Category Archives: Paul of Tarsus

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.

Podcast 1.12: Legacies of Paul – Women’s leadership, part 2

This concludes the discussion of the Acts of Paul and Thecla in relation to the Pastoral epistles, addressing the ways in which Paul was used within debates about women’s leadership in second century groups of Jesus-followers. This is the final episode in series 1 (“Paul and his Communities”). Series 2 (beginning in March) will take an historical and literary look at “Early Christian Portraits of Jesus”, including the gospels.

Podcast 1.12: Legacies of Paul – Women and leadership, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here). approx 32 minutes

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Podcast 1.11: Legacies of Paul – Women’s leadership, part 1

Here I look at legacies and interpretations of Paul after his death. In particular, I use several letters written in the name of Paul (the Pastoral epistles) and a novelistic story about Paul and a woman named Thecla (Acts of Paul and Thecla) as a window into debates about leadership of women in groups of Jesus-followers in the second century. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.11: Legacies of Paul – Women and leadership, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.10: Paul’s response to the Romans

This episode considers Paul’s response to the ethnic divisions that existed among groups of Jesus-followers at Rome. Here I discuss Paul’s main arguments regarding the equally condemnable and equally save-able status of both Greeks (or Gentiles) and Judeans, as well as Paul’s view that “all Israel will be saved”. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.10: Paul’s response to the Romans (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.9: Paul and the situation at Rome

This episode looks at the situation at Rome in the mid-first century that led Paul to write the letter to the Romans, now in the New Testament. I delve into the purposes in Paul writing and his focus on what he sees as ethnic divisions between Greeks and Judeans in the groups of Jesus-followers. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.8: Paul and the situation at Rome (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.8: Paul’s response to the Galatians

This second episode on Paul’s letter to the Galatians looks at Paul’s response to the situation involving opponents that were advocating circumcision. I discuss a plausible apocalyptic rationale for Paul’s notion that circumcision was not an entrance requirement for Gentiles to belong to the Jesus groups. In the process, I also begin to deal with Paul’s complicated positions regarding the Torah (the law) and its relation to non-Judeans (approx. 35 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.8: Paul’s response to the Galatians (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia

This episode looks at the situation in Galatia that led Paul to write his letter in the mid-first century. Here I explore the rationale of Paul’s opponents who advocated circumcision among Gentiles (non-Judeans) as a symbol of belonging to God’s people and an entrance requirement into this Jewish movement that considered Jesus the Messiah (approx. 25 minutes).  This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.7: Paul and the situation in Galatia (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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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 that has been posted (as an mp3) by Andy Rowell. 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.

Podcast 1.6: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 3

This episode concludes the discussion of followers of Jesus at Corinth with a focus on Paul’s response to the situation (in 1 Corinthians). Here we see Paul’s education in Greco-Roman methods of rhetoric or argumentation. Paul’s arguments for unity and against divisions provide a clear example of deliberative rhetoric, comparable to political speeches by the likes of Dio Chrysostom. The use of the body metaphor in chapter 12 further confirms Paul’s employment of civic discourse (approx. 20 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.6: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 3 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.5: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 2

This fifth episode continues discussion of the situation at Corinth as reflected in chapters 6-15 of 1 Corinthians, dealing with problems that arose due to the socially superior position of some Corinthian Christians and the spiritually superior claims of others. This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast. (approx. 32 minutes).

Podcast 1.5: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 2 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.4: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 1

This fourth episode begins to look at the followers of Jesus at Corinth through Paul’s letter known as 1 Corinthians in the New Testament. After discussing the city of Corinth, I go on to consider the history of Paul’s interactions with these Christians, which was characterized by rocky relations. Then we delve into the situation among the Corinthians that led Paul to write his letter, primarily the issue of social and spiritual divisions within the Jesus groups at Corinth (in 1 Corinthians, chapters 1-4). This is the first of three episodes on 1 Corinthians (approx. 25 minutes).

This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.4: Paul and the followers of Jesus at Corinth, part 1 (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.3: Paul’s response to followers of Jesus at Thessalonica

This third episode looks at Paul’s response to followers of Jesus at Thessalonica, including his attempt to comfort these socially dislocated Christians, his use of familial language to build up their identity, and his use of praising (demonstrative) rhetoric. It also begins to consider Paul as an apocalyptic Judean (approx. 32 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.3: Paul’s response to Jesus-followers at Thessalonica (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.2: The Situation at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians)

This second episode looks at the situation among followers of Jesus at Thessalonica in Macedonia in the mid-first century. Considering the ethnic and social makeup of the earliest Christians, this episode also discusses two main problems faced by these followers of Jesus: “afflictions” and the death of fellow-followers of Jesus. This prepares the way for episode three, which will look at how Paul responds to this situation in his letter, known as 1 Thessalonians in the New Testament (approx. 36 minutes). This episode is part of series one (“Paul and his Communities”) of the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean podcast.

