Through reading the recently-published thesis of one of our PhD students, I’ve learned of a body of important studies on terms used in the NT by Professor Eleanor Dickey. Such is the canalization of modern scholarship (and my own limits) that I hadn’t previously known of these studies, but I think they’re essential for exegetes and commentators on NT writings. A blog posting won’t allow space to do justice to all that her work offers, so I’ll confine myself to a few comments.
Let’s start with her book based on her DPhil thesis: Eleanor Dickey, Greek Forms of Address: From Herodotus to Lucian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). In this work she analyses the use of terms (other than proper names) used in ancient Greek letters to address recipients. This is of obvious relevance to NT studies given that a number of NT writings are letters. We’re better enabled to weigh the manners in which people are addressed in the NT letters in light of what Dickey provides.
Next, this one: Eleanor Dickey, “KYRIE, ΔΕΣΠΟΤΑ, DOMINE: Greek Politeness in the Roman Empire,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 121 (2001): 1-11. Both κυριε (the vocative form of κυριος = sir/lord/master) and δεσποτα (vocative of δεσποτης = master/lord/owner) are used in the NT, esp. in narratives and reported speech, and Dickey’s study, attentive to changes across ancient centuries, gives important data for weighing what these terms of address mean in NT instances.
And then this one: Eleanor Dickey, “Literal and Extended Use of Kinship Terms in Documentary Papyri,” Mnemosyne 57 (2004): 131-76. This impressively data-rich study covers usage of various Greek kinship terms across several centuries: The Greek words for “father,” “mother,” “brother,” “sister,” “son,” and “daughter.” The analysis focuses on how/when these terms were used “literally” (i.e., referring to actual family members) and when they were used in an “extended” or “metaphorical” sense, for individuals not physically related to the speaker/writer.
This study seems to me particularly important for serious readers/interpreters of NT writings, where we often have individuals referred to with these terms. Just note, for example, Paul’s use of various kinship terms in Philemon, none of which seems to be used in a “literal” sense. Dickey gives reason for caution, for example, in assuming that simply referring to someone as a “brother” connoted an intimate or close personal relationship. The use of the term in Roman-era documentary texts clearly shows that this is not necessarily the case. There are a number of other specific observations in this article that simply must be noted by exegetes.
Finally, this one: Eleanor Dickey, “The Greek Address System of the Roman Period and Its Relationship to Latin,” Classical Quarterly 54, no. 2 (2004): 494-527. In this essay she makes a strong case for the proposal that in the Roman period the Greek terms used for addressees developed under the impact of Latin. Of specific relevance for NT studies, she shows that the vocative form of “kyrios” (kyrie) seems to appear quite suddenly in documentary papyri of the Roman period, and she proposes that this happened as Greek-speakers developed this address-form as a functional equivalent for the Latin “domine“.
Now, on this particular point, I’m not (yet) entirely satisfied that she has adequately reckoned with the use of the vocative, kyrie, in the Septuagint (LXX). This would pre-date the Roman period, of course. Her response is that the LXX is something of a special case, as a translation-text (from the Hebrew and Aramaic), whereas she’s focused on the evidence of “documentary” texts (esp. letters).
But the counter-point is that the LXX likely reflects the use of Semitic-language equivalents for “kyrie,” and this may have been an additional factor promoting the formation and usage of “kyrie.” But this question can’t be engaged adequately here, and, whatever may be the case, her article is a “must” read for serious NT exegetes.
Oh, and the published PhD thesis that led me to Dickey’s work is this one (which I also highly recommend): Julia A. Snyder, Language and Identity in Ancient Narratives, WUNT 2, no. 370 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014).
Further to my earlier postings and the (many!) comments elicited, especially those about the use of “kyrios” in the LXX, I point readers to an excellent essay by John Wevers:
John William Wevers, “The Rendering of the Tetragram in the Psalter and Pentateuch: A Comparative Study,” in The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma, ed. Robert J. V. Hiebert, Claude E. Cox and Peter J. Gentry (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 21-35.
