Category Archives: Christian origins and literature

Diversity, part 2: Judean diversity fits with plurality of Jesus groups

One heads-up to mention for the coming week and for the rest of the course is something some of you may or may not know: Namely all forms of Jesus adherence in the first centuries are in some sense Judean or Jewish. In other words, the Jesus movements emerge as marginal movements within Judean culture. Take a step further back and realize that Judean culture (or “Judaism” as it’s often labelled as though it is merely a religion) itself was extremely diverse in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There were numerous different groups with different approaches to using Judean scriptures and to living generally and there were many many arguments and struggles within that context. If Judean culture was extremely diverse with many competing groups and approaches, then it’s no surprise that marginal movements within it (the Jesus groups) would be too. Furthermore, the whole question of how a movement that was now including non-Judeans was to make sense of the Judean roots was not straight-forward.

The situation lying behind Paul’s letter to people in Galatia embodies that conundrum quite well. So keep a sharp eye out for Paul’s OPPONENTS and try to see what their position was on certain aspects of Judean culture and what Paul’s position was in the debate about including non-Judeans (“Gentiles” = Greeks and Romans) in a Judean movement (“Christianity” as it later gets labelled),

Reflections from the Diversity of Early Christianity course, part 1: Invested sources

Without providing a lot of context, I thought I’d share here on the blog some of my reflections and comments to students in my Diversity of Early Christianity course (fourth year) as I go along.  This may perhaps resuscitate the blog in some limited way (do people even read blogs anymore?).  I may even reflect on the process of teaching remotely by zoom once in a while.

Here is the first installment that I posted in our course forum:

One of the things that stood out to me from our discussion and from student observations this past week is that the ancient sources we look at are written from very specific perspectives of particular people in particular places, people who are highly invested in the claims they make. For this reason, we as historians need to be careful not to identify with particular positions that we are studying. Instead we want to understand the various positions rather than taking sides and we need to pay attention to those being excluded in the rhetoric of ancient authors. And so a person like Eusebius (in the fourth century) or Hegesippus (in the second century) will freely characterize other followers of Jesus as “demonic” or as inspired by Satan while firmly asserting that they hold the true position, namely that they are the orthodox (people holding correct belief and, implied, practice) and others are the “heretics” (wrong-choosers). This itself is the process of formulating orthodoxy (us) and defining heresy (people who claim to be “us” or insiders but who are really “them” or outsiders). This process is the process whereby diversity is made to appear as unity by exclusion. There is a sense in which this (the “us” and “them” dynamics of self-identification) is really a more widely witnessed sociological phenomenon. I think it was Simon (our Simon, not the “heretic”) that compared some the identity dynamics with politics in the US.

Overall, I hope you all got the three different historiographical ways of looking at Christian origins, with the first claiming that orthodoxy or a movement united around “truth” was there first and that heresies (or diversity) came later (Acts, Eusebius); the second that there was a Peter (Jew) vs. Paul (Hellenistic Jew) battle from the outset (F.C. Baur); and the third that there was diversity from the get go and the process of formulating “orthodoxy” was a gradual process of exclusion (Walter Bauer, with an e).

Angel-loving association cancelled – A new reading of an often cited inscription from Asia Minor

The availability of the journal Epigraphica Anatolica online is already paying off!  There you will find a new article which has some notable repercussions not only for the study of associations in Asia Minor but also for the study of the opponents of Colossians: Hasan Malay, “ΦΙΛΑΝΠΙΛΟΙ in Phrygia and Lydia,” Epigraphica Anatolica 38 (2005) 42–44.

Back in 1980/81, A.R.R. Sheppard published a little inscription (from near Kotiaion) involving Holiness and Justice, two personifications that were commonly honoured in certain areas of Phrygia and Lydia (“Pagan Cults of Angels in Roman Asia Minor,” Talanta 12-13 [1980-81]: 77-101 = SEG 31 1130).  The more exciting element in the inscription was the apparent reference to non-Christians or non-Judeans who devoted themselves in some way to “angels”, which was based on Sheppard’s reading: ΦΙΛΑΝΓΕΛΩΝ (“Friends-of-angels”).  Sheppard’s translation of the inscription was as follows:

Aur(elius) … the Association of Friends of the Angels (made) a vow to Holiness and Justice”.

Sheppard suggested that this involved “pagans” who had some contact with the Jewish notion of angels.  Sheppard’s reading of the inscription was also discussed in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 6, number 31.

This idea that there were “pagans” devoted to divine messengers or “angels” then became background for some New Testament scholars who were sorting out the “philosophy” combated by the author of Colossians (2:8-23), particularly the reference to the “worship of angels” (2:18).  Clinton Arnold’s theory regarding the opponents of Colossians, for instance, drew attention to the importance of angels in Asia Minor not only among diaspora Judeans but also among pagans, such that we could speak of a common folk practice in this region.  He suggested that the opponents were practicing the (magical) invocation of angels for protection and that this reflected both the Judean and pagan devotion to angels in Asia Minor specifically (see Clinton Arnold, The Colossian Syncretism: The Interface between Christianity and Folk Belief at Colossae [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996]).

However, Malay’s recent study of this particular inscription has shown that Sheppard likely misread a key letter here (what a difference one letter can make).  What Sheppard read as a “gamma”, Malay now says is surely a “pi”, which leaves us with ΦΙΛΑΝΠΙΛΟΙ, “Friends-of-the-vine” or “Vine-lovers”, and no angels at all in this inscription.

Malay publishes another inscription which confirms the existence of associations devoted to the vine, in other words relating to wine production and/or consumption, in the same region (in this case from nearby Katakekaumene, now in the Manisa Museum, dating 161/2 CE):

“To the Good Fortune! In the year 192, on the fourth day of the month Peritios, New Lovers of Vine (φιλάνπιλοι) set this up as a vow to Mother Leto on account of their own salvation.

The meeting of the association of friend-of-angels is apparently canceled.

Ballparking the historical Jesus – The importance of context

In my previous posts on the historical Jesus, I have stressed the difficulties modern historians face in reconstructing this first century peasant or in being precise about what exactly the peasant of Galilee did or said.  The limits of historical method and the scholarly choices that are involved every step of the way help to explain why solid scholars such as E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan come up with quite different results in their attempts to say something about the historical Jesus.  (I hope to return to these guys in another post).

When it comes down to it, one could say that what we know with a relatively high level of probability using historical approaches are two specific things: that there is a very high likelihood that Jesus was executed by crucifixion under Pilate and that Jesus was probably baptized by John the immerser.  There are, of course, important corollaries to these two items that allow us to go further.  Yet, beyond such historically secure statements, it is difficult to be precise about sayings and actions of Jesus from an historical perspective.  Some things may be more securely probable or likely than others, but we are dealing with less secure items the rest of the way in the search for the historical Jesus. What one scholar considers to be a more likely case of an authentic saying or action of Jesus, another will consider probably a product of an early Christian author, and therefore inauthentic.  Modern historical methods are limited in what they can tell us about a specific person living two thousand years ago, and our ancient sources have interests other than historical reporting.

As the title to my post puts it, we are in some sense better off admitting that we can only (carefully) ballpark it when it comes to evaluating many aspects of the historical Jesus.   What I mean by “ballparking it” here is that we can gain a relatively good picture of some aspects of the social, economic, and cultural contexts in which the peasant Jesus was active, and we can know with some degree of likelihood about some of Jesus’ contemporaries in the context of Galilee and Judea.  We can construct a likely picture of the overall ballpark or range of possibilities within which to place the figure of Jesus — a first century Galilean ballpark set within the Roman empire.

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(The Galilean ballpark)

A typical student in a second year course or your average Jane-blog-reader may know very little about ancient history.  They may know even less about the Mediterranean world as a whole in that ancient period.  They may know even less about what was going on in Israel in the first century, and still less about what it was like in the region of Galilee or in some village like Nazareth.  Then there’s the question of whether one’s limited knowledge is focussed on what we moderns distinguish as geography, politics, economics, society, or culture.  The thing to teach here, I would suggest, is the ballpark (itself hard to recreate using historical methods) in which to plot out the various possibilities for a peasant like Jesus.  If we spend considerable time studying the world in which Jesus lived, through both literary and archeological evidence, and focus our attention on studying other near-contemporaries of Jesus who produced writings or who left behind artefacts, then we can get quite a bit closer to the ballpark in which Jesus played.

A second highly probable thing about the historical Jesus: Immersion by John the Baptizer

My previous discussion of Tacitus and Josephus concluded with the observation that the execution of Jesus under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate is one of the most secure things we can know about the peasant from Nazareth with a high degree of probability using modern historical methods.  This is because reference to the execution is attested in multiple, independent sources (criterion of multiple, independent attestation), including sources which refer to Jesus only incidentally, as an aside.  Historical methods are limited in what they can reveal to us, particularly in the case of ancient history and especially in the case of studying an obscure Galilean villager who lived two thousand years ago (our knowledge of Galilee is quite limited, let alone our knowledge of an individual living there).  When historical approaches can reveal something to us, it is only with certain levels of likelihood or probability, not certainty or “truth.”  So cases of “high probability” that x or y happened are the best you can get in doing history (in the modern sense).

Joachim Patenier, The Baptism of Christ (1515; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

(Joachim Patenier, The Baptism of Christ [1515; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna])

A second highly probable thing about Jesus accessible through historical methods is his immersion or baptism by John the Baptist.  Scholars of early Christianity have developed a set of criteria for establishing the historical “authenticity” of particular activities or sayings attributed to Jesus in our sources, and multiple attestation is an important one.  Another is known as the criterion of embarrassment.  The principle here is: if a source reports some incident or saying even though the author of that source was hesitant about reporting it and somewhat embarrassed by the incident or saying, that author is not likely to have completely made up that incident or saying.  On the other hand, the author in question could have simply omitted it to avoid any difficulty.  In other words, when our sources report something in a round about way that reveals some embarrassment, there is a higher likelihood that it actually did happen.

One of the most illustrative cases in which this criterion plays a key role relates to the immersion of Jesus by John the Baptizer.  The actual incident of Jesus being baptized in this case is attested in the gospel of Mark and in both Matthew and Luke.  However, if one is using the two-source hypothesis, this would entail only one independent source for the incident, since Matthew and Luke are here drawing their material from Mark, the earliest ancient biography of Jesus.  The Gospel of John completely omits the baptism itself and the Q-sayings source may or may not have included the actual baptism (Q did have material about John the Baptist and Jesus interacting).  The so-called Gospel of the Hebrews and Gospel of the Nazoreans each report the immersion, so they may or may not (depending on their reliance on the synoptic traditions) supply further independent attestation.  So the criterion of multiple attestation is not much help here.

This is where evidence of embarrassment comes in handy for the historian.   The way that New Testament scholars explain this is that the embarrassment arises from the implications of a superior teacher or mentor in relation to an inferior student or protégé.  At the time when the authors of the synoptics were writing (late first century) there were apparently still groups of followers of John the Baptizer (cf. Acts 19:1-7), which might raise the question: why not join a movement devoted to the superior baptizer rather the inferior baptized one.  An early follower of Jesus might be concerned to assert that Jesus is superior to John the Baptist, even though Jesus’ baptism by John might imply otherwise.

Each of the gospels deals with this in different ways.  The earliest, Mark, presents a saying in which John explicitly identifies his inferiority to Jesus, in terms of not being worthy to even undo Jesus’ sandals, and a dove, interpreted as the Spirit, confirms Jesus special status (Mk 1:7-11).  Mathew uses Mark but adds in a further interchange in which John tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him, which would imply Jesus’ inferiority, but Jesus gives the green-light in terms of “fulfilling righteousness” (Mt 3:13-15).  Luke goes about dealing with the embarrassment in an interesting way.  Mark, Luke’s source, has that Jesus was “baptized by John in the Jordan” but Luke takes out John here and changes the phraseology so that there’s an ambiguity about who exactly baptized Jesus: “when Jesus also had been baptized… ” (Lk 3:21-22).

Finally, the Gospel of John (1:29-34) is usually out in left-field in comparison to the synoptic gospels, but the material on John the Baptist and Jesus is one of the very few cross-overs.  How does the author of the gospel of John show what scholars call “embarrassment” here?  The gospel of John omits the baptism of Jesus altogether but still presents John’s proclamations about the superiority of Jesus (e.g. the “Lamb of God” that takes away the sins of the world) and the descent of the dove indicating Jesus’ special status.

So all of our sources for the relation between John the Baptist and Jesus reveal what could be called an embarrassment at the implications of the baptism itself, one gospel to the point of omitting the immersion altogether.  Mark, Matthew, and Luke could have likewise simply omitted this incident to avoid having to explain, but they included it despite their embarrassment.  It is highly unlikely that the authors of these sources made up the baptism, and in historical terms it is highly probable that Jesus was actually baptized by John the Baptist.  There are important corollaries of this piece of information, particularly relating to the apocalyptic worldview of John the Baptist, but I’ll have to save those for another post.

