and observes all my statutes and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. 22 None of the sins he has committed will be held against him; because of the righteousness he has done, he will live.

    When I read that scripture, I automatically think of repentance. It seems to me that the idea was already there and significant. Am I missing something here?

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 20, 2016

    I just re-read your post. Are you saying that repentance in the OT was not connected to emotions such as sorrow, but only physical acts as in the David example?

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 20, 2016

      Yup, exactly, that’s part of it. But another part is the interesting context of that passage in Ezekiel. In its context, this discussion of an individual “turning back from sin” actually functions as a way for talking about the nation as a whole. In fact, it’s clear to the prophet that the nation is not going to turn back and that they are going to continue suffering. So why is the prophet talking about all of this? It’s in order to push back against those who would said “Parents eat sour grapes and their children’s teeth are blunted.” (Ezek 18:2) In other words, the exiles could claim that they are there because of the sins of their parents. Ezekiel’s saying, come on, guys, if you had turned back (which you haven’t), you’d be out of this mess by now, so this is on you, not on God.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  January 21, 2016

        I’ve never seen repentance presented this way, so I’ve learned something new. Fascinating post!

  8. Avatar
    Karol Dziwior  January 20, 2016

    Probably, it is difficult to see the whole picture from just couple of answers, so, please, keep that in mind, reading my question.
    What I have personally understood from what David Lambert’s said is that the real problem comes from the fact that we read our contemporary understanding of the matter into the biblical text and we season it with some sort of religious tradition, accumulating through decades and centuries (whole Greek “metanoia” idea changes a lot). But, I’m wondering if these examples and argumentation really show that the whole “repentance” is not in the biblical text itself. And “repentance” here I understand as the idea of coming back “to the Lord”, Hebrew SHUV and LASHUV, without adding fasting or throwing yourself into the ashes. Have I understood it properly or not?

    Karol from Poland

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 20, 2016

      Yes, there are important differences between the shuv language of the Hebrew Bible and the later idea within Greek of metanoia and within Hebrew of teshuva. I hope to talk about this more soon.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 20, 2016

    David, would you be able to define repentence as it is used in your book? I think the word might mean different things to different people. Thanks.

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    RonaldTaska  January 20, 2016

    1. Very interesting and thanks.

    2. What do you make of Jonah’s one-word sermon: “Repent”?

    3. This reminds me of how “confirmation bias” and “cognitive dissonance reduction” influence how we see the past.

    4. This also reminds me of the main theme of Dr. Ehrman’s upcoming book: The present influences our memory of the past

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 21, 2016

      Interestingly enough, that’s not what Jonah says. What he says is basically: “you’re all going to die in forty days!” Check out Jonah 3:4. The people then take it upon themselves to rid the city of whatever wrongdoing had attracted the divine wrath upon them in the first place, as well as to appeal to divine mercy through fasting and prayer.

  11. Avatar
    shakespeare66  January 22, 2016

    Is repentance a precursor to forgiveness? How are the two intertwined in Biblical history?

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 22, 2016

      Well, actually, there’s a lot of forgiveness in the Bible that doesn’t seem to have much to do with repentance. Ezekiel, for instance, believes that God is going to bring the Israelites back to their land for the sake of his own name! Not because they’re able to improve themselves at all.

  12. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  January 22, 2016

    You say, “I found it significant that, in the Bible, Adam and Eve never bother to repent as a way of dealing with their sin.” Be careful here. You talk in the article about certain rituals and other behaviors that are mentioned in the Bible without being explicitly associated with repentance and that repentance is read into such parts of the text. But the word “sin” does not appear in Genesis 2-3 in the story of Adam and Eve. That too is read into the story. Christians especially think that disobedience needs to be understood as a sin but Genesis does not call it that. Adam and Eve committed no sin, apparently, to repent.

