Merkle, Benjamin L. and Robert L. Plummer. Greek for Life: Strategies for Learning, Retaining, and Reviving New Testament Greek. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2017. 176 pp.; Pb.; $19.99. Link to Baker   

In Greek for Life Merkle and Plummer want to encourage (and occasionally shame) seminary students and pastors to work hard at the task of learning Greek so they will be properly prepared to present God’s word in their ministries. They especially want to gently invite the “lost Greek lamb” back to the fold in order to recover Greek skills lost by years of neglect.

Cover ArtI have always been of the opinion that Greek is not difficult, it simply requires a little work every day (say, an hour a day during the semester for reviewing and reading) and memorizing details. But too many people claim they cannot memorize things. The same students who claim they cannot remember a paradigm or a set of vocabulary can reel off song lyrics without any difficulty, or for too many of my students, the intimate details of the Star Wars universe. Merkle and Plummer therefore devote chapters to reviewing strategies (ch. 3) and effective memory techniques (ch. 4). They have a nice section on using mnemonic devices. I find this very effective for students, working best when they create the device themselves. The sillier the better, as Merkle and Plummer illustrate with their story about a Methodist pastor wearing a tie. (My story: “Omen et a ousi. I do not know what an ousi is, but Omen et one.” I honestly say that phrase about fifty times in a first semester Greek class.) They suggest singing bits of Greek, and there are several resources available setting Greek paradigms to music. (I have a little song and dance that goes along with the rule, “neuter plural subject takes a singular verb.” It is terrible, but memorable.)

I mentioned in the first paragraph that Merkle and Plummer occasionally shame the reader, although it is a very friendly shaming. Chapter 2, for example, is entitled “Go to the Ant, You Sluggard.” The chapter is about time management and developing good habits which can be used to review Greek and master reading the New Testament. They are not anti-technology, in fact, Merkle and Plummer recommend many internet based resources for honing Greek skills. But when instagramming one’s dinner is more important than reviewing Greek vocabulary, perhaps there is a problem with priorities.

This includes some very practical steps like, put your phone away and focus on what is really important, in chapter 6 (“Don’t Waste Your Breaks”) they encourage Greek students to actually use Greek over winter and summer breaks. For example, for several years now I have assigned the Summer Greek Reader to third-semester Greek students. They are told work on it over the summer and get 12% for completing the twelve chapters of the book. Their summer is longer than twelve weeks, the readings are easy (in fact, there is a key in the back of the book!) I only grade on completeness, not accuracy since my objective is to keep their mind on Greek for at least some of the summer. Most students have good intentions in May, and are struggling to finish a week (or a day) before class starts. Usually ten out of twelve chapters is the best I can expect.

One thing Merkle and Plummer frequently return to is the lofty goal of using Greek every day. Most Greek students want to do this, but in the fury of an average college or seminary semester, this is very difficult to achieve. Yet the authors offer some very practical advice, including online resources which offer a few phrases of Greek every day. I follow sententiae antiquae, @sentantiq, to polish my atrophied classical Greek skills as well as Henry George Liddell, @LiddellAndScott, for some amusing daily Greek vocab reminders. There are several physical book resources which a Greek teacher might call a “cheater” book, but for someone trying to maintain (or revive) their Greek, there is no shame in using an interlinear or reader’s Greek New Testament. Carrying this book to class, chapel and church will help give a student familiarity with the Greek text and develop confidence in their reading.

Like the authors of this book, I sometimes reward myself with a new expensive Bible so I can read through it. Early in my Greek teaching career I bought a large-sized Nestle-Aland 26th edition with every other page blank. I read through the Greek New Testament twice and through Acts a third time over the first two years teaching Greek, and I still think that was the time I finally “got it,” even though I had taken many semesters of Greek in Seminary. There is no better way to learn Greek than to read it daily. If you have to bribe yourself with a calfskin Greek Bible, then do so.