Podcast 1.2: The Situation at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians) (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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Podcast 1.1: Paul in his own words

This inaugural episode in series 1 (Paul and his communities) uses incidental autobiographical references in Paul’s letters as an avenue into the study of Paul, his letters, and early Christian groups (approx. 27 minutes).

Podcast 1.1: Paul in his own words (mp3; archive.org page with various downloading options here).

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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. See his brief summary available online: “Who are those ‘Servants of Satan’“.

Soon we’ll be starting out with one of the most difficult letters of Paul, Galatians, in asking what forms of Christianity are reflected in the opponents Paul attacks. So a couple of earlier posts that I have done on Galatians may be of help and, thanks to the wonders of the blogging universe, I have included links in these posts to Mark Goodacre’s (Duke U.) excellent discussions of similar issues:

International SBL in Vienna, part 2 — also Paul and anti-imperialism

Well, I’m back from Vienna now and adjusting to real life (real life isn’t too bad either). There were a couple of other papers I thought I’d mention here as a follow through to my other post on the SBL conference. (I’ll soon have other posts on the Ephesos museum at Vienna).

Universitat WienGerd Theissen’s paper on “The Historical Jesus and the Continuum between Judaism and Christianity” was quite interesting, even though the paper reflected (and did not necessarily defend) particular assumptions regarding what we can know about Jesus through the sources. Theissen argued for a somewhat high degree of continuity between Jesus and subsequent Christianity (including Paul). He did so by focussing on three main points:

1) Theissen pointed to evidence which he interpreted as Jesus’ universalizing tendencies, Jesus’ tendencies to include non-Judeans. These “liberal” (as Theissen calls them) ideas of Jesus are reflected in Jesus’ eschatological views (e.g. Mt 8:11-12), according to Theissen. In other words, Jesus opted for the inclusion, rather than annihilation, of the nations / gentiles (those from East and West, in Theissen’s interpretation) option within Judaism of the time. This reflects continuity with those Jews who likewise imagined the end-time inclusion of the Gentiles, as well as some continuity with Paul’s subsequent focus on including gentiles in God’s end-time community, according to Theissen.

2) Theissen then went on to outline the “radical” (rather than “liberal”) side of Jesus in terms of Jesus’ radicalized Jewish monotheism and restoration eschatology. Here there was an emphasis on Jesus in the context of millenarian movements in the first century. Theissen also proposed that Jesus focussed on love of neighbour and on humility, which radicalized ethics.

3) The combination of universalism and radicalism, which each had precedents in Judaism, were characteristic of the subsequent Jesus movements, in Theissen’s view. Here he brought in ideas from cognitive theory regarding intuitive and counter-intuitives to attempt an explanation of why Christianity was “successful” (here my memory fails me on the details).

This was my first time hearing Theissen speak, and so I enjoyed it despite my disagreements with this or that point and doubts about Theissen’s overall configuration of the materials.

I also managed to see Christopher D. Stanley’s helpful paper on past research into “Postcolonial Perspectives on Paul”. Stanley provided a very clear outline of what has been done (including work on Paul and “hybridity”) and where he plans to head with his own research into analyzing Paul’s letters in terms of post-colonial theory.

Stanley’s talk 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.)

Some links on the apostle Paul (NT 2.12)

For quite some time, I had been meaning to refer to a couple (now a few) useful sites for the study of Paul of Tarsus, a.k.a. the apostle Paul.

There is an extensive website on Paul by the late J. Peter Bercovitz (University of Edinburgh): “As Paul tells it . . . “. There you can read about a variety of important historical issues surrounding this self-proclaimed apostle (through the lens of one particular scholar’s historical interpretations, of course).

Another important issue in the study of Paul is the question of who were the followers of Jesus that Paul opposed. Jerry Sumney has done extensive research on the question of Paul’s opponents, and he has also done a brief web write-up for the Bible and Interpretation website: Who are those “servants of Satan”? There are many other useful articles on that same website, which I may come back to another time.