Non-Christian sources for the study of the historical Jesus: Josephus and Tacitus on the execution of Jesus

One of the frustrating things about studying ancient history is the very limited nature of our sources, both in terms of quantity (only bits and pieces have come down to us) and in terms of quality.  What I mean by quality is reliable and verifiable historical information (in a modern historian’s terms) regarding the figures and incidents literary sources describe.  What the ancients were interested in telling us is seldom what a modern historian wants to know.

This also holds for the study of the historical Jesus, an obscure peasant from Nazareth in Galilee.  Archeology is indispensable in providing insights into the cultural context of that peasant, but does little for solving details about what that figure said or did.   When it comes down to it, the ancient biographies known as the gospels (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) remain our principal source of evidence, along with other more recently discovered writings (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas).  Yet the authors of ancient biographies, or “lives” (bioi),  had very little interest in what a modern historian looks for in studying a figure of the past.  The ancient “lives” of Jesus were instead very interested in explaining what they thought the meaning of Jesus was for those who wished to follow him, and in promoting their own particular takes on that figure’s significance.

What would help in this situation would be some non-Christian sources regarding Jesus which could be carefully compared with these ancient, insider “lives” of Jesus in order to assist the historian in reconstructing with some level of probability a picture of the historical Jesus or of certain aspects of his life.  Such sources are few and far between, so it’s important to note the ones we have.

There are two main sources which I want to mention, one by a Judean author from a priestly family in Jerusalem (Josephus) who wrote in the last decades of the first century, and another by an upper class Roman imperial official (Tacitus) who wrote in the early second.  Neither author cared much about Jesus, but each happens to mention something about Jesus nonetheless.

SOURCE 1: Josephus wrote several works, the most important of which were the Judean War (written in the decade following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) and Judean Antiquities (written in the 90s CE).  Figures related in some way to Jesus incidentally get mentioned three times in Judean Antiquities, including John the Baptist (Ant. 18.116-119), James (Ant. 20.200-201), and Jesus himself, who gets mentioned in one of the most important and controversial passages in all of Josephus’ writings (Ant. 18.63-64).

This passage is controversial because virtually all scholars agree that the text as it now stands (see below, including the strike-throughs) does not make sense as something Josephus would write: namely, there are no other signs anywhere in Josephus that suggest that he believed Jesus was an anointed one sent by God (“messiah”).  Josephus is actually averse to any claims that average peasants or anyone other than a member of the elite was a messiah or king or worthy of some leadership position.

A very few scholars suggest that the whole passage was later inserted into a copy of Josephus which then got re-copied and ended up in copies that have survived into the modern period.  Many other scholars would suggest that the passage was originally in Josephus’ book, but that someone (a Christian scribe) tampered with the passage and tweaked it significantly to make it sound like Josephus thought Jesus was absolutely wonderful, as though Josephus were actually a follower of Jesus.  John P. Meier has done a good job of assessing the passage and in offering what seems a likely scenario of what was added in and what, therefore, should be struck-out in using the passage to study the historical Jesus :

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. He was the Messiah. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out. (Ant. 18.63-64; translation by John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus [New York: Doubleday, 1991], vol. 1, p. 60; bold and strike-throughs mine).

This scenario is also supported by an Arabic version of this same passage in Josephus, which does not have the struck-through material and instead has similar material grouped at the end of the passage, suggesting that the Christian-sounding material is not original.


SOURCE 2: Much more could of course be said about this passage in Josephus, but for now let’s move on to the second important non-Christian source pertaining to Jesus.  Tacitus was a member of the imperial elite and senator, active in Rome, whose official positions included Roman governor of the province of Asia at one point (in 112-113 CE).   In the early second century, Tacitus wrote a history of the Roman emperors of the first century, known as Annals (written in the early second century).  There he deals with Nero’s time as emperor (54-68 CE).  Tacitus, by the way, does not like Nero at all, but he’s safe since Nero died several decades earlier, and few of the imperial elite of Tacitus’ time looked back fondly on Nero.

Tacitus mentions that a fire engulfed a particular neighbourhood of the city of Rome, a neighbourhood that was slotted for heavy rebuilding by Nero.  So, rumours began to spread that Nero himself had his men set the fire to clear the area and speed up the renovations.  Nero’s response?  Find someone to blame and quickly.  He chose followers of Jesus since, he heard through some source, they were sometimes disliked and viewed as anti-social.  Here is the passage from Annals 15.38 and 44:

(15.38) A disaster followed, whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor, is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts, worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire. . . (15.44) But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed (Tacitus, Annals, 15.38-44; trans. by A.J. Church and W.J. Brodribb, The Annals by Tacitus [London, New York: Macmillan, 1877]; public domain; bold mine).

SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS: There are many historical issues that could be explored both in Josephus and in Tacitus.  (On Tacitus and persecution, see my earlier post on the atheistic Christians).  But what is the primary significance of these passages for study of the historical Jesus?  These sources coincide with a claim made in the gospels, the claim that Jesus was executed in Judea with the most severe form of punishment available for criminals, crucifixion, and that this took place in connection with the Roman imperial official Pontius Pilate.  So we have multiple sources, some non-Christian, that confirm this aspect of what happened to the peasant named Jesus.  Multiple attestation is always a key criterion in historical reconstructions (and in gospel studies, by the way).  This is the most reliable thing we know — using limited, modern historical methods — regarding that figure, Jesus.

I will soon return to a second key item that scores high on the scale of probability for modern historians: the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, which has other significant corollaries regarding the peasant Jesus.

Did the peasant Jesus ignore Judean ritual laws? Crossan’s answer

As I’m preparing to introduce second year students to the study of the historical Jesus, I am trying to pinpoint key issues and differences among scholars in order to highlight the problems in getting at that Galilean peasant.  Soon enough, I’ll come to scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders) who might point to the ways in which the Galilean Jesus was concerned to observe the Judean (Jewish) practices outlined in the Torah or Law, including some or most of its ritual observances.  The proposal there would be that the difference between Jesus and many of his contemporaries was in the interpretation or application of those ritual laws, not in whether they were valid or not.

As I’m re-reading John Dominic Crossan’s book, however, I am starkly reminded of where his peasant Jesus diverges from some other portraits.  For Crossan, Jesus significantly diverged from the apocalyptic message of his mentor, John the Baptist.  John the Baptist’s warning of the imminent end and the impending kingdom of God in the near future was replaced by Jesus’ message focussed on transforming present arrangements in a way that acknowledged the kingdom of God in the present.

The central point of what Jesus was all about is centered on the implications of Jesus’ call for “open commensality” (meal practices open to anyone) in this present kingdom of God and it is related to the charge that Jesus was a glutton and a drunkard.  Crossan’s claim to find in Jesus an egalitarian view on gathering together at the meal and a randomness in Jesus’ notion of the gathered community that will have a part in the kingdom or reign of God (e.g. parable of the feast in Gospel of Thomas 64 // Luke 14:15-24) becomes the interpretive key for all other aspects of the historical Jesus.

Crossan’s focus on this issue has implications regarding the degree to which Jesus was an observer of Judean customs and ritual ways as outlined in the Torah.  You could even say that Crossan’s approach here determines the question of Jesus’ observance or non-observance of ritual requirements (apart from any other evidence or lack thereof):

it was obviously possible for the first Christian generations to debate whether Jesus was for or against the ritual laws of Judaism.  His position must have been, as it were, unclear.  I propose, from those preceding complexes [themes that converge in sayings of Jesus that center on open or egalitarian notions of meal practices, including the view that Jesus ate with sinners and was a glutton/drunkard], that he did not care enough about such ritual laws either to attack or to acknowledge them.  He ignored them, but that, of course, was to subvert them at a most fundamental level.  Later, however, some followers could say that, since he did not attack them, he must have accepted them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Matthew].  Others, contrariwise, could say that, since he did not follow them, he must have been against them [e.g. Crossan may be thinking of Mark].  Open commensality profoundly negates distinctions and hierarchies between female and male, poor and rich, Gentile and Jew.  It does so, indeed, at a level that would offend the ritual laws of any civilized society.  That was precisely its challenge (Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant [New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992], 263).

Are the sayings of Jesus pertaining to meals and eating the primary (or only) means by which his relation to Judean ritual customs can be determined? may be a question to ask.  There will be more to come on such things in future posts.

On Sexual Indulgence: Paul and contemporaries like Musonius Rufus

Quite well-known are the moral exhortations of early Christian authors such as Paul, which include a fair bit of advice on how to conduct oneself sexually.   Thus, for instance, Paul objects to a follower of Jesus at Corinth who was sleeping with his step-mother (the father was not likely around anymore) (1 Corinthians 5).  Quite well known and controversial these days are Paul’s comments about Greeks and Romans (“gentiles” = non-Judeans) who engage in what Paul considers “degrading passions”: “Their women exchanged  natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men. . . were consumed with passion for one another. . . ” (Romans 1:26-27 [NRSV]).  And Paul speaks to the followers of Jesus at Thessalonica and advocates that “you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body [vessel] in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the gentiles [non-Judeans] who do not know God” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5).  In some ways, Paul is reflecting quite typical stereotypes about Greeks and Romans from a Judean perspective here.

Yet such perspectives on sexual morality and modes of moral exhortation were not necessarily specifically Judean or “Christian” in Paul’s time.  Some of Paul’s “lustful” gentiles advocated similar moral choices when it came to sex.  In many ways, the instructional techniques and lifestyle choices advocated by Paul have parallels in contemporary philosophers (see also my early post on the “Golden Rule” among the ‘pagans’).

Musonius Rufus is one of these contemporary philosophers, a Greek philosopher who combined elements from both the Stoic and Cynic schools.  As I was designing my introductory Christian origins course this week, which this year focuses on placing Jesus, Paul, and other early Christian founders in the context of contemporaries, I re-read Musonius’ advice “On Sex”.  There he includes the following advice addressed primarily to men:

Not the least significant part of luxury and self-indulgence lies also in sexual excess. For example those who lead such a life crave a variety of loves not only lawful but unlawful ones as well, not women alone but also men. Sometimes they pursue one love [women] and sometimes another [men], and not being satisfied with those which are available, pursue those which are rare and inaccessible, and invent shameful intimacies, all of which constitute a grave indictment of manhood. Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage. But of all sexual relations those involving adultery are most unlawful, and no more tolerable are those of men with men, because it is a monstrous thing and contrary to nature. Trans. by Cora E. Lutz, “Musonius Rufus: ‘The Roman Socrates’,” Yale Classical Studies 10 (1947) 85-87, with adjustments to punctuation.

To modern ears, this may sound wonderful or ridiculous, or a bit of both, depending on who’s listening.  Here one of my points is that Paul had more in common with a guy like Musonius than Paul’s condemnation of the morally bankrupt non-Judeans would imply.

Sex and salvation in the Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip has more to do with sex than you might imagine. This is one of the writings that was found near the Egyptian village of Nag Hammadi in 1945, a third century work that is among those traditionally considered “gnostic”.

Sure, there’s the fact that this writing is cited in conspiracy theories regarding the supposed sex life of Jesus. The Da Vinci Code‘s use of the Gospel of Philip illustrates this approach. The (incomplete) passage that is used in the book and movie is the one that refers to Jesus, a companion, and Mary Magdalene, and then goes on to refer to some kisses and the jealously of other disciples because Jesus apparently loved Mary most (but the “translation” in the movie–unlike the one here–fills in the blanks):

And the companion of the [ . . . ] Mary Magdalene. [. . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]. The rest of [the disciples . . .]. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you like her?. . . When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness (Gospel of Philip 63.30-64.9).

The passage is, in fact, less than clear on any claim that Jesus was the companion, in the sense of sexual partner or lover, of Mary Magadelene. (I’ll also add that none of the second or third century Gospels tell us much at all about the first century peasant Jesus; rather they tell us about how later Christians understood Jesus centuries later). Instead, this is one further instance of what we find in other early Christian writings, namely, the claim that Jesus favoured a particular disciple (a disciple who “saw the light”, in this case) and may have offered that special disciple some secret or important information. The point is that a particular community that uses that gospel is claiming some direct and special access to Jesus’ teaching, and claiming that they have the truth more than some other group (compare the Gospel of Mary Magadalene, The Coptic Gospel of Thomas,or the Gospel of John, with its “beloved disciple”– I won’t go into any other inventive theories around the beloved disciple, or the scantily clad guy in the Gospel of Mark, Secret, Elongated, or otherwise).

