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Scholarly Work and the “Blogosphere”

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.


Ehrman Review Published

My commissioned review of Bart Ehrman’s book, How Jesus Became God:  The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, has just appeared in the latest issue of Christian Century (August 6, 2014), pp. 26-28.   It’s given a review-essay place, and I was allowed a reasonably generous word-count, which permitted me to engage a number of key issues in the book.

I applaud Ehrman’s ability to communicate scholarly issues in an accessible manner, and also I hope that the book will help make a general readership more aware of the fascinating questions connected with the early eruption of Jesus-devotion.  Ehrman indicates that in the course of doing his research he came around to the recognition that it erupted early and quickly, and didn’t develop as an incremental process.

I’m also critical of several matters, however, and have to give the book a mixed verdict, therefore.  I think he presents some matters in a one-sided fashion (e.g., his treatment of how Jesus’ body was disposed of after crucifixion, or his treatment of early resurrection-visions).  And I don’t  think that he offers a valid basis for his claim that the earliest “high” christology involved seeing Jesus as an angel.  On these and some other matters, the book seems to me to mis-fire.  But it’s always good to have one’s own research focus presented to a wider readership, even if I’m not satisfied with the presentation.

Thanks to a commentor on this blog site, I can now note that the review is available online here.

Review of Wright Published

In earlier postings I’ve mentioned that I’d agreed to review N.T. Wright’s massive opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (earlier postings here, here, and here).  The review has just appeared as a featured review-essay in the journal Theology 117 (2014):  361-65.  I’ve uploaded the pre-publication version and you can find it under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog site, or click here.

“Kyriocentric” Visions and the Origins of Jesus-Devotion

In his recent book, Christopher Barina Kaiser argues that earliest Jesus-followers had visions of God (YHWH) in “the face and voice of their own teacher, now in a glorified body,” and these experiences prompted the early eruption of Jesus-devotion that we see presupposed in the NT:  Seeing the Lord’s Glory:  Kyriocentric Visions and the Dilemma of Early Christology (Fortress Press, 2014).  In short, he contends, the earliest post-crucifixion Christology was one in which “the LORD is Jesus.”   Effectively “God” appeared as Jesus.  Only subsequently was this conviction modified to produce the familiar duality of God and Jesus that we see in the NT.

The “dilemma” in Kaiser’s sub-title is basically this:  How did Jewish followers of Jesus (for whom the uniqueness of their one God was crucial) come to reverence Jesus as they did, i.e., treating Jesus as himself sharing in a status otherwise reserved for God?  (I’d think that “problem” is a better term than “dilemma,” but that’s not a major matter.)  It’s clear (and increasingly referred to as an emergent consensus now) that a remarkable devotion to Jesus along these lines exploded early and rapidly, and initially among circles of Jewish believers.  Specifically, the earliest Christian writings (which take us back to ca. 20 years from Jesus’ crucifixion) already presuppose a view of Jesus as uniquely linked with God, even sharing divine glory and incorporated programmatically into discourse about God and the devotional/worship practices of early circles of the Jesus-movement.  How could this be?  I’ve worked on the historical questions and evidence involved for over 25 years now, beginning with my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, and on through subsequent publications:  e.g., Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005).

On the one hand, it’s affirming to me to see continuing efforts to explore historical questions about the fascinating and remarkable explosion of Jesus-devotion, and also to see an author taking seriously “revelatory” religious experiences as a factor, something I’ve proposed in publications over some 25 years now.  On the other hand, I have to say that I find Kaiser’s specific proposal in the end unsatisfactory and unpersuasive.  It would require more space than appropriate in a blog-posting to engage fully all the points where I find problems, so I’ll restrict myself a brief discussion of those I think most important.

