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Middleton on Martyrdom in Mark and Revelation

Paul Middleton offers a tightly argued and stimulating essay on early Christians’ attitudes toward suffering (for their faith/Jesus) and martyrdom:  “Christology, Martyrdom, and Vindication in the Gospel of Mark and the Apocalypse:  Two New Testament Views,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism:  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloombury T&T Clark, 2015), 219-37.

Middleton (one of my former PhD students) is now the “go-to guy” on early Christian martyrdom, with a number of valuable and informed studies of the subject, including these:  Radical Martyrdom and Cosmic Conflict in Early Christianity (London:  T&T Clark, 2006); Martyrdom:  A Guide for the Perplexed (London:  T&T Clark, 2011); and “Early Christian Voluntary Martyrdom:  A Statement for the Defence,” Journal of Theological Studies 64 (2013): 556-73.

In the first part of the essay in question, Middleton reviews some major issues about early Christian martyrdom, taking what I regard as sound and balanced stances on some controversial issues.  For example, in response to some scholars’ minimizing of the incidences of state-sponsored executions of Christians, he rightly notes that, though “imperial persecution” (i.e., empire-wide) was sporadic, “local prosecution” (by magistrates such as Pliny) needs to be taken into account as well:  “To insist upon a persecution/prosecution distinction is artificial; to the Romans all actions taken against Christians were prosecution for misdemeanour rather than persecution, while Christians would interpret all such action as manifestations of the suffering anticipated in the NT on account of Jesus’ name” (221).

Noting that early Christian texts typically present Christian martyrdom as a kind of re-enactment of Jesus’ execution (perhaps the first example of this the Stephen episode in Acts 7, followed by a number of other texts, particularly evidence in Ignatius of Antioch’s letters), he observes how suffering (variously) for Jesus’ sake is likewise treated in light of, and connected to Jesus’ own “passion.”  He also notes, however, that “not all early Christians appear to have placed the same value on suffering and martyrdom” (225).  Seconding an earlier study by Elaine Pagels, he judges, “There is, therefore, a clear correlation between an early Christian group’s view of the Passion [Jesus’ own suffering/death] and their attitude to martyrdom” (227).  The “less enthusiastic” for Christian martyrdom also tended to be those who thought that Jesus did not really suffer (so-called “docetic” Christians).

The second part of Middleton’s essay (227-37) is a survey of the treatment of Christian suffering/martyrdom in the Gospel of Mark and in Revelation.  He makes a contrast between these two writings:  Mark emphasizes the necessity to follow Jesus in suffering and “take up the cross” also, with very little explicitly stated as the reward, whereas Revelation emphasizes both the looming danger of martyrdom and also proffers explicit rewards for those who are faithful through suffering/martyrdom.  I grant that he makes a case successfully that these two writings treat the topic differently, at least as to emphasis.  But I think that he reads Mark overly bleakly, not doing justice to some texts and (in my view) misreading one or two others.

For example, Middleton judges that the reader of Mark “has to imagine the vindication of Jesus which takes place beyond the text” (231).  But at various points readers are assured that Jesus will both suffer and be raised (by God).  E.g., texts often referred to as “passion predictions” are more accurately “passion-resurrection predictions” 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34, reflective of a curious monocular tendency in Markan scholarship.  Likewise, the transfiguration episode (Mark 9:2-13) includes Jesus’ reference to his resurrection (which the text highlights by having the disciples puzzled over the matter), and in Mark 14:27 again Jesus foretells his resurrection and renewed leadership.  Finally, in 16:7-8 the mysterious youth announces to the stunned women at the tomb that Jesus has been raised bodily, and that they will again see him in Galilee.  So, I’d say that readers of Mark should have little doubt that Jesus has been vindicated and what form that vindication has taken.  Consequently,in my view,  the hope of believers is not quite so contentless as Middleton claims.  In short(as Middleton seems to have suspected), I don’t find Mark quite as “bleak” as he does.  But I’d guess that his view is more widely shared among Mark scholars than mine is.  So take that into account.

