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July 14, 2020

BEN: A lot of your studies involve comparative etymologies from ANE languages like Ugaritic etc. I remember G.E. Wright (yes I’m old, and I ended up with some of his library which went on sale at a bookshop on Cape Cod after he died) writing a book on how the ancient Hebrews were not a myth-making people, rather they demythologized other people’s myths. The point about Hebrew words is, that the Hebrews were creative with loan words, and they morphed into something more in line with monotheism in the hands of the Biblical writers. And, of course there are many scholars very leery of committing the etymological fallacy—i.e. seeing the idea of a Biblical devil with a tail and horns coming from ANE remarks about some pagan deity. And as you say, the Bible says nothing about such an image for Satan anyway. How do you adjudicate issues of word origins etc. and what do you think about Wright’s basic view of demythologizing?

MICHAEL: Words are inevitably used to communicate ideas; they are not the ideas themselves. They are a means to an end. The best illustration for me here is elohim. That word does not communicate the unique ontology of the God of Israel. A specific set of unique attributes does not derive from the Hebrew consonants that make up elohim. That word is more neutral than that. But we in the West have imbibed that false assumption, and so we errantly think that plural elohim overturns the idea of monotheism (a term by which we mean an ontologically unique deity). You can only get to ontological uniqueness by the way the God of the Bible is described (using lots of other words) and by the fact that those descriptions (e.g., eternality, creatorship, omnipotence) are denied to other elohim. So when a biblical writer uses a word that may have a long history in other languages, or is a sure cognate to some word in other languages, it has utility and brings with it a semantic range already in place as it were. But that doesn’t mean that biblical writers won’t introduce other ideas / words to talk about the thing they’re talking about using a cognate word to make their own beliefs apparent and distinct. I think the biblical writers are busy with the task of theological messaging. Doing that requires using words that were comprehensible to their own readers, not necessarily us. Their readers would have some knowledge of vocabulary overlap through normal human discourse – trade, commerce, conflict, etc. Their vocabulary choices will communicate, but communication isn’t about just knowing the words in a lexicon, even if it’s your own. Words get used in a variety of ways and are accompanied by other words, other contexts, storytelling, etc. Meaning isn’t just about knowing glosses or “word exchanges.”

July 13, 2020

BEN: I was pretty surprised by your take on Sheol in the OT. It seems to me it is simply the land of the dead at least in Israel, not the domain of wicked humans and evil spirits. For example, the prophet Samuel seems to be summoned up from there by a medium, and the very phrase ‘gathered to one’s ancestors’ in conjunction with talking about death and the grave surely conjures up the place of the dead in the ground. So far as I can see, your name has to begin with E to get beamed up into God’s realm— Elijah and Enoch. Nothing is said about all the righteous going to heaven. Am I wrong about this, and if so, what’s the counter evidence? Put another way, while Biblical figures like the patriarchs want to be buried in the holy land, and some were moved there with the exodus from Egypt, at least in regard to the Holy Land, they thought Sheol was just the land of the dead, the underworld, whatever they may have thought about the underworld outside of God’s country. Right?

MICHAEL: I’d say it’s “all the above” because of the way I approach the previous question. But I’ll add another thought here. People got buried in the ground or in places / recesses that were cut off from normal human habitation (e.g., caves). The idea was that such holes / pits / places were gateways to the place under the earth, the realm of the dead. You still buried your dead in holy ground, so the conception was the same – but also different because of cosmic geography. Being buried in Yahweh’s land (which the patriarchs were) mattered in that worldview. Not being in Yahweh’s land is at the heart of the Jude passage about the dispute between Michael (prince of Yahweh’s land/people) and Satan over Moses’ body. Second Temple tradition makes it clear that people assumed there was a problem for Moses in terms of where he’d been buried.

