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The “Thorny Crown”

At our recent day-conference on ancient coinage, one speaker noted the depiction of rulers as wearing a “radiate crown,” a crown with spikey points that seems intended to ascribe the ruler with divine qualities.  You can see examples on coins here.

Many years ago, H. St. J. Hart proposed that the “thorny crown” placed on Jesus’ head by the Roman soldiers in the Gospels accounts was one made to mock Jesus more than particularly to inflict pain:  “The Crown of Thorns in John 19, 2-5,” Journal of Theological Studies n.s. 3 (1952): 66-75.  Hart’s article includes plates of coins depicting various forms of the radiant crown, and he explored also the types of plants whose spikey leaves may have been used for the crown placed on Jesus’ head.  Shortly thereafter, Campbell Bonner published an article giving further support to Hart’s proposal:  “The Crown of Thorns,” Harvard Theological Review 46 (1953):  47-48.

As Hart noted, this sort of crown fits the context, in which the soldiers are depicted as dressing Jesus in a purple robe, with a reed as a mock sceptre, and the soldiers then (in Mark) bow down to him in mock obeisance.

I’m taken with the idea, and have been since I first read Hart’s article many years ago.


Kloppenborg’s Review of “Destroyer”

On the one hand, I’m pleased to see a review of my book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, in the prestigious online journal, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, here.  And the reviewer, John Kloppenborg, is certainly himself a respected scholar, his review broadly irenic in tone.

On the other hand, I’m disappointed that he seems to have misunderstood my clearly stated objectives in the book, and so a major point of his criticism is . . ., well, quite beside the point.  Contra Kloppenborg’s statement that, “The burden of the book is to discuss the reasons that the Christ cult thrived in the Empire,” I state no such intention in the book.  I do draw upon Rodney Stark’s observation that successful religious groups maintain a balance between compatibility with their cultural setting and distinctiveness from it.  This simply serves as a premise to exploring what distinctive features characterized early Christianity, which was self-evidently “successful” across the first three centuries.

But, contra Kloppenborg’s characterization of the book’s “burden,” I make it rather clear from the outset that I have two main points in the book:  (1) Early Christianity did have certain distinctive features, as observed by contemporaries, especially non-Christians; and (2) the particular distinctive features discussed in the book have become for us unexamined assumptions about “religion.”  Neither of these objectives entails the necessity of theorizing how or why early Christianity “succeeded.”   So Kloppenborg’s complaint is, I have to say, misjudged and even inappropriate.

Also, contrary to the impression one might take from Kloppenborg’s review, I do allow for variations in the ways that early Christians negotiated their existence in the Roman world.  They weren’t by any means uniform in their stance about such things as participation in feasts in honour of the gods, for example, and I cite the texts in 1 Corinthians and in Revelation noted by Kloppenborg as indicating such differences.

As for my view on the early Christian preference for the codex, the data are rather clear.  Christians preferred the codex far, far more than anyone else in the early centuries.  Oh, and later visual depictions of Jesus and the prophets and the apostles and their books are interesting.  But it’s not quite as willy-nilly as Kloppenborg assumes.  A solid study needs to be written on this subject (perhaps a good PhD topic for someone!).  But, e.g., the Evangelists and Paul are rather consistently depicted with codexes, whereas the OT prophets have scrolls.  That suggests there was in ancient Christian iconography a recognition of the semiotic differences between these two bookforms.  I wouldn’t expect full consistency in the matter, but there does seem to me to be a dominant pattern to the visual use of codex and scroll in Christian art.  And as for Bagnall’s claims about the codex, see my posting about them here (which includes a link to my review of Bagnall’s book).

Kloppenborg likens the pagan house-cult that I cite to Paul’s congregations, suggesting that it is invalid to characterize the one as a local cult and Paul’s groups as trans-local.  But I find this a surprising gaff.  For surely Paul’s own trans-local ministry, as “apostle to the nations/gentiles,” meant that each of his “local” congregations was (and knew themselves to be) part of a movement of much larger geographical and ethnic dimensions.  Paul’s collection for Jerusalem expresses the trans-local relationships that he sought to foster, in that case not only linking his own churches together in a common effort, but also linking them with their fellow believers in Roman Judea.  I could say more on this point, but it should be obvious that the early Christian movement wasn’t simply a bunch of “local cults” with no trans-local connections or relationships.

