Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Neglected Passages #5: Romans 15:30-32, Prayer, Providence, and Fate

Romans 15:30-32 is one of those "throwaway" sections, but it opens the way to pressing questions concerning prayer, providence, and fate.

Clearly Paul is wrapping up the epistle, and he's finding ways to pull things together. In fact, most scholars used to believe that the original version of Romans ended with 15:33. It certainly looks like a conclusion: "The God of peace be will you all. Amen." Most scholars no longer believe Romans 16 is a later addition to the epistle, but that doesn't change the fact that Paul is bringing it to a close here.

In 15:30-32 Paul asks the Romans to pray on his behalf, that his trip to Jerusalem will go safely, that his collection for the poor will please the Jerusalem church, and that he will be able to visit Rome after his Jerusalem trip. We often forget that at its heart Romans is not a doctrinal treatise but a pastoral fundraising letter. Paul wants to visit so that he can use Rome as an operational base for a mission to Spain (15:23-24), just as Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus have supported his work in the past. (Take a look at these cities on a map, and you'll see the pattern of aggressive territorial expansion.)

In the light of Romans' high-flying rhetoric and its unrivaled doctrinal influence, such a meek pastoral conclusion hardly commands our attention. However, let's look at that prayer more closely. It involves three basic petitions: (1) that Paul will escape harm, (2) that the church in Jerusalem will approve of his collection, and (3) that he'll be able to complete his mission by means of a journey to Rome. How well was that prayer "answered"?

(1) Most historians believe that Paul's journey to Jerusalem marked the beginning of the end for him. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, and because he "appealed to Caesar" he was taken to Rome in Roman custody. Most traditions have it that Paul died during his imprisonment in Rome. So Paul did not escape harm.

(2) We'll assume that the Jerusalem church gladly accepted the offering, though quite a few historians discern a great deal of tension upon Paul's arrival. (Acts 21:17-26 provides a notoriously difficult account of Paul's visit with James.) We'll give the prayer the benefit of the doubt, and judge that Paul's offering was acceptable.

(3) If Paul made it to Rome and carried on a mission there, he did so as a prisoner. Acts records such a ministry on Paul's behalf. Again, as Acts has it, Paul continued a robust ministry as a prisoner (28:30-31). So, Paul never uses Rome as a base for a mission to Spain, but he does carry on his mission in Rome.

Though every historical judgment in this post is open to challenge, I'll resist the temptation to turn this post into a research article. The point is: Paul's prayer met its fulfillment only partially and ironically.

What does this mean theologically? I don't have an answer for how prayer works, but Paul's prayer is suggestive. Prayer aligns us with the will of God, but it also opens up our lives to God's work. It does not seem that God micromanages the universe, but neither is God's will thwarted by the vagaries of fate. Paul may not have received the answer to prayer that he desired, but without a doubt he did wind up preaching the gospel in Rome.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Neglected Passages #6: The Scope of the Canon (Jude 9-10, 14-15)

If we're gonna talk about neglected passages, we might easily discuss the entire Epistle of Jude. I can't recall ever hearing a sermon from it. To be honest, Jude is largely an ad hominem attack on a competing group of Christian teachers. The epistle does exhort its audience to consider those tempted by false teaching, offering mercy and salvation to those -- even as one despises their "defilement" (vv. 22-23, with a major text critical problem). As William Brosend, II, notes, Jude insists upon eschatological hope and demonstrates that the character of believers, especially religious leaders, is an essential part of their message.

Jude also contains a clue about the nature and development of the canon. Verses 8-9 refer to the archangel Gabriel "contending with the devil" (RSV) over the body of Moses. We also find this story in the Testament of Moses, a Jewish pseudpigraphal work of the period. The tradition may have reached Jude through by another road; my point is that Jude relies on extracanonical traditions for this information.

Even more striking are verses 14-15, in which Jude quotes the great Jewish apocalypse 1 Enoch (1:9), attributing the quote to Enoch's prophecy. Clearly, Jude employs 1 Enoch as scripture. By the way, 1 Enoch stands in the canon of the Ethiopic Church.