A third very useful site is The Paul Page: Dedicated to the New Perspective on Paul (by Mark M. Mattison).  There you will find brief discussions and many links to resources regarding Paul within the context of second-temple Judaism.  Scholars such as E. P. Sanders have been instrumental in revising our view of Judaism in Paul’s time and Paul’s relation to the various groups within Judaism; this view is known as the “new persepective”, which is very well explained on that website.

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 and John Madden’s Slavery in the Roman Empire: Numbers and Origins. 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 the Jewish 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 Jews like Paul (who was trained as a Pharisee, of course). When a person like Paul approached the Jewish 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.

For a discussion of pesher in the context of the Dead Sea scroll known as the Isaiah Pesher, see the West Semitic Research Project site here.

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 Jewish 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). Runia provides an excellent introduction to Philo, including his allegorical methods: Philo, Alexandrian and Jew. Hindy Najman (U. Toronto) has an online article which discusses Philo’s typological and allegorical interpretation of the Cain and Abel stories in Genesis: Cain and Abel as Character Traits: A Study in the Allegorical Typology of Philo of Alexandria.

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. (For more on this see the posts by Mark Goodacre, as listed further below). 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]).

UPDATE: Thanks to the mention by Mark Goodacre, I now see that Loren Rosson has a post addressing Paul’s feelings at the time of writing Romans: Why Paul Took Up the Collection (Rom 15:25-32).

There is an excellent series of posts by Mark Goodacre that addresses many other issues regarding the situation in Galatia and Paul’s views on what was happening:

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?

“And there arose a sharp contention” among the bloggers: Mark Goodacre on Acts 15 and Galatians 2:1-10 (NT 2.5)

Mark Goodacre’s post on the equivalence of the events described by Paul in Galatians 2:1-10 and by the author of Luke-Acts in Acts 15 — commonly called the Jerusalem council — provides a good overview of the discussion on these key passages involving Paul’s visit to Jerusalem. It has also sparked considerable debate (less so a “sharp contention” as in Acts 15:39) on whether another Jerusalem visit described by Acts, namely the one in Acts 11, is to be equated with Galatians 2 instead. The reason why this issue is so important and debated is that it has significant implications both for the chronology of Paul’s life and for the question of the historical (in a modern sense) reliability of the Acts of the Apostles. Check out the posts to see for yourself. The appearance of these blog posts is a timely development in light of the fact that we are comparing precisely these passages (Gal. 2:1-10 and Acts 15) in tutorials this week.

Paul, the Galatians, and circumcision (NT 1.6)

This week we’ve been talking about Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the issue of circumcision (= “works of law” in Paul’s letter) as a symbol of belonging in the people of God. Paul was addressing a situation where other leaders of the Jesus movement had come to Galatia and were requiring, naturally, that Gentiles be circumcized and follow the Torah in order to belong to a Jewish movement. It seems that Paul (a trained Pharisee) is somewhat of an oddball (so to speak) within second temple Judaism and the early Jesus movement, not in his notion of including Gentiles but rather in his not requiring that such Gentiles be circumcized in order to express their belonging within this Jewish Jesus movement.

Paul presents a somewhat complicated argument (in Galatians 3) using the sequence of Abraham’s (Abram’s) relations with Yahweh in order to show that the primary covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15) was established before the introduction of circumcision (Genesis 17), and that uncircumcized Gentiles can become “sons of Abraham” by doing what the uncircumcized Abraham did in Genesis 15: believing that what God says he will do will indeed happen (in Abraham’s case the promise was for innumerable heirs or offspring despite his childlessness to that point). Circumcision was not required of a Gentile in order to be a son of Abraham, argues Paul, since Abraham’s circumcision was only subsequent to the primary promise and covenant. The methods of biblical interpretation that Paul employs are very much Jewish midrash, but the conclusions he comes to regarding Abraham and the covenant are very different than what most other Jews engaging in midrash of Genesis would have concluded (Jews who would more likely focus more attention on Genesis 17, the circumcision of Abraham).

Coincidentally Mark Goodacre has a post today that addresses some related issues and also points to an online article by Paula Fredriksen that is definitely worth a read: “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2,” Journal of Theological Studies 42 (1991): 532-64. The views expressed in that article, particularly the notion that Paul’s position (Gentiles not required to be circumcized in order fully to join the group) is the normative one in the Jesus movement generally, differ from my own expressed above, however.

Review of Zeba Crook’s book at BMCR: Reconceptualizing Conversion

There is now an online review (by Carolyn Osiek) of Zeba Crook’s excellent book on Paul, “conversion”, and patronage at BMCR:

Zeba A. Crook, Reconceptualising Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 130. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004. Pp. 310. ISBN 3-11-018265-3. €88.00.