As another response to Kloppenborg’s critique, in fact I do note that there are other examples of what I call “voluntary” religion (Kloppenborg’s term “polis cults”) in the Roman world, such as the cults of Mithras, Isis, and others.  Yes, of course.  But, so far as we know, none of these cults expected members to desist from sacrifice to their traditional gods.  None raised any problem with members continuing to express their religious allegiance to families, cities or empire through reverencing the many deities.  Among the new religious movements of the time, only early Christianity made such things issues for members.  So, it is simply a red-herring to point to other “voluntary cults” as if that somehow diminishes early Christian distinctiveness.

I find it interesting that biblical scholars seem more reluctant to grant my point than do historians of Roman-era religion.  That should be evident from the many such historians that I cite and draw upon in the book.  How to account for this is not my concern.

I conclude, however, by acknowledging gratefully Kloppenborg’s irenic tone, especially his concluding comments.  Destroyer of the gods wasn’t written primarily as a monograph for scholars, but as a scholarly book for a wide readership.  But I share Kloppenborg’s hope that the book may help to simulate further scholarly work on the fascinating movement that became Christianity.

Two Recent Books on Coins

In light of the recent day-session on “Coins and the Bible” here, I want to note two recent books.  Coins were a regular medium for kings and administrators to promote themselves and their regimes.  Coins were also sometimes minted to celebrate military victories.  Coinage is one important part of the “material culture” of the ancient world.  The metals used, the use of images and writing, the places where coins were minted, all these things and more contribute to historical understanding of the period in which they were minted.

Coins and the Bible, eds. Richard Abdy & Amelia Dowler (London:  Spink, 2013) appeared in connection with the exhibition of the same name held in the British Museum, 17 May – 20 October 2013.  Especially for those not familiar with how to “read” coins of the ancient world, this book will be a useful introduction.  It offers a survey of coins from earliest production through to the Byzantine period (4th-7th century AD).  And it is richly illustrated (although many of the images are small and may require use of a magnifying glass!).  For students of the NT and Christian Origins, the chapters on “The Herods (40 BC – AD95), Money in the Time of Jesus,” “Money and the Gospels,” “The Downfall of Judaea (AD 66-135),” and “Christian Dawn (Roman Empire, 3rd Century AD)” will be particularly informative.

Judaea and Rome in Coins 65 BCE – 135 CE, eds. David M. Jacobson and Nikos Kokkinos (London:  Spink, 2012), includes papers originally presented at a conference hosted by the publisher, 13-14 September 2010.  These papers give much more focused attention to particular types of coins, with attention to coins of Herod, the Roman Prefects of Judaea in the early first century (including notably coins minted by Pontius Pilate), Jewish coins of the revolt (66-72 CE) and the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE), and coins minted under emperors Vespasian and Nerva.

It is interesting to note how the various kinds of coins reflect also the religious outlook of those who minted them.  The coins minted to celebrate the Jewish revolt, for example, don’t have representations of humans or animals, whereas the “pagan” coinage typically does.  And the illustrations in this book are clear, even those small ones.

“Paperback Writer”

My recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), is now available in paperback edition (the publisher’s online catalogue entry here), at a reduced price of $19.95.

I’m pleased to learn this, both because it means that the clothbound edition sold out, and also because the paperback price means that the book may now reach a wider readership.  I express my thanks again to Dr. Carey Newman (Director of BUP) and to all his energetic team for their various contributions to my book.


Paul and Letter-Writing

I’ve written a posting for the blog site of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins on recent scholarly works analysing ancient authorial practices in relationship to Paul here.

These include a new book focused on the practice of authors adding a concluding postscript of sorts in their own hand.  And I also recommend to serious students of Christian Origins that they subscribe to the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, a valuable online book review journal covering all aspects of the ancient world.

