Honest Theology Episode 3 – The Semantic Field in Word Studies

The new episode of the weekly podcast Honest Theology is now available for viewing. This week’s episode contains:

-a devotion in Isa 2:22 regarding the pitfalls of regarding too highly celebrity preachers/theologians

-a demonstration of how to do a word study by examining the semantic field of a given word (in this case, ‘morphe’ from Phil 2:6-7)

-suggestions of honest commentaries for the Gospel of Luke

-exegesis of Rev 1:7-10a

 

Hope you enjoy the show!

Advertisements

Honest Theology episode 2 -Genre of the Gospels as Greco-Roman Biographies

Here is the link to the second episode of Honest Theology, the weekly show aimed at helping you interpret the Bible with honesty and truthfulness. This week, we discuss the genre of the four biblical Gospels as closely identified with ancient Greco-Roman biographies. After discussing the information regarding Gospel genre, we recommend a few critical commentaries on the Gospel of Mark, stopping to read a great quote on Mark 13:32. From there, we move onto our ongoing exegesis of the Book of Revelation by examining the episolary introductions to the book in Rev 1:4-6, highlighting there some extremely important nuggets of truth within the text.

Let me know what you think of the show.

 

 

Honest Theology – Pilot episode

Today was the beginning of a new show/podcast/livestream/radio program (not sure what it really is) called Honest Theology. The aim of Honest Theology is to help you interpret the Bible with honesty and truthfulness.

In this episode, the pilot, we talked about the Synoptic Problem and why most scholars have settled upon Mark and Q being written sources for Matthew and Luke. We also looked at excellent commentaries for Matthew’s Gospel. Furthermore, we performed exegesis upon Rev 1:1-3.

Let me know what you think of the show. The plan is to have the show livestreamed weekly from 10:30am – noon EST every Sunday morning. If you do not have a place of fellowship during that time, please consider joining us on the livestream!

Book Review (part 16: How Jewish were the Writings of the New Testament?) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Christians-vs-jewsAs we continue through my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek we turn to the chapter entitled ‘Jewish Christianity.’ This section attempts to survey the manner in which early expressions of Christ-devotion were either characterized as Jewish or self-identified as a continuation of the Judaic heritage. Although this chapter has a lot of weighty arguments regarding how more emphasis needs to be placed upon the influence of James the Just in the Jerusalem Church and the various Jewish-Christian ‘sects’ existing in the second century CE, I wanted to highlight in particular Dunn’s inquiry into determining in what sense the NT documents themselves stressed their ‘Jewishness’ (section 45.4). Since the following chapter in the book deals with the ‘Parting of the Ways,’ it is significant to lay the groundwork regarding in what sense Judaism and Christianity were intertwined prior to their unfortunate divorce. Furthermore, it is common stock in some of the more popular discussions about the Christian faith to regard Judaism and its scriptures (the Hebrew Bible/OT) as passe or old hat. It is therefore prudent to examine in what sense did the NT documents regard themselves as Jewish.

 

The New Testament Gospels

Mark Dunn regards the Gospel as Mark as the least Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. However, it opens up with pivotal quotations from Exod. 23:20 and Isa. 40:3. It focuses on the Judaean region and Galilee in particular. The climax of Jesus’ ministry is depicted as Peter’s confession regarding the Messiah of Israel’s hopes. Furthermore, Jesus is regarded as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus honors the Shema of Deut. 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment and selects Lev. 19:18 as the next most important priority. Overall, Mark does not attempt to exonerate Jesus from his context or deny the Jewish character of his mission.

Luke –  The Gentile orientation of Luke-Acts is readily visible. Nevertheless, Luke makes a considerable effort to ensure that the Jewishness of Jesus’ mission and purpose is evident. The opening songs in Luke chs. 1-2 depict the Jewish hope now fulfilled in the respective births of John and Jesus. Luke alone mentions how the young Jesus was circumcised and how the offering for purification was given in accordance with the Law. Jesus himself regards his ministry as a fulfillment of Isa. 61:1-2. He promises his disciples that they will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. Even after his resurrection Jesus claims that everything written about him in the Law and the Prophets was to be fulfilled in him. In sum, Luke takes for granted the Jewish character of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew – It should go without saying that Matthew’s Gospel is thoroughly Jewish. It commences with its argument that Jesus is born as the climax of the promises to David and Abraham, tracing his genealogy with some forty Israelite/Jewish persons. Jesus himself insists that he came to preach to the lost sheep of Israel. In the famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus regards the nature of his teachings to be raised higher than those of the Pharisees. It is almost certain that Matthew depicts Jesus as the ‘new Moses’ and the one who reorganizes Israel around himself. Principally, Matthew is deeply-rooted and interested in depicting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