First, he registers agreement with Albert Pietersma’s argument that the use of the Hebrew YHWH in some Old Greek manuscripts (as well as other devices, e.g., ΙΑΩ, ΠΙΠΙ), represents “a revision” that took place within the textual transmission of the Greek of the Hebrew scriptures. Then Wevers gives details of the use of “kyrios” as equivalents of YHWH and other terms in the LXX.
His particular focus is on the Psalter, but he prefaces that analysis with a helpfully detailed survey of data from the Pentateuch (book by book), confirming that YHWH is overwhelmingly rendered by forms of kyrios without the definite article (“anarthrous” forms). In contrast, forms of the word with the definite article (“articular”) are preferred to translate references to other figures who hold a lordly position in the narratives. As one example, check out Genesis 39:2-3, where the LXX has κυριος (without article) for YHWH consistently, and articular forms of κυριος to translate references to the human/Egyptian “master” in the narrative. The few exceptions, where an articular form of kyrios refers to God are translations of prepositional phrases and/or a very few cases where the Greek syntax requires a definite article (“post-positive” uses of the Greek δε, for Greek “techies”).
And remember that we’re talking about hundreds of instances on which to build the observation that the “anarthrous” forms of kyrios are preferred in the Pentateuch. This pattern suggests that in these texts kyrios is being treated as if it is a name, not the common noun for “Sir/Lord/Master”.
In the final part of his essay, Wevers also makes brief notice of the pattern of usage in the “former prophets” (called “historical books” often by Christians), and it’s the same clear overwhelming dominance of the anarthrous kyrios as substitute for YHWH.
But the main/middle part of the essay is given to the translation practice in the Psalter, and here the pattern differs somewhat. Wevers observes that it is “clear that the translator of the Psalter has not followed the strict pattern established by the translators of the Pentateuch. To be sure, Κυριος does continue to represent the proper noun, ‘YHWH’, and it remains unarticulated in the majority of cases, but this is not a hard and fast rule” (p. 33). And Wevers judges that in a number of instances the translator may be rendering the “qere” (the Hebrew oral substitute for YHWH that had become popular by the time of the translator, “adonay“), which the translator regularly renders with articular forms of kyrios.
As one example of the Psalter data, consider LXX Psalm 134 (Heb 135). The Hebrew “halelu yah” is rendered Αλληλουια (“hallelujah”), but cf. the translation of the same expression in v. 3, αινειτε τον κυριον (the articular form). It appears, however, that the translator didn’t take the “yah” to be the same thing as YHWH fully spelled out (as also the case in v. 4). For in the psalm otherwise, he tends to use anarthrous forms of kyrios to render YHWH (5 times in vv. 1-5). In vv. 19-21, however, the articular (accusative) forms of kyrios render Hebrew phrases with the particle signalling an accusative phrase, the Hebrew accusative phrasing here influencing the translator’s decisions (a translation-choice that we can observe in other Psalms too).
This clear dominance of the anarthrous kyrios as Greek equivalent of YHWH, a dominance exhibited already in the Pentateuch (which were the earliest Hebrew scriptures translated), suggests strongly that it had become a widely-used oral substitute for YHWH among Greek-speaking Jews. I.e., the anarthrous kyrios served as virtually a proper name for God, a reverential substitute for YHWH.
There are implications for exegesis of the NT that are not sufficiently registered by exegetes and commentaries. One would need to test things writing-by-writing in the NT, but it is a good hypothesis to test that there is often a distinction in connotation between the anarthrous and articular forms of kyrios. I’ve noted, for example, a general pattern of usage in Acts (in the recently published essay mentioned in a previous posting here). But conducting such an analysis through other NT writings is a project I’ll leave for the future (or for some industrious young scholar!).