Philippians 2:6-11

In light of comments and questions arising in response to my previous posting about what “in the form of God/a god” might connote in Philippians 2:6-11, I immodestly point to my own study of the passage published in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?  Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans, 2005), 83-107.

Probably the further comments I’d make today are (1) that the phrase “in the form of God” may be illumined by usages such as Philo’s that I cited in my previous posting, and (2) that there are now more scholars questioning whether the passage originated separately as a hymn, or, instead, may have been composed by Paul as part of Philippians.

If the latter, then it still seems to me that the compressed wording and balanced phrasing suggests that it was composed (by whomever) in an “exalted” style, with some features of the Greek Psalms.  So, if not a hymn, then in some sense “hymnic”.

“The Form of God”: Philo and Paul

An interesting passage in Philo of Alexandria, Embassy to Gaius (110-14) casts possible light on Paul’s reference to Christ as “being in the form of God/a god” (ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων; Philippians 2:6).[1]

Philo mounts a sustained criticism of the Emperor Gaius (Caligula) as a cruel and unjust ruler who sought his own pleasures and glory and cared nothing for others; but who liked to attire himself as the god Apollo and then be reverenced as such by his frightened subjects. Philo contrasts this with the generous and protective attributes ascribed to the gods to which Gaius sought to be compared, such as Apollo. Philo then says, “Let him who falsely calls himself Paean [a title of Apollo] cease once for all to mimic the true Paean; for the form of a deity is not produced the way one can counterfeit a coin” (πεπαύσθω καὶ ὁ ψευδώνυμος Παιὰν τὸν αληθῆ Παιᾶνα μεμούμενος· οὐ γὰρ ὥσπερ τὸ νόμισα παράκομμα καὶ θεοῦ μορφὴ γίνεται, Embassy 110, my translation).

The phrase, “form of a god” (θεοῦ μορφὴ), is a close parallel to Paul’s phrase. Note in particular how Philo here treats the “form of a god” as comprising certain virtues, a way of being, not simply outward/visual appearance. Note similarly Philo’s statement a bit later: “Do we need more than these things [Gaius’ excesses] to teach us that Gaius should not be likened to any of the gods or demigods? For his nature, his substance, his chosen conduct have not been in accord with this” (Ἆρά γε ἤδη μεμαθήκαμεν ἐκ τούτων, ὅτι οὐδενί θεῶν ἀλλ̓ οὐδὲ ἡμιθέων ἐξομοιοῦσθαι δεῖ Γάιον, μήτε φύσεως μήτε οὐσίας ἀλλὰ μηδὲ προαιρέσεως τετυχηκότα τῆς αὐτῆς; Embassy 114).

I wonder if Philo’s emphasis on the moral/ethical qualities of being “in the form of a god” may suggest something similar in Paul’s reference to Christ in Philippians 2:6. That is, the description of Christ as “being in the form of God/a god” may have more of a moral/ethical force than is sometimes assumed. To be sure, it is likely that Paul alludes here to what we call Christ’s “pre-existence,” and then describes how the “pre-existent” Christ took “the form of a slave” (μορφήν δούλου λαβών) as a man (vv. 6-8). But if “in the form of God/a god” in Philippians 2:6 also has something of the moral/ethical content that Philo’s similar phrase carries, then the sense of Paul’s statement may include the ascription to Christ of certain virtues of that he regards as appropriate to a deity.

In this light, Paul’s statement of Christ being “in the form of (a) god” and his choosing not to regard “equality with God something to be exploited” may have more of a coherence than has sometimes been recognized. That is, instead of taking the verse as “although he was in the form of God/a god,” Christ chose the actions described in Philippians 2:6-8, we might read “being in the form of God/a god” as the premise for the actions that follow, these actions exhibiting his divine “form.”

And this also means that the exaltation of Christ by God in Philippians 2:9-11 is not a new conferral of divinity but a new position, the designation of Christ as thereafter the “Kyrios” to whom now all creatures are to give obeisance “to the glory of God the Father.”

