Ancient History


I noticed over the weekend that Robert Orlando’s much discussed 89-minute documentary Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe is now available for purchase on DVD or download. I’ve now watched it and was impressed by the number and names of the scholars interviewd in the film. I also enjoyed that the documentary sought both to persuade the viewer of a particular political function for the Jerusalem collection while also providing a decent (if not one-sided) summary of Paul’s life and ministry in the process, which gave the historical survey lying at the center of the film a sense of unity from beginning to end. The film certainly has an agenda to push, and I myself was not convinced, as the film suggests, that the Jerusalem collection was a failure, in that James ultimately rejected the Gentiles’ money and Paul’s Gentile mission. Unlike the director and the interviewees given prominence toward the end of the film (where Wright, Witherington, and Hurtado seems to disappear), I find no reason to believe that James and the Jerusalem believers conspired against Paul and somehow actively or passively contributed in his beating and arrest in Acts 21. Luke explains that Paul was welcomed gladly by James and company when Paul arrived in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-26) and I find no reason to doubt the veracity of that account. Whatever the case, Orlando’s film is worth watching and reflecting upon critically critically. This could be a good documentary to show students of early Christianity, though afterward one should given plenty of time for class interaction and for fielding questions.

Various online news groups are reporting that the scientific studies conducted on the fragment of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife have shown it NOT to be a forgery! See, e.g., the article in he Boston Globe. See also the official Harvard Divinity School site. Can’t wait to hear the reactions of Watson, Gathercole, Goodacre, and others.

I’ve just listened to N. T. Wright’s lecture on “Israel in Pauline Theology” from the HBU conference held a little over a week ago (see below). I’ve read Wright plenty before on this and related issues, so there were no real surprises here in his exegesis and overall reading of Paul. For Wright, Jesus Christ and the multi-ethnic church are the true Israel. Thus, Paul does not anticipate any yet-fulfilled mass conversion of Israelites prior to the second coming (as the scholarly majority seems to understand Rom 11:25-26 to predict).

I’m quite happy with the way Wright interprets many individual texts, though I disagree with him on at least a couple of significant issues in the lecture (esp. Rom 11:25-26), and ultimately with his final position. I won’t quibble with the content of his exegesis, since many capable scholars have already done this elsewhere (in addition to many mainline commentators, see, e.g., the recent article by my colleague Michael G. Vanlaningham, “An Evaluation of N. T. Wright’s View of Israel in Romans 11,” BibSac 170 (2013): 179-93). But there are a few things Wright says or does (methodologically) here that I think are just plain odd, even for him.

First, given the topic of Wright’s lecture, I was surprised by how quickly he asserted his position on the meaning of “Israel of God” in Gal 6:16 and then just moved on. Near the end of the 57th minute, he says, “[In] Galatians 6:16, he [Paul] calls the church ‘the Israel of God'; I think there is no doubt about that.” That’s it. No exegesis and no argument. This is unfortunate considering how much discussion that verse has received and how many scholars plainly disagree with Wright on this text (see, e.g.,  Susan Grove Eastman, “Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-reading of Galatians 6.16 and Romans 9-11,” NTS 56 [2010]: 367-95; Bruce Longenecker, “Salvation History in Galatians and the Making of a Pauline Discourse,” JSPL 2 [2012]: 65-87, at 79-80).

To be sure, Wright warns at the beginning of the lecture that he will principally focus on passages that don’t use the term “Israel” at all. I suppose that’s fine. But it is astonishing that he then so quickly bypasses those that do while also maintaining how crucial they are for a coherent reading of Paul. What I mean is that, in my opinion, Wright terribly exagerates the significance of Gal 6:16 and Rom 11:25-26 in Pauline thought when, at the 59th minute, he says, “if those passages don’t refer to the church, then Paul has just unmade the whole theological structure he has so obviously got throbbing through his head and his heart.” Again, this is just asserted, not argued: it is as if he simply forces his entire pre-conceived ecclesiology onto the two passages. Exegetical debates aside, it is just baffingly to me that Wright would place so much significance on two texts he hardly discusses in this hour-long lecture, or to put it the other way around, that he would hardly discuss two texts he considers to be so important.

Finally, as a progressive dispensationalist, I was confused at the 12th minute when he responded to the claim of some dispensationalists (not me) that in Romans 11 Paul predicts the return of the Jews to the land. Wright says in response, “This would be odd [for Paul to predict], not least, because of course when Paul wrote Romans, they [Israel] had not left it [i.e., the land] in the first place,” a comment that sounds like it incited a great deal of laughter. But what does Wright mean about the Jews having not left the land? Had the Jewish Diaspora come to an end before 57 AD? There were obviously thousands upon thousands of Israelites still scattered across the Mediterannean. So I don’t get it. This is a very odd criticism, and one that too quickly won the audience’s approval.

Nonetheless, I appreciate Wright’s attempt to read ALL of Paul and to make his entire theological vision work together, even if I disagree with how he goes about it. I may have my summer school Romans class listen to this lecture (and maybe another one of Wright’s on justification), since it provides a good representation of Wright’s system and is generally quite easy to follow.

John Frederick has a lenghty review of my thesis (Paul as an Administrator of God in 1 Corinthians, Cambridge, 2012) in the most recent issue of JETS (56.4, pp. 877-80). I appreciate that he read the entire monograph and that he has some very kinds things to say of the work. If ever we meet at SBL, drinks are on me!