A couple of weeks ago I got emails from two former PhD students here, Chris Keith and Dieter Roth, alerting me that a multi-author volume dedicated to me had been announced by the publisher: Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism: Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Dieter Roth and Chris Keith (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014). It’s to be published in November this year. The publisher’s online catalogue entry, which includes a table of contents, is available here. It was, they said, meant to be kept a secret until the SBL this November, but the publisher spilled the beans.
The contributors are a number of former PhD students (plus one masters-degree student from my University of Manitoba days) and several colleagues in the field. As the honoree, it is, unavoidably, immodest of me to refer to the book. But I do so anyway, both because I am genuinely touched that former students and colleagues in the field have taken the trouble to put the volume together, and because a perusal of the table of contents suggests that it will be a volume worth noting, with what look like valuable contributions on various matters. One of the contributors, Michael Kruger (another former PhD student), has given a brief description of his essay here.
I’ll look forward to studying the various contributions when the volume appears, and I’m grateful and moved that friends and former students have prepared it.
Several comments prompted by my earlier postings have raised questions about how the Hebrew divine name (YHWH) was rendered in written form and how God was referred to orally in the time of Jesus. In addition to interest in these questions for their own sake, there is also the related question of how these matters may relate to the designation of Jesus as “Kyrios” in the NT.
So, there are three distinguishable issues involved. (1) How was the name YHWH treated in ancient Jewish manuscripts, both Hebrew and Greek ones? (2) How did ancient Jews refer to YHWH orally (i.e., did they use verbal/oral substitute words)? (3) How might data relating to the preceding questions relate to the use of “Kyrios” to designate Jesus in the NT? An adequate treatment would require far more space than appropriate for a blog-posting, so I shall have to be brief, referring interested readers to the “For Further Reading” list at the end of this posting. (I was surprised and disappointed to find no entry relevant to these questions in the otherwise excellent work edited by J. J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow, The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.)
Let’s take question #2 first. On the one hand, it is clear that by the late second-temple period, there was among many Jews an (apparently growing) avoidance of pronouncing YHWH. Among frequently cited evidence, note how the LXX renders Leviticus 24:16. Whereas the Hebrew text of this verse forbids blaspheming God’s name, the Greek text forbids pronouncing it. Likewise, in the list of offences and punishments in the Qumran community text, 1QS (6:27–7:2), uttering the divine name (“which is honoured above all”) results in a permanent exclusion. And in the Mishnah also (10.1), albeit later in date, uttering the divine name is one of the crimes that excludes a Jew from “the world to come”.
On the other hand, other data indicate that some Jews apparently continued to pronounce YHWH in one form or another, e.g., “IAO” in Greek, as surveyed most fully in Frank Shaw’s 2002 PhD thesis (details below).
But those who observed the rule about not pronouncing YHWH would likely have used some reverential substitute(s). Philo, for example, gives strong evidence that “Kyrios” was used by at least some Greek-speaking Jews, and “Theos” as well. Indeed, he even discusses the special connotations of “Kyrios” and “Theos,” as key ways of designating the biblical deity (Dahl & Segal essay listed below; also Royse). There is also evidence suggesting that “Adonay” was used as an equivalent substitute in Hebrew (e.g., 1QIsa at 3:7-8 has “Adonay” where the Masoretic text has YHWH).
This takes us to the way(s) that YHWH was handled in manuscripts. The data indicate a certain variety of copyist-practices, and these likely shifting across time (details in DeTroyer’s article and in Tov’s “go-to” book on Qumran manuscripts listed below). For example, in Aramaic letters from Elephantine (5th century BCE), the name is written out, as is the case in the early Samaritan texts from Wadi Daliyeh (4th century BCE). Likewise, in a number of Hebrew manuscripts from Qumran (2nd-1st century BCE) YHWH appears in the same “square” Hebrew script as the rest of the surrounding text. But in some other Qumran manuscripts, YHWH is written in an archaic Hebrew script that sets the word off visually from the rest of the text (which is written in typical “square” Hebrew script); and in others, instead of YHWH we have four dots. In some instances, where the Masoretic Hebrew text has YHWH, we have instead “Elohim”. Marking off YHWH from the surrounding text, and/or replacing it with a set of dots, appear to be intended also to alert readers to pronounce some acceptable substitute, which is compatible with the data about avoiding pronouncing YHWH itself.
