Early Christian Distinctiveness

During his lecture [1] based on his book entitled, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Larry Hurtado presents several distinctives of early Christianity. First, early Christianity was distinctive in its impiety towards the worship of the Greco-Roman gods. For example of such a denial of the worthiness of worship of the gods and their status as mere idols, Hurtado quotes 1 Thessalonians 1:9b “They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (NIV). Second, early Christianity was distinct as a new religious identity. In the early Christian movement, people could be followers of Jesus while maintaining their ethnic identity. Third, early Christian bookishness was also a main distinctive. While oral tradition played a major role in the early development of Christianity, the Christian writings quickly became the standard for the early church.  Thus, Christian writings were constantly being copied and distributed to churches. Lastly, Hurtado explains that early Christianity was behaviourally distinct in how they lived out their Jesus-y ethic. Christians spoke out against the mistreatment of infants and the sexual abuse of children. They cared for the infants who were abandoned and left to die, and they challenged the sexuality norms of the culture by living a chaste life before God and the Christian community.

Three insights of Hurtado’s lecture that I found helpful for understanding early Christianity and/or the New Testament are 1) Hurtado’s comments about the early Christians being charged as atheists and deviant for not respecting and worshipping the gods. 2) That the Greco-Roman world had no concept of a separable religion due to the gods being so interwoven into the fabric of society. 3) The use of codex by early Christians as a counter-cultural move in their endeavor to present the accessibility of the Christian faith.

[1] https://youtu.be/tb96kYfk628

Ancient Greek Religions and 1 Corinthians 15

The ancient Greek religions and philosophies had numerous views regarding the afterlife. The tales of Homer portrayed the idea of an underworld where dreary souls wandered after death; whereas, Plato taught that noble souls would survive the claws of death and arrive at a state of perfect and ascending knowledge. Some believed that upon death people would transform into a star in the galaxy or undergo a reincarnation of some sorts. Epicureans advocated for an absolute non-existence or complete extinction after death.[1] Epicurus writes, “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing for us.”[2] The Stoic philosophers believed in an endless, repeating cycle of the cosmos. When one cosmic cycle completed, another cycle began repeating the same ordered history. Thus, upon death, a soul would be temporarily extinct until the current cosmic cycle ended and then restarted. Another ancient belief of the afterlife is that the deceased continued to live a peaceful, soulish life in the tomb. In the city of Corinth, there are the remains of ancient tombs that had openings so that food and drink could be delivered.[3]  In view of all these ancient beliefs, Hubbard explains that they all were united on one point: “their denial of a bodily resurrection.”[4] This is largely due to the common greek disdain for the physical body as something that was useless and debilitating to the soul.[5]

When readers apply this ancient material to 1 Corinthians 15, they will better understand why Paul’s teaching on the resurrection was confronted with scorn by the Corinthians. Paul was a man who devoted his whole life to the resurrected Jesus. In fact, in Philippians 3:10-11, Paul writes, “My goal is to know him [Jesus] and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead” (CSB). Therefore, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, writes,

For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me.

These statements show that Paul was convinced of the resurrection and that it was of most importance in his gospel ministry; however, some in Corinth were mocking Paul and saying that “there is no resurrection from the dead” (v. 12), “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35). Paul responds by presenting a long argument for a physical resurrection, but ultimately he explains that indeed Christ has been raised from the dead with a resurrected body, and so humans will also die and one day be physically resurrected. He argues that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immorality” (v. 53) which gives victory over death for those who are in Christ (v. 56-57). A much different perspective than the Greek religions.

[1] Moyer V. Hubbard, “Greek Religion” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts eds. Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 121. [2] Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 2 in Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.139 LCL quoted by Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [3] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [4] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [5] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121-122.

Greco-Roman Biographies and the NT Gospels

In a video lecture entitled, “Why are there differences in the Gospels?,” Mike Licona explains that the common view of the gospels is that they are biographies of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, they should be viewed within the larger context of Greco-Roman biographies which followed the historiographical standards of the day but with some flexibility. Licona mentions Plutarch as a good writer who wrote many biographies during the first century, and so Plutarch’s writings and his literary techniques can help readers better understand the gospels. Licona submits several literary techniques that can be specifically applied to the synoptic problem.[1] But first what is the problem that Licona is addressing.