Jude's allusion to the Testament of Moses and its quotation of 1 Enoch have implications for how we understand the canon. Our canon (the Bible) is the result of use by Jew and Christians. (For its part, Jude didn't receive particularly widespread acceptance for quite a long time and was often disputed.) It didn't fall out of heaven. A group of bishops didn't conduct a secret vote in a smoke-filled room. It wasn't the result of a consensus. However we understand the role of the Holy Spirit in this process, our Bible comes to us because our ancestors in the faith read, shared, copied, and treasured these books. They used them to find guidance, insight, and inspiration.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

David deSilva on Revelation

I've been teaching a (very rewarding) week-long course, "Preaching Paul," for Lancaster Seminary's summer academy. Have to admit, I'm behind on the Overlooked Passages series. Over the weekend, I hope.

In the meantime, I just got my hard copy of David A. deSilva's major study of Seeing Things God's Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation (Westminster John Knox). I've been looking forward to this. We're doing a panel review of this book in the SBL's Rhetoric and the New Testament Section this fall in New Orleans. I'd already worked through the book as one of those invited to compose blurb's for the book's promotion.

Since this book often levels substantial criticisms of my own work, I won't use this space for rebuttal. I will, however, promote the book. It's by far the most thorough rhetorical study of Revelation to date. That means, David's aim is to show how John, Revelation's author, sought to move his audience to see the world -- and live in it -- in a new way. Accessibly written, though thoroughly engaged with scholarship, this book represents a major contribution to the study of Revelation. Highly insightful, highly recommended.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Mark Goodacre is podcasting on the NT (thanks, Julia)

Mark, who teaches at Duke and is probably the leading Web presence among NT scholars, now has podcasts. Interesting little snippets, two now available.

Thanks to Julia O'Brien for calling my attention to this.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

BibleWorks 8.0

Just received a review copy of BibleWorks 8, the leading biblical text software for PC users. I'll spend several weeks playing with it before I post a review. For now, I'll simply say that it looks very much like BibleWorks 7, with lots -- and lots -- of additional versions of primary texts (Pseudepigrapha, early Christian writings) and lexical aids. The scrolling function for finding the verse you're looking for is much improved.

I'm not an "advanced" user, who does sophisticated grammatical searches, so I'm not the best technical reviewer. But if you want to work with the original languages, this package offers a lot of help.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Neglected Passages #7: Looking Out for the Dead

Thanks to Sally Stewart for the suggestion. We're talking about four passages that discuss early Christian concern for the dead: 1 Corinthians 15:29;1 Peter 3:18-22; 4:6; and Revelation 20:13.

Here's 1 Corinthians 15:29, as translated by Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 760-61).
  • Now, if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?
According to Fee, Paul's reference here is part of an ad hominem argument. He knows that some of the Corinthians are in fact undergoing vicarious baptism on behalf of dead persons, he rejects that belief outright, and he uses that practice against them in his argument for a future resurrection of the saints (763-67). Fee's argument rests on the assumption that Paul could not have approved of vicarious baptism, since Paul understands salvation as coming by grace through faith. That is, Paul believed salvation involved the faith of a believer, something one cannot offer on behalf of another person.

Fee's argument makes sense to me, but we should add a couple of qualifications. First, Paul does not explicitly reject vicarious baptism for the dead; we must infer his condemnation of the practice on the basis of more general considerations. Second, it appears some of the Corinthians were engaged in such a practice. Given the widespread concern for the fate of the dead in ancient Judiasm and Christianity (not to mention ancient Mediterranean religion generally), how do we know the Corinthians were an isolated case?

Let's consider a possibly relevant text from the early second century, the Apocalypse of Peter (as cited and translated by Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, 232).
  • Then I will grant to my called and elect one whomsoever they request from me, out of the punishment. And I will give them [i.e. those for whom the elect pray a fine baptism in salvation from the Acherousian Lake. (14:1)
Does the Apocalypse of Peter envision deceased Christians praying on behalf of the damned, resulting in their post-mortem baptism? Bauckham isn't sure, but he "wonders" about how Apocalypse of Peter 14:1 might relate to 1 Corinthians 15:29.

Now what about 1 Peter 3:18-22 and 4:6? These passages surely lie beneath the clause in the Apostles' Creed: "he descended into hell." Eugene Boring helpfully summarizes the most common views of this passage (1 Peter, 136-37).
  • The passage teaches that between his death and resurrection, Jesus preached to the lost souls in the world of the dead, giving them a "second chance" at salvation. Origen advocated this view.
  • Augustine taught that the preexistent Spirit of Christ preached through Noah to the wicked generation destroyed in the flood. This is what 1 Peter 4:6 indicates, referring to their "spiritually dead" state.
  • The passage alludes to the "Watchers," the angelic beings who ravished mortal women. First Enoch and Jubilees, extremely popular Jewish texts of the period, understand Genesis 6:1-4 as teaching that angels ("Watchers") sinned by taking mortal women for themselves and through that act corrupted humankind. As a result, the Watchers are bound and imprisoned. Our passage refers to "the spirits in prison" who "did not obey . . . in the days of Noah."
The simplest solution is to believe that both 3:18-22 and 4:6 refer to the same idea, that the dead who preceded the time of Jesus received an opportunity to hear the gospel from him. (Boring does not share this view.) However, the references to "spirits in prison" and "the days of Noah" strongly suggest that the 3:18-22 relates to angelic and spiritual beings while 4:6 relates to mortals.

