Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reading Challenge #13: 1-3 John.

1-3 johnOne of my initial summer goals was to read the entire New Testament in Greek using Dan Wallace’s suggested reading chart.  Once summer started, reality got in the way!  So this might be a side project for the next few years.  Oops.

Still, what better place to start than with some of the shortest, linguistically simplest texts in the New Testament: the Johannine letters?

J. Klay Harrison and Chad M. Foster’s reader, 1-3 John: A General Reader, makes it easier to do that.  They include the text of 1-3 John with running vocabulary and grammatical helps.  They also include appendices on text-criticism of 1-3 John, vocabulary 50 or more times sorted by frequency and alphabetically, and paradigm charts.  This reader is part of a series of books in Koine Greek education, AGROS, which aim to teach conversational Koine as well as textual and exegetical Koine.  The series is a work in progress, and this was my first encounter with it.

If this book is any indication, AGROS is going to produce some useful texts.  I really enjoyed using it!  First, its choice of texts is good for a beginner.  1-3 John covers some heady theological content, yet its vocabulary is very small and its sentences very simple.  Plus, the letters are short.  So an intermediate reader of Greek can easily read them and feel the satisfaction of finishing three books of the New Testament.  Harrison and Foster have done a superb job of parsing each verb and giving definitions of new words.  Before each chapter, they place a list of new vocabulary, so if the reader wants to make flash cards they can.

brownHowever, there are a few ways this book could be better.  First, I wish there was more exegetical help to make sense of what the Greek means.  This book only helps with the linguistic aspect of the text.  I used Raymond Brown’s The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary as a companion volume for the exegetical help and historical/literary background.  Second, I didn’t care too much for the text-critical helps in this reader.  As far as I know, most intermediate Greek classes don’t spend time on textual criticism, so why did Harrison and Foster put so much of that in?  Still, they put the text-critical notes in an appendix at the end, so if you don’t want to use it, it’s easy to ignore.  Third, there are some places that it would have been nice to have help with idioms.  In 3 John 5, for example, the Greek text reads:

Ἀγαπητέ, πιστὸν ποιεῖς

The NAB in Brown’s commentary renders this “Beloved, you are faithful,” and the NRSV, “Beloved, you do faithfully.”  So there’s an idiom here with ποιεῖς I was not familiar with.  Oversights like this are uncommon and easy to correct.

What about the letters themselves?  After all, this reading challenge is focused on Scripture itself, not just reviewing teaching aids.

  1. Raymond Brown argues that these letters were written by the Johannine school, perhaps by the same author who wrote the Gospel of John.  He puts their composition between 90-100 CE, so toward the later end of New Testament texts.  We see the same strong moral/spiritual dualism in these letters that we see in John, e.g. in 1 John 3:8-9.
  2. The main purpose of the letters seems to be addressing a schismatic group within the Johannine community, warning the community not to follow those teachers.  Brown comments that perhaps this is an early form of the docetic or gnostic teaching, both ways of denying Christ’s humanity, a denial not too implausible if one reads John’s Gospel very selectively.  For example, the author emphasizes the importance of observing one’s behavior to see if they are living a godly life (1 John 2:3-6) and discerning where the Spirit is at work (1 John 4:1).  He seems to imply that these false teachers neither live according to the commandments nor have the Spirit at work among them.

For me, these weren’t the most interesting books of Scripture.  And it is painfully obvious by now that I’m not going to finish my summer reading challenge, I am definitely keeping it on tap for next summer.  One way or another, I will read these books.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #12: Gospel of Luke.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. This is part of the New Collegeville Bible Commentary, published by the Liturgical Press out of Saint John’s (Benedictine) Abbey in Collegeville, MN.  Patella is a Benedictine monk and New Testament professor at Saint John’s University.  This series provides very brief commentary on the English text, useful for parish study groups or general readers looking for basic exegesis. Here I have a few thoughts on Luke and a few thoughts on the commentary.

518PDEsGUNL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_One of the difficulties of studying the Bible is that everything looks so familiar. It’s hard to step back and really read the text, really notice something new, because we think we know it so well already. This is especially an issue with the gospels. I’ve read Luke a few times now, and my New Testament Greek class last spring spent the entire quarter reading it in Greek. Still, a few things surprised me.

  1. The stereotype of Luke is that he is the likeable gospel, the one that is most open to women and Gentiles, most interested in the poor. Supposedly, he is more readable than Mark, less eschatological than Matthew, and less cosmic than John. So one thing that really surprised me and sunk in for me this time reading Luke was just how often Jesus encounters demons, evil spirits, and Satan himself, from the temptation in the desert (4:1-13) to various cures of people infested with demons (4:31-37, 8:26-39, 9:35-50), to Satan himself pushing Judas to betray Jesus (22:1-6). Jesus is so good at dealing with demons that at one point, people accuse him of being one (11:14-23). Whether or not one believes that demons and evil spirits exist outside our imaginations, it is a commonly accepted fact that in the ancient world people ascribed many things to supernatural forces which we would give medical diagnoses to today. These many mentions of demons remind me that this is indeed a first-century text, not written with modern ideas of mental illness in mind.
  2. In his introduction, Patella lists reversal as a main theme of Luke’s gospel. Luke often shows reversals of power or privilege taking place in Jesus’ ministry, or has Jesus speaking about future reversals. For example, the centurion comes to Jesus to have his daughter healed, upsetting the colonizing relationship this man has over Judean peasants (7:1-10). Jesus gives his famous “suffer unto me the children” line, reversing his disciples’ devaluation of the child. And many of his teachings describe reversals, whether in the sermon on the mount (6:20-49), the “first shall be last” speech (13:22-30), or him telling his disciples that the first among them is servant of all (22:24-30). To me, these reversals are all part of the kingdom ethics, meant to be lived out in the here and now. This time around reading Luke, I saw this theme more than in the past.