John – Although it is common to regard John as something theologically less-Jewish that its Synoptic counterparts, even it expresses a commitment to Israel’s heritage. John’s Gospel is, in fact, the only of the four to call Jesus “Messiah” (1:41; 4:25-26). Along the same lines, it is also the only Gospel to regard Jesus as the [Passover] lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world. It makes reference to Jewish imagery, such as Moses’ bronze serpent and the water from Jacob’s well, and interprets Jesus through the lens of these Jewish symbols. Jesus states that Moses wrote about him, thus arguing for continuity between the Torah and the climactic ministry of Jesus. Although John expresses a deep schism between the local Ephesian synagogue and the Johannine community, it nevertheless regards the Jesus-movement to be the proper fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.

 

The ‘Paulines’

The Undisputed Seven Letters – Dunn chose to not deal with these documents in this section, presumably because the scope of his book is limited to the period between 70 and the middle of the second century CE.

Ephesians – Some might be surprised that Ephesians is steeped in Jewish characteristics. It highlights the need to take the Jewish gospel to non-Jews. Its recipients, whomever they were, are regarded twice as “saints” in the opening few verses. In fact, Ephesians regards its audience with the title “saints” more times than any other Pauline epistle. Regular Jewish phrases like, “Blessed are you,” “chosen,” “the beloved,” “the mystery of his will,” and “God’s possession” appear within Ephesians. Although the citations are from the LXX there exist over twenty quotes from the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. Its audience is comforted by regarding them, not as aliens and strangers, but as fellow-citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God and Christ.

The Pastoral Epistles – In contrast to Ephesians the Pastoral epistles exhibit a lesser degree of Jewish material. The focus seems to be primarily on Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles. The Jewish Law is still regarded as “good,” “the Law for the lawless,” etc. 1 Timothy speaks of Adam and Eve as common characters familiar with the audience in Ephesus, alludes to Genesis (1:31 and 9:3), and cites explicitly from Deuteronomy (19:15 and 25:4). 2 Timothy in particular regards the Jewish scriptures as inspired/God-breathed and authoritative for life and practice. Titus shows some conflict with Jewish themes (“Jewish myths,” “quarrels relating to the Law,” “those of the circumcision”). However, Dunn suggests that a conflict between Titus’ community and the local synagogue might be the best explanation for these markers.

 

The Rest of the New Testament

Hebrews – It is hardly necessary to argue for the Jewish character in Hebrew, as it is plainly obvious with its nearly forty references and quotations from the OT/LXX. It arguably regards Jesus as the expression of Lady Wisdom in its opening verses. It depicts Jesus as one who is superior to the angels with an argument built on Jewish references. It possessed an clear interest in the priesthood, sacrifices, the Sabbath rest, the holy of holies, the sanctuary, and the elusive Melchizedek. Chapter 11 of Hebrews paints many of the famous figures from the Old Testament (and come from the intertestimental period) as heroes of faith. Hebrews, overall, is arguably one of the most Jewish text in the NT.

James – Dunn summarizes his arguments from Beginning from Jerusalem where James is depicted as an anthology of Jewish wisdom tradition. Particularly, the Book of Proverbs serves as the foundation for the thought and theme of James. A positive attitude towards the Jewish Law is maintained throughout James. Those who cherished the Book of James certainly valued its Jewish heritage.

1 Peter – Although 1 Peter is written to Gentile believers in the eastern part of the Roman empire, it nevertheless regards the identity of its recipients as ‘Jewish identity.’ It makes a strong claim that Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies (1:10-11) and scatters  a variety of allusions to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings in all five of its chapters.

Jude – All of Jude’s warnings are based upon the foundation of particular Jewish warnings, with over a dozen examples cited by Dunn. Furthermore, Jude was certainly influenced by 1 Enoch (seven references noted by Dunn). Jude also makes the claim that he is the brother of James, the former head of the Jerusalem Church.

