Church as Bride?

The idea that the church is the bride of Christ is common in popular thinking, especially in hymns and songs.  This is based on the common metaphor drawn from the Hebrew Bible that Israel is God’s bride.  Beginning in Hosea, the prophets use the metaphor of a marriage relationship frequently to describe God’s relationship to his people.  This metaphor is almost entirely negative since Israel was an unfaithful bride.  Jesus employs similar language as the Hebrew prophets, calling his himself a bridegroom and comparing both his current ministry and future return to a wedding banquet (Mt 22:1-12, 25:1-14).

As the idea that the Church has replaced Israel as God’s people became dominant, it was quite easy to extend the metaphor of a marriage to the church.  Just as the idea was common in the Hebrew Bible, so too the image of the church as the bride of Christ became pervasive in medieval theology and art.  For many, the idea of the church as the bride of Christ is the dominant metaphor in their theology.  But the basis for this metaphorical transfer is a replacement theology (even if it is implicit); anyone who rejects replacement theology will also think about the usefulness of this metaphor for the church.

It remains a fact, however, that Paul describes the church as a virgin being prepared for marriage in Eph 5:21-33.  Christ’s love for the church is described in 5:25-26, 29.  Paul cites foundational text for marriage in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 2) and draws an analogy from it.  The relationship of Christ and church similar to that of the married couple – they are “one flesh” in Gen 2.  Therefore there is some intimate connection between Christ and the church which can be described in similar terms.

There is something of an eschatological perspective in this bridal metaphor in Eph 5.  Christ is the head of the church, which submits to his authority.  That all things will submit to the authority of Christ is a view of the future when Christ returns (cf. Phil 2:5-11).  But, on the other hand, the marriage is already in existence and there are aspects of a realized eschatology here. On the other hand, the idea of a splendid church (5:27) may imply a future eschatological element is present.  At some point in the future the church will finally be a pure and spotless bride prepared for the bridegroom at the Second Coming (the “wedding supper”).   I am tempted to see this as another aspect of the already / not yet tension of Pauline eschatology, but I am not sure that Paul’s topic in Eph 5 is eschatology at all, but rather the purity of the church in the prestent age.

It could therefore be argued that Paul, who took a negative approach of sexual purity (commands not do be immoral, 5:3-7), now adopts a positive argument, “reflect the love of Christ” in sexual ethics (your own partner).  The “function” of the metaphor is to get the husbands to see themselves as in some ways an “ecclesial bride,” if Christ and the church are “one flesh,” and covenant loyalty is obvious and required, then the husband ought to have the same level of commitment to their wives.

So Paul does use the marriage metaphor, but he spins in the direction of a ethical teaching on the relationship of a husband and wife in their marriage relationship.

Authorship of Ephesians

John Polhill comments that Ephesians is unique among the Pauline Letters (P&HL, 354).  The letter has the most to say about the “universal church” and lacks the sort of specific problems which form the occasion for each of the previous letter of Paul.

The traditional view is that Paul is the author as is claimed in 1:1 of the letter.  While Pauline authorship was questioned by Erasmus as early as 1519, it was not until F. C. Bauer that Paul as author was seriously questioned.  Since the mid-nineteenth century, Pauline authorship of the letter is routinely dismissed.  An increasingly common view is that the book was written in Paul’s name by someone who was familiar with Paul’s thought (Luke? Onesimus?)  It is possible that Paul was the writer of an original letter but that letter was edited by another writer who may or may not have been acting under Paul’s orders.

Several arguments can be made against Pauline authorship of Ephesians:

Vocabulary and style of the letter. There are more than 80 words that are not found elsewhere in the Pauline literature, almost half of which are not found anywhere else in the New Testament.   Five of these words are not found in the New Testament or the LXX, but are common in the Apostolic literature.  This fact is used to argue that Ephesians was written late in the first century.