I liked Patella’s commentary. At 158 pages, he gives neither too little nor too much. Most of it is exegetical, but he also gives cultural background in Greek and Palestinian daily life and customs, nuances of the Greek, and comparisons to the other synoptics. At the end of the book he includes questions for reflection appropriate to a bible study. For someone wanting to read Luke with some basic commentary, from a Roman Catholic but mainly from a historical-critical-literary perspective, this is a useful book in a useful series.

Also, an added bonus: the cover (seen above) features the “Parables Anthology” from the Gospel of Luke in the Saint John’s Bible.  Starting from the upper left and moving to the lower right, this illumination depicts the parables of the lost coin (15:8-10), the lost sheep (15:4-7), the good Samaritan (10:29-37), the prodigal son (15:11-32), Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31), and Mary and Martha (10:38-42).   This illumination is a powerful meditation on forgiveness — below is a (not very good, sorry) image of it.luke

Reading Challenge #11: Song of Songs: A New Translation.

Part of my summer reading challenge is to read as much of the Bible in English as I can.  I’m trying to diversify my intake by reading different translations and different commentaries.  So recently I read Ariel and Chana Blach’s translation of Song of Songs.  I really enjoyed it.

blochThis edition has a lot to offer: a 42-page introduction that illuminated the text, an afterword by Robert Alter, an 88-page commentary, and a translation with the Hebrew text on the facing page.  I didn’t check the Hebrew that much — Song of Songs is known for its difficult language — but the English flowed really well.

The Song of Songs itself is an erotic love poem, an obvious anomaly in the Hebrew Bible.  Both Christian and Jewish interpreters (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, Rabbi Akiba) have allegorized it as a spiritual poem about God and Israel/Church/humanity.  Its literary format is that of a dialogue between two young lovers and a few other figures, called in this translation the “brothers” and the “daughters of Jerusalem.”  According to the Blochs, it was most likely written during the Hellenistic era:

It is clear that much of the Song is anomalous in the biblical context, and calls for explanation: the concern with the private life as opposed to the public and communal, the frank interest in sexual experience, the idealization of pastoral innocence, the aesthetic appreciation of the human body.  All of this would suggest that the Song was composed in a Hellenized atmosphere. (27)


Apart from the specifics of the Blochs’ translation, what did I get out of this text?

  1. The Blochs claim that the Song of Songs is the only book in the Bible which celebrates eros for its own sake.  Other books describe the importance of a strong marriage (Proverbs), or the trouble that lust gets people into (Jacob), or even the joys of marriage (Ecclesiastes).  But I don’t see any hint that the protagonists of Song of Songs are even married at all.  The fact that she orders him to leave before dawn (e.g. 2:17) points to the possibility that their love is illicit.  Yet in this forbidden fruit the protagonists find a kind of divine intimacy.  As the Blochs write:

    The Eden story preserves a memory of wholeness and abundance from the beginning of time; the prophets look forward to a peaceable kingdom at the End of Days.  The Song of Songs locates that kingdom in human love, in the habitable present, and for the space of our attention, allows us to enter it. (35)

  2. Although it’s pretty obvious this poem is about sex, the Biblical Hebrew always uses euphemisms for sex itself, such as using “feet” to refer to a penis.  Here the pleasures of the flesh are symbolized by the fertile garden imagery throughout the poem.  As an example of these fruitful metaphors:

    Your branches are an orchard
    of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit,
    flowering henna and spikenard,
    spikenard and saffron, cane and cinnamon,
    with every tree of frankincense,
    myrrh and aloe,
    all the rare spices. (4:13-14)

    These metaphors pile up on one another until both the man’s and the woman’s body contain all the pleasing sights and smells of every plant in the garden.  In the afterward, Robert Alter writes:

    In more explicit erotic literature, the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world.  In the Song, by contrast, the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body.  The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of good afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed. (130)

    Personally, I don’t have much interest in the allegories that make this poem a spiritual allegory, because then we miss all these wonderful affirmations of the world.  But all of these metaphors and symbols used in the poem lead to the third point….

  3. The Song of Songs is a perfect example of how difficult it is to read ancient literature, because so many of its metaphors are lost on a contemporary audience.  Take 1:13-14:

    All night between my breasts
    my love is a cluster of myrrh,
    a sheaf of henna blossoms
    in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.

