Ancient History


One of the basic differences between an ancient social imaginary and a modern one is the way that hierarchies work. In an ancient setting hierarchies are presumed and in the modern hierarchies are questioned. It’s not that hierarchies don’t exist in the contemporary world, but moderns tend to question and rebel against hierarchies of various sorts–racial, gender, etc. I’ve been doing some reading in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and found a great example of an ancient perspective. What’s important is that hierarchy in not necessarily always good–so monarchy vs tyrant–but a good hierarchy is better than none–so monarchy better than democracy.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 8.10

There are three kinds of constitution, and an equal number of deviation-forms–perversions, as it were, of them. The constitutions are monarchy, aristocracy, and thirdly that which is based on a property qualification, which it seems appropriate to call timocratic, though most people are wont to call it polity. The best of these is monarchy, the worst timocracy. The deviation from monarchy is tyrany; for both are forms of one-man rule, but there is the greatest difference between them; the tyrant looks to his own advantage, the king to that of his subjects. For a man is not a king unless he is sufficient to himself and excels his subjects in all good things; and such a man needs nothing further; therefore he will not look to his own interests but to those of his subjects; for a king who is not like that would be a mere titular king. Now tyranny is the very contrary of this; the tyrant pursues his own good. And it is clearer in the case of tyranny that it is the worst deviation-form; but it is the contrary of the best that is worst. Monarchy passes over into tyranny; for tyranny is the evil form of one-man rule and the bad king becomes a tyrant. Aristocracy passes over into oligarchy by the badness of the rulers, who distribute contrary to equity what belongs to the city-all or most of the good things to themselves, and office always to the same people, paying most regard to wealth; thus the rulers are few and are bad men instead of the most worthy. Timocracy passes over into democracy; for these are coterminous, since it is the ideal even of timocracy to be the rule of the majority, and all who have the property qualification count as equal. Democracy is the least bad of the deviations; for in its case the form of constitution is but a slight deviation. These then are the changes to which constitutions are most subject; for these are the smallest and easiest transitions.

One may find resemblances to the constitutions and, as it were, patterns of them even in households. For the association of a father with his sons bears the form of monarchy, since the father cares for his children; and this is why Homer calls Zeus ‘father’; it is the ideal of monarchy to be paternal rule. But among the Persians the rule of the father is tyrannical; they use their sons as slaves. Tyrannical too is the rule of a master over slaves; for it is the advantage of the master that is brought about in it. Now this seems to be a correct form of government, but the Persian type is perverted; for the modes of rule appropriate to different relations are diverse. The association of man and wife seems to be aristocratic; for the man rules in accordance with his worth, and in those matters in which a man should rule, but the matters that befit a woman he hands over to her. If the man rules in everything the relation passes over into oligarchy; for in doing so he is not acting in accordance with their respective worth, and not ruling in virtue of his superiority. Sometimes, however, women rule, because they are heiresses; so their rule is not in virtue of excellence but due to wealth and power, as in oligarchies. The association of brothers is like timocracy; for they are equal, except in so far as they differ in age; hence if they differ much in age, the friendship is no longer of the fraternal type. Democracy is found chiefly in masterless dwellings (for here every one is on an equality), and in those in which the ruler is weak and every one has licence to do as he pleases.

Just the other day a new student asked me (Ben) about studying the New Testament and early Christianity. They were wondering how you study early Christianity because we have relatively few sources for knowing what they thought and practiced. However, when I noted exponential growth in the variety of material we have from the second, third, and forth centuries, the problem is not too little material from these early Christians to process but too much material. Of course, it’s not really too much, but there is so much that putting all the data together can be quite complex.

Since that is the nature of later Christian material, they offered that it’s too bad that we don’t have that same diversity with Jewish material for understanding the New Testament. While again we don’t have “too much,” we have quite a bit of theological, liturgical, historical, philosophical, mystical, narrative, etc. texts from Jews that lived within a similar time frame as the New Testament. The problem isn’t so much the limited amount of material that we have, the problem for students interpreting the New Testament is that they are almost completely unaware of the existence of the material, much less its breadth and depth.

9780310534457I was so much on board when the idea was initially brought up for Reading Romans in Context and now Reading Mark in Context because after seminary I was partially aware that this world existed, but I didn’t know anything about specific texts or much about particular ideas. Our goal with these is to introduce students to this world by making this material accessible to graduate and undergraduate level students. We provide glimpses into that world to help people know it exists and to get a sense of some of its flavor. With just glimpses this means that each chapter is selective, just covering one central topic. Of course, the depth and variety of each biblical passage means there’s much more that could be explored, but we hope this will whet the appetite to study these issues further.