Not to steal Hollywood’s excitement, but the kisses in question in the Gospel of Philip are best understood not as sexual ones but as further examples of the “holy kiss” greeting among members of Jesus groups as early as the mid-first century (see Rom 16:16, for instance). The followers of Jesus who used the Gospel of Philip also apparently attached an even more important significance to this kiss (59.1-5 and 58.30-59.6) and to breath (63.6-10; 70.23-24) in connection with their understanding of how the spiritual spark in some human souls is connected with the spiritual realm as a whole . It is true, however, that some outsiders–both Greeks and Romans– accused early followers of Jesus of incest (as well as cannibalism), but that had less to do with any knowledge of Christian “holy kisses” or their tendency to call one another “brothers” or “sisters” than it had to do with common mud-slinging in characterizing foreign peoples or minority groups as dangerous barbarians (see my posts here and my article here).

Nonetheless, there is some sex, quite a bit in fact, in the Gospel of Philip. I’m talking about the consistent way in which the author of the materials gathered in this writing uses sexual union as a METAPHOR for salvation itself. And the way in which the community of Christians that used this gospel enacted this salvation in a ritual known as the “bridal chamber”. So this is not sex of the usual type and is a little more tame than Hollywood likes–sorry to disappoint.

This writing expresses the poor condition of humanity, our present fallen state, using the metaphor or analogy of the separation of the genders and speaks of salvation in terms of the reuniting of the male and female: “When Eve was still in Adam death did not exist. When she was separated from him death came into being. If he enters again and attains his former self, death will be no more” (68.22-25). Further on it explains this “separation” again and refers to the reparation that the saviour figure, Christ, brings: “If the woman had not separated from the man, she should not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them” (70.9-18).

The Gospel of Philip presupposes a particular mythological and cosmological worldview that I have discussed in many other posts on “gnosticism” and related literature (browse some posts in my “gnosticism” and apocrypha category to understand this a bit better). Here Christ is the Saviour figure who brings salvation not by dying on a cross but by bringing the knowledge (gnosis), knowledge of the fact that an element within humans (certain spiritual humans) ultimately belongs in the perfect spiritual realm, not this inferior material realm framed by the creator god (the demiurge) of the Hebrew Bible.

So, for this follower of Jesus, salvation is about reunification. But how is this reunification understood and completed. Well, there is a specific ritual or process of initiation that this group felt was a way of enacting the process of gaining knowledge that brings reunification with the perfect spiritual realm: the bridal chamber, which was preceded by baptism and anointing (“chrism”). So once again, sexual union is the prominent metaphor for salvation, in this case within the ritual context. To be clear, it is not a real man and woman that unite in the ritual context of the “bridal chamber”. Rather, it is “the image” (here conceived as “male”) that unites with “the angel” (65.20-24). It is the image within man that unites with its female angelic counterpart in the bridal chamber. It is the spiritual element within certain people that reunites with its spiritual consort, thereby returning to where it belongs, namely ascending above to the perfect spiritual realm or “fullness” that is one and the same with the Father God (not the creator of this material realm).

So despite the sort of thing you’ll read in church fathers like Epiphanius (see here), the followers of Jesus that used the Gospel of Philip did not engage in actual sex for this ritual; instead it is a metaphorical way of expressing and enacting salvation. But did such Jesus-followers have sex at all? There’s a scholarly debate on precisely this matter. April DeConick is among those scholars who suggest that the Gospel of Philip reflects Christians with a relatively positive view of marriage and sexual union within marriage (article title to come soon). Scholars like this point to the positive use of the analogy of sexual union in the discussion of the bridal chamber ritual, when the author speaks of “marriage in the world” to explain the other “spiritual” marriage of the chamber (82).

Other scholars would suggest that this author of the Gospel of Philip, like many other Nag Hammadi authors, had a less positive or quite negative view of bodily matters and would suggest that “it is proper to destroy the flesh” (82.25-29), including sexual activity even within marriage. In other words, the followers of Jesus who used this Gospel filled with sex (in the metaphorical sense) may well have been sexually ascetic and refrained from the real thing in any context, (real) bridal chamber or otherwise.

Marcion’s Stranger God (also “strange”)

For students who are familiar with Christianity in some way (and most are regardless of what their religious backgrounds may be), it is hard to get their minds around a variety of people that called themselves “Christians” or followers of Jesus back in the first couple of centuries. These other Christians sometimes had quite different worldviews and practices than the ones we associate with Christianity today, and they can come across as “strange”.

One reason these other followers of Jesus come across as “strange” is because the varieties of Christianity we are familiar with today (despite the diversity there too) all stem, in some way, from the winners who established their positions as “orthodox” (true-belief) in antiquity. The result was that, in the long run, many others who felt they followed Jesus got left out the picture, with the exception of other Jesus-followers speaking negatively about them as “heretics”.

Once in a while, we are lucky to actually find writings from the perspectives of the ones who lost out (the “heretics”) as history moved forward, as when a group of writings like the Nag Hammadi documents are found. However, with most others it is only indirectly that we can get a sense of the diversity of groups that followed Jesus.

One such form of Christianity that comes across as “strange” at first is Marcion’s style of following Jesus (he was especially active in the 130s and 140s CE). We only know about Marcion’s views from those who disliked him, from certain patristic writers like Tertullian, who wrote a five-volume work condemning Marcion’s views (Against Marcion). I have already discussed the sort of name-calling you might expect from the likes of Tertullian in a previous post on the “savage” Marcion here. We have to carefully reconstruct the views of Marcion from writers of the late-second and third centuries like Tertullian, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Hippolytus.

In the 150s CE, for instance, Justin writes:

one Marcion, a man of Pontus, who is even now alive, teaching those who believe him to pay honour to a different god, greater than the Creator: and this man has by the assistance of those demons caused many of every nation to utter blasphemies, denying the God who made this universe, and professing that another, a greater than he, has done greater things (Apology 1.26 as cited in Evans).

From such sources, it seems that Marcion believed that the God who sent Jesus was not the same god familiar from the stories of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). Reading these stories quite literally, Marcion saw the creator god in the Hebrew Bible as rather impulsive, unpredictable, warlike, and primarily interested in having humans follow his rules or in judging those who did not. Marcion felt that Jesus’ message and behaviour was not compatible with the sort of behaviour Marcion found in the creator god.

This is where the stranger God comes into the picture, and I mean strange in the sense of previously unknown. Marcion proposed that Jesus had no direct relation to the Judean (Jewish or Israelite) creator god of the Hebrew Bible and that he was not that god’s messiah. Rather, Jesus was sent from a previously unknown, stranger God whose character was centred not on war and justice but on love. There is a sense in which the creator god of the Bible was the antithesis of the God who sent Jesus, in Marcion’s view.

Marcion wrote a whole book, which is now lost, on the Antitheses or “Oppositions” between the two. Marcion also expressed this opposition in terms of the opposition between Law (enforced by the creator god) and Gospel (brought by Jesus from the loving Father). He drew this contrast between gospel and law from his own interpretation of Paul’s letters, which he edited to remove connections with the Judean god. Marcion thought that Paul got things right and that the other apostles mis-interpreted Jesus. The loving Father sent Jesus to free us from the legalistic enforcement of the Judean god, Marcion believed. Although the Judean creator god was just in a legalistic sense (he punished humans based on the law he established), the Father God who sent Jesus was far superior and loving.

In order to further bolster this interpretation, Marcion also was among the first to gather together a collection of authoritative writings. The Hebrew Bible was quite clearly excluded from scripture in Marcion’s mind, since it had nothing to do with either Jesus or the previously unknown, loving God. Rather, Marcion proposed as authoritative ten of Paul’s letters together with a version of the gospel of Luke with parts removed that implied a connection between Jesus and the Judean god. Marcion, it seems was among the first to propose a canon of scripture of sorts.  On that, see my post: Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament.

That, in brief, is some of the limited amount we know about Marcion, whose brand of Christianity was considerably successful in various parts of the Roman empire from North Africa and Rome to Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, at least into the fourth and fifth centuries.

The Jesus Ultimatum: Action and suspense in Mark’s gospel

I joked to my students the other day that, of the portraits of Jesus in the gospels (on which also see my earlier post on “Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus), Mark’s would be the closest to a Bourne flick in terms of action and suspense.

True, the action in Mark may not be as intense as a car-chase through the streets of Moscow, but there is certainly some speed in the narrative. Jesus does just about everything “immediately” and the reader is brought from one episode to the next at almost lightning speed. In chapter one alone, Jesus appears, is baptized, goes out to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, collects together some students, teaches in the synagogue, has run-ins with authorities, casts out a couple of very vocal unclean spirits, heals both a woman and a leper as well has “many who were sick with various diseases” or possessed by demons. Hearing this gospel, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering what Jesus is going to do next.

Beyond the action, suspense is also built into Mark’s story of Jesus. Sometimes the author slows things down quite deliberately in order to build suspense of another kind, as in the section that deals with Jesus’ authority as healer. So, for example, Mark’s story-telling abilities come to the fore when he gets us quite worried about a poor girl on the verge of death: “Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.'” (Mark 5:22-23 [NRSV]).

With Mark’s record for having Jesus do just about everything in a flash, this time things go very slow despite the fact that a little girl is about to die. The narrator or story-teller is quite deliberately building suspense here, as many scholars note. Instead of flashing ahead to Jesus healing the girl in the nick of time, Mark goes on to relate Jesus’ healing of another woman with internal bleeding, and the author of Mark doesn’t do this quickly. The hearer of this story is left wondering: “What happened to the poor little girl! She’s going to die! Hurry up!!”

Then, after this story of the healing of the older woman, the hearer’s worries are confirmed. The little girl is indeed dead. Jesus is too late: “While [Jesus] was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?'” (v. 35). This is when the panic of the hearer is alleviated as the story of Jesus going to the girl and raising her from the dead is narrated: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement” (vv. 41-42) — as are the hearers of this story. At last, things are happening “immediately” again.

The “savage” Marcion: Ethnographic stereotypes in attacking “heretics”

On a number of occasions I have discussed ancient ethnography (posts here), namely the ways in which ancient authors describe the practices and beliefs of other peoples. These descriptions of “foreign” peoples are often heavily laden with stereotypes and, to put it bluntly, nasty characterizations. As minority cultural groups, Judeans and followers of Jesus could be on the receiving end of such ethnographic stereotypes of “barbarous” peoples, as when some Greeks or Romans charged Christians with incest and cannibalism (see a full article on the topic here). I have discussed Tertullian’s defence of Christians against such stereotypes, including the notion that followers of Jesus regularly sacrificed little children: ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort.

But this church father, Tertullian, could also dish it out quite well, even in dealing with others who claimed to follow Jesus. Around the turn of the third century, Tertullian wrote a five-volume work (Against Marcion) in which he put on trial, so to speak, the views and practices of Marcion, a follower of Jesus who had substantially different views from Tertullian’s. Tertullian opens this massive work with a somewhat extensive ethnographic description of the peoples of the Euxine Sea (Black Sea) and Pontus region — this is where Marcion came from. Here Tertullian characterizes these people as barbarians with extremely strange practices, including “deviant” sexual practices he dare not name (“If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”) and “savage” practices such as carving up their own fathers for a stew. These stereotypical accusations of barbarity are neither here nor there in terms of realities of life around the Black Sea or in terms of what Marcion was like, but it is interesting to see such name-calling techniques used in one Christian’s attack on another. Marcion, it turns out in Tertullian’s not so subtle characterizations of everyone from Pontus, is, no doubt, a savage, father-eating sexually-deviant barbarian. Don’t listen to Marcion’s form of Christianity is the message:

The sea called Euxine, or hospitable, is belied by its nature and put to ridicule by its name. Even its situation would prevent you from reckoning Pontus hospitable: as though ashamed of its own barbarism it has set itself at a distance from our more civilized waters. Strange tribes inhabit it—if indeed living in a wagon can be called inhabiting. These have no certain dwelling-place: their life is uncouth: their sexual activity is promiscuous, and for the most part unhidden even when they hide it: they advertise it by hanging a quiver on the yoke of the wagon, so that none may inadvertently break in [blogger’s note: “If the wagon’s a-rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'”]. So little respect have they for their weapons of war. They carve up their fathers’ corpses along with mutton, to gulp down at banquets. If any die in a condition not good for eating, their death is a disgrace. Women also have lost the gentleness, along with the modesty, of their sex. They display their breasts, they do their house-work with battle-axes, they prefer fighting to matrimonial duty. There is sternness also in the climate—never broad daylight, the sun always niggardly, the only air they have is fog, the whole year is winter, every wind that blows is the north wind. Water becomes water only by heating: rivers are no rivers, only ice: mountains are piled high up with snow: all is torpid, everything stark. Savagery is there the only thing warm—such savagery as has provided the theatre with tales of Tauric sacrifices, Colchian love-affairs, and Caucasian crucifixions.

Even so, the most barbarous and melancholy thing about Pontus is that Marcion was born there, more uncouth than a Scythian, more unsettled than a Wagon-dweller, more uncivilized than a Massagete, with more effrontery than an Amazon, darker than fog, colder than winter, more brittle than ice, more treacherous than the Danube, more precipitous than Caucasus. Evidently so, when by him the true Prometheus, God Almighty, is torn to bits with blasphemies. More ill-conducted also is Marcion than the wild beasts of that barbarous land: for is any beaver more self-castrating than this man who has abolished marriage? What Pontic mouse is more corrosive than the man who has gnawed away the Gospels? Truly the Euxine has given birth to a wild animal more acceptable to philosophers than to Christians (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian: Adversus Marcionem [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972], pp. 4-5).