To my mind, probably the main problem in the book is that there is no direct evidence to support Kaiser’s claims.  That is, we have no reference to early Jesus-followers having the particular sort of vision-experience that Kaiser makes so important (i.e., specifically one in which they have a vision of God in/with the face and form of Jesus).  Paul, for example, refers to his own experience (Galatians 1:15-16) as a “revelation of his [God's] son,” i.e., a “christophany,” not as a vision of YHWH in the form of Jesus.  (Curiously, Kaiser’s only direct reference to this Pauline text is a single sentence in an endnote.)  Paul refers to “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6), but this involves Jesus as the “image” (eikon) of God, and reflecting God’s glory as in a mirror.  I.e., Paul here (and ubiquitously) portrays Jesus’ high significance with reference to “God,” reflecting a duality that is typical of NT writings.  (On the shape of early God-discourse, see my book, God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, 2010).

Likewise, the other (and textually later) NT passages that Kaiser examines as offering what he posits as “traces of Kyriocentric visions” give no direct support for his hypothesis.  The “sea theophany” in Mark 6:45-52 (parallel in Matt 14:22-32) has Jesus acting with a power ascribed to YHWH in the OT to be sure, but does not comprise what Kaiser needs for his case.  That is, there is no indication that the story ever involved people confusing Jesus with God on the basis of some vision.  Neither does the transfiguration story in Luke 9:28-36 (which, instead, rather clearly refers to Jesus’ status in relation to God, not as God.  The same is the case for the Acts accounts of Paul’s “Damascus Road” vision (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; 26:12-16), the vision of the risen Jesus in Revelation 1, and the reference in John 12:40-41 to Isaiah’s vision of the exalted Jesus.

Kaiser urges, however, that in these and other texts a supposedly original kind of experience (of Jesus as YHWH) has been adapted to exhibit the duality of Jesus and God that the NT writings pretty much everywhere reflect.  Kaiser claims, for example, that his proposed “Kyriocentric” visions (of YHWH as Jesus) “morphed into stories about the risen Jesus.”  Unfortunately (and I mean no offence), however, this comes pretty close to adjusting the data to fit a hypothesis, whereas it’s better to form the hypothesis out of the data.

But Kaiser contends that the justification for his hypothesis is that otherwise we’re left with an anomaly, wondering how self-identifying Jews of the Roman period (who affirmed what we call “ancient Jewish monotheism”) could have ascribed to Jesus the astonishing place he held in their beliefs and practices.  In particular, how could such “monotheistic” Jews accord Jesus the place that he held in their worship (a matter that I’ve drawn attention to since my 1988 book).  And here we encounter another problem in the book.

Kaiser notes and finds faulty three other proposed schemes:  (1) the view that treating Jesus as sharing in divine status emerged only incrementally and was due to “polytheistic gentile influence” (e.g., Maurice Casey); (2) “the resurrection scenario of N. T. Wright,” the resurrection-sightings positied as “empirical rather than visionary”; and (3) “the binitarian, neo-Canaanite scenario of Margaret Barker,” reflecting her contention than in earliest Christianity we see a re-eruption of ancient Israelite di-theism.  So, he contends, we’re left without any other alternative than to propose something else, his proposal posited as filling that lack.

I find it puzzling, however, that Kaiser makes no mention of my own proposal, which I’ve laid out and developed across a number of publications (several of which he cites and lists in his bibliography).  The crucial bit of my proposal is this:  The key impetus that drove earliest believers to reverence Jesus in the ways they did was a conviction that God required it.  God (they believed) had singled out Jesus in the resurrection (bestowing on Jesus the eschatological existence/body that was otherwise reserved for the last day for anyone else), and had exalted Jesus to heavenly glory, giving Jesus the unique status as “Kyrios,” now requiring that Jesus be reverenced accordingly.  An early text that reflects this conviction is Philippians 2:6-11, esp. vv. 9-11.  Other NT texts reflect this stance:  God has exalted Jesus and now requires all to reverence him (e.g., John 5:22-23).  I further propose that this conviction likely emerged through “revelatory” experiences.  (For further discussion, see pp. 70-74 in my book, Lord Jesus Christ).