I can’t myself say that Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:6 had originally any intended contrast with Caligula or other such figures. But I do think that Philo’s use of the expression “form of a god” provides us with reason to consider whether Paul’s equivalent characterization of Christ is more than a “mere” ascription of divine status or appearance, and may connote also some of the sort of positive qualities of divinity that Philo affirms.

[1] The absence of the definite article in the Greek phrase leaves it possible to translate it either way.

Bookroll and Codex: Short Videos

In response to a query a day or so ago, I pointed to a couple of short instructional videos I prepared on the ancient bookroll and the codex as resources for our Centre for the History of the Book.  In one video I explain how bookrolls (scrolls) and the codex were prepared here.

In the other video I focus on the codex and the Christian preference for this bookform, explaining the particular steps necessary in preparing a codex for any extended literary text here.  It is often overlooked that the use of a codex required steps and skills additional to those otherwise required for using a bookroll.

I note that the early Christian materials reflect various experiments with methods of constructing a codex, which suggests that Christians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries were are the forefront of the use of this bookform.  It’s a remarkable phenomenon that early Christians preferred the codex, and especially for those texts that they treated as scripture.  At the same time, in the larger book culture the bookroll reigned supreme.  So, the early Christian preference for the codex is all the more striking.

For further discussion, see the chapter in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2005), 43-93.

Easter Roundtable

A roundtable discussion on Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection led by Professor Helen Bond, with Dr. Sara Parvis and me participating is available now here.  Bond commences with queries about how Jesus’ corpse was handled after his crucifixion, whether it was in fact buried or simply discarded, and whether figures such as Joseph of Arimathea may have been involved.

Then we turn to questions about the traditions of the empty tomb, and also what resurrection meant in the setting of the first followers of Jesus.

Professor Bond is my colleague in Edinburgh, and now Director of our Centre for the Study of Christian Origins.  Dr. Parvis is our specialist in Patristics and early Christianity.  Thanks to Mark Lamas and his fellow PhD students who arranged the event and handled filming and posting it on YouTube.

Early Christian Gospels: A New Study

Scott D. Charlesworth’s major study will deserve notice by anyone working on the text and transmission of the Gospels in the earliest centuries: Early Christian Gospels: Their Production and Transmission (Papyrologica Florentina, 47; Firenze: Edizioni Gonnelli, 2016). This is a wide-ranging work (developed from his PhD thesis), “thick” with data and analysis, and it would require much more space than I can give here to do justice to it. So, only a brief summary at this point, with a few preliminary comments.

The main claim is that certain formal features (or copying conventions) characterize copies of canonical Gospels in the 2nd/3rd centuries that were prepared for “public” (liturgical) use. Copies of these same texts prepared for private/personal usage tend to lack these formal features. The formal features that characterize copies of canonical gospels intended for public/liturgical use also distinguish these from copies of other early Christian texts, especially non-canonical gospels.

These formal features include (1) a preference for a particular codex size/shape (third-century gospel codices the same width as 2nd century copies, but taller), (2) various “reader’s aids” such as punctuation, sense-unit demarcation, and careful copying with few ligatures, generous line-spacing, and a “bookhand” or tending in that direction.

The regularity and frequency of these formal features/conventions likely reflect early “copying centres” (connected to churches in major urban centres such as Rome). Not medieval scriptoria, but church-based centres involving only two or more copyists. There were, to be sure, local variations, for the copying conventions spread trans-locally through Christians interchanging texts and communicating with one another. But, Charlesworth insists, the evidence reflects the rapid and wide acceptance of these copying conventions applied to gospel texts that were intended for liturgical reading.

I think that Charlesworth is at least basically correct that we can see visual/physical differences between copies of Christian texts likely prepared for public reading on the one hand, and copies prepared for personal/private use on the other hand. I’ve noted an example of the latter in study of the fragment of the Gospel of John known as “P22”.[1] Also, he is correct that the extant early copies of “non-canonical” gospel texts, such as the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Thomas, suggest that they were mainly prepared for individual usage, not for liturgical reading.[2]

But note that Charlesworth appears to have confined his comparisons to copies of NT gospels and extra-canonical gospel-like texts. A full substantiation of his argument would require also comparison of copies of other texts that we know enjoyed a popularity, such as Shepherd of Hermas.