    I don’t know about you, but I have never seen myrrh or the vineyards of Ein Gedi.  The only henna I have seen are tattoos, not blossoms.  But even if I had seen these plants, would I really understand their metaphorical qualities invoked here?  Not really.  For much of the Song of Songs then, I appreciated the beauty of the language, and the broad fertility implications of the floral imagery, but I am just not able to grasp all of the metaphors.

I really enjoyed this translation.  Right now I’m working through Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke.  Onward and upward!


Book Review: two books on Orphic texts.

In Greek myth, Orpheus is most well-known for his failed quest to retrieve his lover Eurydike from Hades.  But there was also a cult focused around him in antiquity, a sect of the Bacchic cults which focused especially on ritual purity and the afterlife.  Orphism dates back to the 6th century BCE, though most of our evidence for it comes from the Common Era.  Hence, like many aspects of the ancient world, our knowledge of Orphism is rather sketchy!

Orphism had a unique cosmology in which Dionysus was king of the gods (not Zeus!) and the world was born from an egg. We know very little about Orphism, and some argue that it was not really a cult but only a literary tradition. What we do know is scattered in classical authors (especially Plato), Neoplatonists from the 3rd century onwards, and three collections of texts found from antiquity: a collection of 3rd-century CE hymns from Pergamum, a collection of golden funerary tablets from the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE, and a fragmentary papyrus containing an allegorical-cosmological commentary on an Orphic poem (now lost) from 330 BCE. So we really don’t have much.

Scholars and religious apologists (both pro- and anti-religion alike) frequently debate the similarity of Orphic and Bacchic cult to early Christianity.  I won’t try to oversimplify that debate here, though IMHO both sides make good points.  But Orphism is important for the study of early Christianity because it had a relatively elevated view of hieroi logoi, or “sacred words.”  Orphism claimed that its texts were sacred, and invested in them a certain amount of authority because they came from the mouth and lyre of Orpheus himself.  This does not mean Orphism was a textualized religion like the Abrahamic faiths.  I have seen no indication of a closed canon of Orphic texts.  But in investing their texts with more authority, by deeming them sacred and referring to them to justify their beliefs and practices, Orphism provided a pagan precedent for early Christianity’s introduction of the concept of sacred canon to the Greco-Roman world.

Here I review two key works on ancient Orphism.  These were really useful, but also really interesting in and of themselves.  I’d recommend them for New Testament students.

I.  The Orphic Hymns: Translation, Introduction, and Notes by Apostolos Athanassakis

Orphic hymnsThis book is a collection of Orphic hymns to various Olympian gods, personified natural forces, and of course Dionysus himself. The hymns date to the 2nd-3rd century CE, though their oral tradition may extend much farther back, perhaps even to the 6th century BCE when Orphism first emerged.

This book is hard to review because it really is the best of its kind. Athanassakis is a well-known translator of Greek literature (he rendered the Homeric Hymns as well), and this is a revision of a work he first published in 1977. The hymns take up only 66 pages, but the notes take up 152. The notes are helpful, because they explain various references in the hymns, particularly to Orphic myth and cosmology. However, the notes do not give any philological guidance, so the student of Greek might want to look elsewhere. The translation is superb, and Athanassakis’ introduction had some really interesting points about religious epithets and the religious experience of chanting various epithets and names of God.

My only complaint about this book is the brevity of its overview of the hymns themselves. I wish Athanassakis had spent more time introducing them as a whole and discussing various aspects of them. It would be far too tedious to read the notes on every hymns.  I was hoping for something like what Graf and Johnston do in the book below, with chapters devoted to different theories about the text itself.

II.  Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets by Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston

GrafAs I mentioned above, one of our major sources of evidence for ancient Orphism is a series of tablets found in tombs in Greece and Italy.  These tablets are made of gold, and their writings are divided into two types.  Some tablets have just the names of the initiates on them, while others have instructions for what to do in Hades to have a good rebirth.  (Orphism held to the tenet of reincarnation.)  In this way, these tablets are like a very, very short version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, also written for disciples to attain a good rebirth.

Here Graf and Johnston provide a critical edition of the tablets, with both the Greek texts and the English translation; they have a map of where each one was found; they include six chapters of research on various aspects of the tablets; and they have four appendices on other funerary tablet finds and Bacchic texts.  So this is a really, really useful text, one I am going to hold on to.

A chapter by chapter summary:

