Here is an informative snippet from Larry Hurtado:
In the plentiful cafeteria of religious options available in the first three centuries, early Christianity stands out. This was truly a time of religious diversity and development that included the traditional Roman and Greek pantheons, of course, as well as the deities of the various other peoples and localities encompassed in the Roman Empire. Among the latter were city gods (such as Artemis of Ephesus), and deities of areas such as Phrygia, Syria, and Egypt. There were also lesser divinities of families and households, and even spiritual beings thought to be linked to such specific sites as bridges and kitchens. Additionally, there were new (and refashioned) religious movements aplenty. The title of a book on Roman-era religion captured well the overall religious situation: it was “A World Full of Gods” (Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999]).
So, on the one hand, early Christianity appeared as only one option among many, and only one new religious movement among others. To use another metaphor, early Christianity entered “the ‘traffic’ as a new movement on a very crowded and well-traveled highway of religious activity.” (I lift the phrasing here from my somewhat fuller discussion of “The Religious Environment” of early Christianity in my book, At the Origins of Christian Worship: The Context and Character of Earliest Christian Devotion [Eerdmans, 1999], 7 [7-38].) On the other hand, early Christianity was quite distinctive in that setting, even in the diverse and pluralized religious options of the time. Indeed, for many observers then, it was objectionably different, and seen as even a serious threat to Roman-era piety, to family solidarity, and to society. In my recent book, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016), I focus on several features of early Christianity that made it unusual, even odd, in the first three centuries. I also note that these same features have become cultural commonplaces for us, through the influence of Christianity in Western culture. In this essay, I can only touch on a few of the matters discussed more fully in this book.
Early Christian Impiety
The first thing to emphasize is that early Christianity was often criticized as impiety, even atheism. Here’s why. In the Roman world, in principle all gods are valid and so deserve worship (sacrifice). Traditionalist Romans might object to the importation of foreign gods into Rome, and might consider the religious practices of some other nations strange or even odious. But they did not call into question that the gods of the various peoples were real and valid recipients of worship, at least by the nations to which they were attached. The gods guarded families, cities, and the Empire, and so reverencing them was a key way of demonstrating social solidarity and of contributing to the health and stability of one’s various social circles. To refuse to worship a god was a serious matter. It was deemed an anti-social action, and could even generate the charge of atheism.
Early Christians, however, were expected to turn away from worshiping the various “pagan” gods, all of them, and to confine their worship to “the true and living God and … his Son … Jesus” (1 Thess 1:9-10). Christians were to regard all the other deities as “idols,” a derisive term inherited from Jewish tradition and signifying their unworthiness to be treated as gods. The early Christian stance did not so much involve denying the existence of the pagan gods. Instead, it was the validity of worshiping them that was the issue. Paul, for example, referred to the various pagan deities as “demons,” unworthy beings, and declared that worshiping these beings was incompatible with devotion to the one true God (1 Cor 10:14-22).
This early Christian “cultic exclusivity” was, of course, inherited from the Jewish matrix in which the Jesus-movement emerged. But, generally it seems, pagans regarded the Jewish abstaining from worshiping the pagan gods simply as a particularly singular and annoying feature of Jewish ethnicity. So far as most pagans were concerned, every nation had its own peculiarities, and Jews more so! But Jewish “cultic exclusivity” was, in the main, tolerated. Jews did not typically denounce the gods, and did not try to encourage their cultic exclusivity among pagans.
The early Christian movement, however, quickly became trans-ethnic, increasingly recruiting adherents from the larger pagan population. So, upon their conversion to Christian faith, individuals who had formerly taken part readily in the worship of the deities of their families, cities, and nation suddenly refused to continue to do so. But in the eyes of their society, these former pagans had no right to act in this manner. Their shift in religious practice represented what many took to be a worrying break with their previous social ties. And if the welfare of families and cities depended on keeping the gods happy (especially with sacrifices), the secession of Christian converts from their former religious practices could even be perceived as endangering their wider social circles.
We also have to recognize the ubiquitous place of the gods in the Roman era. In addition to daily reverence of one’s household deities, there were gods acknowledged in practically any significant social setting. City council meetings opened with acknowledging the tutelary deity/deities. Guilds and associations typically had patron deities. Dinners were held in honor of this or that deity, functioning also as social occasions.
So, conscientious Christians in that setting had to consider how to negotiate a wide range of social activities and settings. We see this in Paul’s extended, and somewhat intricate directions to his pagan converts in Corinth (1 Cor 8—10). But a consistent abstention from joining in worshiping the pagan gods could not avoid readily the criticism that it amounted to impiety, and even atheism (as reflected in Martyrdom of Polycarp 9.2).
I emphasize that, among the various new religious movements of the time, such as the so-called mystery cults, early Christianity was unique in this “cultic exclusivity.” One could be a devotee of Isis or Mithras without it having any effect on one’s obligations to the various other gods of your family, city, or nation. But to be a conscientious Christian required a radical break with one’s previous religious activities. In our modern “secular” cultures, it will require an effort to grasp adequately the extent of the consequences for early Christians of the demand that they abstain from “idolatry.” And we may take it for granted, today, that there is only one “God” to believe in or to doubt, but that only reflects how much our assumptions have been shaped by the influence of Christianity.
A New “Religious Identity”
I propose also that this early Christian stance amounted to a novel kind of “religious identity.” Typically, in the Roman world one’s gods were conferred at birth and were part and parcel of one’s ties to family, city, and nation. In our terms, one’s “religious identity” was connected to one’s social and ethnic identity. As a particular reflection of the link between gods and ethnicity, pagans who became Jewish proselytes were expected to depart from their families and join themselves to the Jewish people, taking on a new ethnicity along with their adopted religious stance and exclusive commitment to the Jewish deity.
But pagan converts to early Christianity were not required to sever their ties to families and their people. They remained Greeks, or Egyptians, or Phrygians, or Galatians, for example. But they were to desist from their traditional gods, confining their religious commitment to the one God proclaimed in the Christian gospel, and they were to identify themselves as devotees of this deity exclusively. This, I contend, amounted to a novel distinction between ethnicity and religious identity.
In modern societies, there are periodic censuses of the population, in which we may be asked to indicate in one question our ethnic identity, and in another question our religious affiliation. This reflects the notion that one’s religious identity is distinguishable from one’s ethnicity. We take this now for granted, but in the ancient Roman world it was a rather novel notion. And it appears that in early Christianity we see the first appearance of this notion.
Social and Political Consequences
The distinctiveness of early Christianity in that ancient Roman setting meant that there could be serious social and political consequences of being a Christian then. (I discussed these matters initially in my book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus [Eerdmans, 2005], 56-82: “To Live and Die for Jesus: Social and Political Consequences of Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity.”) These could include tension, harassment and even ostracism from family and friends, and similar difficulties in wider social and vocational ties. Moreover, in some cases, Christians were denounced to local authorities, and this could result in serious judicial consequences.
In an oft-cited letter to the Emperor Trajan written ca. 110 CE, the newly appointed governor of Bithynia and Pontus, Pliny “the Younger,” relates his handling of Christians denounced to him (English translation with brief notes in A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337, ed. J. Stevenson [SPCK, 1974], 13-15; and Trajan’s reply, 16). If they denied being Christians and were willing to comply with his demands that they reverence the traditional gods and, particularly noteworthy, if they were willing to curse Christ, Pliny let them go. As to those who refused, if they were Roman citizens, he sent them off to Rome for disposition. Those of lower social levels, he executed.
The key question, of course, is why Pliny took such firm measures. Part of the answer may be given in his references to the decline in attendance and offerings in the pagan temples, and his assurance to Trajan that his handling of the Christians will rectify this. That is, in at least this case, Christian disengagement with the pagan gods (and perhaps also their denunciation of “idols”) appears to have generated serious anger that led to Christians being denounced to the governor. In short, these early Christians were perceived to be a social and an economic threat.
A fascinating early Christian text that particularly reflects a concern to avoid social tensions while, nevertheless, maintaining Christian distinctiveness, is The Epistle to Diognetus (Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. [Baker Academic, 2007], 686-719). The author insists that Christians eat the same food, wear the same clothing, and in many respects live as others, and so, in so far as possible, seek to avoid social tension with pagan neighbors. But, equally firmly, the author declares the particularities of Christian faith in the one God and in Christ, and some of the behavioral requirements of Christians as well, that set them off against their prior pagan history. From a slightly earlier time, 1 Peter likewise counsels early Christian readers how to behave in circumstances where they may be harassed or even brought before authorities on account of their Christian faith.
Given that Christian faith uniquely generated such social and political consequences, we might well ask why people became adherents. They could become followers of Isis or any of the other voluntary religious movements of the time without suffering such consequences. Only early Christian faith required converts to absent themselves from worshiping the gods. In another recent book, I have posed directly the question of why people chose to become Christians in that setting (Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? [Marquette University Press, 2016]). Scholars have often noted the spread and growth of early Christianity, but it is only when we take adequate account of the negative consequences of becoming a Christian then that we can perceive more clearly how remarkable that growth was.