Kaiser’s proffered justification for his own proposal is that otherwise we’re without a cogent alternative.  But he doesn’t really engage all the proposals currently on the table, so his justification isn’t persuasive.  Mine is, to be sure, only one attempt to grapple with the historical problem of early Jesus-devotion.  But I have offered a proposal that (if I do say so myself) ought to be considered.  If one can show it fallacious, then so be it.  But it won’t do simply to bypass or ignore it and then claim that you’ve dealt with the major extant proposals.  I note also that my proposal at least accords with  the textual evidence and requires no hypothetical re-casting of the evidence to support it.

One other matter I’ll mention is Kaiser’s repeated references to the “performance” of visions.  I honestly don’t know what he means:  Does he mean that people recounted their experiences, and others subsequently recounted them?  Why not say this?  He’s obviously been taken with proposals emanating from “performance criticism” advocates.  On this also, however, I think he makes a wrong move.   As I’ve shown in a recent article, “performance criticism” seems to rest upon a number of historical fallacies, and so doesn’t stand up to critique:  “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies?  ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014), pp 321 – 340 (DOI: 10.1017/S0028688514000058).

There’s a lot of work reflected in Kaiser’s book, and, no doubt, a good deal of pondering as well.  But, for reasons sketched here, I don’t think he has succeeded in providing a cogent proposal or in offering a justification for it.  But, as stated earlier, I am pleased that the book reflects the recognition that the eruption of early Jesus-devotion is a historical phenomenon that is both remarkable and very much worth studying.


“Beyond Bultmann”: A Newly Published Volume

I’m pleased to learn that a multi-author volume to which I’m a contributor has now been published:  Beyond Bultmann:  Reckoning a New Testament Theology, eds. Bruce W. Longenecker & Mikeal C. Parsons (Baylor University Press, 2014).  You can view the publisher’s information on the volume here.

Rudolf Bultmann was the dominant NT scholar of his generation, especially in Germany where he exercised amazing powers of getting his doctoral students appointed to university posts.  This made for a Bultmann “school” of sorts (although, as one expects of German scholars, this “school” also developed differences, even differences with Bultmann on some points).  The only other European figure who could be thought of as contending with Bultmann for influence was probably Oscar Cullmann.  Especially in English-speaking circles, Cullmann was known widely, probably at an earlier point more widely than Bultmann, largely because Cullmann’s works were translated a bit earlier and more of them translated.  But in actual influence, Bultmann was way ahead.

As a man he fascinates still.  Son of a Lutheran pastor, as much a theologian as a NT exegete, determined both to take account of what he saw as “modern” thought and life (and that included seeing a good deal of the NT as heavily “myth”), yet equally determined to advocate Jesus as uniquely God’s revelation, an eloquent preacher as well as a scholar, clever in riding out “Hitler-time” in Germany, on these and other counts Bultmann remains intriguing.

The volume just out enlists a galaxy of scholars (some German-speaking, some English-speaking), each one engaging a particular portion of Bultmann’s classic work, Theology of the New Testament.  My own contribution, “Christology and Soteriology,” addresses a section of Bultmann’s work on these subjects.  I’m heavily critical of him for his handling of matters.  I judge him to have approached ancient Christian texts with a theological criterion, in Bultmann’s case, a particular formulation of “justification by faith,” by which he then judged writings either valid or not.

As to his wider history-of-religions positions, these he almost entirely inherited from his teachers, especially Bousset.  I recall reading Bousset’s Kyrios Christos some years after reading Bultmann’s works, and being surprised to realize that many things I’d ascribed to Bultmann were actually attributable to Bousset.  Bultmann simply took good class notes!

But, give him his due.  Bultmann was a giant figure of his time in NT studies.  We shall, I suspect, never see another such phenomenon, largely because the field today is much more diverse in emphases, approaches, demographics, and institutional settings.  Bultmann’s dominance in part reflected the situation of that time:  The prevalence of a theological approach to NT studies, and particularly based in theological faculties (esp. in German) and theological seminaries (in N. America).  But in that situation, he pretty well set the agenda, and one had to take a position in relation to him.

I hope the newly published volume will help today’s generation of students to reckon with Bultmann more intelligently, both appreciating his enormous impact in his time, and also critically appraising the enduring value of his work.