Greek for Life has several feature in each chapter. First, there are numerous sidebars with pithy quotes on the value of Greek from a wide range of Greek teachers and scholars. Second, these short quotes are supplemented by several “testimonials” by pastors and teachers on the importance of Greek for their ministry. Third, each chapter includes footnotes to resources mentioned, including (lengthy) links to websites. These will obviously work better in an electronic edition of the book, but most people will be able to use Google to find the sites mentioned. Fourth, each chapter includes four or five questions for reflection. Most of these are intended to push the reader toward making a plan of action. For example, “what are some practical ways you can incorporate all your senses in learning Greek?” Fifth, each chapter ends with a devotional demonstrating the value of using Greek to understand a text. These are similar to the devotionals in the Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek and Mounce himself contributes two devotionals drawn from his own blog, Mondays with Mounce. Others were written by Todd Scacewater of Exegetical Tools or the Daily Dose of Greek, maintained by Rob Plummer, and Kris Lyle’s Old School Script (although that particular blog has not been updated in some time).

Conclusion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Greek for Life. The style was light and engaging, but the content will challenge anyone who is struggling to learn Greek to keep working hard because the rewards are immense. The book will make a great supplemental textbook in a first year Greek class, a gift (and subtle hint) for a pastor or teacher who has forgotten their first love of Greek.

 

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

Paul claims to be called to be an apostle in each of the undisputed letters (Rom 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:1) as well as several other letters (Eph 1:1, Col 1:1, 1-2 Tim, Titus). In addition to the headings of these letters, Paul refers to his apostleship in several other contexts. In Rom 11:13 he calls himself the “apostle to the Gentiles” and in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul defends his status as an apostle on a par with Peter or Barnabas. But Paul never claims to be one of the Twelve. With the exception of Matthias, the replacement for Judas, this group were chosen by Jesus before the crucifixion.

In fact, in Galatians 1 Paul emphasizes his commission as an apostle but distinct from the Twelve.  An “apostle” is someone who is sent as a representative of another, usually some kind of a group.  Most lexicons suggests the English “ambassador, delegate, messenger” for the Greek concept of an apostle.  Most scholars now associate the Greek apostolos (ἀπόστολος) with the Hebrew shaliach. A person who was sent as a representative or agent acts on the same authority of the sending group.

For example, when the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, it is possible he was send as a shaliach or apostle of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22).  He would have acted as their representative on the scene should questions arise. Paul is not an apostle sent by the church of Antioch to the churches of Galatia, nor is he an agent sent out by the Jerusalem church. He never claims to be one of the Twelve Apostles, in fact Galatians 1-2 make it clear he is not part of that particular group. Paul’s claim in Galatians is that is an apostle of Jesus Christ and God the Father.

In 1 Corinthians 15:9 Paul alludes to his status as an apostle in his discussion of the resurrection. Paul was not a follower of Jesus until his encounter in Acts 9. As is well known, he was a persecutor of Jesus’ followers prior to the resurrection appearance of Jesus. Paul claims in in 1 Cor 15 to be an eye-witness to the resurrection, albeit one with different credentials than Peter or James since he did not know Jesus before the resurrection.

This experience was like an “untimely birth” (ESV). This word (ἔκτρωμα) is used for a stillborn child or a miscarriage. Many commentators think this is an insult Paul faced in his ministry, he is not just a “Johnny-come-lately” or someone who is trying to “jump on the band-wagon,” or that he has some spiritual deficiency disqualifying him from being considered a “real apostle.” Rather than responding to an attack, Paul is simply listing himself as the final witness because he was the final witness, and his experience is unique among the apostles. But again, he does not claim to be one of the Twelve; like James, the Lord’s Brother, he is commissioned by the resurrected Jesus to be an apostle, but NOT one of the Twelve.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul sarcastically refers to his opponents in Corinth as “super-apostles.” But since this rare word can mean superior, it is possible the opponents considered themselves to be superior to Paul and described themselves as his superiors to the members of the Corinthian church. Some have argued this is a reference to the apostles in Jerusalem, but it seems unlikely Paul would refer the Twelve with this snarky title (like added “so-called” to something to question its authority). More likely the super apostles are Greeks in Corinth who have accepted the Gospel but are now behaving like Greek intellectuals. Like many of the other issues in Corinth, Paul is dealing with a pagan worldview in the church.

By way of summary, there was a group called the Twelve who were apostles, and a few other people who were commissioned by Jesus after the resurrection (James and Paul) and were therefore also considered apostles. There were others who claimed to be apostles, like the super apostles mentioned in 2 Corinthians who claimed authority as apostles but were not commissioned by the resurrected Jesus.

