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“Destroyer” Interview: Parts 2-3

In an earlier posting I pointed to the first of a multi-part text-interview on my forthcoming book:  Destroyer of the gods.  Part 2 of the interview is now online here, and Part 3 is available here.

Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press), to appear 15 September.  The publisher’s online catalogue entry here.

Seminar Honoring Reidar Hvalvik

Next Monday (29 August), I take part in a seminar honouring NT scholar, Reidar Hvalvik, in the Norwegian School of Theology (Oslo).  Hvalvik has been a very productive figure, one of the bright lights of contemporary Norwegian NT scholarship, and it’s an honour and pleasure to join in honouring him in this event.

The programme for the seminar is available online here.

The presentations reflect the cross-disciplinary scope of Hvalvik’s interests and work, with a particular focus on visual and material expressions of early Christianity.  My paper will be a “360”-type examination of P45 (Chester Beatty Papyrus I), noting bookform, contents, arrangement, size, the hand, and other visual/physical features.

I look forward to seeing Norwegian friends again and to contributing to this event.

Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion?


A recent commenter to a previous posting alluded to the claim by some scholars that there is scant evidence of Jewish opposition/controversy about Jesus-devotion in early Jewish Christian circles.  Having published a lengthy article arguing in detail the opposite view, I find it curious that the claim continues to be made.

My article, “Early Jewish Opposition to Jesus-Devotion,” is most readily accessible in my book, How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?  Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 152-78.  The article originally appeared in Journal of Theological Studies 50 (1999): 35-58.

In the article, I commence with the references in the Gospel of John, which are commonly taken as reflecting Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion at the time of the composition (ca. 80s CE).  It’s commonly accepted that there was Jewish opposition to Jesus-devotion at that point.

I then note that very similar evidence appears in the Gospel of Matthew, in Luke and Acts, and in the Gospel of Mark, which take us back still earlier.  Then, I engage evidence from Paul’s letters, particularly Paul’s own repeated references to his vigorous efforts to “destroy” (his term) the young Jesus-movement.

Paul consistently characterizes his religious change as a radical shift in how he saw Jesus (e.g., Galatians 1:15-16).  This suggests that what had provoked his ire previously had been what he regarded as offensive reverence for Jesus.  Certainly, Paul gives no other hint of any other reason for his zealous opposition.

In 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:6, Paul characterizes the stance of Jews who reject the gospel as having veiled minds, unable in particular to recognize “the glory of the Lord” (Jesus).  This seems to many as a partly auto-biographical account, Paul here ascribing to fellow Jews a stance that he had previously held prior to his own “revelation” experience.  And notice again that the issue is the significance of Jesus, specifically his status as bearing and reflecting the glory of God.

No mention of “halakhic” issues.  No reference to an offence of consorting with Gentiles. Just a strong difference over the person of Jesus, and whether to treat him as the glorified “Lord” or not.

It’s neither sensible nor possible to engage the relevant evidence sufficiently in a blog posting.  I can only ask that those who wish to form a considered opinion on the matter study my article.  If I’m wrong, I’m still waiting for someone to go through the same evidence and refute the article.  It appeared originally in 1999.  Till someone does, I’ll have to think that I’ve made a case that Jesus-devotion was the (or at least a) central cause of Jewish opposition to the Jesus-movement, from its inception onward through the first century CE.


“Destroyer of the gods”: Interview

Part 1 of a multi-part text-interview b y Ben Witherington on my forthcoming book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, has appeared here.  Subsequent parts of a long interview over major points in the book will appear on his site in coming days.

“Jesus Monotheism”: My Review

My review of Jesus Monotheism, by Crispin Fletcher-Louis just appeared in Review of Biblical Literature here.  This book is volume 1 of a multi-volume project in which Fletcher-Louis aims to lay out a broad-ranging and programmatic analysis of the emergence of devotion to Jesus in earliest circles of what became Christianity.

This first volume is heavily a “ground clearing” operation in which he both aligns himself with what he calls “the emerging consensus”  (that a view and devotional treatment of Jesus as sharing in divine honor and status erupted early and in circles of Jewish believers), and also lodges a critique that he posits as requiring the sort of further work that he offers.

As my review indicates briefly, I don’t find his criticisms of my own work persuasive.  I also think that some of his key propositions are dubious (or at least will require much more support).  We will have to wait for subsequent volumes to measure adequately his case.  But in this initial volume he gives strong hints of where future volumes will take us.

