Ancient History


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.

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.

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