Friday, July 25, 2014

Preview of Fire in My Soul: Essays in Honor of Seyoon Kim

At the request of Wipf & Stock, I am dedicating a post on the newly published Festschrift entitled: Fire in My Soul: Essays on Pauline Soteriology and the Gospels in Honor of Seyoon Kim. Here is a fantastic ad and flyer that W&S put together to showcase the book: 
Click here to order a print edition at Wipf & Stock online
I was a part of the editorial team who helped plan and prepare the festschrift for publication. It is a wonderful collection of essays in honor of a truly great scholar and person of Christian integrity, Dr. Seyoon Kim, Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, now retired from full-time teaching and re-writing F.F. Bruce's commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians for the Word Biblical Commentary series into a new (sure to be a game-changing!) volume (see a preview here). 
   Let me highlight just some of the essays. First up are my own two essays which I hope to turn later into chapters for my next monograph after the WUNT manuscript is complete under the same title: Greek Words and Roman Meanings. Anyone familiar with David Hill's classic book on righteousness language in the New Testament can see from my title the appreciative nod I give to his 1967 book Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings. In his work, Hill argues that the Greek words δικαιοσύνη, δικαιόω, and their cognates function as linguistic shells for the Hebrew words tsedeq(ah)/tsadaq. But I argue in my essays that Greek words do not have Hebrew meanings, but (Greco-)Roman ones as part of the common (Κοινή) vernacular of Paul's day. To make a long story short, I have remapped the lexicon on righteousness language so Septuagintal influences on the definitions have been removed. In this way, when we examine Septuagintal echoes in Paul concerning his language of justification, we have a starting or reference point by which to gauge the strength of an OT echo and how much it extends or changes the semantics of the δικ(αιο)- word group as it was commonly employed in the every day discourse of the Greco-Roman world.
   If we look at the key players in the current debates on justification (e.g., N.T. Wright, Douglas Campbell, Michael Gorman, Michael Bird, Douglas Moo, and others), all these scholars attribute a unique definition of "righteousness" to Paul based on a different set of OT texts to which they think Paul refers in his letters. I argue that the more "unique" Paul's use of righteousness language is from their typical 
Κοινή usages, the greater burden is placed on the NT scholar to prove that the supposed OT echo is there in the Pauline text, and the echo changes the meaning of  the δικ(αιο)- word group in the way they think it does. I've discovered, for example, that forensic language in Paul need not have to appeal to the LXX for its source material but there are numerous Greco-Roman juridicial texts which provide working definitions for how Paul used righteousness/justification language in his letters.
   But enough about my essays, here are some other gems. In Chapter 6 (The Internal Integrative Motive Running through 2 Cor 11:23-12:10), Brian Kim argues that the opponents of Paul in 2 Corinthians take OT traditions concerning the false prophet and use these traditions to accuse Paul of being a false apostle. Paul, however, takes this moment to reflect on what does it mean to be an apostle of Christ? He takes his opponent's accusation that physical illness is a sign of God's judgment against a false prophet and turns it into a theology of weakness which identifies an authentic apostle. 
   In Chapter 7 (Matthew's Use of the Septuagint and its Implications), Jin Hwang (a fellow editor) has studied Philo's practice of quoting Scripture as an analogue for how Matthew employs OT echoes in his gospel. Hwang not only offers a comprehensive analysis of Matthew's use of the Septuagint but also demonstrates that Matthew's citation practices align well with the methods of other Hellenistic Jews like Philo. Hwang also provocatively suggests Matthew's audience might be Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora who would appreciate the transliteration of Hebrew/Aramaic words. 
  One last example. In Chapter 15 (Methodological Similarity between Xunguxue and Biblical Exegesis), Hyeon Woo Shin offers a comparative study of the gospel genre with the long-standing history of critical exegesis in China called Xunguxue. Shin argues that the rhetorical devices used by the gospel writers might find better analogues in Chinese exegetical practices (e.g., huwen, or synonymous parallelism; hexu, or word order; and even hermeneutical principles as "scripture interpreting scripture") than Western literary models. Shin's essay helps illustrate how one methodological approach can serve as a comparative foil for another to reveal the strengths and weakness of each. 
   I hope you get a chance to pick up the volume and read the rest of the essays. Many thanks again to all the contributors and staff at W&S for all their hard work. Soli Deo gloria!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Philodemus on Removing the Sting and Bite of Death