Oh yes, Tertullian doesn’t like philosophers either.

The anti-imperial Paul “coalition” — John Barclay’s response to N.T. Wright

I was just listening to John Barclay’s excellent talk from this year’s SBL. Now I’m wishing I had been at the talk itself. Not without humour, Barclay discusses what he calls the anti-imperial Paul “coalition” (including N.T. Wright and Richard Horsley and his group). In recent years, it has become very popular within scholarship to approach Paul as clearly anti-imperial and to see this figure as having clear intentions (however hidden in code) of taking stabs at the emperors (whether as rulers or as gods) throughout his letters. It seems to me that Barclay has, in this talk, clearly pinpointed the major fault-lines in the coalition’s approach to Paul and the methodological problems in imagining we can decode some hidden code in Paul’s letters. So do listen to that talk!

I would like to clearly position myself in these “battles” within scholarship over Paul and politics. As for my views on this matter, which clearly intersect with Barclay’s, I will quote an earlier post of mine that I wrote following on the SBL in Vienna in the summer:

[Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”] inspired me to ask him his opinion regarding the ways in which post-colonial theory has already heavily influenced studies by scholars such as Richard Horsley and some others involved in the Paul and Politics group of the SBL. In particular, I find that post-colonial theory has played a major role not in critical analysis but in pre-conceptions of what will be found in Paul’s letters. There is now a very common trend among those who study Paul and imperial issues to assume Paul’s anti-imperial stance rather than establishing it.

To generalize my take on it, there is an assumption (based on post-colonial or liberation theology ideas) that Paul MUST be anti-imperial. There is no need to establish whether he was. Instead, some scholars begin with this idea that he was anti-imperial and then focus on micro-details and terminology in Paul that CAN be interpreted as anti-imperial if one were to assume that he was. In this approach, there is no need to find explicit references to empire in order to assess Paul’s views. On the other hand, there are some interesting interpretive acrobatics with one of the very few explicit references to emperors and imperial matters, Romans 13 (with its seemingly positive statements on the relation between followers of Paul and the empire).

This method might be conducive to producing a good number more articles, books and dissertations on Paul’s supposed anti-imperialism (one needs more topics to study in such a well covered area as Pauline studies), but it is highly problematic in understanding the nuances of Paul’s “political” views, in my view. Stanley agreed with some aspects of my comments. He did agree that post-colonial analysis has indeed influenced the assumptions (rather than self-conscious method) of some scholarly work in this area and that there have been a number of problematic studies of anti-imperialism and Paul. We’ll have to wait for his forthcoming studies to see the details of Stanley’s findings.

As much as I agree with a modern perspective that would want Paul to be anti-imperial (I would characterize myself as anti-imperial now), I do see major problems in allowing our own modern political or theological views be the guiding principle in interpreting ancient documents, such as Paul’s letters. Enough on one of my pet peeves regarding modern scholarship on Paul and politics. (You can read more of my views and critique of such scholarship in my book, if you like.)

Much of my book on Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations was likewise focussed on deconstructing previous approaches to the study of imperial aspects of Greco-Roman society. In particular, I argued against the tendency to over-emphasize imperial cults and to interpret all of early Christianity through the lenses of the anti-imperial Apocalypse of John: “Although imperial cults [worship of the emperors] were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians” (p. 242). Quite often scholars project John the seer’s counter-imperialism onto other authors such as Paul, as though all early Christians agreed on such matters. Things were far more diverse, as I argued in that book.

The anti-imperial Paul coalition’s position on Paul is based, in part, on misinterpretations and misunderstandings of imperial cults. Here is an excerpt from my book on how imperial cults have been misused in scholarship on early Christianity (pp. 241-243), some of which clearly pertain to views espoused by Richard Horsley, N.T. Wright and others:

Scholars tend to overplay the significance of imperial cults–distinguished from religious life generally–in connection with diaspora Judaism and, even more so, early Christianity. . . . [There is a] common emphasis on the centrality of imperial cults per se for our understanding of Christian assemblies’ relations to society, particularly with regard to persecutions. Thus we find frequent references within scholarship to the antagonism or “clash” between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar, the latter being singled out from religious life generally (cf. Deissmann 1995 [1908]:338-78; Cuss 1974:35). Donald L. Jones (1980:1023), for instance, can begin his paper on Christianity and the imperial cult with the statement that: “From the perspective of early Christianity, the worst abuse in the Roman Empire was the imperial cult.” . . . An important basis of this view is the assumption that we can take the hostile viewpoints and futuristic scenarios of John’s Apocalypse as representative of the real situations and perspectives of most Christians, or even as a reliable commentary on the nature of imperial cults.

Along with such views comes a common, but highly questionable, depiction of imperial cults. One often reads of how emperor worship (particularly though not solely under emperors like Domitian) was “enforced” by Roman authorities or that there was considerable “pressure” or “demands” on Christians in their daily lives to conform to the obligational practices of imperial cults specifically (cf. Cuss 1974; Schüssler Fiorenza 1985:192-99; Hemer 1986:7-12; Winter 1994:124-43; Kraybill 1996; Slater 1998; Beale 1999:5-15, 712-14). Moreover, in this perspective, Rome took an active role in promoting such cults in the provinces and neglecting to participate could be taken as the equivalent of political disloyalty or treason, especially since imperial cults were merely political. Imperial cults stood out as a central factor leading to the persecution of Christians both by the inhabitants in the cities and by the imperial regime itself, especially in the time of Domitian when Christians were faced with death if they did not participate in such cults and acknowledge him as “lord and god.” . . .
This traditional view regarding the significance of imperial cults for Judaism and Christianity falters on several inter-related points concerning the actual character of these cults in Asia Minor. Although imperial cults were among the issues facing Christians and diaspora Jews, these cults were not in and of themselves a key issue behind group-society tensions, nor a pivotal causal factor in the persecution of Christians (cf. de Ste. Croix 1963:10; Millar 1973; Price 1984:15, 220-22). First of all, . . . cultic honors for the emperors were not an imposed feature of cultural life in Roman Asia. Rather, they were a natural outgrowth and spontaneous response on the part of civic communities and inhabitants in relation to imperial power. . . Most emperors and officials were not concerned whether the living emperor was worshiped so long as they were shown respect and honor (in whatever form) indicative of a situation in which order and peace could be maintained in the provinces. In fact, quite often these religious honors exceeded what the emperors themselves would expect or desire, at least in the case of emperors who wanted to keep in line with some Republican and Augustan traditions (cf. Suetonius, Divine Augustus 52).

Secondly, in contrast to a popular tradition within scholarship, . . . imperial cults in Roman Asia were not in fact solely political phenomena devoid of religious dimensions. If imperial cults were indeed merely political then we could understand the Christians’ non-participation as the equivalent of disloyalty or treason, in which case this would be a central cause of the persecution of Christians. However, G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, Fergus Millar, and others show the inadequacies of such political explanations of the persecutions, which had more to do with broader though interconnected religious and social issues. That is, persecution was often linked to the failure of Christians to fully participate in religious activities (especially sacrifice) in honor of the Greco-Roman gods generally.

Thirdly, far from being totally distinct phenomena in the eyes of most inhabitants in Asia, imperial cults were thoroughly integrated within religious life at various levels of civic and provincial society. . . [G]roups and communities reflecting various social strata integrated the emperors and imperial power within their cultural framework. The forms of honors or rituals addressed to “the revered gods” (emperors and imperial family) were not fundamentally different from those offered to traditional deities. This integration is a key to understanding the actual significance of the imperial cults for both Judaism and Christianity.

The imperial cults and the gods they honored were an issue for group-society relations only insofar as they were part and parcel of religious life in the cities. Failure to fully participate in appropriately honoring the gods (imperial deities included) in cultic contexts was one of the sources of negative attitudes towards both Jews and Christians among some civic inhabitants. Jewish and Christian “atheism” could then be perceived by some as lack of concern for others (“misanthropy”) and, potentially, as a cause of those natural disasters and other circumstances by which the gods punished individuals, groups, and communities that failed to give them their due (cf. Tertullian, Apology 40.1-5). This is why we find inhabitants of western Asia Minor, on one occasion, protesting that “if the Jews were to be their fellows, they should worship the Ionians’ gods” (Josephus, Antiquities 12.126; c. 16-13 BCE; cf. Against Apion 2.65-67; Apollonios Molon of Rhodes in Stern 1976:1.148-56). This issue which is broader than, though inclusive of, imperial cults is also a key to understanding sporadic outbreaks of persecution against Christians in Asia Minor.

It is time for scholars, particularly those of the “coalition”, to take more care in their study of Paul within the broader context of the Roman empire. It is time to stop reading into Paul (and other ancient authors) what we wish he had thought and said. Or, to quote Barclay’s appropriate critique of the “coalition”: “once you start looking for code in Paul, you can end up just about anywhere you want.” Paul said very little about imperial cults or the empire and its emperors, so let’s face that and move on to studying what he and other Greeks, Romans, Judeans, and others did say, think, or do.

April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

The Gospel of Judas has been quite controversial, primarily in connection with the question of how Judas Iscariot is portrayed in the document. (Scholars did not see this as reflecting the actual historical Judas back in the first century, I should clarify, simply second or third century understandings of the figure). The original work of transcription and translation of this “gnostic” work by a National Geographic team resulted in an inverted picture of Judas. According to the translators and according to interpreters such as Bart Ehrman, Judas was the hero of this writing and was seen as the ultimate student of Christ in his role in having Jesus killed, thus freeing Christ’s spirit from the prison of Jesus’ body (see my earlier post on Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, now apparently very wrong on the overall portrait of Judas, which was based solely on my reading and trust in that translation, the only one available at that time).

Quite clearly, this picture of a heroic Judas was quite different from traditional understandings of Judas as betrayer doing the work of Satan. I had since expressed my doubts about the National Geographic picture and my own first post upon hearing about Louis Painchaud’s (a Nag Hammadi expert) major doubts. Painchaud saw major problems in the National Geographic transcription of the Coptic and in their translation: Judas Iscariot may be evil after all.

I just finished reading April DeConick’s new book on the Gospel of Judas which I picked up at the SBL meeting:

April D. DeConick, The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (London: Continuum, 2007). Buy at Amazon

The book’s main contribution is in pointing to the problems in the National Geographic (NG) work on the manuscript in terms of errors in transcription of the Coptic and errors in the translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst. She presents her own translation. Here DeConick is clear and convincing. She points to a number of major problems which change entirely interpretations of this document.

Some of the main, major changes that DeConick presents (pp. 45-61) are as follows:

  • The Coptic term daimon (borrowed from the Greek) should not be translated “spirit” as in NG but rather “demon”. Judas is called a “demon”.
  • The NG translation “For you (Jesus) have set me (Judas) apart for that generation (the generation that will see salvation)” should read quite the opposite: “you have separated me from that generation”. Judas is condemned by Jesus, not saved in this document.
  • Jesus does not, as in NG, say that others “will curse your (Judas) ascent to the holy [generation]”. Rather it says the opposite: “you will not ascend to the holy [generation]”.
  • Jesus does not simply say that Judas “will exceed” all of the other disciples, but rather that Judas “will do worse than all of them” (exceed them in doing evil).

These are major errors, indeed, on the part of the National Geographic Society’s work. DeConick’s careful presentation of how these errors were introduced and how the Coptic should actually be read are convincing.

April DeConick’s book then argues that the Gospel of Judas presents a demonic Judas, perhaps even harsher than portraits in the canonical gospels, who is seen as the ultimate, terrible representative of the disciples. For the author of the Gospel of Judas, the disciples, with Judas at their head, are the equivalent of the types of Christians that the “gnostic” author has most problems with and he even charges them with the equivalent of murdering children (see my post on The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”). The overall effect, as DeConick argues, is that the Gospel of Judas is a parody aimed at critiquing what DeConick calls “apostolic Christianity” (the equivalent of what some others label “the proto-orthodox”).

DeConick’s introductory chapters and her chapters assessing the content of this gospel are well-written and useful as an introduction not only to the Gospel of Judas but also to “gnostic” thought and its place within a variety of forms of Christianity in the early centuries. So the book would serve well within a course on the variety of early Christianity.

However, there are two terminological choices that I find problematic, one minor but notable and the other quite significant. Since these chapters are clearly aimed at beginners and carefully presenting ideas in an non-anachronistic way on the whole, it is strange that DeConick speaks of “Lucifer” (e.g. pp. 31ff) when explaining notions of personified evil and “gnostic” notions of the world-creator as the evil one. The term “Lucifer” came to be applied to a fallen angel or to “Satan” only after the fifth century Latin translation of the passage in Isaiah 14:12 and after a conflation of this passage about a Babylonian king with developing notions of personified evil figures. The way that DeConick speaks of this seems as though she is unaware of this, though it is perhaps simply an anachronistic slip.