But, our somewhat different “take” on Mark aside, I reiterate my praise for this fine essay.  He certainly shows differences among various early Christians on the subject of suffering & martyrdom.  I’m honoured to have been Paul’s supervisor, and pleased and honoured to have this fine essay included in this volume.

Beavis on Hebrews & Wisdom

Mary Ann Beavis has produced an intriguing study of the epistle to the Hebrews:  “Hebrews and Wisdom,” published in the multi-author volume: Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism:  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 201-18.  She proposes that the author of Hebrews drew heavily upon “wisdom tradition” (esp. as reflected in Wisdom of Solomon) in expressing Jesus’ significance, but notes that the term “wisdom” (Greek: sophia) isn’t used . . . even once.  So, her key question is why and what to make of this.

Beavis, now an established scholar, was an outstanding M.A. student I supervised in my time in the University of Manitoba.  She wrote an excellent thesis, “A Study of the Relation of the Old and New Covenants in the Epistle to the Hebrews, in the Light of Scholarship 1938-1980,” and then went on to complete her PhD in Cambridge.  Her PhD thesis was published:  Mark’s Audience: The Literary and Social Setting of Mark 4:11-12 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1989).

In this essay, Beavis draws a comparison to what other scholars have observed about the Gospel of John:  That it, too, draws upon wisdom traditions in framing the portrait of Jesus, and yet GJohn as well does not once mention the word “wisdom.”  But, she notes, “unlike John, the Wisdom influences on Hebrews have mostly gone unremarked, including by feminist biblical scholars and theologians” (218).  Her own conclusion is that “Hebrews, like John, is indeed a suppressed tradition of Sophia, but its Christology, cosmology, ethics, and perspective on sacred history continue to echo her voice” (218).

The essay draws upon work that Beavis has done towards a commentary on Hebrews in a series designed to reflect a feminist perspective:  Mary Ann Beavis & HyeRan Kim-Cragg, Hebrews (Wisdom Commentaries; Collegeville, MN:  Liturgical Press, forthcoming 2015).

Her essay is provocative and cuts a new furrow in scholarly work (as typical of her work from her student days onward).  It deserves a thoughtful and patient consideration. At the risk of being premature, I offer a couple of initial thoughts.  These aren’t rhetorical jibes, but honest questions/reflections offered as a contribution to further reflection on Hebrews and Beavis’ stimulating essay.

I wonder, first, if we are sometimes in danger of “sexualizing” the topic more than is helpful.  After all, in languages that “gender” their nouns, grammatical “gender” doesn’t translate out consistently into sexual gender.  Of course, in Hebrew and Greek, the nouns for “wisdom” are “feminine” gender.  So, if you develop a literary (or visual) personification of the topic, you’d produce a female figure, such as “Dame Wisdom” in Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon.  But does the use of such a literary trope reflect the view that divine Wisdom really is female (or that either sex is relevant)?  Or is it simply  . . . a literary trope, suggested by the grammatical gender of the nouns in question.  If it is basically a literary trope, then is it a case of a kind of “gender-bending” or gender-transfer (my terms, not Beavis’) if the authors of GJohn or Hebrews drew upon Wisdom texts/traditions in lauding Jesus’ significance?  I’m not so confident (at least  not yet) that we can draw this conclusion.

Moreover, do these Wisdom-figures as drawn in Proverbs and Wisdom of Solomon represent genuine expressions of ancient women, or reflect women’s views of things, or indicate any deference to, or particular regard for, women?  Not likely, I’d think.  So, it’s not (again, not yet) so clear to me that in these literary tropes we have some authentic “voice” of women, and so not so clear that or how  the female “voice” has been “suppressed,” or continues as an echo, e.g., in Hebrews.

I’ll put the matter this way:  Aren’t those texts that feature a personification of Wisdom in female form written also likely by males and for males (primarily)?  I.e., aren’t they, too, just as indicative of a male-dominated (“patriarchalist”) culture as anything in GJohn or Hebrews (perhaps even more so?)?  If so, then the deployment of a “female” Wisdom in one text and the failure to do so in another is hardly indicative of a genuine presence or absence of a feminine/female “voice”.  Or do I miss something.

