The activity of the Zealots and Sicarii further destabilized the political situation. The name Sicarii comes from a short sword that could be concealed under clothing.  The Sicarri would mingle into a crowd and assassinate their enemies. They were not really a religious sect, but rather a group of nationalist who advocated revolt against the Romans. They were “urban assassins,” primarily attacking the Jewish aristocracy who were pro-Roman.  Eventually they took to burning estates and taking hostages.  Jonathan the High Priest was their first victim. [Note that the word is used in Acts 21:38 to describe the activities of “The Egyptian,” the NIV translates the word as “terrorist” to avoid confusion with the later sicarri movement.]

Josephus, JW 2.13.3 (cf. Ant 20.8.10) (254) When the country was purged of these, there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the daytime, and in the midst of the city; (255) this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered.  (256) The first man who was slain by them was Jonathan the high priest, after whose death many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served, was more afflicting than the calamity itself; (257) and while everybody expected death every hour, as men do in war, so men were obliged to look before them, and to take notice of their enemies at a great distance; nor, if their friends were coming to them, durst they trust them any longer; but, in the midst of their suspicions and guarding of themselves, they were slain.  Such was the celebrity of the plotters against them, and so cunning was their contrivance.

Their terrorist activities helped to bring on the revolution.  The random assassinations lead to a distrust among the aristocracy and a general fear from the ruling class, leading to a breakdown of social order.

Image result for SicariiThe Zealots were a radical group that believed the Maccabean revolt was the “golden age” of Israel and struggled to start a revolution against the Romans. There may be no New Testament examples, although Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was called the “Zealot.”  Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13.  It is unlikely that this term means that Simon was a member of this party, which was not formally a party until A.D. 67-68.

A possible New Testament reference is the disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot.  Is this disciple a political zealot, a revolutionary?  Most New Testament scholars think not, preferring to take the word “zealot” in this context as spiritual zeal. Personally, I wonder about the word “zeal” having a modern sense of “spirituality” in the context of A.D. 30 Galilee, where only twenty years beforehand Judas led a revolt against Rome which might be described as “zeal.”  Notice also, there are two men named Judas out of the twelve disciples.  Judas was a patriotic name going back to Judas Maccabees, the last successful Jewish rebel against foreign power.  It is possible these men were born during the activities of Judas the Galilean.

The Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem were therefore in a dangerous place. If they appeared to be too open to Paul’s Gentile churches they ran the risk of real persecution from these more radical elements, yet they clearly preached Jesus was the Messiah, that he was crucified and raised from the dead, and that he was coming back soon to render judgment (on the temple officials, the Romans, etc.) and re-establish Messianic Kingdom expected by the prophets.

I am quite used to seeing stories about the historical Jesus in the media around Christmas and Easter. It is a good time for the History channel to trot out reruns of Secret Mysteries of the Bible or The Bible and Aliens. And to be honest, I occasionally watch these shows for entertainment. They are usually thin on details, but at least they have a few experts I know. Mark Goodacre, for example, served as a consultant on the BBC miniseries on the Bible (2013) and the more recent The Jesus Mysteries for the National Geographic channel.

Jesus smoking potBut not all holidays need a historical Jesus tie-in. Yesterday was April 20, which for a variety of reasons I will not go into here has become an unofficial national pot smoking day. It used to be a few stoners would giggle when you said 4/20, but now the day has crawled out of the dim light of the hydroponic rooms and into popular media. Even Jesus has been dragged into this made-up holiday.

The website Core Spirit ran an article yesterday which claimed “Experts suggest that cannabis may have been a key ingredient in the “anointing oil” used by Jesus and his followers in rituals for healing.” The article cites Naturalnews as saying “the original Hebrew version of the recipe in Exodus (30:22-23), contained over six pounds of kaneh-bosem.” Since kaneh-bosem sounds a little like cannabis, the article suggests Jesus used cannabis in his healing rituals. Jesus anointed the sick with the oil described in Exodus, so he was using cannabis a natural remedy for illness. Although he did spit on blind people on a couple of occasions, Jesus never anointed anyone with oil in the New Testament.

Although the article does not say “Jesus smoked pot” (which would be an anachronism), it is a re-hash of a 2003 article in the Guardian which itself is almost entirely drawn from an earlier High Times article “Was Jesus a Stoner?” by Chris Bennett. This is not really expert support for a rather startling claim.