We must presume that there were factors in early Christianity that made it sufficiently attractive and meaningful that individuals judged it worth the negative consequences attending to becoming an adherent. I am not sure myself that we scholars have done justice to this topic. It is clear that there were similarities of early Christianity to other voluntary associations of the Roman world, but the social and political consequences of being a Christian were not shared by adherents of other religious movements. So, there must have been positive, distinctive features of early Christianity that drew converts and that compensated for the social and political costs of being a Christian.
These distinctive features likely included emphases in early Christian beliefs and behavioral teachings. For example, the emphasis on the Christian deity as motivated by love for humans seems to have been novel, and was likely meaningful for many (and ridiculous in the eyes of some others). In sum, despite the considerable body of scholarly work on early Christianity, I think that there is more to be done to appreciate adequately what becoming a Christian in the first three centuries involved, and how Christian faith then was a very different and distinctive phenomenon.
In 1979 two seminary friends and I self-organized a tour of the seven churches of Rev. 1-3. We sort of had to ‘wing it’ in Turkey since English was hardly used in the western part. An archaeologist working at the ancient site at Sardis told us that: “it gets a bit wilder the further east you go” when we told him about being surrounded by a mob who harassed us previously. We survived, however, I got a serious bout of dysentery during our return to Greece and had to spend an extra day or two on the island of Samos for the infection to pass. We were able to go to six of the “churches” or the ruins thereof but the Laodicea area was deemed too far afield for our time frame. It was fortuitous also that we didn’t venture to ancient Laodicea since only shortly after the decision, the dysentery struck. Thankfully we made it back to Greece. So much for the personal travails, here is information about ancient Laodicea:
Source: Laodicea — Menorah and Cross
All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. (Jn. 10.8)
Just recently I was reading a learned scholar who struggled with the meaning of Jesus’ statement about the thieves and robbers prior to Jesus. The scholar thought Jesus might have been somehow referring to biblical writers before the time of Christ. This is not the case. If we remove the reference numbers from our versions and observe the discourse as a whole, we can see our Lord is addressing the Pharisees (see 9.40) in a parable .
The following is a reproduction of Mt. 13.10-15 (NET) and shows the rationale for the parables, namely to hide spiritual truth from the superficial and hypocrites.
Then the disciples came to him and said, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He replied, “You have been given the opportunity to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but they have not. For whoever has will be given more, and will have an abundance. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. For this reason I speak to them in parables: Although they see they do not see, and although they hear they do not hear nor do they understand. And concerning them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘You will listen carefully yet will never understand,
you will look closely yet will never comprehend.
For the heart of this people has become dull;
they are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes,
so that they would not see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.
In the very next verse (Mt. 13.16) Jesus says “but your eyes are blessed, for they see” (speaking to the disciples). So Jesus knows His disciples and rejects these punctiliously observant religious leaders who were not His. Further in Matthew’s Gospel (ch.23), Jesus calls them snakes and offspring (seed) of vipers. This expression hearkens back to Gen. 3.15 where it indicates the two groups of people now inhabiting the world: the seed of the serpent and the Seed of the woman (who is Christ and they who belong to Him).
ASIDE: The One and the Many
In biblical thought “seed” refers to a singular as well as a collective. Without going into the how or why this conception operates in this manner, perhaps it is best illustrated from an instance in scripture. There are several times this occurs in the O.T. but Paul’s explanation in Gal. 3.15-29 presents the idea the fullest. In Gal. 3.16, Paul says the seed is referencing a singular: Christ. Yet all who belong to Christ are Abraham’s seed (vs. 29). The same term is used in vss. 16 and 29 to refer to the singular and the collective. For a full explication of the idea, please see John Sailhamer: The Meaning of the Pentateuch.
Now back to the thieves and robbers in John 10: notice that Jesus identifies these as “climbing up some other way” besides the door as the thieves and robbers in verse 1. This cannot refer to biblical writers since they were showing the true way in counter distinction to the false the prophets in their days. So in our verse 8, these same thieves and robbers appeared before Jesus was on the scene. The verb tense is present (not “were” but “are”), so the translation: “all who came before are thieves and robbers.” This use of the present tense at least identifies those living are the referents since the now departed false prophets in previous times are not now thieving and robbing. The prime candidates for the moniker would be the Pharisees before Him but it may also refer to the Herods and Herodians (who were closely connected to the Pharisees). The messianic pretensions of the Herods however is for another post.
Here is a list of things to watch out for as we try to determine meanings. Knowing more than one language helps to see the differences folks use in expressing the same idea across cultures.
From Evangel University professor Bill Griffin:
Here’s are some tell-tale signs that people who claim to have “special insight about Hebrew secrets” have no idea what they are talking about:
1. They treat Hebrew as a code to be deciphered, rather than as a language.
Ancient Hebrew was a _language_. People did not wonder about the mystical meanings of various letters when they were engaging in ordinary speech, making contracts, arguing, or trading with other people.
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, not because the language is inherently holy, but because that’s what the people spoke! It is basically the language of Canaan, and anyone who knew Hebrew could talk with their Moabite neighbors who basically spoke a variant of the language (the difference between “Hebrew” and “Moabite” is the difference between how people speak in Iowa and Arkansas). When Moabite King Mesha had an inscription written, in which he brags about defeating Israel, he is not talking about Jesus when he exalts Chemosh over Yahweh and uses the aleph-tav in his inscription.
2. They cite Strong’s Concordance as an authoritative Hebrew resource.
Strong’s Concordance has a “dictionary” in the back which can give a little extra information about Hebrew and Greek words to the English speaker. However, it is not designed for someone who knows Hebrew, and it lacks the precision of a “real” Hebrew lexicon (that’s a fancy word for “dictionary”)–a precision which only someone trained in Hebrew can use.
3. They show you an interlinear and claim that certain words are not translated and therefore have a special meaning.
An “interlinear” is a text which has Hebrew or Greek words with English equivalents written below. Many people who use interlinears are unaware of the word order differences between Hebrew and English, and they also do not know or understand Hebrew _syntax_. (Syntax is the relationship between various words and the meanings which combinations have which might not be the same as what one would expect from individual words–context is quite important.)
Humans convey meaning by combinations of words, rather than by arbitrary definitions of individual words, and a context is needed to figure out what someone means.
For example, take the English words “put” and “up” or “down”. “Put” implies placing something somewhere, and “up” is a direction which is the opposite of down. But “put up” can mean “tolerate” or “place somewhere above”, depending upon other words. Thus “He put up with John’s speech” means he tolerated John’s speech, while “He put up a painting on a wall” means he hung a painting on a wall. “He put his cup down on the floor” (placed it on a low place) is different from “He gave John a put-down” (insulted John).
4. They assign mystical meanings to Hebrew letters.
The Hebrew alphabet is based on the Phonecian alphabet, and those letters are basically pictographs of ordinary objects. There is no spiritual significance to a house, door, throwing stick, camel, ox, or water.
5. They convert Hebrew letters to numbers and make mystical claims.
During Old Testament times, letters were not used to represent numbers. Instead, they wrote out words to represent numbers, just like we use “three”, “two thousand”, or “seventy”. The practice of (think in terms of English) having A=1, B=2, C=3 (but w/Hebrew letters) did not begin until after the Old Testament was completed.
6. They cherry-pick Hebrew words (such as names) and string them together to make an English sentence which is supposed to have spiritual significance.
Even if it was legitimate to pick a word here or there and put it together (and it is not), Hebrew word order is quite different than English word order. If you have studied _any_ human language other than English, you are aware of the differences between the order of one language and another. Biblical Hebrew likes to put verbs at the beginning of sentences, before the “whodunnit” (subject). We put the whodunnit before a verb. When people extract a bunch of Hebrew words, put them together in an English order, and then claim that God intended a particular meaning in the original Hebrew, the level of irrationality in which they are engaging and which they are promoting is difficult to quantify.
William P. Griffin, Ph.D.
For me it seems very clear exactly what the sign of circumcision meant for Paul virtually explains it in Phil. 3.3: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— “(NIV)
Paul goes on to explain what “confidence in the flesh” means in the following verses as either being (for example-“of the tribe of Benjamin”) or, doing (“as for zeal, persecuting the church”). So, in the flesh, Paul could boast about these things from a natural, fleshly perspective.
Circumcision is however a removal of a piece of flesh and given as a sign of an inward condition as in Dt. 10.6: “circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff necked any longer.” Dt. 30.6: “The Lord will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul, and live.” Jer. 4.4: Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, circumcise your hearts, you people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” These O.T. verses were given to Jews who were physically circumcised but lacked spiritual vitality since they were uncircumcised in their heart.
Back to our verse in Phil. 3.3, Paul’s boast was in Christ and not his own doing. It was the Spirit’s ability in whom Paul relied. So it seems the sign shows grace and not self effort. This lines up to Abraham’s experience since he was called graciously and believed God and later received the sign of this righteousness in circumcision. So those who rely on the Spirit’s power instead of fleshly efforts are the true circumcision.
