Everyone is Wrong (Except Me): The Thessalonian Situation (Gupta)

Thess Book.jpg

*This is the second post in my new series on 1-2 Thessalonians where I briefly note some ideas that I put forth in my new commentary (coming out this month). Though my commentary is not a technical academic commentary, still I tried to re-think the interpretation of these letters. These are some of my arguments and conclusions.*

Everyone is wrong about the Thessalonian Situation (Except Me)

OK, so pretty much every Thessalonian scholar holds these truths to be self-evident

#1: the Thessalonian believers were (mostly/almost entirely) former pagans with no connection to Judaism.

#2: the persecutors of the Thessalonian believers were (mostly/almost entirely) pagans, not Jews

I actually think both of these are off-track. Let’s start with #1:

Scholars tend to make much of Paul’s statement in 1 Thess 1:9 that the believers previously turned from idols to God and Jesus. To these scholars, that means they were pagan polytheists with no connection to Judaism because they were idol worshippers. I.e., they were not pagan god-fearers (Gentiles who were sympathizers with Judaism). Now, if this is true, it puts 1 Thess 1:9 in tension with Luke’s account in Acts, because Luke makes it seem like a decent portion of the church was indeed god-fearers. So, this is part of the reason some reject Luke’s account.

Here is where scholars go wrong. There is much evidence that god-fearer is not a rigid category and there was a range of commitment and exclusivity of worship. Scholars like Paula Fredriksen and S.J. Cohen urge that one could sympathize and identify with the synagogue, and still worship idols. This was not ideal for Jews by any means, but there was probably hope they would move closer to exclusive worship.

My hypothesis is that some such Gentile sympathizers were connected to a synagogue (and yet still polytheists), and were “wooed” away by Paul and Paul required absolute exclusive worship (hence 1 Thess 1:9). This was upsetting to the Jews in Thessalonica for obvious reasons.

That bring us to point #2: persecutors. Most scholars assume the persecutors were all/mostly Gentiles, but Acts narrates a scenario were Jews were hostile. Many seem forced to reject Acts. Part of this involves the use of the word symphyletes in 1 Thess 2:14. Most commentators take this word to mean “ethnic countrymen.” That is, the Thessalonian believers were persecuted by their own pagan countrymen while the Judeans were persecuted by Jews. What does symphyletes actually mean? That is a good question. Truth be told, most commentators work off of the opinions of other commentators and very few people have really investigated the use of this word for themselves. One person who HAS examined this word is N.H. Taylor (Pretoria) and he argues that its extant ancient usage is inconclusive – one cannot narrow it to ethnic in-group. It very well could mean “fellow-countrymen” in a broader sense. 

To my mind, if Paul is including Jews in his use of symphyletes in 1 Thess 2:14, it would make sense of the critical statements he makes against Jews in 2:14-16. They are the “ring-leaders” of the persecution, so to speak, and they are drawing his criticism (as it seems in Acts 17). He is not criticizing all Jews everywhere; he is pointing out the waywardness of those Jews who persecute and reject Gentiles, preventing Gentiles from coming in contact with the gospel.

I have not given “full-blown” arguments here; there is more in my commentary, so check it out! This post is just to let you know – I am right.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I think Donfried, Still, Tellbe, and Weima are most willing to having an open mind on these issues)

 

Everyone is Wrong (Except Me): 1 Thessalonians

Thess Cover

I am excited to report that my commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (New Covenant Commentary Series, Wipf & Stock; ed. Mike Bird and Craig Keener) will be published in the next few weeks. In the run up to that release, I thought I would have a bit of fun and do a blog series: “Everyone is Wrong (Except Me)”. One might look at yet another commentary on 1-2 Thess and wonder if there is anything “new” to discover. The point is fair, as there are lots of outstanding Thessalonian commentaries (Marshall, Malherbe, Gaventa, Weima, to name just a few). My commentary is a theological and pastoral work, so my goal was to penetrate to the theological heart of the text. And I think I have made a good crack at it.

BUT – and this is the point here for this post – I did try to re-think scholarly assumptions wherever I could and move into some new directions or push assumed consenses.

So, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, this blog series is meant to say – I think I am right, and the rest of y’all are wrong! (For those of you without a sense of humor, stop reading….now). There are some issues in 1-2 Thessalonians where I think many scholars have got it wrong. Here I stand, I can do no other!