Blah. This is not at all accurate (obviously). The noun קִנָּמוֹן refers to cinnamon and  בֹּשֶׂם is perfume made from a balsam tree. The standard lexicon for Hebrew Bible studies, the Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament identifies the these words clearly and provides their derivation. Although the combination is usually translated “aromatic spices,” cinnamon and balsam cannot be confused with cannabis.

Bible study group in Colorado combines love for God and marijuanaThe article concludes that “the Christ–cannabis connection debate is perhaps an example of an overdue reexamination of some of our collective beliefs that have been clouded by propaganda.” It then goes on to condemn the failed War on Drugs.

Core Spirit focuses on “Alternative and natural medicine” as well as “myth , magic and spirituality.” The expert they cite to support the idea Jesus may have used cannabis in his healing is Carl P. Ruck, professor of classical mythology at Boston University. Ruck is in fact a professor at Boston University, but he is more interested in magic mushrooms than history: “he identified the secret psychoactive ingredient in the visionary potion that was drunk by the initiates at the Eleusinian Mystery.” Seriously, look him up on Rate My Professor.

Anyone with minimal critical thinking skills will reject this article, although possibly critical thinking skills are a bit dull on April 20.

In addition to Jesus, there were other people claiming to be the messiah in the first century. Each of this examples are from humble origins (shepherds, etc.), sought to set themselves up as kings, and developed a peasant following.

Under the procurator Fadus (44-46) a messianic prophet appeared. Theudas convinced many Jews he could part the Jordan River. The Romans attacked the crowd, killing many, and beheaded Theudas. (Antiq. 20.97-99, Acts 5:36). Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the
fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904). This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Related imageTheudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Thuds’, he died and his followers dispersed.

Under the procurator Felix (52-60), prophets once again lead people into the wilderness promising that God was about to send signs of deliverance. Felix sent troops and once again killed large numbers. As Josephus says, “But the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified was incalculable, as also that of the citizens whom he arrested and punished as having been in league with them” (JW 2.13.2).

Another messianic pretender, known only as “The Egyptian” led a crowd in an attack on Jerusalem. Josephus reports 30,000 were in the crowd, but Acts 21:38 indicates only 4000 were involved. The Romans arrested many, but the Egyptian escaped. (JW 2.13.5, Acts 21:38).

Simon Bar Giora (Simon, son of the proselyte; died in A.D. 70). Simon represents the largest of the messianic movements (Josephus, JW, 4.9.3).  He fought against the Romans and helped unite the Zealots to a certain extent.  He eventually controlled Jerusalem, and took to wearing a white tunic and purple cape and called himself the “King of the Jews.”  He eventually surrendered to the Romans and was taken to Rome and ceremonially executed.

Josephus, JW, 4.9.3  (503) And now there arose another war at Jerusalem.  There was a son of Giora, one Simon, by birth of Gerasa, a young man, not so cunning indeed as John [of Gischala], who had already seized upon the city, (504) but superior in strength of body and courage; on which account, when he had been driven away from that Acrabattene toparchy, which he once had, by Ananus the high priest, he came to those robbers who had seized upon Masada.  (505) At first they suspected him, and only permitted him to come with the women he brought with him into the lower part of the fortress, while they dwelt in the upper part of it themselves.  (506) However, his manner so well agreed with theirs, and he seemed so trusty a man, that he went out with them, and ravaged and destroyed the country with them about Masada; (507) yet when he persuaded them to undertake greater things, he could not prevail with them so to do; for as they were accustomed to dwell in that citadel, they were afraid of going far from that which their hiding-place; (508) but he, affecting to tyrannize, and being fond of greatness, when he had heard of the death of Ananus, left them, and went into the mountainous part of the country.  So he proclaimed liberty to those in slavery, and a reward to those already free, and got together a set of wicked men from all quarters.

The story of Simon Bar Giora has several similarities to the execution of Jesus, although Jesus never made his claim to be the king of the Jews as explicit as Simon did. Each of these men portrayed themselves as a new Joshua or David and managed to gain a following large enough to attract the attention of the Romans, and in each case the Romans treat these false prophets and messianic pretenders as rebels against Roman power.

Josephus, Wars 1.10.5 Now Herod was an active man, and soon found proper materials for his active spirit to work upon.  As therefore he found that Hezekias, the head of the robbers, ran over the neighboring parts of Syria with a great band of men, he caught him and slew him, and many more of the robbers with him.

