My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was the first whole book of serious gospels scholarship that I’ve read. Bauckham deploys textual scholarship; knowledge about the art of writing history in the ancient world; Christian writings from the New Testament and 2nd century; and studies of memory, testimony, and the transmission of oral traditions to argue for the pervasive influence of eyewitness testimony in the writing of the gospels. He posits the model of the careful guarding of traditions that were passed on to Christian communities against the view of form criticism, which holds that little historical information can be found in the gospels. Bauckham’s views of Scripture are on the conservative end of the spectrum, though he does not hold to inerrancy of the Bible or the traditional views of the authorship of the gospels of Matthew and John.
I agreed with the main thrust of the book’s argument, so I can’t be a good judge of its persuasiveness. I can say that it was a fascinating look at the gospels and the world in which they were written.
In his post for the fourth Sunday of Advent, Walter Russell Mead referenced Virgil’s fourth eclogue. Mead wrote:
Periods of globalization and cultural mingling are often periods of apocalyptic thinking; the Jews weren’t the only people expecting big changes in the world at that time. Even in the court of Augustus, the staid and sleek Vergil wrote about a heroic, divine birth that would change the world. His famous fourth eclogue is at one level a brilliantly executed piece of literary fawning at the feet of the imperial family, but it bespeaks much wider hopes for a new age in the world, so much so that many commentators have read it as a kind of pagan prophecy of the coming of Christ.
Yet with all this anticipation of a savior of some kind, few even understood who Jesus claimed to be, fewer still believed him, and none of his friends and followers really understood what he had come to do. The birth and mission of Christ were both thoroughly predicted and completely surprising. It was exactly what God had been saying for centuries that he would do—and yet nobody expected anything like what actually came.
Virgil’s poem is short (eight stanzas of varying lengths). Here’s the third stanza:
And for yourself, little boy, the uncultivated earth
will scatter its first small gifts:
wandering ivy and cyclamens everywhere,
Egyptian beans mixed with laughing acanthus.
By themselves, she-goats will come home
with udders swollen with milk;
cattle no longer will fear mighty lions.
For you, your own cradle will bear delightful flowers;
the serpent will die, and the plant that hides its venom;
Assyrian spices will spring forth all over.
But as soon as you are able to read
the praise of heroes and your father’s works
and come to understand what virtue is,
fields will slowly turn golden with soft ears of grain,
red grapes will hang down from uncultivated briars
and stubborn oaks will exude dewlike honey.
I finally read an article from last fall about a second-century artifact found in Rome, which is an inscription probably connected with the Gnostic Christian heretic Valentinus. It’s an interesting article and shows some of the esoteric Gnostic Christian teachings.
While it’s informative, there’s a striking agenda in it as well. In the middle of the article, there’s a description of the Gnostic attitude toward martyrdom, which echoes an observation from Larry Hurtado that I posted last year:
But there were some important differences between Valentinians and other early Christians. “Valentinians in particular, and gnostics more generally, most of them wouldn’t, for example, get martyred,” McKechnie said. “They wouldn’t think it was wrong or unlawful to do the things that Christian martyrs refused to do, like take an oath in the name of Caesar or offer incense to a statue or that kind of thing.”
The reason for their lack of bias has to do with the Valentinians’ beliefs about all things physical. “They believed that not only matter and the physical world was evil, but also that matter and the physical world was unimportant,” McKechnie said. “Therefore, it was unimportant what you or what your body did in the physical world.”
“It’s mostly about the world of the mind.”
Valentinians were also likely influenced by earlier Greek philosophers such as Plato, Snyder has found, though he doesn’t think they would have interpreted the story of the resurrection of Jesus in a literal way.
“It’s certainly not the case that they would have considered that to be a physical resurrection,” he said. “Christians of this particular variety (who incorporated Plato’s philosophy) generally speaking saw the material body as something not so desirable, not so good.”
Wow, what a healthy attitude. What I do with my body is not important, just what’s in my mind. I wonder how they taught their kids not to hit their siblings. “But, Dad, I was loving Julius in my mind. It’s not important what I do with my fists.” And don’t we wish all people could be flexible enough to violate their consciences like those cool Gnostics?
The last two paragraphs of the article drive home the spin:
Snyder said that the mix of Christian and pagan traditions in the inscription is striking. He told LiveScience that he’s studied early Christian paintings on the Via Latina that mix biblical themes, such as the story of Samson or the raising of Lazarus, along with figures from classical mythology, like that of Hercules.
“Those kinds of things I find particularly interesting, because they seem to suggest a period of time in which a Christian identity is flexible,” Snyder said. “Is it just a simple either/or between pagan and Christian?” he asked. “Or is there really something rather like a spectrum? Or are you really sort of both in certain respects?”