As individuals study the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), they may notice that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke resemble one another, whereas the Gospel of John does not share their resemblance. The resemblance of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke led a late eighteenth century German biblical scholar named J.J. Griesbach to refer to them as the Synoptic Gospels. The term synoptic is derived from the greek word συνόψις (synopsis) meaning “seeing together.”[2] Thus, the Synoptic Gospels are often closely examined in relation to one another.

As scholars have viewed and studied Matthew, Mark and Luke together, they have arrived at a consensus that based on the similarities and nuances between these three gospels, they are dependent on one another at a literary level. In view of this literary relationship, the Synoptic Problem has emerged. Mark Goodacre defines the Synoptic Problem as “the study of the similarities and differences of the Synoptic Gospels in an attempt to explain their literary relationship.”[3]

Licona approaches the differences of the synoptic problem by arguing that the gospel writers used similar techniques as Plutarch and other biography writers of the first century. Licona first points out that Plutarch used compression which is a technique where two events are compressed into one event. Licona explains that the gospel writers use compression. For example, Matthew compresses the narrative of Jairus’ Daughter (Matt 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56) and the narrative of the fig tree (Matt 21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14, 20-25).

Secondly, the gospel writers use a transferal technique which substitutes or pushes out of the way certain aspects of the narrative. An example of transferal is the narrative of the request by the mother of James and John in the Gospel of Matthew (20:20-28) whereas Mark’s account transfers the request as coming directly from James and John (10:35-45).   Another example of transferal is in the account of the healing of the centurion’s servant. Luke 7:1-10 portrays the centurion’s servants interacting with Jesus while Matthew 8:5-13 transfers the interaction to the centurion.

Thirdly, the gospel writers use a technique called displacement which involves the transferring of an event to another time. An example is with the narrative of Jesus cleansing the temple. Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48 place the event late during Jesus’ ministry whereas John 2:13-16 displaces the event early in Jesus’ ministry.

Licona’s explanation for the differences in the gospels is an adequate argument. Using source criticism and redaction criticism, we know that the gospel writers were dependent on oral and written sources while at the same time redactors of the material for their own theological and ministerial purposes. Licona’s comparison of Plutarch with the gospels adds another layer to gospel studies. It helps us read the gospels according the literary rules of the first century rather than reading them according to our present literary or historical standards.

[1] https://youtu.be/vYfSf9NgeOQ [2]Donald A. Carson, et al. An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 19.[3]Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: a Way through the Maze (T & T Clark International, 2007), 16.

Archaeology and Jesus Studies

Millar Burrows writes, “By the aid of archeology the study of the Bible ceases to be, as it were, suspended in the air, and gets its feet upon the ground.”[1] Archaeology and historical background helps one understand the sitz im leben of the life and ministry of Jesus; however, Burrows explains that archaeology specifically related to Jesus is often viewed as limited because Jesus was “a wandering preacher who writes no books, erects no buildings, sets up no organized institutions, but leaves to Caesar what is Caesar’s, seeking only his Father’s kingdom, and who commits his cause to a few fishermen…leaves no coins bearing his images and superscription.”[2]

Archaeology and historical background are the earthy stuff that heaven permeates through the incarnational in-breaking of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. In other words, it is the theatrical backdrop stuff that the Divine playwright uses in his Theo-drama, which ultimately peaks and contextualizes during the first century A.D. Understanding the theatrical setting of the drama and its main character will cause the directors, other performers and the audience to more fully grasp, participate in and experience the drama.

Some claim that recent archaeology and historical background information contributes little or nothing to one’s faith, but this is to say that the Divine playwright’s unveiling of new theatrical backdrop stuff is useless and adds nothing to one’s understanding, participating and experiencing of the drama. Can we really make such a statement? Can we really ignore and claim the uselessness of the theatrical backdrop of the drama and its main character?

[1] Millar Burrows, What Mean These Stones? The Significance of Archeology for Biblical Studies (New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1941), 115 quoted by James H. Charlesworth, “Jesus Research and Archaeology” in Green and McDonald, The World, 440.[2] Burrows, Stones, 283 quoted by Charlesworth, “Jesus Research and Archaeology” in Green and McDonald, The World, 441-442.