2 Peter – Dunn follows the majority of scholars in seeing 2 Peter as dependent upon Jude. This means that it carries with it Jude’s Jewish character. Furthermore, 2 Peter chapter three exhibits a thoroughly-Jewish farewell speech, drawing upon Isa. 65. It is also, apart from the Synoptics, the only reference to Jesus’ transfiguration vision.

Johannine Writings – The stress on Jewish themes is quieter in these three documents. There is an insistence on confessing Jesus as ‘the Christ.’ Christ, as a title, is still expressed in these late documents. Jesus is also remembered as “the righteous one.”

Revelation – Like Matthew and Hebrews, the Book of Revelation hardly needs to be argued for its Jewish character. It draws heavily on Ezekiel and Daniel, particularly for its christological expressions of the risen and exalted Jesus.  Jesus is further described as the Lion from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and the Lamb. Dunn interestingly regards Revelation as “a new Ezekiel” in light of its indebtedness to its visions and symbols.

 

After reading Dunn’s summary I was surprised at the measure of continuity between the Jewish/Hebrew Bible and the NT writings. I always had a strong feeling of connection between the testaments, but Dunn demonstrates that it is stronger than I had originally appreciated. Dunn offers the following summary of his inquiry into the Jewishness of the NT documents:

The core founding documents of what became catholic Christianity were also Jewish through and through, deeply rooted in Jewish scriptures, faith and ethics, so much so that it is not inaccurate to describe mainstream Christianity as directly continuous with Second Temple Judaism, and catholic Christianity itself as Jewish Christianity, since the Jewish character of Christianity in integral to its identity.

What do you think of Dunn’s assessment regarding how Jewish the NT documents were? Be sure to ‘Like,’ share, and subscribe for further updates. Have a safe and happy New Years.

Book Review (part 6: Late NT Documents) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

codex-sinaiticusIn this sixth post regarding my recap and thoughts on Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek I will attempt to summarize the discussion pertaining to the last of the NT documents (§39.3b-h). In this section Dunn offers his take on the introductory issues regarding the Pastorals, Hebrews, Jude, 2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Revelation. One of the refreshing feelings I walked away with after reading his comments on these document is the openness Dunn willingly admits in that some questions we just do not have enough evidence to answer with certainty (and that is OK). Too often teachers and interpreters of the Bible offer hard-pressed answers when there is not enough data to facilitate such a response. Anyway, here is where Dunn comes down on these various documents:

The Pastoral Letters

Authorship: pseudonymous, based upon language, style, historical circumstances, the share opposition to the communities, the increasing institutionalization, and the crystallization of the faith into set forms.

Purpose: to ensure that the enduring structure of Paul’s churches were cherished and passed down to the next generation of believers. Dunn notes that it is not impossible that the Pastorals were written to the historical Timothy and Titus.

Date: 80-100 CE.

 

Hebrews 

Authorship: unknown, but someone strongly influenced by the Hellenistic Jewish world.

Purpose: also unknown. The reference to greetings sent from those from Italy (Heb 13:24) could indicate that it was written in Rome. Furthermore, the note that “Timothy had been set free from prison” could equally indicate that it was penned in Ephesus.  Dunn notes how the repeated emphasis on the believer’s ‘conscience’ indicates a function of strengthening the resolves of a community with the temptation of giving up/falling away.

Date: in the 80s. The fact that Hebrews speaks of the ongoing actions of the temple and its rituals is not a strong indicator of a pre-70 CE date, as even Josephus continued to speak in this manner clearly after the temple’s destruction.

 

Jude

Authorship: probably pseudonymous, perhaps representing the teachings which were known to have come from Jude. The author clearly has a knowledge of the Hebrew text rather than the LXX, suggesting a Palestinian author.

Purpose: to distribute this sermon of sorts within Palestine, with the possibility that the author is grappling with the Pauline heritage.

Date: late in the first century in light of the following: its apocalyptic character, the reference to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints,” the reference to the apostles in retrospect (Jude 1:17), the possibility of libertine Gnostics as the opponents, and the lack of teaching within the document. Jude must have been written prior to 2 Peter for reasons which Dunn will soon discuss.

 

2 Peter 

Authorship: Dunn thinks this document is pseudonymous as well, noting how 2 Peter seems to have used Jude as a source (similarly to Matthew’s use of Mark and Ephesians’ use of Colossians). For support of his conclusions, he uses this chart:

jude2pet jude2peter2Since 2 Peter draws upon Jude (which itself is later than Peter’s supposed date of martyrdom) then 2 Peter must have been penned by a pseudonymous author.

