Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Souls of the Saints Unstained by Sin

Sometimes mistaken to be Plutarch himself,
the above is a statue of an unknown philosopher or priest (ca. 270 BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Museum of Delphi
Sometimes an ancient text does not have any direct literary (intertextual) parallels with the New Testament, and such is really the case for the passage from Plutarch's On the Delays of Divine Vengeance (De sera 565B-D), about which I wrote in my last post (here). Nevertheless, there are broad conceptual interactions between the symbolism of the soul stained by vice in Plutarch's account and the (deutero-)Pauline text of Ephesians 5:25b-27. Here are some thoughts.
  • For in the world below, vice puts forth colors (ἐκεῖ γὰρ ἡ κακία... τὰς χρόας ἀναδίδωσιν), as the soul is altered by the passions (τῆς τε ψυχῆς τρεπομένης ὑπὸ τῶν παθῶν) and alters the body in turn (καὶ τρεπούσης τὸ σῶμα), while here [=subluminary regions], the goal of purification (καθαρμοῦand punitary justice is reached when the passions are purged away (ἐκλεανθέντων) and the soul becomes luminous in consequence and uniform in color (τὴν ψυχὴν αὐγοειδῆ καὶ σύγχρουν γίνεσθαι - Plutarch, De sera 565C)
  • Eph 5:25b-27: ... Christ loved the church and gave himself up on her behalf in order to sanctify her, by  purifying her in the washing of water by the word (ἵνα αὐτὴν ἁγιάσῃ καθαρίσας τῷ λουτρῷ τοῦ ὕδατος ἐν ῥήματι), with the result that He might present to himself the church in glory who has no stain or wrinkle or anything of the kind (ἔνδοξον τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, μὴ ἔχουσαν σπίλον ἢ ῥυτίδα ἤ τι τῶν τοιούτων), but is instead holy and unblemished (ἀλλ᾽ ἵνα ᾖ ἁγία καὶ ἄμωμος). 
In the texts above, I tried to color code the conceptual ties (the lexemes are not the same though arguably they belong to the same semantic and cognitive domains) between Plutarch's and Paul's discourse as follows: 
  1. how vice alters/stains the soul is shown in red
  2. how the soul/church is purified and cleansed of vice/sin is shown in blue
  3. the purified soul/church symbolized as a kind of illuminescence is shown in orange
First the conceptual similarities: Both accounts speak to the reality that vicious or immoral action color/tarnish the soul. While there is nothing like Plutarch's multi-colored correlation of specific vices to a particular color, Paul nevertheless employs the metaphor of staining (σπίλον) to describe the effect of sin and like Plutarch likens moral transformation to a kind of purgation or cleansing of sin/error, though Paul does use a different set of lexemes (ἁγιάσῃ καθαρίσας τῷ λουτρῷ) to describe the process known as sanctification. The purified person is depicted in the language of illuminescence (αὐγοειδῆ) for Plutarch, and glorification for Paul (ἔνδοξον).
   However, beyond these broad strokes is a striking difference. The (religious) purging of vice, for Plutarch, does not happen while a person is alive. It takes place in the afterlife, as a disembodied soul, and only through a series of punishments by divine judges to purge wickedness by beating the evil out of a person. But Paul's gospel talks about the work of Christ, whose sacrifice and blood atonement, makes the cleansing of sin, evil, and vice an inaugurated reality now, in the present, which culminates in its fullest expression at a future resurrection. The reversal of sin's corrupting effect, though not complete until Christ's return, is nevertheless experienced immediately in the life of church as a condition made possible by atoning death of God's Son. And Christ did it out of love for the church. The purging of evil is not torturous punishment from the gods, but a gift of redemption by the One who gave himself up for us. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Plutarch on the Soul Scarred by Many Colors

I've been reading through Plutarch's treatise De sera numinis vindicta (= On the Delays of Divine Vengeance) which features the character Thespesius experiencing an out-of-body vision. 
   Thespesius narrαtes how the rational part of his soul walks through the subluminary regions of the (Platonic) cosmos and encounters several disembodied souls in the afterlife who are awaiting a kind of purification before they can escape the lower regions towards a higher level of existence, although some souls regress, sink down, and get reincarnated as animals (Plutarch, De sera 563D-568A). 
   Though a person might be able to conceal his passions and vices from others while alive and embodied, the disembodied soul is completely exposed for its true condition. If a person somehow committed wrongs and was never brought to justice in the earthly life, there is a reckoning after death. Thespesius so explains: 