The Early Christians and Jewish Identity

The early Christians had a Jewish background, and so with their new Christian identity, they had to wrestle with their Jewish identity as it related to the Jesus movement. Circumcision played an important role in maintaining Jewish identity. Genesis 17 portrays the establishment of circumcision as the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. Thus, circumcision was an important ritual throughout the history of Israel. When the Jesus movement gets going full steam after Jesus’ resurrection, the early followers began to question the relevance of circumcision for the new covenant people. This led to the Jerusalem council as depicted in Acts 15. The outcome of the council was that Jewish Christians could continue to practice circumcision if they wanted, but for Gentile Christians, circumcision was not required. Later, Paul and other leaders emphasized the circumcision of the heart as the sign of the new covenant (Rom 2:25-5:5; 1 Cor 7:17-20; Gal 5:1-15; 6:11-18; Eph 2:11-12; Phil 3).[1]

Food laws also played a major role in maintaining Jewish identity. Hebrew scripture passages such as Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14:2-20 describe the food instructions that the Israelites were to follow. These laws bound the Jewish people together and gave them a sense of ethnic identity.[2] The early Christians believed that the gospel releases people from all prohibitions concerning food; however, many Jewish Christians struggled with participating in such liberty due to their past adherence to the food laws. As a result, the leaders of the early church needed to address the differences in conscience. Paul writes, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom 14:1-3 ESV).

Sabbath observance was another marker of Jewish identity. Sabbath keeping was established as one of the ten commandments as read in Exodus 20:8-11, and it is further stressed as a sign of the covenant in Exodus 31:14-17.[3] The Christian church recognized the importance of Jesus’ resurrection, and so they observed a day of rest on the first day of the week in accordance with the day of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 20:7). This day became known as the Lord’s day (Rev 1:10). This new view of sabbath was a challenge for the early Christians, but ultimately, they taught that sabbath rest was a symbol of Christ’s salvation of humanity. Thus, sabbath was not to be observed in a legalistic manner but people were to peacefully enter into Christ’s salvific rest (Heb 4:1).

Lastly, purity was a factor in maintaining Jewish identity. God had commanded the that the Israelites be consecrated or made pure before they could be in contact or near him (Ex19:10). Thus, God gave ritual purity laws and ritual cleansing laws that were to be followed, and ritual impurity was to be avoided. The Christian church determined that ritual purity was not required under the new covenant based on Jesus’ teaching which was more focused on moral impurity associated with thoughts, words and actions (Matt 15:11). However, some Christians still struggled with their Jewish identity regarding purity. For example, Peter had a temporary relapsed back into old ritual purity thought patterns in which he treated the Gentiles as unclean, and so he separated from them (Gal 2:14-15). Furthermore, Paul writes to Timothy and reminds him that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God prayer” (1 Tim 4:4).

[1] Archie T. Wright, “Jewish Identity, Beliefs, and Practices,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts, eds. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 311-314.[2] Wright,”Jewish Identity, Beliefs, and Practices,” 114-115.[3] Wright,”Jewish Identity, Beliefs, and Practices,” 315.

Ancient Jewish Interpretation and NT Interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures

During the first century A.D. Jewish interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures used the interpretive method of rewriting scriptural texts. In order to make the texts relevant for contemporary Jewish communities, interpreters and scribes would conflate, harmonize, modify or add to the base texts. The process consisted of random adjustments of the text to the formulation of a new written work.[1] Similar to the method of rewriting scriptural texts is the method of testimonia in which Hebrew texts are combined together  “thematically for apologetic, liturgical, and catechetical purposes.”[2]

The New Testament writers appear to use Jewish rewritten scriptural texts or testimonia texts at times while quoting Hebrew scriptures. For example, Mark 1:1-3 attributes the quote to Isaiah but the words are an amalgamation from Exodus 23:20; Malachi 3:1; and Isaiah 40:3. Another example in Matt 27:9-10 in which the quote is attributed to Jeremiah but the words are a conflation of Zech 11:12-13 and Jer 32:6-9.[3] While the New Testament writers do not use the method of rewriting scriptural texts in the same way as contemporary Jewish interpreters or scribes, they do revise narratives (e.g. Acts 7:2-34)[4] and use the method of testimonia (e.g. Rom 3:10-18; 15:9-12)[5] through the lens of the life and ministry of Jesus and as a means to better inform the church.[6]