Without further ado.

Everyone is wrong about Acts 17:1-10. 

That is, a remarkable number of Thessalonian scholars are skeptical about the historical usefulness of Luke’s account of Paul (and Silas) in Thessalonica (most notoriously, Ascough and Koester). (Because of this noisy skepticism, many more are bashful about using Acts to aid the study of 1 Thess.) This is probably for three reasons. First, many doubt Acts’ overall historical reliability. Secondly, Acts 17 follows a strong narrative pattern in Acts of Paul going to the synagogue, getting ousted, and then turning to pagans. To many, the pattern is too stylized to be considered historical. Thirdly, the conversion of some Jews and many pagan godfearers (according to Acts 17) seem to contradict 1 Thess 1:9  – Paul implies the Thessalonian church was nearly all former polytheists who “turned from idols.”

I will deal with this last point in a separate blog post. Here I just want to say a couple of reasons why I think everyone is wrong on this.

Firstly, about the patterns in Acts. Yes, those patterns are there. Yes, it does imply editing and embellishment. But we should not ignore the fact that Luke does not present a static portrayal of the Jews, or conversions, or Gentiles. There may be stylization in broader patterns, but the details vary enough to allow for Luke to bring in the color of the region or the development of the specific situation. For example, the Jews of Thessalonica are portrayed as hostile, but the Jews of Bereoa are noted to be more open-minded (17:11). Historians tell us these were, indeed, rival cities.

Secondly, I want to bring up a key point about doing historical work. Sometimes we biblical studies folk create our own weird rules and methods that (non-religion) historians of Antiquity might find odd (*historical Jesus scholars, I’m looking at you*). I have spent quite a bit of time studying how classicists, archaeologists, and historians of Antiquity study the history of ancient Thessalonica (nb., they tend to call it Thessalonike, or Thessaloniki), and every single one of them incorporates Acts 17 (so, e.g., Nigdelis, Kyrtatas, Allamani-Souri). Some of them explicitly note that Luke clearly has a theological agenda, and narratival patterns – but in no case have I found anyone discounting Acts 17 as a legitimate historical source. This should go without saying, but all such historians cautiously draw from Acts the same way they would from any ancient source. Utilizing Acts is not just an “evangelical” thing to do – cautiously drawing from Acts is just good historical work.

My own preference, then, is to find the best way to bring Acts 17 and 1-2 Thess together to paint a historical picture, and only discount material from Acts 17 that would out-and-out contradict Paul’s own words. But I did not find such contradictions.

So, everyone is wrong, except me.

Stay tuned for more in this series.

Baylor Press 50% off Sale! (Gupta)

Baylor CodeBaylor University Press has a nice summer sale from Friday June 10th through Sunday June 12th  – 50% off – on all books published before 2015. This is intended for graduate students to benefit their research (but they extend it to anyone with the code below).

Use this code: BJUN (discount code). Check it out HERE.

(I have my eye on some of those nifty Greek Text handbooks!)

 

Interview: Bruce W. Longenecker on Pompeii (Gupta)

BWLDr. Bruce W. Longenecker is professor of early Christianity and W.W. Melton Chair of Religion at Baylor University. (I am proud to say Longenecker is a fellow grad of Durham!)

Recently Longenecker published the fascinating book, The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town (Fortress, 2016). I got the book immediately when it was released and devoured it in a matter of days – it is gripping archaeological and historical research! Longenecker agreed to be interviewed about his book on Pompeii; first, you can read the basic description. If the topic interests you, take my advice and read it. You won’t be disappointed!

Through a twist of fate, the eruption that destroyed Pompeii in 79 CE also preserved a wealth of evidence about the town, buried for centuries in volcanic ash. Since the town’s excavations in the eighteenth century, archaeologists have disputed the evidence that might attest the presence of Christians in Pompeii before the eruption.

Now, Bruce W. Longenecker reviews that evidence, in comparison with other possible evidence of first-century Christian presence elsewhere, and reaches the conclusion that there were indeed Christians living in the doomed town. Illustrated with maps, charts, photographs, and line drawings depicting artifacts from the town, The Crosses of Pompeii presents an elegant case for their presence. Longenecker’s arguments require dramatic changes to our understanding of the early history of Christianity.

Interview

NKG: Your latest research took you to Pompeii. Can you tell us a little about how you became interested in the proof and possibility of Jesus-devotion in Pompeii?