July 12, 2020

BEN: Let’s talk for a minute about what I will call the spiritual universe as opposed to the material universe. If I’m understanding your first chapter in the new book aright, you are suggesting that there are created beings in the spiritual universe or realm, as well as in the material realm. Indeed, the only uncreated being seems to be God, though we could debate with the church fathers about what ‘only begotten Son’ (monogenes) actually means. A related matter is that heaven, as we call it, is technically the dwelling place of God, and since God always existed, we would assume he always had a place to dwell. Are you then suggesting that some things and some beings in the spiritual realm did not always exist (but what about the heavenly council in Genesis), and indeed some places in the spiritual realm, namely what came to be called Hell, didn’t exist before at least there were rebellious spiritual beings? Can you clarify on some of these points?

MICHAEL: This is an old problem that derives from our necessarily limited vocabulary (and that of the biblical writers as well). Put in the form of simple questions: Is the spiritual universe made of something? If so, wouldn’t that be a material universe? Are spiritual beings (other than God) in that spiritual universe made of something? If so, are they in some sense material? All the vocabulary we use, and which is given to us in Scripture, is deficient for aligning what the writers are trying to communicate with the material world we know (and will discover) from science. Since I don’t believe for a minute God chose people in antiquity for the purpose of communicating precise science that would satisfy a 21st century audience someday, I don’t worry about this – my question (and yours) extends beyond the data. The same problem would exist 1000 years from now (or maybe 100!) if God chose someone living today with a PhD in theoretical physics to write Scripture. Science will always change and expand. Vocabulary available to a writer at any given point in time is what it is. To say a word in 100 BC that has to do with creation “really meant” to include quantum physics is to impose a meaning on that word that wasn’t in the mind of the person God chose. It’s hermeneutical cheating (and naïve). My take is that the biblical writers were tasked by God with describing “places” that have no latitude and longitude and beings that were un-embodied spirits using the vocabulary of spatiality and embodiment. Good luck with that. So what I think we need to realize is that these questions aren’t answerable from data. Instead, we should be asking what the writers were trying to convey about where God “lives” or where disembodied spirits are. They are trying to communicate otherness in the extreme. This is why God / the gods make their homes in places humans cannot – the heavens, the sea, under the earth, etc. It’s the best the writers can do to communicate otherness. Likewise for the afterlife – how to we describe beings who don’t have bodies—they’d be invisible. Again, good luck with describing the posture, behavior, expressions, form, etc. of invisible beings. And so what do the writers do? The only thing they can do – they use words that include the element of physicality to describe that which isn’t part of their physical world. This is also why I don’t think the Underworld was “invented later” – when humans die they leave the world humans know. What other world would they go to? The biblical writers can only conceive of one answer – they go to the “place” where humans aren’t by nature – the place where God / the gods are. In that place, the unrighteous needed (always, not at some point in our chronological time) to be distanced from a holy God. That teaching point could be achieved either by non-existence or, if the dead go to the only other place available, the “spiritual world,” we need to still distance them from God. But the only way to do that is to use the language of spatiality, height, depth, length, width – again, good luck with that.

July 11, 2020

BEN: While this question might better suit the Unseen Realm discussion, still it’s relevant here. I entirely agree with you that Eden was a particular place on earth, not the whole earth. From my viewpoint, in addition the story of Adam and Eve is basically the story of the origins of the group of people who became God’s chosen people, not everyone. The Bible is about God’s relationship with a particular people, and others enter the picture only insofar as they interact with God’s people. We can say that Adam and Eve are the representative head of all human beings, but not the genealogical ancestors of all humans. This explains, for example how Cain and Abel could have wives that were not their sisters!! For me, I don’t see any problem with taking Adam and Eve to be real historical human beings, as Jesus and Paul seem clearly to have believed, without trying to claim they are the origins of the human species all over the world. I had a long critique of Scot McKnight’s recent book where he seems to waffle on the history of Adam and Eve, in order to take into account the scientific evidence of genomes, genetics etc. which suggest human beings originated in various places in the world not in just one. How do you view these things? Would you say, for instance that Cro-magnon man is subhuman rather than human, or Australiopithicus?