Purpose: unknown, and the nature of the opponents’ identity is difficult to perceive with any measure of certainty.

Date: early second century, due in part to: the concern over the delay of the parousia and the acknowledgement that Paul’s letters are recognized Scripture.

 

1-3 John

Authorship: within the Johannine school/community. 1 John makes no claim in regard to its author, while 2 and 3 John  claim to be written by “the Elder” (perhaps another John within the Apostle John’s community).

Purpose: to address schisms within the community (likely in Ephesus), which is different from the Fourth Gospel’s issue regarding how the community is to deal with the local synagogue down the street.

Date: end of first century or even beginning of the second century CE.

 

Revelation

Authorship: a Jewish prophet named John (who never claims to be the Apostle).

Purpose: to encourages believers within the seven named churches in Asia Minor to endure the social and political pressure to participate in the imperial cult. Dunn also identifies the beast with seven heads and ten horns with Roman imperial power (along with the reference to Babylon in ch. 18).

Date: in the 90s CE, although he does footnote a discussion that some scholars are now suggesting that the book could possibly be later than that.

 

In sum, Dunn seems to follow the consensus of modern critical NT scholars, carefully noting when there is not enough information to give a strong answer. He does not suggest anything too radical at this point, thus allowing his readers who are familiar with modern scholarly conclusions on these issues regarding the NT writings to follow his train of thought with relative ease.

What do you all think? Any comments in regard to Dunn’s reconstructions?

Be sure to subscribe for further updates!

 

 

My Dissertation is Available

Shameless advertising, I know. However, if you were one of the many who contacted me about reading my dissertation, now is your chance. 

https://www.createspace.com/4793772

The cover art is of Nike, the goddess of Victory. My main thesis is that Jesus conquers in all the wrong ways compared to those which the original audience of the Apocalypse would have expected. This theme of ‘paradoxical conquering’ pervades the document and is arguably a key lens for intelligent interpretation. 

Image

The Mark of the Beast, Microchips, and Recent Hoaxes

The Friendly Atheist recently alerted me to a rather amusing hoax involving one of the Book of Revelation’s most talked about subjects: the mark of the Beast. In short, there was an online joke which made the following statement:

On May 2014, through Europe newborn children will be compelled to take in a subcutaneous RFID chip.

Public clinics in the European Union are to be alerted. The chip in inquiry will be contributed with the report sheet on the newborn. This chip will also be an impressive GPS sensor that will task with a micro-disposable battery every 2 years in state clinics. GPS chip grants an edge of error of 5 meters, as a statement that it is excellent. It will be linked straight to a satellite, which will guide the networks. As forecasted, this chip will be essential for all kids born after May 2014, but with a present confirmation date until December 2016.

European newborn children are, according to the joke, mandated to take in a microchip which will be linked to a global satellite. This was likely to provoke a Christian backlash (which inevitably happened). Many cried foul play when it seemed that newborn children were being forced to be “marked” with the mark of the Beast.

hoaxI find this amusing for two reasons. First of all, it demonstrates that even an article promoting this joke containing the word “hoax” will still be taken seriously by fanatical readers. Secondly, it demonstrates that there is a huge muddle over what the Book of Revelation was attempting to convey with “the mark of the Beast” motif. I was able to work some with this theme during my research for my dissertation “Paradoxical Conquering in the Apocalypse of John” (which I recently successfully defended). I will take this opportunity to shed some light on the mark of the Beast in hopes of encouraging intelligent discourse on the matter (and to discourage fanatical panic rooted in ignorance).

The mark (χάραγμα) of the Beast appears in seven passages in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 13:16-17 provides the first two occurrences,

And [the beast from the earth] causes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free men and the slaves, to be given a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, and he provides that no one will be able to buy or to sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name.

This passage indicates that the Beast from the earth will encourage everyone to take upon themselves this mark. There will be potential financial restrictions for those who refuse this marking. We also learn that the mark is placed either on the forehead or on the hand. More information is gained in Rev. 14:9-11,

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

This passage threatens those who both receive the mark and offer worship unto the Beast with severe images of punishment. We also note that the mark is again placed on the forehead and on the hand. Revelation 16:2 further discourages John’s audience,

So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth; and it became a loathsome and malignant sore on the people who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image.