Thecla, Tertullian, and controversies over women’s leadership (NT Apocrypha 18)

Among the controversies that led to conflicts between early Christians (both authors and groups) was the role of women within the congregations. Leadership was generally undefined and varied from one Christian group to the next in the first century. As certain Christian authors and leaders (such as Ignatius and the author of the Pastoral epistles) began to seek and impose a clear definition of leadership structures (especially beginning at the turn of the second century) there was a tendency to expressly exclude women from the more important positions in the newly emerging hierarchy in some congregations.

The Acts of Paul (and Thecla) (online here) is among the sources that attest to circles of Christians (in second century Asia Minor) who continued to see an important role for women in teaching and leading. The author presents a Thecla who is extremely attentive to Paul’s preaching (which centres on celibacy in this case) and who, in the end, baptizes herself in the midst of potential martyrdom in a pool of vicious seals (sharks?): “And when she had finished her prayer she turned around and saw a large pit full of water and said, ‘Now it is time to wash myself.’ And she threw herself in saying ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I baptize myself on my last day’” (34). Thecla ultimately goes on to have her own mission of “teach[ing] the word of God” with the acknowledgement of Paul (41) and “enlightened many” (43), according to this narrative. (Translations from J. K. Elliott, ed. and trans., The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993].)

The positive stance of this author to women’s leadership within the Christian congregations is mirrored, in some ways, in contemporary movements in Asia Minor specifically. The so called Phrygian movement (aka Montanism) was characterized by a heavy emphasis on prophetic authority, and its main charismatic leaders were two women prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilla (more on my site here in connection with the Lycos valley).

But there were opponents to this active role for women, including the author Tertullian who lived in North Africa and who, despite adopting some aspects of the Phrygian movement himself at a later point (esp. the prominence of the Spirit), openly opposed those who (most likely) used the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) to support women’s activity in baptizing converts in North Africa. Tertullian writes the following in his treatise “On Baptism” (chapter 17; c. 200 CE):

“To round off our slight treatment of this subject it remains for me to advise you of the rules to be observed in giving and receiving baptism. The supreme right of giving it belongs to the high priest, which is the bishop: after him, to the presbyters and deacons, yet not without commission from the bishop, on account of the Church’s dignity. . . Except for that, even laymen have the right. . . But the impudence of that woman who assumed the right to teach is evidently not going to arrogate to her the right to baptize as well – unless perhaps some new serpent appears, like that original one, so that as that woman abolished baptism, some other should of her own authority confer it. But if certain Acts of Paul, which are falsely so named, claim the example of Thecla for allowing women to teach and to baptize, let men know that in Asia the presbyter who compiled that document, thinking to add of his own to Paul’s reputation, was found out, and though he professed he had done it for love of Paul, was deposed from his position. How could we believe that Paul should give a female power to teach and to baptize, when he did not allow a woman even to learn by her own right? Let them keep silence, he says, and ask their husbands at home.’” (trans. by Ernest Evans, Tertullian’s Homily on Baptism [London: SPCK, 1964]. Online source: The Tertullian Project).

Tertullian clearly opposes the local people in North Africa who appealed to writings associated with Paul and likely Thecla (the textual evidence for the reference to Thecla is shaky) which had women baptizing and teaching. Moreover, the modern historian should not take Tertullian’s perspective (or the perspective of those who spoke against the elder in Asia) as though it was an objective description of the situation. Also problematic would be to argue from this passage (as does Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 29-32) that Tertullian provides objective evidence that the author of the Acts of Paul (and Thecla) pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of, “forgery” in some sort of official hearing (see the earlier posts on the “forgery” issue here and here). (Nor is this further evidence that writing in the name of a respected figure of the past was universally rejected, as implied by Ehrman). With both Tertullian and the opponents of the “elder” in Asia, we are witnessing one side of a many-sided struggle over how to define Christian practice within the congregations, and the figure of Paul (understood or portrayed differently) was one of the weapons in the struggle. Polemical rhetoric and accusations on any side of the struggle should not be mistaken for historical description.

For further online discussion of Thecla see, for instance, Nancy A. Carter’s site, The Acts of Thecla: A Pauline Tradition Linked to Women.

For more on Tertullian, go to the substantial Tertullian Project site.