  1. Chapter one contains the Greek and English of all 38 tablets. 
  2. Chapter two gives a brief history of scholarship, including the debate between “minimalist” and “maximalist” approaches to how much we can know about Orphism.  An interesting point here is how much scholarship on Orphism was influenced by contemporary culture wars over just how much early Christianity borrowed from paganism.
  3. Chapter three, “The Myth of Dionysus,” was for me the most interesting in the whole book.  Here Johnston posits that Orphic myth was an intentionally created system.  From here she explores how Orphic myth made itself distinctive enough to be the basis of a new cult, yet also plausible enough in the general framework of Greek myth to attract converts, while still retaining a connection between Orphic myth and Orphic ritual.   For example, Orphics believes that Dionysus was the lead god in Greek myth.  This was plausible to an average Greek: just as Zeus took Kronos’ position as king of the gods, so Zeus’ position could be given to another.  But the belief in Dionysus’ supremacy was obviously distinctive, and clearly was the basis of Orphic focus on worship of Dionysus.  (That said, the Orphic hymns demonstrate that Orphic followers worshipped all the gods, just that Dionysus had a special place in worship.)
  4. Chapter four, “The Eschatology Behind the Tablets,” explored the postmortem geography of the underworld.  The tablets indicate that the initiate will enter Hades thirsty, but must bypass the first river, speak to the guards of Hades, and drink from the river of memory.  This will allow a good rebirth in which the initiate will remember some of their knowledge from the previous life.  There seem to be three options for the newly dead: for the wicked, punishment followed by a bad rebirth; for the good, a good rebirth with all knowledge forgotten; for the good who has been initiated in the Orphic cult, a good rebirth or joining the gods and heroes in the afterlife.  Wow.
  5. Chapter five, “Dionysiac Mystery Cults,” tries to place the tablets in the context of our scant knowledge of Dionysiac cult practice.  Essentially, what were these tablets for?  We don’t really know.  Graf argues that the tablets were a part of the initiation rites into Orphism, and were later placed in the graves of initiates after they died.  However we have no record of rituals in which these tablets were created, let alone explanations of why and when they were.
  6. Chapter six, “Orpheus, His Poetry, and Sacred Texts,” explores the identity of Orpheus and the nature of the hieroi logoi of Orphic religion.  Graf and Johnston look at different ancient sources on Orpheus as Argonaut, foreigner, singer, magician, initiator, and lover of Eurydike.  They then look at the debate over how textualized Orphic religion was.  They argue that when Orphic texts are referred to as heiroi logoi, this does not mark them as “scripture” the way we use the word.  Instead, these were myths and explanations of rituals, and were divided into two categories of public texts and private, insider texts.  In other words, the “sacred words” of Orphism referred more to Orphism’s specific texts, but that didn’t mean there was a closed canon or a theology of revelation attached to those texts.

I didn’t read any of the appendices, but even without those this was a really interesting book!  While Guthrie’s book mainly tried to establish the facts of Orphism, Graf and Johnston ask more speculative and interesting questions and give insightful answers.  I would really recommend this book to anyone interested in Greek religion, especially in mystery cults or practices surrounding the afterlife.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #10: Homer’s Odyssey.

After reading Homer’s Iliad, Hesiod, and the Homeric Hymns, I am finally rounding out my reading of Archaic Greek poetry.  And just in time: wedding planning is rapidly taking over my summer!  This was my third reading of Homer’s Odyssey, and my first with Robert Fitzgerald’s translation.  I like his balance between Lattimore’s highly structured language and Fagles’ looser, more dynamic rendering.

odyssey coverThe Odyssey provides the counterpoint to the Iliad: after the Trojan War is over, Odysseus, one of the Achaean generals, spends ten years trying to return home.  He gets lost in various detours with non- and semi-human creatures: witches, nymphs, goddesses, cannibals, a cyclops, and more!  When he comes home, all of his men are dead, and he must slaughter all of the suitors vying for his wife before he can reclaim his home and reign once more as ruler of Ithaka.

I had always thought of the two epics as opposites: an epic of war versus an epic of peace, an epic of pessimistic fatalism versus an epic of returning home to bliss, an epic of armies versus an epic of one man.  But in many ways, the Iliad and the Odyssey are parallel to one another.

  1. One major theme of the Iliad is what happens when civilization breaks down in the frenzies of war.  The Odyssey reflects this too, as Odysseus encounters uncivilized, barbarian men in strange lands.  Odysseus has to use both his brawns and his wits (as well as Athena’s help) to get out of the messy situations he is in, situations in which his adversaries do not respect the laws of civilized humans.  For example, he and his men are too weak to defeat Polyphemus and escape his cave, but Odysseus uses his wits to find a way out.  This is in contrast to the Trojan War, where brawns are more important than brains.  Humans may prevail against one another in strength, but not against giant one-eyed monsters.  For that they need wits.
  2. One of the themes of the Iliad was honor: who has it?  who has the most?  We saw Achilles sitting at the beach, not fighting because he felt his honor had been insulted by Agamemnon.  Was Achilles so honorable that nobody should insult him (that’s what he thought) or was he dishonorable because he was not fighting (what Agamemnon thought)?  Homer seems to be pointing to the fact that honor is just a social construction that people can disagree on.  The same happens in the Odyssey, in which the multitude of suitors think of themselves as the greatest men in Ithaka.  Obviously Odysseus thinks otherwise.  To him, even the lowly swineherd Eumaios has more honor than the suitors.
  3. In both epics, Homer offers a bleak vision of the afterlife.  In book 11, Homer visits the underworld to speak to the prophet Teiresias.  There he also speaks to his mom, Achilles, and Agamemnon, among others.  This seems to validate Achilles’ point in the Iliad: everyone dies, and great heroes get no better afterlife than wimpy cowards.  Greek religion varied in its views on the afterlife, and Homer’s gloomy vision of post-death existence contrasts sharply with the glorious afterlife promised in Orphism and some other devotional cults.

I know many classicists argue that the Iliad is a better work of art, but I personally like the Odyssey a lot more.  After reading it for the third time I can say it merits a fourth.