MICHAEL: I think co-Adamism (humans co-existing alongside Adam and Eve) is an idea that the biblical text can sustain. That doesn’t mean it’s correct. I’m not sure it is, even though it’s attractive in several respects. My only real concern with the idea is the image of God. I see all humanity being created as God’s imagers, not just a subset that extend from Adam and Eve. That would be a grave error, the results of which we’ve already seen. The idea that some humans were image bearers and others were not was one of the theological trajectories that justified racism and the treatment of “non-imagers” as sub-humans. People interested in the history of that subject, especially as it pertains to the believing Church, should read Livingstone’s work, Adam’s Ancestors (Johns Hopkins). It’s an intellectual history and dense reading, but there’s nothing as suited to tracing this idea from its roots to its tragic results. I’ve been talking recently with S. Joshua Swamidass about his recent book, The Genealogical Adam and Eve. Josh is a believer. His thesis depends on co-Adamism. He argues, on the basis of science (genetics) that all humanity as we now know it could certainly have genealogically descended from a single couple. His worked resulted in Biologos changing their position and removing some older material from their website. Josh’s book has been reviewed by antagonistic atheist scientists who affirm the science is on target even thought they don’t like “the religion” that goes with it. So I feel secure that the science is sound. The question for me is whether the biblical text can sustain it. I’ll be participating in a 2020 AAR session reviewing his book. Josh has a chapter on defining what a human is that I’m still thinking about – this is the key for me, as it relates to the imaging idea. I have pretty simplistic notions of science and how geneticists would define homo sapiens and “human” – to this point it has been the idea that interbreeding requires calling XYZ hominid a human. But his work has awakened me to the fact that the terminology is more complicated than that. That’s about all I can say now. I have to make sure with Josh that I understand the science before I can answer my own question. But for now, I feel positively predisposed to co-Adamism with the imaging caveat. If I can see a biblical defensible path for co-Adamism that doesn’t result in “human sub-humans,” then that’s workable, since I already know how to defend co-Adamism from the text.

BEN: And I would say that a text like Hos. 11 makes clear that God treats non-Israelites and their descendants as fully human image bearers whom he loves. So co-Adamism makes good Biblical sense to me. I don’t think this rules out the notion that there were pre-human creatures, now extinct that might explain some archaeological evidence about Austrailiopitchicus etc. but I could certainly be wrong about that. It’s my wife who is the scientist in the family.

July 10, 2020

BEN: It’s ironic, but it seems clear that even very conservative Protestants don’t just stick to the Bible and its literal interpretation. They have their own traditions that muddy the waters— for instance the Christian Church tradition that the NT rules out using musical instruments in worship, or the Pentecostal tradition that Acts 2 is about speaking in angelic tongues, or the tradition that Ephesians 6 is authorizing deliverance ministries, rather than ‘standing’ and defending against devilish onslaughts. Why do you think it is that even Protestants are blind to how their own traditions skew the reading of the Bible?

MICHAEL: The short answer is the Reformation—really, the caricature of the Reformation that has been ingrained in them. What I mean here is that it’s easy for Protestants to think the Reformation meant turning away from the traditions of men (Catholicism). The unconscious myth is that Protestantism turned away from tradition to some sort of unfiltered biblicism. Protestants presume this either-or choice, not realizing that turning away from one set of traditions didn’t immunize them from creating a body of their own tradition that now serves as an interpretive filter in the same way (but not the same outcomes) as the body of tradition Protestantism left behind. We sort of want to think of ourselves as above the human propensity for creating intellectual communities just like we create physical or cultural communities. Tradition is a human phenomenon. We have to be honest with that and, awareness raised, make intentional efforts to tap into the intellectual framework of the biblical writers, not our own, regardless of the labels we’ve given those frameworks. That takes work, honesty, and humility, etc., and a willingness to stay at it, not presuming we can’t improve on the effort we’re already making. I should add that the cost of doing this isn’t the erasure of one’s traditions. We just need to be honest to the distinction between Scripture read in context and our traditions. The former needs to shape the latter, not the other way around. They can co-exist.