This summer my family and I were glued to our television for nearly a month, as we are every four years, during the FIFA World Cup. Even though the USA didn’t qualify, we were pulling for one particular team—England, where my wife and I lived during my doctoral studies. Sadly, the Three Lions were eliminated in the semi-final round, bringing an all-too-early end to our World Cup dreams. But it was an exciting tournament nonetheless and we were sorely disappointed when the final whistle blew.

Despite our World Cup thrills, most viewers probably appreciated the tournament far more than we did. While my family and I are avid fans of football, the truth is we normally follow the other kind—American football, which is, as they say, a completely different ballgame. In fact, our familiarity with the players, rules, strategies, and team histories of international soccer are embarrassingly limited. We know enough of the basics to follow along, even enough to get caught up in some of the drama, but there is no question we would have understood and appreciated more of what we were watching had we possessed a deeper well of knowledge about the sport, even about international politics and pop culture.

Believe it or not, reading the Gospel of Mark is not unlike watching the World Cup. Many readers can easily pick up their New Testament, read the Second Gospel, and walk away better informed about the life, ministry, and passion of Jesus Christ. They can even, as a result, grow in their love for our Lord and live more faithful lives as his disciples. But what Jesus said and did resonates at an altogether deeper level when one brings to the Bible greater awareness of the “game” Jesus was playing—that is, the game of Second Temple Judaism.

Mark’s Gospel was written for readers with at least some familiarity with intertestamental Jewish history, politics, culture, and religion. In fact, there are numerous pericopae that are in implicit dialogue with the Jewish theological traditions extant in the first century. Sometimes the evangelist himself tells us exactly what those traditions and beliefs consisted of. For example, when introducing the Sadducees for the first and only time in the narrative, Mark tells us they were a sect of Judaism that denied the resurrection of the dead (12:18). But at other times, Mark assumes his readers themselves possess the requisite knowledge to fill in the blanks about the who, what, and where of the narrative.

Reading Mark in Context

Our recently released collection of essays, Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism (Zondervan Academic), seeks to show how familiarizing oneself with Second Temple Jewish literature can help fill those blanks. With a foreword by N. T. Wright and 30 essays by some of today’s most respected Markan scholars (Michael Bird, Darrell Bock, Helen Bond, Elizabeth Shively, Mark Strauss, Rikk Watts, and more), this book will help the reader study the text in new and enriching ways. The volume was designed to cover the entire Second Gospel, but not to be exhaustive. Much more could be said both about Judaism as well as about Jesus. But hopefully this book will whet one’s appetite for reading Mark’s Gospel in context and for digging deeply into the world of the New Testament. If this book interests you, I encourage you to check it out!

I (John) was invited by Emily Varner at Zondervan to review the section on 1 Corinthians in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (CBSB). Many thanks to Emily for inviting me and for providing a review copy.

Let me say at the start that this is a wonderfully written and beautifully produced resource, edited by John Walton and Craig Keener. It makes great sense for John and Craig to have overseen this project, since they have become perhaps the leading evangelical voices on the study of the historical-cultural contexts of the Old and New Testaments. Many will already know that John edited the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (on the OT), while Craig has written numerous (multi-volume) commentaries on various NT books (those on Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians come specially to mind). And of course, some years ago John and Craig also authored the two-volume IVP Bible Background Commentary. Given, then, their expertise on biblical backgrounds, this was bound to be a masterfully written study Bible.

As I said above, my focus here will be on the background comments on 1 Corinthians. The primary features of the study on 1 Corinthians are: (1) the opening essay introducing Corinth and the background to 1 Corinthians; (2) the notes commenting on specific verses; and (3) the numerous articles/sidebars included throughout (some even with colored images).

The articles are a truly wonderful feature, since they dive a bit deeper into this or that ancient cultural practice and thus illuminate a key unit of the letter without being restricted to a verse-by-verse commentary. For 1 Corinthians, these articles focus on:

  • 2:1-5, “Rhetoric and Paul’s Letters,” with an illustration of first-century Corinth;
  • 6:12-20, “Prostitution and Sexual Immorality,” with an image of a stone bed inside the Lupanar brothel in Pompeii;
  • 7:1, “Celibacy in Antiquity”;
  • 8:1-13, “Sacrificed Food”;
  • 9:24-27, “Athletic Imagery in 1 Corinthians 9,” with an image of two wreaths (the likes of which would have been awarded to winners of the Isthmian and Olympic games) and an amphora depicting boxing in ancient Athens;
  • 11:2-16, “Head Coverings in Antiquity,” with an image of a sculpture of a woman wearing a chiton and himation;
  • 11:20-21, “Banquets in Corinth,” with an image of a fresco depicting a Roman banquet;
  • 14:1, “Prophecy in Antiquity”;
  • Ch. 15, “Resurrection,” with an image of a Coptic icon of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ.