A World Revealed: The Throne of Adulis

For me, reading Glen Bowersock’s book, The Throne of Adulis:  Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (Oxford Univ Press, 2013) was like having a curtain pulled back opening up a previously unknown world.  This is the world of the Red Sea area in late antiquity and the Byzantine period.  (I know, this has nothing to do with the expressed focus of this blog site, on Christian Origins, but this is such a fascinating book, I can’t resist drawing it to the attention of readers.)

The period, ca. 300-700 CE, is outside my own period of any competence, and the geography is little known to me in any depth, the areas surrounding the Red Sea, present-day Ethiopia, Yemen.  But it was a world/time of two major powers in a death-struggle with each other, with each power supporting client rulers, and striking alliances with local rulers to advance their own larger ambitions for geo-political influence.  Plus, local rulers with their own ambitions, and religions wedded with political rulers and so used as a motivation for warfare.  Sound familiar?  But, I repeat, Bowersock takes us back into the world of late antiquity, although there are uncanny resemblances with the present time.

I had no idea that there was a powerful empire (Axum) based in present-day Ethiopia that also exerted (from time to time) rule over the southern Arabian penninsula.  I didn’t know that this Ethiopian kingdom converted to Christianity sometime in the mid-4th century CE, or that Arab peoples of the southern Arabian penninsula converted to Judaism just a few decades later and formed a rather militant Jewish kingdom (Himyar) that carried out a brutal pogrom against Arabian Christians, or that the Ethiopian king took this as a reason to launch an invasion of Himyar (present-day Yemen) to re-establish his rule there, presenting himself as rescuing fellow Christians.  The Persians (Sassanids) backed Himyar, and Byzantium backed the Christian king of Ethiopia in this struggle.

Later, after the Byzantine king had finally crushed the Sassanids (ca. 630s), the resulting power-vacuum in the Middle East allowed Muslim forces to assert themselves.  Muhammed and his followers were resisted by Jews, but initially welcomed by Christians (e.g., when they arrived in Jerusalem).

Aside from opening a world of these and many other fascinating developments (which have repercussions down to the present day), Bowersock’s book is a powerful case-study of how topics, peoples, whole areas and periods can be overlooked, left out of “history” for various reasons.  If you want a fascinating journey without leaving the comfort of your favorite chair, get into The Throne of Adulis.

NT Papyri as Artifacts of Early Christianity

I devoted this past week heavily to carrying out a fresh and more thorough analysis of “P22″, remnants of a papyrus copy of the Gospel of John likely from sometime in the 3rd century.  “P22″ (or P.Oxyrhynchus 1228) is two fragments of this manuscript, housed in the Glasgow University Library.  It’s reasonably well known among NT textual critics, I suppose, included in lists of early NT papyri, and its readings cited in critical apparatuses.  But, to my knowledge, there has not been a detailed autopsy analysis of the papyrus for a long time, perhaps not since Grenfell and Hunt published the papyrus in 1914 (in The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Volume X).  Indeed, I rather suspect that all subsequent references to P22 have been based on Grenfell & Hunt’s publication, and particularly their transcription of its text.

P22 is unusual because it appears to be remnants of a copy of GJohn on a roll, not from a codex.  In P22, however,  the text of GJohn is written across the papyrus fibres, i.e., on what would have been the outer side of the papyrus roll.  So, it is commonly thought that GJohn was written on a re-used roll, some other/previous text on the inner side.  This isn’t all that unusual in ancient manuscripts.  People re-used rolls, likely because it was cheaper than acquiring a fresh roll.  Indeed, one might have been able to acquire a previously-used roll for free.

The anomaly/mystery about P22, however, is that on the opposite side of the papyrus material there is no text evident.  That is, we appear to have portions of GJohn written on the outer surface of part of a roll with nothing written on the inner surface.  Why?  Well, the best scholarly proposal (guess!) was given by Kurt Aland, who suggested that what we have is a portion of the re-used roll that happens to have been originally the protective portion/sheets on the end of the roll.  These were left blank and served simply to protect the roll when it was rolled up.  I have no other suggestion to offer.