There’s probably a way in which Christian identity is flexible in any age. Being in the world and not of it, the reality that being made more Christlike is a process, the difficulty of establishing the right relationship between Christ and culture, and the pressure to conform to the world mean that Christians in any age will have difficulty untangling themselves from the sinful aspects of their culture. So in one sense, this kind of thing is not that surprising. This was a time where Irenaeus and other Christian leaders were contending for the correct understanding of these issues, resulting in creedal statements and the movement toward a canon of Scripture.
Secondly, good grief! The martyrs might have interested to hear that this was a period of flexible Christian identity. In fact, that’s really what the persecutors wanted them to adopt, wasn’t it? To be more flexible on issues of incense-burning and honoring the Roman gods?
Filed under: Early Church, Pre-Christian Ancient World | Tagged: ancient Rome, archaeology, Christ and culture, early Christianity, Gnosticism, Irenaeus, Larry Hurtado, martyrdom, Owen Jarus, Valentinus | 2 Comments »
Rousseau dedicated his Discourse on Inequality to his hometown of Geneva, praising its republican constitution. Part of his praise was for its age, since he believed that a newly-formed republic would have uncertainty about the fitness of the government for the citizens, and vice-versa. He goes on:
For freedom is like those solid and rich foods, or those hearty wines, which are suited to nourish and fortify robust constitutions who are used to them, but which overwhelm, ruin and intoxicate the weak and delicate who are unsuited for them. Once peoples are accustomed to masters they are no longer able to do without them. If they try to shake off the yoke, they move all the farther away from freedom because, mistaking it for an unbridled license which is its opposite, their revolutions almost always deliver them to seducers who make only make their chains heavier (29).
The quote is from Helena Rosenblatt’s translation. Rousseau’s Social Contract, of course, influenced the purveyors of Terror in the Revolution. It’s interesting that he also made a plausible case (at least to me) for what was at the Terror’s root. He cites Rome after the overthrow of the monarchy but before establishing what he considered a stable republic as a population unready for freedom.
Peter Leithart passed on J.W. Hewitt’s contrast between Christian and ancient pagan concepts of the Greek word charis. Greeks and Romans believed that people could relate to the gods in the same way that they did to other people, and thus worship of the gods meant that the gods would “make return for worship.”
On the other hand,
Christianity cannot accept “the thought of any obligation of god to man for services received.” He adds, “Do whatever you may in the way of service to God, you cannot earn his thanks, any more than the servant who serves his master at meat expects thanks therefor. With our best endeavors we are still unprofitable servants and we cannot earn charis from God, in the sense of gratitude or thanks. What we do receive from God is charis in quite another and quite opposite sense – grace, something unearned and unearnable.”
On Constitution Day, we celebrate the signing of our Constitution and we also reflect on and celebrate the system of government that the Constitution created. The Americans who set up this system of government were very conscious of their place in history, desiring to set up a system that could provide for both order and liberty in the new American nation. Trying to convince New Yorkers to approve the new Constitution, James Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 39 that it was necessary for the Constitution to set up a republican form of government. “It is evident,” he wrote, “that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination that animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” In other words, the Constitution had to reflect the principles that Americans had fought for against Great Britain not many years before the Constitutional Convention.
The men who framed the Constitution are, of course, a crucial part of our national history and certainly believed that the system of government that they set forth was part of a great experiment in whether people could govern themselves. But if we look to them as key players in our own history, where did they turn for their own historical examples? Thomas Jefferson believed that future American students must study British history and American history, but he also believed that ancient history had much to teach Americans. “History,” Jefferson said, “by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.” For the founders of our nation, the study of history had great importance, and it is on ancient history that I want to focus in these few minutes.
Historian Carl Richard, in The Founders and the Classics, details the influence of the writings of Greek and Roman historians that told of the ancient Greek city-states such as Athens and Sparta, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. Indeed, many of the founding fathers had read the works of Plutarch, Thucydides, Tacitus, and other ancient historians as they learned Greek and Latin before going to college. Richard illuminates many of lessons that the founders learned from reading ancient authors, and three of these lessons seemed particularly applicable for Constitution Day.
First, American patriots in the early part of our country’s history believed that liberty was always in danger, that people could easily lose their freedoms. They saw this in the examples of Greece and Rome, as they read about tyrants who manipulated the people for their own benefits rather than for the benefit of their respective countries. They saw Julius Caesar, for example, as a destroyer of the Roman Republic, a society without a king that had been governed virtuously by the nobles and the commoners of Rome before it was turned into the tyrannical Roman Empire. On the other hand, the founders sought to identify with those who had taken the side of liberty rather than tyranny. George Washington both consciously imitated and was praised for his similarity to Cincinnatus, the legendary Roman who was offered great power in a state of emergency, saved Rome, and then gladly gave up that power when the danger had passed, as Washington had at the end of the Revolution. Or take the authors of the Federalist Papers, who signed each section “Publius,” one of the founders of the Roman Republic after he had helped to remove the king.