Punishment is threatened on those who receive the mark and who offer up false worship. The Book of Revelation ensures its readers that the beasts will get what is coming to them (Rev. 19:20),

And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone.

The false prophet is the same character as the beast from the earth. We see that people are that tricked, lied to, and deceived into taking the mark of the Beast. False worship is again linked with this mark.

The final reference to the mark of the Beast occurs in Rev. 20:4,

Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given for them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, even those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

This passage demonstrates that the Christian martyrs who remained loyal to the gospel, refused to offer false worship, and didn’t take the mark will be vindicated and richly rewarded. The mark is again located on the forehead and on the hand.

These references to “marking” demonstrate, in some sense, a measure of religious allegiance. To be marked with the mark of the Beast entails worship offered unto him. Those who don’t take this mark are characterized by their alternative allegiance to the testimony of Jesus and the word of God. With this in mind, let us examine the way in which the faithful are “marked” in the Book of Revelation:

The one who is conquering, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. (Rev. 3:12)

Then I looked, and behold, the Lamb was standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads. (Rev. 14:1)

they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. (Rev 22:4)

Note that the faithful are characterized by having the name of the true God, the Father, written upon their foreheads. This would have the rhetorical effect of encouraging John’s audience to stay loyal in their religious allegiance and to not compromise by participating in the imperial cult, local trade guilds, or even the pagan temples. We are aware of devotees to the Asclepius cult who wore a secret symbol to their deity. Point being, this sort of marking was a legitimate religious concern for John’a audience.

I also want to note how the “marking of the forehead” is used throughout the Hebrew Bible as a sign of identifying religious allegiance:

-Aaron wore the high priest’s turban upon his forehead during his sacred duties (Exod. 28:37-38).

-The Creed of Israel, the Shema, shall be bound to the hand and to the forehead (Deut. 6:4, 8).

-Uzziah the king was punished with leprosy upon his forehead for illicitly invading the temple’s sacred space (2 Chron. 26:19-20).

-Isaiah the prophet condemns Israel for her stubbornness, which is described as having a “bronze forehead” (Isa. 48:4).

-Jeremiah speaks similarly by labeling Judah’s stubbornness as a “harlot’s forehead” (Jer. 3:3).

-Ezekiel is commanded by God to mark the forehead of those who lament the nation’s abominations, which will in turn mark them out for deliverance (Ezek. 9:4-7).

In summary, the mark of the Beast is not a literal stamp (or microchip), but rather a sign of devotion and allegiance to false worship. The faithful in the Book of Revelation refuse to take this mark and instead take the mark of devotion to the one true God, the Father. The Book of Revelation discourages religious compromise and encourages fidelity unto God and unto the Lamb. So while the mark of the Beast had a legitimate application for John’s Asian audience, it nevertheless continues to encourage readers today to avoid religious compromise and false systems of prostration which take away from that which is due to the true God.

 

The Apocalypse of John and True Worship

A significant motif can be found in nearly every chapter of the Apocalypse of John which does not seem to appear, with the same emphasis, in the other letters of the NT: the theme of worship. False worship is rebuked while true worship is encouraged. A number of scholars have emphasized the extent of the Apocalypse’s stress on this subject (for further reading, see the bibliography at the bottom).   

In the fourth chapter John describes his visionary experience concerning the throne of God. Within this description is a statement concerning the four living creatures and their activity. Revelation 4:8 states that these creatures sing the Holy Holy Holy song, 

“day and night they do not cease”

The Greek phrase here, ἀνάπαυσιν οὐκ ἔχουσιν ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς, struck me as odd when I read it a few month back in preparation for my dissertation. It was interesting when I saw the parallel phrase in the Greek text in another passage, Rev. 14:9-11, 

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” 

The phrase here, used to describe the duration of those who pursue false worship (of the beast, his image, and his mark) is οὐκ ἔχουσιν ἀνάπαυσιν ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτὸς. Both Rev. 4:8 and 14:11 have the same phrase (slightly different order) and these are the only two occurrences in the entire Bible! The rhetorical point would be clear for John’s original audience, many of whom were daily tempted to compromise and join in the pagan worship at the local temple or even of Domitian: worship the true God and don’t worship the beast or his image!  

