As with physical health, the core matters. One of the ways to have a strong core when studying Christian origins is a good general sense of the ancient world through primary texts. While you (or I!) may not be able to devote the amount of time that Shawn Wilhite describes in this post on A Strategic Approach to Reading Background Texts of the New Testament, doing any aspect of it will help.

As we have been working on Reading Mark in Context, the follow-up to Reading Romans in Context, it’s struck me again how much knowing this contextual literature is essential. What Shawn’s post captures is that it’s the consistent devotion to reading practices over time that is the most formative.

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I’m (Jason) presently working on a short piece that outlines Paul’s biography so I finally got a round to reading Douglas Campbell’s Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography. In the run-up to the book’s publication, I had heard that it would challenge much of the status quo in Pauline scholarship. And this it certainly does. The book is methodical in its assessment of the Pauline material and the standard arguments put forward by others. It is bold in its conclusions. Campbell was not bound by normal answers, and he was willing to rethink almost everything about Paul’s biography (including positions that he himself had advocated for previously). Campbell provides the reader much to think about. The conclusion is a fascinating re-ordering of Paul’s life and letter writing.

While I have many questions about the details of the argument, I want to focus briefly on two issues in this post and the next. First, while reading the book, it was often unclear to me what the payout was going to be. Campbell insists that having Paul’s biography, specifically his chronology, right is absolutely necessary for a correct reconstruction of his theology. While modifying the dates of when some of the books were written (Romans earlier than most would place it), through the first four chapters I wasn’t sure what the significance of getting Paul’s biography right was going to be. However, it is in chapter 5 on Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians where I think the payout comes. Particularly it is Campbell’s claims about Ephesians (which he claims is the letter to the Laodiceans). He argues for the authenticity of Ephesians/Laodiceans–not itself a novel position but certainly contrary to much of scholarship. But the real shift comes in his claim that Ephesians/Laodiceans is the third letter Paul wrote (after 1 and 2 Thess). Moreover, it is written to a community that did not know Paul or his theological views. From this reconstruction, Campbell claims, Ephesians/Laodiceans “is a unique introduction to the Pauline way for those who knew next to nothing about it” (p.407). As he puts it elsewhere, “Ultimately, this position will result in a more ‘Ephesiocentric’ account of Paul’s thought than might otherwise be the case” (p.326).

Of course, many scholars hold that Ephesians is in essential agreement with Paul’s other letters. But, I think, Campbell means something more by this. Rather than interpretative priority being assigned to Romans, it must now be given to Ephesians. How exactly this will impact reconstructions of Paul’s theology remains to be seen. Will prioritizing Ephesians/Laodiceans produce a completely different reading of Paul than, say, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul, which is structured on Romans? Campbell has a book on Paul’s theology in the works, and it will be interesting to see how this refocusing on Ephesians/Laodiceans will play out.

In Mark 11.27-12.34 Jesus engages with other Jewish groups as they pepper him with various questions. In one of the rare engagements between Jesus and the Sadducees, they present him with a problem regarding marriage and resurrection (12:18-27). They tell a story about a woman who marries, but the husband dies. Of course, in Jewish law the solution is simple: the woman marries the man’s brother. Yet, in this story, the next brother dies, as does the next and the next and so on. Their question then is whose wife will she be at the resurrection. (The account is probably based on the story of Tobit.)

The story told by the Sadducees is tragic, but their real concern is with the legal code of the levirate marriage law (Deut 25.5-10). According to the logic of the Sadducees, one cannot maintain a belief in resurrection and uphold the authority of the Torah. They make two assumptions here: 1) marital practices of the “supposed” resurrection age will mirror those of the present age; and 2) the ultimate authority of the Mosaic Torah in both the present age and the next. If the Torah commandment of levirate marriage remains applicable in the resurrection age, which it must, then this creates a bizarre situation that violates other laws about adultery. Their question to Jesus is fundamentally about the Torah.

In his response Jesus challenges the Sadducees understanding of Scripture. He claims that if the Sadducees were reading Scripture properly they would realize that God is the God of the living. This is the point of his quotation of Exod 3.6, whatever exactly is the best interpretation of Jesus’ quotation.