Re-used rolls typically also signal a copy for someone’s personal reading/usage.  So, not a copy prepared for public reading and formal usage, but instead for someone’s own reading, pondering, study.  This seems confirmed by the informal nature of the script typical of re-used rolls.

In the main, P22 has been referred to in regard to questions about the transmission of the text of GJohn, and how to reconstruct as early a text of GJohn as we can.  But my own emphasis for a number of years now has been on expanding what we do with ancient manuscripts, widening the questions that we ask, treating them as physical artifacts and not as “dis-embodied” texts.  I laid out this emphasis programmatically in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

I’ve been interested in having a “go” at P22 for a couple of years now, and so it was a personal pleasure at last to find a space in my list of commitments to be able to tackle the papyrus.  My aims were to prepare and present a more detailed analysis than currently available, and to explore what P22 might tell us about its originally intended usage, and wider matters.

As new information, I measured the size of the letters.  I made detailed notes on the ways they were formed,  and other features of the copyist’s “hand” (including in particular the numerous “ligatures,” i.e., letters connected in a cursive-like fashion).  I made my own fresh transcription (and it seems that either there has been some serious further deterioration in the ink at some points or else Grenfell and Hunt were a bit more confident in seeing letters than I am).

As to its text, well, we have only a small amount of it to go on:  one fragment has bits of John 15:25–16:2 and the other has bits of John 16:21-32.  But, having examined the variation-units where P22 is extant, in general it bears a text that is very close to that preferred in the Nestle-Aland Greek NT (which its editors offer as their best judgement about the earliest recoverable text).  That is, P22 seems to reflect a concern for faithful copying of the text, with scant indication of efforts to “smooth” the text or “improve” it stylistically or otherwise.

As indicated, that it is a re-used roll means that P22 was likely copied for (perhaps by) someone who wanted his/her own personal copy of GJohn for reading, perhaps for study and/or devotional usage.  Moreover, this plus the highly informal nature of the “hand” of the copyist combine to suggest that the intended user was from the “sub-elite” levels of Roman-era society, i.e., someone who couldn’t acquire (perhaps couldn’t afford) a more elegant copy.

And that in itself is interesting.  It means that in P22 we have an artifact of such a reader, such a Christian (probably) of the 3rd century, someone who wasn’t of elite status, probably someone who had to work for his/her living (not landed gentry), probably someone of modest educational attainment, but someone who nevertheless wanted a copy of GJohn for his/her own personal reading.

In an essay arising from my analysis of P22 I probe these and other matters a bit farther.  I’ll present the paper in the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November (in San Diego), and it is to be published in a multi-author volume in honor of a fellow NT scholar.

My main point here is to illustrate how much there is yet to learn from a patient and close analysis of early Christian papyri, even ones that have been known for a long time.  For they have rarely been studied as artifacts, their physical and visual features probed with the right questions in mind.  Not simply the readings that they contain, but what they tell us as physical copies of texts, about how these texts were regarded, when/how they were read, the kinds of people involved (e.g., their social, economic and educational levels), etc.

I hope that the younger/emergent generation of scholars in NT/Christian origins will include some who will find this sort of investigation as fascinating as I do.

Excellent images of P22 are available from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts here.

A Vision for International Biblical Scholarship

In an hour or so I’ll take part in our summer graduation ceremony in the University of Edinburgh, and one of the pleasures will be the graduation of a particularly fine young New Testament PhD student from a country in the southern hemisphere, a “developing” country.  He is one of the most talented PhD students whom I’ve supervised in my years in Edinburgh.  His thesis passed easily, and will, I presume, be published in due course, an excellent critical analysis of certain issues in the Gospel of John.  I blog here to express a plea on his behalf and on behalf of other young scholars like him from developing nations.