I hope that my demurral isn’t based on a misunderstanding or that I’m simply insufficiently au fait with feminist theory/work on this particular matter.  But, in any case, a blog posting isn’t the venue for the serious and detailed discussion necessary and appropriate for scholarly judgement in the matter.  So, I’ll simply underscore my view of Beavis’ essay as a stimulating study that deserves further thought, my pride in her accomplishments, and my gratitude and pleasure in having her contribution to this volume.

The Nazareth Home of Jesus?

In the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, archaeologist Ken Dark (University of Reading, his personal page here) recounts for a general readership his recent work in/around Nazareth, proposing identification of first-century house structures, and other features of first-century Nazareth: Ken Dark, “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41, no. 2 (2015): 54-63, 72.

He contends that in that time Nazareth would have been a small town or large village, with craftsmen, plenty of fresh water (from several springs), and an economic level generally somewhat higher than some scholars have imagined.  There are a number of photos of structures and artefacts, as well to illustrate what he discusses.

He also contends that his survey of the surrounding area, particularly looking at the area between Nazareth and the larger and nearby town of Sepphoris (information here) suggests a striking difference in accommodation to Roman culture.  The pottery and other items found nearer to Nazareth suggest a more observant Jewish culture (e.g., stone vessels, which did not contract ritual uncleanness as did pottery ones), contrasting with the artefacts found closer to Sepphoris.  This would mean perhaps an effort in Nazareth to maintain a cultural distinction from what may have been regarded as the too-accommodating posture of Sepphoris, and that earlier claims about Nazareth inevitably being influenced by the presence of “pagan” philosophy and religion in Sepphoris may need to be examined critically.

In answer to the question in the title, Dark simply judges “could be.”  He has identified first-century CE domestic structures, but no name on the door!

Manuscripts . . . and a Guinness

Yesterday my colleague, Prof. Paul Foster, and I went with eight of our current PhD students for another of our periodic visits to the Chester Beatty Library (Dublin) to examine their fabulous collection of early biblical papyri.  We try to make this visit about every 2-3 years, making it a regular feature of what we offer to PhD students in NT/Christian Origins here in New College (Edinburgh).  We can fly over early in the morning and return that same evening.

The Director and Curator very kindly agreed to arrange for us to have direct (“autopsy”) access to a number of folios of various of their biblical papyri, and a private space in which we could examine them carefully and discuss details.  I had chosen particular folios of key papyri:  the Gospels codex (P45), the Pauline codex (P46), the Revelation codex (P47), the Numbers-Deuteronomy codex (Rahlfs 963), and each of the two Genesis codices (Rahlfs 961 and 962).  These are all Greek, and all copied by/for early Christian usage, so the selection allowed students to see and compare how these various texts were copied.

These papyri also reflect varying approaches to constructing codices large enough to accommodate large bodies of text.  So, e.g., P45 was constructed of individual papyrus sheets folded and then stitched together, whereas P46 was a “single gathering” codex of some 52 papyrus sheets (as probably the case also with P47).  On the other hand, Chester Beatty V (Rahlfs 962), one of the copies of Genesis, originally 84 leaves (42 sheets), was composed of 10-leaf/5-sheet gatherings (or, as the modern book trade calls them, “quires”).  These are all 3rd century manuscripts, and so, to my mind, show that Christians in this period were experimenting with different ways to construct large codices.  And that, I contend, suggests that they were at the “leading edge” of codex technology, developing the codex for more serious literary purposes than had been the case.  Otherwise, if they were simply adopting a previous literary use of the codex, why were they experimenting still with these different kinds of codex-construction?

The PhD students had been invited to indicate particular folios that they’d like to see, in some cases to check for themselves readings or other features, and it was interesting to see them have the opportunity to do this.  In one or two cases, I think we were able to query a prior reading of texts at particular points (with the aid of hand-held microscopes).  And in another case, I was able to satisfy myself that what looked like a “line filler” in the photographs was actually a shadow caused by a break in the horizontal fibres of the papyrus.  As well, there were folios on which there were errors in copying and corrections, entered in different ways.  It’s clear that a copying capable of a high-quality “calligraphic” hand wasn’t necessarily free from making errors (such as omitting a whole line of text!).  It was also interesting to see how ancient copyists handled (or, amusingly in some cases, mishandled) the “nomina sacra” practice that distinguishes early Christian copies of texts.