Finally, Revelation 20:13 is part of a description of the great judgment. Here we find that "the sea gave up the dead in it, and death and hades gave up the dead in them." The concept of the underworld giving up the dead to face judgment may seem familiar to us, but why the sea? As Bauckham points out, many people in the ancient world were concerned about how our bodies relate to the afterlife. If I lose a limb, do I get it back in the resurrection? Here, the question involves those who die at sea. Never properly buried, how do they face the resurrection? The answer: in the end, even the sea gives back its dead. (See pp. 269-89 in The Fate of the Dead.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Neglected Passage #8: "The Spies Like Us" Episode: Acts 14:6-19

I'm fascinated by emerging research into ethnicity in the ancient world, an area about which many of us have been largely ignorant for some time. Ethnic concerns figured prominently among Greek and Roman writers. You might note an ethnic slur in Titus 1:12: "Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons" (NRSV). (Thanks to Wil Gafney for reminding me of this.) Grounded in Greek and Roman studies, ethnicity research is beginning to influence biblical studies as well.

• Hall, Jonathan M. Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge 1997).
• Hall, JonathanM. Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago 2002).
• Malkin, Irad (ed.). Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity (Harvard 2001).

Acts 2 depicts the ethnic diversity represented within Judaism. Not only do Jews gather in Jerusalem from all over the ancient world, they speak a variety of local languages. This leads me to wonder if an ethnic joke of some kind might reside beneath Acts 14:6-19, as some interpreters suppose. Luke occasionally employs stereotypes in the interest of entertainment, as we have seen in the case of Rhoda, or for the sake of moving the story and developing the characters (as with the Athenians in Acts 17). Might something similar be going on with the Lycaonians?

The story has it that Barnabas and Paul so impress the folks in Lystra that they are confused for Zeus and Hermes, respectively. "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Luke presses the point harder. Bringin oxen and garlands, the priest of Zeus prepares to offer sacrifice to the newly appeared deities. Zeus and Hermes -- I mean, Barnabas and Paul -- use the acclaim as an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Yet only with difficulty do they restrain the crowds from worshiping them. I call it the "Spies Like Us" episode because -- well, if you've seen the old 80s comedy, you know why.

Perhaps Luke is relying on a stereotype, now lost to us, of the Lycaonians as gullible and perhaps superstitious. I've asked some Lukan scholars their opinion on the question, and most of them have suspected such. The problem is, we have no external evidence for such a stereotype. It's simply a matter of intuition.

Right away, however, Jews from Antioch and Iconium (how'd they communicate?) come into Lystra and persuade the crowds to stone Paul, dragging him out of the city in the belief that they have killed him (14:19). (The NIV and NRSV break up the Greek sentence, which links winning over the crowds with stoning; thus my interpretation.) If the Lycaonians so readily perceived deity in Barnabas and Paul, why shouldn't they believe new teachers just as readily?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Neglected Passage #9: Luke 17:7-10

In the NRSV, Luke 17:7-10 reads,

"Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

This parable is unique to Luke, and one immediately gets the impression it involves the appropriate disposition of disciples regarding obedience. The setting involves a conversation between Jesus and his disciples. The parable maintains that doing what God commands amounts simply to duty; as Arland J. Hultgren puts it, "No one, no matter how virtuous or hardworking, can ever put God in his or her debt." Moreover, a disciple's "duty is never done" (The Parables of Jesus, 251).

That interpretation makes sense to me, but this passage fascinates me for other reasons. It suggests important things about the social setting for the Gospel of Luke, a contested issue among interpreters. And it also participates in the broader early Christian conversation concerning slaves and slavery.

As for Luke's social setting, the question has two dimensions. First, what kinds of people did the author have in mind in composing this Gospel? The second question is closely related: what is Luke's message concerning social status?