One apparent point of difference is over the sources of the Jesus-devotion reflected already in Paul’s letters.  I have posited several “forces and factors,” including particularly powerful experiences of the risen/exalted Jesus that conveyed the conviction that God had raised Jesus from death and given him heavenly glory.  From this, I contend, other beliefs quickly emerged, such as the belief that Jesus had, in some way, been “there” with God from creation (“pre-existence”).

Fletcher-Louis, however, seems to hold that in his historical ministry Jesus knew himself to be the pre-existent Son, and that he taught his disciples this idea.  They didn’t quite “get” it, however, until after Jesus’ resurrection.  But the source of the idea was Jesus himself, in Fletcher-Louis’ view.  (As I say, we’ll have to wait for the full laying out of his view in subsequent volumes, so I hope I haven’t misrepresented the basics here.)

Indeed, I get the impression that Fletcher-Louis regards the sayings distinctively ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John as fully indicative of Jesus’ actual teachings about himself during his ministry.  This might amount to making GJohn superior to the Synoptics as to Jesus’ self-understanding and teaching about his person and purpose.  Clearly, Fletcher-Louis’ project involves some major issues.

Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art & Archaeology

After some 20 years in preparation and promise, a major reference work will appear this Autumn:  The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology, ed. Paul Corby Finney (publisher’s online catalogue entry here).  It’s a three-volume work, and the price tag ($495 US) means that it will likely be acquired primarily by libraries.  So, recommend it to your library; and, if you get an offer from a rich uncle, you could mention this for your Christmas present!

I wrote the entry on the “nomina sacra” for this work originally sometime back in the mid-90s.  Another publisher was originally lined up, and I revised and updated my entry expecting the work to appear in 1999, and then again in 2013.  But then, silence till just a week or two ago.  It’s still not out yet, but I take it that publication is secure, scheduled for November.

This is surely one of the longer sagas of publication projects in the field, and Finney must be even more glad than any of us contributors to be done with it!  Although I haven’t seen any of it beyond my own entry, I am fairly confident that this will be a distinctively valuable reference work on early Christianity.  So if you’re at all interested in the visual and material expressions of early Christianity, you’ll want to take this work into account.

Finney is a senior figure in early Christian art, perhaps most well known for his book, The Invisible God:  The Earliest Christians on Art (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Christianity in Third-Century Alexandria

A gem of an essay not often noted today on Christianity in third-century Alexandria: Aline Rousselle, “La persécution des chrétiens à Alexandrie au IIIe siècle,” Revue historique de droit français et étranger 52 (1974): 222-51.

Rousselle considers the references to how Christians were treated, with particular focus on the difficulties experienced in response to imperial edicts in 202 (Septimius Severus), 250 (Decius), and 257 (Valerian).  She highlights the different punishments meted out to various Christians, and proposes that they reflect Roman judicial policy, in which distinctions were made between Roman citizens, Alexandrian citizens, and mere (!) Egyptians.  This means that we can identify the social ranks of the various Christians by looking at the punishments they were given.  Some, especially among the higher clergy it seems, suffered punishments that correspond with higher “honourable” social levels.  This tallies with other indications that by the third century (and likely well before that), individuals of higher social ranks were becoming Christian adherents.

In my forthcoming book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, Sept, 2016; publisher’s link here), I’ve proposed that the extended critique of Christianity by Celsus, and the lampooning of Christians by writers such as Lucian (The Passing of Peregrinus) likely reflect anxieties in upper-class Roman circles about the spread of Christianity among their circles.  Upper-class Romans seem to have been less concerned about what the lower social levels got up to religiously, but were more concerned about perceived deviance in their own social levels.

Returning to Rousselle’s essay, another interesting observation is that, ironically, the flight of Christians in these outbreaks of persecution resulted in the geographical spread of Christianity more widely in Egypt.  From its initial concentration in Alexandria, Christianity thus spread to sites in the Egyptian “chōra“.  Although the essay is now over 40 years published, it illustrates how one shouldn’t neglect older publications.

Update on Latest Books

Earlier this week I had the encouraging news that the trade journal,Publishers Weekly, gave my forthcoming book a starred review:  Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, September 2016).  The link to the PW review is here.  For more information and comments on this book, the BUP link is here.