BWLBWL:  The historian in me became more and more enthralled with the fact that two first-century towns (Pompeii and Herculaneum) were, in a sense, right on our doorstep today. I began to see how peculiar it was that I had never come to terms with those towns in my research as a first-century historian. So after finishing my 2010 book Remember the Poor (on Christianity and the economic structures of the Greco-Roman world), it made sense to dig into these towns in order to sharpen my scholarly agenda even further.

When I began doing that, I had absolutely no intention of undertaking the case for Jesus-devotion in those towns. At first, I accepted the consensus view that there is no evidence of a Christian presence in Pompeii – even though the argumentation supporting that conclusion seemed a bit weak whenever I came across it. I just assumed there must be a really good reason for the conclusion, even though the reasons actually offered here or there were not very good. But as I read more and more, I came to realize that the one really good reason in support of the consensus view simply wasn’t there. The assumptions supporting the consensus might have carried weight when they were articulated in the nineteenth century, say, but those assumptions have very little force today. I began to see not only how weak the current consensus is but how it needed to be challenged – in order to assist the process of exploring the first-century world and, moreover, the place of the emerging Jesus-movement within its Greco-Roman context.

NKG: You endeavor in this book to “bust” a couple of myths that go on in not only Pompeiian scholarship, but also the study of earliest Christianity. Can you describe these myths, why scholars believe them, and briefly what evidence led you to seek to debunk them? 

The big myth that needed to be busted is one that has hung over the data as, itself, a long-standing consensus. It is the assumption that Christians never depicted the cross of Jesus Christ in visual media until Constantine legitimated Christianity in the early fourth century; only then did the cross start to appear in material realia as a sign of Christian devotion. Before that (the argument goes), Christian fear of persecution and sensitivity to social ostracism left them with a deep aversion to displays of the cross as a visual symbol of their devotion.

The short story is that this just isn’t true. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the cross was the preeminent symbol of Christian devotion everywhere and always. But at times, in certain situations, Christians did think it important to embed crosses in ancient visual media, even long before Constantine (as I seek to show in The Cross before Constantine: The Early Life of a Christian Symbol [2015]).

Consequently, when artifacts in Pompeii depict the shape of a cross, and when those artifacts seem to have served a symbolic rather than a functional purpose, historians need to consider whether that symbol might reflect the presence of Jesus-devotion. The consensus view is that we have no artifacts to demonstrate Jesus-followers in Pompeii, but that view is supported by unfounded assumptions that have been used to arrive at the consensus view illegitimately. By clearing the deck of these unmerited assumptions (about five of them), I was able to open up fresh analysis of cross-shaped artifacts from Pompeii and to apply a process of elimination to test possible explanations of those artifacts. In my view, the most plausible explanation (or perhaps, the least implausible explanation) is that those artifacts stem from Jesus-devotion present in Pompeii prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79. This was the task of The Crosses of Pompeii: Jesus-Devotion in a Vesuvian Town.

 

NKG: If nearly twenty crosses appear in two neighborhoods in Pompeii and are even visible today in the remains, why have they been so ignored or downplayed?

BWL: This is just one of those curious things. It hasn’t helped that these visible crosses are relatively small (about two inches or so in size), and appear in stone without having been incised very deeply. So even though they are visible, they are also relatively hard to see. They are more visible at certain times of the day, when the sun shines from a particular direction and hits them at an angle that best brings them out.

As I point out in the book, to my knowledge only one of these crosses in the stone has ever been discussed, and that was back in 1895, when one archaeologist noted one of them, saying it was an ancient stone mason’s mark (which doesn’t work as an interpretation, once all the incised crosses are considered in their systematic relationships). I have had casual conversations about these cross marks with some preeminent archaeologists and historians, and none of them has ever seen them. I even spoke with a surveyor, when I was there in December 2015, who had placed his survey tripod less than six inches away from one of them. When I asked him what he thought it was, he said he had never seen it. But once he inspected it, he said it was a mark from the Roman world. It’s just a little example of how these crosses just haven’t been on people’s radar.

One thing is clear, however. These ancient crosses were incised into Pompeian stone in a systematic way. In the book, I entertained various options as to what they might be. As far as I can see, the only option that makes sense of all of their qualities is that they are crosses left by Jesus-devotees – probably the same ones who were mentioned in a charcoal graffito within a Pompeii inn.