For a somewhat different take on the rite, please see John Piper here: http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/how-do-circumcision-and-baptism-correspond
As Christians we are commanded to “prove all things” or, as another states: “examine everything carefully.” This, I believe, is what we find in the following analysis.
The evangelical crisis about gender roles is much worse than you think. I know this because discerning, biblically-grounded complementarian friends read Gospel Hope in Hookup Culture by Owen Strachan, and thought it was pretty good.
It was not pretty good. It is lightly-rebranded feminism.
Why is the Gospel Coalition sponsoring an articulation of “biblical sexuality” that is basically rebranded feminism? Why is that articulation coming from a former president of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—an organization dedicated to correcting this sort of error? And why are discerning, biblically-grounded complementarians reading it without their bullshit detectors going off?
Because see the first sentence of this article.
Satan used just enough truth when he tempted Eve to prevent any red flags going up. The same thing is happening here. Owen’s points are just truthful enough for us to nod our heads and keep reading, instead of saying, “Wait a minute, what about…”
Let’s work through each of his four points. I’m going to start with point 2 first, because it comes logically prior to point 1—and the fact that Owen seems oblivious to this is almost certainly part of the problem:
2. Promote God-honoring romance, not sexual utilitarianism.
This is a lopsided secular caricature of what the Bible actually says about the relationship between sex and love. God designed sex to image covenant love—not romantic love. I think the ideal covenant love within marriage does involve romance, but it is the covenant that sanctifies the sex, not the romance. Romance doesn’t purify sex, and sex without romance is not dirty. Marriage purifies sex, and sex without marriage is dirty.
This Disney-chivalry notion of romance has a great deal to do with where we are today. Once romance became all that was required to legitimize sex, fornication became a matter of course.
1. Promote an ethic that focuses on the whole person, not ‘hotness.’
This is the standard feminist solution to perceived problems of objectification. The issue is not that it’s wrong, per se, but that it promotes an indirect solution to physical attraction, instead of the direct solution which the Bible explicitly advocates. What about…marriage (1 Corinthians 7:9)? If you’re going to “hook up” with someone, the way the Bible says to do it is to marry.
Here’s another way of getting at the problem: Owen is suggesting we should encourage serial fornicators to consider that God would rather they treated people as more than just objects of sexual desire. The implicit hope is that they will therefore realize that purely physical sex degrades both parties, and so stop fornicating. But that isn’t realistic, and it doesn’t represent what God would have them do anyway:
- It isn’t realistic because what will actually happen is that since their sexual urges won’t go away, they will think that God would rather they chose their sexual partners on the basis of more than just looks (see: romance sanctifies sex)—and they will keep fornicating anyway.
- It isn’t what God would have them do, because God would have them repent of their fornicating and make proper use of their sexual urges by marrying someone to have sex with.
Moreover, couching the solution in terms of the “whole person” secularizes what the Bible says about the qualities to desire in a spouse (aside from hotness): namely, virtues like fidelity, responsibility, wisdom etc. Once you’ve disconnected marriage as the proper context for sexual urges, and connected up romance instead, you naturally become quite coy about what to look for in a partner, because you’re thinking like a romcom instead of like a Christian.
3. Train men to care for women, not prey on them.
Obviously we don’t want men preying on women. But as commenters on the article asked, does Owen have any actual working knowledge of hookup culture? Like them, I doubt it. From the first-hand accounts I have read, it is the women who typically prey on the men. Indeed, it is a cliché in our culture that women are in control of sex. Men always want it; women exercise power by selectively granting it.
Owen’s point here is especially insidious because if you react against it, there’s a presumption that you are soft on rape. Well, no. I’m as hard on rape as the Bible is. But if you’re trying to offer a solution to women’s consistently and insistently treating men as sexbots, and your solution is, “teach men to behave better,” I am going to point out that you are a fool, because the problem starts with the women behaving badly. You don’t fix a leaking roof by putting a bucket under it.
4. Help students see they are not defined by their sexuality.
Yeap, once again true…except look at how Owen describes the problem:
Hookup culture is equally corrosive for women. According to Wade, “Sexy costume themes” at campus parties “reward women for revealing and provocative clothes, stratify them and put them into competition, all while reminding them that it’s their job to make parties sexy” (195). By Wade’s own testimony, the postmodern approach to sex robs women of their dignity, puts them into competition, and plunges them into unhappiness by rendering them as mere objects.
Notice the grammar. Who are the actors in this paragraph? It is not the women. The women are passive. It is the “parties” and the “postmodern approach.” Since parties and approaches are merely proxies for the real actors, the clear implication is that it is men who are doing this to women. But that is simply garbage. The entire philosophy underpinning what Owen describes is feminism: driven by women. Enabled by men, certainly—but driven by the sin of women’s envy. And in terms of the practice, if you consult first-hand sources, you will discover that again, while men often enable this behavior, it is women who eagerly jump into the most provocative outfits they can find; women who establish hierarchies and competition with each other; women who see it as their jobs to make parties sexy; women who are the first to bid men to treat them as mere objects (and, of course, the first to complain when men comply).
If I were to put my criticism another way, I’d perhaps say this: Owen claims that he is advocating for a gospel hope in a hookup culture, but he fails to actually anchor a single point he makes in the gospel. He doesn’t even anchor them securely in the facts. He mostly just regurgitates received cultural wisdom—aka feminism.
David N. Bivin, founder and editor–in–chief of the Jerusalem Perspective has produced a wonderful article A Farewell to the Emmaus Road. Bivin writes: The Emmaus Road narrative is the climax of Luke’s Gospel. In it, two of Jesus’ disciples encounter their resurrected Lord as they follow the road leading west from Jerusalem. Not only do […]
Louis Markos teaches English at Houston Baptist University. He also holds a distinguished chair at the school. Prof. Markos gives clear voice to as to how to communicate effectively: say what is meant in concrete and understandable terms. This is fresh air for me.
In this review he describes all the benefits of Latta’s work in combing his personal correspondences to analyze Lewis’ work.
Orwell (1903-1950) and Lewis (1898-1963) both spoke over the BBC during WWII helping their fellow Brits understand what they were fighting for. Both wrote dystopic novels–Animal Farm and 1984; That Hideous Strength–that exposed the dangers of totalitarianism from the right or left and that warned against social engineering and the loss of personal freedom. Both spoke to the common man and both deserved the title of apostle of common sense.More to the point of this review, both men were prose stylists of the highest order who equated clear writing, not only with clear thinking, but with moral clarity as well. In his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell exhorts his readers to use simple, concrete language, avoiding such rhetorical pitfalls as abstract terminology, academic jargon, tired clichés, pretentious syntax, and weak, foggy euphemisms.Poor and lazy writers succumb often to these pitfalls, but so do wicked writers who manipulate language for their own nefarious ends. The political propagandist uses abstraction, jargon, and euphemism as a way of hiding his atrocities. For the Nazi or Communist ideologue, the goal of writing is not clarity but obfuscation; words are not meant to reveal goodness, truth, and beauty, but to lend an aura of respectability, or at least inevitability, to inhuman thoughts and actions that should be unthinkable.Although Corey Latta does not mention Orwell in his new book, “C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing,” he makes it clear that Lewis approached writing with the same type of aesthetic and moral seriousness. Writers are not people who play with words, but stewards entrusted with a precious gift. Latta, an author, teacher, and public speaker who has written on Lewis, the imagination, apologetics, and literary theology, demonstrates that Lewis, from early childhood to the closing weeks of his life, identified himself primarily as a writer, one equally devoted to his own individual writing and to the community of writers that God put in his path.Latta’s contention that Lewis’s dedication to writing lies at the core of his being should come as no surprise to lovers of Lewis. And yet, no critic to date has devoted a book to the fascinating subject which Latta describes in his lengthy subtitle: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing.In keeping with his subtitle, Latta quotes passages from all the various genres in which Lewis wrote; however, what makes his book a treasure trove for Lewis lovers is the time Latta has spent combing through the thousands of letters Lewis wrote to achieve an admirably rounded and nuanced view of him as a writer. What emerges from Latta’s loving interaction with Lewis’s letters is the portrait of an Inkling whose veins ran with ink: “There is hardly an area of Lewis’s life untouched by writing. Every relationship. Every loss. Every fear. Every ambition. Every hope. Every disappointment” (5).Composed as it is of brief, impressionistic, kaleidoscopic chapters, C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing is a hard book to summarize, but its mostly chronological approach draws out facets of Lewis’s character missing from most of the standard biographies:
- Lewis wrote because he had to, because he was a writer: “I am sure,” he wrote in one of his letters, “that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development” (134).
- Lewis the writer possessed, as his atheist tutor Kirkpatrick pointed out in a letter to Lewis’s father, “fixity of purpose, determination of character, [and] persevering energy” (109).
- Though dedicated to his craft, Lewis was discerning enough to know when a project needed to be dropped; contrariwise, he had a long enough memory to be able to pull out an idea he had dropped decades before and bring it to completion.