  • The common Pauline term brethren is missing (except 6:23)
  • The writer never calls the Jewish people “Jews” in the epistle, even though the Jews are an important part of his argument.
  • The verb “to justify” is not used, while it is common in Galatians and Romans.
  • The more common vocabulary for time and Satan  are not used.
  • Some vocabulary that is used in Ephesians is used with a different meaning than in other Pauline epistles.
  • Words such as mystery, stewardship, church, inheritance, possession, etc. are used with an unusual meaning if the epistle were written by Paul.

Similarity to Colossians. The apparent dependence on Colossians and other Pauline writings leads some to draw the conclusion that the writer is a later Christian drawing on sources rather than Paul himself.

The relationship of the epistle to the history and literary background of the New Testament. The title, “to the Ephesians” is missing in some key manuscripts. In addition to this, Paul does not seem to know his readers at all (as implied in 1:15; 3:2-3; 4:21).  There is no specific mention of the church or any problems within the church, nor is there any explicit reference to the city of Ephesus in the letter.

  • It is clear only Gentile Christians are addressed even though the church in Ephesus (as we know it from Acts) was a mixed congregation.
  • There are no personal greetings by Paul as is his normal practice in each of his other epistles.
  • There is a final blessing to the readers, but rather than the typical second person blessing  it is in the third person.
  • It is commonly thought that 3:5 speaks of the other Apostles as if they are already dead.
  • The reference to the “dividing wall” in 2:14 is taken as an allusion to the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70,  placing the writing of the epistle after this time.
  • It was popular at one time to find Gnostic teaching in the book, pushing the date into the second century.

While this list of potential objections seems formidable, each can be explained without resorting to non-Pauline authorship.  Concerning the vocabulary of the epistle, it is true that there is a wide variety of vocabulary present in the epistle that is not found elsewhere in Paul of the New Testament.   The differences are not, however, out of line with the other unchallenged Pauline letters.  Romans and Corinthians have about 100 hapax legomena each, Philippians has 50, and Galatians has 30.  The 80 in Ephesians are slightly higher than average, but not so far above normal to raise concern.   Paul had a rich and flexible vocabulary.

How are we to explain the very difficult problem of Paul’s ignorance of the church at Ephesus and the lack of details pertaining to the church? This is best explained by pointing out that there are no details concerning any church or city, not Ephesus or any other church.  There are manuscripts that are missing the words “to Ephesus” and Marcion calls the letter “To the Laodicians.”  The book we have as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may have been intended as a circular letter to be read and passed on in many churches.  The church at Ephesus may have kept their letter and sent on a copy to the next church, or the copy that was preserved happened to have been last delivered to Ephesus.  This would explain the general tone and the lack of specific details concerning the church.

The book does parallel Colossians and other Pauline letters.  This does not have to be an argument against Pauline authorship.  The similarities could imply that the letter is Pauline as well as it can argue against Pauline authorship. It is not unthinkable that Paul could have written a similar letter to two different recipients, in fact it may be quite likely that Paul did write many similar letters to the churches.

Finally, the doctrinal differences in the letter to the Ephesians are not as great as they might appear (or, as they have been made to appear).  Paul does have a different outlook on some things in this epistle than in others, but in the larger context of the whole book it is very consistent with his theology.  He does teach justification by faith (2:5-8) and he does refer to the Second Coming of the Lord (1:14; 4:30; 5:6; 6:8).  Because Paul is emphasizing some doctrines over others (the universal church as opposed to the local church, for example) does not mean that he is totally contradicting his teaching elsewhere.

Does it matter if Paul wrote the letter or not?  Inerrancy aside, if one were to argue Paul did not write the letter in order to move it into a sort of “second canon” separate from the four undisputed letters, then there is a serious problem for developing a New Testament theology of Paul.  If Ephesians is set aside as secondary to Paul, a great deal of theology of the church must be thought of as post-Pauline and perhaps less authoritative.

