I recently read Roger S. Bagnell’s Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, and I was intrigued by an ancient Greek word square found among items of graffiti in Smyrna (made prior to 178 CE) representing ‘the earliest such letter square known in Greek, as far as I can tell, by a matter of more than two centuries’ (p18):

Word Square

Bagnell does not think there is any Christian significance in this word square, because it ‘will not allow the formation of any of the basic Christian vocabulary that comes to mind.’ He concedes though that ‘the cross formed by [logos] in the center’ would be a counter-argument.’

This got me pondering – it struck me that the word onoma is certainly important in early Christianity, and the word hedone has a place in its ethical material. So I began to wonder whether the word square might even represent a crude biblical theology:

  • Melon (apple) = creation
  • Hedone (pleasure) = the fall/sin
  • Logos, shaped in a cross = the incarnation and work of Christ
  • Onoma (name) = the exaltation of Christ (as in Philippians 2) or his invocation as Lord by Christians
  • Nesas… ummm…

So what of nesas? Bagnell thinks that it is an aorist participle of νέω; and I can’t seem to improve on this suggestion. The fact that it is an aorist participle rather than a noun immediately sets it apart from the other words, but none of the possible meanings would seem to jump out as obvious contenders to give the word square overall Christian coherence: swum? spun? piled? Would any of these bring eschatological echoes in early Christian literature? Not that I’m aware of. If it could be a fudged spelling of ‘renewed’ (an attempted aorist of νεόω or νεάζω) that would fit perfectly, but it feels like it would be pushing credibility to rely on a misspelling.

So perhaps Bagnell is right, and there is no significance beyond the simple Smyrnean excitement at making words which look the same vertically and horizontally. Still, intriguing to explore and imagine the possibilities…

In Larry Hurtado’s recent review of NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God in the journal Theology, he comments:

If, however, as Wright contends, Paul developed an unprecedented mutation’ in ancient Jewish ‘monotheism’, it is surely all the more important to ask how this remarkable innovation arose. Certainly, Wright is correct to emphasize that Paul reflects a creative use of Jewish Scriptures in developing/expressing his theology. But what in particular prompted and shaped this novel reading of these texts?

As it happens, this is precisely the topic of a forthcoming book that I’m editing, in which Hurtado contributes the opening chapter. Here’s a sneak peek…

I was just thinking the other day, how about we have an SBL programme section on ‘the gospel in the New Testament’? I always seem to be working on the gospel in Paul or Peter or whatever. It is outdated to think of a singular univocal primitive kerygma underlying the New Testament documents, but that by no means should result in the thought that there is nothing to be explored. On the contrary, it gives all the more reason to explore the specificity of Paul’s gospel and its relation to his documents; Peter’s gospel and its relation to the Petrine literature; relationships between kerygmata; etc…

I guess I’m thinking of November 2015… Anyone interested besides me? Or is there such a thing already? If I hear crickets chirping, I know what that means…

I have mentioned previously Craig Evans’ recent suggestion that events in the development of early Christianity can be partially explained by an ongoing vendetta on the part of the aristocratic priestly family of Annas against the family and followers of Jesus. I also mentioned that this idea has been mentioned by Paul Barnett. I’ve now found a place where Barnett hints at the possibility (although he certainly doesn’t explore it as fully as Evans):

James [brother of Jesus] was killed because of dynastic jealousy. James, brother of Jesus, was leader of a large community of Jerusalem Jews whose loyalty to him would have exceeded the loyalty the members of the wider community had towards the high priest. Moreover, from Annas’ point of view [Barnett is referring to Annas the younger, also known as Ananus] James was brother of the false-messiah, Jesus, whose execution Annas the Elder had secured thirty years earlier. Dynasties were a fact of life in Palestine at that time, as the following tables relating to dynasties of high priests, Jesus, rabbis and revolutionaries indicates. This table of dynasties shows how customary it was for members of the family to continue the teaching and traditions of their relatives. Once Peter was unable to continue as leader of the Jerusalem church the choice would have fallen, fairly naturally, upon Jesus’ brother James and then, after his death, on Jesus’ next close relative, his cousin Simean. (Bethlehem to Patmos, p171; table on p172)

Barnett Dynasties in conflict

Also, Bauckham describes something similar (in Skarsaune & Hvalvik 2007: 75-76):

It is noteworthy that in every known case action against the Jerusalem church or its leaders was taken when the reigning high priest was one of those who belonged to the powerful Sadducean family of Annas (Ananus). Caiaphas, son-in-law of Annas, had presided over the trial and condemnation of Jesus and was still high priest when Stephen was tried before his council and stoned. Matthias son of Annas was probably high priest when Agrippa I had James the son of Zebedee executed and Peter arrested… Finally, James the brother of Jesus was put to death by another son of Annas, Ananus II, who took advantage of a period when the previous Roman governor had died and the rest had not yet arrived in Jerusalem … We may suspect something of a family vendetta against the followers of a man whose movement Caiaphas had expected but failed to stamp out.