What is Paul claiming when he calls himself an Apostle?  What does it mean for a letter like 1 Thessalonians, where he does not use the title but then says he could have made demands as an apostle of Christ?

One of the basic assumptions most Christian have about Jews in the first century is that they kept separate from the Gentiles. Josephus said that Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247). Any Gentile who chooses to live according to the Law of Moses may be admitted, but otherwise there is no real fellowship with Gentiles.  

Josephus, Against Apion 2.210 Accordingly our legislator [Moses] admits all those that have a mind to observe our laws, so to do; and this after a friendly manner, as esteeming that a true union, which not only extends to our own stock, but to those that would live after the same manner with us; yet does he not allow those that come to us by accident only to be admitted into communion with us.

But perhaps the situation was not as strict as Josephus would have us believe. Gentiles were not totally excluded from Jewish worship. There was a huge “court of the Gentiles” in the temple complex which gave Gentiles a place to worship in the Temple. On a number of occasions in the gospels Jesus speaks with Gentiles, although usually the faith of the Gentile is in contrast to the unfaithfulness of the Jews.

One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” (Deut 5:14) define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel. These are the same commands given by James at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:24-29.

Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? In the Second Temple re-telling of the story of Joseph known as Joseph and Asenath we are told that “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him” (7:1). In fact, he refuses to even kiss the lovely Egyptian Asenath because her lips have touched unclean food.

Several Second Temple period texts indicate Jews did not mix at all with Gentiles:

Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.

Tobit 1:10-12 After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, every one of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. Because I was mindful of God with all my heart . . .

Judith 12:1-4 Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.” Holofernes said to her, “If your supply runs out, where can we get you more of the same? For none of your people are here with us.” Judith replied, “As surely as you live, my lord, your servant will not use up the supplies I have with me before the Lord carries out by my hand what he has determined.”

In any case, it was certainly not normal for a missionary from Jerusalem to turn up in the home of a Gentile to preach the gospel, as did Peter in Acts 10. If a Gentile was worshiping in the Temple or synagogue, such as Cornelius, then that Gentile would be welcome to hear the gospel. But for the Jewish mission in Judea, the home of a Gentile is not really the normal venue for missionary activity!

Yet Paul plans to take the Gospel to places where it has not gone before. On the island of Crete he approaches a Roman governor, Sergius Paulus, and in Lystra and Iconium he tries to preach the Gospel to Gentiles outside of the Synagogue.

If the examples listed above are a fair reading of Judaism in the first century, then how radical was Paul’s Gentile mission strategy?

Pleins, J. David  and Jonathan Homrighausen. Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student’s Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2017. 176 pp.; Pb.; $17.99.   Link to Zondervan

The goal of this new book by J. David Pleins is to assist students to acquire a more fluid and intuitive grasp of Hebrew vocabulary. Word frequency lists are common, but after memorizing the most common words it is perhaps not as profitable to memorize words which appear rarely in the Hebrew Bible. Reading the Hebrew Bible becomes “tedious page-flipping exercises through lexicons” (16). By collecting Hebrew vocabulary into logical categories, Pleins hopes to provide a user-friendly method for becoming familiar with words via conceptual categories. The authors hope this book will “open the promised land of a more satisfying experience of reading the Hebrew Bible” (21).

There are over 175 word grouping categories in the book, divided into four broad categories, each divided into sub-categories: The Created Order (Heavens and Earth; Metals, Stones; Colors; Time; Animals; Flora); Human Order (Human; Human Anatomy; Disease and Morality; Food and Spices; Clothing), Social Order (Family, Worship; Law and Covenant; Professions, Military; Maritime; Music; Education); Constructed Order (Buildings; Containers and Implements; Tools; Measurement).

Under each category heading, Pleins lists a groupings. Under Food and Spices, there is a list of general vocabulary, then a list of about thirty words for various kinds of grains, seven for threshing, etc. Some groups have even more narrow groupings. For example, under “Vine, Wine Grapes (including strong drink) Pleins has lists for plant parts, wine/strong drink (spiced wine, mixed win, new wine, but also honeycomb), cluster/grape (raisins, etc.), vineyard, and winepress.