Friday at ETS New Orleans

I spent the day in the Synoptic Gospels section, which was divided into two separate topics.  The morning sessions were devoted to Klyne Snodgrass’ Stories With Intent.  I was already quite taken with this mammoth contribution to the study of the parables, as were the three presenters. For the most part, all three presenters were extremely impressed with the book and had only token criticisms and all concluded that everyone ought to own the book.  Snodgrass then gave a brief response and a panel discussion followed.  Most disappointing was the attendance of this session – maybe 30 people at the most.  The fact that VanHoozer was in the next room did not help us at all!

Mark Alan Powell gave an excellent and entertaining overview of the book, and responded to criticisms from an RBL review by van Eck of the book which he felt were unfair.  As Powell observed, every reviewer can complain that a book was “not they one they would write.”  With that in mind, Powell suggested that the book could have been better if Snodgrass had employed some form of Narrative Criticism to enhance his exegesis of the individual parables.

Scot McKnight dealt with the thorny problem of eschatology in the parables.  McKnight offered  the sharpest criticism of Snodgrass, although even here the differing viewpoints were obvious. This lead to a long (and rather interesting) exchange during the panel discussion on the eschatology of Jesus (or lack thereof).  Snodgrass refuses to see the destruction of Jerusalem as predicted by Jesus in the parables, while McKnight disagreed – pointed out that the Olivet Discourse says that says that “these things will happen” before the present generation passes away.  Since this is part of my dissertation topic, I was quite fascinating to see this discussion play out.  I happen to agree with Snodgrass here, especially in Matt 22, although I think the details are a bit different.  I think that I will digest this section a bit more and return to it after I get back to my office (and my own copy of Stories with Intent!)

Robert Stein wondered about the goal of the book, to get back to the intent of Jesus, as if that is separate from the intent of the Evangelist.  For Stein, one cannot say that the words of Jesus are “more inspired” than the words of the Evangelist, and thinks that any attempt to use “criterion of authenticity” or other tools of Historical Jesus research run the risk of making the words of the Evangelist “less inspired” than the words of Jesus.  This too was a fascinating exchange which was really about methodology and the uselessness of many Historical Jesus studies.  I think that I have a bit more use for these sort of studies, these warnings are appreciated.

The afternoon sessions were devoted to four recent commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels, although three were on Matthew and one on Mark.  Four short papers were presented reviewing Robert Stein (Mark, BECNT), R. T. France (NICNT), David Turner (Matthew, BECNT) , and Ben Witherington III (Matthew, Smyth and Helwys).  Other than France, each of the authors made a brief response to their reviews. Darrell Bock did a great job moderating this long session and moderated a panel discussion and Q&A with all the presenters.

Slavery in the First Century

There is an obvious need for a clear understanding of slavery as we approach the book of Philemon.   In this  post I want to summarize a few points from John Byron on slavery.   The article is dealing with Paul’s metaphor of a slave, but some of the information provides an excellent entry point into the difficulties of dealing with slavery in the first century.

John Byron surveys recent attempts to deal with Paul’s slavery metaphors in New Testament studies.  The bulk of the article deals with a shift from the work of Bartchy in 1973 which made extensive use of Greco-Roman and Jewish legal texts to more recent sociological studies by Patterson and others.  Bartchy’s view was that slavery in the first century was “decidedly benign,” while Patterson argues that slavery was equivalent to a “death experience.”  Bartchy’s views have been far more influential on New Testament commentaries than Patterson’s studies, perhaps skewing the point of Paul’s metaphor of slavery.   Byron’s article is a challenge to the commonly taught idea of selling one’s self into slavery to pay debts and the possibility of a better life as a slave.

