Last Call for Carnival Links

What most BiblioBloggers look like

What most BiblioBloggers look like

The February 2013 Biblical Studies Carnival will be hosted by Drewe at Delving into the Scripture.  You can  help Drewe out by sending nominations his way (piston9 at gmail.com).  What are the blogs you read this month which contributed to the discussion of biblical literature  theology, and culture?  What posts made you think more deeply?  Challenged you?

I am looking for more volunteers for the 2013 Carnival Season.  I have a few set up but most of the year is clear, email me and pick your month!  Carnivals are a great way to attract attention to your site if you are new blogger, but more importantly it gives you a chance to highlight the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.  If you would like to host a Carnival in 2013, send me an email  (plong42 at gmail dot com), or a comment on this post and I can contact you.

Paul at Lystra (Part 2) – Engaging Culture?

SacrificePaul and Barnabas finally realize what is going on they attempt to calm the crowd (verse 14-18).   Paul explains who they are and what God they represent.  This is an opportunity to see how Paul speaks to completely non-Jewish audience, in complete contrast to the synagogue sermon in chapter 13.  Later Paul speaks to a pagan crowd in Acts 17, but in that context the crowd is rather intellectual and philosophical.  In this case, Paul is addressing a group of average people, ones who can be described as real pagans since they worship Zeus with sacrifices.  It is unlikely that the Stoic and Epicureans on Mars Hill would have participated in this sort of thing!

I have read a great deal on how the modern church ought to “engage culture” and use the elements of culture in order to share Jesus with the unsaved world.  For the most part I agree with in general, even if specific attempts to do “cultural engagement” are sometimes embarrassing  However, I am not sure that Paul would, based on this sermon to a crowd of pagans.  Paul is not seeker-sensitive, nor does he embrace their culture in order to preach the gospel, and in no way does Paul weaken the Gospel before this pagan crowd.

There are several things we need to see in this sermon.  For this list, I am following Eckhard Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 164-6.

First, Paul states emphatically that the gods worshiped in Lystra are worthless (14:15). You have to see this scene in your mind in order to fully understand the impact of Paul’s statement that these gods are worthless.  There are priests standing right in front of him, about to sacrifice bulls to Zeus, and a large crowd of people are about to participate in that worship of Zeus.  Paul is not making this statement from a safe distance (from his academic office preparing a lecture, for example).  He is telling a priest of Zeus that Zeus is nothing at all.

Second, since these idols are worthless, the people of Lystra ought to turn away from them (14:15). This is culturally shattering. Schnabel points out that this means that the people of Lystra ought to no longer prayer to Tychos, the god of luck, before tossing the dice.  No more praying to Asclepius, the god of healing, when they are sick. No more praying to Artemis, the goddess of childbirth, for the protection of a mother and child before a birth.  The entire culture of the Greco-Roman world was integrated with the worship of gods, yet Paul says to turn away from them since they simply do not exist.

Third, if they turn from the worthless gods, they ought to turn to the living God. This is the demand of the Gospel, they must make a decision to worship the real God.

Fourth, that living God is the creator and preserver of life. Rather than point out the many acts of God in the Hebrew Bible, Paul uses God’s preservation of men through the giving of rain and crops as an example of his power.  In fact, this “general revelation” is God’s witness to the world, drawing the pagan nations to a knowledge of God (cf., Romans 1:18-20).

Faced with a potentially hostile pagan crowd, Paul does not give up on the biblical story in this sermon.  He begins with God’s creation and provision.  He says that he represents the creator, something which this group can understand within their own worldview, but Paul uses the language of Genesis (the heaven, the earth, and the sea, along with everything in them.)

This speech does not have the desired effect: the crowd still wanted to sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas as gods.  It is only with “difficulty” that Paul is able to persuade the crowd to stop the sacrifices.  Perhaps this is a hint that out best efforts to engage culture will encounter “great difficulty.”  However, this is no reason to give up on that engagement.

Paul at Lystra (Part 1)

Lystra was an important Roman colony, having been established by Augustus in 26 B.C. The location of the city was clearly established when an inscription was discovered in 1885 (including the full name of the city was Julia Felix Geminia Lustra.)  Among the many inscriptions associated with Lystra is a dedication to Zeus of a statue of Hermes.