Josephus, Wars 1.16.2 But when Herod had reached Sepphoris, in a very great snow, he took the city without any difficulty, the guards that should have kept it flying away before it was assaulted; where he gave an opportunity to his followers that had been in distress to refresh themselves, there being in that city a great abundance of necessaries.  After which he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country, and did as great mischief to its inhabitants as a war itself could have done.  (305) Accordingly, he sent beforehand three cohorts of footmen, and one troop of horsemen, to the village Arbela, and came himself forty days afterwards with the rest of his forces.  Yet were not the enemy affrighted at his assault, but met him in arms; for their skill was that of warriors, but their boldness was the boldness of robbers: (306) when, therefore, it came to a pitched battle, they put to flight Herod’s left wing with their right one: but Herod, wheeling about on the sudden from his own right wing, came to their assistance, and both made his own left wing return back from its flight, and fell upon the pursuers, and cooled their courage, till they could not bear the attempts that were made directly upon them, and so turned back and ran away.


In the first century, Judea had a problem “social banditry.” As early as Herod the Great, some Jews engaged in violence against the government. Social banditry is a “pre-political rebellion” and is usually found in agricultural societies in periods of oppression, high taxation, or famine. According to Sanders, these taxes probably did not create an environment of poverty which fed an ever-increasing revolutionary spirit and resulted in social banditry. N. T. Wright, however, notes one of the first things the rebels did when they took the Temple was to burn the records of debt stored there (JW 2.427-239).  Hatred of Rome and hatred of the wealthy aristocracy motivated this “debt-forgiveness” (JVG 169).

Image result for Robin HoodSocial bandits portray themselves as robbing the rich and giving to the poor, “righting wrongs” and other social evils, and providing justice for the oppressed lower classes. This is something like Robin Hood, or the American “gangster” of the depression era (Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James, etc.) The social banditry described by Josephus took place during the reign of Herod the Great, but it continued throughout the period of the New Testament, culminating on the rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66.

The phenomenon of social banditry is in the background of the New Testament when Jesus is arrested and crucified.  In Mark 14:48, Jesus asks the arresting party:

Mark 14:48  “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? NIV

Mark 14:48  And Jesus answered and said unto them, Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me?  KJV

Mark 14:48  And Jesus answered and said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as against a robber? NASB

When Jesus is crucified, he is placed between two thieves.  The word λῃστής is used to describe Barabbas in John 18:40. This is more than simply a thief or a burglar: the noun λῃστής refers to a brigand or pirate (BDAG). Perhaps the word terrorist is a possible translation since in recent modern history a terrorist is someone who acts violently to destabilize a society.

Prior to the Jewish revolt, at least some Jewish writers thought the people of Israel would be reassembled as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Diaspora will end and Jews will return to the Promised Land. Isaiah 40-66 anticipated a kind of new exodus. God would call his people out of their long exile among the nations are gather them back to the Land promised to Abraham. The newly assembled Israel would rebuild the cities populate the Land as they should have after the Exodus. The land will be central to the true worship of God.

Isaiah 40:1–2 (ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Jerusalem is like a woman who has lost her husband and is in need of comfort; she is inconsolable at the loss of her spouse. God will comfort her with “tender words.” The word “to comfort” is a strongly emotional term.  It is used in Gen 37:35, after Jacob learns Joseph is dead he is so upset no one is able to comfort him.  The word also appears in Image result for hen gathering chicksJob 2:11, the three friends attempt to comfort Job after his losses. The means by which this comforting occurs is through “tender words” (NIV), literally, “speak to her heart.” Heart is more than emotions, this may indicate that some were intellectually devastated, in doubt, wondering of the Lord would still keep his covenant.  But this word has strong connotations of emotions, almost seduction.

In Isaiah 40 the Lord says three things to Jerusalem to comfort this distraught widow:

Her hard service is over.  The word for service is used for the levitical cycle of service, it is a regular time with well-defined beginning and end.  But it can also mean military service, therefore many translations have “her warfare is over.”  The suffering of the exile is a “prisoner of war” situation, the time seen by this text is when Israel is safe and no longer under the threat of warfare.

Her sin is paid for. This is a phrase which appears in the passive in connection with blood sacrifice (Leviticus 1:4; 7:18; 19:7; 22:23, 25, 27); the idea is that the Lord has accepted the exile as a sacrifice as a payment for the nations sin.