- Lewis’s dutiful letter writing–much of which he dreaded–included not only personal and spiritual advice, but his reading and commenting at length, often with considerable detail, on poems, stories, and essays that had been mailed to him by friends, acquaintances, and strangers.
- Lewis’s experience and philosophy as a reader and writer are inseparable: “Each work Lewis wrote was an attempt to give the reader a new view of the world. To turn readers into witnesses of and participants in what was for Lewis a transcendent act” (76).
- Lewis downplayed the role of originality in writing, not only on aesthetic grounds, but because of his spiritual understanding of the relationship between God the Creator and the human artist: “Beauty descends from God into nature,” wrote Lewis in a letter to his longtime friend Arthur Greeves, “but there it would perish and does except when a Man appreciates it with worship and thus as it were sends it back to God: so that through his consciousness what descended ascends again and the perfect circle is made” (145).
- Lewis also downplayed originality because he believed “the writer wasn’t responsible for–or even capable of–original thought, [but] was more of a translator for pre-existent truths” (165-166); and not just any translator, but one who translated “existent ideas into accessible language, into vernacular” (166).
Most lovers of Lewis will know that Lewis’s colleagues at Oxford were highly critical of his popular and Christian works and that his dear friend J. R. R. Tolkien–whose Lord of the Rings Lewis championed–was dismissive of his Narnia books. Most will also know that Lewis’s original ambition was to be a celebrated poet, an ambition he never realized.Still, even here, Latta brings a fresh approach and new insights to the table. It was not until Lewis was able to die to his early desire for fame, not until he was able to embrace his gift for writing as an end in itself, that he was able to persevere through all setbacks and mature into a truly accomplished writer: “It’s when, Lewis believed, the writer stops seeking reputation as one who communicates great ideas and starts loving the ideas for themselves that he can actually write. It’s dying to the novelty of being a writer that frees one up to go and write. Lewis discovered this unlikely artistic version of ‘he who wants to gain his life will lose it’ by writing for himself. Without the motivation of the public’s praise, Lewis found the act of writing its own reward” (133-134).Finally, in the midst of painting his rounded portrait of Lewis the author, Latta offers plenty of sound advice on how to become a good writer. He culls this advice mostly from Lewis’s letters, particularly one he wrote to a young American girl in which he listed five rules of thumb for crafting prose. Latta sums up those five points for us–“1) make quite clear what you mean, 2) prefer the plain, 3) never use abstract nouns when concrete ones will do, 4) instead of telling us a thing, describe it, and 5) don’t use words too big for the subject” (4-5)–and then devotes a number of chapters to fleshing them out, with Lewis, of course, as his model. As an added bonus, Latta invites us to become Lewis-like writers ourselves by providing, at the end of each chapter, a series of probing questions and thought-provoking assignments.
Kevin James Bywater draws attention to a significant, I dare say definitive, report regarding sexual identity. This research is rigorous, done at publicly funded universities and institutions by leading scientists, and seeks to depoliticize the issues. If nothing else, the executive summary details the findings for the busy reader.
Sexuality and Gender – A Special Report I think this report is essential reading here at the beginning of 2017. I don’t say that lightly. Given the pressing nature of these and related subjects, and given the ongoing politicization and social threatenings, being ignorant of reigning academic, psychological, and political claims, as well as their…
A good summary post by Dr. Irons on how we should think about biblical communication. Also, throughout this series, the importance of church history is revealed. History’s use here by Dr. Irons discloses how these early Christians interpreted their native language and thus gives us valid insights to the Greek text.
Most Christians are familiar with John 3.16 which says that Jesus was “only begotten” or some versions: “unique.” So which is it, or possible is it a combination somehow of these two ideas or something else? Lee Irons engages Kevin Giles to note his disagreement with translating the Johannine term (monogenase) which only occurs 5 times in Scripture. These instances of the word however are found in direct speech from which Christians derive important conceptions about the nature of God and Jesus and their relation to each other. This is already part 4 in a series upon which I was planning to write an introduction on the first post. Oh well!
Lee Irons and Kevin Giles both believe in the Eternal Generation of The Son which formulation for some adherents hinges at least in part to ideas from the term under examination: monogenase (only begotten, unique).
Adjacent issues to the understanding of the divine relationships are both practical (complementarianism or egalitarianism-since Paul uses divine relating to teach about Christian marital relationships in 1 Cor.11.1-16) and conceptual (Functional Subordination of The Eternal Son).
Lee Irons indicates that both Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware announced on the first day of the recent ETS meeting (Nov. 2016) that they now hold to The Eternal Generation of the Son. This conception I became convinced of a few years back and I credit Lee Irons explanation of it as what made sense to me. The Son is both eternal and generated, therefore: eternal generation.
January 1st, 2017 On December 8th each year, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is celebrated. On this occasion the Roman Catholic Church contemplates the belief that Mary was preserved from original sin. This view had been part of Roman Catholic teaching and devotional practices for centuries, but it was not until 1854…
Here is a post by Prof. Athas which I wanted to share earlier. I found his premise convincing that Delilah was an Israelite, and the connection to the Danites and Micah, intriguing.
In the book of Judges, we encounter the mighty Israelite judge, Samson. He is perhaps best known for his herculean strength. Yet, he is also known for his weakness for women—especially Philistine women. His relationship with Delilah, often portrayed as a sneaky seductress, was his undoing. She coaxed him into divulging the secret of his strength: his […]
Here is what I wrote in response to a post at Streams in the Desert, a blog I often enjoy reading (in italics):
“YHVH’s new covenant with Israel is that their sins will be forgiven forever.”
The idea of a covenant is conditional. The idea of a testament is final since a death has occurred. The Mosaic Law was both covenantal: 1. “Do this and you will live” (only Jesus fulfilled this) 2. “you will live long in the land” (upon general national fidelity to the Laws regulations).
The testamental nature of the Law given through Moses entailed a provision when someone tried and failed to keep the Law perfectly. They were required to bring a sacrifice and symbolically transfer their sin upon the victim.
Jesus kept the Law without condition and so earned eternal life and He is our substitute.
There was not enough room in the response to elaborate, which I will strive to do coherently here. Also, I will reblog (reproduce) the wonderful post by Streams in the Desert. I do not disagree materially with Streams in the Desert but instead want to highlight a common misunderstanding of the word diatheke (“covenant”, “testament” in Koine Greek). Diatheke can mean either concept with the context for indication which reference is meant.
Heb. 9.15-20 (NET) clearly refers to a “will” (testament) and not a conditional covenant:
And so he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the eternal inheritance he has promised, since he died to set them free from the violations committed under the first covenant. For where there is a will, the death of the one who made it must be proven. For a will takes effect only at death, since it carries no force while the one who made it is alive. So even the first covenant was inaugurated with blood. For when Moses had spoken every command to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats with water and scarlet wool and hyssop and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has commanded you to keep.”
So, while the NET translates diatheke as “covenant”, clearly the text speaks about a “will” (testament). To us moderns, the terms “covenant” and “testament” have different and specific meanings. What Jesus accomplished on behalf of humanity was a substitutionary sacrifice: an innocent for the guilty. Therefore Christians are under a New Testament.
Briefly, the Mosaic Law was multifaceted since it provided Israel many and varied blessings. On one hand this Law had an absolute promise: “do this (the regulations from Sinai), and you will live” (evidently, eternal life). Most Jews and Christians have at least tried (to some degree) to follow the 10 Commandments and have failed miserably. Both in deed and spirit all have transgressed God’s holy, good, and righteous Law. The remedy for transgressions was to bring a sacrifice and transfer the sin and guilt to it by placing the hands on the head of the victim and confessing the fault accordingly. One could almost say that half of the Law of Moses concerned the Redemptive Feasts, The Temple, and the laws of sacrifice. The redemptive sacrifices all indicated a testamental idea where death of a substitute victim sprung the confessor.
So we Christians are under a New Testament since Jesus has died for us and we claim Him our substitute. If we were to say we are under a New Covenant, it would imply (in some minds at least) a conditional idea that is missing from the text. Diatheke, the Greek term for covenant and testament, is better translated “testament” since it was the direct death of Christ which made it. The Mosaic signs, symbols, and shadows found fulfillment in the High Priesthood of Jesus.
This “testamental” idea was from before Moses and hearkens to the promise of a Savior in Gen. 3.15 who would receive a metaphorical snakebite due to humanity’s fall into sin.
Here is the Christmas post from Streams in the Desert:
Jesus Christ Came Into The World To Save Sinners – 24 Dec 2016
1Ti 1:15 Faithful is the Word and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.
Num 29:39 You shall prepare these to Yehovah in your appointed seasons, besides your vows and your free-will offerings, for your burnt offerings, and for your food offerings, and for your drink offerings, and for your peace offerings.
