Category Archives: New Testament course series

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.

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.

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?

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”.

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).

A very Jewish Jesus: The Gospel of Matthew’s portrait (NT 1.4)

Something I often stress to students of early Christianity is that this Jesus movement was very much a form of Judaism in its origins. The peasant Jesus was a Jew, and all the earliest followers of Jesus were Jews, Jews who continued to feel that following the law (the Torah) was humanity’s response to God’s covenant with his people (Paul, the Jewish Pharisee, was a bit of an exception in not requiring that gentiles follow certain aspects of the Jewish law — especially circumcision and food laws — in order to join. Still Paul was very much a Jew and did not object to Jewish followers of Jesus following the law and, in some respects, expected gentiles to follow other aspects of the law beyond those that created a social or status distinction).

So just about every portrayal of Jesus in the first century would naturally reflect the Jewishness of Jesus, as is in indeed the case. However, among the gospels in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew stresses perhaps more than others the Jewishness of Jesus. Jesus is presented as the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures in over a dozen fulfillment citations. The gospel begins by presenting Jesus as the son of David, the anointed king par excellence.

Furthermore, Jesus is often presented as the new Moses, as in the birth narrative. This continuing theme of Jesus as the expected prophet like Moses continues in what Matthew has as the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7). There Matthew’s Jesus affirms the continuing validity of the Jewish law for the followers of Jesus:

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Jesus’ followers were to follow the law in a way that excelled the Pharisees, who had a reputation (outside of the gospels and in this passage in Matthew) for carefully following the law in their daily lives, beyond the practice of many other Jews. This is the interpretive key to the material that follows (falsely called “antitheses”) which have Jesus quoting the law of Moses and interpreting it in a way that strongly affirms the original intention of the laws (as Jesus’ Matthew understood it). These are not replacements for the law of Moses, but rather a radicalization of the reason why those laws were given by God, in Matthew’s view. Matthew and some in the community for which his gospel was written in the late first century evidently continued to place an importance on following the law and continued to think of themselves as Jews in this way.

“Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus (NT 1.3)

One among the many academic or historical approaches to studying gospels such as Mark is narrative analysis. One asks literary questions like: What is the overall plot of this story and how does it unfold? Who are the main characters in the narrative and how do they relate to one another? What story-telling techniques does the author use to move the narrative forward or to build tension? How does this author portray the main protagonist, Jesus?

As ancient biographies (“Lives”, bioi), all of the gospels are very much concerned with the question of who was Jesus. Still, the Gospel of Mark in particular has issues of identity at the heart of the unfolding of the plot in a way that is somewhat different than the other gospels. For more on the gospels as ancient biography, see  Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, 2nd edition, 2004). From the outset, the reader (or hearer) of this story is very much aware of who Jesus is: the first sentence says that this work is the beginning of the good message about Jesus, “the Son of God“, after all. Yet, from this author’s perspective, the human characters in the story generally do not know who this Jesus is until key moments in the narrative. Not only that, but Jesus himself is portrayed as not wanting his identity revealed, as when he tells non-human forces — demons who do know who he is — not to tell anyone (see, for instance, the exorcism in Mark 1:23-26). This is the so called “messianic secret” that is characteristic of Mark specifically and less so the other gospels that likely used Mark as a source (Matthew and Luke). This gap between what the reader knows and what the characters in the story know about Jesus’ identity is what makes the overall story ironic in a literary sense.

Throughout, just about everyone is asking “Who is this guy” (Beezelbub? Elijah? John the Baptist returned?) and it’s only at several key moments, which I want to just briefly mention here, that this identity is revealed more openly to some of the characters in the story. Up to the middle of the story, only demons know clearly who Jesus is (“Holy One of God”, “Son of the Most High God”), and he tells them to be quiet about it. But at about the mid-point of the story (Mark 8:27-33) one of his misunderstanding disciples finally outright recognizes and says who Jesus is (namely what we readers knew all along). But immediately after, the same disciple misunderstands what that identity means: Peter proclaims “You are the Messiah” but then attempts to stop Jesus’ talk about suffering and dying as the “Son of Man”, with the result that Jesus rebukes Peter as the ultimate Adversary, Satan. So the identity is now momentarily revealed to the disciples of Jesus alone, but even they are not completely on to the whole project yet. So Jesus repeatedly states to the disciples what the “Son of Man” has to do (9:12-13, 9:31-32; 10:33-34) — namely suffer and die — often with continued misunderstandings (the disciples are consistently portrayed as not getting things or as lacking “faith” in Mark). They just don’t get it, right to the very end, when they deny or desert Jesus after his arrest.