The second, more significant terminological problem is DeConick’s use of the phrase “apostolic Christians” throughout her book as a convenient catch-all category. Like the problems with Ehrman’s “proto-orthodox” category, such categories might serve to confuse rather than clarify the variegated nature of early Christianity when teaching students. There is some anachronistic thinking involved in the use of such categories. First we might (should) be telling students that orthodoxy and apostolic Christianity did not exist as some clearly defined monoliths in earliest Christianity, and that the formation of “orthodoxy” was a long and complicated process involving the exclusion of certain forms of Christianity (I think that both Ehrman and DeConick would agree with this). But then some scholars nonetheless continue to use terms that presume the future arrival of orthodoxy, as though it had precursors in a specific group that can be identified and that various Christians can be categorized together. Who is to decide which specific Christians are to be fit into either the category of “apostolic Christianity” or “proto-orthodoxy” and would such figures agree to being grouped together in this way?

These are some more general theoretical problems that I have with a work that is in other respects a fine new translation and a very useful introduction for students.

Breaking news: Early Christians were impious atheists . . . (NT 3.2)

in the eyes of some angry Greeks and Romans, that is.

Followers of Jesus, like others devoted to the God of the Judeans, were among the most odd inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean world when it comes to their attitudes towards the gods of others. Virtually everyone agreed that there were many gods, and that each home, association, city, ethnic group, or empire might have its own favourite deities without denying others. Few beyond those who honoured the Judean God were concerned with denying the legitimacy of other gods or with questioning other peoples’ practice of honouring their own gods, even if they looked down upon people from another ethnic group or place.

Monotheism was not the norm in antiquity. It was an anomaly. As a result, some Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, and others had difficulty making sense of the Judean focus on one god, which seemed to them the equivalent of denying the gods altogether, of “atheism”.

Despite other ways in which they made a home in the Greco-Roman world, this is where the early followers of Jesus were at odds with surrounding culture, and it could be a source of harassment, abuse or even violence. In times of trouble or catastrophe, fingers began to point at those who failed to honour the gods properly, at the “atheists”. The gods were punishing people through natural disasters, such as earthquakes and fires, because the gods were not being honoured fittingly and atheists like the followers of Jesus were being blamed.

This is why, in part, the emperor Nero could choose the Christians as a scapegoat for the fire that took place in Rome in 64 CE (see these sources and translations see Early Christians through Greco-Roman eyes). The Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 109 CE) relates how rumours were spreading that Nero had intentionally started a fire in an area of town where he had hoped to rebuild and renovate (Tacitus does not like Nero, by the way). To distract away from these rumours, which Tacitus implies were true, Nero was looking for someone to blame and he chose “a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44). Tacitus relates how these “superstitious” Christians were tortured and killed in a disturbing display, a display that was so over the top that it went well beyond any “hatred” that the populace had, or upper class disdain Tacitus had, for these little known worshippers of the Judean God and followers of an obscure criminal executed under Pontius Pilate (as Tacitus would put it).

A similar dynamic relating to the Christians’ failure to honour the gods seems to be at work behind the accusations brought before the governor Pliny the Younger in a northern province of Asia Minor (c. 110 CE). This Roman governor, like other authorities, knows very little, if anything at all, about this obscure group devoted to one “Christ”. This even though Pliny had spent previous decades in important imperial positions in Rome itself. What he does know from locals who brought charges against the accused is that followers of Christ will not honour other gods, including the emperor as a god:

Those who denied that they were or had been Christians and called upon the gods with the usual formula, reciting the words after me, and those who offered incense and wine before your [emperor Trajan’s] image — which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, along with the regular statues of the gods — all such I considered acquitted — especially as they cursed the name of Christ, which it is said bona fide Christians cannot be induced to do (Pliny, Epistle 10.96).

So the denial of other gods was perhaps the most important source of conflict and the strangest thing about devotees of the Judean God and of Christ. So far, I’ve not mentioned any cases where Christians are explicitly called what is implied in the cases discussed so far, namely “atheists”. Actual martyrdoms of Christians were not very common, but when anger towards Christians reached the point of violence and death, other Christians were careful to remember the deceased who were considered martyrs, “witnesses”.

One such remembrance in the form of a story related in a letter from one Christian group to others is the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written in the decades following Polycarp’s death in the 160s CE). It is here that we find the explicit charge of atheism. The angry crowds shout out “away with the atheists!” in reference to the Christians. And, when Polycarp is brought before the Roman governor (proconsul) of Asia for final trial, Polycarp turns the accusation on his accusers (something more than “I know you are but what am I” is going on):

“Therefore, when he was brought before him, the proconsul asked if he were Polycarp. And when he confessed that he was, the proconsul tried to persuade him to recant saying, ‘Have respect for your age,’ and other such thngs as they are accustomed to say: ‘Swear by the Genius [guardian spirit] of Caesar; repent, say, ‘Away with the atheists!’ So Polycarp solemnly looked at the whole crowd of lawless heathen who were in the stadium, motioned toward them with his hand, and then (groaning as he looked up to heaven) said, ‘Away with the atheists!'” (Mart. Poly. 9.2; trans. by J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer and revised by Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992]).

Similar charges of “atheism” and “impiety” were brought against Christians in Lyons in France in the 170s CE (see H. Musiurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972], 64-65). The perception of early Christians as atheists was not uncommon.

An early Christian schism over how to view Jesus’ flesh: Opponents of John the elder (Diversity 1.2)

Although philosophical debates about the nature of Jesus Christ in terms of his humanity and / or divinity were clearly a hallmark of the fourth century (as evidenced in the church councils and creeds), it is true that how one viewed Jesus’ fleshliness was a divisive factor among some followers of Jesus in the late first century and into the second. In fact, one of the earliest cases of schism within a specific community of Jesus-followers seems to relate to this factor.

The author of the tractate and epistles associated with John the elder (1-3 John) provides us with evidence of this earliest of schisms (probably in the late first century). More specifically, this elder attests to the fact that a group of people had left what was previously a relatively united community of followers, likely somewhere in western Asia Minor (usually labeled the “Johannine community” by scholars due to the community’s shared traditions associated with the Gospel of John).

The divide that had since developed between John the elder and his supporters, on the one hand, and those that had left, on the other, was considerable, with very little sign of reconciliation. So much so that the elder associates them with “the world” in a strongly negative sense and he does not hesitate to label them “deceivers” and “antichrists” — strong language indeed. The central factor in the disagreement relates to what the elder considers a failure to acknowledge Jesus’ coming in the flesh:

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 7-8 [RSV]).

“For many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1 John 4:1-3).

(For a discussion of the rhetorical use of “Satan”, “antichrist” and related labels, see my other post here.)

Elsewhere, the elder also claims that this had some implications regarding ethics or behaviour, regarding how these opponents were viewing “sin”, namely that “we have no sin” (1 John 1:5-10). It is hard to evaluate the truth in this accusation of false claims, if there is any, since the elder claims that he and his camp, in opposition to the “children of the devil”, know that “no one who abides in [Jesus] sins” (1 John 3:6). Both sides are claiming sinless status though disagreeing on the other’s precise understanding of that and of whether or not the other is “abiding” in Jesus.

Apparently the “flesh” factor also underlies the elder’s other accusations that the opponents supposedly deny “the Father and the Son” or deny that “Jesus is the Christ” (1 John 2:22). We need to take these generalizations with a grain of salt and interpret them in light of the “flesh” factor, since it is hard to imagine that these other followers of Jesus were indeed denying that Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus was sent by the Father. Instead, the elder seems to equate any downplaying of Jesus’ humanity as the equivalent of denying Jesus, the Son, and the Father altogether.

As scholars such as Raymond Brown point out, it seems that the elder and his opponents, who had belonged to the same community and had the same favourite writings, were both interpreting the gospel of John’s rather high Christology (Jesus as the preexisting “Word” or Utterance of the Father) in two very different ways. Both might agree that Jesus was preexistent and that Jesus was made flesh in some manner, but each interpreted such things differently and put more emphasis on one factor (divine preexistence) than another (flesh).

It is difficult to know precisely how these opponents relate to the opponents attacked by Ignatius of Antioch just about a decade later, also in Asia Minor. These opponents are accused of saying that Jesus “suffered in appearance only” (Letter to the Trallians 10). The downplaying of Jesus’ fleshliness is once again a factor here in what scholars often label “docetism” (from the Greek word dokein = to seem or appear to be). We’ll come back to docetism and Ignatius in a later post.

For more on the opponents in 1-3 John, see Raymond Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 93-144.

Contexts of early Christianity (NT 3.1)

One of the things that needs to be emphasized when approaching the study of early Christianity is the fact that the early Christians, and the writings they produced, were part of a real world (for my course outline and discussion notes for Christian origins go here). Writings such as those found in the New Testament were not floating up in heaven somewhere. Instead, they were written by real people in real places. As a result, they both reflected and were products of broader social and cultural contexts, both Greco-Roman (or Hellenistic) and Judean.

On the one hand, it is important to consider the complicated conglomeration of things we scholars simplify with labels such as “Hellenistic (Greek) world” or “Greco-Roman world”. There is far too much to cover under such terms, but among the issues are the ways in which Hellenistic (Greek) culture came to prominent position in the ancient Mediterranean, something that I have discussed in a post on Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2). You might also get a taste, but only a mere taste, of how complicated this world was by reading some of the posts in my category Greco-Roman Religions and Culture.

There is a sense in which dividing the Judean world from the Hellenistic world is itself a problem, since the two cultures were in interaction for more than three centuries before the emergence of the Jesus movement in Judea. A similar thing could be said of interaction with Roman (better: Greco-Roman) culture once the Romans were in charge of things (beginning in the second century BCE but climaxing with the imperial period, beginning about 31 BCE). The so-called Maccabean revolt of the 170s BCE, which I discuss in ‘Tis the season . . . : Jewish and Roman holidays, involved a sustained war arising from conflicts with certain actions by Hellenistic rulers and those Judeans who adopted certain aspects of Hellenistic culture. However, the relation between Judaism and Hellenism was by no means entirely hostile, and there were varying reactions by Judean individuals and groups to particular facets of Greek culture both within Israel and in the dispersion (cities across the Mediterranean). The fact that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (a translation known as the Septuagint = LXX) beginning in the third century BCE is indicative of the less antagonistic interactions that were going on in various places.

This discussion of varying Judean responses to Hellenistic culture segues well into the second main cultural sphere: Judean culture. To understand a movement that began within Judaism, such as the Jesus movement, one needs to consider Judean culture in its many forms in the first and following centuries. This is a tall order, since Judaism itself was marked by a variety which I have discussed in posts including Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3). The Jesus movement was just one among many groups within second temple Judaism and it is important to consider how to plot out these followers of Jesus in relation to others. As we shall soon see in the case of Paul and the situation at Galatia, even early followers of Jesus could have different answers regarding the relation between the Jesus movement and certain aspects of Judean culture (circumcision among them).

There is a sense in which a course on the New Testament or early Christian literature is, through and through, a study of these two worlds and the interplay between them.  So we will continue to struggle with these issues for a while.

Viewing the diversity of early Christianity through opponents (Diversity 1.1)

The variety of early Christian groups and related questions regarding “orthodoxy” and “heresy” are the focus of a course I am offering this year (course outline here). The traditional view of “orthodoxy-first-and-heretical-deviations-later” which I’ve discussed in connection with Eusebius rests, in part, on lack of attention to followers of Jesus who were opposed by certain authors in the earliest period. Opponents in Paul’s letters (our earliest evidence starting about 50 CE) and other subsequent early Christian writings can provide an important window into opinions and practices that existed among Jesus followers from the beginning. I’ve chosen literature pertaining to the region of Asia Minor as a geographical focus for our attempt to plot out these opinions and practices, to map out the forms of Christianity in one area.

Yet there are serious (methodological) difficulties in getting back to the views and activities of such opponents. For one, the sources we have about them are quite hostile towards the worldviews and practices of such opponents, and ancient authors did not hesitate to engage in exaggeration, labeling, and name-calling. They expressed their opinions in a rhetorically-charged way, and it is likely that, if we had writings from the opponents, they may well have done the same. For an example of such counter-attacks, see my Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17).

The modern historian must remain above this, so to speak, and avoid uncritically taking the position of the ancient author who condemns some other individual or group. Instead, we want to do the best we can to sift rhetorically-charged material for particularly significant items. We want to evaluate what levels of probability there are that a given practice or view goes back to the opponents in question, placing such things within broader cultural contexts. While the ancient author was interested in dispelling the opponents’ position, we want to recover it, despite the difficulties involved in doing this.