Image

My mini-bibliography on the subject of worship in the Apocalypse of John: Otto A. Piper, “The Apocalypse of John and the Liturgy of the Ancient Church,” CH 20 (1951): 10; Lucetta Mowry, “Revelation 4-5 and Early Christian Liturgical Usage,” JBL 71 (1952): 75-84; Massey H. Shepherd, The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (London: Lutterworth Press, 1960) ; John J. O’Rourke, “The Hymns of the Apocalypse,” CBQ 30 (1968): 399-409; Vernon Kooy, “The Apocalypse and Worship – some Preliminary Observations,” Reformed Review 30 (1976): 198-209; Richard L. Jeske, “Spirit and Community in the Johannine Apocalypse,” NTS 31 (1985): 452-66; David L. Barr, “The Apocalypse of John as Oral Enactment,” Int 40 (1986): 243-56; Fred B. Craddock, “Preaching the Book of Revelation,” Int 40 (1986): 270-82; David Aune, “The Influence of the Roman Imperial Cult Ceremonial on the Revelation of John,” BibRes 28 (1983): 5-26; idem, “The Apocalypse of John and Graeco-Roman Revelatory Magic,” NTS 33 (1987): 481-501; David G. Peterson, “Worship in the Revelation to John,” RTR 47 (1988): 67-77; Thompson, Apocalypse and Empire, 53; idem, “Hymns in Early Christian Worship,” ATR 55 (1973): 458-72; Eugene H. Peterson, “Learning to Worship from Saint John’s Revelation,” in Christianity Today, October 28, 1991, 23-5. 

Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Why was Revelation Written?

Thanks for joining us for another segment on the Apocalypse of John. Today we will discuss how persecution in particular relates to the occasion of this document, which admittedly is a fiercely debated issue. Regarding the internal evidence, particularly in the letters to the seven churches, there are only sporadic references to persecution of Christians. Believers in Smyrna are told that they will be thrown into prison (2:10) and one particular Christian named Antipas has already suffered as a martyr in Pergamum (2:13). Conflict and harassment with the local Jewish synagogues (2:9; 3:9), as the split between the followers of Christ and Judaism became ever more apparent, surely brought antagonism and hostility to the Asian churches. Contact with various manifestations of the Roman imperial cult very likely brought tension with the monotheistic faith of the churches in Asia Minor. Other references are more general, revealing that John desired that his recipients refuse to assimilate in a compromising manner into the culture of Greco-Roman society.

The particular manner of conflict experienced by John’s audience was likely to be of the sort described by Pliny the Younger in one of his letters to the emperor Trajan (Ep. Trajan 10:96-7). The exchange between Pliny and Trajan (circa 112 CE) demonstrates that Christians could indeed be killed simply for being Christians. According to Trajan’s response, in order to avoid being killed, Christians would have to repeat an invocation to the gods, offer prostration (using wine and frankincense) to Trajan’s image, and subsequently curse Christ. There was not an active program of persecution where Christians were sought out and hunted down. Pliny’s request for advice from Trajan presupposes, rather, that there was no formal precedent for dealing with the Christian sect. Trajan responded by stating that if the occasion arose then the penalty of death was certainly warranted, although he orders that the Christians should not be actively sought out.

Image

The nature of the conflict was one that would not have been perceived by the imperial authorities as out of place. However, Christians sympathetic to John would have perceived imperial hostility as a significant struggle, as the particularly small congregations, with their limited sources of power, stood no chance against the might of the Roman Empire. The emperor Domitian, as a conservative citizen of Rome, would have felt no qualms about “keeping the peace” by threatening what he would have perceived as an unpatriotic, upstart religion. The Pax Romana was, after all, the most decisive and prized sign of the times. Christians who refused to participate with the imperial cults or other forms of religious activity which they deemed offensive would almost certainly encounter harassment at the local level, which would include social ostracism, public shame, and even the seizure of their property. John, acting out the role of a Christian prophet, recognized that his audience faced a historical crisis and therefore composed the Apocalypse in order to offer a response to this catastrophe. The audience, by hearing the words of the document read aloud within their worship services, would participate in John’s experience as a seer and thereby appropriate the visions for their own Sitz im Leben.    

I strongly argue that the circumstances for composing the Apocalypse of John must be taken seriously when attempting to interpret its message and meaning.  

Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Why Was John on Patmos?

Why was John, the Jewish-Christian prophet, on the island of Patmos? What was the island like? John reports in Rev 1:9 that he was on the island of Patmos “on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (διὰ τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ). It has often been assumed from the very earliest interpreters of the Apocalypse that John was relocated to Patmos as a punishment of Roman exile.