God did not command Israel to celebrate the birth of His Son, but He gave them – and us – the opportunity to celebrate as a free-will offering. We do it because we want to, and we do it gladly unto the Lord. What the Prophets foretold came to pass: the Messiah was born! Trumpets were to be blown in Israel on the day of our gladness. (Num 10:10) Was/Is not the birth of the Lord a day of rejoicing for the heavenly host of angels who proclaimed the glad tidings to the Israeli Jewish shepherds, and to the shepherds themselves who heard and saw all that they were told; was it not a day of rejoicing for Simeon, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, who saw YHVH’s salvation in the new-born Child and Son; was it not a day of rejoicing for Anna, the widowed prophetess waiting for redemption in Jerusalem? Is it not a day of rejoicing for all who have come to believe in the Son of God, who was born in the flesh, and who is the Father’s gift to His people?: Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given! God has forever changed the culture of His people: rather than just remembering someone’s life when he dies, we now rejoice and celebrate the time of those we love for when they came into the world. It all waited for the celebration of the first-born of creation, and His Father’s joy in that day! It began as neither a Jewish nor a pagan holiday. It is God’s holiday celebration, which is actually what the name of Haggai the prophet means (“my celebration”)! It was Haggai to whom the LORD gave the date of this appointed time. (Hag 2:10-22) Yeshua came to His holy but unclean people to save and to cleanse them from all their sinfulness, and to restore His Throne to His people and to the Gentiles.
What Israel and the Jewish people as a whole did not appreciate when He came to His own, and to the world that He made should not restrict us who have seen the glory of the birth of the Lamb of God who was slain for our sins on the cross, and whose sacrificial death was God’s plan before the foundation of the world! His name is Yeshua because He will save His people from their sins. YHVH is our salvation and Savior!
The new and significant year of 2017 is being ushered in by the perfect coinciding of Hanukkah and Christmas. The 8th day and candle (the day of Yeshua’s circumcision) is the last night of this year, and the first day of the next. The God of Israel has given all the world a witness as to the time of His Son’s birth to the virgin, Mary. Going back another 4 years to 5 BC does not alter things much. But the world system has followed for centuries a calendar that points to the period surrounding the birth of the Lord, the King of the Jews. When I was recently in Thailand, I noticed that the date on a package ended with the numbers 2559. That seemed odd, so I asked what that was: the Thai culture traditionally counts its years from the era of Buddha, who lived more than 500 years before Yeshua/Jesus. Muslims count their years from 622 AD, the year that Mohammed went from Mecca to Medina. Tonight is the lighting of the first candle for Hannukah; today is the 24th of the ninth month. In the Jewish calendar, this is the month of Chislev; in the Gregorian calendar, which most of the world follows, this the 24th of the 12th month, December, but which is the ninth month when we count beginning with Israel’s first month in Aviv/Nisan/April! This date of the 24th of the 9thmonth was a day from which the [true] foundation of the Temple was laid, and YHVH would bless Israel and shake Heaven and Earth. (Hag 2:18-22) These things did not find genuine fulfillment with the Maccabees, but do in Yeshua, the true Savior and Deliverer from Gentile and pagan thrones – both literally, and also in the hearts of those who truly believe. (The spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Yeshua.)
I want us to look at one example of the truth that Jesus came to save sinners: the woman caught in adultery. (Jn 8:1-11)
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. (2) And early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him. And He sat down and taught them. (3) And the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman taken in adultery. And standing her in the midst, (4) they said to Him, Teacher, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. (5) Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned. You, then, what do you say? (6) They said this, tempting Him so that they might have reason to accuse Him. But bending down, Jesus wrote on the ground with His finger, not appearing to hear. (7) But as they continued to ask Him, He lifted Himself up and said to them, He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her. (8) And again bending down, He wrote on the ground. (9) And hearing, and being convicted by conscience, they went out one by one, beginning at the oldest, until the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (10) And bending back up, and seeing no one but the woman, Jesus said to her, Woman, where are the ones who accused you? Did not one give judgment against you? (11) And she said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said to her, Neither do I give judgment. Go, and sin no more.
In this scene, the self-righteous religious leaders and teachers came to Yeshua with a woman who was caught, somehow, in the act of adultery. Where was the guilty man? Under the Law, both were to be stoned. (Lev 20:10-12) So their motive was not pure, but rather to trap Messiah and to show their disdain for women. People did not matter to them with all their religiosity, but the “Law”, which they themselves did not keep. Yeshua bent down and wrote on the ground with His finger, probably the sentence of death, which the Law of Moses demanded. He had not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. But then, the Lord showed His compassion in His identification with the sinner against her unjust accusers. He also appealed to the conscience of them: let he has no sin cast the first stone. From the oldest rabbi first, the others followed in leaving the scene. Jesus paid a price to mediate in this situation, with courage and compassion. Jesus did not acquit the guilty woman; neither did He condemn her: He told her to go and sin no more. Did she? We don’t know.
Jesus came to save sinners. He alone is without sin; He alone has moral authority to condemn. But He desires to see sinners repent and have their hearts changed, sinning no more in the face of such grace and truth. He takes the blame; He takes the uncleanness. On the cross He bore our sin and our punishment. Can any who know such love and forgiveness continue to sin against the holy God and Savior?! Let each answer for himself, just as the Scripture leaves us without the answer to the rest of this woman’s life, and that of her accusers.
YHVH’s new covenant with Israel is that their sins will be forgiven forever. Our message which we have received from Him remains the gospel to sinners: repent and believe, and so receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit and of eternal life.
As I considered this passage about the woman caught in adultery, it reminded me of how Christians have historically accused the Jewish people before God for their spiritually adulterous unfaithfulness to Him, and of their sin and guilt in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus. The Savior continues to reach out to both with His own understanding and righteousness to affect the hearts and minds of both. All Israel will be saved when they look upon Him whom they pierced; and the Body of Christ will be purified when they humble themselves and show mercy to the Jews, even as they have received mercy from the God of Israel for all their sins in Jesus’ name.
We thank and praise God for giving us His Son (Is 9:6), and for what Messiah has done for us: forgiveness and new life, which only He could bring by coming here to Earth (even to Israel!) and suffering for us — both during His life and climatically in His death on the cross. Now He lives within us who are born-again from Above, and is with us in life and in death. Even this last enemy can not overcome the believer, but only serves to bring us into the everlasting presence of the Lord!
Prof. Hurtado has released a snippet of his recent book Destroyer of the Gods. In it he notes the irony (last sentence) that present day atheists have Christians to thank for a reduced workload.
Early Christians were atheists! At least, that’s how some people of the time viewed them in the earliest centuries, and it’s not difficult to see why. Most importantly, they refused to worship the traditional gods. But also, judged by Roman-era criteria, they didn’t even seem to practice a recognizable form of religion. In the crucial first couple of centuries at least, they had no shrines or temples, no altars or images, and no sacrificial rites or priesthood.
Granted, early Christians were accused of various things. There were the wild claims that Christians engaged in cannibalism and sexual orgies, claims that circulated mainly among the rabble. More sophisticated critics, however, portrayed them as deeply subversive of the social, religious, and political structures of the Roman world. One of the other labels hurled against Christianity was that it was a superstitio, a Latin term that designated bad religion, the kind deemed stupid, even dangerous. But “atheist” was probably the accusation that most directly reflected the sharply distinctive, even troublesome, nature of Christianity in the earliest centuries.
Unlike the emphasis today, however, in the Roman world atheism wasn’t primarily a matter of belief or unbelief. Instead, what counted then as “piety” or being religious was mainly participation in worshiping the gods. In that setting, to refuse to do so was atheism. Ancient philosophers speculated about the gods, where they came from, what they really were, and even whether they really existed, but that wasn’t so much a problem. What mattered was taking part in the traditional rites devoted to the gods. And the philosophers who speculated about the gods didn’t particularly try to discourage participation in the traditional rites, or even withdraw (at least publicly) from taking part themselves. But Christians (who by the second century were mainly converted pagans) were supposed to desist from worship of the gods . . . all of them. Also, Christian teachings ridiculed the gods as unworthy beings, and what most people thought of as “piety”—participation in the traditional rites to the gods—was designated in Christian teaching as “idolatry.”
To appreciate what this rejection of the traditional gods meant, we also have to understand that gods and reverencing them were woven through every aspect of life. Families had household deities. Cities had their guardian gods. The Roman Empire at large rested upon the gods, such as the goddess Roma. Practically any social occasion, such as a dinner, included an expression of reverence for a given deity. Meetings of guilds, such as fishers, bakers, or others, all included acknowledging their appropriate god.
So, to refuse to join in worshiping any of these deities in a thorough-going manner was a very radical move, and a risky one too, with wide-ranging social costs. People understandably took offense, and Christians could be in for a good deal of anger and hostility that might include verbal and physical abuse. In some cases, the Christian rejection of the gods led to arraignment before Roman magistrates, resulting in punishments, even executions. By the third century, there were occasional spasms of imperial persecution against Christians that could include confiscation of possessions and death sentences. And from at least the late second century, there were full-scale literary attacks on Christianity, the one most well-known today by the pagan writer Celsus.