  • But whoever comes here from the world below unpunished and unpurged, is seized by (the goddess) Justice (ἡ Δίκη), with the soul exposed and naked, having nothing by which to sink out of sight, or hide, or cover one's shame.... The scars and welts left by the different passions are more persistent in some, less so in others. Observe - he said - the mixture and diversity of colors in the souls (χρώματα τῶν ψυχῶν; 565B)

Apparently, according to this myth recorded by Plutarch, souls are scarred by the passions and vices (οὐλαὶ δὲ καὶ μώλωπες ἐπὶ τῶν παθῶν) and the scars/welts show up as various colors depending on the type of passion or vice that a person committed. Plutarch gives quite an extensive list in 565C on the correlation of a soul's color with the corresponding vice:  

  • So if the soul is a dirty brown (τὸ ὄρφνινος καὶ ῥυπαρόν) color, this stain is caused by greed (πλεονεξία)
  • A fiery-red (τὸ αἱμωπὸν καὶ διάπυρον) comes from savagery and bitterness (ὡμότητος καὶ πικρίας)
  • A blue-grey (τὸ γλαύκινον) signals some kind of incontinence in pleasure (ἀκρασία τις περὶ ἡδονάς)
  • A green (τὸ ἰῶδες) is from spite with a begrudging envy (κακόνοια μετὰ φθόνου)

Plutarch further describes how the souls are punished with pains and torments far beyond any physical whipping. However, the result of such chastisement is the purification or purging of the soul of all vice and passion so that eventually "the soul becomes luminous in consequence and uniform in color (τὴν ψυχὴν αὐγοειδῆ καὶ σύγχρουν γίνεσθαι)" (565D). 
Temple of Apollo at Delphi where Plutarch (ca. 40-120 AD) was a priest
Photo by Max Lee © 2014 Delphi
   There are so many fascinating observations that can be made from this passage. For one thing, again, the idea that the afterlife was a place where final justice was exercised is illustrated by the scene where the goddess Δίκη seizes souls and punishes them according to what their scars reveal about past crimes, vices, and passions. When Justice puts the souls on trial, they stand naked and exposed, unable to hide the scars left by their passions.
   Secondly, moral and immoral action shapes who we are and what we become. They leave a scar or welt on our souls. Almost like an ancient version of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Plutarch's narrative tells the tale of souls who are seen for what they really are. Forgive the pun, but their 'true colors' are shown in all their drab, dirty, ugly hues. We might undergo the illusion that pursuing vice has no effect on us as Dorian Gray thought, but as soon as the veil is uncovered, behind the curtain lies a vivid portrait of how greed, violent savagery, wanton pursuit of pleasure, and bitter spite has scarred our inner selves.
   Third, purity or perfection is symbolized as luminescence. It is such an interesting scene that the soul, once colored with vices, could through divine discipline be purged of evil and shine forth like the sun.
   I'm not sure if this text finds any parallels in Paul's thought or other NT texts. I just enjoyed reading this narrative for its own end. Give me a week and I'll post on any intertextual connections the Plutarch passage might have with the Pauline corpus. In the meanwhile, guard your soul and don't color it with vice. Peace!

* The Greek text and English translation (with some modifications) comes from Philip De Lacy and Benedict Einarson, Plutarch: Moralia (vol. 7; LCL; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 281. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Irritating Bite vs. the Sting Which Kills