Some suggest Luke is the Gospel of the poor, speaking primarily to and on behalf of the downtrodden. The theme of social reversal ("God has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty" [1:51]; "good news to the poor" [4:18]) figures prominently in Luke. Some interpreters suppose Luke is speaking to a prosperous audience, perhaps even a literal person named Theophilus who paid for the Gospel's composition (1:3; Acts 1:1). But many interpreters, including me, believe that Luke intends an audience of mixed composition, but it addresses the more prosperous with a particularly sharp edge.

This parable suggest just such an audience. It presupposes an audience that easily identifies with a slaveowner. This slaveowner may not be quite "rich." If he were, he'd have different slaves working in the field and serving in the home. (This may press the imagery too far.) But this is a person who can relate to the story.

But the parable also has an edge. It calls the audience to imagine themselves as slaves. In the ancient world slave imagery was hardly attractive to elites, who often described slaves in the most demeaning ways imaginable (J. Albert Harrill, Slaves in the New Testament, 17-83). In my view, Luke uses this imagery precisely to promote a revaluation of their identity. In Luke's parables, persons of relatively high status sometimes encounter social crises that undermine their relative privilege (the man rescued by the Samaritan in 10:25-37, the elder brother in 15:11-32, the dishonest manager in 16:1-8, and the rich man in 16:19-31). In Luke faithful elites merit no more standing than anyone else.

A second aspect of the passage compels my attention, its participation in early Christian slave discourse. Jesus' parables are full of slave characters. Paul identifies himself as a "slave of Jesus Christ," and Revelation calls believers to identify as Christ's slaves. Several passages, inside the New Testament and beyond, call slaves to obey their masters. So slave discourse plays a significant role in early Christianity.

In this context we must remember how widespread slavery was in the ancient world. Slaves may have composed up to one-third of the Roman Empire's population, as much as half of the inhabitants of Rome itself. Ancient people knew what slaves were. Free persons largely mocked and despised slaves. And slaves themselves? Unless they were lucky enough to draw a plum assignment, their lives were grim at best, likely to be much shorter and more painful than those of the general population.

Yet the New Testament and other early Christian literature also reveal a liberatory trend regarding slavery. Paul did not write Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, or Titus -- the books that enjoin slaves to submit. Rather, Paul instructs slaves to make the best of their condition and to "grab" their freedom if they can (1 Cor 7:20-24). Interpreters dispute what's going on with Philemon and Onesimus, but it seems to me that Paul is calling for Onesimus' manumission. (For a totally different reading, see Harrill, 1-16.) In Christ, Paul proclaims the distinction between slaves and free abolished (Gal 3:27-29).

It's not just Paul. In condemning Rome's exploitative commercial practices, Revelation implicitly condemns the slave trade (18:13). Even 1 Timothy 1:9-10 includes slave traders among the "lawless and disobedient." There's even evidence -- very early evidence -- that some Christians worked actively for the freedom of their enslaved colleagues (Ignatius, to Polycarp 4.8-10; possibly Shepherd of Hermas 38.10; 51.8), even to the point of selling themselves into slavery to purchase the freedom of others (1 Clement 55.4-5).

Everything in this post is subject to dispute. Nevertheless, you rarely hear about Luke 17:7-10, even though it opens the path to important and fascinating questions about the Gospel of Luke and the social shape of early Christianity.

Note: In an earlier post I reflected on 1 Thessalonians 1:5 and the role of religious or mystical experience in the spread of early Christians. That passage would otherwise be on the list.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

New Series: Ten Relatively Obscure Passages #10

Over the coming weeks I'll be developing a series on ten relatively obscure passages in the New Testament. For example, recently I composed an entry on passage #10, the story of Rhoda.

Some of these passages may be well known among scholars, but you don't hear much about them in church. For example, Revelation 5:1-13 is critical for how we might interpret Revelation, but (a) it's in Revelation, for crying out loud, and (b) the only sermon I've ever heard on that passage was preached by, well, me.

Others are "throwaway" passages that don't carry much obvious theological freight but reveal a great deal about early Christianity. Jude 8-9, 14-15 will enter few Sunday School curricula, but these verses have big implications for our conversation about how to interpret scripture.

Still others are passages one easily reads right by but, once they arrest our attention, possess the capacity to inspire us or lead us to deeper reflection. Romans 15:30-32, Paul's prayer for deliverance in Jerusalem and a safe journey to Rome, stands among these.

I've got a list of ten, but I welcome you to suggest your own. That includes the opportunity for guest posts.