Each entry includes a brief gloss, an abbreviation for the lexical work Pleins used for the gloss and a single example verse from the Hebrew Bible. There are five pages of bibliography at the beginning of the book to guide the reader to more detailed works. Many of these are articles in obscure journals or hard to find monographs. Although word frequency is not noted in the entry, words used less that ten times are marked with an R, words used only a single time (hapax legomena) are marked with an H.

I will take one example from the section on Fruits. The noun אֲבִיּוֹנָה only appears in Ecclesiastes 12:5 so it is marked H. Pliens glosses the word as “caper plant, caper bush, caper berry” citing DCH, David Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew and “Koops.” Consulting the bibliography, this refers to David Koops and Donald Slager, Each According to Its Kinds: Plants and Trees in the Bible (United Bible Societies, 2012).

The book concludes with two appendices. First, “A Guide for Further Reading” listing helpful resources for studying the larger macro categories. For each of the categories listed in the book Pleins highlights one or two of the best monographs from the bibliography with a bit of commentary. The second appendix lists “cluster verses” where several words in the book’s categories appear together. This will guide students to specific passage where this method of vocabulary development works best.

This is a fascinating resource for anyone who has already acquired the basic vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, perhaps after two semesters of biblical Hebrew. Two things might have improved this book. First, the preface explains how to use the book, but there is not enough justification for the use of “conceptual categories.” For example, how does this differ from “semantic domains”? Although based on the New Testament, are “conceptual categories” different than the method employed by Louw and Nida in their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996)? A second minor improvement would be to include word frequency in each entry rather than the use of R for rare and H for hapax.

One obvious potential problem for this book is the focus on nouns. There are some nouns which are so related to a verbal form that it would make some sense to see them together, perhaps helping a student solidify the concept. For example, the noun לֶקַח is glossed as “learning, teaching” and is listed as rare. But the verb לקח appears much more frequently and has a wide range of meanings involving taking or grasping something. HALOT indicates the two words are related, so by placing this particular verb and noun together might help the student to “grasp” the concept. But since this was not the goal of the book, it cannot be seen as a fault. I imagine a companion volume of verbs at some point in the future.

These are minor quibbles and do not distract from the usefulness of the Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories. The book is both a unique and useful reference for students of the Hebrew Bible.

 

One of the more tantalizing aspects of Paul’s early ministry is his “three years in Arabia.” In Galatians 1:17, Paul claims he did not go to Jerusalem immediately, but rather he went to Arabia for a period of time before returning to Damascus. This period of time is not spent in modern Arabia (i.e. Saudi Arabia), but rather the Nabatean kingdom on the east side of the Jordan. As Robert Smith states, the term “Arab” “could be used as a virtual equivalent of ‘Nabatean’ (1 Macc 5:25, 39, 9:35, and 2 Macc 5:8)” (ABD, 1:326).

Jeresh, from Summer
of 2013

Paul gives us some details of these events in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33. While Luke indicates the Jews were plotting against him, 2 Corinthains adds an important fact: The local guard was looking out for him as well. He specifically mentions Aretas IV, the client-king over the Nabateans. During the reign of Aretas IV (9 B.C. – A.D. 39) Nabatean culture was at a high point. The king was responsible for the development of Petra and developed a number of cities along the Petra-Gaza trade route. He controlled territory as far north as Damascus and as far south as northern Arabia. To a certain extent, Aretas IV was the “Herod the Great” of the Nabatean kingdom. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After an initial confrontation with Jews in the synagogue in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in the Nabatean kingdom. This would have included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps even the modern site of Jeresh. 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 on the road to Damascus.

But 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.

 

Todd Bolen has been producing high quality resources for Bible teachers for many years on his website Bible Places.com. I first became aware of Bolens’s Pictorial Library of Biblical Lands at an ETS in 2003. At the time this was eight CDs or one DVD of high quality photographs of Israel and Asia Minor. I have used these photographs in virtually every class I teach to add some graphics to an otherwise dull PowerPoint presentation. I added the American Colony and Eric Matson collections in 2009, and there are several other historical sets available on Bolen’s site.