It's been hard to blog with the start-of-the-semester madness, but finally, I can get back to my previous post on Philodemus' treatise On Death (Book IV). 
   There I wrote about how the Epicurean sage manages grief and fear by cutting out from a person's natural aversion to death whatever wrong ideas or superstitions he or she has attached to it. Philodemus is especially critical of associating with death the idea of divine judgment according to the myths of his day (κατὰ τοὺς μύθους); he would not be very receptive to the idea of that we are all assigned a place in Hades (πρὸς τὸν ἀποδεδειγμένον αὐτοῖς καθ' Ἅιδου χῶρον) in the afterlife where furies torture the wicked (IV.27.8-14; Henry ed.). Thus, Epicurean philosophical therapy is the process of rationally dispelling such myths concerning death, with the result that the great pain (μεγάλην... λύπην; 25.11-12) fueled by false ideas is reduced to a natural bite or sting (φυσικὸς ὁ δηγμός; 25.36). 
   Apparently, this remainder which is left over, the natural bite, after myths and superstitions have been cut out, is actually useful for the philosopher. For one thing, it humanizes the Epicurean since it is unnatural for a person to feel nothing when one's loved ones have passed away (you can see Philodemus taking a jab here against the Stoics who argued that the sage is "apathetic" to grief). A natural aversion to death (= death's bite) can also encourage a person to live well and wisely in the present (37.12-38.25; see Armstrong, 45-49*), much in the same way natural anger without false ideas about vengeance helps a person to seek justice for wrongs done (cf. Philodemus, On Anger, col. 67). 
Silver Tetradrachm (Greek: τετράδραχμον) coin from Ephesus
featuring a bee and stag (ca. 390-130 BC)
image credit:
So the key to Epicurean therapy is reducing great pain to a manageable, useful, and natural bite. Death is nothing but an irritating sting or bite that should not be feared. 
    But Paul's understanding of personified Death (θάνατε) and its sting (τὸ κέντρον) is that the latter is no small bite or peck like that of a mosquito. Rather, like some ancient species of wasps, bees, and scorpions of Paul's day, a sting can kill you (1 Cor 15:54-55; cf. Aristophanes, Wasps 403-407). There is a double entendre here. Paul's use of κέντρον refers to both the torturing device of personified Death (click here for details) and also the (insect's) sting which kills and ends life. In contrast to the Epicureans, Paul does not think the reality of divine judgment and justice is a false myth but part of the eschatological reality which frames the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a divine law to which all must answer. While Paul's vision of the afterlife is nothing like Virgil's description of Hades (Aeneid, Book 6), he nevertheless does not discount the idea that God does exact justice for all humanity at the resurrection of the dead. Nor does Paul think any rationalization process could ever remove the agony which death brings. 
   Instead, the only solution is to remove the sting altogether. Death has no power over Christian believers because God will raise them up on the day of Jesus' return. Why settle for a bite, when God, through Christ, has conquered death's crippling effect on human life once and for all?! 

* See David Armstrong, "All Things to All Men: Philodemus' Model of Therapy and the Audience of De Morte," in Philodemus and the New Testament World (NovTSup 111; Leiden: Brill, 2004), 15-54. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 2014 Convocation Address on "Truth and the Hermeneutics of Identity" by Klyne Snodgrass

It's been a whirlwind of running around, grabbing coffee on the go, cutting through the humidity across campus to get to classes... yes, the Fall 2014 semester has begun! 
   Among the highlights this week has been the convocation address by North Park Theological Seminary's own Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies, Dr. Klyne Snodgrass. Wow! His address was part seminar, part sermon, and 100% inspiration. For those who are not aware, Klyne is going to retire officially from full-time teaching at North Park in Spring 2015. This is his last academic year, and so he was asked to address the incoming seminary class of 2014. His address was on "Truth and the Hermeneutics of Identity." You can watch his message here in the window below: 

If you fast forward to the 22:12 mark, you'll find Klyne moving from 1st gear to 5th and firing on all six pistons in a tremendous challenge to live according to the truth of God in a world of so many competing epistemologies. I think one of his most powerful statements is how our mental health is dependent on truth. Nothing will warp a person more than living according to a lie. 
   It saddens me to think that this is my last year with Klyne on faculty. He has been a mentor, colleague, and friend for the past 8 years (going on 9) since I first arrived at the seminary in 2006. I am grateful that I could share some of my best years of teaching at North Park with a person who not only speaks the truth with grace, but lives by it.
Nyvall Hall of North Park Theological Seminary
Photo taken by Max lee from the 2nd floor of
the new Johnson Center on the NPU campus

Friday, August 22, 2014

The 2014 Nils W. Lund Memorial Lectureship

Every year, North Park Theological Seminary not only holds the prestigious Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, but also sponsors the Lund Lectures which invites one Old Testament scholar and a New Testament scholar to speak on any number of themes which reflect the cutting edge research in biblical studies and are of contemporary interest today. This year, I am excited to hear a friend and senior colleague at Westmont College, Dr. Tremper Longman, speak on the subject of human sexuality and the Song of Songs (I've known Tremper for years since my one-year stint of teaching at Westmont back in 2002-3), as well as an influential figure in New Testament studies, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, speak on the subject of free and costly grace in Romans (I have not the pleasure of meeting Dr. Gaventa yet, but have heard her lecture on a number of occasions at SBL). Both will be fantastic, I'm sure! Here is a quick photo of the poster now being advertised throughout the North Park campus. 
By the way, thanks to the media department of the Evangelical Covenant Church, both days of the Lund Lectures will not only be video-recorded but also streamed live through the website. More details on how to watch the lectures live (and later as a recorded video) in the weeks to come.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Sting of Death according to Paul