One last thing — this oral performance by Richard Dyer-Bennett helps me linger on the words of the epic as I should.  It’s amazing.  If only he recorded the whole thing.

Book Review: The New Perspective on Paul, Kent Yinger.

I read Yinger’s 103-page book on the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP) in 2 hours.  It was worth my time.  In this book, Yinger details both the main arguments and the history of the NPP, and directs his readers to further reading should they wish to study the issue themselves.  He is himself pro-NPP, but tries to give an impartial survey of the debate for laypeople and pastors.  But this book was helpful for this graduate student too!

YingerAfter introducing the topic and approach of the book, Yinger examines the 1977 publication of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which laid the groundwork for the NPP.  Sanders was dissatisfied with stereotypical views of first-century Judaism commonly held in the scholarly community: that Jews believed practice of the law and good works could lead to salvation, that this law was a heavy burden which nobody could uphold.  Sanders instead set forth his view of “covenantal nomism,” a common system of practice and theology in first-century Judaism.  Covenantal nomism holds that God and humans are in a covenantal relationship, a relationship in which humans are obligated to God but God also leaves room for God’s grace anbd forgiveness.  Sanders cited texts from the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls showing the individual Jews’ relationship with God as dependent, vulnerable, and loving, rather than merely fearful of a wrathful and unforgiving God.  Sanders laid the foundation for biblical scholars to question the traditional Reformation reading of Paul as an author speaking of salvation through grace apart from works.  He questioned the reading of Judaism as a religion of oppressive legalism.

Chapter three describes James D. G. Dunn’s work in building on Sanders to truly initiate the NPP.  Dunn sought to read Paul in continuity with first-century Judaism and covenantal nomism, rather than opposed to it.  Dunn read Paul’s writings about “works of the law” as not referring to doing good deeds (“works righteousness”) but as referring to specific practices expressing Jewish identity, such as circumcision and keeping kosher.  Hence, Paul was not saying one didn’t have to do good works to be saved, only that specific Jewish cultic practices were not necessary.  The question becomes not “How may I be saved?” but “Who belongs to the company of the righteous?”

Chapter four details other NPP advocates who set forth their own perspectives.  N.T. Wright asks what the problem was that Paul saw Jesus as saving Jews from.  (You know those bumper stickers that say “Jesus is the answer”?  Well, Wright is asking: “What is the question?”)  For Wright, this problem was Jews’ disinheritance of the land, their exile and colonization under the Romans.  Jesus as Messiah reconciled God to Israel for Israel’s sins leading to their political plight.  Other NPP advocates, such as Francis Watson, argue that Paul was more interested in theological legitimation for his Christ-following communities than in working out a systematic soteriology.  Heikki Raisanen argues that we should not try to impose theological coherence on Paul’s occasional letters in the first place.  Paul was interested more in social location and identity than coherent theology.  Other scholars argue that in Paul’s view, the new Christian mode of relating to God did not rule out the Jews’ special place in their covenant, but opened a different covenant to the Gentiles.  Yinger stresses in this chapter that NPP advocates differ greatly amongst themselves.

Chapters five, six, and seven detail the historical, exegetical, and theological-ministerial critiques of NPP.  Historians and biblical scholars take issue with covenantal nomism, saying we should not rule out the possibility that some Jewish groups had fallen into crass legalism.  Exegetes point to passages in Paul that seem to refute the NPP, such as his insistence that he had been a sinner burdened under the law (1 Tim 1:15, Romans 7:15, 18-19).  NPP readings of these texts can seem to flaunt common sense, but at the same time, Paul’s writing can be so rhetorical and opaque that it’s hard to figure out what he is doing.  The chapter on theology and ministry was the most tedious for me.  Yinger details Reformed thinkers who eschew the NPP because it runs counter to Luther’s reading of Paul.  However, most NPP scholars are not concerned with contemporary sectual debates, but with Paul’s thought.  As Yinger says, “trying to get Paul to answer a question he wasn’t asking always produces discomfort for biblical scholars, and usually unsatisfying results for theologians” (86).

Chapter eight, “Let’s Hear it for the NPP,” details several positive effects this new scholarship has led to: a better grasp on Paul’s letters, avoiding modern Western individualist readings of Paul, moving away from stereotyped and insulting depictions of Judaism, drawing more continuity between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, bringing Paul and Jesus together, and bringing Protestants and Catholics together.  Even the critics of NPP scholarship can reap some of these benefits!

Yinger’s book ends with two afterwards, by Donald A. Hagner and Don Garlington.  Hagner critiques the NPP for passing over the uniqueness of early Christianity.  Garlington suggests three areas of future research on the NPP.  Yinger ends with an annotated bibliography of pro- and anti-NPP works for the reader to evaluate the debate for themselves.

Of all the areas of the Bible, I’ve probably had the least exposure to Paul, so this book was very helpful for me to get a handle on some of the current debates.  I’ll most likely be taking a class on Pauline literature this fall, so it’s good to have a head start!  I especially appreciated how charitably Yinger summarized the perspectives of the scholars he disagreed with.  Apparently I’m not the only one who likes it: blogger Chris McElmurray writes, “this slim volume is now THE entry point into the discussion and is one-stop shopping for those who want to apprise themselves of the pro and the con in a quick read.”