This new resource from BiblePlaces.com is something of a mash-up of all of Bolen’s previous collections plus a great deal more. Each volume of the Photo Companion to the Bible covers a Gospel chapter by chapter as a PowerPoint collection. Photographs are arranged by verse, with several slides per verse in many cases. For example, for Mark there are 16 PowerPoint files, each set has more than 100 images.

Some readers might wonder if it is worth purchasing these DVDs since they are used to using Google Image Search to find pictures for their lectures. First, these photographs often do not appear on the web. For most of the collection, BiblePlaces.com has taken these photographs themselves and they own the copyright. These are not snapshots from someone’s Holy Land Tour taken with their iPhone. I have noticed the photographs were often taken when there are few tourists in the way.

Second, if you are just grabbing a few photographs from the web for your teaching, perhaps you are violating copyright law. Yes, I know we all do it and it is doubtful you will get in trouble for snagging someone’s vacation pictures from Flickr. But some churches (and certain colleges) do try to limit resources to “fair use” copyright images.  The copyright notice is as follows:

The purchaser is granted permission to use this work in face-to-face teaching, video-recorded sermons, class notes, church newsletters, and like contexts. Separate permission must be obtained from BiblePlaces.com to use this material in books, magazines, commercial products, websites, and online courses. Slide notes should be treated as any other copyrighted written material, with credit given when quoting from these notes. For copyright inquiries, please email Todd Bolen at tbolen94@bibleplaces.com.

The Photo Companion to the Bible allows for legal images which can be edited for your own needs. (Here is a list of contributors for proper attribution.) I have seen Bolen’s photographs in many books from major publishers, which speaks to the quality of this resource.

There are several types of photographs are in each collection. For most passages, slides contain geographical photographs from Bolen’s earlier collections and new aerial photographs. Sometimes the aerial photographs are labeled pointing out key locations in the photographs. If the Old Testament is quoted, Bolen has a photograph of the relevant text in the Dead Sea Scrolls, or often a Yemenite Torah scroll photographed at The Master’s Seminary. The quoted texted is highlighted by a rectangle.

Since these are PowerPoint slides, the editors provide annotations explaining the image and the location of the photograph. This is very helpful for identifying the location of museum photographs or some of the historical photographs. Since there are often many slides on the same topic, these descriptions are critical to the usefulness of the Photo Companion to the Bible. For example, in the Mark 16 set, there are many photographs of the Garden Tome and the Holy Sepulcher, as would be expected. But the slides include many other examples of ancient Jewish tombs. Since these are less well known, the annotations will help a teacher select the right image for their own presentation.

For this review, I browsed several chapters for each Gospel, but I will comment in more detail on the file for Mark 10 (chosen more or less at random). There are 134 slides in this file, including many views of Galilee taken at different times and angles. I particular enjoy seeing the historical photographs alongside modern photos. Sometimes the location looks the same after 100 years, but in some cases you can see the impact of modern Israeli culture and (unfortunately) the tourist industry.

In addition, the collection includes the following:

  • Michelangelo’s Moses from the Church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome is included for 10:3, “He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’”
  • A divorce document, in Old Assyrian, from Karum Kanesh, from the in the Ankara Museum of Anatolian Civilizations.
  • For Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me,” there are slides of modern Israeli children in the Jewish quarter of the Old City and an American Colony photograph of a group of children in Kiriath Anavim in the Judean hills west of Jerusalem dated August 6, 1939.
  • For the rich young man approaches Jesus in Mark 10:17, there is a photograph from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum of a Roman man from Magnesia on the Maeander dated to the first century AD.
  • For the commandments in Mark 10:19, there is a photograph of the Ten Commandments from the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Zionl Exodus 20 from a Yemenite Torah scroll; a Sumerian tablet with the verdict concerning murder, from Girsu, 2112–2004 BC from the from Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient; an Egyptian warning to robbers on tomb scene of courtier Biu, 6th dynasty, ca. 2400–2250 BC; a cuneiform record of trial before king of Hazor, 18th–17th centuries BC from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
  • Since the man was rich, there is a photograph of a mansion in Second Temple period Jerusalem from the Wohl Museum and several examples of wealth from other museums including the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
  • For the famous saying about a camel going through the eye of a needle, there are three pictures of camels and three pictures of ancient needles, and two pictures of the closed Jaffa Gate (even though this is a historic photograph from before 1920, it is not the gate Jesus would have had in mind, and there was no “needle gate” anyway).