But stopping here is to grasp only the surface meaning of Jesus’ response. Underneath the surface Jesus is leveling a more marked charge: the issue as Jesus frames it is not merely whether there will be a resurrection nor even how best to interpret Moses, but rather the very nature of God. Is Israel’s God one who gives life only in the present or also in the future? The conjunction of the double declarations of God’s identity is crucial: Scripture reveals that God is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and it is accepted truth that he is “the God of the living,” therefore, Jesus infers, the patriarchs must live again.[1] Jesus cuts through the legal questions to the core issue: what is the nature Israel’s God?

By turning to Exod 3:6, Jesus’ tactic is not only cleaver, but it thoroughly undercuts the Sadducees’ rejection of the resurrection. Jesus exposes them as hermeneutically deficient, for they had failed to grasp the full import of this text as it relates to one of their core beliefs. But, even more sharply, Jesus charges that their denial of resurrection is actually a denial of Israel’s God.

[1] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 256–57.

In a previous post, I (Jason) briefly explained how little clear evidence there is in second temple Jewish texts for a widespread belief in resurrection. Recognizing this point may help explain two issues about the development of early Christianity (probably more, but I’m only interested in these two right now).

First, if resurrection was not a widely held belief, then the commonality between Jesus, his movement and the Pharisees on this issue can help explain why the two are often linked together. Despite all their differences, these two groups were united in their acceptance of a minority view. They found common support, and if necessary could look past their obvious differences on other matters. This explains why some of the teachers of the law (Luke 20.39) praised Jesus when he rebutted the Sadducees. Recognizing this shared viewpoint also helps explain why there was so much tension between the Pharisees and Jesus. Both had a common message about resurrection which they were offering to the same group of people. In other words, they were competing for the same audience, and Jesus appeared to be winning.

Second, the distinctiveness of the Christian message stands out. If many people were not expecting individual resurrection, then the Christian message strikes a different tone. It not only appears awkward in comparison to Greek and Roman ideas of the afterlife, but also in comparison to many Jewish ideas. The Christian message not only struck a chord with its claim that the messiah was a crucified man, but also with its claim that this one had been raised and that all who believed in him would also be raised. The resurrection of believers should be seen as a distinctive part of the Christian proclamation.

This spring I (Jason) wrote two short pieces on resurrection. The first is on the Sadducees’ question about marriage and resurrection in Mark 12.18-27 (par. Matt 22.23-33; Luke 20.27-38). The second surveys Jewish views during the second temple period. The issue that stood out to me while working on these projects is the lack of clear evidence for a widespread belief in resurrection during this time. I think most people work with the impression that the vast majority of Jews believed in resurrection, and the Sadducees were the odd ones. Reading a work like N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God certainly gives the impression that most Jews believed in resurrection. The literature, however, does not clearly support this view.

Sirach has no notion of a continued bodily existence after death. One lives on only in the memories of others. This work was hugely popular in the second temple period and even into the Rabbinic era. Of course, later scribes added resurrection statements, which indicates that they were bothered by the lack of a resurrection belief. These edits, however, come at later stages and cannot be dated clearly to the second temple period.

Jubilees 23.31 describes the death of the physical body and the continuing existence of one’s spirit. Wisdom of Solomon appears to describe a similar view. In order to get either text to refer to resurrection, one must assume that eschatological texts that speak of a continued existence after death assume resurrection even if not clearly stated.

Perhaps the most surprising evidence is the Dead Sea Scrolls. Experts in this literature have, for some time, been challenging the reading that finds here a strong belief in resurrection. George Nickelsburg made the case in his early study Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life (1972), which was updated in 2006. Important texts like 1QS, CD and 1QM have no clear evidence for a belief in resurrection. The strongest evidence comes in the Hodayot, but this is far from clear. I suspect that the author(s) did have leanings toward a bodily afterlife, something like resurrection, but this is far from obvious. Even then, the evidence from the scrolls is strikingly thin.

To be sure, there were Jews who believed in bodily resurrection. Josephus indicates that he believes in resurrection (Ap. 2.217-18), and he attributes the same to the Pharisees, despite describing their position in Greek philosophical language (J.W. 2.163; Ant.18.14). Texts like 2 Macc 7 also give the impression that resurrection was a popular position. 2 Baruch also advocates for resurrection, although it is not clear exactly what the author envisions the afterlife to be like (chapters 49-52). And, of course, the New Testament texts testify to the belief in resurrection among the early Christians.