His studies were financed through his winning one of the highly competitive and prestigious PhD fellowships offered by this University.  He will be a major asset to the theological college in which he will take up duties, to his country, and to wider circles  . . . especially if he is enabled to continue to develop and deploy his strengths as a biblical scholar.  But this will be difficult in his home setting.  He will have a heavy teaching load.  The libraries there are basic and hardly adequate for advanced research.  It is most unlikely that his college will be able to finance him to take the sabbatical/research leaves that are absolutely necessary for serious research, especially in Humanities subjects such as biblical studies.

What we need, and desperately, are financial resources to allow talented scholars such as this one to be sprung free periodically from regular duties to pursue some major research and writing project, which is typically how research leaves are spent.  There are a few trusts and foundations that wonderfully finance PhD studies of “third world” students.  But I know of no such trust or foundation that offers funding for research leaves for scholars in these countries.

So, I make this plea, for a charitable trust or foundation, a well-off individual, or a body of committed individuals to take up this vision:  A scheme to which scholars such as my excellent student can apply to have the opportunity to take an extended research leave, relocating to a place where they have access to an excellent library and opportunities to confer with other scholars in their subject.  It is a shame to invest in helping students get their PhD and then simply leave them immersed ever thereafter in the heavy teaching and administration duties in their home setting in countries that lack adequate research facilities.  Is there anyone else out there who shares my concern?

With such a scheme, “third world” scholars could write textbooks, articles and books that would build up the scholarly resources in their native languages and cultures.  The student graduating here today could become a major figure in NT studies, and I covet the chance for him to achieve this, and for other students like him.

Paul and Gentile Circumcision

In the recent Nangeroni Seminar on “Paul as a Second-Temple Jew,” predictably the topic of male circumcision came under discussion.  As readers of Paul’s letters will know, in a few of them (especially Galatians) Paul is at pains to resist the efforts of others (likely some other Jewish Christ-believers) who urged gentile converts to complete their conversion by being circumcised (and so adhere to observance of Torah as a committed Jew).  These advocates of “Judaizing” may well have pointed to the view of Abraham’s conversion that we have reflected in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 44:19-21, where Abraham “kept the law” and “certified the covenant in his flesh . . . Therefore the Lord assured him with an oath that the nations would be blessed through his offspring.”

The phrase “certified the covenant in his flesh” is an obvious reference to male circumcision, and to Genesis 17, where Abraham circumcises “every male” in his household.  The “Judaizing” advocates appear to have urged that Paul’s gentile converts had made a good start in responding in faith to the gospel of Jesus, but they should now complete their conversion, following Abraham’s example, by (male) circumcision.

Paul’s rather intricate argument in response in Galatians 3 focuses on the same Genesis material, but Paul uses the sequence in the opposite manner.  He underscores that in Genesis 15:6 Abraham’s believing response to God’s promise is “reckoned” to him as “righteousness” well before and apart from the subsequent reference to circumcision in Genesis 17.  So, Paul contends, this means that Abraham’s “righteousness” didn’t depend on circumcision, which only came later.  So, he reasoned, circumcision wasn’t (and isn’t) a condition for being reckoned righteous.

But one of the questions that arises in discussions of the controversy over male circumcision is how would anyone know whether you were or weren’t circumcised.  Well, the immediate answer is that in the Roman era the public bath was a central item of practically any town of any significance.  That’s where you bathed, relaxed, did business deals, socialized, etc.  So, quite obviously, unless you stayed completely to yourself and never socialized, everyone (or at least other males) would readily know whether you were or weren’t circumcised!  This appears to be the reason why we have references to some Jewish men actually undergoing a surgical operation to try to reverse their circumcision (let’s not go into details!).  Indeed, given what was involved (the discomfort and the dangers of infection and also social ostracism), it’s curious that Paul felt it necessary to argue so strongly against male circumcision of his gentile converts.  Those advocating circumcision must have been fairly persuasive!

But another thing to note is the place of the male phallus in the ancient Roman culture.  As any museum of Roman-era antiquities will demonstrate, the phallus was very much “out there” on view.  E.g., statues of male deities and males ascribed some kind of god-like status (e.g., Roman emperors) often (even typically) are shown nude with their genitals fully in view.  There was even a deity known for his massive penis, Priapus, a god associated with fertility, and the phallus itself appears often (e.g., on vases and other items) as a common symbol of fertility.  Roman-era people were, in general it appears, much less prudish in depicting couples copulating and in other references to sexual activities.