In these circumstances, it should not be surprising that Christians often made various compromises, negotiating their existence to avoid conflict where they could do so. But the pagan critiques about Christians suggest that they were known more often for refusing to honor the gods rather than bending to social pressures to do so.
Ironically, however, this early Christian atheism had a profoundly religious basis. It was a radical critique of traditional religion that was driven by powerful theological convictions. Christians who forsook the traditional gods turned to a different kind of deity. Their deity could not be represented in an image. This one deity was creator and ruler of all things and all peoples, and was alone worthy of worship. But Christians characterized this one all-powerful deity, perhaps above all, as motivated by an almighty love for the world and its inhabitants. This was an unprecedented claim in the pagan religious environment of the time. Moreover, the proper worship of this Christian deity was mainly verbal, in prayers and songs; and the piety that this deity demanded was particularly shown in love, for fellow Christians to be sure, but also, remarkably, even for enemies.
Of course, there was obvious indebtedness to the Jewish tradition in which earliest Christianity first emerged. Judaism, however, was always closely tied to its own ethnicity. To be a full convert to the God of Judaism meant changing your ethnic identity too. But early Christianity quickly emerged as a trans-ethnic movement, aggressively proclaiming its message and recruiting former pagans to its peculiar message on a scale that made it a threat in a way that was never true of Judaism. In religion, as in some other matters, early Christianity helped to destroy one world and create another. And the effects of this early Christian “atheism” linger to this day. Modern atheism as we know it is shaped by the Christian faith against which it reacts. For even modern atheists assume that there’s only one god to doubt!
After a few thousand years absence, “Jacob’s Sheep” have returned to Israel—from Canada! From The Times of Israel: ” Biblical sheep in Israel for first time in millennia” The breed received the name “Jacob sheep” based on Genesis Chapter 30, where Jacob talks about leaving his father-in-law Laban’s home and taking part of the flock […]
Steve Hays has posted a fine way to think about the community of Jesus followers with the illustration of vehicles and those who take them.
What is the best way to formulate the abstract idea of “church” that will be in concert with the ideas of “members of one body” (1 Cor. 12.12), “living stones” comprising a spiritual house (1 Peter 2.5), and the various agricultural motifs such as branches bearing fruit (John 15 and others) or wheat with grain (Mt. 13 .1-9 and others)?
A common allegation of Catholic and Orthodox apologists is that their church is the original church. It goes straight back to Christ, whereas Protestant churches are upstarts. These didn’t pop into existence until the 16C.One problem with that allegation is that it’s only as good as your paradigm of the church. Put it this way, do you define the church by the vehicle or the passengers?How does the NT describe the church? As the community of faith. A fellowship of believers, and families of believers. They are united by the grace they share and their common faith in the message of Scripture. In addition, there’s a minimal polity (elders, deacons) and at least two sacraments (baptism, communion).Basically, the NT defines the church by the passengers, not the vehicle. If the identity of the church is centered on the passengers rather than the vehicle, then the church can exist continuously even if the vehicle changes, just as passengers can change vehicles, but remain the same passengers.The church as passengers goes back to NT times. Indeed, God has always had a community of faith. Protestants can trace the church back as far as you please. In the Reformation, they changed cars.
Chris Rollston wrote an interesting post back in 2013 which covers much ground with emphasis on the Cyrus Cylinder. He gives a nice historical overview and discusses recent analyses of the Cylinder’s significance.
Cyrus the Great of Persia is called “Meshiah” (that is, “Anointed One,” “Messiah”) in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 45:1 and Yahweh’s “Shepherd” in Isaiah 44:28. This sort of grandiose language may seem striking to some. It should, as it is striking. But the backstory provides the basic rationale for this lofty verbiage. Namely, several decades before Second Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “Meshiah“ and “Shepherd,” Judah had suffered mightily at the hands of the Babylonians. It all began in ca. 597 BCE. The gold and silver of the Jerusalem Temple and Royal Palace had been plundered, but both buildings still stood. King Nebuchadnezzar the Great of Babylon was marching victoriously back to Babylon, not only with these precious metals but also with several thousand Judean prisoners of war. Among them were King Jehoiachin and much of the Judean royal family (2 Kings 24). Things were bad, but they would get worse, as Nebuchadnezzar would return to Jerusalem some ten years later to avenge and to destroy. Nebuchadnezzar’s rationale was this: Zedekiah had become king of Judah after Jehoiachin was exiled but he had not been the loyal vassal for whom Nebuchadnezzar had hoped. Nebuchadnezzar was angry, he came to Jerusalem and besieged it for some eighteen to twenty months, beginning around 587 BCE (2 Kings 25).
Conditions inside Jerusalem soon became desperate. The book of Kings laconically states that during the terminal portion of the siege “the famine became so severe that there was no food for the people” (2 Kings 25:3). But the poet of Lamentations limns the picture more poignantly, “the hands of compassionate women had boiled their children, they became food for them” (Lam 4:10). Desperation reigned. Then things deteriorated further. The walls were breached and the Temple and Palace were burned to the ground, along with all the houses of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:9). And brutality of a different sort began as hand-to-hand combat concluded: “women in Zion were raped, virgins (raped) in the cities of Judah” and “princes were hung by their hands” (Lam 5:11, 12). Words could not adequately describe the horror.
Zedekiah had abandoned Jerusalem shortly before its fall. But he and his young sons were captured near Jericho, deserted by the armed Judean soldiers who had pledged to protect them. Nebuchadnezzar decreed that Zedekiah and his sons be brought forward. They were, and then Zedekiah’s young sons were brutally slaughtered before their loving father’s eyes. At that point, a Babylonian soldier gouged out the Judean king’s eyes, his last visual memory now a haunting one. Zedekiah was led away in chains to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). The year was 586 BCE. This was the nadir of nadirs. From the hill of Zion profound sorrow and anger flowed. Raw human emotion is reflected in the words of a Psalmist: “O daughter of Babylon, you destroyer. Happy are the ones who seize your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). Nebuchadnezzar’s campaigns against Judah had brought bloodshed, starvation, and destruction. Judah remembered Nebuchadnezzar as a brutal conqueror, and this he was.
But history is made of reversals and the tables were soon turned. East of the Tigris River, Cyrus the Great had begun to reign in Persia (around 559 BCE), and he soon began to weld together a full-fledged empire, defeating the Kingdom of the Medes and the Kingdom of Lydia. King Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BCE) was on the throne of Babylon, as one of the successors of Nebuchadnezzar the Great. But he would be Babylon’s last king. He had already spent around a decade of his reign at Tayma, an oasis in the Arabian Desert. There is actually an allusion to this tradition in an Aramaic Dead Sea Scroll called “The Prayer of Nabonidus.” In any case, based on the Mesopotamian texts at our disposal, there seem to have been some rumblings against Nabonidus even during his decade at the oasis, especially within the Babylonian priesthood. After all, he was said to have been most devoted to the Moon God Sîn rather than Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Nabonidus was an apostate, or so it seemed to some. He returned from the oasis, disaster now looming across the Tigris River. Then Cyrus began to march, and the prize he wanted most was the kingdom of Nabonidus.
The ancient historical sources are not all in agreement about the battles that were fought between the Babylonians and the Persians. Cyrus himself boasts that he entered Babylon without a battle, hailed (he says) as a liberator even by the Babylonians themselves. But the full story was certainly bloodier, and the Babylonian supporters of Cyrus fewer (Herodotus suggests as much). Nevertheless, Cyrus gained his prize, Babylon was his in 539 BCE. The Persian Empire Period had begun. Babylon had fallen. The Judeans who had felt the brunt of Babylon’s war machine fifty years earlier probably shed few tears at this news.
But there is more. Cyrus not only brought the Babylonian Empire to its knees, he also decreed (according to the book of Ezra) that the exiled Judeans in his realm be permitted to return to Judah and to rebuild the Temple. According to the book of Ezra, he also allowed the exiles to take with them (some of) the sacred vessels which had been pillaged from the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. And the book of Ezra states that there was an edict of Cyrus that said: “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he commissioned me to build for him the Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (Ezra 1 and 6). In due time, work on the Second Temple would begin, and it would be completed by around 516 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great of Persia (r. 522-486 BCE). It is within this context that the words of Isaiah 44 and 45 are best understood. Cyrus of Persia had destroyed the (Babylonian) destroyers of Jerusalem, freed the Judean Exiles, and decreed that the Jerusalem Temple be rebuilt. I suspect that Second Isaiah was not alone in his jubilation about Cyrus.