She has received a double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins.  This does not mean that she has been double punished, but rather that the Lord has paid the penalty twice over.

These opening words in the second half of Isaiah are therefore a prophecy of the gathering of the exiles back to the Land of Israel. When the exile finally ends, God will do something which will atone for Israel’s sins which resulted in the Exile in the first place. Although this prophecy begins to be fulfilled as early as 539 B.C., when the exile officially ends, Israel is not completely restored to Jerusalem and they are never free from warfare – nor could we say that the sins of the nation were paid for at that time.

There hint of the ultimate fulfillment comes from Daniel 9, where we are told after 70 years in captivity that the exile will continue for “seventy sevens of years,” or 490 years altogether. This is what the Jews of the first century were looking for when John the Baptist and Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near.

As N. T. Wright has said many times, Jews living in the first century knew the prophecy of Daniel 9 was nearing an end and they were fervently looking forward to the gathering of Jews living in the Diaspora to return to Zion and worship in Jerusalem once again. Even in Sirach (who was no wide-eyed apocalypticist), there is a hope for this gathering of all the tribes to the land of their inheritance. Closer to the first century, The Psalms of Solomon give evidence of this belief as well.

Sirach 36:12–16 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob, 16 and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning.

Sirach 48:10 (NRSV) Sirach 36:12–13 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob.

Psalms of Solomon 11:2-4 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.

It is therefore little wonder people were interested in a Jewish teacher who selected twelve disciples and talked of the soon-to-appear Kingdom of God. Jesus sent the twelve out to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel to a lonely place where he fed them with miraculous bread. Jesus was intentionally enacting the gathering of Israel out of the Exile during his ministry.

Dunn, James. Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity. Christianity in the Making, Volume 3. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2016. 960 pp. Hb; $60.00. Link to Eerdmans

Neither Jew nor Greek completes Dunn’s three-volume project encompassing the New Testament. Jesus Remembered (2003) concerned Jesus and the Gospels, Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) covered the book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament up to 70 CE. This final volume tracks the later history of the early church (for the most part after 70 CE), including both canonical and non-canonical sources. Dunn ends his investigation just prior to Irenaeus, approximately 180 CE.

The title for the volume is significant since it signals Dunn’s conclusions about what the early church was like in the period after the first Jewish revolt. As Dunn puts it, whatever the early Christian movement was in the forty years between Jesus and the Jewish revolt “it was not yet ‘Christianity’” because Christianity as a distinct entity was not so-named until the early second century CE (4). During the time period covered by this volume both Judaism and Christianity were in the process of defining themselves, sometimes in contrast with one another.

How can this development be traced? Scholarship has attempted to define “early Catholicism,” or traced the development of canons and creeds, or examined the way early Christian writers defined themselves in contrast to heretical sects within the larger Judeo-Christian movement (Hellenistic mystery cults or developing Gnosticism, etc.) Dunn has sketched the character of the first generation of Christians in the first two volumes of this series and now proposed to trace the streams of early Christianity through the complicated period between 70 and 180 CE. This is an important (and often overlooked) insight. Early Christianity was not monolithic, there was no one document or one writer which fully encapsulated ideal Christianity. There were multiple streams within the orthodox river so that what it means to be “Christian” was indeed contested.

It is possible to evaluate the development of early Christianity by accepting the final result (church history from the perspective of Eusebius, for example, or for many contemporary theologians, the Reformation) and evaluating the various voices with respect to how close they come to the received orthodoxy. But Dunn comes at the question from another angle: would Peter, James and Paul have been satisfied with what happened in the second century (41)? To answer the question Dunn examines at length the Jesus tradition, the impact of James, Paul, Peter and John (in that rough chronological order). Choosing to start with James is an interesting methodological decision since Eusebius and the Reformation might choose to begin with Paul. Dunn thinks Paul is responsible for shaping the Jewish messianic sect (led by James in Jerusalem) into the international movement it would become. Despite being disciples of Jesus, both Peter and John are minor voices in the first century (if later traditions are set aside).

The first three chapters of this volume set the stage by examining the sources available for the study of the post-apostolic period. In addition to the New Testament canon, Dunn surveys the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists of the early second century, Eusibius and the Heresiologists, and the New Testament pseudepigrapha (other gospels, letters and apocalypses). He observes that most of the “spin off literature is much poorer in quality” than the material later recognized as canonical (183). For this reason Dunn ranks the Apostolic Fathers and Apologists as more important for tracing the development of early Christianity than “other” literature. The exception is the Gospel of Thomas which Dunn treats in his chapter on the reshaping of the Gospel of Jesus (John and Thomas).