Because of the extent to which 1 Corinthians assumes some knowledge of Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and convictions, many, many more articles could have been written on the backgrounds to this letter. However, I believe Craig has done a really nice job selecting key topics that truly illuminate the text for a popular audience and will catch the attention of the interested reader. Of course, some of the articles included for other passages of the NT are relevant for 1 Corinthians as well. For example, the article on the crucifixion (at John 19) will be helpful for understanding what Paul says about the folly and shamefulness of the message of the cross in 1 Cor 1:18. The colored images are also well chosen and add considerably to the attractiveness of this volume.

The essay introducing Corinth and the backgrounds to 1 Corinthians also impressed me. While brief, the essay exhibits great familiarity with the ancient site and recent developments on the study of the Roman colony and its surrounding area. For example, the essay rightly states—though this is sometimes ignored by commentators—that “some local Greeks continued to live on the site” of the city even following its destruction by the Roman General Lucius Mummius in 146 BC. Moreover, the essay correctly notes that it was “Julius Caesar’s decree in 44 BC that led to the city’s refounding.” This sentence, though simple, struck me as carefully and responsibly written (the key phrase being “led to”). For while Julius decreed that Corinth be recolonized, it was Antony, following Caesar’s murder, who implemented Corinth’s refounding (see Mary E. Hoskins Walbank, “The Foundation and Planning of Early Roman Corinth, Journal of Roman Archaeology 10 [1997]: 95-130, at 97-99”).

The same is true of the following statement: “Because most maritime trade between Rome and Asia Minor passed through the Isthmus of Corinth (the rugged southern coast of Greece was dangerous for ships), Corinth was well positioned for trade and wealth.” I was pleased that it wasn’t assumed here—as has been suggested by some early historians—that the Isthmus (specifically, the diolkos road) functioned as a commercial thoroughfare, whereby smaller ships heading either east or west could be carried by trolleys from one end of the isthmus to the other. Rather, as David Pettegrew has argued, goods were probably unloaded at the harbors in Lechaion and Cenchreae and were then exchanged on the isthmus at the emporium (among his other publications, see now David K. Pettegrew, The Isthmus of Corinth: Crossroads of the Mediterranean World [University of Michigan Press, 2016]). All this to say, the essay introducing the letter is well done and while concise, shows signs of familiarity with the best of ancient historical scholarship.

The notes on the biblical text themselves are also very helpful. There were a couple of times, however, that I wondered if they could have been improved. For example, at 1:11 the note reads, “Chloe may have owned a business in Corinth or Ephesus.” Craig’s inclusion of Ephesus as a possible geographical location for Chloe (and her business) is understandable considering that Paul writes 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). However, nowhere do the notes or essays indicate as much up to this point in the study of the letter, so the reason for considering Ephesus in this respect might be lost on some readers.

Moreover, the very next note (on 1:12) reads: “the phrase [I follow/I am of] was sometimes used as a slogan of ancient political partisans, which Paul caricatures here.” I am aware that such has been claimed by scholars for some time (e.g., L. L. Welborn, “On the Discord in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Ancient Politics,” JBL 106 [1987]: 85-111, at 90-93). However, Margaret Mitchell called into question this assumption (esp. as put forth by Welborn) some years ago:

The problem with this conclusion is that in his analysis Welborn has not produced one example of an ancient political slogan which has the same formula (personal pronoun + εἰμι [or ellipsed] + genitive of a proper name) (nor has anyone else, to my knowledge). The evidence which he cited is significantly relevant to the background of these slogans, but not to their form. . . . As much as these phrases rightly point to the dependence of a faction upon a leader, that is all they can show. They do not supply formal parallels to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1:12. . . . An exact replica of the formulae in 1 Cor 1:12 from ancient political literature has not yet been adduced in the history of exegesis of 1 Cor. The absence of this formula in our extant historical writings, a considerable corpus of material, is significant, and casts doubt on the view that these share a common form of political sloganeering. (Paul and the Rhetoric Reconciliation, 83-85)

Now, I have to admit that I have not been able to keep up on this particular debate since first reading Mitchell, or to research whether or not anybody has produced any such evidence since the publication of her work. But I wonder if Craig is simply following the lead of Welborn and others here, or if he is aware of some evidence to support his comment on the use of “I follow/I am of” as an ancient political slogan that I’m not familiar with.