In very early (pre-Christian) Greek biblical manuscripts, there is likewise a variety of practice exhibited. In some cases, YHWH is written in Hebrew characters, which again has the effect of setting it off visually from the surrounding Greek text. It is interesting that in at least some of these instances (e.g., P. Fouad 266 b) where the copyist of the Greek biblical text left a blank space for someone subsequently to insert the divine name in Hebrew, the space is more adequate for ca. six characters. The result is that when the four letters of YHWH were written in, there is extra space left. This may suggest that the copyist of the Greek text was thinking of sufficient space for the Greek word “Kyrios,” because it was familiar to him as a common oral substitute for the divine name, a practice for which (as noted already) Philo gives evidence.
In one Greek copy of Leviticus from Qumran (4QpapLXXLev b), we have an instance where YHWH is written in Greek letters as IAO. In another (later) Greek biblical manuscript likely of Jewish provenance, P.Oxyrhynchus 656, at a few places we read “Theos” where the Masoretic Hebrew text has YHWH.
So, in sum, we have a variety of copying practices, including writing YHWH in one or another special ways, or using dots or some other word in its place, and also a (growing?) scruple against pronouncing YHWH, and so a usage of oral substitutes such as “Adonay” in Hebrew, “Kyrios” in Greek (and also “Mar” in Aramaic, as noted by Fitzmyer).
Finally, then, what is the relevance of all this for early use of “Kyrios” as an epithet for Jesus? Well, perhaps the first thing to note is that this practice seems to follow from a prior ritual use of the equivalent term, “Mar,” in Aramaic-speaking circles of the young Jesus movement (as commonly seen reflected in the “Maranatha” expression in 1 Cor 16:22). So, the reference to Jesus as “Lord/Master” seems to take us back to the very earliest moments of the movement. Indeed, it is entirely plausible (I’d say very likely) that Jesus’ followers referred to him in such terms (with the sense of “master”) during his ministry.
But very quickly after Jesus’ crucifixion, the powerful conviction erupted that God had raised him from death and exalted him to a new, greater, even unique heavenly glory/status. In Philippians 2:9-11, this exaltation appears to include Jesus being given to share in the divine name (“the name above every name”). In other early texts the exalted Jesus is pictured as uniquely sharing and reflecting God’s glory (e.g., 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6). In these early texts also, we have reference to the ritual practices of “confessing” Jesus as “Kyrios” and “calling upon” him, apparently as common constituent practices of the early worship-gatherings (Romans 10:9-13; 1 Corinthians 1:2).
The latter expression (“to call upon the name of the Lord”) clearly draws on the biblical (OT) expression for the invocation and worship of YHWH, but in these NT texts this action is applied to the exalted Jesus. Likewise, in a number of early texts (including Paul’s letters, as studied in Capes’s book), biblical texts that originally referred to YHWH are applied to Jesus (e.g., Romans 10:13). So, it’s clear that at a remarkably early point the exalted Jesus was associated with YHWH, such that practices and texts that originally applied to YHWH were “extended” (so to speak) to include Jesus as the further referent.
Against the contentions of a few (e.g., George Howard), however, these remarkable developments cannot be ascribed to some sort of textual confusion brought on by a supposedly later copyist practice of writing “Kyrios” in place of YHWH in Greek biblical manuscripts. The developments in question exploded so early and so quickly to render any such a proposal irrelevant.