Earlier in the day we also visited the Book of Kells exhibit in Trinity College, and were invited to view the recently set-up Freyne Library (from the personal library of the late Prof. Sean Freyne), and have coffee with a few colleagues in the department there.

And, of course, at an early lunch in “The Duke” (local pub/restaurant), those of us so inclined were able to test for ourselves how Guinness tastes in its hometown.  Answer:  Very nice!

“Quests for Freedom”: A New Multi-Author volume

I am pleased to find in today’s mail my complimentary copy of a multi-author volume arising from a multi-year international research project on “Concepts and Practices of Freedom in the Biblical Traditions and in Contemporary Contexts.”  The book, edited by Michael Welker = Quests for Freedom:  Biblical–Historical–Contemporary (Neukirchen-Vluyn:  Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft, 2015).  (The publisher’s online catalogue entry can be accessed here.)  Organized and led by Welker, the project drew in scholars in various specialities, of different perspectives, and of various nations.  Discussions were often animated, sometimes with lively disagreement, and always highly informative, as we learned from one another over several years of meetings.

My own contribution to the volume is a (somewhat shortened) version of the paper that I wrote for the project:  “Freed by Love and for Love:  Freedom in the New Testament” (pp. 209-27).   (The larger version is available under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this site:  “Freedom in the New Testament.”

In the published version of my essay, I have two main objectives:  (1) to survey briefly references to freedom in the NT in light of the historical context in which they first appeared and (2) to highlight the notable and distinctive NT emphasis on love, both as the basis of freedom (esp. the notion of God’s love) and the purpose of human freedom.  I contend that this latter emphasis is radically distinguishable from dominant treatments of freedom in the Roman era (and in our era as well).  In the final paragraphs of the essay, I offer some brief reflections on how the treatment of freedom in the NT might suggest directions of thought and action today.

Review of “Gospel of the ‘Lots’ of Mary”

I’m pleased to note a newly-published review of the monograph by Anne Marie Luijendijk, Forbidden Oracles?  The Gospel of the Lots of Mary (Tuebingen:  Mohr-Siebeck, 2014) available here.  Sarah Parkhouse (graduate student, Durham University) offers a mainly descriptive account of the book and Luijendijk’s analysis of the miniature codex to which the book is devoted.  So, for those of us who don’t yet have the monograph and are curious about that codex, Parkhouse’s review is very helpful, and may whet one’s appetite for the book itself.

Bauckham on Hurtado

Richard Bauckham’s essay on my work on Jesus-devotion is a model of clarity, accuracy, fairness, and incisive critique:  “Devotion to Jesus Christ in Earliest Christianity:  An Appraisal and Discussion of the Work of Larry Hurtado,” in Mark, Manuscript, and Monotheism:  Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 176-200.

Bauckham’s essay is based on his presentation at the day-event held here (7 October 2011) under the auspices of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins on the occasion of my retirement from the University of Edinburgh.  He has been one of the most important figures in the study of early Jesus-devotion over the last several decades, and he was one of the early influences upon my own thinking back in the 1980s.

The first seven pages give, to my mind, an accurate and concise account of key features of my own work, and I could only wish that others who wish to engage my work could exhibit the same care and accuracy in representing it.  The bulk of the essay, however (pp. 182-200), is given to (1) “criticism and issues related to Jewish monotheism and the intermediary figures,” and (2) “criticism and issues related to the earliest devotion to Jesus and its origins.”

The first part includes a review of claims that “there is evidence of some veneration of angels in Second Temple Judaism,” here particularly citing studies by Loren Stuckenbruck, Clinton Arnold, and Charles Gieschen.  Bauckham rightly notes, however, that, although there is some evidence that individuals sometimes invoked angels (perhaps particularly in situations of distress, and as the agents of God’s help), there is scant indication that angels were praised, prayed to, invoked, etc., in gathered worship circles of Roman-era Jews (in fact, a point conceded by, e.g., Stuckenbruck & Arnold).