But also the stylized phallus often was used as a symbol for good health, good fortune, etc.  We have examples of a stylized phallus in a house-mosaic from Ostia, where it appears to be simply a good-luck symbol.  We have amulets worn around the neck with representations of the phallus, serving as a personal good-luck charm. We have stylized phalluses set into walls at street-corners and at bridges, apparently intended to ward off accidents.  We have necklaces and rings, including childrens’ rings,  with stylized phalluses, apparently intended as good-luck charms.  (For abundant evidence of all these matters, see the richly illustrated volume by Catherine Johns, Sex or Symbol:  Erotic Images of Greece and Rome, Austin:  University of Texas Press; London:  British Museum Publications, 1982.)

So, although it may seem odd to us to have people arguing in public and Paul writing candidly about male circumcision, and some might even blush at the candor of it all, in that Roman-era setting it wasn’t so strange to do so.

But, to return to Paul’s argument with advocates of “Judaizing,” his reason for resisting so strenuously the circumcision of his gentile converts to Christ appears to be this:  He believed that Christ’s resurrection had inaugurated the special time foretold in the Jewish scriptures (OT) in which the non-Jewish peoples/nations would forsake their idolatry and turn to the God of Israel (e.g., Isaiah 60:1-7).  That is (as several scholars have recently emphasized, e.g., Paula Fredriksen), these prophecies portray gentiles coming to God as gentiles, not as converts to Judaism.  So, Paul seems to have thought, to require gentile believers to undergo male circumcision and adopt Jewish observance of Torah was to fail to recognize the new eschatological situation ushered in through Christ’s resurrection.

Contra the claims of some, Paul didn’t oppose gentile circumcision simply to make his message more “marketable” and less demanding.  Instead, believing whole-heartedly that Jesus had been designated and installed Messiah (through his resurrection), and under the impact of his revelatory experience of Jesus as God’s “Son” (e.g., Galatians 1:13-15), Paul energetically traversed a good deal of the Roman world announcing to non-Jews that the special day of God’s favour to/for them had arrived, and that they could now become part of the promised family of Abraham in Christ.

But, also contra the claims of some, Paul’s opposition to requiring non-Jewish males to be circumcised does not imply that Paul would have discouraged Jewish believers from circumcising their sons.  To be sure, Paul held that fellow Jews, as well as gentiles, should recognize Jesus as Messiah and Lord.  I don’t see the grounds for the claims of some that Paul saw Jesus’ redemptive significance as relevant only for gentiles.  But Paul also seems to have continued to see himself as a member of the Jewish people, and saw the Jewish people as having a continuing significance in God’s redemptive programme (e.g., Romans 9–11).  As I read him, for Paul there was no problem in fellow Jewish believers continuing to see themselves as Jews and observing Torah (and so, e.g., circumcising their sons), so long as they didn’t require non-Jewish believers to do so.  So long as fellow Jewish believers recognized the surpassing significance of Jesus, as the new defining criterion of the enlarged family of Abraham, their Torah-observance was OK.

Paul: The Second-Temple Jewish Apostle to the Gentiles

I returned last night from a very enjoyable trip to Rome to take part in the Nangeroni Seminar on “Paul as a Second-Temple Jew.”  For more information on the Nangeroni Seminars click here.  This encouraging and demanding event brought together about 35 scholars from various countries who are specialists on second-temple Judaism and/or the Apostle Paul.  The premise and the broad conclusion to which all assented is that Paul was and remained in his ministry as apostle to gentiles a Jew.  He did not renounce his identity as a member of the Jewish people.  He did not demonize his ancestral religion.  He did not reject the Torah (“Law”) as false.  He did not regard his Jewish past as one of frustration, failure, inability to observe Torah, or as something to escape.  He did not play off the particularity of his Jewishness in favour of some kind of universalism.