It is, however, likely that the oral substitution of “Adonay” and/or “Kyrios” for YHWH among Jews charged these terms with enlarged significance, widening their semantic force, or range of connotations, so to speak. To be sure, the application of “Kyrios” to Jesus in NT texts has a certain variety of connotations. In some cases, however, it seems to function as applying to the risen/exalted Jesus uniquely something of the divine status that otherwise belongs to YHWH. The forces that prompted and shaped the specific conviction that it is right (even necessary) to accord Jesus this reverence and to acclaim him uniquely as the “Kyrios” were several (as I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, e.g., in Lord Jesus Christ, 27-78). They cannot be reduced to Jewish copyist practices concerning YHWH. But the latter are not irrelevant either.
For Further Reading:
Capes, David B., Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology, WUNT, no. 2/47 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1992)
Dahl, Nils and Alan F. Segal, “Philo and the Rabbis on the Names of God,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 9 (1978): 1-28.
DeTroyer, Kristin: http://www.lectio.unibe.ch/05_2/troyer_names_of_god.htm. (Good on the textual data, but I regard her stance on the “nomina sacra” deficient in bases and so unpersuasive.)
Fitzmyer, J. A. “New Testament Kyrios and Maranatha and Their Aramaic Background,” in To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies (New York: Crossroads, 1981), 218-35.
Fitzmyer, J. A. “The Semitic Background of the New Testament Kyrios Title,” in A Wandering Aramaen: Collected Aramaic Essays (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1979), 115-42.
Rösel, Martin, “Die Übersetzung der Gottesbezeichnungen in der Genesis-Septuaginta,” in Ernten, was man sät: Festschrift für Klaus Koch zu seinem 65. Geburtstag, ed. Dwight R. Daniels, Uwe Glessmer and Martin Rösel (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991): 357-77.
Rösel, Martin, “The Reading and Translation of the Divine Name in the Masoretic Tradition and the Greek Pentateuch,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31 (2007): 411-28.
Rösel, Martin, Adonaj, warum Gott ‘Herr’ genannt wird, Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 29 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000)
Royse, James R. “Philo, Kyrios, and the Tetragrammaton,” The Studia Philonica Annual 3 (1991): 167-83.
Shaw, Frank Edward. PhD thesis, “The Earliest Non-Mystical Jewish Use of ΙΑΩ,‘‘ (2002, Cincinnati): https://etd.ohiolink.edu/ap/10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:ucin1014323679. (He may “over-egg” things just a bit, but his basic point is sound, that “IAO” was used as a designation of God by some Jews of the 2nd-temple period.)
Tov, Emanuel , Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert, Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 54 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), esp. 218-21.
Tov, Emanuel, The Greek Prophets Scroll From Nahal Hever (8HevXIIgr): (The Seiyâl Collection I), Discoveries in the Judaean Desert, 8 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990)
In response to an earlier posting, a couple of commenters referred to the “Septuagint” (the name commonly given to the Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures, the “Old Testament”), raising questions about what it represented in its original setting. There were also questions about how the divine name was handled. I’ll mention here a few points about the topic and offer a few suggestions for those who would like to know more.
First, the term “Septuagint” (in scholarly literature often designated by “LXX”) is used with more than one referent. In one strict sense, it designates the form of the Greek OT that came to be used and transmitted in early Christian circles. But this is one of several forms of the Greek translation of the OT. Scholars typically distinguish the earlier state and form from which the “Septuagint” proper derives as the “Old Greek” (OG). In some circles today, one sees “OG/LXX” used as well for this early form/state of the text.
Second, the translation of Jewish scriptures into Greek wasn’t a one-off project, but instead seems to have been done across perhaps a couple of centuries and by various translators who had various translation practices. The “Pentateuch” (first 5 books of the OT) came first, sometime in the 3rd century BCE, and then other units translated across the ensuing time-frame. When completed, the OG/LXX represents probably the largest single translation-project of the ancient world.
Third, even in those early centuries the translations were being adjusted and revised. It appears, for example, that in the post-Maccabean period there were revising efforts that took the translation toward a closer alignment with the Masoretic form of the Hebrew scriptures. This may well have been part of a larger “Hebraizing” tendency of this period, Jews re-asserting their ethnic particularities in the aftermath of the revolt against Antiochus’ effort to assimilate them religiously.