Charlesworth also contends that there was a two-stage development of early Christian conventions about the nomina sacra.[3] The initial development involved a small set of words that typically had God and/or Jesus as referents: θεος, κυριος, Ιησους, Χριστος. Then, however, as further words came to be treated as nomina sacra, and it became a complicated task for copyists to judge when the referent was or wasn’t “sacred,” leading to some confusion among copyists about when to write words such as κυριος, πνευμα, and ανθρωπος as nomina sacra. So, Charlesworth postulates a second development, which was to promote a “systematic” treatment of all occurrences of κυριος and the additional words as nomina sacra irrespective of the referent. This latter step is posited to the second half of the second century. Charlesworth has made this claim for a few years now, but it will require further time and analysis to assess it. At this point, I’m not convinced that there was the coordinated action that he seems to posit. Instead, it still seems to me that what we see in the data is a general sense among early Christian copyists that certain words were to be written as nomina sacra, and a frequent confusion about exactly when to do so. But this question bears further thought.

Charlesworth also posits a clear difference between the process involved in the production and transmission of non-canonical gospel-like texts and the production and transmission of what became canonical texts. In the main, he judges, copyists of proto-canonical texts did not make major changes in the texts copied. By contrast, those who produced non-canonical gospels clearly engaged in an authorial and compositional effort, drawing upon emergent canonical gospels and freely composing new material. But, he insists, it is invalid to cite the freedom exercised in the composition of these new non-canonical texts as a basis for positing a similar freedom exercised in the copying/transmission of the canonical gospels.

Charlesworth offers an analysis of the textual variants in 2nd/3rd century copies of the canonical gospels (focusing on textual portions preserved in two or more early copies), contending that they show a generally high level of faithful copying. There is no evidence of a “wild” freedom in copying these texts, no indications of major insertions or deletions or re-arrangement of the text in the extant early papyri. So, he reasons, the text of the canonical gospels conveyed in our early MSS likely preserves substantially the “original” text, with only minor variations that don’t affect significantly the sense of the text. My own study of early manuscripts, and the recent study by my former PhD student, Lonnie Bell on earliest papyri of the Gospel of John, lead me to a similar judgement.[4] The early papyri exhibit variants, certainly, but these are almost entirely minor variations in word-order, tense, presence/absence of the definite article, etc.

I am pleased to see Charlesworth’s book published, knowing for a couple of years that it was in the works. It should now receive close attention from other scholars. Charlesworth is forthright and confident in his claims, and so it will be appropriate and necessary for them to be tested.[5]

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “A Fresh Analysis of P.Oxyrhynchus 1228 (P22) As Artefact,” in Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner, Juan Hernandez Jr. and Paul Foster (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 206-16.

[2] Larry W. Hurtado, Larry W. “The Greek Fragments of the Gospel of Thomas As Artefacts: Papyrological Observations on Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 654 and Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 655,” in Das Thomasevangelium: Entstehung – Rezeption – Theologie, eds. Jörg Frey, Enno Edzard Popkes and Jens Schröter (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 19-32; Christopher Tuckett, The Gospel of Mary. Early Christian Gospel Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[3] See my discussion of the nomina sacra in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 95-134. I also discuss the early Christian preference for the codex (43-89), and several other features of early Christian manuscripts (155-89).

[4] Lonnie D. Bell, “Textual Stability and Fluidity Exhibited in the Earliest Manuscripts of John: An Analysis of the Second/Third-Century Fragments with Attention Also to the More Extensive Papyri (P45, P66, P75),” (PhD, University of Edinburgh, 2015).

[5] It is unfortunate that the book comes with such a high price, €120. But it appears in a series edited by a respected papyrologist, Rosario Pintaudi, who was also one of Charlesworth’s examiners for his PhD.


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