July 9, 2020

BEN: Recently, I’ve spent many weeks working through the long history of exegesis of the Lord’s Supper with my Sunday school class, and explaining where the notion of transubstantiation came from. The underlying message was that later Christian traditions, like kudzu in the South overrun and cover up the actual meaning of Biblical texts like ‘this is my body, broken for you’. It seems to me that your M.O. is much the same in these books. Misunderstanding comes from later Christian traditions read back into the text—the old problem of anachronism. What in your view is the best hedge against anachronistic readings of the Bible?

MICHAEL: Interpretive anachronisms can only be avoided when Bible students, pastors, and even scholars, intentionally commit themselves to immersion in the worldview of the biblical writers—their thought patterns, beliefs, cultural and historical circumstances. Maybe a way of summarizing that is to be committed to reading the text the way the original readers would have read it and understood it. That only happens with intention and practice and repetition. You have to train yourself to approach each and every passage that way – setting aside “what it means to you” and asking what it meant to someone who isn’t you and who lived a long time ago and thought quite differently. If we reflexively did that, if that became a true habit, it would impede anachronistic readings. I know that sounds like hard work. It is. But we fortunately live at a time where he have an abundance of tools and resources produced by scholars who do “live there”—who have committed themselves to being immersed in the ancient modes of thought and who are honest about the need to do that. The difficulty isn’t whether we can do that; we can. The difficulty is finding those resources and then committing ourselves to approaching the text that way.

July 7, 2020

BEN: Your discussion of unclean spirits in Chapt. 10 is fascinating. But I wonder if any of the hearers or readers of the NT could have possibly known to associate that terminology with the spirits of the dead Nephilim? Or for that matter could Mark’s audience, even the Jewish Christian ones, in Rome really be expected to know all the ANE and 2nd temple speculations about evil spirits and demons? It seems unlikely. And we have to remember there was not yet a canon even of the OT before late first century at most, and even most synagogues did not have a whole collection of the 39 books of the OT in scrolls, never mind all the intertestamental books like Jubilees or 1 Enoch. At most Jude suggests some in his Jewish Christian audience would know some of this. How would you respond to these points?

MICHAEL: I think that the biblical writers were writing to readers – that is, literate people. I think we all know as scholars that the real time speeches, conversations, sermons, etc. of Jesus, the apostles, and Paul were consistent with, though different than, the crafted literary works we call the books of the New Testament. Those books included “boots on the ground” sayings, of course, but they are crafty literary works. They all had communicative agendas and were designed to accomplish those agendas. This is, to my eye, transparently obvious. We can have a high degree of certainty, for example, that Jesus didn’t have conversations in chiasms, yet the gospel writers frequently present what Jesus taught in that literary form (and others). So, for literate readers, I do believe that the New Testament writers did indeed presume that their craftsmanship would be noticed by those sorts of readers. Why else would a writer quote subtly from LXX, or mix LXX references, or borrow a phrase here and there from a Second Temple text, or use a specific literary device? It’s not all the accidental result of dis-engaged minds. I think it’s very purposeful and aimed at readers who would notice. In the course of doing that, less literate readers would still get content they needed, though they wouldn’t be able to trace the thoughts as well or as deeply.

June 18, 2020

After his first major book The Unseen Realm went viral and then he gave us ‘Angels’ now we get a full length treatment of demons, Satan, unclean spirits— all things dark and dangerous. I was beginning to feel like I was in a Dan Brown novel (cf. Angels and Demons) there for a while. This study, like his previous ones, is in many ways excellent— it’s well written, very well researched, Mike plays to his strengths which is his detailed knowledge of ANE and Intertestamental literature and the Biblical languages. While the text of the book can be read by any serious Bible student, the footnotes should keep the scholars entertained for some time to come. Mike doesn’t shy away from taking on sacred cows and turning them into hamburger— for instance the notion that the Bible teaches a pre-Edenic Fall of Satan and his minions. Nope says Mike, Rev. 12 is not about that— and he is absolutely right. It’s about the way the Christ event overcame the powers of darkness, establishing God’s kingdom and church on earth. He also thoroughly demolishes the ‘gap theory’ which tries to squeeze some sort of angelic fall into the first few verses of Gen. 1. Furthermore, he critiques convincingly the whole spiritual warfare stuff of Peter Wagner. The Bible does NOT encourage us to engage in WWE style attacks on the powers of darkness, or even to rebuke them. To the contrary Ephes. 6 calls us to stand and withstand the onslaughts of the Dark Lord by countering it with the Gospel, the Great Commission, disassembling false arguments with the truth.