This ought to be enough to illustrate the types of things provided for each chapter of the Gospels. Occasionally I wondered at the usefulness of a particular photo, but what seems odd to me might be an excellent image for someone else.

If you purchase the Photo Companion, you can download it immediately with the promise of free lifetime updates as well as get a DVD copy.

There is a nice overview of the four volumes of the Photo Companion to the Bible currently available on BiblePlaces.com. There are two sample chapters (Matthew 4
and John 2), both are the full 100+ set of slides in the full product. Finally, here is a five minute video promoting the Photo Companion. The Photo Companion to the Bible is an essential resource for anyone teaching or preaching the Gospels. This database of images will enhance your presentations and help make the world of the Gospels come alive for your students. Short of visiting Israel several times on your own, this Photo Companion will also help anyone reading through the Gospels visualize the places Jesus lived.

NB: Thanks to Todd Bolen at BiblePlaces.com for kindly providing me with a review copy of this resource. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

Like Philippians 3, in 2 Corinthians 11:23–33 Paul boasts about his ministry. Since this letter is written in the mid-50s, the list refers to Paul’s early ministry. But Paul does not list his accomplishments quite the way we would expect them.

First, Paul claims to be a servant of Christ (v. 23a) and then proves it by listing his hard work and suffering on account of Christ Jesus. In fact, he claims to be a “better servant” because he has suffered! The opponents claim to be servants of Jesus and Paul does not deny the claim. Be the word “servant” and “slave” are identical in Greek. For someone to claim to be a “servant” in English has a different feel than claiming to be a “slave.”

Second, Paul says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countless times and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!

Third, Paul has already suffered many times for the name of Jesus. “Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).

What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times!  Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. In Acts 7, Stephen is lynched for teaching Jesus had replaced the Temple, although he did not go as far as Paul with respect to the Gentiles and the Law.

In addition to these beatings, Paul says he was “three times beaten with rods.” This is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.

Finally, Paul says he was “once stoned and left for dead.” This refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.

I suggest this list of suffering indicates Paul continued to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career. Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.” But he was also bringing the Gospel into the Greco-Roman world in such a way that he was thought to be a threat. In Acts 17:6 the leaders of Thessalonica claim Paul was “turning the world upside down.”

So Paul was Jesus’ slave who suffered greatly to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles. How does this level of suffering for Jesus function as a kind of “missionary strategy”? From a modern perspective, being arrested for rabble-rousing might be seen as counter-productive to evangelism. How might Paul’s suffering for Jesus be a model for Christians today?

 

Cover ArtIt is time to give away my extra copy of  Charles Talbert’s Reading the Sermon on the Mount: Character Formation and Decision Making in Matthew 5–7 . As I mentioned in the previous post, I plan on teaching through the Sermon in my Sunday School class (which is now called “Second Hour” for hipster reasons which sometimes escape me). Browsing through Sermon on the Mount titles at Baker Books in Grand Rapids, I bought a copy of Talbert, only to discover it was already on my shelf.

There were 25 names in the hat, I randomly sorted the names and then used random.org to pick a number. The winner is:

Dwight Gingrich

Huzzah to Dwight for winning this  book. Please contact me via email (plong42 at gmail .com) or a DM on twitter (@Plong42) with your mailing address and I will pop this book in the mail ASAP.

I will launch the next give away this afternoon, so be sure to check back soon.

Galatians 1:11–12 (ESV) For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of Galatians, Paul offers his own testimony of how he encountered the grace of God. Although he does not recount the story as we know it from Acts 9, Paul is describing his initial encounter with God as an apocalyptic experience. By this I mean God dramatically broke into history and revealed something to Paul which altered his understanding of God had what God is doing in the world through Jesus.

First, Paul’s claim is that he was not evangelized by other apostles. Although there is a case to be made for Paul having heard the preaching of Jesus before the crucifixion, based on his persecution of the early Christ-followers it is clear he did not believe Jesus was the Messiah before meeting him on the road to Damascus. Although Stanley Porter has recently argued Paul did know Jesus, there is no hint in either Acts or the letters that he heard Jesus teach or was he present at the execution.