Warren Carter’s Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World (Baker, 2013) is a clear and well-written introduction to issues relevant for understanding early Christianity. The book is structured around seven crucial ‘events’ (using the term loosely at times) that impacted the world of early Christianity. The seven events are:

  1. The Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE): explores the significance of the spread of Hellenism and compares Alexander with Jesus
  2. The Process of Translating Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (ca. 250 BCE): discusses the tale of the Septuagint and how early Christians read the Scriptures with ‘Jesus-glasses’
  3. The Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple (164 BCE): explains how the Maccabean revolt and the events following it helped form Jewish identity
  4. The Roman Occupation of Judea (63 BCE): describes the rise and impact of Roman rule in Judea and how early Christians responded to Roman rule
  5. The Crucifixion of Jesus (ca. 30 CE): addresses who was crucified in the ancient world and why Jesus was crucifed both historically and theologically
  6. The Writing of the New Testament Texts (ca. 50 — ca. 130 CE): goes over briefly the standard introductory issues, such as authorship and purpose
  7. The Process of ‘Closing’ the New Testament Canon (397 CE): outlines five stages that lead to the canon and then surveys some of the criteria for canonization

Carter explores the historical and social context of these events. His concern is less with individual figures or the event itself. Rather, he is interested in a ‘people’s-history’, so he explores the relevance of these events for the lives of the common folks. He highlights in each chapter the significance of these events for the development of the early Christian community. Spread throughout are pictures and sidebars that briefly explain related issues or develop some point in slightly more detail.

Scholars won’t find anything surprising in Carter’s discussion, although as with any short book like this one would wish for some more explanation at points. At times I thought that Carter presented conclusions as universal givens when there is dispute about the matters. For example, the discussion of the authorship of the disputed Pauline letters was too one-sided for me. Also, each chapter contains a short bibliography, although the lists don’t reflect well ongoing discussions and tend to be one-sided.

Perhaps the most disputed point will be the selection of these seven events. I think Carter is right to highlight these, but I wondered why there was nothing about the resurrection. Arguably the cross is meaningless without the resurrection. The chapter on Christ’s crucifixion needs to be supplemented by discussion of the resurrection for the full significance to come out.

Although Carter’s work is focused primarily on the ancient context, scattered throughout and particularly in the Conclusion are reflections on the relevance of the New Testament for today. I appreciate his concern to bring the ancient context of the New Testament  into connection with its relevance for today. His final words are worth highlighting:

Reading with awareness of the worlds from which these texts emerged and reading in community help readers to have genuine conversation with the texts and with other readers, rather than simply making the texts reflect our prejudices and preferences. Reading in community requires awareness of how readers are interpreting the texts, what values and practices they are promoting, and who is being harmed and benefited by the interpretation. Reading in community requires conversation and accountability. (p.159)

Overall, I like this book and especially the idea of picking seven key events to focus on. I imagine that designing an Introduction to the New Testament class around these events would help students navigate the complexity of the ancient world and early Christianity’s place within it. Also, it would move beyond the typical approach of working book by book through the critical issues. I, though, wouldn’t use the book itself as a core textbook simply because it lacks the necessary detail that I want in an core textbook. But, that being said, I will be recommending it to my students as a starting point to help them get into the context of the New Testament.

Every semester I introduce my students to a range of Jewish literature. In the first year module, Jesus and the Gospels, for example, I give a brief overview of the historical context and review the relevant collections of Jewish literature. We also spend several sessions looking at non-canonical gospels and comparing them with the canonical Gospels. But, despite trying to get my students to read the ancient material, many remain resistant. Some lack motivation. Others don’t see the value: they have their Bible so what else do they need? Some, however, do take up the challenge. I think the spectrum I see with my students is fairly typical of the response of most Christians, and it seems that the majority of my students and Christians I know don’t see any value in understanding the historical context.

Mike Bird draws attention to a helpful piece by Andy Naselli addressing the issue of whether or not ‘background’ (that is, historical) knowledge is necessary for understanding the Bible. Andy gives a ‘cautious yes’, and Mike adds some good points as well. Two additional points seem relevant to note:

1. It seems to me that the debate about whether historical awareness is necessary arises because we have translations. If I wanted to read a Russian novel, then I would need to learn Russian which would include reading about Russian history and culture, for the two (language and culture) cannot be separated. If all Bible students and Christians had to learn the original languages, then this question of historical knowledge wouldn’t exist.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we do away with translations. It just seems to me that a key reason we even ask the question about the necessity or importance of historical awareness is because translations are available and the reader then assumes that he or she can properly and fully understand the Scriptures.

2. If we hold that no historical knowledge is necessary, then one must ask why God choose to reveal himself through Israel and for the Incarnation to occur during the Roman period rather than some other historical period. God could have simply dropped the Scriptures from heaven at any time and in any language. He could have used metaphors and concepts that fit better with our context. But he didn’t, and because he didn’t it is vital that we seek to understand the language, history and culture of the ancient world in order to understand better and more fully the meaning of the text.

I recently read a novel set in England at the beginning of the 11th century. After finishing the novel I read about some of the events described because there were parts of the story that didn’t make sense to me. This wasn’t the author’s fault. Rather it was my lack of knowledge about the period and I wanted to understand better the setting of the story. The same is true of Scripture. Any reader of Scripture, whether in the original languages or translation, can get the basic story line, but there will always be gaps in one’s understanding without some knowledge of the historical context. The more one knows about the historical and social contexts and the languages, then the better chance one has to understand the text in its fullest meaning. And for those who are able to study the historical context, the greater the responsiblity that is placed on them to teach and help those who are not given this privilege.

Many of you will be as excited as me to see that the latest (July) volume of New Testament Studies is now available. There are nine very interesting articles to view, including several touching on related topics–two on the Lord’s Supper, two on Luke’s use and rhetoric of death, two on Clement’s view of good works, two on patronage/benefaction. Congratulations go especially to my good friend and new colleague Ben Wilson for his short study, “Taking up and Raising, Fixing and Loosing: A Chiastic Wordplay in Acts 2.23b-24.”

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