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 22, 2016

      Agreed! “Sin” is a bit imprecise here, though they do transgress a divine command. For later interpreters, around the turn of the Common Era, it was obvious that they should have repented. In fact, they claimed that they did! Where did they get that? They claim that this is why Adam and Eve don’t die despite the fact that the punishment for eating from the tree was supposed to be death. They just can’t imagine a world without repentance, because by this point it has become so important.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  January 24, 2016

        Thanks for responding, David. I understand what you’re saying about later interpreters. I am 2,00 years later than them! I am Jewish but “repentance” for me does not need to be defined a “a return to Torah.” I think changing one’s heart and one’s behavior are more important than simply following Torah. My exposure to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement is limited but its people strike me as too fundamentalist and full of themselves.

        One more point about Adam and Eve: if, indeed, they were the first two human beings, they must have been (speaking of the story here as literature, not history) the two most naive human beings ever. One should be baffled, it seems to be, how they could possibly have understood what “death” could have meant or why, in any deep way, God had warned them to not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. And, anyway, it was a setup from the outset: you tell the kids, “I’m just going ’round the corner to the store. I know the cookie jar is open for the just-baked cookies to cool but if any of you eat just one cookie, you’ll answer to me.”

  13. Avatar
    Jana  January 22, 2016

    Am I understanding correctly then that repentance had little to do with regret but more to lowering one’s position or humbling oneself? This then separates too the sin/repentance combination that seems to be a Christian formula? Lots to catch up again … this time I’ve been sick.

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 26, 2016

      That’s right. When the idea of repentance is really first formulated as such, around the turn of the Common Era, it has a strong focus on inner feeling. Earlier practices that later interpreters label as repentance really have to do with other things. Fasting, for instance, is a way of marking yourself as downtrodden, even if no physical symptoms of disease have marked your body. Confession is a way of identifying oneself as beholden to another without necessarily focusing on expressing the emotion of guilt.

  14. Avatar
    smackemyackem  January 24, 2016

    Just want to say…great topic. Read this and the follow up post. Very interesting and I think goes right along with the other evolutions I see in the Hebrew and Christian texts of the Bible. El evolving into YHWH, apocalyptic thought, sons of God becoming angels, etc. The recent line of posts on apocalypticism has been good.

  15. Avatar
    Rogers  January 25, 2016


    I would urge you to do a follow on book that thoroughly examines the matter of blood sacrifice appeasement to a deity figure in respect to Judaism and Christianity. Naturally all ancient socities practiced this, but in the New Testament one gets the impression that Judaism (in the first century) expected blood sacrifice appeasement to be practiced on a personal level and not just for appeasement of the deity for the nation’s sake. (Was this because their priesthood had devolved the practice purely into a power and money racket? If the story of Jesus clearing the temple has any historical basis, and that that was the final straw with the temple authorities from which they then sought to deal with Jesus with finality – what was going on here? What was really at the heart of Jesus’s protest per his actions in the temple?)

    Obviously blood sacrifice atonement figures hugely into how fledgling Christianity came to interpret Jesus’s death. Yet not all Christian groups bought into that particular thesis. Even to the point that the Gospel of Judas has a significant critique of those Christians that held to a blood sacrifice perspective.

    To me this whole subject area is the natural successor to your current book.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  January 25, 2016

      Not sure, Rogers, what your beliefs are about the necessity of blood sacrifice. For what it’s worth, I want to share this in response. Belief in the blood sacrifice of the alleged son of God was the (only?) way, Paul wrote, to reconcile with God. Paul seems to base his view, as so many fundamentalist Christians do today, on the insistence of Leviticus 17:11 which says that it is the blood that effects release from the wages of sin. The problem is that this verse was not saying blood alone could atone for sins or that it was necessary. It was saying that, if you’re going to sacrifice an animal to atone for sins, know that it is not the flesh but the blood that counted. It does not imply that blood was the only way to effect release from sin.
      If one is going to sacrifice, Leviticus goes on to say, it must be done only on the altar, only by a priest, and only with certain animals. Jesus’ death met none of these requirements.

    • Avatar
      David Lambert  January 26, 2016

      It is an interesting idea. In fact, my colleague, Joseph Lam, is working on a book on sacrifice.

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