The next major section of the book concerns the development of the Jesus tradition from an oral gospel to the written canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke and finally John. Here Dunn revisits the thesis of Jesus Remembered, although this time from the perspective of how Jesus was remember in these written gospels. Dunn concludes the rich diversity of the Gospels (“same yet different”) indicates different lessons could be developed out of the same memories of Jesus. He illustrates this phenomenon in a chapter on how the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas develop the Jesus traditions using two different strategies.

Dunn traces the development of the Jesus tradition into the second century by examining how the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists used the written Gospels. He provides the data in the form of lists of quotations or allusions to each Gospel. For example, there are tables for the four Gospels as they appear in Justin Martyr. From this data it is clear Justin knew Mark but used the Gospel rarely and John only appears in a single allusion. Matthew is dominant, with a few citations of Luke and a few from the double tradition (so it is impossible to know if Matthew or Luke is in mind).

The next section of the book consists of two chapters defining what Dunn means by “Jewish Christianity” and the so-called “parting of the ways.” Dunn observes it is more important to recognize the Jewishness of Christianity than to unravel the puzzle of various forms of Christianity which may (or may not) have been in competition with one another at the end of the first century (595). He examines (briefly) several Jewish groups which also followed Jesus, including the Ebionites, the Nazoraeans, the Elkesaites, the Pseudo-Clementine literature, and Syrian Christianity. In order to speak about the parting of the ways, Dunn outlines the reasons Christians may have wanted to be seen as separate after the destruction of Jerusalem and consequent Roman policy toward the Jews. The fall of Jerusalem also changed the way Judaism thought of itself, so that the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism can be found in the same events which motivated Christianity to define itself as “not Jewish.” This evidence supports Dunn’s contention that Jews and Christians did not see themselves as separate until perhaps as late as the Constantinian settlement (673).

The final major section in the book concerns the continued influence of Paul and Peter. As Dunn observes, of the three principle characters in the early church, James makes the least impact on the development of Christianity and Peter has been the focus of Catholic Christianity and left little impact on the New Testament (assuming 2 Peter is pseudonymous, probably 1 Peter as well, possibly rejecting Peter’s influence on Mark). This makes Paul the chief influence on the early development of Christianity and the so-called “second founder” of Christianity” (675). Even though he is a “contrary and troublesome figure in the history of Christianity” his contributions to the New Testament and their reception by the ensuing generations of the church are essential for understanding the development of Christianity (723). Dunn accepts the minority opinion that 1 Peter was addressed to Jewish Christians, but recognizes the Pauline influence on the letter (728).

There is some backtracking in this volume, which is to be expected in a project written over a long period. First, Dunn returns to his first volume of the series in Part 11 by examining how the Gospel moved from oral tradition to the written Gospels. In a one hundred page chapter Dunn reviews some of his arguments from Jesus Remembered and the essays in The Oral Gospel Tradition (Eerdmans, 2013).  Second, chapter 46 concerns the “parting of the ways,” a topic Dunn has discussed in his essay in the collection of essays, Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135 (Eerdmans, 1999). But this is not unexpected since Dunn re-used material from his Epworth Acts commentary in Beginning from Jerusalem, for example. Given the massive scope of the project, using and updating previous work ought to be expected. It is perhaps ironic that, like the Gospels themselves, Dunn’s oral presentations became written essays, which were then re-worked and edited and included in a final (canonical?) volume.

Conclusion. This volume is an indispensable resource for the study of the late apostolic period. Since Dunn takes into account many non-canonical texts he is able to trace the trajectory of the development of the Church from the oral tradition of Jesus Remembered, through the earliest written forms of that memory, to the interpretation of those memories by the next generations of the early Church.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.




E. P. Sanders contended Judaism in the Second Temple period was not a religion of individual salvation (278). God made a covenant with the people of Israel and it is the people who will be preserved. The eschatology of Israel is a national eschatology rather than personal. What “future hopes” are found in the first century, they are hopes which concern the people of Israel as a whole rather than individuals.