This debate highlights the problem of sources.  Bartchy, for example, uses legal texts to show that there was a softening of attitudes toward slaves in the first century which made the slave into something more like “employee” rather than property.  There are a number of problems with using legal, as Byron points out in his conclusion.  The main source for Roman Law is dated to A.D. 533, well after the first century.  In addition, there is a great difference between a law and actual social attitudes.  Bartchy may cite laws protecting slaves, but there is no real evidence that society accepted those laws or that authorities always enforced them. Even in America, we know that simply having a law does not guarantee everyone obeys the law, nor does the law tell us anything about society’s attitude toward the law.  Traffic laws would be a good example here.  Someone studying American law could say the maximum speed on the highway is no more than 70 M.P.H., but we know this is not the case at all.  In some cases, authorities may choose not to enforce a strict speed limit.  The same may have been true for slavery, therefore Roman law becomes less secure for reconstructing actual practice towards slaves in the first century.  Consistency in application of laws is not a forgone conclusion in the case of slavery in the world of the first century.

There are other literary sources for slavery dating to the first century which may provide some data.  Philosophers are often cited as indicating a shift in society’s attitude toward slavery.  As Byron notes, there is no evidence these writings reflect public sentiment.  In fact, one might argue there are very few times in history where the writings of a philosopher accurately reflected the views of society as a whole!  It is possible to miss the point of a philosopher by not taking a saying in context of their system of thought.  For example, the oft-cited view of Seneca that masters ought to not mistreat their slaves is not an example of a softening of attitudes toward slaves but rather an example of the Stoic ethic of self-control.
References to slaves appear in the satirists and in novels.  These references are also problematic since they do not really say anything about the status of a slave in the society.  To take sayings of Marital, for example, as indicative of the general thinking of the populace is akin to taking Jerry Sienfeld as an example of how all Americans think.  Novels which portray slaves as virtuous, socially mobile, etc. are poor evidence since the slave character is usually a prince who has wrongfully been enslaved and overcomes this setback and is restored to his proper status in the end.  The novelist and satirist do not intend to give a sociological opinion of the status of the slave in the first century, therefore it would be dangerous to rely too heavily on them in our research.

There is much to be learned from the sociological approaches to slavery described by Byron.  These studies seem to turn the accepted view of slavery one normally encounters in a commentary on Philemon around in a completely opposite direction. The law codes are a “legal fiction” and slavery was far from a pleasant experience.  If one was forced into slavery it was as if one has died.  This was no mere economic decision (selling yourself into seven years of slavery to pay off a debt, for example.)  The slave, at the social level, was no longer a person but rather he has become property and is no longer his own. This “dying to self” and giving up personal ownership to a master is an appealing element when looking at Paul’s use of the metaphor, but it may be more influenced by American / western values of individuality and freedom rather than that of the Greco-Roman world.  Was “freedom” more important than slavery?  Perhaps not, sometimes it my have been better to be a slave to a powerful person than a freedman.

How does this “background” effect the way we look at Philemon and his slave, Onesimus?

John Byron, “Paul And The Background Of Slavery: The Status Quaestionis In New Testament Scholarship,” CBR 3.1 (2004) 116-139.

Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4: An Apostolic Didache?

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

This may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders).

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles.  Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

Book of Acts at ETS

I am attending the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in New Orleans this week.  I realize the SBL bloggers get all the press, but I enjoy ETS as well.  It is obviously a lot more tame and evangelical, but there is some good scholarship going on which unfortunately gets dismissed since it is coming from conservatives, relatively speaking.

I attended what was billed as the “Luke/Acts Consultation,” although it was only three papers, one of which was a last minute replacement.  Mark Strauss began with a great paper on the purpose of Luke / Acts, surveying the several suggestions found in the literature and concluding that the purpose was to “legitimatize” the Christian / Gentile mission rather than an evangelistic purpose (i.e., to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ).  During the discussion after his paper, several expressed the thought that it is hard separate this from the purpose of evangelism,

While I have always been attracting to the idea that the document as we have it now served some function in Paul’s legal defense, Strauss made the comment that no Roman official would wade through all of the obvious theology of the books in order to get a few items of legal interest.