Peter vs. Simon Magus (alias Paul) in the Pseudo-Clementines (NT Apocrypha 17)

Tensions between the historical Paul and Peter (Cephas in Aramaic) are attested early on, as Paul’s retelling of an incident at Antioch suggests. There, so Paul says in his letter to followers of Christ in Galatia, Paul “opposed [Cephas] to his face” because Cephas had withdrawn from eating with uncircumcized Gentiles after “certain people” came from James, the leader of the church at Jerusalem (see Galatians 2:11-14 [NRSV]). Peter’s concern evidently centred on properly following the Jewish food laws. F.C. Baur and the Tübingen school made this opposition between Paul and Peter the key to interpreting all of early Christianity, as I have mentioned in a previous post in this series (no. 2). Although this reduction of early Christianity to these two camps (Pauline Gentile Christianity vs. Petrine Jewish Christianity) is oversimplified, there are times when the figures of Peter and Paul, as understood by later interpreters, continued to be at odds with one another.

The novelistic stories about Clement of Rome and his conversion under Peter’s direction, which are known as the Pseudo-Clementines, illustrate continuing battles that existed between some who claimed Peter as their founder (Jewish Christians, who can be associated with “Ebionites”) and others who considered Paul as most central (Gentile Christians who no longer followed the Jewish law). Previously I have discussed the notion of false passages ” in scripture that comes up in this writing. (It is important to mention that the form in which we now have this Christian novel comes from two alternate retellings of the fourth century known as the Recognitions and the Homilies, which likely reflect an earlier edition of the mid-200s, the so-called “basic document”; see the introductory material in Strecker’s translation in Schneelmelcher). The full text of both the Recognitions and the Homilies is available online here.

The author of this novel presents a Peter who emphasizes the need to follow the Jewish law and opposes another figure, his “enemy”, who does not (often called Simon the Samaritan or Magician [Magus] but sometimes clearly a cipher for Paul) . In the supposed letter from Peter to James that prefaces the novel, Peter complains that some “from among the Gentiles have rejected my lawful preaching and have preferred a lawless and absurd doctrine of the man who is my enemy. And indeed some have attempted, while I am still alive, to distort my words by interpretations of many sorts, as if I taught the dissolution of the law and, although I was of this opinion, did not express it openly. But that may God forbid! For to do such a thing means to act contrary to the law of God which was made known by Moses and was confirmed by our Lord in its everlasting continuance. For he said: ‘The heaven and earth will pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall not pass away from the law’”(Epistula Petri 2:2-5; trans. by Strecker in Schneemelcher; cf. Matthew 24:35).

Clearly, the Pseudo-Clementine literature attests to a form of Jewish Christianity (sometimes labelled “Ebionite”) which continued to practice the Jewish law and to oppose those it considered to be neglecting the law, namely the heirs of Paul and a Gentile brand of Christianity (including Marcion). There also seems to be a reference here to some portrayals of Peter which tried to lessen any conflict with Paul by presenting Peter as though he did not require obedience to the law (see, for example, the Acts of the Apostles’ portrayal of a Paul and Peter, whose speeches on inclusion of Gentiles sound very much alike). Later in the Pseudo-Clementine stories of Clement’s journey to Judea and conversion there is a disputation which takes place between Peter and one Simon Magus (the Samaritan), Peter’s “enemy”, which again sometimes clearly serves as a cipher for a “lawless” Paul who had a supposed vision of Jesus (esp. H II 16-17; H XVII 13-19). Paul’s relaxing (for Gentiles) of certain aspects of the Jewish law (including circumcision and food laws) in order to include Gentiles in the Jesus movement was the focus of controversy in Paul’s lifetime (read Galatians) and, long after, continued to arouse the response or anger of some Jewish Christians who felt themselves in continuity with Jewish figures such as Peter.

UPDATE (Oct 21): A relevant article on the fourth-century Recognitions version of the Pseudo-Clementines has appeared. Nicole Kelley argues, among other things, that the author of the Recognitions attempts to establish the authority and ultimate knowledge of Peter (via the True Prophet, Jesus) over against other claims to knowledge (especially astrology’s claims of true knowledge with respect to “fate”, but also claims of knowledge among competing forms of Christianity). And she places this assertion of Peter’s access to true knowledge within the context of religious rivalries in fourth century Syria (among Jewish Christians and followers of Marcion, Bardaisan, and others). The romance (story of Clement’s family) in particular functions in this manner: The old astrologer’s claim that “fate” determined the dissolution of Clement’s family is countered successfully by Peter’ knowledge that God’s providence, not fate, was at work. And the reunion of Clement’s family proves Peter (and the source of his knowledge, the True Prophet) right. See Nicole Kelley, “Problems of Knowledge and Authority in the Pseudo-Clementine Romance of Recognitions,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 13 (2005) 315-348 (online institutional subscription required).