In a previous post on common popular fears surrounding the afterlife (here), I commented on Virgil's depiction of Hades in the Aeneid and showed pictorially one anonymous artist's rendition of the three judges of Hades (Rhadamanthus, Midos, and Aeacus) preserved on an Apulian red-figure volute κρατήρ (= a wine diluter; ca. 330-32o BC). There we read a graphic description from Virgil, and we saw a graphic picture from the "Underworld Painter," of how the warden of hell, Rhadamanthus, ordered a fury to whip and torture those souls guilty of heinous crimes in their earthly life. This image of divine judgment and justice in the afterlife is an important point of cultural and religious engagement for understanding Paul's triumphant discourse in 1 Cor 15:55-57: 
  • Where, O Death (θάνατε), is your victory (τὸ νῖκος)? Where, O Death, is your sting (κέντρον)? 56 The sting of death (τὸ κέντρον τοῦ θανάτου) is sin (ἁμαρτία), and the power of sin (ἡ δύναμις τῆς ἁμαρτίας ) is the law (ὁ νόμος). But thanks be to God who gives to us victory through Jesus Christ our Lord!
This is a very packed set of verses. What does Paul mean by the sting of death? The Greek word for "sting" is κέντρον and can mean something like a venomous sting of a bee, wasp, or scorpion. But it can also refer to a sharp object or goad used to spur horses, oxen, or other beasts of burden. A photo of a κέντρον held in the hand of the charioteer is shown below and circled in yellow
Chariot Racing from a 510 BC Attic Hydria
The κέντρον or horse's goad (circled in yellow)
image credit: wikipedia commons
The κέντρον, as early as Herodotus (Histories 3.130), was also used to torture prisoners of war and criminals. It was a torturing device used punish the wicked (cf. Aristophanes, Wasps 403-407).
    In the mythic world of the Aeneid, it was the furies who held whips, goads, and other weapons to torture and punish wrong-doers. But in 1 Cor 15:55, Death itself holds the κέντρον. The vocative θάνατε personifies Death, and Paul taunts Death as the last enemy. Or, as Garland puts it, "does Paul picture death wielding a goad in its hand to rule over humans and torture them?" (Garland, 1Cor, p. 745). Is Death a military general, believing it has victory (τὸ νῖκος) at hand (because of Adam's fall), but only to find its victory stripped away, disarmed of its ability to torture and goad humanity any more, because of Christ's death and resurrection? Here is my interpretative translation of 1 Cor 15:55-57 once more:
  • Where, O Death, you last of the apocalyptic superpowers, is your victory? You were robbed of your victory by Christ's death and resurrection. Where, O Death, is your ability to torture and punish humanity? Where is your sting? 56 It used to be that Sin could torture, goad, and punish humanity as Death's ally. Sin is the sting which culminates in death. The Law gave sin its power and authority to accuse humanity for failing to observe the commandments. 57 But not any more! Thanks be to God who through the cross and resurrection of Christ removes the sting from death by providing forgiveness for sin and vindicates believers at the resurrection by overcoming their death with new life. 
Christ's resurrection is Paul's historical anchor and theological point of assurance that the triple threat of Death, Sin, and the Law (when it empowers sin to accuse) has been neutralized forever. Christ snatches victory from Death and hands victory instead to God's people. Where is your (σου) victory, O Death? I'll tell you where it went, says Paul. God gave it to us (ἡμῖν) through Jesus Christ our Lord. Wow! Can I get an "Amen!" from the congregation out there?!
   In my next post, I will compare the Philodemus text on the "sting" and "bite" of death with Paul's reference to death's goad here in 1 Cor 15. While it is possible that the lexemes τὸ νύττεσθαι and δηγμὸν used by Philodemus are synonymous with the way Paul employs the word κέντρον, there are also very clear differences. But for now, we can simply all be challenged by Paul's taunt against stingless Death and his unwavering confidence in what God had done through Christ. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Wake Up O Sleeper!