Finally, a number of scholars now agree that we need to distinguish between the originating purpose and usage of the Greek “OT” and its subsequent role/usage in early Jewish circles. To cite a particularly influential proposal, Albert Pietersma contends that the originating purpose and usage was to help Greek-speaking Jews to access the Hebrew scriptures, that the “OG” served originally more as a pedagogical than as a liturgical project. He proposes what he calls an “interlinear paradigm”, the OG translation originally an attempt to render the Hebrew into Greek with greater concern to reflect the Hebrew than to produce something elegant in the eyes of Greek-speakers.
This means that the primary purpose was not to “Hellenize” Jews or introduce some radically new/different form of Jewish religion or culture. Studies of some units of the LXX do suggest, however, that there is a heightening of emphasis on some ideas: e.g., eschatology, the influence sometimes of a concern to avoid anthropomorphic representations of God, et alia.
For one of several recent introductory works, see Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Baker Academic/Paternoster, 2000).
Among important publications, perhaps none deserves so wide a notice as the recent English translation of the LXX: Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, eds., A New English Translation of the Septuagint, and Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included Under That Title (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). Note especially the very informative initial essay in it, “To the Reader of NETS,” which in itself serves as a basic introduction to some key matters.
For an excellent bundle of studies that delve into some major issues in current Septuagint scholarship, see Wolfgang Kraus and R. Glenn Wooden (eds.), Septuagint Research: Issues and Challenges in the Study of the Greek Jewish Scriptures (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006).
In my essay that has just been published (mentioned in my post yesterday), my broader emphasis is that intentional textual variants in NT writings likely resulted from ancient readers. In the case of the variation-units I survey in that essay, I submit that readers were trying to judge the referents in statements that were somewhat ambiguous. I further propose that the variants likely resulted from readers perusing the context of each ambiguous statement to make their judgement, in short, doing just what serious readers and modern commentators do: exegesis based on context.
But, whereas modern commentators write a new text about the biblical text, these ancient readers (and we’re talking about the 2nd-3rd centuries likely) wrote what they judged to be the correct referent into their text of the NT writing. Ironically, out of their high regard for the text and its clear meaning, they felt free to alter the word to make clearer the referent.
This sort of close study of immediate context (reading not only backwards but also forward) isn’t likely what copyists did. Copyists basically copied the text before them. But readers/users of the copied text, they had the opportunity to note ambiguities and other problems, and the leisure-time to study carefully the context to see if they could clarify matters.
Then, when a reader’s copy was thereafter copied, the copyist likely assumed that what originated as a change in wording was the corrected wording, and so that change/variant entered subsequent textual transmission.
Copyists, to be sure, made oodles of accidental or unintentional changes, as is well documented. But the sort of exegetically-based intentional changes that I discuss were, I contend, made by readers/users of the texts. (I’m not the first to make this point. I refer to earlier publications by Michael Holmes and Ulrich Schmid in my essay.)
So, as I note in the essay, these and other such textual variants are fascinating “artefacts” of ancient reading/readers, and their exegetical efforts to understand more precisely the texts. Whereas in much earlier times NT textual critics tended to dismiss obviously secondary variants, seeking only the “original” reading, nowadays we are coming to regard all variants as in themselves valuable historical data. The field of NT textual criticism is now a much “sexier” discipline than it ever was!
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my essay, “God or Jesus? Textual Ambiguity and Textual Variants in Acts of the Apostles,” in the multi-author volume, Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of J. Keith Elliott, edited by Peter Doble and Jeffrey Kloha (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014), pp. 239-54. In the essay, I study an interesting phenomenon: In Acts there are a number of places where we have variants that appear to reflect efforts to clarify whether Jesus or God is referred to, cases where the likely original reading was “kyrios” which in these places has a certain ambiguity as to who the referent is.