Image result for romans monty python gifIt is likely most Jews longed for freedom from Rome. Even the line of Herod, which owed its power to Rome, would have preferred to have independence and self-rule. Rome was and ever-present reality in the politics of first century Palestine and freedom from Roman manipulation would have been the dream of Jews of every class and party. The problem is in defining that freedom: does that mean Rome is destroyed completely? Does that mean Rome rules Palestine but grants near-independence for Israel? Does Israel go back to Hasmonean rule? Would Rome be preferred to the Herodians? Hope for the future therefore ran from storing up arms for a time of revolt to praying quietly God will do something to change things. Some groups did not have much of a future hope (the Sadducees, for example), while others had a rather complex view of the near future, one in which they played a key role (the Essenes, for example).

Sanders observes these hopes were often expressed negatively, in the form of complaints, protests, and insurrections (280). There were people in the first century who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea. In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered. Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule. His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world.  This “fourth philosophy” has been a bit of a mystery to historians, sometimes identified with the Zealots who started the war in 66 and were the last survivors of the war at Masada.

At least some of these Zealots were assassins, known as the Sicarii. There are problems with this identification, not the least of which is the 60 years between Judas and the War in which there is nothing said about the fourth philosophy or Zealots. Judas is not identified as a Zealot, and although there is a brief insurgency in 44, the idea of rebellion against Rome is unmentioned until the war actual breaks in 66. These revolutionary movements had one thing in common – they came at a time when the Roman Empire was not able to pay close attention to the back-water province of Judea. In A.D. 6 Archelaus was deposed and there was some question who would succeed him, another Herod or Roman rule. In 66 Nero was in his last days and was becoming more unstable. In 69 there were four emperors and the Roman Empire was distracted. It looked like a revolution might have a chance to succeed.

A more common method of protest for the Jews in this period was passive resistance. There were a number of points in century or so before the war when Jews demonstrated their willingness to die rather than allow something which transgressed their laws. For example, the protest against Pilate when he proposed to put Roman standards up in the Temple (War 2.169-174) and the protests made to Petronius when Caligula demanded his image be placed in the Temple (Antiq. 18.261-278). Nationalistic protests associated with the Temple sometimes erupted during Festivals in Jerusalem.

Between these two extremes (aggressive action against Rome and passive resistance even to death) is the belief that God or his representative will, at some point, intervene in history on behalf of his people. This view is represented in Qumran in the War Rule and in the Psalms of Solomon 17. Psalms of Solomon 17 looks forward to a Davidic messiah who will march on Jerusalem, banish the gentiles from the city, reassemble the tribes of Israel and establish the ideal kingdom (Sanders 285). The War Rule has similar hopes, but the only true Israel which is left is the sectarian community at Qumran. The messiah will lead them into Jerusalem and destroy the sinful Israelites (i.e. non-Qumran Essenes?) as well as the Gentiles.

It is God himself who will strike the blow against Rome, not individual revolutionaries. There were a number of other “messianic pretenders” in the first century who rallied a small number of followers with the hope of overthrowing Rome. The Romans dealt swiftly and violently with each of these leaders, but the hope of an imminent intervention by the Lord never died. Even while the Temple portico is burning a prophet told a crowd to go into the Temple to await help from God (J.W. 6.283, cf. 1.347).

The middle position, “ready to fight but hoping for a miraculous intervention” seems to represent a wide variety of groups including “hardcore calculating revolutionaries” and the more pacifist wing (Sanders 288). Perhaps when the times were not right for revolution and there was nothing to protest, everyone more or less harbored the hopes of this category.

Estes, Douglas. Questions and Rhetoric in the Greek New Testament. An Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2017. 400 pp. Hb; $49.99. Link to Zondervan

For most students of the New Testament Greek, the syntax of questions is often mysterious and difficult since most introductory grammars do not devote a chapter on how Greek forms questions, let alone the rhetorical nuances of questions. Usually how questions are formed is covered under punctuation or when the first interrogative pronouns are introduced. But rarely does a first-year New Testament grammar have the space to unpack any of the subtle rhetorical features of questions.

Douglas Estes has filled this lacuna with a lengthy monograph on the syntax and rhetoric of questions in the New Testament. Estes previously published his dissertation on The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Biblical Interpretation Series 115; Leiden: Brill, 2013). This handbook on Greek questions joins Murray Harris’s 2012 monograph on prepositions in Zondervan’s Essential Reference Resource for Exegesis series.