I'm posting a bit later than I had planned. The family and I went out of town over the weekend to show our support to my youngest son as he competed at a major chess tournament. It was a nice diversion for us, though he did not do as well as we had hoped (our delusions of grandeur were crushed after the 1st round!), but back to the subject on hand. 
   Now that I have mapped out a range of mainstream beliefs, fears, and superstitions surrounding the afterlife in the Greco-Roman world (here), this would be a good place to introduce what some of the popular philosophers of Paul's day had to say about conquering our fear of death. The Epicureans, by far, had the boldest of claims. In Key Doctrines 2, Epicurus makes a statement which will become epigrammatic for generations to come among his followers: 
  • Death can do nothing to us (ὁ θανατος οὐδεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς), for a dissolved thing cannot sense anything, and anything which cannot sense also cannot do anything to us. 
The Epicureans believed in a material soul and that the soul could not survive long without the body. At death, the soul seeps out of the pores of the body and dissolves into nothingness as the body, too, dissolves when it decays in the grave (Philodemus, On Death IV, 8.7-29).* There is no eternal afterlife, and there is nothing to fear after death because we simply cease to exist. There is neither pain or pleasure, but a just a gentle release from life. So death is nothing to be afraid of. 
   But what about before death? Is not most of our anxiety about death experienced when we start to think about what we might lose at death, or when death is near and we are about to step over the edge of life with our last breath? 
   A Greco-Roman Epicurean by the name of Philodemus (ca. 110-40 B.C.), whose works were carbonized and preserved following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 at an ancient library in Herculaneum, Italy, devoted an entire treatise (of which we only have Book 4) on how to die well and without fear of what might happen afterwards.
Click here for an affordable paperback edition
* Excerpts taken from this edition by W. Benjamin Henry
Philodemus explains, for example, that "it is natural for such a person to be stung" (διότι φυσικὸν μὲν τὸ νύττεσθαι τὸν τοιοῦτον) by death (On Death IV, 16.5-7), and death has "a most natural bite"(φυσικώτατον δηγμὸν) that produces tears even in the most sensible person (25.7-13).* But what turns a natural reaction to death into an unmanageable great sorrow (μεγάλην... λύπην; 25.11-12)* is the attachment of untrue, false, superstitious, and unwarranted ideas to the natural impulse.
   So much of the Epicurean program for soul-therapy (a term popularized by Nussbaum's study on ancient philosophy entitled The Therapy of Desire) for mastering fear and other emotions (like anger or lust) involves cutting off the false or empty opinions (δοξῶν) we attach to a natural impulse (τὴν φυσικὴν ὁρμήν16.4-8).* 
   Philodemus gives us several examples. The cure for fearing that my sudden death will leave behind my wife and children in dire straits is to recognize the false opinion that their livelihood depends on my continued existence and to provide for them a competent patron or guardian who will care for them if I were to die suddenly (25.2-36). 
   Or, a beginning student of philosophy who dies before she can reach perfection need not be pained by the wrong idea that all her time studying philosophy was wasted but take comfort that her efforts towards perfection could leave behind an inspiring example for others (17.32-18.14).
   Philodemus goes on to give many more examples, but they all have a common theme: a person removes the fear of death by dissociating from it the wrong beliefs or ideas which fuel our deepest anxieties. This therapeutic program was, for the philosopher, the best way to die well and die with courage.
   Now as a historian, I pass no judgment on Epicurean teachings. Philodemus (and fellow Greco-Roman Epicurean philosophers like Lucretius and Diogenes of Oenoanda) provided a rational way of dealing with the pathos associate with death. Certainly there is truth to the proposition that human beings often attach to natural reactions all sorts of unreasonable, far-fetched, and even complicated "what if" scenarios that only function to fuel our stress. 
   However, existentially and personally, I cannot help but feel the Epicurean program for soul-therapy is still poor medicine. Am I really OK if my life is cut short and ceases to exist before I could finish my studies? You mean I dragged my poor wife and kids through the vicissitudes of a Ph.D. program and died suddenly before I could graduate with my degree?! (I actually had a near-death experience on the Pasadena highway on the way to the Fuller Theological Seminary campus to turn in my finished dissertation!... but that's a different story for another day).
   What if I did not plan for my sudden death? What happens to my wife and kids after I'm gone? Philodemus' advice only seems to work if you take the time to plan out and anticipate your death. It feels like an ancient form of buying life insurance. Yes, you'll be dead but at least your family will be taken care of. Hmmm... is this enough?
   Next post: Paul. Let's see what the apostle to the Thessalonians and Corinthians has to say on the subject of death and its sting.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Popular Fear and Dread of the Afterlife

Apulian red-figure volute κρατήρ by"Underworld Painter" (330-320 BC)
Photo from Staatliche Antikensammlungen Museum, Munich, Germany
Image credit:
Before I can post on philosophical criticisms lodged against fearing death, I need to outline what those fears were. As illustrated in the last post, the Attic grave reliefs showed how people feared the finality of separation which death brought. Death meant we never saw our loved ones again. In Apuleius' The Golden Ass, the young woman Psyche is warned: 