The phenomenon suggested itself in the course of researching and writing an earlier commissioned essay, “Christology in Acts: Jesus in Early Christian Belief and Practice,” published in Issues in Luke-Acts: Selected Essays,, eds. Sean A. Adams and Michael Pahl (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2012), 217-38.
Here is the Abstract of my essay that has just appeared:
“The correlation of God and Jesus in Acts, in particular the use of κύριος/ὁ κύριος for both, produced a number of statements in which there can be a certain degree of ambiguity as to the referent. At these points we often find variants in the manuscripts, which reflect efforts of ancient readers to disambiguate the statements and clarify the text. They often seem to have drawn upon the immediate context to help them judge matters. So the variants are artefacts of this exegetical activity of these ancient readers of Acts.”
I’ve uploaded the pre-publication version of the essay under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site.
A new introduction and commentary on the Gospel of Thomas was published earlier this year: Simon J. Gathercole, The Gospel of Thomas: Introduction and Commentary (Leiden: Brill, 2014). Such detailed studies of the many fascinating extra-canonical texts of early Christianity are so few that it is a cause for celebration whenever one appears. And in this case, it’s from a scholar with an established record of earlier and respected publications on this particular text.
You can see the publisher’s information here. Again, as with so many good scholarly books in the field, this one is prohibitively expensive. But one hopes that in due course a soft-back edition will be released and people other than Bill Gates will be able to purchase it!
You can see a brief interview with Gathercole about the book here.
In an interview with a TV producer a week or so ago, the question came up whether early Christianity (Roman-era) was secretive and operated in a covert manner, seeking to avoid hostile attention. The origins of this notion I don’t really know (information welcome), but it seems now “out there” (along with a number of other supposed “truths”) in at least some parts of the general populace. But it seems to have little basis. A few illustrations will suffice.
For example, when you have spokesmen for a religious movement framing formal defences of it (“apologia“) and addressing these to the Emperor (e.g., Justin Martyr) and to the wider public (e.g., Epistle to Diognetus), I’d say that’s hardly trying to remain under cover! That’s not simply putting your head “above the parapet,” that’s standing up on top of the parapet and waving your arms! And these texts are all the more significant in being produced during a time when tensions with governmental authorities were heating up. Even when you move on down into the third century CE, when there were occasional pogroms against Christians, this same very public stance obtains.
Even in our earliest extant Christian texts (Paul’s letters), there is evidence of the open, “in your face” presentation of beliefs, and indication that outsiders could well be present in early church gatherings (e.g., Paul’s references to “outsiders” and “unbelievers” present in 1 Cor 14:23-25). The depictions of early preaching given in Acts further support the view that Christians went public quite readily. (Even if Acts presents dramatized, even somewhat fictional scenes, they were obviously intended to be recognized by early Christian readers as authentic depictions of what Christians were supposed to do and did.)
But (I was asked), what about the fish symbol, or the anchor? Weren’t these hidden means of signifying Christian faith, e.g., the latter a covert reference to Jesus’ cross (the cross-bar of the anchor forming a disguised cross)? Well, in a word, no. Instead, it appears that these and other items reflect the early Christian tendency to appropriate various symbols, images, and expressions from the Roman-era environment, then assigning to them new Christian meanings. Behind this was the early Christian attitude that their beliefs were prefigured in the creation, in culture, in the prior intellectual history. So, they boldly made these sorts of things their own.
The fish-acrostic illustrates this: The ordinary Greek word for “fish” (ΙΧΘΥϹ) seized upon and read as a kind of short-hand statement of Christian faith: Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ (“Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour”). As for the anchor, it appears that in this and other phenomena, Christians saw their cross-symbol anticipated, reflected, and affirmed. Early Christians such as Justin also pointed to the shape of the masts of ships, and the T-shape of the human brow and nose, as other reflections of the cross-symbol. This wasn’t being covert; it was instead a bold (perhaps even audacious) affirmation. (Oh, and by the way, another notion “out there” in some scholarly circles is that we don’t have any cross-symbolism or visual references to Jesus’ crucifixion before the 4th/5th century CE. Wrong! That notion simply rests on an incomplete data-set and a certain ideological premise.)