Then, Bauckham quickly notes the claim of Crispin Fletcher-Louis that some human figures were worshipped in Second Temple Judaism, and Bauckham basically agrees with me that we really don’t have evidence of this.  Next, Bauckham cites the argument (first made by Lionel North, and then echoed by Dunn & McGrath) that in 2nd-temple Jewish tradition “the only sort of worship that was confined to the one God was sacrificial worship,” and so the sort of devotional actions that I have cited don’t really comprise “worship” in the robust sense of the word.  He seems basically sympathetic to my response (which is that early Christian corporate worship didn’t involve sacrifice at all, to Jesus or to God, so sacrifice is an invalid criterion of “cultic worship” in assessing the devotional practice of these circles).

Then, Bauckham discusses the objection that my criterion of worship as the best indication that a figure is treated as genuinely “divine” is too narrow.  Here, Bauckham differs over my readiness to accept that features of some “divine mediator/agent” figures are shared by Jesus and other heavenly beings.  He then goes on to argue that “so-called principal angels and exalted patriarchs are not plenipotentiaries” and so aren’t analogies for the status given to Jesus in earliest Christian texts.  Bauckham insists that the roles given to Jesus exceed almost anything ascribed to principal angels and patriarch (Bauckham grants, however, that the role of Michael/Melchizedek in some Qumran texts may be an exception).  He also here reiterates his argument that the extensive “participation in all the power and authority of God” ascribed to Jesus accounts for why he (and none of the “intermediaries of the Jewish texts”) was worshipped.

I agree that NT texts collectively ascribe to Jesus a combination of roles that make it hard to find a full precedent or parallel in ancient Jewish texts.  But I don’t see indication in NT texts that the reason for worshipping Jesus is that he has such a combination of roles.  Instead, it seems to me, NT texts make the actions of God in exalting Jesus and now requiring him to be reverenced the reason for doing so.

Next, Bauckham urges that ancient Jewish devotion to God involved more than cultic worship, taking in also obedience to Torah, i.e., the larger sphere of behaviour.  He also contends (rightly) that beliefs are important as well as devotional practice.  I agree, and his citation of Philo (Decalogue 52-65) makes a clear connection between God’s unique status as creator of all else and the rightness of worshipping God alone.

Bauckham then urges the importance of “early Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Bible.”  I agree again.  See my brief discussion in Lord Jesus Christ (pp. 73-74), where I posit “charismatic exegesis” as one of the kinds of revelatory experiences in which new insights were formed.

The next few pages are devoted to the question of whether earliest Christian devotion can be described as “binitarian.”  Bauckham affirms the term, but faults me for not being clearer in stating what I mean in pointing to how NT texts link Jesus with God “in an unprecedented manner.”  He urges that Paul adapts the ancient Jewish confession of God’s uniqueness (the “Shema'”) in 1 Cor 8:4-6, and contends that  I stop short of an adequate articulation of matters.  Perhaps.  But, to my mind, my reluctance to go much beyond what I’ve written arises from the slender basis for saying much more about how Jesus (and especially the “pre-existent” Jesus) is related to God, at least in Paul.  Bauckham endorses here Tom Wright’s emphasis on Jesus as the embodied, personal return of YHWH, but I’m not (or at least not yet) able to see the basis for making this notion quite so central.

The final critique of me is that “it is misleading to limit study of early Christian devotion to Jesus to cultic worship.” Bauckham endorses Chris Tilling’s argument that in Paul we see depicted a relationship between believers and Christ that most closely resembles “the Jewish relationship to YHWH.”  I agree that there are some similarities, but there also seem to me to be some distinctions.   In NT texts generally, Jesus is the unique means by whom believers now have access to God, and their relationship to Jesus is with a view to a redemptive and filial relationship with God.  Jesus doesn’t substitute for, or replace, God, and believers’ relationship with Jesus doesn’t substitute for a relationship with God.