David Pao read a draft of a paper which is to be published in JBL.  He dealt with the problem of the deacons, who appear to be selected to deal with food distribution but instead are noted preachers and evangelists, never actually “waiting tables.”  Pao’s suggestion is that the food distribution was an extension of Jesus’ own table fellowship and therefore part of the eschatological banquet.  They were not called to “wait tables” but to be leaders who facilitated table fellowship.  As much as I enjoyed his paper, I think that there are a few serious problems with the thesis, not the least of which is that the Apostles themselves made the distinction between waiting tables and preaching when they suggested appointing the seven.  I am a bit more inclined to see the activity of the Seven in terms of Hellenistic / Greek speaking Jewish ministry in the Synagogue of the Freedmen at the same time that the Apostles are in the Temple area doing ministry among Aramaic speaking Jews. I do think that he is correct to see table-fellowship in the context of Jesus’ ministry, especially in Luke / Acts.

Since my dissertation deals with the eschatological banquet in Jesus’ ministry, I will return to Pao’s article in the future – it is a worthy contribution.

David Pao now chairs this consultation and hopes to expand the paper offerings next year.

N. T. Wright – Paul: A Fresh Perspective, More on Election

In the last post I was more concerned with the validity of Wright’s view of Election in the Hebrew Bible.  It is in fact true that Israel believed themselves to be the chosen people, and all the literature of this period struggles to explain why the chosen people are not being blessed as they might expect.  These attempts to define election range from a denial of Israel’s special place (Sirach, perhaps) to a radical condemnation of the status quo in Israel as corrupt and about to be judged by God (Qumran).

Wright places Paul into this discussion of what it means to be the chosen people of God.  Paul redefines the people of God which leads to a redefinition of election. Wright is clear that this is a redefinition, not a repudiation of the definition of election as found in the Hebrew Bible.  Paul remains within Judaism (128).  What is remarkable to me is that Wright states that Paul would have been appalled with scholars who see him as breaking away from Judaism and starting a new religion.  (Recall our discussion earlier about whether Paul was converted or not?)  He specifically denies “supersessionism,” the belief that Christianity has replaced Judaism completely and that the “people of God” are no longer Jewish.  He is thinking specifically here of the fact that Paul describes the church as the true descendants of Abraham in the faith and his discussion centers on Moses and the Law.  I think this opens up some eschatological questions, but he waits on those until the next chapter.

So far so good.  I think Wright is correct in his observations about first century Jewish thinking on their election, and I think that he is correct that Paul re-defines many Jewish ideas and practices for the Church in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I especially like his discussion Paul re-orienting the people of God around the idea of grace.

What could be potentially troublesome is Wright’s discussion of Gal 2:11-21, a critical text for the New Perspective on Paul, and a text that is at the heart of Pauline theology since it touches on justification and law in the context of practice – how do we behave since se have the belief that Jesus is the messiah?  Wright correctly comments that the discussion in Gal 2 concerns “what does it mean to be a Jew,” then deals extremely briefly with the “faith of Christ.”  This is a huge exegetical issue, but the gist of the problem concerns who “does” this faith, Jesus or us?  Is this the faith which Jesus demonstrated (the “faithfulness of the messiah”) or is this faith which we have “in the messiah?”  Wright says this verse ought to be understood as referring to the messiah’s faithfulness rather than our faith in Jesus which makes us saved?  Most modern translations add “in” to the line to indicate that Jesus is the object of our faith (the KJV does not, but that is simply because it is brutally literal and not aware of this modern exegetical issue.)  Does this phrase mean that the Messiah was faithful and therefore we are justified, or that we are justified because of what Jesus has already done on the cross?  Wright states that Gal 2:15 is not a statement about how one becomes a Christian (112).  This is highly controversial, but this does not mean that Wright denies justification by faith categorically, it only this text in Galatians which is under discussion.

If Wright reads Galatians correctly (and his other comments applying this understanding to Romans are correct), then there are some problems for the standard reformation view of justification – but I am not convinced they are as foundation-shattering as the more dramatic articles and books have claimed.