 

NKG: Most Biblical scholars ply their trade with noses in books. You, on the other hand, made frequent trips to Italy and walked streets and examined walls with a magnifying glass and camera. What was it like to do such a different kind of academic work, almost operating like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes!

At times it was absolutely exhilarating – especially the first time I found a cross that had never been registered in the archaeological record (the first of about a dozen and a half of them). Just as exhilarating was when I said to myself, “If this turns out to be a Christian cross, and if I understand its function correctly, there might also be another one at location X” – and sure enough, another cross of exactly the same kind was in precisely that expected position. Then, knowing what to look for, further crosses just kept presenting themselves! I kept emailing a friend, “I found another one.” I began to doubt my own sanity. But sure enough, they’re there.

I didn’t want to jump to any hasty conclusions before testing the results, however. So when tourists asked what the cross shape was that I had highlighted with water from my water bottle (in order to bring out its shape more clearly for photographs), I erred on the side of caution, saying, “It’s just a survey mark from a nineteenth century surveyor.” Instead, it turns out that I was taking a registry of symbols from the first-century world that had never before been recognized as part of the ancient material record.

 

NKG: You paint a picture at the end of your book of what it would have been like to be a Jesus-devotee in Pompeii in the first century; just give us a taste here. What might Jesus-devotion have looked like in Pompeii?

BWL: The town of 10,000 people was rebuilding itself in the aftermath of an earthquake that devastated the region in 62 or 63. Seneca tells us a lot about the town as a consequence of that tragedy. The people were shaken to their psychological core; the foundations of their world were unstable. The things they took for granted had proved unreliable. Their devotion to the deities needed to be reenergized.

Beyond Seneca, we know that the cult of Isis was extremely popular in Pompeii in the aftermath of the earthquake. The Egyptian deity Isis promised her devotees a life of enhancement both in the present and beyond death itself. We also know from graffiti around the town that the people of Pompeii put great hope in the fact that one of their own had become the emperor’s wife – Poppaea Sabina, whom Nero married in 62. No doubt she would bring good things to enhance their town. But their hopes for special favors were dashed when she died in the imperial palace only three years later (in 65), with Nero being suspected of causing her death one way or another.

Meanwhile, Nero had begun persecuting Christians in Rome, blaming them for the fire of Rome in July 64. Importantly, Tacitus tells us that Nero’s efforts to scapegoat Christians backfired. The undeserved tortures that Christians underwent stirred up a sympathetic compassion for them – and this was probably happening precisely in the final decade of Pompeii’s life (and at precisely the time when we can date Christian artifacts to that town). Perhaps some Pompeians could see parallels in the undeserved fates of both their beloved Poppaea Sabina and Christians.

It was in this kind of a context (i.e., some psychological angst, some devastated hopes, and some compassion for Christians) that Jesus-devotion begins to appear within the archaeological record (from about 68 onwards).

We can’t put too fine a point on those findings, but a few things emerge from the artifacts. Jesus-devotees seem to have been attracted to Christianity as a form of protection against the spiritual forces that they (like their peers) imagined to course through the streets of their town – a fear commonly testified to by the archaeological remains and by literary sources. Their resurrected deity, who himself had overcome the forces of evil, promised his devotees enhanced life in the present and beyond. If Isis-devotees held similar expectations of their deity, so too did Jesus-devotees. At least one Jesus-devotee seems to have fashioned the cross of Jesus in imitation of the Egyptian Ankh, a symbol of life commonly used in Isis-devotion.

Jesus-devotees may have met in a few locations, at least one of which was a bakery, where Jesus-devotion seems to have been based from the late 60s to the eruption in 79. Jesus-followers included some slaves (at least one of which seems to have been a managerial slave) and probably some freed or free persons. Their economic profiles ranged from the economically vulnerable to the relatively secure. There might have been a Jewish element to it all, but we can’t be sure about that. There might have been different degrees of devotion to Jesus, or different views about whether such devotion needed to be exclusive – again, we simply can’t be too sure. But some of their surviving artifacts suggest that they sought to bring spiritual protection to the neighborhoods in which they were embedded, doing good to those around them.

NKG: Are you putting Pompeii behind you now, or are you planning further research and publication on this subject?

BWL: Pompeii is like a dangerous drug. You try a little, and it’s kind of cool, so you do more and more. Pretty soon, you’re in its clutches. I don’t imagine I have the strength to go cold turkey against its enticements.