Perhaps one of the most interesting major building planks of his approach is that he sees 3 divine rebellions in the OT— one in the garden in Gen. 3, one just before the flood, and one at the tower of Babel, as read through the lens of Deut. 32. And these do not all refer to the activity of the Devil himself. Indeed, as Mike says, that guy is nowhere called Satan or the Devil in the OT. Ha Satan, which means the adversary, in Job 1-2 is a member of God’s council who is allowed to test human beings, rather like a prosecuting attorney. Satan is never a proper name for anyone in the OT. This doesn’t mean the nefarious one isn’t in the OT, as some have thought. Another important point he makes is that without an understanding of the ANE context of the OT, much will be misunderstood or misinterpreted, just as one must understand the Intertestamental and even Greco-Roman contexts to understand the NT. The writers of the NT knew and drew on ideas from books as divergent as 1 Enoch, or Wisdom of Solomon, or Sirach etc. As I like to say, ‘a text without an original context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean’.

There are of course various points along the way in which I would disagree with some of Mike’s conclusions, as you will discover in the dialogue that follows starting in the blog posts tomorrow and running for a good while. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book that asks the right questions and helps us to better understand the Darth Vader of the NT and his legions….. One word of advice— do not read this book after midnight or you may start looking under your bed for things that go bump in the night!!!

In July, after the 4th, I will have an extended dialogue with Mike about his new book. Stay tuned.

September 10, 2021

 

Jeff Weima’s helpful guide to Rev. 2-3 is now widely available and I am happy to commend it to one and all.  It does a fine job of exegesis of the material, of recognizing we are dealing with sermons, albeit with epistolary prescripts, and so are not really letters.  Jeff is not only good at helping us understand the meaning of these much debated chapters, but takes the next step as well and helping us understand how to preach this material today to very different audiences at a very different time in the history of Christianity.  This guide is substantial, over 300 pages in length, and reflects long and detailed reflection on the material itself and its various kinds of interpretation.

In this post I would like to say a bit more about sermons in the NT, and revisit some of the remarks I made back in 2006 on this subject in my Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians Vol. One.    The following is some excerpts and extra comments from that discussion found on pp. 38ff. of that volume:

“We need to understand from the outset that ancient sermons may have looked quite different from modern ones.  For example, ancient sermons were not necessarily expositions of a particular, or even two or three, Biblical texts.  Of course there was no NT when the NT writers were living, and thus for them the OT was the sacred Scripture  (see 2 Tim. 3.16).

But even so there were early Christian sermons based on a variety of resources.  There were of course sermons based on OT texts, but also sermons based on early Christian tradition including the Jesus tradition, and sermons based on general Biblical themes.  Also there were rhetorical discourses using all kinds of resources to mention just several possibilities.  Expository preaching of the Bible was not the only thing going on in the first century world of Jewish or Christian preaching.  Where then should we begin to explore this matter?…

Jewish sermonizing, which took place in synagogues (see e.g. Luke 4) tended to have practical and ethical focuses. They did not tend to be long theological discourses, but rather applications of certain OT texts.