However, there seems to be no evidence that Patmos was ever used as a location of exile. David Aune, (Revelation 1-5, 78) has pointed out that Patmos had both a temple of Artemis and a gymnasium situated upon it during the first century CE. He also argues that, based upon this evidence, that there is no Roman evidence to indicate that Patmos was ever a prison settlement.

It is true that the Roman punishment of exile (to an island) was in full force during the first century (it was a legitimate punishment even in the city of Corinth). Many scholars uncritically point to this evidence as proof to that John suffered exile. However, when we look at the specific islands used for such punishment, Patmos never once appears among the lists. Tacitus (Annals 3.68) is often cited by scholars in favor of the exile interpretation, but this text only demonstrates that banishment to islands was a regularly practiced punishment. Patmos is not listed by Tacitus, but the island of Gyarus is. In Annals 4.30 Tacitus refers to the islands of Gyarus, Donusa, and Amorgus as locations (which he is aware of) used for the Roman punishment of banishment. 

Patmos was certainly a known island for ancient historians and geographers. The Greek historian Thucydides refers to Patmos in passing in The Peloponnesian War 3.33.3, and mentions nothing about the island’s description. The geographer Strabo cites it in his Geography 10.5.13, but like Thucydides mentions nothing other than its location.  Pliny (Nat. Hist. 4.12.69) refers to Patmos as one of many islands in Southern Aegean, but makes no mention of it as a location of exiles. 

Statements made by scholars that Patmos was an island of banishment or prison colony have been uncritically influenced by the ancient Christian interpretations of Rev. 1:9, but not by verifiable evidence. So if John was not exiled to Patmos, why was he there? Let’s take a look again at his reason, found in Rev. 1:9 (“on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus”). The preposition dia used with the accusative could easily mean “because of,” or “on account of.” Since the “word of God” is a shorthand reference to the Christian gospel message, and since “the testimony of Jesus” likely refers to the Christian kerygma both spoken by Jesus and concerning Jesus, it is much more likely that John was on Patmos for evangelistic purposes. Leonard Thompson (“Ordinary Lives: John and His First Readers,” in Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students, ed. David L. Barr [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003], 33-4), offers the attractive hypothesis which suggests that John was meeting with a Christian congregation located on the island of Patmos. Although we have no data about a Christian community existing on Patmos, this suggestion is more likely to be historical than the popular suggestion that John was located there because of exile.

Since the theme of holding fast to the testimony of Jesus is a significant motif within the Apocalypse, it is likely that John is using himself as an example of faithful gospel-preaching, despite the fact that he shares in their tribulation (1:9b).

Patmos has now turned into a tourist attraction. From the looks of this picture, I wouldn’t mind being exiled there 🙂

Image

   

Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Who is John?

Thanks for tuning into another installment of this series of insights I found myself convinced of after my doctoral studies focusing on the Apocalypse of John. This post will deal with the [human] author of this document: John. 

Scholars have, for the most part, taken the identity of this figure as being either the Apostle (John of Zebedee) or a Christian prophet named John, known by the seven churches in Asia Minor. Other suggestions, such as the one proposed in Ford’s commentary in the Anchor Bible series, that this is John the Baptist, have not found many followers. There is a strong tradition tied to the Apocalypse being composed by the Apostle John, but we know how reliable ‘traditions’ can be. Nevertheless, it is prudent to look at all the evidence concerning this person named John before coming to a conclusion on his identity.

Image

One thing is for certain: John does not claim to be one of the apostles. We know from Paul’s letters (esp. 1 and 2 Corinthians) that, at times, apostles were not hesitant to pull rank in order to bring order to a chaotic Christian community. The John of the Apocalypse does no such thing. We also know from Paul’s letters that an apostle can excommunicate a disobedient member, even when they aren’t physically present at the Christian gathering (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-3). When a so-called prophetess designated as “Jezebel” stirs up trouble in Thyatira, John does not seem to have the authority to put her out of the church (as Paul demonstrated). He does, however, claim to be a servant (1:1), a brother (1:9), and a fellow partaker in the tribulation, kingdom, and nonviolent endurance (1:9).

The “Twelve Apostles” are mentioned in Rev. 18:20 and 21:14, but they are described as a group distinct from John. He makes no attempt to include himself in this group. It does not, therefore, seem that the John of the Apocalypse is one of the Twelve. If that is the case, who is he and what authority does he really possess? His manner of discourse is through persuasion.