Estes describes twenty-eight linguistic features of questions (related to syntax, semantics, and pragmatics) in the first main section of the book. With respect to syntax Estes examines sentence formation and function, including word order, punctuation, mood of verbs and many other ways a Greek sentence can ask a question. This will be the most familiar to beginning Greek students. With respect to semantics, Estes examines such things as illocutionary force (pushing something forward toward the audience) or predicaments (asking a question in a way that affects how the question is heard by and responded to by the hearers). In the third section of the book Estes looks at four types of questions driven by syntax, rather than semantics. In this section he examines polar questions, variable questions, alternative questions and set questions. The fourth section lists a staggering twenty four types of questions which are driven by semantics (open questions, dilemma questions, counterfactual questions, etc.)

For each of the syntactical categories, Estes offers a brief definition followed by illustrations from the Greek New Testament but also in English. This will help a student understand the category. For example, under the heading of “Dilemma Questions,” Estes defines this category as a question asking the hearer to choose between two difficult situations. He then gives three examples in English and distinguishes the dilemma from a dilemmaton, which is a trick question designed as a verbal ambush for an enemy. He then briefly discusses the formation of this kind of question and its rhetorical effects. After this technical detail, he examines one New Testament text in detail as a “case study” (Luke 20:4 to illustrate a dilemmaton).

Estes provides copious examples from the Greek New Testament (a Scripture index is provided) as well as references to Greek rhetorical handbooks where appropriate. These include Quintilian (Institutio oratoria) and the works of Aristotle. After describing the syntactical or rhetorical feature and a case study, Estes provides several New Testament examples and a “key bibliography” to both ancient and modern writers.

Conclusion. Douglas Estes has done students of the Greek New Testament a great service by writing a remarkably accessible introduction to a potentially arcane sub-discipline.

Zondervan posted a book trailer for Questions and Rhetoric on YouTube.

NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Longenecker, Richard N. Paul, Apostle of Liberty. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 435 pp. Pb; $34.   Link to Eerdmans

Richard Longenecker’s Paul, Apostle of Liberty was first published in 1964. Much has happened in Pauline studies since 1964, not the least of which is E. P. Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). Since the first edition of this book, Longenecker himself contributed a highly regarded Word Biblical Commentary on Galatians commentary (Word; 1990) and most recently the NIGTC volume on Romans (Eerdmans, 2016), along with many other monographs and articles on topics within the field of Pauline studies. This introduction to Paul’s theology can fairly be described as a classic text which has already served a generation of students as a classroom textbook and standard reference work on Paul’s theology.

The body of this introduction to Paul is essentially the same as earlier editions. Longenecker does not survey the letters of Paul or discuss “background” issues. His interest tracing the more important contours of Pauline theology. After a chapter on sources, Longenecker provides three chapters on Jewish backgrounds for Pauline studies (Paul as “Hebrew of the Hebrews; Piety in Hebraic Judaism; Saul and the Law). Longenecker uses the Romans 7 as evidence Paul was indeed “kicking against the goads” when he zealously persecuted the church.

Longenecker has four chapters on Pauline teaching: Legality and the Law; The End of Nominism; Liberty in Christ; The Exercise of Liberty. For Longenecker, liberty in Christ is essential for a proper understanding of his theology. In the third section of the book Longenecker entitles “practice” although his interest in these three chapters is how Paul worked out his view of Christian freedom in Christ with respect to the Law. Chapter 9 discusses the Judaizers and Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem. Chapter 10 focuses on Paul’s mission strategy of “all things to all men.” Here Longenecker is interested in how Paul evangelized Gentiles, but also his response to the Libertenes, the Ascetics, the “strong” and the Ecstatics.

Finally, chapter 11 deals with the “problem practices” in Acts. Late in Acts, Paul claims to have a clear conscience with respect to the Law. If Paul is the Apostle of Liberty and believed the Gentiles were no longer under the Law, why does Paul continue to preach to the Jews? Why did he take a Nazarite vow in Acts 18? Why did he accept the Jerusalem decree in Acts 15 if he believed he was not under the authority of the Jerusalem church?