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #9: Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.

Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished (most of) Molly Whittaker’s sourcebook, Jews and Christians: Graeco-Roman Views.  This anthology, part of the 1980s Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World: 200 BC to AD 200, is designed to give readers a foundation in Greco-Roman religious culture and Greco-Roman views of Jews and Christians.  Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts: “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and “The Pagan Background.”  Whittaker excerpts many different authors and provides running commentary, so this book can be read as more of a continuous narrative than just a collection of unrelated fragments.

whittakerSince I’ve already gotten enough of the “pagan background” sources from The Ancient Mysteries and Arcana MundiI skipped that section and only read the sections on Judaism and Christianity.  There was a lot of interesting stuff!  Whittaker mines Roman poets, satirists, and historians, as well as Jewish apologists responding to anti-Jewish sentiment, to unveil what the pagan Romans thought of the Jews.  Some particularly strange, insulting, and/or just plain ignorant views:

  1. Jews don’t eat pigs because they consider them sacred. (Petronius’ Satyricon)
  2. The Jews were expelled from Egypt because of their impurity.
  3. Moses was an Egyptian priest and magician. (Strabo, Apuleius, Juvenal)
  4. The “holy of holies” in the most sacred part of the Jewish temple was actually an ass’ head. (Apion, whose writings are only known via Josephus’ treatise against him)
  5. Jews practice human sacrifice and cannibalism.  (This one sadly persisted in Christianity; we see it in Chaucer.) (Apion again!)
  6. Jews were actually a Dionysiac cult. (Plutarch)
  7. The Sabbath was just an excuse for idle laziness.

In some of these we see some inkling of truth: yes, Moses was a religious figure, and yes, the Jews do trace their origins to Egypt.  Jews do refrain from eating pigs, though not because they worship them.  They do keep a Sabbath.  But these truths are filtered through a strong filter of prejudice, ignorance, and xenophobia.  Jews in Roman times did have special license to practice their religion and not worship the emperor, but at times this privilege was taken away at the whim of an emperor or a governor.  Many Romans classified Judaism as “superstition” rather than true religion.

At the same time, some pagans of a more philosophical bent admired the Jews’ iconoclasm.  Whittaker includes several excerpts describing the Jewish practice of proselytization.  Pagans did convert to Judaism, or at least adopt its tenets without undergoing circumcision.  (Understandable!)  As with colonizers today, the Romans did not uniformly hate the Jews and their religion, but neither did they admire them.  But even their admirers, I suspect, always saw them as a foreign and somewhat suspect, just like many of the other “Oriental” or “Eastern” religions adopted by Greeks and Romans such as Mithraism and the cult of Isis and Osiris.

In the section on Christians, Whittaker provides examples of many similarly strange views about Christians.  She includes excerpts from the New Testament, pagan writings, and non-biblical early Christian literature to demonstrate the range of pagan attitudes towards Christians.  We see the same Roman suspicion of any group that fails to conform, and their belief in the danger of any group that does not worship the emperor as divine.  

Yet persecution of Christians was not systematic, but occasional, as we see in Pliny’s letters to Trajan toward the end of the first century AD.  Pliny, a regional governor in Bithynia, wrote to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on what to do with Christians.  He had so little idea of the content of the religion that he had to torture some Christians to find out their beliefs.  Not until later centuries do we see an intentional, systematic effort to wipe out Christians.

The most interesting texts to me in this section were the martyr acts which purported to provide transcriptions of interrogations of Christians by Roman officials, such as the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Acts of Justin and The Companions.  We see officials seeming to be merciful, giving Christians the opportunity to recant their alleged impiety, or asking them to return in a week to give them time to change their minds.  Whittaker believes that these are accurate depictions of interrogations (178).  I’m less sure, but if they are even close, that is really cool.

I’m so-so on the book itself.  On the plus side, Whittaker has collected a lot of different sources, and I learned a lot even from tiny little fragments of many different thinkers.  This book makes a good complement to Robert Louis Wilken’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.   She also has some nice maps and a chronology of writers in the back.  She introduces each author, so one does not need to know much about classical literature to use this volume.

However, her organization was confusing.  The Christianity section was organized by the type of source and by author.  That made sense.  But she organized the Jewish section thematically: Sabbath, Moses, Food Laws, Circumcision, etc.  The writings themselves were not so easily organized.  She often had to repeat the same excerpt in multiple sections, which got confusing.  It would have made more sense to organize the excerpts by author.

Also, the third section just seemed superfluous.  There are many other books that introduce Greco-Roman religions and provide source texts on them.  A brief glance at this section looked promising though.  I just would have preferred she stick to the first two sections — that is the title of the book, after all.

Still, this anthology is useful for its conciseness and commentary.  Biblioblogger Michael F. Bird mentions pagan attitudes towards Jews as one of the essential areas a New Testament graduate student should read up on.  Unlike Menaham Stern’s Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, Whittaker’s anthology is not three volumes, but only about 200 pages on the Jewish and Christian material.  I would recommend this book to students of the New Testament.