Sure, we have sometimes the language of “secrets” (Greek: mysterion), e.g., “secret(s) of the kingdom of God/heaven” (Mark 4:11; Matt 13:11), a saying that seems simply to refer to the unrecognized meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds. Or there is Paul’s reference to proclaiming (openly!) the “mysterion of God” (1 Cor 2:1, 7; 4:1), which seems to designate what Paul regarded as God’s previously unknown redemptive purpose and message, now openly declared in Paul’s preaching. (This language of “secrets” seems to draw mainly upon ancient Jewish notions of heavenly secrets to do with God’s eschatological purposes, as has been shown by R. E. Brown and others.)
And, yes, in the so-called “gnostic” Christian texts, we also have references to “secret sayings” (e.g., Gospel of Thomas), and at least some of these texts exude an esoteric tone. But the secrecy had to do with a supposedly deeper (or higher) understanding of truths presented in a covert (or even a riddling) manner that “ordinary” Christians didn’t get. I know of no evidence that there were “gnostic” conventicles that met covertly to avoid Roman attention.
But what about the catacombs? Well, Christians didn’t meet in catacombs for secret purposes, to hide from Roman authorities, but instead to have Christian meals with the Christian dead, especially martyrs. Catacomb burial wasn’t at all distinctive to Christians, but was practiced more widely in Rome and some other places.
So, without prolonging the point needlessly, there is scant reason to think of early Christianity as “secretive” and “covert”. When Roman authorities wanted to arraign Christians, it seems to have been easy enough to do so. And this largely because Christians made no secret of who they were, and where you could find them.
I’ve been puzzled in recent days by some readers whose comments suggest that they expect that sound scholarly analysis of serious historical questions can be conveyed persuasively in blog-postings and/or replies to comments. There seems to be some notion that they shouldn’t have to read books and articles, plow through the data, etc. So, they ask a question; I respond briefly and point them to some book or article for fuller and more adequate discussion; but then the responses sometimes suggest the folk posing the questions really can’t be bothered. Yet they often seem to have firm opinions on the issues involved, challenging me to dislodge them to their satisfaction. So, I think it’s well to try some clarification of things here.
Scholarly work intended to have an impact on the field isn’t done in blogging. The amount of data, its complexity, the analysis and argumentation involved, and the engagement with the work of other scholars that forms an essential feature of scholarly work all require more space than a few hundred words of a blog-posting, or a few paragraphs of blog-comment. So, it’s rather unrealistic (not to say bizarre) for some commenters to assume otherwise.
This particular blog site is intended to disseminate the basic results of scholarly work (particularly my own) to a wider public, directing anyone interested in further study to the publications where matters are discussed more fully. Of course, I can’t expect that the “general public” will necessarily have read my publications or those of other scholars in my field. This blog site, therefore, is intended to alert interested readers to developments and to the publications where they can follow up matters.
I get the impression now and then that some readers can’t be bothered to read these publications. That’s their choice. The puzzling thing is that some, nevertheless, have firm opinions on the issues involved, and want to engage them in blog conversations, but can’t be bothered to do any serious work of studying what’s been patiently and laboriously published by scholars who’ve devoted much time and effort to the matters.
So, to underscore the point here: Blogging (at least this blog site) is for disseminating basic results of scholarly work, and alerting interested readers to publications where they can pursue matters further. But if you do want to engage the issues, you’re just going to have to do some serious reading . . . in books, and articles, and in the original sources on which scholarly work is based. The Internet and the “blogosphere” hasn’t really changed that.
(As some of the recent comments that have triggered this posting query matters about earliest Jesus-devotion, I’ll point to a previous posting in which I tried to summarize some of my own work over the last 25 years or so: here.