I think that Evans is the first to propose that Jesus ben Ananias was also a member of the Christian movement, who likewise suffered at the hands of the high-priestly dynasty of Annas (Evans, From Jesus to Church, 114):

What motivated ben Ananias to take up his prophecy of woe [against the Jerusalem temple in the 60s of the first century]? Given the number of parallels with Jesus of Nazareth and given the possibility that the peasant prophet was a follower of jesus of Nazareth, the martyrdom of James brother of Jesus may have been what prompted ben Ananias to begin his ministry.

Metallica has recently released a 3D bluray movie called Through the Never. It is a hybrid movie, combining concert footage (carefully planned for the purpose of the movie) and a Hollywood-style apocalyptic thriller.

There are plenty of reviews out there already, but I’m a bit frustrated with them, as they never seem to think very deeply about the relationship between the movie’s two streams (which alternate). Whether positive or negative, most reviewers see no particular depth or sense in the narrative of the apocalyptic parts, and are struck rather by its special effects. Why is this? I wonder if this is an instance of the hermeneutical advantage of being a ‘fan’ – which has its counterpart in the hermeneutical disadvantage of being an ‘outsider.’

So this (positive) reviewer says that he finds Metallica’s music ‘silly.’

This (negative) reviewer admits she finds Metallica’s lyrics ‘incomprehensible’:

This (somewhat positive) reviewer admits to being a ‘non-Metallica fan.’

And none of these can see much sense in the apocalyptic narrative. They complain that the narrative is more visual than substantial, and that there is lack of thought in the juxtaposition of the two streams of the movie, which vie for attention.

But I think that for those steeped in the ‘thoughtworld’ of Metallica, the apocalyptic narrative triggers associations that might otherwise be missed.

I should say that the very fact that it is a vivid apocalyptic scenario means that there is certainly ambiguity in the narrative and its connections – I’m not claiming that knowing Metallica’s music magically provides a key that makes everything neatly decipherable. But knowing the music can confront the viewer with striking connections. I just want to follow one strand that I found striking – that of the puppet.

Towards the beginning of the movie, we see the main character of the narrative taking a drug while he settles himself in his car next to his eerily smiling puppet, which hangs on a noose. For the Metallica fan, this instantly evokes the song Master of Puppets, which is a song about how drugs can turn into an enslaving master, laughing mercilessly at those who thought they controlled them. One wonders: will this be a theme of the narrative? When one learns that the character’s name is ‘Trip,’ suspicions swell.

It is after taking the drug that the world around Trip turns into an apocalyptic nightmare, with chaos, rioting mobs, violent police, and horsemen that appear to thrive on merciless hatred. Trip is still the hero of the story, having to choose how to act in this nightmarish scenario. Will he give in, and abandon any self-will by following the crowds? Or will he stick to his mysterious task of collecting a bag that is needed back at the band’s stadium? He sticks to his task, even when he can’t understand the chaos around him, and we are drawn to identify with him. When he finds the bag, he still can’t understand what’s happening – he looks forlorn when he discovers its contents (which we never see). Yet he still doesn’t give in.

Trip continues to carry his puppet around with him throughout the action, which evokes a certain unease. Suddenly we realise that the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (notably another Metallica song) are hoisting up poor victims from the running crowds, and hanging them to die from lampposts – making them resemble Trip’s puppet on a noose. We begin to wonder: did Trip think he could hold onto his puppet and control it, whereas in fact he is at the mercy of laughing puppeteers? When Trip’s own puppet takes on life as Trip suffers, we wonder if this is exactly what has happened. Trip finds himself trapped and cornered as an incoherently angry crowd poises, ready to attack him. Rather than join in their hate-fuelled violence, though, he chooses to pour petrol over himself and burn himself alive. One recalls the line from the chorus of Master of Puppets, which is at this point juxtaposed with the narrative: ‘Your life burns faster; obey your master!’ There are overlapping connections here: at one and the same time, Trip is a victim and a victor. While he is suffering at the hands of merciless masters and enemies, he has resolutely refused to join their incoherent violence. His burning is perhaps the beginning of his redemption.

Indeed, he experiences something of a resurrection – during the next song Battery, the words echo from Metallica’s stadium, ‘Are you alive? Are you alive?’ and Trip rises and emerges alone, to face the Horseman enemy. His victory over the enemy proves him to be the conqueror that we hoped he could be, and it has the surprising effect of sending shockwaves through Metallica’s stadium, reducing their stage from a multi-million dollar sophisticated set to a garage-like warehouse. Astonishing excess has given way to humble simplicity.

Finally, Trip makes it back to the stadium to fulfil his task and deliver the bag. And this destination – with Metallica now simply sitting down and playing with unadorned simplicity – hints at the achievement Trip has made in throwing off the noose of his would-be master.

There are plenty of other strands one could explore in this movie, and I don’t claim that my own ponderances about the motif of the puppet are any sort of definitive key, but they perhaps illustrate that those bound up in the thoughtworld upon which the apocalypse draws might find fruitful resonances that help one avoid frustration.

This is a question that is often raised in discussions of Paul’s use of the Old Testament. Christopher Stanley has frequently brought up the question in his investigations of the topic. It’s an interesting question, because the biblical “thoughtworlds” and “worldviews” and “narratives” thought to be evoked by Paul’s use of the Scriptures by people such as NT Wright and  Richard Hays would seem to require (biblical) literacy on the part of his recipients in order to be compelling.

One frequent (and, I think, right) response to this is that Paul’s churches were not just an assortment of individuals, but rather communities, in which those with teaching gifts and literary expertise could help others to understand scriptural resonances.

But I think there is more to be said. I touched on this issue in a paper I presented last week, attempting to add another perspective:

My own perspective is that those who see in Paul a rhetorically compelling use of subtly marked scriptural motifs and broad narratives are on the right track. This direction of research need not be stymied by questions regarding the literacy of the letters’ recipients, because Paul’s reading of scriptural motifs and themes is constantly renegotiated in the light of his gospel of Jesus Christ – an interpretative anchor and lens with which he insists his hearers become familiar. In relation to the known gospel, the unknown (or “previously known”) Scriptures may be entered into, for “literate” and “illiterate” alike. To simplify: his hearers know his gospel; and his gospel directs and illuminates his appropriation of the Scriptures. Thus Paul’s Scripture-drenched rhetoric “works” for hearers with a range of literacies, because the key to his use of Scripture is his belief that Scripture finds its climax in his gospel of Jesus Christ.

I later give the example of the motif of the ‘rulers of this age’ in 1 Corinthians 1-4:

it could be pointed out that the “rulers of this age” represent a gospel motif: they represent those who “crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8). This motif can be grasped by those of various literacies who identify themselves in some way in relation to Paul’s gospel. It can also be further elucidated by looking to the Scriptures that bear witness to Paul’s gospel; the Scriptures that Paul draws upon in expressing his gospel….

It seems that the rhetorical function of this picture is that it offers an idealised foil for the oppressed, weak, suffering, cruciform figure of the Christ and his apostles. For those who know Paul’s gospel, it provides a sharp nemesis to the gospel’s protagonist. For those who furthermore know Paul’s Scriptures, it engages the memories of many who have resisted the Lord and his people, whether Pharaoh, Sisera, Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, or Antiochus Epiphanes.

So what I’m trying to contribute is the perspective that ‘biblical literacy’ is not just about being acquainted with the Old Testament, but in fact begins for Paul’s (largely Gentile) churches with knowing Paul’s gospel.

I’ve grown less and less convinced of the idea that the Corinthians despised the body in preference for the soul/spirit. Rather, the Corinthians seem to be people who consistently celebrate – in fact, over-celebrate – the body, rather than hope to escape its prisonly confines. There are two passages that would seem to contradict what I’ve just said:

  1. Paul’s (alleged) citation of the Corinthians’ own stance in ch.7: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman”
  2. Paul’s imagined quotation from a Corinthian interlocutor in ch.15: “How are the dead raised? With what sort of body will they come?”

A few years ago I noted this and indicated why I don’t think the latter passage is a problem. But I left the 1 Cor 7 passage to the side, because I didn’t really have an answer for that one.

But on the weekend, at the conference on Paul I was attending in Melbourne, someone asked me about 1 Cor 7, and I realised that actually I do have an answer for that passage – and it’s not even novel or sophisticated. The person I was chatting to suggested that perhaps there were two types of men in the Corinthian church: those who indulged the body (visiting prostitutes in chapter 6), and those who denied the body (refusing to touch their wives in chapter 7). My reply was that it was entirely possible that these were exactly the same people. That is, the same people who visited prostitutes for pleasure felt that it would be dishonouring to treat their wives as sexual objects. Wives are for family; prostitutes are for lust.

One does see view this expressed in Plutarch, who indicates in his Advice for the Bride and Groom that a wife should overlook her husband’s use of prostitutes, because it is out of respect for her that he chooses to spend his lust on them.

So there we have it.  It is not necessarily the case that members of the Corinthian church expressed a disdain for the body.


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