Cyrus was certainly famous in antiquity (and in the modern period) for his benevolence, even among the Greeks, due in part to Xenophon’s lengthy work entitled “Cyropaidia” (literally, the ‘Education of Cyrus’). But during excavations in Babylon in 1879, the now famous “Cyrus Cylinder” was found, galvanizing further the reputation of Cyrus. Certain salient facts about this cuneiform text are worth mentioning at the outset: (a) In terms of size, it is quite small, about ten inches by four inches, and cylindrical in shape. (b) In terms of language, although Cyrus was a Persian, the Cyrus Cylinder is written in the Akkadian language (i.e., not in Persian, the native language of Cyrus). Of course, this makes sense, as the target audience for this inscription was Babylonian, not Persian. (c) In terms of the amount of textual content, the Cylinder is relatively short, just a few hundred words long, preserved in some forty to fifty lines of cuneiform text. (d) In terms of date, it arguably hails from the very first years of the reign of Cyrus. (e) In terms of archaeological context, it was found as a “foundation deposit” in an ancient Babylonian building.
The content of this text is priceless, and it is laced with some very savvy royal apologia. It is most impressive. Here is a synopsis of the content of the Cyrus Cylinder, using the translations of Irving Finkel of the British Museum. The text begins with a narrative in the third person (rather than the first person, that is, “he” not “I”) which condemns the Babylonian King Nabonidus (whom Cyrus had just vanquished, of course), along with statements impugning Nabonidus for not being a pious worshipper of Marduk. The Cyrus Cylinder says that because of Marduk’s anger for Nabonidus, He (Marduk) raised up Cyrus the Persian, “an upright king,” taking him “by the hand” and ordering him (Cyrus) to go to Babylon and remove Nabonidus from power. Moreover, Marduk was “like a friend and a companion” to Cyrus. Then, at line 20 of the Cyrus Cylinder, the grammatical first person begins to be used. “I am Cyrus, king of the world!” Cyrus himself then declares that he is the king “whom Divine Marduk and Divine Nabu love.” He also states that upon his arrival in Babylon, the Babylonian people welcomed him with joy as he entered. He affirms that they viewed him as a liberator. After he became nicely ensconced in Babylon, Cyrus states that many kings from various regions “brought me weighty tribute” and “kissed my feet.” In return, he decrees that the people from various regions that had come under his dominion (especially because he had just vanquished Babylon) should be allowed to return to their homelands and to rebuild their temples. In addition, he requests the following: “May all the Gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds.” Finally, he also affirms that he has “enabled all the lands to live in peace.” The Cyrus Cylinder is a stunning archaeological artifact.
We do not know much at all about the personal religion of Cyrus the Great, but it is most reasonable to contend that he worshipped some of the Persian Gods, perhaps especially the God Ahuramazda. This was, after all, the case for several of the Persian kings who succeeded Cyrus. Therefore, it is all the more interesting that that Cyrus declares in the Cyrus Cylinder (written for a Babylonian audience) that he vanquished Babylon because the Babylonian God Marduk told him to do so! Of course, kings in the ancient Near East normally declared that they had divine patronage, but normally of their own Gods. In this case, however, Cyrus declares that the Babylonian God Marduk transferred His support from the Babylonian King Nabonidus and gave it to the Persian King Cyrus. Moreover, it is important to remember in this connection that the book of Ezra states that Cyrus had said something similar to the Judeans, namely, “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me (Cyrus) all the kingdoms of the earth, and he commissioned me to build for him the temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (see Ezra 1 and 6). That is, according to these texts, Cyrus told the Babylonians that the Babylonian God Marduk told him to do what he did, and Cyrus told the Judeans that the Judean God Yahweh told him to do what he did. And I think that it is entirely reasonable to suppose that Cyrus told the Persian people that the Persian God Ahurzmazda told him to do what he did. I should note in this connection that this sort of brilliant royal apologia is not confined to Cyrus. After all, during King Sennacherib of Assyria’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, the Assyrian Rab Shakeh uses (at least according to 2 Kings 18:25) the same sort of rhetoric, arguing that it was Yahweh the God of Judah who summoned him (Sennacherib) to attack Judah. And the Neo-Assyrian Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal used similar rhetoric as well.
Of course, much has been made, especially during the past few decades, of the religious and political tolerance and generous diplomacy of Cyrus the Great. In fact, the Cyrus Cylinder itself has been referred to at times as an “Icon of Freedom” and even as “The First Bill of Human Rights,” oft repeated slogans as it is now in the midst of museum travels in the United States. Some thirty years ago, however, Amelie Kuhrt argued quite cogently that these sorts of appellatives might just be too grandiose. And most scholars within the field have concurred with Kuhrt’s corrective (demonstated again very nicely by Jacob Wright’s fine article on the Huffington Post several months ago). After all, the text of the Cyrus Cylinder is rather brief and much of the language contained in it can be found in earlier ancient Near Eastern Royal Inscriptions. And there is no grand affirmation of human rights within the Cyrus Cylinder, per se. And although Cyrus allowed the various people-groups (e.g., those who had been captured and exiled by the Babylonians) to return to their homelands, these people would certainly remain under Persian hegemony, and fealty to Persia would be demanded (including tribute). In short, there were some strings attached, big strings.
But I should also wish to emphasize that, at least for me, I remain very impressed with the words and actions of Cyrus. After all, not all conquerors in the ancient Near East were so kind to the conquered as Cyrus arguably was. Nebuchadnezzar’s treatment of the Judeans is an obvious demonstration of that. And I must also affirm that the basic deference of Cyrus to the religious sensibilities of the conquered is most admirable. True, Cyrus was not the only suzerain to be tolerant of the religious practices of a vassal (for discussion, see especially Beaulieu). But I would counter that not all suzerains were so tolerant, thus, I consider this to be a benevolent act. Someone might retort that his actions were more “savvy diplomacy” than “religious tolerance.” Perhaps so, but I admire his actions still. And, of course, it is both striking and important that a Judean writer of the late 6th century understood the actions of Cyrus to be good and noble, so much so as to cause him to refer to Cyrus as Yahweh’s “Shepherd” and his “Meshiah.” I take this as pretty good evidence (because it is close to being contemporary with the actual decree of Cyrus) that Cyrus was viewed by many in antiquity as a benevolent monarch, with regard to both politics and religion.
Some final musings: Within the contemporary world, people often attempt to mine ancient texts for models, virtues to be embraced or vices to be shunned. This can certainly be a useful thing, but it can also be a precarious venture, as it is all too easy to read too much into these ancient texts. But in days such as ours, full of many political and religious tensions across much of the globe, I must admit that some of the words and deeds of Cyrus resonate with me. I think something can be learned from these words. They deserve to be studied as important diplomatic and religious statements, as potent words from some two and a half millennia ago that were moving, at least in part, in good directions. And as for me, I’m happy to see movement in the direction of more tolerance, regardless of the ancient or modern texts in which it can be found, and regardless of whether the form is fledgling or fully developed.
Generally speaking, it was previously thought that most copyists of Christian sacred texts were unimpressive amateurs given how rapid and wide-spread the message of the Messiah dispersed during the middle and later half of the first century. I have stated as much in some blog posts. Of course, I need to acknowledge further research and, if needed, be corrected with subsequent evidence.
I am now happy to report based on Larry Hurtado’s review of Alan Mugridge, Copying Early Christian Texts: A Study of Scribal Practice(Tuebingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2016) that the scribes who were involved in this production were much more technical and even possibly “professional.” https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/copying-early-christian-texts-new-book/
Mugridge mounts this case against previous scholarly views that in the earliest centuries Christian texts were copied “in house,” informally by Christians themselves.
The labor that went into this book is prodigious. Mugridge examined over 500 papyri, noting the characteristics of the copyist of each, these data given in the valuable “Catalogue of Papyri” that comprises pp. 155-410 of the book. These papyri include copies of Old Testament texts, New Testament texts, “Apocryphal” texts, Patristic writings, Hagiographic texts, Liturgical prayers, hymns, etc., Gnostic and Manichaean texts, and “Unidentified” texts. Tables at the end of the book present the manuscripts in these categories, each item described as to contents, writing material (papyrus or parchment) and whether it derives from a bookroll, codex, sheet, or wooden tablet.
The analysis of these data take up the first 154 pages. After laying out the scope and approach of the book, the papyri included for study, and an introduction to writers and writing in the Roman imperial period, the following chapters focus on particular scribal features. Chapter 2 deals with “Content, Material, Form and Size”; Chapter 3: Page Layout; Chapter 4: Reading Aids; Chapter 5: “Writing the Text” (which covers a wide variety of matters including letter height, interlinear spacing, letters per line, lines per column, critical signs, marginal notes, decorations, abbreviations (with a special section on the nomina sacra), stichometric counts, and a few other matters.
A full engagement with this book will obviously require readers seriously interested in the details of how early Christian texts were copied. But the issues addressed are larger than simply papyrological minutiae. As I emphasize in my own recent book, Destroyer of the gods, early Christianity was a distinctively “bookish” movement among the new religious movements of the Roman imperial period. Texts were central, and Christians devoted impressive resources to composing, copying, and circulating them. So, this major and detailed study of the material evidence of these activities is “solid gold” for anyone seriously interested in historical knowledge of early Christianity.
I judge Mugridge to have made a major contribution in this book, and I also think that his analysis of the several hundred manuscripts studied is (so far as I am able to test it) fair and accurate: most early Christian texts were copied by individuals with some skill and dedication to their task. I have hesitations about a few matters, however.