There are other inscriptions which mention priests of Zeus and an altar dedicated to the “hearer of prayer,” presumably Zeus (Witherington, Acts, 422. ).  The local Zeus was known as Zeus Ampelites and was pictured as an elderly man with a beard, accompanied by Hermes, a young male assistant (The krater to the left depicts Zeus and Hermes in this way, although it dates to about 450 B.C.)  Witherington suggests that we have a hint of the relative ages of Barnabas (called Zeus here) and Paul; Barnabas was the elder, Paul was likely no more than 40 by this time.

Paul heals a man who was crippled in the feet.  When he heals the man he creates a sensation, and a crowd forms claiming that the gods have come in human form. Paul is called Hermes, (or Mercurias in the Latin, KJV, the Greek is Hermes).  Hermes was the messenger of the gods, Paul is given this name because he was the chief spokesperson. Barnabas is called Zeus (or Jupiter, Latin, KJV), Zeus was the “father” of the gods.  Why does the crowd make the connection between Paul and Hermes?  There is a legend which may shed some light on this incident.

In Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.626ff there is a legend that Zeus and Hermes had visited the towns and villages of the region in human form, but did not receive any hospitality.  When they came to the home of the poor and elderly Baucis and Philemon they were invited in, the couple gave them the last of their food and the best comfort they could.  As Baucis prepared the meal, there was plenty of food and the wine kept “welling up of itself.”  The couple became greatly afraid because of the miracle, so the gods revealed themselves and told them that they were the only people to welcome them; they would be blessed while the whole region was destroyed.  The couple asked only to be priests in the temple of Zeus and that they die at the same time, so that neither had to see the tomb of the other.

Paul spoke Greek, but the crowd spoke in the Lycaonian language.  As a result, Paul and Barnabas do not know what is going on! The crowd swells and preparations for sacrifices are made by the Priest of Zeus.  The Temple of Zeus was just outside, the city, perhaps on the main road into the city.  Bulls and wreaths are brought for the sacrifices (the wreaths were flowery decorations for the bulls). Notice that in the Ahenobarbus altar relief (right, click to enlarge), pigs are shown.  Pigs were sacrifices to Ares / Mars, so it is unlikely a pig was in this procession. If there is any connection between this story and the legend from Ovid mentioned above, then it is quite likely that the crowd was not going to allow Zeus to visit them again without proper worship.

What is the point of this story in Acts?  As far as we know in Acts, this is the first time Paul has preached the gospel to an entirely pagan audience.  The miracle generates a crowd which thinks Paul is a god.  There are priests there as well as people about to honor Paul and Barnabas as a pagan god. This is not a comfortable synagogue where people are ready to discuss  what the scripture might say about the Christ.  These people are as unprepared for the gospel as could be imagined!  Paul’s sermon will therefore need to be much different than what we read in Acts 13.  Here, he must contextualize the gospel for a pagan world.

This is another opportunity  to think about applying the book of Acts – should Paul’s sermon in Acts 14 be used as a model for contextualizing the preaching of the Gospel today?

Acts 12:1-2 – Why Did Herod Kill James?

Agrippa IThe Herod mentioned in Acts 12 as a persecutor of the apostles was Herod Agrippa I (10 B.C.- A.D. 44). He was the grandson of Herod the Great and was educated in Rome. He was a friend of the imperial family, but supported Caligula as the successor to Tiberius and was imprisoned as a result. When Caligula became emperor, Agrippa was released and was given the title of King and the territories formerly held by Herod Philip and Lysanias, and later the territory given to Herod Antipas. Agrippa was a key figure in persuading Caligula to rescind his order to place an image of himself in the Temple (JW 2.206-13, Antiq. 19:236-47).

We are not told why Herod persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that he was in some respects interested in his “Jewish roots.” This piety was demonstrated upon his return to Judea. He donated a golden chain, given to him by Caligula when he was freed from his imprisonment, to the Temple. In addition, he undertook the sponsorship of a large number of Nazarite vows in the temple (Antiq., 12.6.1, Schürer 2:155).