  • Poor girl, why do you seek to put an end to yourself?... Once your spirit is torn asunder from your body, you will certainly plummet to the depths of Tartarus without the possibility of a return journey (VI.17; Eng. trans. modified from López-Ruiz, p. 531)* 
But there were other reasons to fear death. The most widespread fear was the torture and punishment which awaited those who commit crimes and harmed others. Justice and judgment was something which awaited all. 
Close-up of the same Apulian κρατήρ highlighting the 3 judges of Hades:
Rhadamanthus, Minos, and Aeacus
image credit:
Virgil, in the Aeneid (Bk VI), describes this hell-bent punishment when he chronicles the journey of Aeneas through the underworld. Aeneas meets one of the Furies in Hades who explained to him "how the gods punish wrongs" and "took him through the whole [punishment] system" (line 565). The fury explains: 
  • This is hell's toughest regime: Rhadamanthus, its warden from Knossos, punishes, hears accusations of treachery, forces confession.... Vengeance is swift on the guilty: Tisiphone [another fury], armed with her lashes, leaps up to whip them herself, thrusts her left hand, teeming with angry snakes, at their faces, then calls in her armies of merciless sisters (lines 566-72; Eng. trans. from López-Ruiz, p. 516) *
Close-up of the Apulian κρατήρ highlighting a fury whipping the soul of Sisyphus
image credit:
Scary! Who wants to be whipped and beatened by an angry demi-goddess forever and ever?!
   There was also the danger of losing oneself. The mystery cults tried to offer some guidance on how not to forget one's past life when entering the afterlife. One of the most terrifying experiences was the loss of memory in Hades. Lose your memory, you lose yourself. The mystery cults claimed to offer the wisdom to guide the soul so this would not happen. 
   In the Golden Tablets (from Hipponium, No. 2, lines 1-14), an Orphic oracle advises: 

  • When you are about to die, (going) to the well-built house of Hades, to the right there is a spring, and next to it stands a white cypress. Going down there, the souls of the dead refresh themselves. Don't come close to this spring, not even near it! But further ahead you will find cold water pouring forth from the Lake of Memory... drink from the Lake of Memory... (Eng. trans. from López-Ruiz, p. 491) *

Apparently there were two bodies of water in the underworld. One causes you to forget who you are, everything about yourself, and your past earthly life (avoid this one!), and the other allows one to restore or keep one's memory (drink here!). Orphism and the Greek mystery cults claimed to provide the wisdom and guidance to choose the latter, not the former. Whether their claims are true or not (and I suspect it's not!), the point is that the loss of self was something terrifying.
   Death's sting was the terror brought on by eternal punishment, the final separation from loved ones, and the loss of self. No wonder the average ancient citizen of the wider Mediterranean world thought the afterlife was nothing to look forward to. Philodemus and other philosophers, however, will try to mitigate popular fear. In the next post, we'll see what kind of hope they offered, and then after that, we'll turn to Paul and the funeral inscriptions of some early Christians from the 1st four centuries AD.

* Here's a great resource from which I drew my English translation of several Greek/Latin texts: Carolina López-Ruiz, ed. and trans. Gods, Heroes and Monsters: A Sourcebook of Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern Myths in Translation (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Death's Despair and Despondency