“What comports with this picture is what we find recorded in Luke’s synopses of synagogue sermons offered by early Christians like Paul. We may compare for example Acts 13.15-41.  Notice in the first verse that there is an invitation to offer “a word of exhortation” (logos parakleseos), the very same phrase used to describe the highly Jewish and textually oriented discourse we call Hebrews (Heb. 13.22).  This suggests that at least one form of synagogue homily involved paraenesis based on Scripture exposition.  In other words, it had an ethical and practical aim, it was not just an expounding of interesting ideas.  This is hardly surprising since early Judaism was more focused on orthopraxy than orthodoxy.[1]

  1. Wills, in an important essay, has argued that this ‘word of exhortation’ form of homily had in fact three parts: 1) the exempla which was a reasoned exposition of the main thesis, usually with illustrations from one or more Scriptural text. This exempla laid out the facts, sometimes in narrative form and illustrated them. This was followed by 2) the conclusions based on those facts laid out in the first part of the homily. This section was introduced by words like dio (therefore), or dia touto (through or because of this) or some other Greek particle or conjunction. This conclusion was then followed by  3) an exhortation usually with imperatives.[2]

It is argued that this three part form can be seen in the following Jewish and Christian texts—Wis. Sol. 13-15; Test. Reub. 5.1-5; Test. Levi 2.6-3.8; Test. Benj. 2.5;3.1;6.6;7.1;8.1; Acts 2.14-40; 3.12-26; 13.14-41; 20.17-35; 1 Cor. 10.1-14; Heb. 1.1-2.1; 1 Pet. 1.3-11; 1 Clem. 6.1-7.2; 42.1-44.6; Ignatius of Antioch Ephesians; and the Epistle of Barnabas.  Building on the work of Wills, and to some extent critiquing and refining it, C.C. Black noticed that in fact this threefold pattern is an ancient rhetorical pattern such that the first part of the homily in fact corresponds with the rhetorical ‘narratio’ the second major part corresponds with the proposition and the arguments based on the narration (‘probatio’), and the final exhortation corresponds with the peroration.  In fact this form reflects a primitive sort of deliberative rhetoric where one is trying to modify the audience’ s belief or behavior in some way in the near future.[3]

This following of a rhetorical format in early Jewish and Christian preaching should in no way surprise us.  It was part of the harvest of Hellenism even in Israel.  The rhetorical handbooks or guidebooks to persuasive speaking in Greek had been in circulation from the 4th century B.C. and there can be no doubt that this heavily influenced even early Judaism.  In fact one may see the Qumran community as a reaction to the over-Hellenization of  early Judaism in Jerusalem.  But their protest did not stem the tide of Hellenization. The building program of Herod the Great was intent to turn Jerusalem into a cosmopolitan city influenced by Greek culture, as the building of the theater and the hippodrome right in the shadow of the Temple makes evident.  There was in fact a school of rhetoric right in Jerusalem during Paul’s day, and we need not doubt it affected the preaching of those who spoken in synagogues where Greek was spoken, including in Jerusalem.[4]

We must also reckon with the influence of Jewish schooling in a more general sense as well. Speaking of students at a Sabbath school in Alexandria Philo tells us that what was taught these students was the following—“they were trained in piety, holiness, justice, domestic and civic conduct, knowledge of what is truly good or evil, or indifferent, and how to choose what they should do and avoid the opposite, taking for their defining standards these three— love of God, love of virtue, love of people” (Every Good Man is Free 83).  This almost reads like a summary of many of the major topics discussed in these early Christian letters and homilies (see  e.g  1 John), and we may be reasonably sure that these same sorts of topics of orthopraxy were regularly preached in the synagogues, as well as in early Christian house churches.”

“Of course it is the case that not all early Christian sermons followed a rhetorical pattern.  One would be hard pressed to find such a pattern in some of the relevant NT material.  What we can say at this juncture is that 1 John, James, Hebrews, and probably Jude should all be seen as homilies of one sort or another, with Hebrews most closely following rhetorical conventions. These documents either have no, or very minimal epistolary elements, and should never have been analyzed primarily as letters in the first place.   On the other hand we have the Pastoral Epistles (perhaps excepting 1 Timothy, which is more of an exhortation), 2 and 3 John and 1 Peter which definitely can and probably should be analyzed primarily as letters.   This is the sort of genre division of material which will guide our study in these two volumes.