Copies available by mid-September in the USA, a few weeks later in the UK.  A Spanish translation is planned, to be published by Ediciones Sigueme (Salamanca, Spain).

While you’re waiting for that one, I could point you to a small, related book of mine published a few months ago:  Why on Earth did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016).  I posted on this book earlier here.  It’s available, e.g., here.

“Angels”: Pagan, Jewish, Christian

Over the past few days, I’ve been slowly digesting a recent large article surveying Greek inscriptions referring to “angels” in Roman Asia Minor:  G. H. R. Horsley and Jean M. Luxford, “Pagan Angels in Roman Asia Minor:  Revisiting the Epigraphic Evidence,” Anatolian Studies 66 (2016): 141-83.  (The online link to the article is here.)

The central portion of the article gives a number of inscriptions, each with English translation and commentary, in which the Greek word “angelos” (or the plural form) appears.  This is the sort of data-rich discussion that I find particularly valuable and stimulating.  The commentary is also rich in references to prior studies, and there is a copious bibliography at the end of the article.

One of the broad purposes of the article is to “push back” against some earlier tendencies to posit Jewish and/or Christian influence on inscriptions that appeal to or mention “angels”.  Of course, the Greek term didn’t originate with Jews or Christians, but in ordinary Greek usage, in which it can designate either a human messenger or a heavenly “divine” one.  The term was adopted in the Greek OT as a good translation-equivalent for the Hebrew “malach,” and thereby became part of ancient Jewish and then ancient Christian parlance too.  As the authors contend, unless you’re predisposed to seeing Jewish or Christian influences, there’s little reason to do so.

But they do accept a likely Christian influence/stance reflected in a few, such as one from Phrygia, dated third century CE, on a tomb erected by an Aurelius Zotikos Lykidas.  Part of the rationale for thinking it Christian is the use of what scholars term “the Eumeneian formula” indicated here it italics:   “If anyone places another (body) here, he will have to reckon with God and the angelos of Roubes.”

A number of the inscriptions in question are in burial sites, and warn against disturbing the graves, effectively warning the ire of angels if anyone does so.  They also come from a particular geographical area in present-day Turkey, and a few islands off/near the Turkish coast.  A few others seem to have served to invoke city-deities for their protection of the city.

I can’t here do justice to this careful, detailed discussion of the inscriptions.  One final note:  The authors propose that the inscriptions give us insight into some of the anxieties of the people who had them prepared, these concerns moving them to invoke or threaten the protection of supernatural beings.  In that basic sense, as with all such artefacts, we have physical remnants of the lives of ancient people.


Jesus and God, encore.

Several comments to my posting yesterday, “Jesus and God,” exhibit the fallacious assumption that I posted about a couple of years ago here.  That assumption is that, for purposes of Christian theology, the sayings of Jesus trump everything.  Well, so far as NT authors are concerned, it’s clear that it is God who is the ultimate “reliable voice,” and it is God’s action that is the basis for everything.  Jesus’ significance, in short, is declared by God, and is defined with reference to God.  Indeed, one could say that all Christological claims are, at their basis, actually/also theo-logical claims, i.e., claims about what God is supposed to have done with reference to Jesus.

So, e.g., in the NT generally, the key basis for all other theological claims about Jesus is God’s action of raising him from death and exalting him to heavenly glory.  Prior to God doing so (in the outlook of NT writings), it was inappropriate for anyone to treat Jesus as rightful recipient of worship, for example, in the way that believers treated Jesus in the “post-Easter” period.  So, surprise! surprise!, the Jesus of the Gospels doesn’t receive worship, doesn’t demand it, etc.

The “mutation” in Jewish devotional practice that I underscored in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (3rd ed, London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015) took place in the aftermath of the conviction that God had exalted Jesus “to the right hand,” and now required him to be reverenced.  In is in light of God’s action that discourse about God and worship of God was re-drawn to include reference to Jesus programmatically.  (By the way, the 3rd edition of the book includes a new 20,000 word Epilogue in which I engage key works that appeared subsequent to the 1998 edition.)

So, for example, playing off Jesus’ saying in Mark 12:29 in which he cites the traditional wording of the Jewish confession, the Shema, for theological purposes against such passages as Philippians 2:9-11 or 1 Cor 8:4-6 or others is simply fallacy prompted, ironically, by 18th-century Deist thinkers (as I note in the 2014 posting cited above).


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