Added to this are the dangers of “mirror-reading” by which I and other scholars mean the process of mentally holding up a mirror to the literature. Here one must be careful not to assume that every point rhetorically attacked by an author necessarily has a basis in the reality of some group’s activities. There is not always a direct correspondence between one author’s proscription (condemnation) of certain behaviours and views and the actual situation at a particular locale, and we should not assume that everything condemned was actually done. Jerry Sumney has spent a good degree of his time researching precisely the difficulties in evaluating opponents in literature.

What crime did Ignatius of Antioch commit and who laid the charges?

Ignatius of Antioch was a controversial leader of the church in Antioch (around 100 CE) who ended up in handcuffs on his way to Rome for trial. There is some mystery surrounding why he was arrested and who brought charges against him, however. He never tells us, but there are hints in his own letters to churches in Asia Minor that some of Ignatius’s problems stemmed from tensions not with outsiders but with fellow followers of Jesus at Antioch in Syria.

In his letter to the Christians at Philadelphia, for instance, he refers to reports of peace finally coming to the church at Antioch, thereby alluding to the conflict or schism that had been going on previously (Phld 10.2). This situation of conflict at Antioch has led some scholars (including myself) to suggest the possibility that it was fellow-Christians on the other side of the conflict who brought charges against Ignatius, resulting in his arrest (though they may not have intended his execution). Or, although less likely, it may be that turmoil within the Christian community led to intervention by local authorities and the arrest of Ignatius as one among the “trouble-causers”.

The reason I bring this up now is that, for other purposes (regarding Eusebius’ view of the unity of the earliest church against heresy), we were reading through a passage in Eusebius’ Church History (written in the 300’s CE). There I noticed an incident that provides an analogy for this possible explanation of Ignatius’ arrest: namely, that it was other Christians that took actions which resulted in the arrest of the leader with whom they disagreed. Eusebius cites Hegesippus regarding the reason for the arrest and martyrdom of Symeon, bishop of Jerusalem in the early second century: “Certain of these heretics brought accusation against Symeon, the son of Clopas, on the ground that he was a descendant of David and a Christian; and thus he suffered martyrdom, at the age of one hundred and twenty years, while Trajan was emperor and Atticus governor” (Eccl. Hist. 3.32.3).

Remembering that “heretics” is a label for fellow Christians with whom another Christian has a disagreement, this incident may not be unlike what happened at Syria when Ignatius was arrested, despite his role as a leader (sole bishop, in his view) of the assembly of Jesus-followers there. It may be that other Christians who disagreed with his monarchical method of leadership were involved in some way.

Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:  See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.  Also see my articles on the use of familial language including  “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus: Prophet Elijah and “Saviour” (NT 2.14)

There are a variety of approaches one can take in studying the gospels from an historical or academic perspective. Among them is an approach that looks at the gospels as ancient biographies, with each sketching out a particular portrait of the main protagonist, Jesus. This is a particularly fitting method in studying documents that are explicitly advocating a particular understanding of Jesus (namely the gospels are more interested in what scholars sometimes call the “Christ of faith” rather than the “historical Jesus”, that peasant). One can ask literary questions like what is the main plot of this story, who are the main characters, and how is the main protagonist, Jesus, portrayed?

Previously I have discussed the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, particularly the centrality of the secrecy of Jesus’ identity and the way in which this identity unfolds at key points in the narrative, when characters in the story, including Jesus himself, identify who he is (suffering Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ): Who is this guy? The Gospel of Mark and the Identity of Jesus. While Mark’s gospel can’t help but have a Jewish Jesus (because Jesus was a Jew in a Judean context), Mark is usually considered a Gentile author writing to a Gentile audience (the author has to explain basic Judean culture).

On the other hand, I have discussed the very Jewish portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: A very Jewish Jesus: Matthew’s portrait. There Jesus is cast as the new messianic David (anointed king) and the new Moses (prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15), and Jesus repeatedly fulfills scripture and advocates following the Torah (law) to the “t”.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is likewise heavily indebted to Jewish models, but Luke is also concerned to present Jesus in a way that would make some sense to Greeks and Romans, at least to some degree.

On the Jewish side, Jesus is most emphatically a prophet, and at times the author seems to have in mind the promised prophet like Elijah specifically (see Malachi 4:5-6). The author of Luke chooses to begin Jesus’ adult teaching and healing activity with Jesus reading a passage from Isaiah (61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21). Jesus then goes on to explicitly identify himself with the prophet mentioned in Isaiah, an anointed prophet who will preach good news to the poor, bring freedom to captives, and give sight to the blind. This emphasis on Jesus as a prophet to the socially downtrodden or marginalized continues throughout the gospel, beginning with Jesus healing the blind, casting out demons and hanging out with social outcasts, “sinners” and tax-collectors. Luke preserves or presents many teachings of Jesus focussed on supporting the poor and condemning the rich, and this reversal theme is explicitly linked to his role as the prophet.

Almost immediately after identifying himself as the prophet (of Isaiah), Jesus then goes on to compare his rejection in his hometown as a sign of his affinity with Elijah and Elisha (4:24-30). Not only that, but there are further signs that Luke wants his readers to think of Jesus as the promised Elijah prophet (of Malachi). Jesus, like Elijah (in 1 Kings 17:17-24) raises from the dead the widow’s son, and those who witness this call him a “great prophet” (Luke 7:11-17). Almost immediately after this, as if to underline-and-bold-with-all-caps his point, Luke presents John the Baptist asking Jesus who Jesus is. Jesus’ answer once again echoes the Isaiah passage: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).

Alongside this emphasis on Jesus as the ultimate Jewish prophet like Elijah who has come to help the poor is the portrayal of Jesus as “Saviour” (John’s gospel does momentarily apply this title to Jesus). No other gospel identifies Jesus in quite this way. In Luke’s gospel to be a saviour is to quite literally save people here and now by giving sight to the blind and healing the lepers. The identification as Saviour comes early, in the birth story, and continues to bubble up at various points in Jesus’ down-to-earth salvation for the sick and the outcasts. The title “Saviour” (soter in Greek) was a very common one to use in the Greco-Roman world for benefactors, especially gods but also emperors and others, who brought safety and security–salvation in down-to-earth terms–on an ongoing basis. Emperors from Augustus on, for instance, could be praised for their good works in the form of the title “saviour and benefactor”.

Here, then, in Luke is a portrait of Jesus that might ring bells for both Jewish and Greek or Roman hearers.

Was Paul a man of his time?: Contemporaries on the treatment of slaves (NT 2.11)

Yes he was. When studying Paul’s letters, it is important to consider Paul’s views on important social and cultural institutions of Greco-Roman society. One of these institutions was slavery.

Slavery was an important part of the economy in the Roman empire, and the lives of most slaves were by no means easy. You can read about some of this online in Keith Bradley’s Resisting Slavery in Ancient Rome. Slaves were also integrated within social and family life, as slaves were considered to belong to the “household” as broadly understood in antiquity. They were objects owned by their masters and subject to the orders of their masters, but belonged to the “family” at the lowest rung in the ladder.

Slaves were also subject to punishment for failing to obey their masters, and this could sometimes be quite brutal, as the quotations from Galen and Seneca below indicate. It seems that Paul, like other contemporaries, assumed the continued existence of slavery and did not show any signs of calling for its abolishment or even for the manumission (setting free) of slaves. When Paul wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Onesimus, who was most likely a runaway slave, he did not ask Onesimus’ master, Philemon, to free (manumit) the slave. Nor did Paul call for the end of slavery. Elsewhere Paul advised that slaves (and others) should remain as they are in light of the present distress and coming end (1 Cor 7:21-24).

Paul, like virtually all of his contemporaries, could not imagine a society that did not have a system of slavery. Nonetheless, it may be that Paul, like some contemporary philosophers, did advocate that masters like Philemon at least treat their slaves in a more controlled manner, or even as a “brother”, as Paul puts it (at least if the slave belonged to the Jesus movement). In writing his letter, Paul seems to be concerned that Onesimus the slave not receive severe punishment from his master for whatever wrongdoing or disobedience his master perceived.

So Paul’s concerns may have something in common with the sentiments of upper-class authors such as Galen and Seneca. Galen, a physician and philosopher who lived in Pergamum (Asia Minor) in the second century, had this to say about punishing slaves:

“If a man adheres to the practice of never striking any of his slaves with his hand, he will be less likely to succumb [to a fit of anger] later on. . . my father trained me to behave in this way myself. . . . There are other people who don’t just hit their slaves, but kick them and gouge out their eyes. . . . The story is told that the Emperor Hadrian struck one of his attendants in the eye with a pen. When he realised that [the slave] had become blind in one eye as a result of this stroke, he called him to him and offered to let him ask him for any gift to make up for what he had suffered. When the victim remained silent, Hadrian again asked him to make a request of whatever he wanted. He declined to accept anything else, but asked for his eye back — for what gift could provide compensation for the loss of an eye?” (Galen, The Diseases of the Mind, 4; translation from T. Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery [London: Croom Helm, 1981] 180-81).

Seneca, a first-century philosopher, stressed that one needed to control one’s passions or impulses in order to live a wise life (the philosophical life). In the context of discussing the control of anger, he used the treatment of slaves as an example:

“Why do I have to punish my slave with a whipping or imprisonment if he gives me a cheeky answer or disrespectful look or mutters something which I can’t quite hear? Is my status so special that offending my ears should be a crime? There are many people who have forgiven defeated enemies — am I not to forgive someone for being lazy or careless or talkative? If he’s a child, his age should excuse him, if female, her sex, if he doesn’t belong to me, his independence, and if he does belong to my household, the ties of family” (Seneca, Dialogue 5: On Anger, 3.24; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery, 179-80).

Both Paul and Seneca seem to be concerned with modifying perceptions of status in some cases and with alleviating the negative treatments that could flow from status-distinctions, but neither had in mind an end to slavery.

Interpreting Judean scriptures in Paul’s time (NT 2.10)

One thing that is difficult for modern students to get their minds around (and, perhaps, for modern lecturers to explain properly) is the range of methods or styles of interpretation employed by first century Judeans like Paul (who was trained as a Pharisee, of course). When a person like Paul approached the Judean scriptures, he had a variety of options on how to extract meaning from those writings. And these options go far beyond what a modern person would consider a “normal” method of interpretation, of getting the meaning out of certain passages in the Bible.

Among these styles or methods of interpretation were: 1) Midrash, 2) Pesher, 3) Allegory, and 4) Typology. There are times when a number of methods are employed at once, and the lines between these modes of interpretation can be blurry, I should add. It is the modern scholar that speaks in these clear-cut terms more so than the ancient intepreter; nonetheless there are times when, for instance, Paul explicitly says he is putting forward an “allegory” (Gal 4:24) or when an author of Daniel or of one of the Dead Sea scrolls repeatedly speaks of his “pesher” of a particular prophetic writing.

1) Midrash, which comes from the root “to study” or “to interpret”, comes closest to what we as moderns would call interpretation proper. But even so this involves going beyond what we would call a literal interpretation. Thus, for instance, Paul unpacks the story of Abraham in a somewhat literal way, focussing on the chronological sequence of Yahweh’s relations with and establishment of a covenant with Abraham (in Galatians, as discussed in my other post). Yet he also juxtaposes a variety of other scriptural sources in relation to his exposition of Abraham’s story in a way that goes beyond a literal interpretation and is also focussed on the somewhat hidden, spiritual significance of the scriptures in question. In the process he also employs typological thinking, as explained below, in presenting Gentiles as sons of Abraham, or new Abrahams. Like all forms of interpretation discussed here, the interpreter is almost always concerned with applying the meaning that is found to the current situation of the interpreter and his (or her) listeners.

2) Pesher (literally, “solution” or “interpretation”) likewise involves finding the meanings presumed to be hidden within the Torah and, especially, prophetic writings like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hosea. Pesher may be considered a type of Midrash in some ways, but there is more of a focus on one-to-one correspondences in the interpretation of specific details of the scripture in question. Pesher is very much focussed on the hidden meanings that cannot be readily detected by just anyone.

The author of Daniel frequently uses the term “pesher” to describe Daniel’s method of interpreting the details of dreams. Some members of the Dead Sea sect use the term pesher when they are doing very detailed, one-to-one intepretations regarding how details in the prophets (8th-6th centuries BCE) are in fact referring to specific powers or persons who can be identified in their own time (2nd-1st century BCE). By doing pesher, the interpreter is unlocking or decoding the “mystery” (raz). Pesher was (and still is) very important for apocalyptic thinkers who look for the veiled meaning behind details in the scriptures in order to find one-to-one correspondences with specific incidents or people in their own times, namely the end-times.