In fact, Acts describes Paul as a bitter opponent of the gospel. Paul makes a similar statement in Galatians 1:13. Paul likely began to oppose the preaching of Stephen in the Greek-speaking Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:1-8:1). As a Hellenistic Jew from the Diaspora Paul have fellowshipped at this synagogue, but as a Pharisee he would have been shocked and offended by Stephen’s claim Jesus was the messiah, God had raised him from the dead, and he was going to return soon to render judgment. (Although we do not have Stephen’s speeches before his final one prior to being stoned, it seems likely he would say the same sorts of things Peter and John did in Acts 2-3.)

Second, Paul did not learn his gospel from the other apostles. After his encounter with Jesus, Paul did not submit to a period of discipleship in order to learn the basics of the Gospel nor did he associate himself with the Apostles in Jerusalem. In Galatians Paul claims not encounter the Apostles until after he was given a revelation from Jesus.

This, the origin of Paul’s gospel to the Gentiles is a revelation from Jesus (Galatians 1:12). The noun ἀποκάλυψις appears in Paul’s letters thirteen times, and as might be expected, the word has the connotation of God’s decisive actions in history to bring salvation into the world. This is in fact the title of the final book of the New Testament, the “Revelation of Jesus Christ.” Paul claims that he received this Law-free gospel for the Gentiles through revelation in Ephesians 3:1-6 as well. What Paul experienced on the Road to Damascus was like the prophetic calling of Isaiah or Ezekiel. In fact, Paul is the “light to the Gentiles,” a possible allusion to the suffering servant Isaiah 49:6 and he quotes Isaiah 6 when he arrives in Rome as fulfilled in his mission.

This revelation stands in contrast to receiving a gospel from other humans. Rather than being informed by others of a “Law-free Gospel” for the Gentiles, God revealed it to him through Jesus. In Galatians 1-2, Paul will offer evidence for the claim that his gospel does not come from humans, but from God.

This fierce claim of independence from the Twelve in Jerusalem and the original followers of Jesus is disturbing to some readers. Although Paul claims to be an outsider from the first followers of Christ, he says his authority comes from the highest level: God called him through a dramatic unveiling of Jesus, the Son of God. What are the ramifications of this claim for reading Paul’s letters? Does his claim of independence affect the way we understand his relationship with the other Christ followers in Jerusalem?

For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) is the classic story of the conversion of the chief of sinners. Jesus himself appears to Rabbi Saul and confronts him with the truth of the resurrection and completely turns him around. For many preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. His conversion is therefore an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.

Yet there is a great deal about Paul’s experience which is open for discussion. Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road in Acts 9 (TTP 31). First, the terminology use to describe Paul’s experience varies within Acts and even within the Letters of Paul. Did Paul experience a vision in Acts 9? How is that vision related to his 2 Corinthians 12?

A second problem is the chronological relationship between Paul’s “conversion” and his “mission.” Perhaps it is inappropriate to describe Paul as converting from Judaism to Christianity in the modern sense of the word. Did Paul experience a conversion experience similar to a person who attends a modern evangelistic meeting, raises their hand and walks forward to “accept Jesus”? Or was his experience more of a calling to a particular mode of ministry, the mission to the Gentiles?

The relationship between conversion and mission raises a third problem for Longenecker and Still, how should Acts be used to unpack what happened to Paul? For some scholars, Luke’s story of the early church is suspect: he is a later writer trying to emphasize the unity of the church and (perhaps) promote Paul as a more significant leader than he really was. For other more conservative interpreters of Acts, Luke tells his story with a theological agenda but he does not create events out of nothing. He tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times in order to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.

Yet it seems clear Paul had some kind of experience that really did cause him to rethink everything, even if he did not reject all aspects of Judaism in favor of Christianity. By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is and what he claimed to be.

Over the next few posts I will take up these topics and examine a few of the texts in which Paul describes his own calling to ministry. Perhaps this is a discussion that ought to stay in the academy, but I wonder if it is surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do? If Paul did not experience a “conversion,” does this change the way we think about his mission? Or to put it another way, if he was converted from Judaism to Christianity,  what should we do with the many Jewish elements of Paul’s theology and practice?

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Christian Theology

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