Jewish interpreters also used a method called pesher which is described as a “citation plus comment”[7] technique meaning that a scripture was quoted and then a commentary was given focused on an interpretive formulation.[8] The aim of this method was to make known a solution to the God communicated mysteries and to show how texts fit in with the whole of sacred scripture.[9] Pesher says, “This is that,”[10] and so there was an emphasis on contemporizing prophecies and on claiming their fulfillment during the present time or at a time in the near future.[11]

NT writers use similar techniques to that of pesher by claiming that events in the life and ministry of Jesus fulfilled prophecies (e.g. Matt 1:22-23; 2:15, 17-18, 23; 12: 17-21; 13:14-15)[12] and that events by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17) actualized earlier prophetic utterances (Joel 2:28f).[13]

Philo’s allegorical method of interpretation was influential to Jewish interpretive traditions. Lidija Novakovic writes, “For Philo, Scripture has a twofold meaning, the literal and the allegorical, but only the latter reveals the true sense of the sacred texts, which is hidden below the surface.”[14] This emphasis in allegory was developed from the philosophy of Plato who taught that behind the physical appearance of things was a more true reality. Thus, when applied to literature, there is a deeper truth and meaning beyond the literal reading of the words.[15]

The NT writers do not interpret the Hebrew scriptures according the rules of Philo’s allegorical methods, but they do at times interpret them allegorically (e.g. Gal 4:22-31). Scholars have argued for Philo’s influence upon the epistle of Hebrews, the Gospel of John and the epistles of Paul. “However, the best conclusion is that no NT writing reflects direct dependence on Philo, and that observed similarities reflect instead the general milieu of Hellenistic ideas that pervaded the first-century Mediterranean world.”[16]

The interpretive method of midrash was most common among first century Jewish interpreters and its primary focus was to search out knowledge “through logical inferences, analogies, combinations of different passages, and the like.”[17] Midrash followed exegetical rules which began with seven and later expanded to thirty-two.[18] Midrash sought to explain the deeper meaning of a text for application and pastoral purposes. From this perspective, the text can be “interrogated to answer all kinds of religious questions.”[19]

The NT gospel accounts reflect midrashic principles and characteristics but are not considered midrashim.[20] The book of Acts and some of Paul’s epistles appear to use midrashic scriptural arguments (e.g. Acts 2:25-36; 13:32-37; Gal 3:8-14; 1 Cor 10:1-5; 2 Cor 3:6-16); however, much like the gospels many scholars argue that such midrashic similarities do not equate to midrash as in the distinctively Jewish interpretive method. Furthermore, they argue that while Paul was very familiar with rabbinic exegesis, midrash does not characterize or explain Pauline exegesis.[21]

Excursus on Matthew’s use of Pesher

In Matthew 2:15, 17-18 and 13:14-15, I think Matthew is taking the original passages and applying prophetic meaning to them beyond the original passages contextual meaning. Essentially, Matthew is adding other prophetic contexts to the original passages. Thus, Matthew is using pesher by claiming that the original passages were fulfilled in the passages original context, but they were also contemporary prophecies which found their fulfillment during the time of Jesus. While this is not a sound hermeneutic technique, God used Matthew’s practice of a common hermeneutic technique of the time and blessed it for his own inspiration purposes.

[1] Lidija Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts eds. Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 91.[2] Kyle Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” in Interpreting the New Testament: Essays on Methods and Issues eds. David Alan Black and David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 220.[3] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 220.[4] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 97.[5] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 220.[6] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 97.[7] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 92.[8] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 92.[9] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 218.[10] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 218.[11] William Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Third ed. (Nashville: TN:, Baker Academic, 2017), 73.[12] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 97.[13] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 218.[14] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 93.[15] William Klein et al., Introduction, 70-71.[16] D.A. Hagner, “Philo” in New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic, eds. Martin Davie et al., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016.[17] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 94. [18] Snodgrass, “The Use of the Old Testament in the New,” 219.[19] Novakovic, “The Scriptures and Scriptural Interpretation,” 95.[20] C.A. Evans, “Midrash: 4. The Gospels and Midrash” in DJG[21] M. Silva, “Old Testament in Paul: 3:3 Rabbinic Exegesis” in DPL