3) Allegorical approaches involve extracting the deeply hidden but always spiritual meaning in a particular passage or story in the Bible. Allegorical interpretation, which is figurative, is very far removed from a literal interpretation and often seeks to find hidden and seemingly obscure meanings that noone else had or would find in a passage. When Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar from Genesis (in Galatians 4:21-31) and interprets these two women as two covenants, two mountains, and two cities, he is doing allegorical interpretation. There is also a sense in which Paul concludes this allegory with typological application, however, since he finishes by saying that the readers who follow Paul are “children of promise”, like Isaac (they are new Isaacs).

Philo of Alexandria, the first century Judean philosopher, is well-known for his allegorical interpretations. For instance, as David Runia notes: “In the so-called Allegorical Commentary, which contains 21 books, Philo gives an elaborate commentary on the first 17 chapters of the book Genesis from a purely allegorical perspective. These chapters are not interpreted in terms of the primal history of man and God’s election of the people of Israel, but are read at a ‘deeper’ level as a profound account of the nature of the soul, her place in reality, and the experiences she undergoes as she searches for her divine origin and gains knowledge of her creator” (pp. 5-6 in article linked below).

4) Typology involves viewing key figures or events in the stories of the Bible as ideal types that repeat themselves in subsequent history, particularly in the time of the interpreter. Paul is thinking typologically when he speaks of Jesus as the “second Adam”. Typological interpretation is evident throughout the Gospels, as when people in the story are presented as wondering whether Jesus is Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (Mathew 16:14) or when Jesus is presented as seeing John the Baptist as the new Elijah (Mark 9:11-13). The Gospel of Matthew, in particular, provides a clear case of more thoroughgoing typological interpretation in the author’s presentation of Jesus as a new king David and a new Moses (see my post of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus here). For example, in the birth narrative Matthew juxtaposes particular stories about Moses’ birth with the birth of Jesus, and he sometimes quotes or alludes to specific passages or phrases relating to Moses’ story in the process of telling Jesus’ story.

In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by: J.D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (2nd edition; Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1990) and R. N. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). The four types outlined above are also those listed by Dunn.

Paul and the situation at Galatia — again (NT 2.9)

Paul’s relations with the communities of Jesus-followers he founded varied. While he has almost nothing but praise for those at Thessalonica (according to 1 Thess), I have already outlined his rocky relations with some of those at Corinth. If 2 Corinthians 1-9 actually comes (chronologically) after 2 Corinthians 10-13, then at least at Corinth these relations turned around and ended with some level of reconciliation.

We lack any sign of reconciliation between Paul and the followers of Jesus in Galatia, however. In a previous post on Paul, the Galatians, and circumcision (NT 1.6), I have discussed these rocky relations with the Galatians as well as the other teachers who Paul views as opponents to his own “good message”. In particular, there I focus on Paul’s interpretation (midrash) of the story of Abraham in order to counter his opponents’ views.

If the absence of any mention of donations from Galatia for the poor at Jerusalem in Paul’s latest letter — that to the Romans in the mid-late 50s CE — is any indication then it seems that the Galatians continued to follow leaders of the Jesus movement other than Paul. Not only has Paul seemingly lost the support of the Galatians by this time (they are not mentioned as contributors to the collection), but he is even worried that the leadership at Jerusalem itself may not accept the financial gift from the Achaians (Corinth and Cenchreae are in this region) and the Macedonians (Thessalonica and Philippi) which he had hoped would lessen tensions between Paul with his Gentile followers and the groups of Jewish followers of Jesus at Jerusalem. For in Romans, Paul states:

“At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem with aid for the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem; they were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them, for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings. When therefore I have completed this, and have delivered to them what has been raised, I shall go on by way of you to Spain; and I know that when I come to you I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of Christ. I appeal to you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company” (Romans 15:25-32 [RSV]).

Paul and the Super-apostles at Corinth (NT 2.8)

“Form of . . . a rhetorically persuasive super-apostle!”

Paul’s relations with various groups of Christians at Corinth had its ups and downs, but mostly downs it seems. In the time leading up to his writing of what we call 1 Corinthians (actually at least his second letter to them — see 1 Cor 5:9), there were divisions among different groups meeting in different homes, and there were also divisions between those who, in Paul’s view, thought they were superior either socially or spiritually. Some wealthier members with time for leisure were arriving early for the Lord’s supper and consuming all the better food and wine before the arrival of the lower class Christians who had to work for a living (11:17-34). Some Corinthians who felt they had a special connection with things spiritual were viewing their ability to receive divine messages in the form of seemingly nonsensical languages (“tongues”) as a sign of superiority over those who did not receive such messages (12-14). Some other Corinthians, like the woman Chloe, who was likely a leader, were concerned about the situation and communicated this to Paul by messenger (1:11).

Rocky relations continued or even intensified afterwards when Paul made another visit to Corinth, one that he calls a “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1). A “tearful letter” (2:4) was soon to follow, and it seems that this tearful letter is at least partially preserved in 2 Corinthians 10-13. (2 Corinthians is most likely more than one letter, with chapters 10-13 chronologically predating chapters 1-9).

In that tearful, angst-driven letter (2 Cor 10-13), Paul struggles with the problem that some among the Corinthian followers of Jesus were preferring some other travelling leaders who had arrived in Corinth after Paul’s departure. And these leaders were teaching about Jesus from another angle. Paul sarcastically calls these leaders “super-apostles” (12:11) and, like Paul, they were Jewish, not Gentile (11:22).

What were their super-powers? Not flying. For one, they gave good speeches — better than Paul’s in the view of at least the educated Corinthian Jesus-followers. Paul characterizes these Corinthians as complaining that Paul is “humble when face to face” but “bold” when away (10:1). Furthermore, some of the Corinthians “say ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.'” (10:10; RSV).

The derogatory view of Paul as a wimp may well be part of a larger problem of enmity which some Corinthians were showing towards the apostle. For, unlike the super-apostles who did accept the Corinthians’ financial support in their teaching endeavours (perhaps in line with the teaching of Jesus in Luke 10), Paul had blatantly rejected the Corinthians’ offer of a financial gift to support Paul’s activities. To top things off, he had rejected the Corinthians’ gift while accepting a similar gift from the more amicable Macedonians. He blatantly states this in the key passage 2 Cor 11:7-14 (likely the Philippians are in mind, as his letter to them clearly shows that he accepted gifts or benefactions from them). This sort of approach might only intensify the enmity.

In the Greco-Roman world, such benefaction or patronage should be accepted if one did not want to shame the giver and trigger precisely the enmity of the giver (i.e. you would be treated as an enemy). According to such reciprocal, societal conventions, the appropriate response to benefaction would be for Paul to accept the gift and offer some form of honour in return. Saying that you were rejecting the gift and support so as to avoid “burdening” someone, as does Paul, wouldn’t do much. So the reasons why the Corinthians preferred the super-apostles over Paul was somewhat complicated, involving rhetorical ability, economic relations, and cultural conventions.

This is the situation which leads Paul to his very sarcastic response, in which he argues that he is at least as good as these super-apostles (12:11) and in which he engages in all kinds of over-the-top boasting while asserting that he doesn’t like to. In essence he says: “I don’t like to boast, but if I were to boast like a madman then I would say that I am not only equal to but superior to these so-called super-apostles . . . I even took a trip to the third heaven (who of them can say that). I’m not such a wimp, and even if I am, God is on the side of wimps.”

The extremely rocky relations were not to last forever, though. For, if 2 Corinthians 1-9 actually post-dates chapters 10-13, then by the time Paul wrote that letter the Corinthians had been reconciled with Paul, partly as a result of his tearful letter:

“even if I made you sorry with my [tearful] letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us” (2 Cor 7:8-9).

All’s well that ends well.

(I won’t explain what I am alluding to in the opening line of this post, which, if I am lucky, will at most give one or two readers a retro-chuckle).

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Paul’s apocalyptic worldview (NT 2.6)

This past week we’ve been reading Paul’s first letter to the Christians living in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians), which happens to be the earliest writing regarding followers of Jesus in the Roman world (dating sometime in the 40s or around 50 CE). In other words, it is our earliest glimpse into this Jewish Jesus-movement as it made its way into a Greco-Roman world. This letter from Paul to a group of Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica in Macedonia is very important for several reasons, a couple of which I’d like to mention here.

First of all, it is in this letter that we first see evidence of what a Jew like Paul taught his listeners when he travelled to a particular city. In the first chapter Paul speaks of the great reputation of the followers of Jesus at Thessalonica, pointing out how other Jesus-followers in Macedonia and elsewhere respected those Thessalonians highly. This rhetoric of praise (epideictic or demonstrative rhetoric) continues throughout the letter, by the way. In the process, Paul provides a glimpse into the core of his teaching to the Greeks:

For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 [RSV]).

This short passage is jam-packed with important information regarding the earliest “good message” (gospel) as taught by Paul. (1) Paul taught that the Jewish God was the only God (Jewish monotheism), (2) that the one Jewish God had a Son that had been raised from the dead, and (3) that there is a coming wrath and the Son, Jesus, would save the Thessalonian Jesus-followers from that wrath of God.

This third point regarding a coming wrath is part of what scholars call the apocalyptic worldview, and Paul expands upon it when he is faced with the worries of some Thessalonians whose friends and family have died before the arrival of the Son. You can read about that for yourself in 1 Thessalonians chapters 4 and 5 (especially 4:13-5:10).

Basically, one can outline the apocalyptic worldview or perspective in a simplified manner as follows:

  • We are living in an evil world dominated by evil forces. There is a constant struggle between these evil forces and the forces of good, and evil seems to have the upper hand. Humans are part of this ongoing dualistic struggle and take sides as either the righteous (e.g. sons of light) or the wicked (e.g. sons of darkness). But God has a plan to end that ongoing struggle.
  • God will intervene in a cataclysmic way and the final massive battle between good and evil will end in the triumph of good over evil. This will happen very soon. Through God’s wrath, evil forces, under the leadership of Satan (or Belial, or some other name for evil personified) will be either obliterated or tortured forever. Some important figure (or figures) sent by God, such as an anointed priest or prophet or king or warrior or all of the above, will play a key role in the final triumph of God.
  • God or his messenger will judge and separate the righteous people from the wicked people. There may be a resurrection of the dead who will also face such categorization. The righteous will go on to live forever in bliss with God in his new creation or kingdom or paradisical world. The fate of the wicked will be the same as the evil forces, such as Satan, who will face the wrath.

This basic perspective as outlined here holds true for the members of the Jewish Dead Sea sect (perhaps Essenes) and for Paul, as well as for some other Jews. Not all Jews in the second-temple period were apocalyptic, I should add, but both Paul and the Dead Sea sect (and most likely Jesus too) were. This worldview has also been important for many Christians throughout Western history. There are differences in the details from one apocalyptic thinker to the next, but basically the overall components of the worldview are the same.

If you are interested in reading further posts on this subject, click on my category for apocalypticism or on my category for the history of Satan (who plays a key role in the apocalyptic worldview). I also have a specific post which deals with Zoroastrian apocalypticism, which is an important factor in understanding the emergence of the apocalyptic worldview within Judaism and Christianity. In Zoroastrianism, the ongoing battle is between Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu, head of the evil forces.

You can read far more about apocalypticism in early Judaism and Christianity, as well as throughout history at the fine Apocalypse! site connected with the PBS Frontline documentary. Felix Just also supplies a number of useful links on the topic.

P.S. How long can I maintain references to song titles in my post titles?

The Gospel of Judas and ethnographic stereotypes: The priests “sacrifice their own children”

In ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’ I discussed the ways in which ethnographic stereotypes concerning the dangers of foreign ways and peoples also came to be applied by outsiders to Christians as minority cultural groups in the ancient Mediterranean. Some Greek or Roman authors who described the cultural practices of others, including those of both Judeans (Jews) and Jesus-followers, did so in a way that emphasized the “inhuman” or “sub-human” activity of apparent foreigners who were either little known and/or disliked. And there was a common stockpile of accusations that were used in stereotyping “the other” including human sacrifice, cannibalism, and “improper” sexual practices. One reader of that post (Nathan) astutely asked:

“In regards to the allegations of infanticide and cannibalism [in the case of Christians] might the gospel of Judas also allude to such allegations, when it characterizes certain of the proto-Orthodox as ‘slayers of children’ (sec. 40; cf. 38)”

In Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?, I have discussed other aspects of the Gospel of Judas (for online translations and discussions go here and here). The passage in the Gospel of Judas which Nathan has in mind runs as follows:

The twelve disciples ‘[said, “We have seen] a great [house with a large] altar [in it, and] twelve men—they are the priests, we would say—and a name; and a crowd of people is waiting at that altar, [until] the priests [… and receive] the offerings. [But] we kept waiting.”

[Jesus said], “What are [the priests] like?” They [said, “Some …] two weeks; [some] sacrifice their own children, others their wives, in praise [and] humility with each other; some sleep with men; some are involved in [slaughter]; some commit a multitude of sins and deeds of lawlessness. And the men who stand [before] the altar invoke your [name], [39] and in all the deeds of their deficiency, the sacrifices are brought to completion […].”

After they said this, they were quiet, for they were troubled.

Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled? Truly I say to you, all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my name. Again I say to you, my name has been written on this […] of the generations of the stars through the human generations. [And they] have planted trees without fruit, in my name, in a shameful manner.”’

(Gospel of Judas 38-39. Translation by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard, cited from the online version on the National Geographic website).

Troubling indeed. Here we are witnessing the use of ethnographic stereotypes (slaughter of children, “improper” homosexual activity, etc.) in order to demonize, or to characterize as “other”, those who consider themselves to be part of the same cultural group, namely followers of Jesus. Notice especially that “all the priests who stand before that altar invoke my (namely, Jesus’s) name.”

Here the author of the Gospel of Judas has Jesus taking sides in the internal debates within Christianity. Jesus, claims the author, is on the side of the author and his group of Jesus-followers and not on the side of others who claim to follow Jesus. This is an internal battle within Christianity itself here.

There is irony in the way that the Gospel of Judas does this, however. For Jesus is here presented as speaking to the “twelve disciples” and the vision of “twelve priests” slaughtering children and generally running amuck that these disciples witness is, it seems, a vision of themselves! They, the twelve disciples of Jesus, are the ones that behave in a shameful manner, and it is the twelve that represent other followers of Jesus with whom the author of the Gospel of Judas has major disagreements. In this writing, Judas is taken as the ideal disciple and follower of Jesus who is set apart from the other shameful twelve disciples. Judas, as I have discussed in my previous post on the subject, is the favourite of Jesus in this writing.

It seems that many combatants in these internal battles within Christianity used similar ammunition, namely the stereotypes which were common in some descriptions of foreign peoples, in ethnographic descriptions. Previously we had known quite a bit about Christian authors like Epiphanius who condemned certain Christian “gnostic” groups and accused them of engaging in heinous crimes of human sacrifice and sexual perversion. Now we have a clear case in which one particular “gnostic” author or group turned the tables.

Let’s talk about sects: Diversity in Second-Temple Judaism (NT 2.3)

Judean culture in the second-temple period (c. 500 BCE-70 CE) was diverse. And it is important to remember that what we often call “early Christianity” or, perhaps better, the Jesus-movement was in fact one among many Judean groups or sects in first century Palestine and the Mediterranean diaspora (Jews also lived in Greek and Roman cities outside of Israel).

Among groups within Judaism or Judean culture, we happen to know most about the sects that the Jewish historian Josephus styles as three (or four) Judean “philosophies” (especially in War 2.119-166 and Antiquities 18.11-25, produced in the 70s and 90s CE).

In more than one passage, Josephus speaks of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. In one of them he tacks on the so-called “fourth philosophy,” a violent group stemming, Josephus’ claims, from the tax-related rebellion (c. 6 CE) associated with Judas of Galilee and including, in his view, the sicarii assassins of the mid-first century. The difficulty is that Josephus’ account of each of these groups is brief and sketchy, and he has certain axes to grind. It is from Josephus, for instance, that we hear some reliable information that the Pharisees were concerned with the exact interpretation of the law and that they believed in some form of future resurrection (“immortality of the soul”), while the Sadducees did not believe in such a resurrection (War 2.162). Josephus doesn’t hesitate to make value judgements in his descriptions, though. Thus he says that the Pharisees are friendly and nice to the public while the Sadducees treat one another badly and treat outsiders worse (War 2.162).

Our other sources for the groups mentioned by Josephus are likewise not unbiased. One could say that the gospels, especially Matthew, reverse the bias regarding Pharisees in that this Jewish author of Matthew would not feel bad if readers (or hearers) of his writing came away with the notion that “Pharisees” and “hypocrites” were synonyms (see Matthew 23). So we lack clear and detailed information concerning these groups. Discoveries such as the scrolls found on the edge of the Dead Sea since the 1940s may expand our picture of at least one of the groups that Josephus discusses, but the identification of the Dead Sea community as Essenes is uncertain (see Pliny the Elder’s description of the Essenes on the Dead Sea coast in his Natural History, 5.15.17). So our information is meager for even these best known groups, let alone the many other movements that were active in the first century.

Rather than go into the details of what Josephus says about each, what I want to emphasize here is that the ones he mentions in these substantial passages were by no means the only groups. In fact, it seems that Josephus has in mind only the more educated classes in his discussion (hence his use of the designation “philosophies” for his Greek-speaking audience). All four of these groups consisted primarily of the literate, probably less than ten percent of the population at the time. In fact, Josephus explicitly states that the Essenes numbered only in the thousands (he says four thousand in Ant. 18.1.5 [20]), and it is likely that each of the other three were likewise in the thousands at most. So what about the remaining population of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, which would have been into the millions?

Once again, Josephus happens to give us hints in his incidental stories of this or that prophet or “king” (messiah), though he tends not to like these other popular movements within Judea, Samaria, or Galilee. He gathers together a number of cases in just one time period alone, in a collection of what he calls a sampling of “ten thousand disorders” (Antiquities 17.269-285). One example from another period will suffice here, this one involving a prophetic figure named Theudas who gained a following in the 40s CE:

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan. For he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government (Antiquities 20.97; trans. by William Whiston).

The Jesus-movement (what we now call “early Christianity”) should be understood, in part, within the context of many popular and not-so-popular Jewish movements and sects in the first century. We need to remember that this was a movement within Judaism, not a separate religion.

In writing this post, my memory was refreshed by Lester L. Grabbe, Judaism from Cyrus to Hadrian. Volume Two: The Roman Period (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), especially pp. 463-554.

Breaking news: Early Christians had no New Testament (NT 2.1)

In teaching early Christianity in a university setting, there are a number of assumptions and views that need to be corrected or dismantled in order to clear the way for students to make better sense of these ancient documents. Something that does not often occur to students and which needs to be highlighted again and again is that Christians of the first three centuries (and even beyond) did not have a New Testament! You heard me.

They did have what they considered scriptures, namely the Jewish writings known as the Law and the Prophets, but the process that led to the collection of writings or canon we now know as the “New Testament” was a long one. (Obviously the notion of the Jewish scriptures being the “Old Testament” would have to await the existence of the “New” one). In fact, the earliest evidence we have of any church body establishing a list of authoritative Christian books that coincides exactly with the 27 books now in the New Testament was in 393 CE. Even that emerged out of a local meeting of church authorities in North Africa rather than some “universal” decision that was implemented in some way.

The process that led to the collection of writings that were considered authoritative as scripture, namely the canon, was a long one which I will not detail here, except to note that early on Christians were collecting and using Christian writings of various sorts. Sometimes one community used the same writings as another community, but seldom did everyone agree which ones should be considered “scripture”, if they considered this issue at all. In some cases writings accepted by one community could be utterly rejected as “heretical” by another, as was the case with many “gnostic” writings. The process of choosing the writings that were considered canon and excluding certain other documents was, in some ways, the triumph of one Christian view over another. To provide another example, in the mid-second century Marcion of Sinope had clear ideas of what he would include in an authoritative collection, including the Gospel of Luke and certain letters of Paul, but he did so in a way that tried to excise any passages that seemed to equate the Jewish God with the God who sent Jesus (he thought there were two gods involved).

Others disagreed with Marcion, although some began to agree that it was worthwhile thinking about defining which writings were authoritative. One early list of writings that has survived, known as the Muratorian canon (perhaps from around 200 CE), happens to largely coincide with the books that were later included in the New Testament. But other Christians at this time would make a different list nonetheless, and even the Muratorian canon mentions an Apocalypse of Peter (perhaps the same one available here) which some held to be authoritative but which did not ultimately make it into the New Testament. And the issue of including or excluding the Apocalypse of John, also known as Revelation, continued to be hotly debated into the fourth century, for instance.

Rather than get further into the long and complicated history behind the formation of the canon of scripture, here I wanted to briefly mention one important implication of the non-existence of the New Testament in the first centuries. In particular, the lack of any established, authoritative collection of writings and the variations in the writings used by different Christian groups reflected and further facilitated the continuation of variety or diversity among early Christians. And when there were differences of opinion regarding belief or practice among these diverse Christian groups, there was no set of early Christian writings that everyone could agree was the measure (the meaning of the word “canon” is “measure” or “rule”) or authority to settle disputes regarding what belief or practice was right or wrong.

This means that the modern student of early Christianity should not assume that the views expressed in any one writing are somehow representative of all early Christian views. It also means that we should refrain from solving the dilemnas encountered in studying one early Christian writing by turning to another by a different author, as though they are all the same. Finally, we should consider the writings in the New Testament within the broader context of early Christian literature that did not make it in, and give each its due.

For more on the diversity of early Christianity, see my series on the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism”.

Judas Iscariot as the “good guy”?: The Gospel of Judas

UPDATE: Now see my more recent posting based on subsequent translations. The National Geographic translation, upon which the post below was based, is problematic precisely in areas relating to the depiction of Judas: April D. DeConick’s The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says

I just had a chance to read through the newly published translation of the fascinating Gospel of Judas (though I have yet to read the accompanying commentaries and articles by Meyer, Ehrman and others): Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, eds., The Gospel of Judas (Washington: National Georaphic, 2006). The Gospel of Judas appears within a 66 page long book, Codex Tchacos, which was only recently brought to scholars attention after it was acquired by the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art in 2000.

If you are not accustomed to reading the second or third century writings that are often labelled “gnostic” by scholars (how many are?), such as the Nag Hammadi writings discovered in the 1940s, then this one too will be very bewildering. Like other such writings, this is a document that claims to be Jesus’ own secret discussion (a dialogue gospel) with a disciple, and the content of Jesus’ teaching is very philosophically dualistic and quite different than what one encounters in most parts of the gospels in the New Testament.

Yet for those with some familiarity with the various writings called “gnostic” (on which see my many earlier posts here), there is a sense in which this is “run of the mill” in many respects. The thoroughgoing dualism of the Gospel of Judas, in which there is a bad material realm and a perfect spiritual realm with sparks of the perfect realm trapped in inferior human bodies, is characteristic of most of the Nag Hammadi writings. Likewise common in these Christian intellectual circles is the notion that the God who sent the Christ to bring knowledge of these circumstances is not the same god (or angel) who created the material realm (our visible world). So many of Jesus’ teachings to Judas here reflect this worldview that was common to at least a minority of early Christian intellectuals in the second and third centuries.

Still, even with some familiarity with other gnostic writings, there is something very odd about this writing. We have many examples of “gnostic” authors presenting the secret teachings of Jesus in the form of a dialogue between the Christ and one of the disciples, with different authors choosing different apostles as their favourite (see, for instance, my earlier discussion of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene). Still what is absolutely astounding, in some ways, is the choice of Judas Iscariot as the favourite of Jesus! There seems to be no precedent for choosing Judas Iscariot, who “betrayed” Jesus, as the favourite disciple who received the secret revelation of the Saviour.

In fact, this gospel presents Jesus as commending Judas for an action that was usually interpreted by other Christian authors as out-right betrayal (even though it could also be seen as “within God’s plan” that it took place in the view of many early Christians — Jesus death was necessary, in other words). The passage in question, which needs some training in gnosticism to interpret, goes as follows:

“Judas said to Jesus, ‘Look, what will those who have been baptized in your name do?’ Jesus said, ‘Truly I say [to you], this baptism [. . . ] my name [– about nine lines missing –] to me. Truly [I] say to you, Judas, [those who] offer sacrifices to Saklas [. . .] God [– three lines missing –] everything that is evil. But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me'” (trans by Kasser, Meyer and Wurst, pp.42-43).

It doesn’t help that large portions of this section are missing, but what is clear is that Jesus speaks positively of Judas’ future act of betraying Jesus, of “sacrific[ing] the man that clothes [Jesus]”. How sacrificing Jesus human body (“the man”) through betrayal can be a positive thing is only understandable once one realizes that this author’s worldview is the thoroughly dualistic one of spirit vs. matter mentioned above, in which the material realm, especially our bodies, are a prison from which one wants to escape. In fact, the material world around us is created by an inferior being or angel or demiurge, here called “Saklas”, not by the God who sent the Christ, in the view of this and other “gnostic” authors. (In some “gnostic” writings, this creator god plays a role similar to the role that the rebel angel Satan plays in the worldview of other early Christians). In other words, Judas helps Jesus by assisting in the elimination of this material body or prison and, therefore, the spirit’s return to the perfect spiritual realm of the God who sent Christ. This act of returning to one’s proper place as part of the perfect spiritual realm is, in itself, the salvation that Jesus achieves and that other spiritual sparks trapped within human bodies, other perfect Adams, will likewise achieve by receiving the secret “knowledge” (gnosis, hence gnosticism) that Jesus brings concerning the nature of reality (in the view of this author).

This is just one of many features of the Gospel of Judas and gnosticism. I would recommend reading further for yourself. Do see the many other posts here on this site regarding the Nag Hammadi writings, New Testament Apocrypha, and “gnosticism”, which may provide a bit of a primer.