With regard to further research and publications, I still have a few things up my sleeve. But all in good time, I imagine. In the meantime, my air miles will probably continue to clock up for the foreseeable future.

Francis Watson’s Fourfold Gospel (Gupta)

Watson.jpgIn 2013, Prof. Francis Watson (Durham) gave the academic world a magnum opus on the origins and early reception of the canonical gospels (Eerdmans). This year, he has published a more popular-level work called The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus (Baker, 2016). While Watson makes it clear this is not a condensed version of Gospel Writing, still he brings some of the major arguments from that 2013 work into this shorter book.

The Fourfold Gospel is meant to be a lighter read, with few footnotes (aside from Scripture references), an appealing text presentation, and drawing out of theological implications of his approach. Surely he has indeed made his scholarship more accessible here, though I do not think those without seminary training will find this “easy reading”!

He works from his argument that, though the gospels were written as rivals or replacements (i.e., Matthew intended to replace Mark), the church decided to preserve each of the four and treat them as complementary, like interlocking puzzle pieces. In the first four chapters after the introduction, Watson walks through the distinct perspective of each canonical gospel – Matthew offers Jesus the Jew; Mark focuses on the prophetic-renewal work of John the Baptist and the powerful gospel that leads new pilgrims on the Jesus “way.” Luke has a special interest in worship, prayer, and priesthood. John gives the eagle’s eye perspective on Jesus.

Even forasmuch as these gospels demonstrates divergences, they must also be recognized for their shared narrative and overlap. They are bound by interrelationships. Here Watson commends Eusebius’ “canon tables” (an ancient sort of gospel parallels reference set), which seems to have influenced how believers used and interpreted the gospels in the patristic and medieval period.Throughout the book he shows how the gospels can be read fruitfully with this cross-comparison (canonical) approach.

Here are some of the main ideas that he returns to throughout the book

-“Multiple versions of the same material are not interchangeable, nor are they redundant” (68)

-“the Jesus of these texts is never just Jesus, Jesus as he was himself. He is always accompanied by an evangelist who serves as his interpreter, communicating his significance from within that evangelist’s own distinctive perspective” (69)

-“Without sameness or oneness there would be no singular gospel according to…but a chaos of incompatible versions of the ‘good news.’ Without difference there would not be four gospels but one. For that reason, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the same event must differ” (77)

-“It seems that the fourfold gospel is not intended to provide a singular ‘life of Jesus’ in which each incident and saying is assigned to its original historical context. Its relation to reality is more complex–and more interesting–than that” (88)

-“Differences between the gospels can only be a positive rather than a negative factor, even and especially in the case of the difference that separates the first three gospels from the fourth. The fourfold gospel has been constructed in such a way as to embrace plural perspectives on the figure of Jesus and to rule out the assumption that a single perspective would testify to him more adequately” (90)

As always with Watson, we have a fresh perspective, something new to chew on and surely this will lead to engaging discussion about the formation of the fourfold gospel. There are lots of eye-opening exegetical insights and thought-provoking ideas (I especially appreciated insights on the Matthean genealogy). Watson’s reception-work is fascinating. But by the end of the 188-pages I was left with these questions:

-Maybe I make too much of book titles, but what makes this a theological reading? Versus, e.g., a canonical reading? Did Watson want to distance or differentiate himself from Childs?

-In his brief soundings in each gospel, he tended to focus on the beginnings of each. Why? Are there clear clues that tell us that is the key to the thumbprint differences of each? (versus, for example, the selection of parables or teaching discourses; or terminology preferences, etc.)

-Is there a method that Watson is promoting? What does that look like? (I think what Watson offers is an orientation to the Fourfold Gospel, but is there a method too?)

-Watson seems to go back and forth between descriptive discussion (esp when it comes to reception) and prescriptive (where he is teasing out themes, pointing to the right way to read things, even the “church’s” decision) – it is hard to sense where he lands. Is he commenting ultimately on how the church ought to read the gospels? How everyone should read it? How he reads it? How God wants it to be read? (inversely, one could ask -what if the canon-izers were wrong? What if Eusebius was misguided? How do we know what the right approach to the gospels is?)

As the book itself attests, Watson likes to frustrate traditional gospel consensuses and predictable lines of disagreement. This is a welcome fly in gospels-studies ointment!