What is important to recognize about all these documents is that they are intended to be pastoral in character and are not theological or ethical treatises in any case.  Their uses of Scriptures and other resources are primarily homiletical rather than exegetical in character by and large and what we actually find in these documents is not theology and ethics but theologizing and ethicizing into specific situations, hopefully in a persuasive manner.   These documents are, by and large, words of exhortation, with ethics and practical matters to the fore, though theology is also not neglected.

If we ask what is the real importance of these documents tucked away towards the back of the NT canon, we can answer that they are very important.  They give us a window on early Christian life between the middle of the first century and the early second century A.D.  Indeed they are some of the very few resources that directly deal with this largely hidden period of time.  Acts, as we are well aware, stops its narrative in about A.D. 60-62 with Paul in Rome and it is the only historical monograph we have from and about the first century church.  The Gospels while written later do not provide direct evidence, only indirect evidence, of what Christian communities were like in the last third of the century.  In this regard they are unlike these sermons and letters which do provide a more direct window into this important period as the apostles were passing away and the torch of Christian faith was being passed to another generation. While the  Book of Revelation, especially Rev. 1-2, does give us a glimpse of church life in the 90s in Asia, it is only a glimpse in passing, for John’s focus is primarily on the future.  There is much to be gained from close analysis of this material if we are to understand the end of the apostolic era, and how the transition was made to a time when there would no longer be apostles.  But there is another reason why this literature is crucial.

In her detailed and brilliant lectures A. Cameron has shown that Christian discourse going all the way back to the first century A.D. and forward into the Middle Ages was a discourse that was shaped by and sought to shape society.  It was not shaped merely by and for its own conventicles and churches.  Christianity was profoundly an evangelistic enterprise and so it is not a surprise that it would adopt and adapt the familiar and popular forms of speaking and writing of the day, and use them to its own ends to convict, convince and convert many for Christ.  Cameron aptly says:

‘Christianity was not just ritual. It placed an extraordinary premium on verbal formulation; speech constituted one of its basic metaphors, and it framed itself around written texts. Quite soon this very emphasis on the verbal formulation of the faith led to a self-imposed restriction—an attempt, eventually on the whole successful, to impose an authority of discourse. And eventually—though only after much struggle and with many variations—this approved discourse came to be the dominant one in the state. The story of the development of Christian discourse constitutes part of the political history… Early Christian rhetoric was not always…the specialized discourse its own practitioners often claimed it to be. Consequently its reception was easier and wider ranging than modern historians allow, and its effect correspondingly more telling. The seemingly alternative rhetorics, the classical or the pagan and the Christian, were more nearly one than their respective practitioners, interested in scoring off of each other, would have us believe.'”[5]

The fact that Revelation was copied, and widely circulated in early Christianity, to the extent that it was much debated well into the 4th century as to whether it was apostolic in character, and even  if it was, whether it should be included in the NT canon (a debate that continued even into the Reformation, when there was little understanding of the nature of Jewish apocalyptic prophecy) demonstrates that this material was not just seen as preaching to the choir. It was also seen as having some evangelistic and missional import, and in fact it still does as Jeff’s helpful study amply demonstrates.

—–

[1] Though it is clear enough from Saul of Tarsus’ zealotic activities against Jewish Christians that orthodoxy was of some concern as well— see Gal. 1.

[2]  F. Wills, “The Form of the Sermon in Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity,” HTR 77 (1984), pp. 75-99.

[3]  See C.C. Black, “The Rhetorical Form of the Hellenistic Jewish and Early Christian Sermon: A Response to Lawrence Wills,”  HTR 81 (1988), pp. 1-18,  and Witherington, Acts , pp. 406-407 on Acts 13.

[4]  On this matter see  Witherington, The Paul Quest, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), pp. 90-98, M. Hengel The Pre-Christian Paul, (Valley Forge: Trinity Press Int. 1991), pp.  54-60.  On the whole issue of Judaism and Hellenism the classic study is of course M. Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism (2 volumes: Phila: Fortress, 1974) to which one must add the supplement of his The Hellenization of Judaea in the First Century after Christ, (Phila: Trinity Press, 1989).

[5]  A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1991), pp. 19-20.




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