In the end, though, the Jewish literature does not provide strong evidence for the view that many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection after death.

I (Ben) noted last week about Justin Martyr’s very clear affirmation that Jesus eternally existed and became incarnate in time in his Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 48. In the conclusion I noted the issue of distinguishing between economy (what God does) and ontology (how God is). The economy is clear in that statement, but what about ontology. Trypho has the same question!

Chapter 50: “You seem,” said Trypho, “to have debated with many persons on every possible topic, and consequently are ready to answer any of my questions. Tell me then, first of all, how can you prove that there is another God besides the Creator of the world, and then show that He condescended to be born of a virgin.”

Justin continues a previous argument (about the two advents of Christ) before coming back to this question in chapter 55ff. In chapter 56, Justin provides a lengthy set of quotations and descriptions of the Abraham’s interchange with three men and Lot’s later interchange. His argument is basically that God is present in two places at the same time. Summing up at key points, he writes:

Chapter 56:[11] “Then,” I said, “let us return to the Scriptures and I will try to convince you that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, and is called God, is distinct from God, the Creator; distinct, that is, in number, but not in mind. For I state that He never did or said anything else than what the Creator — above whom there is no other God — desired that He do or say.”  …

[22] At this point I asked, “Do you not see, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in Heaven, is Lord of the two angels? When they went on to Sodom, He stayed behind and talked with Abraham, as Moses testified. Then He went His way after His conversation, and Abraham returned to his place. [23] And when He came to Sodom, it was no longer the two angels, but He Himself, who talked with Lot, as is evident from the Scriptures. He, indeed, is the Lord who was commissioned by the Lord in Heaven, that is, the Creator of all things, to inflict those dreadful punishments upon Sodom and Gomorrah, which are described in the Scriptures in this fashion: ‘The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven’ [Gen 19.24].”

He goes on to include discussion of the burning bush and gives this description:

Chapter 61 “So, my friends,” I said, “I will now show from the Scriptures that God has begotten of Himself a certain rational Power as a Beginning before all other creatures. The Holy Spirit indicates this Power by various titles, sometimes the Glory of the Lord, at other times Son, or Wisdom, or Angel, or God, or Lord, or Word. He even called Himself Commander-in-chief when He appeared in human guise to Jesus, the son of Nave. Indeed, He can justly lay claim to all these titles from the fact both that He performs the Father’s will and that He was begotten by an act of the Father’s will. [2] But, does not something similar happen also with us humans? When we utter a word, it can be said that we beget the word, but not by cutting it off, in the sense that our power of uttering words would thereby be diminished. We can observe a similar example in nature when one fire kindles another, without losing anything, but remaining the same; yet the enkindled fire seems to exist of itself and to shine without lessening the brilliancy of the first fire. [3]My statements will now be confirmed by none other than the Word of Wisdom, who is this God begotten from the Universal Father, and who is the Word and Wisdom and Power and Glory of Him who begot Him.

This doesn’t sort all the questions about ontology by any means, but it shows that Justin was indeed aware of the issues. Though later argumentation is framed differently, the ideas of God meeting Abraham in Genesis 19 which is so central for Justin is at the heart of Rublev’s Trinity:

800px-angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410

As Brevard Childs and Kavin Rowe argued so well: the OT is not an impediment to the Trinity, it is the necessary foundation on which the Trinity is grounded.

(Public Domain)

This year’s HBU Theology Conference takes up the issue of canon on March 2-4. Our plenary speakers are James Charlesworth (Princeton Theological Seminary) and Lee McDonald (formerly of Acadia Divinity College). Both are well-known for the contributions on this topic. We also have a great line-up of speakers on Friday who will speak on canonical criticism, various figures in church history and their views of canon, textual problems relevant to the question of canon, among other topics. There will be something for everyone.

You can find more information about the conference and registrar at www.hbu.edu/theologyconference.

The conference is jointly hosted with Lanier Theological Library (http://www.laniertheologicallibrary.org/). If you haven’t been to the chapel and library before, you certainly want to attend Saturday night’s double lecture. You can register for the Saturday lecture at laniertheologicallibrary.org/events.

The conference is also partly sponsored by Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software. They will have a display booth at the conference where you can preview and purchase Logos or upgrade your present version.