His prophetic authority is derived from his personal conviction that the risen Jesus has commissioned him by signifying the apocalyptic experience through an angelic mediator (1:1, 3; 22:7, 10, 18-19). This means that John saw himself as a Christian prophet whose purpose was to communicate his visionary experiences to the seven churches of Asia Minor. It is difficult to tell how much exposure he actually had with the churches. It is true that he had developed some prophetic rivals, such as the Nicolatians and the prophetess Jezebel. Therefore, the Christian communities in Asia Minor had to decide whether or not the prophet John truly had legitimate prophetic authority.  

Insights on the Apocalypse of John: Original Audience

I apologize about the lack of recent posts. I recently finished up my dissertation, formatted it, and sent it to be bound. I am waiting for it to arrive in the mail (today, Lord willing). 

I will begin a series of posts concerning some of the important insights I acquired during my intensive research and writing on the document known as the Apocalypse of John. The first deals with the original audience.

Image

Why make such a fuss about John’s original audience? I do so because many readers, both in the academy and at the popular level, categorically remove their interpretations of this document from the contexts of the first readers and hearers. Establishing, as best as a historian can with the data available, who the document was written to and how they most likely would have understood its words, is foundational to responsible methods of interpretation. When one reads the book of Jeremiah, written during the tenure of King Josiah, most readers know that they need to, at least first, read the document in view of how the Israelites might have understood the prophet’s oracles. The same goes for 1 Corinthians, i.e., responsible readers need to first ask how Paul’s letter would have been heard in Corinth in the 50’s CE. If we ignore the original audience, then we can pretty much kiss goodbye any chance of understanding how the document was intended to be understood. Isn’t the entire purpose of reading these documents in order to correctly understand them?

When the responsible reader comes to John’s Apocalypse, the very first chapter sets the definitive stage by identifying the recipients:

John, to the seven churches which are located in Asia, grace to you all and peace… (Rev. 1:4)

It is hard to ignore John’s epistolary introduction in this document. Yes, he is writing a letter (which itself contains seven smaller letters in chs. 2-3). The list of congregations indicates that John had specific churches in mind when he composed the Apocalypse. These were real cities situated in Asia Minor toward the end of the first century CE.

“Now,” someone will certainly object, “John certainly wrote to seven churches but the coded symbols were intended to reveal events prior to the end of the age, and the end of the age is likely upon us now!” This is often the presupposition which readers bring to the Apocalypse, which in turn will change how they read the evidence therein. However, the very first verse gives another indicator:

The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show to his servants the things which are soon to take place (Rev. 1:1a)

The document further indicates that its contents are to be read aloud in the congregations and observed immediately:

Blessed is the one who reads aloud and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and who are keeping/observing the things which are written in it, because the decisive time is near. (Rev. 1:3)

John surely expected his audiences in Asia Minor to immediately heed the words of the Apocalypse because something big was just around the corner.

John identifies with his readers (the original audience) in his self-description found in 1:9:

I, John, your brother and your sharer in the tribulation, kingdom, and nonviolent endurance in Jesus, was on the Isle of Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John here specifically identifies with his audience. He is their brother, in the Christian sense. He is also their sharer in the tribulation, kingdom, and endurance. This indicates that John has experienced the distress, harassment, and persecution which his readers are also currently experiencing. He also states that he belongs to the alternative empire, the kingdom of God, despite the might and boasts of the current Roman regime. Lastly, he also shares in the stance of nonviolent endurance which is appropriate of following Jesus (something the Apocalypse will repeatedly impress upon its readers).

In short, the first chapter of the Apocalypse of John indicates that it carries epistolary forms by addressing seven congregations located in Asia Minor at the end of the first century CE (1:4). The visions within the document were revealed to John by Christ (who got it from God) and they concerned things which were about to take place in their lives (1:1). John expected the readers and hearers to observe the things written in the prophecy (not put it off as if they only had relevance toward 21st century readers) precisely because the decisive time was near (1:3). Lastly, John intimately identifies with the churches as a fellow Christian who has experienced persecution, demonstrated loyalty to the kingdom of God, and responded with nonviolent endurance (1:9). These points strongly suggest that modern readers need to give special attention to how Christians living in Asia Minor would have understood John’s vision if they want to do justice to the Apocalypse of John.    

Stay tuned and subscribe for further installments!