Instead, Paul claims to have practiced Torah successfully and happily.  He does not refer to himself as “converted” from Jewishness to being a “Christian.”  Instead, he claims to have had a powerful experience that he describes as a “revelation” of Jesus as God’s “Son,” and a special calling to proclaim God’s welcome to non-Jewish peoples (“Gentiles”) without their having to convert to Judaism (see especially Philippians 3:4-16; Galatians 1:13-17).  I’ll have more to say about the Rome seminar in subsequent postings.  In this one, I’ll briefly indicate the gist of my presentation.

As one of those invited to give a main paper, I addressed “Paul’s Messianic Christology.”  In my paper I took as now established that Paul regarded Jesus as Messiah, especially in light of the recent book by my colleague, Matthew Novenson, Christ Among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah language in Ancient Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2012).  My own contribution was to propose that, instead of thinking of Paul as departing from some notion of a monolithic Jewish messianism, we should regard Paul as espousing a particular variant-form of Jewish messianism.  Jewish messianism of Paul’s time was pluriform, and the Christological faith that Paul adopted and promoted represents one of the several variant-forms.

To be sure, Paul’s Christology is a particularly noteworthy form of messianism.  In my paper I focused on several specific features that distinguish it from other known forms of second-temple messianism.  Perhaps most readily acknowledged as distinctive is the emphasis on Jesus’ death and resurrection as key messianic events.  With his predecessors in the young Jesus movement, Paul insisted that Jesus’ crucifixion was part of God’s plan and was redemptive in effect, and that God had then vindicated Messiah Jesus by resurrection.

I also noted the place of Jesus’ “parousia” (a Greek term used in the NT to refer to Jesus’ return) and the interval between his resurrection and parousia.  This interval Paul regarded as the special time in which the gospel is preached and God accomplishes his purposes of forming a redeemed people, especially from among non-Jews.

A third noteworthy feature of Paul’s messianic Christology is the cosmic dimension to Jesus’ exaltation and appointed rule.  Granted in some other messianic hopes of Paul’s day we see the expectation that the Messiah will rule over all peoples.  But Paul reflects the belief that heavenly powers as well will be made subject to Messiah Jesus, and even death will be one of the enemies to be subjugated to him.  The messianic figure of the “parables of Enoch” (part of the text known as 1 Enoch) may come close to having this wide a supremacy, but in texts such as Philippians 2:9-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 Jesus is pictured as being given obeisance by all dimensions of creation, even angelic powers.

Still another striking feature of Paul’s messianic Christology, and one that is not noted very often, is the strong affective tone and emphasis.  Paul expresses his relationship to Christ (and that of other Christ-believers as well) with a pronounced intensity of feeling.  Consider, for example, Paul’s passionately worded declaration in Philippians 3:7-11, or his statement of being motivated by “the love of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.  I know of no parallel for this affective emphasis in other known forms of ancient Jewish messianism.

We may also note the way that Paul refers to the incorporative relationship of believers to Jesus.  This has sometimes been referred to as “union with Christ,” “Christ-mysticism,” or “participation in Christ.”  Paul’s frequent use of “in Christ” (56 times in the seven undisputed letters), and related expressions (e.g., “with Christ,” “through Christ,” “in the Lord”) are indicative of this.

Finally, I referred to what I regard as perhaps the most striking distinctive of all in Paul’s Christology:  The programmatic way that Jesus is treated as rightful recipient of devotional practices along with God.  I’ve written on this in several publications, from my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, and subsequently.  Note how in 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul can refer to fellow believers simply as “all those in every place who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  The phrasing “call upon the name” derives from the OT usage, where it designates invoking God and offering worship.  Paul here applies this expression to the collective reverence given to Jesus in early Christian assemblies.

Certainly, the collective force of these features makes the messianic Christology that Paul affirmed and promoted distinctive, even in the rich pluriformity of ancient Jewish tradition.  But, to reiterate the point for emphasis, Paul affirmed a messianic Christology, calling the nations to recognize Jesus as God’s messianic “Son” in whom they were now welcomed into the family of Abraham and acceptance before the God of Israel.



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