Later this week I hope to finish Homer’s Odyssey and begin Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.  Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #8: Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds

When I first started this collection of ancient sources on various occult and supernatural practices in Greco-Roman antiquity, I had high hopes.  After a classics education focusing more on literary-mythological texts than lived religious experience, I was hoping to get a taste of how ordinary people practiced Greco-Roman polytheism.  Luck’s book collects various literary sources describing religious practices, classifying them by chapters on magic, miracles, daemonology, divination, astrology, and alchemy.  Chronologically, he has everything from Hesiod to early Christian authors.  In terms of genre, he has epic, tragedy, satire, epistles, and philosophers.

779822What did I get out of this collection?

  1. Religion and science were not really separate institutions in antiquity.  It’s not hard to see why: in part they come from the same root, a desire to understand and control the workings of the universe.  Even today, astrology is a complex body of knowledge, with many rules governing how to formulate and interpret readings.  The best example of this in Luck’s collection are the various readings on Apollonius of Tyana, a first-century philosopher and miracle worker who was accused of dangerous practices.  In his defense speech, Apollonius claims that he is merely the practitioner of a more complex and subtle science than his accusers can understand.  This encapsulates how intertwined magic and science were among the Greeks and Romans (and, I would argue, in our culture too).  And given the Stoic and Neo-Platonic interest in astrology, philosophy too was intertwined with magic and religion!
  2. Genre is key in interpreting texts on religion.  Each source has a bias that leaves certain data out.  When Homer describes a religious practice, there is a certain wide-eyed acceptance of it.  Lucian describing the same practice is just blatantly making fun of it.  One philosopher might be arguing for the truthfulness of divination (e.g. Iamblichus) while another might be critiquing it (e.g. Cicero).  Most Greeks were somewhere in between; like us, they were skeptics, and did not trust every rumored divination or supposed miracle.  Just as there is no “correct” or “best” source on Greco-Roman mythology, there is no “correct” or “best” source on ancient religious practices.
  3. Early Christians had many similar varieties of religious experience.  When discussing divination, Luck includes 1 Corinthians 14:1-33, in which Paul discusses speaking in tongues.  Luck comments:

    The Jews had inherited the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke in a highly poetic but quite understandable idiom.  The Greeks were accustomed to highly ecstatic outpourings that had to be translated into intelligible Greek by trained interpreters.  Paul seems to try to reconcile both traditions. (284)

    I don’t know enough about this section of Paul or about glossolalia in the early church to comment on Luck’s argument.  But it is damned thought-provoking.  Luck helps the reader see that the religious experiences reported in early Christianity sometimes had Greco-Roman precedents.

Overall, however, this book has one major flaw.  I was hoping to find some of the more lived, everyday practice of Greco-Roman religion: curse tablets, magical papyri, amulets, etc.  Luck barely includes any of these sources; one review points out that he only includes 23 nonliterary sources in his 122 anthologized writings.

In sum, I wouldn’t say that Luck’s book is bad.  For what it is, it is very good.  But it should be supplemented by something like The Greek Magical Papyri as well, which is recommended by Michael F. Bird in his list of sources New Testament graduate students should master.

Onward and upward!

Reading Challenge #7: The Ancient Mysteries, ed. Marvin Meyer

Now that finals are over and I’ve graduated with my BA (yay!), I’ve been reading two sourcebooks on lived religion in the Greco-Roman world: Marvin Meyer’s The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts, and George Luck’s Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds.  I’ve just finished Meyer’s collection and it is great.  He has assembled 39 texts, ranging in time from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Clement of Alexandria.  He organizes the sources into chapters by cult.  Obviously, he includes sources on major mystery cults such as Demeter at Eleusis, the cult of Dionysus, the Anatolian Cybele, the Persian-turned-Roman Mithras, and the Greek-Egyptian syncretism of Isis and Osiris.  But he also includes chapters on the Andanian mysteries of Messenia and the mysteries within Judaism and Christianity.

meyerMeyer defines a mystery religion as

a secret religious group composed of individuals who decided, through personal choice, to be initiated into the profound realities of one deity or another. (4)

Studying mystery religions is a useful window into peoples’ religious needs in the Greco-Roman world, the world from which Christianity emerged.  What did I learn about that world from this book?