The founders also believed that unity between the states was important. When they drafted the Constitution, the 13 states were only loosely united. The framers of the Constitution believed that “a more perfect Union” was necessary for, as they put it, “the common defence” and the overall strength and health of the nation. They often looked to the ancient Greeks who had fought each other rather than uniting, and earnestly hoped that the states who had recently fought Great Britain would not fight each other.
Finally, the framers believed in the idea of “mixed government.” Now, we’ve all felt that the government mixes things up from time to time, but mixed government is something different. The framers looked at ancient Rome and Sparta, among others, as examples of governments that had not just a king or a direct democracy, but rather balanced the perspectives of both the privileged and the common people. They believed that by creating a presidency chosen by electors and a Senate chosen by state legislatures they could provide the proper balance to a House of Representatives that was very much the representative of the people as a whole. For the framers, the stability and balancing of different groups’ interests that was present in Rome was far superior to the direct and unpredictable democracy in Athens.
As we remember our own history on Constitution Day, we can see that the framers also saw history as important and tried to learn from it. The Constitution gives us the protections to freely discuss and debate the great questions of the day. And so we may ask ourselves, how can we learn from history to preserve the great principles of liberty and justice that our system of government is based on? And how can we understand where our nation, including even our founders, have failed in those areas in order that we can more fully live up to our lofty goals?
Scholars have begun to think about the way that Jesus and Paul called the Roman Empire into question. I think that it was this Christian Century article from 2005 that turned me on to the trend. Peter Leithart’s article in First Things also explored the idea of Paul’s assertion of Christ’s triumph over earthly powers:
Paul taught Christians to expect a lot from the gospel, politically as well as personally. He taught that the crucifixion of Jesus had a direct impact on the powers-that-be. He told the Colossians that Jesus went to the cross as the firstborn—the only-begotten of the Father, the new Israel, the heir, the Passover sacrifice—to pacify the powers. The same Son who created the powers (Col. 1:16) has “made peace through the blood of His cross” by reconciling powers in heaven and earth to Himself (Col. 1:20).
Paul borrows from the propaganda of the Roman Empire to make his point. According to Roman imperial ideology, the emperor was a cosmic “peace-maker,” bringing to earth an image of heavenly peace. The apostle says, on the contrary, that God has his own peace-maker, another Lord who reconciles all things. As Paul says later in Colossians, Jesus renovates all things and unites Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, slave and free (Col. 3:10-11), extending his empire even to “barbarians” (Col. 3:10-11). (more…)
We’ve been covering the ancient Greeks in a couple of my classes this week, and it seems that understanding Greek culture sheds some light on the New Testament. Paul’s missionary work took him to the cities of the Roman Empire, many of which were in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
This area had been heavily influenced by Greek culture because of the conquest by Alexander the Great’s Macedonian and Greek army. The fact that the New Testament was written in the koine, the simple Greek that formed the common language in these areas, bears witness to the influence of Greek culture. The cities of this area were often populated by Greeks. Even when the Romans conquered these “Hellenistic” kingdoms, the Greek culture and language remained strong.
A few things about Greek culture that I’ve learned that seem especially germane to the New Testament:
- Greek morality was best defined by concept of moderation, as you may know. This meant that, for men, drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex (heterosexual or homosexual) were all permissible as long as one didn’t get carried away and become a creature of pleasure who was consumed by these things. You can see why Paul had to write a lot about sexual morality to his readers. He was preaching a very different approach to morality, one of avoiding immoral actions completely rather than simply managing pleasures.
- Women were thought to be a punishment on men for gaining the gift of fire from Prometheus. (Of course, Prometheus got chained to a rock and had his liver eaten out each day by a huge bird. The liver grew back and the next day the bird would repeat the process. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that men got the better end of the deal.) This is very different from the Genesis teaching of women as perfect partners for men. Although Pandora opening of the box of evils might be compared to Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit, the difference is pretty clear in that the Bible confers dignity on women from the beginning, while the Greek myth portrays them as a punishment from the beginning. For Christians on the other hand, women were the spiritual equals of men, as noted in Paul’s statement “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” I have read that women in the Greco-Roman world were attracted to the increased autonomy that they had in the Christian community.
- According to Simon Price’s Religions of the Ancient Greeks, the common denominator among the various Greek schools of philosophy was that they rejected the myths’ views of the gods as immoral. You may recall from reading Greek mythology that Zeus was constantly on the lookout for women, spirits, and goddesses that he could seduce. Greek philosophers, like the Stoics and Epicureans mentioned in Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17, believed that the divine had to be more dignified that this. It’s my understanding that one reason that God-fearers like Cornelius were attracted to Judaism was because of the morality that Jews identified with God. I wonder if philosophers might have been among them.
Another good source on Greek culture is James Davidson’s Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens. This book and Price’s book were my main sources for this post.