First, I think that Mugridge too readily makes evidence of a competent/skilled copyist as indicating a “professional” scribe, i.e., a copyist who was paid for his work. Only a very few early Christian manuscripts have the stichometric counts that we usually judge to be evidence of a professional copyist. The features of early Christian manuscripts reflect generally skilled and experienced copyists, but it is another question as to whether they did the work for hire.
I also don’t share Mudridge’s confidence that many early Christian texts were copied by non-Christians. He argues that non-Christian scribes could have been instructed in the distinctive early Christian scribal practice known as the “nomina sacra.” Yes, but why should we favour that over what still seems to me a simpler notion, that early Christian texts were typically copied by Christian copyists acquainted with this scribal convention.
Another matter that doesn’t receive adequate treatment by Mugridge is the remarkable early Christian preference for the codex. This was certainly not a typical bookform for literary texts, and so not likely a form with which most “professional” copyists would have been accustomed to use. Moreover, constructing a codex required decisions and skills in addition to those usually required in copying a bookroll. So, again, it seems to me a more reasonable supposition that the copyists of most early Christian texts were themselves Christians, who knew and accepted the early Christian preference for the codex.
But, despite these hesitations over some specifics, I commend this study heartily, which should be received with gratitude to Mugridge for the massive amount of work reflected in it.
A nice article on the history of Gaza, written by Ben Piven, has just appeared in the Huffington Post. In the article, Ben surveys the history, and ups and downs, of Gaza thru the ages – and …
John William Burgon became Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1876 and is usually referred to as “Dean Burgon.” He is remembered for his passionate defence of the historicity and Mosaic authorship of Genesis and of Biblical inerrancy in general. (Wikipedia)
While he may be commended for his defence of the Bible’s veracity, he was also somewhat simplistic and took seemingly leaps of faith where empirical evidence should have been his anchor. One of Burgon’s rivals, F.J.A. Hort, exposes Burgon’s methods reviewing his book on the ending of Mark’s Gospel:
The Rev. J. W. Burgon maintains unreservedly the authenticity and originality of The Last Twelve Verses of St. Mark, in 323 pages of somewhat acrid declamatian interspersed with minute research. It was worth while to show, in detail, that the writers in various centuries who notice the absence of this section of our Gospel from MSS., few or many, were for the most part only copying Eusebius; for their names are arranged in the editions too much as if they were all independent witnesses. An investigation of the neglected Catenæ on St. Mark and of certain marginal scholia found in late MSS. has corrected some errors of collators, and slightly reduced the force of this patristic evidence. Under these heads Mr. Burgon has done good service, grave errors and exaggerations notwithstanding. As a new and “decisive” testimony on the other side he sets up “the Lectionary of the East,” that is, the system of lessons which Bingham’s diligent reading of Chrysostom proved to have been used in northern Syria late in the fourth century, extended by imaginative processes to all the Greek and Syrian churches, and backwards in time almost to the Apostles. The new and striking facts about + τέλος +, which stands within the text of many Cursive MSS. after xvi. 8 and 20, point not to the marking of ancient lections, but to the recognition of a first and a second ending to this one Gospel, just as many Armenian MSS. insert Εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μάρκον in both places. Mr. Burgon’s way of exhibiting the principal evidence could not fail to mislead an unwary reader. He never displays it all together, and often speaks of a part as if it were the whole. He treats the short duplicate ending of the Gospel as if it had no bearing on the question at issue. He boldly cites the Old Latin as rendering “emphatic witness” to the genuineness of the twelve verses, though its three primary MSS. are wanting here, and one of the surviving three substitutes the duplicate ending ; and though Tertullian and Cyprian never cite the section, as they must certainly have done had they known and accepted it, Tertullian, De Baptismo, 12, 13, Cyprian his Testimonia and divers epistles, if not (both writers) elsewhere. The one Latin testimony previous to Augustine and Jerome comes from an African bishop at the Council of Carthage in 256, as the one clear Greek ante-Nicene testimony (Mr. Burgon numbers six) is that of Irenæus : and the inherent weakness of negative evidence cannot be pleaded for such verses as the last six of St. Mark. But when authorities are in conflict, clear principles of criticism become indispensable, and here Mr. Burgon signally breaks down. Etymological guessing, without knowledge of the filiation of languages, is a true image of textual criticism of the New Testament conducted without reference to the hidden genealogies and circumstances of transmission to which the extant evidence owes its form. With all his industry and learning Mr. Burgon betrays no conception of the delicate and complex investigations by which alone it can be decided how far an authority or a group of authorities can be safely trusted in a given reading. This is the more unfortunate as he desires his book to lead the way in displacing multitudes of readings which have been adopted on early manuscript evidence within the last hundred years. In the present state of our knowledge even the most conservative criticism, if it be unscientific, must generate only universal doubt and confusion. Mr. Burgon, it ought to be said, successfully disposes of many applications of the “Concordance text,” by which Mark xvi.9–20 has been distinguished from the rest of the Gospel, while he injures the effect of his argument by refusing to see the two or three real difficulties of this kind which remain. He does not notice the significance of the opening phrase Ἀναστὰς δὲ πρωῒ πρώτῃ σαββάτου, so otiose in its triple repetition of facts already told, if taken as an original part of the chapter ; so natural and apposite as the first words of a complete succinct narrative from the Resurrection to the Ascension, transferred entire from another record, whether written or oral. The high antiquity of the narrative cannot reasonably be doubted, and almost as little its ultimate if not proximate Apostolic origin. F. J. A. HORT.
There is abundant evidence of the presence of the Romans in Jerusalem and the land they would later call Palestine. Now comes specific evidence of the place where Titus’ army breached the Third Wall of the city. The Israel Antiquities Authority released this information earlier today. — “ — Impressive and fascinating evidence of the […]
At one time I saw an advertising slogan which, to me, seemed very effective: “The closer you look, the better we look.” This slogan invited the prospective buyer to carefully examine the product on offer to see the manufacturer’s attention to the minute details of the item.
This same slogan may be applied to the bible. We moderns possess a staggering wealth of relevant historic sources which attest to an underlying accuracy of the biblical record.
Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia while Paul was in Corinth (Acts 18:12). Acts 18:12 While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” Acts 18:14 […]
Part of a pavement found near the theater of Corinth which mentions “Erastus” who was the aedile of the city. An “aedile” was in charge of the financial matters of the city — and was very wealthy. The pavement was laid about A.D. 50. The New Testament book of Romans was written by Paul from […]
A truly fascinating discovery occurred recently in the field of Biblical Archaeology. The suggestion of symbolic defilement by use of representative articles at worship sites informs much to us about ancient cultic practices. Of course it validates Israel’s ancient existence (some groups deny Israel existed in antiquity) and is consistent with the biblical record.
Haaretz; Hamevaser; The Jerusalem Post, September 29, 2016
An Israel Antiquities Authority dig has found a Baal shrine the Lachish city gate, dated to the 8th century BCE, which appears to have been broken during King Hezekiah’s reforms. The gate, which has now been uncovered in its entirety, is preserved to four meters in height (originally 24.5 m. by 24.5 m.) and contains three chambers on each side, “befitting Lachish’s status as second in importance after Jerusalem,” says Sa’ar Ganor, IAA leader of the dig. The first chamber contained benches with arms, jars, scoops for loading grain, and jar handles stamped with the name of the official or a “lamelech” [belonging to the king] impression, which may have been connected with preparations for the war against Sennacherib. The temple was found in the third chamber, and it is intriguing to note that the horns of its altar were “intentionally truncated,” with a stone next to it carved as a toilet. Although the archaeologists initially did not realize the connection, reading about Jehu’s reforms in II Kings 10:27 has led them to surmise that placing the toilet in the temple was meant to defile it. However, as no phosphate remains were found the supposition is that these were symbolic acts, after which the room was sealed. Calling the find “a discovery that deepens our connection to our ancestors who walked this land,” Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev said, “It boldly commemorates the way of our forefathers, the prophets, the kings and the judges.”
The dig at Tel Lachish was conducted by the IAA in cooperation with the Nature and Parks Authority, the Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Ministry, and the Environmental Protection Ministry “to further the development of the historic park.”
October 1st, 2016 Excerpts of an interview published in Unio Cum Christo. International Journal of Reformed Theology and Life, Vol. 2, No. 2 (October 2016). Since Martin Luther’s reformation, three major events in the life of the Roman Catholic Church have marked its reaction not only to Protestantism but also to developments in the modern…
George Athas claims that Gen. 19 uses the rhetorical device of “detail omission” to tell its story and to “surprise” the reader later with additional information with which the reader can finally make an informed decision regarding the “righteousness” of all the actors in the account. I find the argument Dr. Athas has put forward convincing and pass it along.
This view aligns very well with NT scripture which sees Lot as righteous: (2Pet. 2.8), and the admonition by the Lord to remember Lot’s wife (negatively, looking back, while Lot and the daughters are delivered from destruction).