Aside from these minor quibbles, I found the section on 1 Corinthians in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible to be very impressive. There don’t appear to be any references to ancient literature outside of the OT, NT, or Apocrypha in the pages I read, or to scholarly literature that readers might consult for further study. Therefore, the classroom utility of this work has limitations. However, the CBSB will undoubtedly prove to be immensely helpful to lay readers who wish to access those cultural insights that the biblical text simply does not provide.

Well done, John and Craig and the team at Zondervan, for producing this well-conceived study Bible!

Ben, Jason, and I are excited to announce the release of our most recent edited volume Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress Press). This book has been several years in the making, the main contents of which were initially presented and discussed at an SBL event of the same name in November 2014. The volume contains 17 excellent chapters at 488 pages. The retail price is a reasonable $39.00, though Amazon and other online book sellers are currently offering it as cheaply as $24. Below I’ve pasted the book description and table of contents. We’d be delighted if you and/or your library would obtain a copy!

Since the mid-twentieth century, apocalyptic thought has been championed as a central category for understanding the New Testament writings and the lePaul and the Apocalyptic Imaginationtters of Paul above all. But “apocalyptic” has meant different things to different scholars. Even the assertion of an “apocalyptic Paul” has been contested: does it mean the invasive power of God that breaks with the present age (Ernst Käsemann), or the broader scope of revealed heavenly mysteries, including the working out of a “many-staged plan of salvation” (N. T. Wright), or something else altogether? Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination brings together eminent Pauline scholars from diverse perspectives, along with experts of Second Temple Judaism, Hellenistic philosophy, patristics, and modern theology, to explore the contours of the current debate. Contributors discuss the history of what apocalypticism, and an “apocalyptic Paul,” have meant at different times and for different interpreters; examine different aspects of Paul’s thought and practice to test the usefulness of the category; and show how different implicit understandings of apocalypticism shape different contemporary presentations of Paul’s significance.

Part I.
1. Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction—Ben C. Blackwell, John K. Goodrich, and Jason Maston
2. “Then I Proceeded to Where Things Were Chaotic” (1 Enoch 21:1): Mapping the Apocalyptic Landscape—David A. Shaw

Part II.
3. Apocalyptic as God’s Eschatological Activity in Paul’s Theology—Martinus C. de Boer
4. Apocalyptic Epistemology: The Sine Qua Non of Valid Pauline Interpretation—Douglas A. Campbell
5. Apocalyptic as Theoria in the Letters of St. Paul: A New Perspective on Apocalyptic as the Mother of Theology—Edith M. Humphrey
6. Apocalyptic and the Sudden Fulfillment of Divine Promise—N. T. Wright

Part III.
7. Some Reflections on Apocalyptic Thought and Time in Literature from the Second Temple Period—Loren T. Stuckenbruck
8. The Transcendence of Death and Heavenly Ascent in the Apocalyptic Paul and the Stoics—Joseph R. Dodson
9. Second-Century Perspectives on the Apocalyptic Paul: Reading the Apocalypse of Paul and the Acts of PaulBen C. Blackwell
10. Some Remarks on Apocalyptic in Modern Christian Theology—Philip G. Ziegler

Part IV.
11. Righteousness Revealed: Righteousness of God in Romans 3:21-26—Jonathan A. Linebaugh
12. Thinking from Christ to Israel: Romans 9-11 in Apocalyptic Context—Beverly Roberts Gaventa
13. Apocalyptic Allegiance and Disinvestment in the World: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 7:25-35—John M. G. Barclay
14. After Destroying Every Rule, Authority, and Power: Paul, Apocalyptic, and Politics in 1 Corinthians—John K. Goodrich
15. Plight and Solution in Paul’s Apocalyptic Perspective: A Study of 2 Corinthians 5:18-21—Jason Maston
16. The Apocalyptic New Covenant and the Shape of Life in the Spirit according to Galatians—Michael J. Gorman
17. The Two Ages and Salvation History in Paul’s Apocalyptic Imagination: A Comparison of 4 Ezra and Galatians—J. P. Davies

Index of Names
Index of Ancient Writings

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.

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