During a Sabbath year, Agrippa read from the book of Deuteronomy and was moved to tears when he read the words of Deuteronomy 17:15, forbidding the appointment of a stranger over the “brothers” (i.e., a non-Israelite over Israel.) The crowd which witnesses this responded “Thou art our brother!” (See m.Sota 7.8). According to Josephus:

“He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Antiq. 19.7.3

Schürer argues Agrippa was favorable to the Pharisees and even to some extent a Jewish nationalism (2:159). This may be plausible given his zealous persecution of the Jewish Christians in Acts 12.

agrippa_i_coin

James’ death is about eleven years after the martyrdom of Stephen, probably about A.D. 41-42. Agrippa may have been motivated toward this persecution by zealous Pharisees (like Paul) who sought to suppress the Jews who taught that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. It even appears that the people of Jerusalem no longer support the Jewish Christians. Witherington makes this point: the city of Jerusalem has “turned against” the Jewish church (Acts, 386 ).

A further motivation for the summary execution of James may be the messianic claims of the apostles. If Caligula was inclined to demand his image be honored in the Temple, then perhaps messianic fervor among the Christians was high. Jesus himself predicted an “abomination which causes desolation” similar to the offenses of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Dan 9:25-27, Mark 13:14 and parallels).

Agrippa is therefore acting like a pious devotee of the Jewish faith by pursuing the leaders of the Christian community who promote the teaching that Jesus is the Messiah.  If this is true, how does this play out into the overall themes we have been seeing in Luke? Is Herod the “ultimate fringe” of what it means to be Jewish?

Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer , 2:150-159.

Acts 9:43 – Peter and Simon the Tanner

At the end of chapter 9, Peter stays in Joppa at the home of Simon “the Tanner” (v. 43). It is significant that Peter would accept hospitality from Simon since the occupation of leather-worker (a tanner, βυρσεύς) was considered to be unclean by the Pharisees.

Simon's Door

Traditional Site of Simon’s House

A tanner was one of the most unclean trades in any ancient society, the nature of their work kept them in a state of ritual uncleanliness (Lev 11:35), and the process of tanning leather resulted in a state of physical uncleanliness. The rabbis mention tanners or tanneries in the context of other “unclean things.” In m.Meg 3:2, a tannery is in the same category as a bathhouse and public urinal; in m.Ket 7:10 a tanner is lumped together with “he who is afflicted with boils, or who has a polypus, or who collects dog excrement.” Because of the stench of the tanner’s shop, most towns required that the tanner had to live on the outskirts of town, downwind! The Mishnah states “They put carrion, graves, and tanneries at least fifty cubits away from a town. They make a tannery only at the east side of a town” (m.Batra 2:9).

It is possible that Simon owns a tanning business and does not work the trade himself. But business appears to be good for Simon since he is able to open his home to Peter. The home is large enough to have a gate and courtyard far enough away from the house that Peter did not hear Cornelius’ men arrive (10:17-18).

That Peter shares hospitality with Simon is significant. Just like Jesus, he is eating and drinking with the outcast, people who are Jewish but on the fringe of society from the perspective of Temple purity and Pharisaical tradition. While tanners are never included in the list of outsiders with whom Jesus eats, they might very well be in the same category as tax collectors and prostitutes.

It is therefore quite curious that Peter hesitates when he is told to God to Cornelius in chapter 10. This is a testimony to how far Jews and Gentiles were separated culturally. Peter has no problem staying in the home of a tanner who was unclean, yet will not enter the home of a Gentile God-fearer, someone who was likely more “clean” than the tanner, with respect to the Law. The difference, of course, is that even if Cornelius was a God-Fearer, he was still an uncircumcised Gentile.

Acts 9 – Paul in Arabia

Bronze_Coin_of_Aretas_IV

Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys. But this period is not a monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

Acts 9 – Paul’s Encounter with the Resurrected Jesus (Part 2)

Conversion SaulBeginning with Krister Stendahl, a new view of Paul’s experience has emerged. Rather than a conversion from one religion to another, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament, especially that of Jeremiah. This view sees the Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.

Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah. In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God. He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah. Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism.

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets.

The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key. Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul. Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.

However, I do think that it is problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.