  1. People joined new religious movements for a variety of reasons.  Too often we assume people were seized with deep spiritual longings, because this is often how we conceptualize religious conversion.  But Meyer makes it clear that people have many human reasons as well.  Mystery religions offered a close-knit community for people who wanted social bonds.  For socially marginalized people — foreigners, slaves, women — the mysteries were sometimes an egalitarian space, as Livy says about women in the Bacchic cults.  For some, their elaborate rituals may have aesthetically pleasing, even theatrical.
  2. The rise of mystery cults did not mean that traditional polytheism had failed.  Mystery religions were not replacements for the traditional civic cults of Greece and Rome.  They supplemented those cults, likely because they satisfied human needs that the traditional cults did not.  For example, many of them focused strongly on a good afterlife, which was not as much of a major focus in traditional Greek religion.  But because of their secretive and voluntary nature, these cults could not unify a city or an empire.  So the civic cults and the mystery cults worked in tandem.  This is important to remember for scholars of early Christianity.  It is too easy to assume that Christianity’s success was due to polytheism’s failure to satisfy peoples’ needs and questions.  But this is simply not the case.
  3. Mystery cults borrowed from many other religions.  The readings in Meyer’s book show Isis conflated with Demeter and Osiris with Dionysus; an ancient Mithraic liturgy in which participants chant the name YHWH; and Orphic Dionysiac hymns drawing on gods from all over the Eastern Mediterranean.  Many ancient religions were syncretistic.  After all, if one god is good, why not get multiple gods to help you?  Mystery cults focused on one god (or sometimes, a pair of gods), but their devotees did not ignore the other gods.  That’s just dangerous.  Monotheism is dangerous.
  4. Mystery cults were at times persecuted and viewed with suspicion.  Meyer includes here writings critical of the mysteries, such as Livy’s report of the Roman suppression of Bacchic worship and Josephus’ report of Tiberius’ persecution of the Isis-Osiris cult.  Any group that was secretive could be seen as disrupting public order.  It isn’t hard to imagine vicious rumors beginning about such cults.  It isn’t hard to imagine early Christians getting the same suspicion.
  5. Mystery cults were very diverse!  In the mysteries we see worship of feminine images of the divine (Demeter, Isis, Cybele) alongside the hyper-masculine cults of Mithras, which women were not allowed into.  We see gods whose presence in Greece dates back to the archaic age (Demeter) alongside gods who are freshly imported from the east (Mithras, Isis, Cybele).  We see cults focused in one particular place (Demeter at Eleusis) and cults that spread all over the Mediterranean (Dionysus, Mithras, Cybele).  So most importantly, when we speak of mystery religions, we cannot generalize too much.  It’s a construct that we scholars make, and as such it is limited.

I would highly recommend Meyer’s book.  I like that he has a balance of different types of sources: magical spells and liturgies, historians, philosophers, fiction, satire, and of course, early Christian polemics against the mysteries.  My next source, George’s Luck’s Arcana Mundi, is not as balanced in this regard as Meyer is.  Anyway, my review of Luck is coming soon!

Reading Challenge #6: Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars.

You might call Suetonius the Perez Hilton of ancient Rome.  His Twelve Caesars has dirt on every Caesar from Julius Caesar to Domitian: Tiberius’ pedophilia, Nero’s sexual perversion, Caligula’s incest … the list goes on!

This makes Suetonius really fun to read, which probably explains why we read so much of it in my Roman Empire class.  I decided to read the rest of it to get an insider’s elite view of the politics of Rome.

29022We know little about Suetonius himself.  He was born in 70 CE, and Pliny the Younger served as his patron.  He wrote many works of historical and literary scholarship, but The Twelve Caesars is his only complete extant work.

What did I get out of Suetonius?

  1. The Twelve Caesars is not a work of history the way we think of it.  In his introduction to this edition, J. B. Rives writes:

    If The Twelve Caesars is biography, then, it is biography of a very distinctive sort.  Whereas Plutarch came close to writing history, Suetonius … was aiming at providing something very different: a sort of balance sheet, an analytical framework that would allow for a clear assessment of each emperor’s relative success or failure. (xxxi)

    Each chapter centers on one caesar, and each chapter is itself organized thematically rather than chronologically.  Suetonius follows a pattern: description of the family of the caesar, his birth and childhood, his accession to the throne, how he dealt with the military, the Senate, and the people, various omens leading up to his death, and then his actual death.  Suetonius spends more time on some emperors than others: Augustus and Tiberius merit long chapters, but Otho and Vitellius do not.  He does not pretend to objectivity, but has some nuance: while he portrays Augustus as uniformly good and Nero as 300% bad, emperors like Tiberius seem to fall into more of a gray area.  Overall, it seems he wanted to understand the genius of each emperor through analyzing their life and character closely.

  2. Suetonius lets us see just how much stock Roman emperors put into divination, magic, oracles, and omens.  Frequently he mentions emperors changing their minds because of an omen, or ignoring the omen and falling into trouble.  It’s easy for us moderns to see these methods of discerning the gods’ will cynically.  We forget that the Romans did take them seriously, even if they had some discernment in which oracles and divinations were accurate predictions and which weren’t.  Suetonius criticizes Nero for not doing so.
  3. Suetonius has some useful references on Jews and Christians in Rome.  He mentions, for example, that Augustus scorned the Jewish religion (2.93), and that Tiberius banned the Jews from Rome along with other foreign cults (3.36).  From Suetonius we also hear of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, “a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition” (6.16).  And of course, Suetonius tells us of Vespasian and Titus’ roles in the Jewish Revolt (10.4-5, 10.8, 11.4-5).  Vespasian’s military leadership in crushing the revolt was part of his claim to legitimation of his throne, since he did not come from a ruling dynasty.  We hear about Josephus (10.8).  And he mentions Domitian’s cruelty and diligence in collecting the temple tax imposed on the Jews, which post-temple went to the Roman state instead (12.12).

Suetonius was a fun read, and a welcome procrastination from finals.  Next up I will be finishing Arcana Mundi!