The next key identity revelations take place in the passion narrative, and these happen in a more public setting (rather than among only the disciples). They represent the culmination of Mark’s story in many respects. After his arrest, Jesus is brought before the highpriest and other Judean authorities, where he is accused of threatening to destroy the temple. More importantly here, Jesus is publicly asked “Are you the Messiah (Christ)?” and, in an unprecedented manner (for Mark’s narrative), he openly proclaims “I am”. The secret is out. Then, when he is brought for another hearing before Pilate, the Roman governor, the issue of identity is at the fore: “Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so'” (15:2 [NRSV]) — which likely amounts to a “yes” here (or a qualified yes — see the update below). Finally, as Jesus passes away on the cross, a Roman (Gentile) soldier proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:19). So the issue of who is Jesus is fundamental to the unfolding of Mark’s Gospel, and the final character to openly proclaim Jesus’ identity is a Gentile (non-Judean / non-Jew). Scholars generally point out that Mark’s gospel was likely written by a Gentile for a primarily Gentile audience (see, for instance, Mark 7:3-4, where the author needs to explain what any Judean [Jew] would know). This post touches on only a few important factors in the narrative of Mark; much more could of course be said.

Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2)

Alexander the Great (Istanbul Archeological Museum)In the history of civilizations, few people have made as much of an impact, directly or indirectly, as the guy who stands to your right (who died in 323 BCE). Although living over three hundred years before the origins of Christianity, his impact is in many ways essential for understanding Christian origins and the New Testament. Alexander, the son of Philip, King of Macedon (a.k.a Alexander “the Great”), successfully conquered a larger area than previously accomplished in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, from Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Iran (Persia), as far as India itself.

What matters most for us is what Alexander and his successors brought with them: Hellenistic culture, including the Greek language, Greek modes of social and civic organization, Greek philosophies and religions. Although local languages and cultures continued in various areas, social and cultural interactions were now inevitable and the degree of assimilation to Hellenistic ways depended on the person, group, or situation. Moreover, this situation of considerable cultural commonalities across such a vast geographical space was unparalleled at the time.

Alexander’s legacies can be seen in the fact that the New Testament, and most of early Christian literature, was written in Hellenistic Greek (also known as koine, or common, Greek), and Greek language carries with it Hellenistic culture. As a sect within Judaism, the Jesus movement in Palestine entered into a Jewish world already in interaction with Hellenism, as you can read about in my earlier brief discussion of the Jewish Maccabees (of the second century BCE). And as this Jewish movement made its way into cities throughout the Greco-Roman world (especially in the Greek East), further interaction with Hellenistic (and Roman) culture was the result. A figure like Paul of Tarsus (a Greek city in Asia Minor) seems to have been well-trained in Hellenistic modes of rhetoric (in how to make a good argument or speech), for instance. The Book of Hebrews expresses its understanding of Jesus’ significance in terms drawn not only from Judaism but also from Platonic philosophy, to provide another preview. We will see how important Hellenistic, as well as Roman, culture was for early Christianity as we continue in this series.

Photo (by Phil): Statue of Alexander the Great from Magnesia on the Sipylos (by Menas, a sculptor from Pergamum), now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum (mid-third century BCE).

Christian Origins (NT 1.1)

Ephesus TheatreThis is the first of what will be numerous posts on early Christian history and literature, especially the New Testament, in connection with an undergraduate course I am teaching this term. Early Christianity and religions of the ancient Mediterranean are my specialty, so there are already many entries here on this blog that will be relevant to Christian origins which you may wish to browse.

Come again, and feel free to post questions or comments.

Photo: Theatre at Ephesus, where Christianity was established quite early (by Phil).