First Century Slippery Slope

We have to fill in the lines but there appears to be a fairly common 1st Century slippery slope: If you compromise on this one, you’ll end up inviting the likes of Antiochus Epiphanes back into Jerusalem. The story is well-known and sketched well by Warren Carter in his Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World. Four options were presented to the Jews when compromise arose: cooperation, flight, defy unto death, fight with arms.

The villain is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria, in the line of the Seleucid successors of Alexander the Great. Antiochus’s sin? “Antiochus’s game was cultural, political, military, and religious imperialism by terror” (45). His alliances were renegade Judeans — they agree to his legal approach, to building a gymnasium in Jerusalem renounce their Jewishness through epispasm (reverse circumcision, don’t ask), and cease following the Torah. He uses force, occupies the temple, and issues a decree to renounce Jewish practices. They erect a statue of Zeus in the temple, a “desolating sacrilege” (1 Macc 1:54).

The hero of this story in 1 Maccabees is Judas Maccabeus and his family of zeal: Mattathias, Jonathan, Simon and John Hyrcanus. Their approach was armed rebellion and revolution in obedience of the Torah and covenant faithfulness to God. 2 Macc focuses on the eternal value of martyrdom, while Daniel focuses on the eschatological deliverance at the hand of God, which becomes the fifth option.

Thus, recapturing the temple happened due to military resistance, due to faithful martyrs, or due to God’s intervention. These stories set the agenda for NT era slippery slope theories of relationship with the ruling powers. The one that captured so many was faithfulness, though there was considerable diversity in possible ways of being faithful. Paul, in the temple late in his life, was accused of compromising with the cooperators and blurring lines between faithful holiness and Gentile ways.

What about Jesus? Carter sketches four options: the Daniel-eschatology-apocalyptic Jesus (Sanders, Allison, Ehrman), the sociopolitical Jesus (Crossan, Horsley), the religious genius Jesus (Borg), and the wisdom Jesus (Fiorenza). The Christians called Jesus Messiah/King/Christ and Jesus like other Jews was all about covenant fidelity and what Sanders calls covenant nomism.

Paul’s problem with Judaism was not works righteousness. Paul wants to drop those boundary markers and open the people of God to Gentiles by faith. Carter thinks this is just creating a different boundary.

There is more to say about some of the tensions than what Carter brings out here, so I’d like to suggest that the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids formed a master story for many Jews, though not all. In that story is the temptation to compromise with Gentile powers and practices; zeal for the Torah leads the faithful Jew to obedience regardless of the cost, even death. The operative category for some then was “faithfulness in the context of temptation to paganizing or secularizing powers.” In some ways Jesus was compared to that faithfulness at times, esp with some of the conservative Pharisees, while Paul was clearly set into that story and found to be a compromiser.

The logic was undoubtedly at times this: give in on this and the whole thing comes crumbling down. This story inspired more than the revolt against Rome in 66-73 AD. It was fodder for many narratives, including the Crusades, the Reformation and the modernist-fundamentalist debates of the 20th Century.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Eric Weiss

    Just ordered this the other day from Logos with their 40%-off pre-pub special on some Baker books. I assume I’ll get it in about 6 months when it reaches publication stage.

  • scotmcknight

    Eric, not sure what you mean? The book is available.

  • Eric Weiss

    The print edition is available but not the Logos version: http://blog.logos.com/2013/05/40-off-new-releases-from-baker-for-a-limited-time/

    That’s coming hopefully this summer. It’s still in its pre-order stage.


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