In my previous post on the grave reliefs depicting the agony of separation between the deceased and surviving family (here), I shared how many people in the Greco-Roman world grieved over the prospect of never seeing their loved ones ever again. In contrast to their grief and pain, Apostle Paul puts forth the hope of every Christian believer: 
  • 13 But we do not want for you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are sleeping (περὶ τῶν κοιμωμένων), so that you will not grieve as the rest (of the world) do, who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Christ died and was raised, and in the same way, God, through Jesus, will also bring with him (σὺν αὐτῷ) the ones who have fallen asleep (τοὺς κοιμηθέντας).... 17 Then we who remain living will be snatched up together with them (ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς) in the clouds for a meeting with the Lord in the air (1 Thess 4:13-14, 17)
There are many exegetical points to unpack in this short set of verses, but let me focus on just two related themes. The first is the metaphor which Paul uses for the believers who have died: i.e., they are sleeping (κοιμωμένων). For Paul, Easter Sunday means that Jesus conquered death's grip on our world. In the same way that God raised Jesus from the dead, Paul encourages the Thessalonian church that God will raise believers who have died to new life. Death is not final separation, but a temporary or interim state like sleep. God will raise Christ followers on the day of the resurrection. With a command-cry (ἐν κελεύσματι; v. 14), God will give this word to the dead: "Rise!" Or in the words of Eph. 5:14: "Wake up, O Sleeper! Rise from the dead and Christ will epiphany before you!" Christ will return to awaken those who have fallen asleep by the power of his word. 
   The Christian hope has always been that life, really living, does not end at the grave. Death is just a momentary interruption like a person taking a long nap. God will raise us up with a command of his word, and we will not only be united with Christ forever (σὺν αὐτῷ) but we will be united with each other (ἅμα σὺν αὐτοῖς). The resurrection is a reunion of Christian believers where we meet again with those whom we have left behind and those who have moved on ahead of us. It gives us hope that beyond the grave, believers in Christ have an eternity to catch up with one another in the life to come.
6th century AD Inscription
ΚΟΙΜΗΤΗΡΙΟΝ... ΑΙΓΙΑΡΙΟΥ (highlighted in blue)
 "The sleeping place... of a goatherder"
Photo by Max Lee ©  2014 Corinth Museum
In the above inscription, one of a few dozen that can be found in the Museum at Corinth, Greece, we have an example of a Christian grave marker. But instead of the word "tomb" or "memorial" (μνημεῖον), the term ΚΟΙΜΗΤΗΡΙΟΝ (κοιμητήριον) or "sleeping room" is used. By the 4-6th century AD, Christian believers wrote on their tombstones that the grave is but a sleep room, a temporary resting place, for those who have died in Christ and have the hope we will not only be reunited with Christ but with loved ones who have also believed.
   Eventually, the idiom of "sleeping place" (κοιμητήριον) will make it into the Byzantine Greek lexicon under the alternative spelling (κυμητήριον) and mean "burial place" or "tomb" as the following inscription shows: 
6th century AD inscription with the Byzantine spelling
ΚΥΜΗΤΗΡΙΟΝ (derived from κοιμητήριον) which means "burial place"

Photo by Max Lee ©  2014 Corinth Museum
   This past weekend, three generations of my family met together in Chicago: the grandparents, my younger brother, myself and our spouses, and my teenage sons and middle school nieces. As we get older, life can leave us with many regrets. But as Christian believers, we all have the hope that not only will the Lord make all that is wrong and crooked right at the resurrection, but we can all celebrate what God has done together and spend eternity catching up on time missed with one another and those we love. Maranatha!

Postscript 08/09/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) Go to the Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of the university library and learn more about the resurrection of the dead and how this doctrine is different from Greco-Roman ideas about the immortality of the soul. 3) Interpret 1 Thess. 4:13-18 drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding that the resurrection means more than resuscitation but an different state of bodily existence help you understand Paul’s message of hope in 1 Thess. 4:13-18? What happens to the soul in the interim period between the (physical) death (of the body) and the resurrection of believers at Christ’s return? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section. 

Minor Correction 08/16/14: I'm going to add a clarifying point. With the Christian grave inscriptions above (ca. 6-7th centuries AD), probably the semantic shift from the definition of κοιμητήριον as "sleeping room" to the meaning "burial place" had already taken place. You actually see both words κοιμητήριον (Koine spelling) and κυμητήριον (Byzantine spelling) used on a number of inscriptions from this time period (good examples are found at the Museum in Corinth, Greece). I'm not exactly sure when the semantic shift took place but we know that by Byzantine times, κοιμητήριον had come to mean "burial place" and its Koine definition of "sleeping place," along with its use by Christians on grave markers, was earlier. This note does not change any of the points I make above but simply clarifies the time stamp when the definition of "burial place" for κοιμητήριον enters into the Byzantine lexicon. MJL