[Addendum:  I hasten to explain that the final sentence in the preceding paragraph is not intended to characterize the views of Bauckham or Chris Tilling.  I simply caution against a possible simplistic inference by others.]

Bauckham’s final words reiterate the generous characterization of my work with which he commences this essay. I’m most grateful for this affirmation, and for his thoughtful and informed critique, even if I am not always able to agree with it.


Newly-Identified Papyrus Fragment

I pass on news that a team examining unedited papyri in the holdings of the University of Birmingham (UK) has identified what appears to be an amulet on which there is a small portion of Acts of the Apostles.  The initial analysis of the handwriting suggests an approximate dating to the fourth century A.D.

The news release is published here.

Newly-Identified Coptic Text

A recent story posted on Live Science reports on a Coptic text recently identified and studied by Anne Marie Luijendijk (Princeton University) here.  The miniature codex (ca. 75 x 69 mm page size) contains a body of oracle-like sayings, and it appears that users seeking some advice on some matter would perhaps open the text at random to a page and find thereon some direction.

The opening words, which likely served as the title, describe the book as “The Gospel of the Lots of Mary” (“lots” in the sense of items drawn at chance to make a decision).  Luijendijk rightly comments on the noteworthy use of the term “gospel” (“evangelion”, taken over as a Greek loanword into Christian Coptic usage), as readers of the NT will associate the term with a narrative account of Jesus.  But, of course, we also have the term applied (secondarily, not the original title) to the “Gospel of Thomas,” which is a series of somewhat oracular sayings ascribed to Jesus, and also “The Gospel of Truth,” which is essentially a theological treatise setting out what appears to be a soft Valentinian Christian view of things.  So, it appears that in ancient Christian circles, the term “gospel” came to be used for a variety of types of texts, although (to my knowledge) this is the first instance of the term applied to this particular kind of text, a list of sayings to be consulted randomly.  Luijendijk dates the hand of the text to ca. the 5th/6th century A.D.

We should also note that miniature books (of any contents) were prepared for personal usage, perhaps for being carried on one’s person and/or for travel.  Also, to my mind, the good quality of the “hand” suggests an owner/user with sufficient funds to afford a copy by a professional copyist (which may tell us something about the socio-economic status of the owner).  There are numerous examples of miniature books (miniature rolls, such as the fragments of Greek Gospel of Thomas, P.Oxy. 655, and miniature codices such as this one), Christian ones and others used by “pagans”.  Indeed, the Roman wit Martial mentions the availability of his poems in small leather codices, which he recommends for taking along on a journey (Epigrams 1.2).  For those seriously interested in the subject and able to read German, Thomas Kraus is the “go-to” guy on ancient miniature books: Thomas Kraus, “Die Welt der Miniaturbücher in der Antike und Spätantike: Prolegomena und erste methodische Annäherungen für eine Datensammlung,” Studien zum Neuen Testament und seiner Umwelt 35 (2010): 79-110.

For Luijendijk’s full analysis of the newly-identified codex, see her recently published book:  Forbidden Oracles?  The Gospel of the Lots of Mary (Tuebingen:  Mohr-Siebeck, 2014), the publisher’s information here.


Edinburgh Canon Conference

My Edinburgh (New College) colleague, Professor Timothy Lim, has organized an interesting day-conference (06 May) on questions about the historical processes and significance of the formation of a “canon” of writings that are then treated as special, authoritative, scriptures. The theme of the conference revolves around the issues of historical and theological ramifications of canonization.  Why were some texts and not others elevated to the status of “holy scriptures”?  What are the effects in conferring authority on these texts?  Lim’s recent book on the formation of the Jewish canon is now an important contribution to scholarly study of the matter:  The Formation of the Jewish Canon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

There will be invited presentations by a mini-galaxy of recognized scholars:  John Barton, John Collins, Shaye Cohen, Craig Evans, Timothy Lim, Walter Moberly, Manfred Oeming, and Michael Satlow.  Full cost (inclusive of refreshments and lunch):  £30.  For students, a concessionary price of £15.

For further information, including registration procedure, see the conference web site here.


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