The post on writing well was a fun literary get-away, but my "official" July kickstarter is on everyone's not-so-favorite but inescapable subject: death. I'm reading Philodemus' On Death (Book 4) and so the subject has been on my mind, especially the theme of how a person can manage grief well.
  • When we finish (our earthly lives), we will have many good people be grief-stricken (λυπησομένους τε πολλοὺς καὶ ἀγαθοὺς ἕξομεν τελευτησαντες -- Philodemus, On Death IV.21.12-13) * 
   One of the most moving set of reliefs that I saw at the Athens Museum was a section devoted to ancient views of the afterlife and the sheer despair surrounding the untimely death of a loved one. The following set of photos taken from these funeral reliefs revolve around the theme of how death separates a person from family and friends. 
A baby reaching desperately for his mother Phylonoe
the latter of whom died during childbirth (ca. 4th cent. BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum
In this first photo, notice how the surviving baby (center) desperately stretches out his hand for his mother who recently died (right), most likely during childbirth. The mother's name ΦΥΛΟΝΟΗ (transliterated Phylonoe) was etched in an epigram carved above in the epistyle (unshown). Another woman (left), possibly a relative, holds back the baby. It is a vivid portrait of how final death is, and how permanent the separation between the deceased and those who live on. Hopelessness reigns.
   Here is another photo, but this time it is a young man saying goodbye to his deceased elderly father ΠΑΝΑΙΤΙΟΣ (transliterated Panaitios): 
A young man bids farewell to his deceased father Panaitios (ca. 4th cent. BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum
Notice the same theme of reaching out to one's beloved with outstretched hands is repeated here. The son, a soldier, is saying his goodbye to the father who likely died when the son went off to war. Sadly the father never experienced his son's homecoming or heard of his exploits on the battlefield.
   Finally, in this last photo (note: there were many more at the museum but these three were the only photos I took.... should have taken more!), we get an image of the afterlife:
The god Hermes (center) leads a deceased daughter Myrrhine (right) to Hades
with her father and relatives (left) looking onward helplessly (ca. 420-10 BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum
This engravement was found on a column, and features the god Hermes Psychopompos leading a deceased daughter to Hades. In this photo, you can see the name of the young woman clearly to the right above her head: ΜΥΡΡΙΝΗ (transliterated as Myrrhine). Members of the funeral entourage are to the left of the representation and feature the father and relatives trying to save their daughter. However, Hermes intervenes, grabs the young lady's hand, and there is simply no way for the family to stop Myrrhine's journey to the afterlife. Everyone is helpless in the face of death. Hermes' central and dramatic presence highlights the inevitable descent of Myrrhine to Hades and the helplessness of the family to stop it.
   In the next couple of posts, I will explore ancient views of death and how those in the world of Paul managed their grief. Philosophers such as Philodemus try to lessen death's sting or bite by reason, but we shall see that for the most part, wisdom is poor medicine for the despair and despondency of death. Paul's gospel, however, offers deliverance and hope. 

* Greek text from taken from Philodemus, On Death (ed. by W. Benjamin Henry; SBLWGRW 29), p. 48; Eng. trans., however, is my own. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Craft of Writing Well and Changing My Mind about the King James Bible (well, sort of...)

In a past life, back as a college student at the University of California, Berkeley (go Bears!), I spent my morning hours at Cafe Strada, sipping my latte with marshmellow-thick foam, and read, read, read. I was an English major and stayed one until graduation. So I always have an eye out on how literature might possibly intersect with anything I do as a New Testament scholar and theological educator.
    So, I discovered from Alan Jacobs the following testimony from debut writer Sarah Perry (author of the favorably reviewed After Me Comes the Flood) on how her Christian upbringing and commitment to the classics (including the King James Version of the Bible) made her a better writer. 
Here is a link to the guardian article by
 Sarah Perry on how the KJV and the classics made her a better writer
What caught my eye was her playful snub at modern works (I'm thinking: Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and all the dystopian novels that my teenage sons currently like to read) because the writing, style, prose and poetry of Brontë, Austen, Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Bunyan and a host of others were just so much better. After mentioning how she memorized Tennyson and kept Sherlock Holmes beside her pillow, she has these poignant remarks on the elegance and lyric prose of the King James translation:
  • Above all – committed to memory, read aloud at mealtimes and prettily framed on the dining-room wall – was the King James Bible. It was as constant as the air, and felt just as necessary, and I think I know its cadences as well as my own voice. The effect on my writing has been profound, and inescapable: I soaked it all up, and now I'm wringing it out. My obsession with rhythm and beauty comes, I'm sure, from memorising the King James Bible's peerless prose, and having grown up in the shade of sin and the light of redemption I suppose it's no surprise that my debut novel After Me Comes the Flood has been called uncanny, sinister, strange (though I never intended to write that way – it's just how my eyes were put in)...
In an earlier day, when I first starting teaching my Greek exegesis class, I used to criticize the KJV for its reliance on an inferior manuscript tradition (Textus Receptus) which made the dubious longer ending of Mark 16 part of its text, or the longer confession of the Ethiopian eunuch a part of the Acts 8 narrative.
   Though I have not changed my mind about the text-critical problems of the KJV, I do agree with Sarah Perry wholeheartedly about the beauty and literary elegance of the King James Bible. We ain't writing half as good as the team of English translators of the KJV (pardon my slang). Though the KJV reflects bad Greek (manuscripts), it is excellent English. One only has to read the Psalms in KJV and compare it to the modern translations of the NIV, ESV or NRSV, and while the latter reads like prose, the former sails in the winds of poetry.
   And for the parents out there, this article is greater ammunition to get your kids to read and read well. I had my youngest son read this commentary by Perry. Now he's reading Orwell's 1984 and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 to see how the current fad of dystopian novels was fathered by an earlier and greater generation of writers. Ad Fontes!