The new material in this book is a lengthy addendum tracing the reception of Paul and his letters through church history. Even in this 92 page survey, Longenecker cannot hope to present a comprehensive summary of all of the commentaries and sermons produced over 2000 years, so he provides a “Hall of Fame” intended to honor his own favorite commentators on Paul. Longenecker has divided his list into three periods, Patristic (including texts like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Gnostics and Marcion, but also Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian,  Jerome, Augustine, and many others), the Reformation (beginning with Erasmus, but including all the expected reformers) and modern (Schleiermacher, Baur, Lightfoot, Barth, and James S. Stewart). For the modern period, he has purposely avoided scholars who are still active. This means there is nothing from N. T. Wright, for example, even though Wright has contributed a major Romans commentary and a massive book on Paul’s theology, nor is there any attempt to deal with the often visceral reaction against Wright’s views on Paul. Longenecker is not particularly swayed by the New Perspective, although in many ways the original 1964 version of this book anticipated some of the problems raised by Sanders and Dunn. Perhaps Longenecker’s recent commentary on Romans offers insight into his opinion of the New Perspective: there is very little in more than 1000 pages of commentary which reflects the contributions of the New Perspective.

In addition to this hall of fame style survey of historic commentators on Paul, Longenecker offers a series of brief summaries of modern approaches to Paul. This section includes two or three pages on:

  • Rhetorical approaches to Paul which recognize the epistolary form of Paul’s letters
  • Reevaluation of the textual history of the New Testament
  • Reevaluations of Palestinian Judaism (E. P. Sanders)
  • The New Perspective on Paul (James Dunn)
  • Narrative approaches to the New Testament applied to Paul

Since this is a second edition, it is fair to evaluate the value of the book in contrast to the earlier edition. As Longenecker recognizes, the field of Pauline studies has gone through several major developments since 1964, but he has chosen not to update the body of the book to reflect these changes. Most readers of this new edition will be aware of the work of E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul as well as the reactions to Sanders and the New Perspective. Some of these responses were violently opposed to the movement, others took up the suggestions in Sanders’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism and developed them in detail. Longenecker does not attempt to integrate any of this massive secondary literature into the 1964 version of his book, but rather comments on Sanders and the New Perspective in the addendum (p. 345-50).

By way of conclusion, Paul, Apostle of Liberty, remains a classic of Pauline theology and ought to be read (and re-read) by anyone studying Paul’s theology. The addendum is an excellent primer for a seminary student who needs to “catch up” on two thousand years of thinking about Paul’s theology.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

I have posted on this topic before,  usually in the context of the book of Revelation. For example in this post I argued Revelation is a form of resistance literature offering an alternative way of looking at the power of Rome. On my recent tour of Roman cities in Asia Minor, I was struck by the prevalence of the imperial cult in the locations mentioned in Revelation. I knew there were imperial cult centers in most of these cities, but seeing the temple of Trajan at Pergamum made it clear the new Christian movement was in conflict with imperial propaganda from the beginning.

Image result for Caesar Nero divineRuler cults began and as expression of gratitude toward the monarch, rather than a way to get something out of him. At some point it was no longer possible to humanly honor a man without declaring him to be a god. Rome was not the only ancient culture to deify their king; Egypt considered the Pharaoh to be a god, an idea which may have been passed to the Ptolemies. Assyria and Babylon both considered their kings as gods by virtue of their office.

The most deeply held beliefs and practices in the Greco-Roman world were associated with civic cults. The reason for this is that a civic cult united the people around a particular god. For example, it was one’s civic duty to worship Artemis if one was a proper Ephesian. Since Alexander thought of the world as a community, only a single god could serve to unite all the peoples of the world. Augustus too recognized this, accepting divine honors in the east as a way to draw all the various peoples of the Roman Empire into a single imperial cult.

The Roman imperial cult is very much in the background of the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation. Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4. If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.

Imperial cult, Augustus

Augustus as Jove, holding scepter and orb (via Wikipedia)

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome. Augustus is known in some inscriptions as CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar. Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue. Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor. As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

In the 90s A.D., Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13) Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god. While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14 refers to Domitian exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.” Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitian liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble (Oratorio 45:1; First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15). It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult was “an unprecedented attempt to build a network, rather than a center of provincial worship” (Beale, The Book of Revelation, 15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor? Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira). At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C. The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “synagogue of Satan.” To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor.

What happens when a resident of a Romanized city in Asia Minor accepts the good news that Jesus is Lord? How would impact participation in Greco-Roman culture? Could a Christian resident of Pergamum, for example, participate in civic festivals honoring Rome or an emperor as lord? Could they accommodate their new Christian belief with the imperial propaganda? More convicting, is there an application to modern political propaganda and the Christian faith?



Bibliography: Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).

Follow Reading Acts on

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,513 other followers

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle

Christian Theology

%d bloggers like this: