Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter 2010 Blogging Resolutions

1. Be nice nice.
Sometimes I feel like Hawkeye in that MASH episode where he proves he can be serious for an entire day. There is so much material out there for sarcastic humor, and I'm good at it when I'm on a roll. Maybe I missed my true calling...

But it's not really appropriate for the Dean of a seminary. By God's grace I'll do my darnedest to let most of it just flow on by. When significant political events happen, I'll try just to report them without bleeding over into my hunches too much and I'll be nice to Craig Moore even when he's begging for a spanking :-)

2. The Year of Josephus
I've dipped into Josephus repeatedly of course, but I have never read his entire corpus from front to end. I've set up a blog, not to post every day, but to give me a reading schedule to get through Josephus in a year. It turns out to be about 34 paragraphs a day.

3. Dunn's Remembering Jesus... again
I didn't get through this volume last year. By goal is to get through it by Easter... again.

There are many others, but I'll leave it at that. I hope to post something toward writing goals at least every other day or so. January is philosophy. We'll see what shakes out after that.

Have a blessed New Year!

Kamesar's Philo

I'm reading The Cambridge Companion to Philo, edited by Adam Kamesar of Hebrew Union, for a review. Finished the first chapter, "Philo, His Family, His Times," by Danny Schwartz, yesterday during some down time. If my book on Philo is a good handbook for the person who wants to use Philo, Kamesar's book is an excellent place to begin if you want to thoroughly know Philo. Kamesar and his compatriots bring that thorough knowledge not only of Philo's writings but of archaeology and up to the moment scholarship on Philo to bear on each issue.

Chapter 1 is a fine overview of Philo's life and what little we know of its details, with other interesting details. For example, I did not realize that the oldest synagogue inscriptions come from Egypt in the third century BC. Also interesting is Dr. Schwartz's theory of how Jews and Alexandrian Greeks came to be in such tension after the Romans squashed the social ladder with their take over and pushed Jews into the same category as native Egyptians.

Perhaps the one surprising thing to me is the emphasis Dr. Schwartz places at the end of the chapter on Philo's "inconsistency" in relation to Palestine. As a non-Jew and a Christian, Philo's Diaspora universalizations of God's relationship to the world seem quite natural. Indeed, they fit well with Paul for me. Schwartz, on the other hand, finds Philo's rare affirmations of the temple as lip service and his being troubled at Caligula's attempt to set up a statue in Jerusalem as inconsistent sentimentality.

Take this comment, "we often retain affinity for things with which we grew up even after our values have changed in ways that undermine their importance" (29). And he quotes with approval Sandmel's comment that "It cannot be over-emphasized that Philo has little or no concern for Palestine" (27). He thinks that to be consistent, Philo should have abandoned all concern for the temple. Indeed, he wonders if the temple's destruction might have been avoided if he had reacted in that way to Caligula's attempts and had led a deemphasis on the temple's importance.

So after the chapter I am surprisingly left with this question: Have I let Philo off the hook too much in the past or is it that Schwartz has a love-hate relationship with Philo? I left the chapter feeling a little like I had just listened to Philo getting a scolding by a fellow Jew. Hmmm. I'll have to reflect a little more on that one. Schwartz himself apparently emigrated from New York to the land of Israel. I find myself wondering if he looks down on Philo for not loving the land of Palestine as much as he does?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Humans: Biological Machines

The number one task at the beginning of the new year is finishing off seminary curriculum for the Spring. A secondary goal is to finish the philosophy book in January. I had written two sections of Chapter 9: "What is a Human Being?" but it wasn't working. So here's to starting the chapter over:
9.1 Biological Machines
Christians obviously believe that a human being is much more than a biological machine. But we are nevertheless biological machines. We have bodies that work when they have the appropriate fuels in the appropriate environments. They break down, they need repairs, they cease to function altogether.

Ecclesiastes expresses somewhat pessimistically that humans "can see for themselves that they are no better than animals. For humans and animals both breathe the same air, and both die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! Both go to the same place—the dust from which they came and to which they must return" (3:18-20, NLT). In a different context, Paul contrasts the truly spiritual person from the "natural" person (1 Cor. 2:14), a word notoriously difficult to translate. [1] A really literal translation would be a "soulish" person. A strong argument can be made that Paul here is alluding to the part of the human soul we share with the animal realm, while our spirits are different. [2] So you might say that some people are merely animal, not spiritual--even some Christians!

We need to be very careful not to take this language as God's literal view of the human make-up. The Bible expresses truths about human beings using more than one picture of how we mortals are put together, revealing truth in the categories of those to whom God was speaking at the time. As we will see in this chapter, the Old Testament does not use the word soul the same way that we do. The New Testament comes closer occasionally, but still with slightly different assumptions than we have. Those who try to break down the parts of the human psyche using biblical language inevitably end up with a very strange mixture indeed, made up of ancient language and contemporary psychology, filtered through some seventeenth century philosophy they may never even have heard of! [3]

Nevertheless, as long as we do not take the distinction between our animal part and our spiritual part too literally, the distinction is potentially very helpful. [4] By the end of the chapter, you may conclude that we share a great deal more with the animal world than many of us previously imagined. Certainly we all recognize that we need to eat, sleep, keep warm, and do many other things animals do. Abraham Maslow (1908-70) famously categorized human drives in terms of a "hierarchy of needs" in the form of a pyramid. [5] At the base of the pyramid were basic needs like breathing, food, water, sex, sleep, and excretion. If these things do not take place, you will die.

[insert Maslow's pyramid]

But we share much more with the animal world than these basics. Maslow suggested that when our physiological needs are met, we will focus on higher "needs." On the next level up in his pyramid of needs, he suggested we will strive for safety and security over and above food and basic bodily functions. [6] Then he placed our social needs on the next level up, things like our drive for love, belonging, family, and so forth. Above that level he placed our longing for self-esteem and respect. Finally, on the highest level, he placed something he called "self-actualization," by which he meant reaching your highest potential as an individual, to be all you can be. Maslow thought of self-actualization as something different for each person, something very relative to who you were as an individual.

Subsequent psychology has picked the particulars of Maslow's theory apart, questioning whether we can really speak of such a fixed hierarchy in relation to some of these "needs." His idea of self-actualization also seems dubious, and Christians believe that regardless of what personal peace or fulfillment you might feel, God is the one who has determined the appropriate goals for human life. But what Maslow does for us is get us thinking about some of the basic longings and drives we as humans share with other animals. Certainly we share very similar physiological needs with other animals. Humans regularly show themselves little different from animals in their inability to control their sex drives, often having sex with anyone they can, like a dog or orangutan.

The best known vices and human sins show us to be slaves just as much to our desires as any other animal. For example, it would be hard to find an animal in the wild as prone to obesity as the American homo sapiens. How many humans are able to rise above the herd mentality of so many species to treat groups other than their own fairly or view their own objectively? How many examples of genocide attempts has history left us? How many humans show mercy when they sense weakened prey on which to pounce? We are, in so many instances, little different from other predatory animals.

We share other longings and drives with other animals as well. We have a drive for security, as other animals, and we can become vicious when cornered. On the other hand, anyone who has had a pet recognizes that dogs and cats can have a sense of belonging to a family and usually long for affection, just like humans. Some animals can even demonstrate a kind of selflessness and self-sacrifice that many humans would not offer under the same circumstances.

Most of us humans are easily manipulated and can be trained. We obviously try to train up our children in the way they should go (cf. Prov. 22:6). We "reinforce" positive behavior and often use a "punishment" model to discourage behavior we do not want. When we become adults, we often think we are free and no longer being trained, but most of us continue to be herded and "conditioned" by the media, politicians, and countless cultural forces and trends throughout our lives.

Some of the language of the previous paragraph comes from the work of the atheist B. F. Skinner (1904-90), perhaps the most significant psychologist of the twentieth century. He is best known as the originator of a system of training or "conditioning" others--especially children--called behavior modification. While we strongly disagree with his assumption that humans are only highly evolved animals, it would be difficult to deny that he correctly showed that you can steer the behavior of humans in very similar ways to how we might steer the behavior of other animals like rats and pigeons.

[textbox--behavior modification (use operant conditioning in the definition), positive and negative reinforcement]

Skinner's terminology has made its way into popular language. When we talk about positive reinforcement, we are talking about rewarding a person or animal for an action or choice that we want them to do. Negative reinforcement is thus when one withholds or withdraws reward or something desired to discourage a particular choice or action. [7] Skinner notoriously used this method with success in relation to lower animals, and it usually works with human animals as well, unless one of the more unique features of humanity kicks in, namely, our ability to reflect on ourselves. If one realizes he or she is being manipulated, one will normally stop cooperating with the manipulator. [8]

We will discuss the relationship of the brain to the soul later in the chapter. But it is clear that we share many parts of our brain with the brains of other animals. For example, the brains of lower animals are basically like our brainstem, which keeps us alive by controlling things like our breathing or body temperature without us even thinking about it. The more complex the animal, the more similarity between their brains and ours. Thus reptiles not only have a brainstem, but a cerebellum like ours that helps regulate movement and balance.

[insert diagram of human brain]

Then mammals like ourselves have a neocortex like we do in our cerebrum, the outer part of our brains. Theirs are not as developed as ours are, but they share certain features. At the core of our cerebrum is the limbic system, where basic emotions like fear and aggression seem to originate. We share these basic structures with other mammals--and we would seem to share many of the same basic drives associated with them. Where our brains are unique is in the outer most parts of our brain, the parts that seem to be able to control and moderate our aggression and emotion--in other words, our reasoning parts.

Certainly as Christians we believe that human persons are much more than biological machines. But we clearly are biological machines as well, perhaps far more than most people realize. There are locations in our brain involved in everything from our memory to our personality to our spiritual experiences. Change the structure of our brain and we become different people--fundamentally different! Nevertheless, as Christians we believe that a "spiritual" realm exists in addition to the merely "physical," although we cannot say exactly what these words are literally referring to. Nevertheless, we believe they refer to real things that truly exist and that make us much more than animal, as we will discuss later in the chapter.

[1] KJV: "natural"; NRSV: "unspiritual"; NIV: "man without the Spirit"; NLT: "people who aren't Christians."

[2] Thinking here of the Jewish interpreter/philosopher Philo who thought that the spirit was the "soul's soul" but that the rest of the soul was that which humanity had in common with the animals (Allegorical Laws 1.11; Heir 55).

[3] Namely, Rene Descartes' understanding of the soul.

[4] Many scholars believe that Paul's language in 1 Corinthians 2 is using the language of his opponents at this point. For a brief exploration of this passage in the light of Philo's writings, see my A Brief Guide to Philo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 76-79.

[5] "A Theory of Human Motivation," Psychological Review 50.4 (1943): 370-96.

[6] Including things like security, employment, health, resources, morality, etc.

[7] Not to be confused with punishment. Skinner believed that punishment only trains a person to avoid punishment rather than to avoid a particular choice and he is well known for his opposition to corporal punishment. While it is possible he was more correct than wrong on many of these ideas in theory, many parents will likely conclude there is still a legitimate role for punishment to play as a deterrant to certain behaviors. We will discuss the question of punishment versus formation in chapter 13, "Living Together in Society."

[8] Unless, of course, the manipulator is using reverse psychology, and the goal is actually to get you to do the opposite of what they seem to be trying to get you to do.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Adventures with B. F. Skinner

I was doing a little refresher on B. F. Skinner for my philosophy project and found myself laughing out loud at the Wesley Seminary booth during some down time.

Here's some of the more hilarious snippets from that great source of all truth, Wikipedia:

"Project Pigeon... centered on dividing the nose cone of a missile into three compartments, and encasing a pigeon in each. The compartments for each had a video image of what was in front of them, and the pigeons would peck toward the object, thereby directing the missile. Skinner complained 'our problem was no one would take us seriously.' The point is perhaps best explained in terms of human psychology (i.e., few people would trust a pigeon to guide a missile no matter how reliable it proved)."

I have no idea if this is true or someone having fun with Wikipedia, but I certainly enjoyed it. Here's another:

"One of Skinner's experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon 'at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior.' He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

"'One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.'

"Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:

"'The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.'"


Monday, December 28, 2009

In Louisville at Youth Convention

Down in Louisville till Thursday at the area Wesleyan youth convention, giving out information on Wesley Seminary @IWU and answering questions. Seeing lots of former students...

So here's a question for anyone idly passing through: what would the perfect upper level Bible class look like from a student's perspective at a Wesleyan college? Let me throw out for starters: 1) you would learn the content of those books. What's your #2? 3, 4...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Bible and the Academy

A little more than a month ago, the University of Sheffield almost shut down its famed biblical studies department. The department at the University of Gloucestershire is still on the block, as far as I know. Both attempts by university administrations brought rallying cries from biblicists all over the world and, at least in the case of Sheffield, they were successful. I'm very glad and give my best wishes to those at the University of Gloucestershire.

Now I love the scholarly interpretation of the Bible, the dispassionate, "objective" pursuit of truth for its own sake. Of course I also think a good bit of biblical scholarship isn't of much lasting value. There are the very valuable depth studies on the most obscure topic you could think of--they do advance our knowledge of some small piece of the puzzle and are worthy. And there are the milestone works by those who we all come to recognize as advancing the field. They are certainly worthy.

But make no mistake, the reason the biblical studies industry is such a big market is because of people with faith, those for whom the Bible is Scripture. I think sometimes secular and mainstream scholars sometimes forget that it is the people with faith, most of whom are conservative--for lack of a better word--that primarily fuel the market. Without them, the field of biblical studies would be no different from worthy departments of classics or Egyptology--and it would have the parcity of market those worthy fields have.

My marketing advice to British universities--hire faith-filled professors like Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, and Simon Gathercole. They're the ones who will attract students from all over the world. And faith-filled American seminaries and universities will also be the ones with the vast majority of students, not the ones that basically market to recovering fundamentalists with anger issues (which I'll admit is currently a significant market--but there is something a little sick about basing your market off of harvesting organs from road kill).

You can "blah, blah, blah" about the truth or good scholarship all you want. But most of those who want to study the Bible are looking for something that builds up, not tears down. The market is what people want, not what you want to give them.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Blessed Christ Birth Day!

Christmas to me is about God's Normandy invasion of a world enslaved to sin. It is God taking on flesh to identify fully with humanity and the human condition with the purpose of redeeming it from its enslavement to evil powers and helpless disintegration into self-destruction. It is the beginning of the end, the beginning of the restoration of all things. It is hope. It is joy. It is peace. It is love.

God entered into the world miraculously through a virgin, even though He probably did not have to. He gave a sign of something beyond human comprehension or natural processes. At the same time, the scandalous nature of His entrance expressed solidarity with the sinner, with the powerless, with the weak. Kings should be interested in him, but more than any other it is the lowly that greet his first coming.

His first coming anticipates his second. He came, he lived, he died. He experienced our temptations, weaknesses, and sufferings, yet demonstrated the power of the Spirit that anyone of us can also access today in power over temptation, weakness, and suffering. He died to embody the just end of sin. He rose to show the power of God in mercy. He sat at the right hand of God as God's king and messiah. He will come again to finish the mission to restore God's kingship on earth.

A blessed rememberance of the Christ's birth in these days!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Paul Book off...

God's Christmas present to me, my present to myself (and my wife's, since she created some space for me) is the finishing of the draft of my first Paul volume. I don't usually have to do too much reworking once it reaches this stage, but I am about 10,000 words over my allotment (I'm at 164 pages), so we'll see.

The chapters are:

1. Born at a Time and Place
2. A Change in Life Direction
3. The Unknown Years
4. Life Beyond Death (1 Thessalonians)
5. Disunity at Corinth
6. How Not to Have Sex
7. Disagreement and Disorder
8. Mutiny in Galatia
9. Joy in the Face of Death (Philippians)
10. Reconciliation and Disappointment (2 Corinthians)


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Paul on Trial Received

I would like to thank Rev. Dick Norton for his Christmas present to me and several others here at IWU: Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity, by John Mauck, put out by the Baptist press in Nashville. Mauck is a lawyer and so finds great meaning in Acts by looking at it from the standpoint of a kind of legal defense in preparation for Paul's trial before Nero.

Thanks, Rev. Norton! I will look through the book with great interest.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Worship Curriculum Days Done

We finished a day and a half of curriculum planning this afternoon for the Christian Worship course to be offered next Fall. Helping were Constance Cherry, John Drury, Bud Bence, Keith Drury, Russ Gunsalus, and myself. I don't think Bud would mind me mentioning what he said as we wearily left the conference room today--something like, "Wow, anyone who says this is seminary lite doesn't know what has gone into these courses."

Just to give a foretaste, students will read the majority of three of the texts in the series, The Complete Library of Christian Worship, including the volumes on Sacred Actions of Christian Worship, Twenty Centuries of Christian Worship, and The Services of the Christian Year, in addition to Dr. Cherry's own forthcoming The Worship Architect and Drury's Wonder of Worship. Students will create portfolios of detailed self-instruction for everything from performing baptisms, the Lord's Supper, weddings, funerals, services of Advent and Lent, with alternative biblical assignments for those from traditions that do not practice traditional baptism and communion.

The course will also include the standard features of all praxis courses in the seminary:

1) a Bible, theology, or church history related assignment each week;

2) an Integration Paper threaded from Weeks 3-14 in which they use their exegetical skills and their ability to draw from theologians and church history to address a pastoral issue;

3) action research, strategy, or application every week in relation to the topic of the week;

4) an application strategy piece in the final week, in which they take the various action research, strategy, and application work they have done and formulate a three year realistic plan for their ministry context in some area or areas they have covered, to be revisited in the capstone course.

Thanks to God for helping us these two days of planning!

History Channel Antics

My wife had the History Channel on last night. It was on the Gnostic gospels. Very annoying. Just to get a sense of how incoherent some of these presentations are, they alternate between comments by Darrell Bock at Dallas Theological Seminary and mostly low level Gnostic groupees here and there. These people are on vastly different pages, yet the History Channel glides imperceptably from the comments of one to those of the other.

One particular sequence was the last straw. The narrator followed a path something like this:

1. The Gospel of Peter was not written by Peter.
2. The Gospel of Peter was a forgery.
3. What if Matthew, Mark, Luke, John were not written by them?
4. Would that mean they were forgeries too?
5. Would that mean the Gospel of Peter is the same as them and should be in the New Testament?

First, I'm not sure it is accurate to think of Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Peter a forgery just because it wasn't written by Peter. We have many pseudonymous writings from the ancient world spanning centuries and it would seem to be a genre thing.

Further, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are anonymous. Their actual texts never mention their names. This is a big distinction. A person can have the most narrow understanding of inerrancy and not conclude any of these were written by their namesakes.

As for the question of what belongs in the New Testament, that is a completely different matter, one that ultimately is a matter of Christian reception of writings rather than authorship. I don't know of any Christian groups today who believe Jesus is Lord who receive the Gnostic writings as Scripture, so that's that.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Greek and Hebrew in Seminary

Let's say there was a surgical procedure that was ideal for a particular kind of surgeon to know, but not essential for patients to survive and indeed do quite well without. Let's say that this procedure was very difficult to master, and it took a tremendous amount of time to teach. Let's say also that even after one to two years of studying the procedure, only about 5 out of every 100 med students could actually learn it well enough to perform it with any benefit at all. Let's say that 80 of those same 100 students never really "got" the procedure or forgot it within a month of learning it--even after two years of study.

Further, let's say that the other 15 out of 100 tried to use it, but actually did more harm to the patients they tried it on than good. Finally, let's say that there were other skills that those surgeons would use practically every surgery that their teachers were having trouble finding room to fit into the course of study. Now, I ask you, would you require the med students to study this procedure... or would you offer it as an elective for those who truly had the potential to master it?

Such, my friends, is the nature of Greek and Hebrew in the typical seminary curriculum.

December Seminary Graduation

We had 26 seminary students graduate from the seminary Saturday, all MA students at this point. Dr. Charles Arn was on campus for the Consecration service, and Dr. Bud Bence gave the charge. This was Russ Gunsalus’ last graduation as Acting Chief Operating Officer of the seminary, since Wayne Schmidt will be taking over as head of Wesley in January. It was a nicely diverse group from various locations. Good to see familiar faces from past courses.

Today and tomorrow several of us meet to plan out the scope and sequence of next Fall’s 16 week worship course. Constance Cherry, Bud Bence, Chris Bounds, Keith Drury, in addition to Russ Gunsalus and myself will hammer out the 60 plus individual assignments for the online version of the course, which we will then commit to course writers to flesh out over the next few months. Keith Drury has helped us shape the process similar to the way Sunday School curriculum is mapped out and assigned.

Thanks to God for continuing to incarnate the initial vision into the flesh of concrete people and assignments!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reflections on 2 Corinthians (IV)

Now to finish the final chapter of the first Paul book. The earlier posts in this chapter were:

Leaving Ephesus
Fragments of Other Letters?

2 Corinthians is one of the unsung heroes of the New Testament. Yet this book is full of tremendously helpful and enriching wisdom. It is easy to rejoice when things are going well or when we at least feel empowered. So the Paul of Galatians is strong and forceful. The Paul of Philippians is still strong even though he is imprisoned. But he can do little to change his situation, so he rests in God. He is content. By God's power he chooses not to be anxious.

But second Corinthians is somewhere in between. The first seven chapters give us Paul at his most vulnerable. The usually confident and decisive apostle reveals the uncertainty he had felt after a tough leadership decision. Then in chapters 10-13 he reasserts his authority, but not with the same tone as Galatians or the lost harsh letter. He seems less confident that the force of his personality will win the day this time. He has followed God's will. He has fought the good fight. He cannot do more.

So Paul becomes reflective. Indeed, 2 Corinthians is probably the most reflective of all Paul's writings. It wears the scars of suffering and then of unresolved conflict. 4:7-11 is one of the best passages to read when you or the groups you are a part of are discouraged. It reassures us that the way things look on the outside, the things we are experiencing in our bodies and in the world are not the end of the story. They should neither reflect what we are on the inside or where we are headed eternally. Why? Because "this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

Paul reminds the Corinthians that we do not endure such suffering alone. In fact, we are joined with the sufferings of Christ as we suffer. We are "carrying in the body the death of Jesus" (4:10). We are joining in the fellowship of Christ's sufferings (cf. Phil. 3:10). And like Christ we expect "that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies." (2 Cor. 4:10). As Jesus trusted in God to raise him from the dead (cf. Heb. 5:8), so also Paul trusts to be raised from the dead (4:14).

2 Corinthians also gives us incredibly rich statements about Christ and the Holy Spirit. In keeping with New Testament thinking elsewhere, Paul implies that it is the Holy Spirit that is our guarantee of eternity, while also a foretaste of the glory that is already at work inside us, transforming us into the image of Christ (1:22; 5:5). If you do not have the Holy Spirit, you have no basis in Paul to say you are truly a Christian or destined for salvation on the Day when Christ returns.

Christ is God's agent of reconciliation in the world (5:19), the one who took on its sin as a sacrifice, with the result that we are all examples of God's righteousness and mercy toward His creation (5:21). Paul's closing words foreshadow full Christian belief in the Trinity and have been used for centuries to close Christian worship in the Anglican church: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (13:14). Each one of us in Christ is an instance of God's new creation (5:17) and a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.

Finally, 2 Corinthians gives us some rare insight into giving in the early church. We have no evidence that the early Christians followed any practice of tithing, of giving ten percent of their harvest to the temple. Spelling out what tithing was in ancient Israel highlights how different our practice of tithing is today from the Old Testament practice. Tithing was about giving of one's harvest, not of one's "income," as if the ancients had salaries or functioned primarily on the basis of money. Jews who were scattered in the cities of the ancient world did not tithe. What they did was pay a "half-shekel tax" to the Jerusalem temple each year.

There was thus no established pattern for tithing among Jews scattered throughout the cities of the ancient Mediterranean. The practice that we find in the New Testament was thus much more imprecise. Paul tells the Corinthians that they had a responsibility to support materially those who ministered to them spiritually (1 Cor. 9:4-12). Paul raised a collection to take to Jerusalem to show the solidarity of his churches with them. But none of these practices was quantified or regimented.

Paul seems to lay out somewhat of a general principle in 2 Corinthians 8:14-15: "your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, 'Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.'" In other words, all of their possessions not only belonged to God (cf. 1 Cor. 10:26), but they were under obligation to give their abundance to others in the Christian community who had need. Paul gives here his version of Acts 2:44-45: "all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need."

The model for such selfless giving is Jesus Christ himself, "you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). This is 2 Corinthians' version of the Philippian hymn, "who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave" (2:6-7). So Paul reminds the Corinthians of the attitude they were to have toward others. After all, "God loves a cheerful giver" (9:7).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fragments of Other Letters? (2 Corinthians III)

The previous posts of this chapter were:

Leaving Ephesus

This post is...
Fragments of Other Letters?
The material covered in 2 Corinthians is diverse, so much so that various scholars have suggested it is actually portions of up to five different letters that have been spliced together. For example 6:14-7:1 seems so out of place in the flow of the letter that some have suggested it might be an excerpt from Paul's lost first letter to the Corinthians on sexual immorality. These verses say not to "hook up" with unbelievers, and we know the lost letter had some material on not associating with sexually immoral people. [1] It is an interesting thought, but not one we could really conclude with any certainly one way or another.

Some scholars also suggest that 1 Corinthians 8 and 9 might come from two different letters as well. It is true that they deal with a completely different topic than 2 Corinthians 1-7, namely, the collection Paul was collecting to take to Jerusalem. But 1 Corinthians also covers numerous different topics as well. 1 Corinthians 8 flows very nicely on from the earlier chapters. Paul seems to be in Macedonia as he writes, north of Greece (8:1), which is where he wrote the earlier chapters from as well (e.g., 7:5). 1 Corinthians 9:2 also fits well with Paul writing from Macedonia.

The key to understanding 2 Corinthians 8-9 is to recognize that Paul is about to send Titus back to Corinth again (8:17), even though he has just arrived in Macedonia from there (7:6). Two other "brothers" were also going with Titus (8:18, 22), individuals the Corinthians apparently knew, but whom Paul strangely does not mention by name. One explanation is that one or more of these individuals stood in some way at the center of some controversy between Paul and the Corinthians.

The first is possibly one of a list of people mentioned in Acts 19:22 and 20:4, individuals who were with Paul in Macedonia: Timothy, Erastus, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus, Trophimus, and--maybe--Luke, assuming he is part of the "we" that pops up occasionally in Acts. Since the trip is to keep the Corinthians from being embarrassed in relation to the collection (9:3-4), we can possibly eliminate those of these that seem to represent various regions. That would leave Erastus and Timothy as good candidates for these two brothers.

Probably the best alternative for the second (8:22)) is Timothy. Paul had apparently sent Timothy to the Corinthians before (1 Cor. 4:17), and it is at least possible that as Paul's representative he had been directly involved in some of the conflict. Indeed, perhaps the reason Paul sent Titus with the harsh letter was because Timothy had become, to some extent, "scorched earth" with them. Acts 20:4 also mentions Timothy as part of the company that accompanied Paul to Jerusalem. [2] It thus seems very likely that Timothy was the one who accompanied Titus to Corinth to try to secure their portion of the Jerusalem collection.

This collection seems to have been a sore spot with the Corinthians. They had apparently expressed their desire to contribute a year earlier (2 Cor. 8:10; 9:5), but the intervening conflict with Paul had apparently derailed that process. We would like to think that after the Corinthians submitted, especially given the tone of 1 Corinthians 1-7, everything was back on track between Paul and the Corinthians. Unfortunately, it was apparently not the case.

Once we get to 2 Corinthians 10, we immediately sense a significant change in tone from the earlier chapters. While 2 Corinthians 1-7 include some of the most uplifting material in the Bible, Paul suddenly goes on the defensive in chapter 10, so much so that some have even suggested 10-13 are an excerpt from the earlier, lost, harsh letter. But 12:18 speaks of Titus having already returned from a visit, which places this material after the harsh letter, after Titus' initial visit to Corinth on Paul's behalf.

Some thus suggest that Paul is now addressing a different segment of the congregation, a part that has not submitted to him, unlike his audience in the first seven chapters. The problem with this suggestion is that Paul gives us no clue at all that he has switched audiences. We have the same word "you" used continuously throughout. There is simply no basis in the text of 2 Corinthians to justify a switch in who Paul is addressing in the audience.

Indeed, these last four chapters do not operate on the same assumptions as the first 9 chapters. In the first part of 2 Corinthians, the insubordinate individual in the congregation has repented and submitted (e.g., 2:5-11). As we have seen, the first half breathes the relief Paul feels at his reconciliation with the community. But in 12:20-21, Paul expresses deep concerns that when he comes he will not find them as they ought to be. He is afraid he will find that many who had sinned earlier will not have repented. He fears that he will find the same problems he tried to address way back when he wrote 1 Corinthians.

Paul is not mentally unstable, so we seem to face two basic options. First, perhaps Paul received new information before he sent the first part of the letter with Titus and the other two brothers. If so, however, we can wonder why he did not go back and revise the first part of the letter. What is more likely, however, is that 2 Corinthians 10-13 is an excerpt from a subsequent letter. 12:18 mentions that Paul has not only sent Titus before, but also another brother.

It thus would make a good deal of sense if Paul sent 2 Corinthians 1-9 with Titus and perhaps Erastus and Timothy. But the solicitation of the collection apparently did not go well--and apparently they found that the Corinthians had not submitted nearly as much to Paul as he had thought. Paul writes a follow up letter, which included chapters 10-13. The tone is not like Galatians. The tone is more one of discouragement and sarcasm.

So Paul defends himself once more, giving us another great autobiographical passage to add to Galatians 1-2 and Philippians 3. The Corinthians are apparently putting down Paul in comparison to other "super-apostles" (11:5). Perhaps our first thought might be that they are comparing Paul to Apollos again, especially since they do mention Paul's lack of rhetorical skill (10:10; 11:6). But the general tenor sounds also like some of Paul's criticisms of Judaizers elsewhere.

Whoever they are, Paul calls them "false apostles" (11:13). Like Satan, they disguise themselves as angels of light. Paul sarcastically says he was too weak to push them around and slap them in the face (11:20), like these super-apostles. They are so wise that they take pride in fools (11:19).

Paul goes on to catalog the kinds of things he has endured for the sake of the gospel, things these dainty super-apostles have not had to face. He speaks of how many times he has been flogged and beaten by both Jews and non-Jews (11:23-25). He speaks of the kinds of revelations God has granted him (12:1-4). Although he speaks as if he is talking about a different person, he goes on to talk about God keeping him humble in 12:7 in a way that reveals he has been talking about himself. God allowed him to live with a physical problem, perhaps difficulty with eye sight (cf. Gal. 4:15), so that Christ's strength would be shown in Paul's weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

Paul's last letter to the Corinthians thus ends on a somber note. He has had trouble with the Galatians. He has perhaps been imprisoned and banished from Ephesus. The Corinthians remain in rebellion to his authority, unmentioned among those who accompanied Paul to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). Presumably they do not contribute to the collection. It is thus with great pathos that we read Paul's polite greeting from Gaius in Romans 16:23. And it is with great pathos that we read Paul's words in Romans 15:23: there is "no further place for me in these regions." So he looks toward Rome and Spain beyond.

[1] Of course Paul clarifies in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 that he primarily had immoral believers in mind, not unbelievers. 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 has often been used in popular teaching to argue against dating or marrying unbelievers, although the topic of sex and marriage is not clearly what is under discussion there.

[2] Although, interestingly, Acts never mentions the collection Paul raised for Jerusalem, a curiousity that has given rise to its own share of speculation.

The Perfect as the Enemy of the Good

I'm sure he didn't come up with it, but I so resonate with the line of Bill Clinton this past week: "Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good." It goes right along with what I wrote earlier this week about compromise being far from a bad word the vast majority of the time.

Here Christians need to be especially careful. Most pop-Christianity confuses our clear belief in definite right and wrong with absolute right and wrong. I can think of little in the Bible that treats the vast majority of ethical decisions as a matter of absolutes, which by definition are exceptionless. Rather, the more normal expectation of the New Testament is that of universally valid moral expectation, with allowances for exceptional situations.

Jesus made exceptions to the sabbath rule and to purity rules--people trumped rules for him. Paul made exceptions to purity rules and, indeed, relegated vast portions of the Law to Jews alone, and only then when those portions did not conflict with the greater principle of the unity of the body of Christ. Were there ethics to which they did not make exceptions? Of course! But to get off on those issues (adultery, murder, etc) is to commit the fallacy of diversion. The vast majority of Christian ethical norms are universally valid with exceptions. Indeed, Paul treats the sabbath legislation in a relativistic fashion, as a matter of conscience (Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16). In that case, he did not consider the sabbath rule even to be universally valid.

As I said earlier in the week, some is better than none almost all the time. Obviously the "want their perfect" liberal Democrats are unhappy, and the "do nothing" Republicans are unhappy. I don't know enough of the particulars of this health care bill to know what to think. But I am encouraged that it has been forged only by way of massive compromises. I am encouraged that the"government is your nanny" Democrats are unhappy. And I am encouraged that the "It's not my fault you live in a dumpster" Republicans are unhappy. And I am encouraged that Obama is not an idealist but a pragmatist.

We'll see, of course, but it seems to me that something is better than nothing. And this bill will apparently cut the deficit $130 billion over 10 years, with roughly 94% of eligible Americans covered. Christians can legitimately be upset about many potential elements of this equation--maybe it won't do what it says it will. Maybe it will lead to massive problems down the line, greater pain. Maybe it will reinforce various kinds of injustice. Maybe. I don't know.

But I don't see how we cannot legitimately hope that this bill will help a lot of people who currently struggle. We can't be disappointed if it actually turns out to do good for a lot of people, even though we can legitimately have significant doubts.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Reconcilation (2 Corinthians II)

The previous post in relation to this chapter was "Leaving Ephesus."

2 Corinthians 1-7 breathe the relief Paul felt on hearing that the Corinthians had submitted to his authority. The thanksgiving section (3:1-11) remarkably uses some variation of the word "comfort" ten times in this short space. It is no surprise that 2 Corinthians has some of the most encouraging words in Paul's letters.

Whether you accept an Ephesian imprisonment or not, Paul clearly left Ephesus with a strong sense of hardship and oppression there (e.g., 2 Cor. 1:8). We do not hear the resolute Paul of Galatians in 2 Corinthians, but a Paul who has almost been second guessing himself. His language has become very polarized between the circumstances of his "outer" body and what is true of his "inner" spirit: "We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us" (4:7).

The verses that immediately follow this one are some of the most uplifting in the Bible in a time of crisis: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh" (4:8-11). "So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day" (4:16).

2 Corinthians also has some of the most ironic language in the New Testament when Paul says, "thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him" (2:14) The Romans led a string of those they had conquered through the streets of Rome in triumphal procession. The imagery here is thus turned on its head. Paul is being led in triumphal procession, a picture of defeat, of being conquered. Yet his persecution in the world is a sign of God's ultimate victory and judgment of the world.

The contrast between Paul's "outside" and his "inside" corresponds with the contrast between his present and his future. And the key to that connection is the Holy Spirit. For Paul, the presence of the Holy Spirit inside a person is the key moment in moving from death to life. The Holy Spirit is God's seal of ownership, the key indication that a person in fact belongs to God (2 Cor. 1:22; cf. Rom. 8:9). And the Holy Spirit is also both a guarantee and a downpayment of a believer's coming inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). And because of the Holy Spirit, we are "being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit" (3:18).

The word that Paul uses of the Spirit in 1:22 and 5:5 is arrabon, a term perhaps best captured by the notion of earnest money. When people buy a house, they put down earnest money, which serves both as a guarantee that they will acquire the house and as a downpayment toward the purchase of that house. So also the Holy Spirit is both a guarantee of salvation and a "foretaste of glory divine." When we have the Spirit, we know we are headed for salvation, and the Spirit inside us gives us a sense of what the kingdom will like.

It is apparently Paul's recent crisis that has pushed him to drive such a strong contrast between our current embodiment and our spiritual identity inside. Indeed, some have gone so far as to suggest that Paul's very thought has developed here since he wrote 1 Corinthians. Although most do not agree, some wonder if in 2 Corinthians Paul now sees us getting a heavenly body immediately at death, rather than in the future at the time of the resurrection. The same shift might then apply also to Philippians 1:23, where we seem to go directly to Christ at death. 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15, by contrast, at least use imagery of sleeping until the future resurrection.

But in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul talks about an "eternal," "heavenly dwelling" ready and waiting for us if "our earthly tent" is destroyed (2 Cor. 5:1-2). It is generally agreed that Paul is talking here of our current physical bodies and our future resurrection body. For us to be found "naked" then, would seem to mean God has not found a person worthy of resurrection, and a person does not receive a resurrection body (5:3). Like Philippians, to be away from the body is to be "at home with the Lord" (5:8).

It is difficult to know whether in fact Paul's thought has developed here or not. Certainly most Christians on a popular level probably assume that we go to heaven immediately at death in some sort of spiritual form. But this has not been the historic position of Christianity nor is it Paul's position in 1 Corinthians or 1 Thessalonians. In these letters, our resurrection body must wait until Christ's future return. Historic Christianity has also affirmed at the same time that we are still conscious between our death and resurrection as well. These are thus the best positions for us to adopt, even if the biblical texts at times are ambiguous.

Another statement Paul makes here that is troubling for some is in 5:10: "all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil." Paul makes this comment to believers, not to unbelievers. In other words, he tells believers that they will have to give an account for their "works," something he also implies in Romans 2:6-10. 1 Corinthians 3:15 also holds out the prospect that some believers will be saved, "as through the fire." Even though it is not popular to think so, Paul does believe our works play a role in our final judgment and even justification (e.g., Rom. 2:13).

Paul's (supposed) reconciliation to the Corinthians reminds him of the very nature of his mission, commissioned by Christ himself. "In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (5:19). This was the mission of God in Christ, to bring about the reconciliation of an alienated world back to Himself. Christ, then, sent Paul and the other apostles in turn: "So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (5:20). [1]

This magnificant passage then climaxes in 5:21: "For our sake he [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" With our Protestant eyes, this verse reads like a straightforward switch. Christ had no sin, but took on our sin. In return we who have sin take on Christ's righteousness.

But it is not at all clear that Paul had this meaning in mind. The phrase, "the righteousness of God" was a known concept within Judaism, found in the later chapters of Isaiah, certain Psalms, and even among the Dead Sea Scrolls. [2] In these places, God's righteousness refers to the part of his character that leads Him to reach out and save His people, even when they are sinful. And, indeed, it is exactly this subject that 2 Corinthians 5 has just been discussing--God's propensity to reach out to His people and the world with the offer of reconciliation and salvation!

So it is more likely in terms of Jewish background, that Paul is saying that Jesus became a sin offering, atoned for our sin, so that we might become a proof of God's righteousness (cf. Rom. 3:25-26). [3] As counterintuitive as this interpretation might seem, it seems the most likely reading when we read these words in their ancient Jewish historical context. It is thus hard to find a clear passage that says we assume Jesus' moral righteousness or goodness, despite the popularity of this idea. [4] There are passages where he functions as a sacrifice (e.g., Rom. 3:25; 8:3). Certainly we are pronounced "righteous" or "innocent" by God on the basis of Christ. But nowhere does Paul or any New Testament author clearly say that God ascribes to us Christ's moral righteousness. This view seems to be based on a very legalistic sense of God as a judge that seems to find little real basis in the biblical text.

This ministry of reconciliation, to which Christ called Paul, to which God called Christ, is a ministry of the "new covenant" (2 Cor. 3:6). The old covenant was that God made with Israel through Moses. It had a glory, but it was a fading glory (3:7). Paul allegorically re-interprets the veil on Moses' face to signify the fact that the glory was fading. Moses' veil kept Israel from seeing the glory of the old covenant fade (3:13).

But the glory of the new covenant in Christ does not need such a veil. The glory of the Spirit of the new covenant is unfading but in fact is ever increasing in glory (3:18). And it is for this glory that the people of the new covenant are destined, regardless of any current troubles or persecutions.

[1] The "you" in 5:20 is an interpretation rather than something in the original. Some think the sense is, "We ask on behalf of God [to people in general], 'Be reconciled to God.'"

[2] ***

[3] N. T. Wright is best known for this interpretation. Cf. Climax of the Covenant ***

[4] Wright's positions on these sorts of things may sometimes be a little too stark (i.e., he tends to resist the possibility of exceptions to generalizations of this sort). Nevertheless, his book Justification is where he deals most extensively with the question of "imputed righteousness" from Christ, that is, the idea that Christ's moral righteousness is ascribed to believers in order to satisfy the justice of God in acquitting us. We do not believe Paul was this legalistic in his sense of God's justice.

Bernanke Time's Man of the Year

Ben Bernanke is Time's Man of the Year. I'm not competent to judge the economics, but I'm good with this choice. A lot of people complained about the bail outs because they weren't fair, and they weren't.

But that wasn't the question. The question was what needed to be done for the economy to rebound, and, despite the mistakes they no doubt did make here and there, it would seem they took appropriate action... and by "they," I mean not only Bernanke, but the Bush and Obama administrations that straddled the crisis.

Good leadership involves compromise and doing what can and must be done, no matter what the ideal is or even what is most just and fair. Some is better than none, unless the some is a step back. Mr. Smith should not be in Washington. His type downs the plane in the name of ideals and a perfection that will never, ever happen in Washington or in any human institution (yes, that includes the church).

And those who cannot meet in the middle, compromise to get some rather than all of what they think is needed, are generally dangerous, especially the more important the decisions at hand. In my mind, this is part of why the British lost the Revolutionary War and why the Nazis lost WW2. My response to idealists: "Nuts."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Leaving Ephesus (2 Corinthians 1)

To follow the bread crumbs back, here's one place to start.
Leaving Ephesus
We do not know for sure whether Paul wrote Galatians or Philippians from Ephesus. But we can feel confident that he wrote at least three letters to Corinth while he was there (he also made a visit to the city that Acts does not record, cf. 2 Cor. 2:1; 13:1). Perhaps surprisingly, we only have one of these three letters for certain, 1 Corinthians. Paul's first letter to Corinth urged the Corinthians to stay away from sexually immoral influences (1 Cor. 5:9), but this letter has not survived. [1] Paul's second letter is thus the one we now call "First" Corinthians.

Interestingly, the third letter Paul sent to Corinth was not 2 Corinthians. [2] It was a harsh letter--one Paul in hindsight was not so sure he should have sent (2 Cor. 7:8). Perhaps that is why it was not preserved. The story goes something like the following. We know from 1 Corinthians that there were some in the Corinthian church who questioned Paul's authority. Apparently, the conflict between Paul and these individuals led him to send an ultimatum, which he apparently sent in the hands of Titus (2 Cor. 2:9; 7:13).

Whether Paul wrote this letter before the imprisonment we are suggesting at Ephesus or while he was imprisoned, we cannot say. The stark attitude of Galatians fits the apparent tone of the harsh letter to Corinth more than the mellow attitude of his imprisonment in Philippians. 2 Corinthians 1-9 itself fits more with the tone of Philippians as well. Our hunch is thus that Paul wrote Galatians, then at some point thereafter this harsh letter to Corinth, sending it off with Titus.

Then there was the crisis with Demetrius the silversmith, who brought Paul up on charges. Paul was imprisoned. When news reached the Philippians, they sent one of their overseers, Epaphroditus, with material support. Paul wrote Philippians, giving his intention to come visit them. We wonder if Paul's punishment was to be banished from the city and if such a verdict might have played into the reason he does not return back through Ephesus his next time through the area (cf. Acts 20:16-17). [3]

Paul had perhaps earlier intended to go directly from Ephesus to Corinth (2 Cor. 1:16). He decides instead to go to Macedonia first, which some at Corinth apparently made an issue of, claiming that Paul was not a man of his word (2 Cor. 1:18-19). His desire to see the Philippians, especially after their support of him in prison, might also have played into his change of plans (Phil. 2:24).

The individual at Corinth apparently submitted, as did the entire community--at least on the surface (2 Cor. 2:5-11). The community disciplined the person in question, so much so that Paul even tells them to let up (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Some have suggested it might have been the man who was sleeping with his step-mother in 1 Corinthians 5. There Paul had told them to hand this person over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5) and not to eat with him (5:11).

We cannot know for certain that this was the man in question, but he apparently submitted to the community, and the community to Paul. From this incident comes one of the most memorable verses on repentance in the Bible: "Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret" (2 Cor. 7:10). So while Paul was not certain he had done the right thing at first, giving the church an ultimatum in relationship to his authority, his letter at least seems to work and, for the moment, he is glad he did it (7:8-9). As we will see, however, it is not clear that the community's submission was as solid as Paul thought.

[1] Unless, of course, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is a displaced fragment from this letter, has some have suggested.

[2] Although, again, some have suggested that 2 Corinthians 10-13 might be an excerpt from Paul's third, but now lost letter.

[3] 1 Clement mentions that Paul was once banished (5.6). It would also contribute to the reason there was no more room for Paul to minister in the east (Rom. 15:23).

Paul's Resume (Philippians IV)

The basic elements of this chapter thus far are:

Imprisoned at Ephesus?
Ephesus at the End
Living Worthy of the Gospel

And now part IV:
Paul's Resume
In the middle of Paul's exhortations to rejoice in suffering and to have a servant attitude like Christ did, we suddenly find Paul warning the Philippians about "Judaizers," about those who would insist they need to get circumcised to be saved. The change in subject is so unexpected that some have even suggested Philippians 3 comes from some other letter Paul wrote to the Philippians. We probably do not have enough evidence to warrant such speculation, although it is of course possible. Nevertheless, assuming Paul has just recently written Galatians, as we think, then it makes sense that he would have these Judaizers in mind and would want to warn others in case they came to town.

So Paul suddenly changes subjects and warns the Philippians to "Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!" Ironic, since a Jew might just as well refer to a non-Jew as an uncircumcised dog. Paul turns the tables and suggests that his enemies are the truly uncircumcised ones--their hearts are uncircumcised. In fact, they are not truly the "circumcision" (peritome) the ones God has set apart as His with this sign. They are the "mutilation" (katatome) who are bent on getting Gentile believers to convert fully to Judaism.

Some debate whether Paul is referring in these comments to non-believing or to Christian Jews. We think that, as in Galatians and as in 2 Corinthians 10-13, Paul is referring to other believers rather than to non-believing Jews in general. Since he has very recently written Galatians, he is very concerned that his ministry to Gentiles not be undermined elsewhere as well. He is concerned that his detractors might try to convince his churches to establish "a righteousness of my own that comes from the law" instead of a "righteousness from God based on faith" (Phil. 3:9).

But Paul also wants to make it clear that his Jewish credentials themselves are impeccable. He was circumcised the eighth day of his life like they were (3:5). Indeed, he speaks Aramaic as a first language and can read the Bible in the original Hebrew (3:5). Before he believed, he was a zealous Pharisee, like some of the strictest of all believers in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:5). As far as righteousness based on Law-keeping went, he was blameless (Phil. 3:6).

Paul thus was not like his opponents at Galatia, who did not even keep the Law themselves (Gal. 6:13). He had kept the Law as well as it could be kept. To see Peter and Barnabas feebly remove themselves from eating with Gentiles at Antioch must have been a joke. After all, he had really kept the Law. They had never kept the Law as well as he had a day in their lives (e.g., Gal. 2:14). Paul does not tell us here that he had been a miserable failure here or in Galatians. He just indicates it is not what God is looking for, and what God is looking for is so incredible, these sorts of things pale in comparison.

What God looks at is the faithful death of Jesus Christ on the cross, the faith of Jesus Christ. To participate in Christ's death through baptism (e.g., Rom. 6:3-4) and to share in his sufferings, is to look forward to a share in his resurrection as well (Phil. 3:10-11). All of Paul's past accomplishments and credentials as a faithful Jew are like rubbish when placed next to the excellence of what being in Christ offers.

Paul suggests that he is not yet guaranteed this resurrection of the dead (Phil. 3:11-12). He has not yet been perfected in this way, the perfection that will happen when the dead are raised. But he, as we, must continue throughout this life to pursue that goal and that prize, the prize of the heavenly call of the resurrection (3:14). We must continue to live a life worthy of the gospel (2:27), we must work out together our way to final salvation (2:12), knowing that God is inside and among us, working in us to bring His will and His good pleasure to pass (2:13). And if we are faithful by God's power, then one day God will "transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory" (3:21).

Philippians, like 1 Corinthians, is another one of the books of the Bible that seems to have such little distance between us and them. Here are two members of the congregation at odds with each other. Here is the ever present need for some in the church to stop thinking only of themselves and to begin to make others a priority. The hymn about Christ is one of the most majestic passages in the entire Bible, and its main point in Philippians is that we are to have the same servant attitude that Christ did.

These things are far more easily said than done. How many churches have you visited about which you could truly say that everyone was "of the same mind"? How many families are of this sort? How many denominational leaders? How many Christian colleges? Somehow we have a tendency to bicker far more over the details than to focus on our common mind and will.

Most of us in the West do not face the pressures we hear Paul mention in every one of his letters. Most of us do not really know the "sharing of his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10). And yet how few of us rejoice as Paul does in this letter? How many of us have learned to be content regardless of our circumstances? How many of us truly believe that we can do all all things through the strengthening of Christ?

We are also prone to misread Philippians 3:12-14 as being about our current imperfection and our need to forget our past failures and to keep pushing forward to get better. Certainly these are things we should do as well. But what Paul was forgetting was not his past moral failures but his past human accomplishments. And what he had not yet attained was not a blameless life--he feels quite comfortable telling the Philippians to follow his example (3:17) and expects them to be "pure and blameless" when Christ comes (1:10).

What he has not yet been guaranteed is the resurrection, the heavenly call, salvation. This is the goal and the prize, and it is for this end result that he urges the Philippians to live worthy lives and work together so that they all make it to the end. It may be faith alone that initially secures our right standing with God, but God has given us His holy Spirit thereafter actually to make us into the kind of people He planned for us to be in the first place. And it is only if we are faithful through that power that we will attain to the resurrection of the dead, according to Paul.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Living Worthy of the Gospel (Philippians III)

The basic elements of this chapter thus far are:

Imprisoned at Ephesus?
Ephesus at the End

And now part III:
Living Worthy of the Gospel
The key verse of Philippians would seem to be 1:27. After Paul has greeted the Philippians (1:1-2), after he has thanked God for them and rehearsed some of his current situation (1:3-26), he begins the body of the letter with an admonition to "live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27). Most of the rest of the letter, we might argue, plays out this general instruction.

Perhaps the main goal Paul has in mind is for the Philippian church to be unified and loving toward one another, both in the face of opposition and in terms of tensions among themselves. Just after he tells them to live worthy lives, he says he wants to hear that they "are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel" (1:27). He wants them to be "of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind" (2:2). He wants them to look out not only for themselves but for others as well (2:4) and not to operate out of selfish ambition (2:3).

Near the end of the letter, he specifically calls out two women who worked together with him when he was at Philippi: Euodia and Syntyche (4:2). As he earlier encouraged the entire assembly, he urges them in particular to "be of the same mind in the Lord." These two had struggled beside Paul in the work of the gospel, along with someone named Clement and, perhaps, Epaphroditus. [1] But somewhere along the way they had come into conflict. As he had with the Corinthians, he urges the Philippians to heal the disunity among them.

The most majestic part of Philippians is the so called Philippian hymn of 2:6-11. Paul uses the example of Christ's selfless suffering for others as a model for how the Philippians should behave toward one another (2:5). We cannot be certain whether Christians somewhere actually sung these words. The rhythm of the words is not entirely clear and the lines are not all the same in length. Further, most scholars think that wherever the poem came from, Paul has interrupted it at some points with commentary. Would a group used to singing such words not have been irritated at having the flow of a hymn interrupted? [2]

Nevertheless, the words do have a rhythm to them, and we do know that the early Christians composed and used hymns in their worship (e.g., 1 Cor. 14:26). While we cannot know for certain, a good suggestion is that the hymn falls into three parts of four lines each, with Paul expanding on a few points. The places where we think Paul might have added to the hymn are in parentheses. The translation is our own:

Although he existed in the form of God,
He considered equality with God not something to exploit,
But he emptied himself,
Having taken the form of a servant.

Having become in the likeness of mortals,
And having been found in shape as a mortal,
He humbled himself,
Having become obedient to the point of death (even death on a cross).

Therefore, God even super-exalted him,
And graced on him the Name above every name,
That (at the name of Jesus) every knee should bow (whether in heaven or on earth or under the earth) and tongue confess,
That Jesus Christ is Lord (to the glory of God the Father).

This reconstruction, as all of them, is not without its problems, leading some simply to abandon the notion that we even have a clear poem here. Many are content to suggest that Paul has simply waxed somewhat poetic on the spot. The rhythm of our last stanza above in particular is difficult and different from the first two, which actually have somewhat of a parallel structure. Nevertheless, the poem seems to have enough rhythm with apparent interruptions to suggest that Paul is drawing from somewhere else here.

Several features of the hymn are quite remarkable. Most take the first stanza to be about Jesus' pre-existence before he assumed human form. [3] Yet the most remarkable part of the hymn is in the third stanza, where God gives to Jesus the "Name above every name." The "Name above every name" can hardly be anything but a reference to Yahweh, the very name of God. Yahweh was translated into Greek as "Lord," and so the Name that God bestowed on Jesus at the point of his resurrection was surely "Lord," not Jesus. The hymn thus sees Jesus receiving the very Name of God as God raises Jesus from the dead and super-exalts him to His right hand.

Paul uses this hymn about Christ to show the Philippians both the attitude they should have and, just perhaps, what the ultimate benefit of such an attitude is. First, Jesus was none other than the Son of God, a status of royalty and kingship that none of them certainly had. Yet even with such a high status, Jesus did not consider his divine status as something to take advantage of. Rather he assumed the status of a servant. And even once he had assumed the shape of a mortal, even though he looked like any other human being, he humbled himself even further. He endured the most shameful form of capital punishment in use at the time: crucifixion.

It was to these lengths of service and sacrifice that Paul called the Philippians to embrace in the interests of each other. And of course as a result God took Christ even higher perhaps than he had been before. If he had been in the form of God before, now he was super-exalted with the very name of Yahweh. So also, perhaps Paul means to imply, the Philippians will eventually be exalted by God if they will be servants now.

The final chapter of Philippians is filled with other items of "worthy living" Paul advises as they live as citizens of heaven (1:27; 3:20). [4] Their true citizenship is not on earth, tied up with any earthly city or empire. Paul tells them not be anxious about anything but to rely on God (4:6). He tells them to let others see how gentle they are (4:5). He encourages them to think about noble and uplifting things (4:8). Throughout he has a mellow spirit. His ordeal has humbled him, and we see this same spirit in 2 Corinthians, which we date not long after Paul wrote Philippians.

[1] Paul addresses at this point "my loyal companion" or "my loyal yokefellow." Some have suggested the word yokefellow is actually this man's name, Syzygus. But we think Paul is likely referring to Epaphroditus, who probably was the one who delivered the letter of Philippians back to Philippi.

[2] Or so has argued N. T. Wright. One of his early books was a collection of articles titled The Climax of the Covenant (***), which includes articles on key texts about Christ like these verses from Philippians. Whether you agree with him or not, we put this book among the top fifty or so books one should read to master Paul's writings.

[3] With some notable exceptions. For example, James D. G. Dunn is perhaps the best known proponent of the idea that the first line is actually about Christ being the second Adam who undid the Fall (Christology in the Making ***). Adam was also in the "image of God," but he did grasp at equality with God. Jesus, in the same situation, did not grasp in that way. Dunn thus did not see any indication of Christ's pre-existence in the hymn, since it was as a human on earth that Jesus did not take advantage of being in the image of God. Most, however, have not followed Dunn's interpretation. For example, it is not clear that "form of God" means the same thing as "image of God."

However, a strong alternative to the majority position is the possibility that form of God relates to Jesus having the status of God, that is, of being God's Son. This view was most notably held by Eduard Schweizer (***). The idea that form of God has to do with status is supported by the fact that it is parallel to the phrase "form of a servant." The stanza thus comes to say that while Jesus had the status of God, he did not take advantage of that status, but instead took on the status of a servant. On this reading as well, it would not be entirely clear that Paul was referring to Jesus in some pre-existent state.

[4] N. T. Wright is at some pains to make it clear that this expression does not mean Paul is saying that we will go to heaven or spend eternity in heaven, only that heaven is where our empire is centered (***).

Ephesus at the End

If you haven't guessed, I really wanted to finish the first Paul book by the 15th, tomorrow. But I keep processing not only the details of what I think but also how to present it. I wrote the piece on Philemon, switched the order of the chapters, did half of Colossians, and finally decided to put all that stuff in the second volume. I really think Philemon in itself fits very nicely from Ephesus early in Paul's stay there (except for that comment about being an old man). But it just seems impossible--at least in writing for a more popular audience--to split up Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians.

So I am back to chapter 9 again! Now it's titled, "Joy in the Face of Death," and it's about Philippians. I was able, however, to use a modified version of my earlier introduction to the Prison Epistles. In the end, even if you have been suffering through all these posts, you will still have to buy the book to see how it all ended up being shuffled around (and of course for the sex chapter :-).
Ephesus at the End
We just quoted 2 Corinthians 1:8 above, where Paul says he had felt a "sentence of death" hanging over his head in his final days at Ephesus. Acts tells us about a silversmith named Demetrius who made shrines to the goddess Artemis (19:24). The temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and you can still see a few of its pillars if you visit the ruins of the city. Acts says that Demetrius stirred up the guild of idol makers, who began to shout, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" until the city was all stirred up. They actually dragged some of Paul's coworkers into the theatre (which you can also still see today).

[insert picture of Ephesus theatre]

Although Acts says nothing of Demetrius bringing charges against Paul, it does mention that the city clerk brought up the possibility (19:38). We wonder if Acts is not in fact hinting at the fact that Demetrius did in fact bring up Paul on charges, and that Paul was imprisoned there at Ephesus awaiting trial for a significant amount of time. And we wonder if it was not during this time that Paul wrote Philippians, one of his most precious letters--and one in which he seems most humbled by his circumstances. Is it any surprise that, when Paul passed back through Asia, he did not stop at Ephesus, but met with its elders south of the city, in Miletus (Acts 20:16)? They come to him, and he avoids the city.

The tone of Philippians fits such an uncertain time. "For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you" (1:21-24). Does this mood not fit what Paul says of his final days in Ephesus: "We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:8-9)?

The logistics of Philippians also fit Ephesus better than Rome. For example, Philippians implies that news has gone back and forth between Rome and Ephesus at least four times between Paul's arrest and his writing of the letter. 1) News reached the Philippians of Paul's imprisonment. 2) They sent resources for him by way of a man named Epaphroditus. 3) Epaphroditus became ill and news of his sickness reached the Philippians. 4) News of the Philippians reaction at the illness of Epaphroditus travelled back to Paul. Certainly Paul was imprisoned long enough at Rome for news to travel back and forth this many times, even though each trip would take well over month, probably closer to two. But this back and forth would happen much more naturally between Philippi and Ephesus, perhaps only a little more than a week each way.

Paul also expresses confidence that he will ultimately be released (Phil. 1:25) and expects then to visit Philippi (2:24). He plans to send Timothy ahead with news of the outcome of his trial (2:23). Then when Timothy returns he hopes that he himself might come (2:19, 24). This is again quite a distance to wait for Timothy to get to Philippi and back from Rome. It makes much more sense from Ephesus.

Indeed, Acts does record Paul going to Philippi after leaving Ephesus. Meanwhile, Romans 15:23 tells us that Paul had no intention of ministering any more in the east when he left the region. He had his sights set on ministering even further west, in Spain (15:24). So if Paul was writing Philippians from Rome and thinking of going back east, he had changed his plans significantly from when he left the area. [1]

Mention of the imperial guard (1:13) and of Caesar's household (4:22) have easily given the impression that Paul was writing from Rome. But Ephesus was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and had a Roman proconsul seated there. He would also have imperial soldiers, and of course the entire administration of the Roman empire everywhere was part of Caesar's household, since a household included servants and all who served a "house." [2] So while these agents of Caesar would certainly be present in Rome, they were also present in Ephesus.

So while Paul could have written Philippians while imprisoned at Rome, Ephesus seems to fit the particulars of the letter as well or better. The main reason not to adopt this scenario remains one's sense of how much creativity and selection Acts employs. A quick comparison of Luke with Mark probably suffices to show Luke was not simply a passive chronographer. [3]

We thus suggest that at the end of Paul's stay at Ephesus, one of the metalworkers of the city likely brought charges against him, resulting in a prolonged imprisonment waiting to appear before the Roman proconsul. During that time he received support from the Philippian church by way of a man named Epaphroditus, who himself became deathly ill, but managed to recover. Paul writes Philippians in anticipation of his release, and promises to send Timothy with the news, as soon as Paul knows it.

[1] The same of course can be said of Philemon, where Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him (Phlm 22). If Philemon were written from Rome, it would also imply a significant change of trajectory for Paul.

[2] Thus we remember that Jesus was taken to the "praetorium" of Pilate in Jerusalem, the same word used in 1:13 is used in Mark 15:16.

[3] Or even a quick comparison of Luke 24 with Acts 1, which covers the same period.

Philemon (Fighting Wild Beasts 2)

For the first entry of this chapter, see Imprisoned at Ephesus.

This short letter only gives a few hints of its setting, but it gives enough for us to get the general picture. Paul calls himself a prisoner in verses 1 and 9, and mentions someone named Epaphras as his "fellow prisoner" in verse 23. More to the point, Paul mentions that he led Onesimus to faith while imprisoned (10) and indicates how helpful Onesimus has been to him throughout his imprisonment (13). Thus we conclude that Paul is in prison when he writes this letter.

Colossians 4:12 indicates that Epaphras was from the city of Colossae, to which Colossians is addressed. Indeed, Colossians and Philemon have in common other names like Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke (Col. 4:10-14; Phlm 24) and Archippus (Col. 4:17; Phlm 2). Most have thus concluded that Philemon, to whom the letter is addressed, lived in Colossae, a city about a hundred miles east of Ephesus. [1]

If we leave Colossians out of consideration, the question of whether Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus or Rome when he wrote Philemon focuses on two things: 1) the proximity between Ephesus and Colossae and 2) Paul's apparent expectation that he will visit Colossae soon (Phlm 22). It is certainly possible that a slave from Colossae might find his way to Rome. Indeed, this slave Onesimus might have come to Rome with individuals like Epaphras and Aristarchus who were specifically sent there from the church at Colossae to aid Paul.

But in the end, it is far more likely that the church at Colossae would send help to Paul at Ephesus than at Rome. Rome was well over a thousand miles from Colossae and, depending on the route and time of year, could take months to get there. We can easily imagine the church hearing Paul was in prison and sending a group to him on a five or six day journey, especially if one of their own, Epaphras, had been arrested along with Paul. It is harder to imagine them sending the same group on a two month journey. And Paul apparently hopes Philemon will send Onesimus back to him (Phlm 14)--a four or five month expectation if Paul is in Rome.

Perhaps even more problematic is Paul's apparent plan to come to Colossae when he tells Philemon to prepare him a guest room (Phlm 22). Paul certainly was not thinking about heading back east when he had left the area. In Romans 15:23, Paul says there is no more room for him to work in the east, and he clearly has his eyes on a mission to Spain (Rom. 15:24). It is possible that Paul changed his mind during some four years of imprisonment in Caesarea and Rome, or that he does not really mean to come. After all, he does call himself an "old man" in Philemon 8. But if we take Paul straightforwardly, a plan to visit Colossae fits much better with an early imprisonment at Ephesus than with his time in Rome.

It is not entirely clear what exactly Onesimus had done to anger his master Philemon. It has often been suggested that he was a run-away (cf. Phlm 15), but there are other possibilities. For example, Philemon might have been upset with Onesimus because he had failed at some task. Perhaps he had been unsuccessful at some matter of business and had lost his master money of some significance. After all, Paul tells Philemon that he will pay for any loss he has suffered as a result of Onesimus (Phlm 18). And of course for this reason Onesimus might have stayed away for a bit.

We should not think of slaves in the ancient Mediterranean on quite the same terms as Americans think about slavery in the south before the Civil War. For one thing, race was not a defining feature in ancient slavery, although certainly the Romans did enslave foreigners when they defeated them. And while there were slaves of the servile sort that existed in the American South, many slaves in the ancient world were highly educated and functioned much more like an employee than as an absolute servant. It is quite possible that Onesimus was of this sort.

In any case, Onesimus had somehow angered Philemon. Since Paul speaks of sending Onesimus back to his owner, it would not seem that Onesimus met Paul because he himself had been imprisoned. Rather, it would seem that Onesimus sought Paul out to serve as a go-between with his master--or perhaps he ran into Paul seeking out Epaphras as a go-between. Slaves in trouble with their masters sometimes sought out a go-between in hope that the mediator might soften their owner's reception of them. For example, in the case of a runaway slave, the owner had the authority to put them to death.

Paul's request of Philemon is simple: welcome him back... as he would welcome Paul himself (Phlm 17). Paul never tells Philemon to give him his freedom, although some think Philemon 21 hints at it. Paul indicates he could command him to receive him back, since after all, he would be on a path to eternal death if it were not for Paul (8-9, 19). But Paul--mind you with the entire church listening in (2)--chooses rather to ask Philemon this favor. The fact that the book of Philemon is in Scripture perhaps hints that Philemon did in fact forgive Onesimus.

Whether Philemon sent Onesimus back to Paul, whether he ever emancipated him from slavery, these things we do not know. However, it is interesting that Paul never brings up slavery as an institution. The same Paul who in Galatians 3:28 says that in Christ there is neither slave or free does not tell slave owners to begin to set them free, even when he has the opportunity. He says not to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but he qualifies it by saying to receive him as "more than a slave" (16). In other words, Onesimus becomes a slave and a brother, "more than" a slave but a slave still.

Similarly, Paul says he knows Philemon will do more than he is asking (21). This statement could allude to emancipation, but perhaps it refers more likely to sending Onesimus back to continue helping provide for Paul in his imprisonment. In the end, it is probably our post-Civil War glasses that lead us to read more into Philemon than it actually says about giving Onesimus his freedom.

Yet few of us would now second guess the decisions of Western nations like Britain and the U.S. to do away with slavery. Certainly there were many Christians in the early 1800s who used the Bible and books like Philemon to argue that slavery was perfectly compatible with Christian faith. Some of them in fact criticized the way slave owning was often practiced, while not condemning the institution itself. They found in the Bible no basis for ending the institution, only a basis for reforming its practice. It would be easy to condemn these well-meaning individuals, but with a little effort we can see that they were conscientiously following their understanding of the Bible.

We would argue that we face a similar situation with women today, where many individuals conscientiously find no basis for women in ministry or for a structure in the home that does not always have the husband at the helm. This matter of looking beyond the letter of certain passages to where Scripture as a whole is a difficult business, the stuff of prophets, and not everyone is a prophet. Yet despite certain differences, we would argue that the situation is very similar. Slavery was a social institution of the broader culture then, just as patriarchal structures were. The heavenly principle was then as now no hierarchical distinction in the kingdom between slave and free, male or female. Nevertheless, Paul made concessions in the name of order and of keeping to the priorities of spreading the gospel.

Yet we suspect that Christians a hundred years from now will also find it hard to think well of those who sincerely oppose women in ministry today. How could they not have seen that the full place of women in the church and the home was the obvious outworking of the gospel? After all, there is no physical, intellectual, or psychological basis for such differentiation. Hopefully they will be charitable just as we should to those who could not see where God was leading 150 years ago.

An even more fundamental take-away from Philemon is the need for forgiveness toward one another. We do not really know what Philemon's temperament as a person was. Maybe he was a hard task-master. Maybe his expectations were unreasonable. Whatever the case, Paul presumably knew he was asking a lot of Philemon, to forgive this slave who had so wronged him, at least in his eyes.

It is often easy for us to forgive others, especially when it is not something that matters much to us. In fact, some people are so apologetic for minor things that they almost need forgiveness for asking our forgiveness too much! But Philemon is a reminder of our need to show forgiveness on the big things, the things that do matter a lot to us. I would like to think that God and I together, alone could work out that level of forgiveness on our own. But sometimes God has to use an outsider, like Paul, to come in and exert some pressure. I know what I think Philemon decided, as Archippus, Apphia, and the entire church at Colossae heard this letter read in their public assembly, and turned to Philemon to see what he would say.

[1] John Knox ingeniously suggested that it was actually Archippus who was the slave owner who lived at Colossae and that the letter of Philemon was in fact the lost letter to the Laodiceans mentioned in Colossians 4:16. Philemon would thus have been the overseer of the church at Laodicea. Few have followed Knox's suggestion (Philemon among the Letters of Paul, 91-108).

Fighting Wild Beasts (Philemon and Colossians)

To follow the thread of this writing project back, the previous post is here.
Imprisoned at Ephesus?
Four of the Pauline letters in the New Testament hint that they were written while Paul was in prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. [1] Traditionally, it has been thought that Paul wrote these from Rome while he was waiting to appear before the emperor Nero (cf. Acts 28:30-31). Of course none of them say where Paul was imprisoned, so various scholars have suggested other places Paul might have been when he wrote them, like Caesarea in Palestine or Ephesus in Asia Minor.

When thinking about these letters, it is important to realize that prison was not a punishment in the ancient world. Rather, a person went to prison as they waited to appear before the appropriate official. Then punishment was dispensed immediately when a verdict was reached, including possibilities like death, exile, or fines. While a person awaited their appearance, they would have to find someone on the outside to provide them with food and other necessities.

The book of Acts only tells of two imprisonments of any length of time: about two years in Caesarea after Paul was arrested in Jerusalem (ca. AD58-60) and then about two years under house arrest in Rome (ca. AD60-62). Acts also mentions a stint overnight in Philippi (16:23-39), and we cannot rule out the possibility that he spent a day or two in Corinth before he appeared before the Roman governor Gallio (Acts 18:12-17). 1 Clement, from the end of the first century, suggests Paul was imprisoned seven times (**). Although we cannot know if this number is correct, it is at least possible that Paul was imprisoned a few more times as well.

In particular, it is often suggested that Paul might have been imprisoned for a period of time during the some three years he was at Ephesus. Some strongly resist this idea because Acts does not tell us of any imprisonment at this time. Acts does tell of a rather serious incident at the end of Paul's stay at Ephesus involving a riot, but it merely says that Paul left Ephesus, "after the uproar had ceased" (20:1). Those who see Acts as an almost documentary style report of events might thus find it hard to think it would have put it this way if in fact Paul had a rather significant run in with the law at the time.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to think that Acts is not just giving a videotape of the early church but is both presenting the story with creative artistry and emphasizing some things in a way that leads it to omit others. For example, in the incident where Paul was lowered down the side of Damascus in a basket, Acts only tells us that the Jews were plotting to kill him (9:23). It is only from Paul himself that we learn it was more the Arab ethnarch of the city under the Nabatean king Aretas IV who was trying to arrest him (2 Cor. 11:32). This was after a three year period involving some time spent in Arabia--likely in Aretas' kingdom. Acts tells us nothing of this sort. This is only one incident, but it may reflect a tendency on Acts' part to de-emphasize conflicts between the early Christians and Roman authorities and to emphasize "the Jews" as Paul's primary troublemakers.

Paul's own writings give us hints not only of one run in with the Romans at Ephesus, but possibly even two. Even as early during his stay there as 1 Corinthians, he mentions having fought with "wild animals" at Ephesus (15:32). No one takes this statement literally, since then Paul presumably would be dead. But surely the most likely way to take the statement is that Paul had some significant run in with the Roman authorities early in his stay at Ephesus.

But Paul alludes to an even more serious encounter with authorities around the time of the riot. In 2 Corinthians 1:8, just after he left Ephesus, Paul speaks of "the affliction we experienced in Asia." He goes on to say that, "we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death." This sentiment seems stronger than merely being afraid he will be killed in a riot. It sounds rather more like Philippians 1 where Paul is hard pressed in his imprisonment to know whether he would rather have a verdict of death and go to be with Christ or whether it would be better for him to be acquitted (Phil. 1:21-24).

It may very well be, therefore, that Paul wrote all four of his "prison epistles" from Rome, but it is just as possible that he wrote some or all of them while he was imprisoned at Ephesus. We have decided to treat three of Paul's prison letters in this volume (Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians), then Ephesians in the next. We were torn about dividing them, since Ephesians has so many parallels to Colossians that it is also sometimes placed during the same imprisonment as Colossians. Similarly, while Ephesus seems a more likely place for Paul to write Philemon, Rome perhaps seems more likely for Colossians.

But for practical reasons, we have decided to look at Philemon, Colossians, and Philippians in this volume, picturing them in the context of Ephesus. We may take a moment in the next volume to ask what they might look like in the context of Rome a few years later. In this chapter in particular, we want to explore what it would look like for Philemon and Colossians to be written rather early during Paul's stay at Ephesus, not long after he arrived. The title of this chapter is thus an allusion to 1 Corinthians 15:32 and the possibility that Paul was imprisoned briefly even before he wrote 1 Corinthians. Then we will look at Philippians later in chapter 10. These settings do not change the message too greatly, but having such specific settings in mind might help us read the letters more vividly.

[1] This order has nothing to do with the order in which they were written but with their length. The earliest nearly complete manuscript of Paul's writings has them ordered from longest to shortest, with Hebrews second.