Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Apocalyptic Paul and Divine Initiative

This past Thursday Sept. 25th, on the 2nd day of the 2014 Nils W. Lund Memorial Lectureship, Dr. Beverly Gaventa, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Baylor University,  gave two lectures on Paul's letter to the church at Rome. 
   In the first lecture, entitled "What Part of the Word "All" Don't We Understand?" Gaventa gives an apocalyptic reading of Romans, from beginning to end, highlighting points in the text where transformations (in life and the human condition) take place. Much in the spirit and exegetical legacy of Karl Barth, Ernst Κäsemann, and J. Louis Martyn (her doctoral supervisor), Gaventa emphasizes the essentiality of divine initiative, because the anti-God powers of Sin and Death have so thoroughly enslaved humanity that no amount of repentance will change the human condition. 
   Focusing on Romans 3, and seeing in Rom 5-8 a recapitulation of the same themes in Rom 1-3 but at a larger cosmic scale, in her own words, Gaventa offered this challenge: "The human problem is larger than that which can be handled by repentance and forgiveness. Slaves cannot repent their way out of slavery. They can only be liberated. Salvation is not about being forgiven but being delivered by God." 
   Gaventa then gives a really poignant illustration by comparing the sociological and psychological slavery of the child-soldier as an analogue to the kind of slavery experienced under the rule of Sin and Death. There is more to share, but I'll let you hear from Gaventa herself via the video link (below). 
Professor Beverly Gaventa delivering the first of two Lund Lectures
in Isaacson Chapel at North Park Theological Seminary
In the 2nd lecture, entitled "Free and Costly Grace," Gaventa caught me by surprise (in a good way!). Focusing on Rom 12, Gaventa argued that grace is free because Christ died for all (5:18; 8:32), but it is costly because having been liberated, the Christian worships God by becoming a "living sacrifice" (12:1). There is nothing easy or trite about worship. Genuine worship is returning to God what is God's. There is no limit to God’s claim on us. Worship leads to ethical living. 
   I thought this was a very powerful challenge to the church, and I deeply appreciated the prophetic call back to true worship that honors God where I don't throw my money into the coffers but instead "throw my whole body into the offering plate" (her words, not mine). 
   I did walk away with some questions, however, namely what role does human response to divine initiative have in Paul's soteriological scheme. In Gaventa's explanation, faith as trust does not appear to be a response that gets one into salvation. Faith is not an entry point. God saves all, but people have not heard about this good news yet. When they hear, and believe what they hear, they worship God for what he has done. And even here faith is a gift, not a human work. So the element of volition or choice plays a minimum role in this reading of an apocalyptic Paul. It's hard for me to think about faith as trust without including an element of volition or choice, though I would not reduce faith to just choice or cognitive assent. Faith is much more. 
   In any case, all I can say is: wow! Fantastic lecture and pastoral challenge! So grateful that Dr. Gaventa was here at North Park to share her work and words with us. To listen to her 2nd lecture yourself, again, see the video links below. Blessings!

Lecture 1: Jump to 3:55 to skip the introductions: 

Lecture 2: Video begins immediately with the lecture: 

Friday, September 26, 2014

The 2014 Lund Lecture Kicks Off with the Song of Songs and Human Intimacy

On Wednesday Sept. 24, the 2014 Nils W. Lund Lectureship launched with an excellent set of lectures from Dr. Tremper Longman III, the Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies, at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif. 
   The first lecture, entitled: "Celebration and Warning: Sexual Intimacy in the Song of Songs," was a brilliant summary on the history of interpretation on the Song of Songs, where he demonstrated that the allegorical interpretation of the Song was quite late, beginning with Jewish interpreters like Rabbi Akiba (c.a. AD 100), continued through the Targum traditions (Song of Songs 1:2-4), and was popularized in Christian discourse by Hippolytus, Origen, Jerome, Bernard of Clairvaux and medieval interpreters.  He gave some hilarious examples of Christian allegorical readings: e.g., Hippolytus (AD 200) read the verse "My lover is to me a sachet of myrrh lodging between my breasts" (1:13) as meaning the beloved is the Bride of Christ, the church, and each breast represents the Old Testament on one side, and the New Testament on the other. 
    Some warnings from both Jewish and Christian traditions were poignant. Rabbi Akiba, for instance, stated that anyone who treats the Song of Songs, not as an allegory of God's love for Israel, but as a cheap love ballad to be sung in banquet halls "has no share in the world to come!" A literal reading damns the reader to hell! But read as an allegory, the Song of Songs becomes "the Holy of Holies." 
    The Westminster Assembly apparently warned that a literal reading likens the Song of Songs to "a hot carnal pamphlet formed by some loose Apollo or Cupid" rather than the beautiful story of the Bridegroom's (Christ's) unrelenting love for the Bride (the church). 
    Longman takes to task the allegorical reading and argues that the Song of Songs is not a plot-driven story but a collection of love songs, an anthology, which nevertheless has a collective literary and theological coherence. The Song is about human intimacy and sensuality, and more importantly how they might reflect the image of God. Longman ends the first lecture with some, in his words, "R-rated" translations of the Song (vs. his older, collaborative PG-13 translation with the New Living Translation committee), including Song of Songs 4:1-5:1. I'll let you hear him give the R-rated version via video link (below). As one audience member said: "The man did not blush!" when translating the Hebrew, all of which can also be found in his Song of Solomon commentary with NICOT. 
The 2nd lecture was entitled: "God Loves Sex: A Theological Reading of the Song of Songs." Again, you can listen to his lecture directly (link below) but by way of summary Longman talked about relational brokenness, healthy sexual expressions in a marriage context as well as deviant ones, and attempts to outline a biblical theology of human sexuality in dialogue with the rest of the Christian canon. It was a great way to kick-off the Lund lectureship and the Symposium on the Theological Reading of Scripture.
Prof. Longman chatting with North Park seminarians
at the end of the Lund Lectureship
For links to video recordings of the lectures, please see the following: 

Lecture 1: Jump to 6:09 to skip the introductions:

Lecture 2: Jump to 1:17 to skip the introductions: 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ancient Traveling or the War Machine: Vote!

Bronze Corinthian helmet (ca. 5th cent. BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Museum of Corinth
Here are a couple of announcements for this blog:
  1. Throughout the week, I'll be posting on the Lund Lectureship and the North Park Symposium on the Theological Reading of Scripture (click for details). Especially if there are papers and lectures on the topic of Paul, his gospel, and theology, I will definitely make comments and provide links to video for anyone who wishes to hear the lectures themselves. The papers for the symposium will not be recorded (correction! there might be live-streaming for the papers and responses: here) but they will be published in the next issue of Ex Auditu and you can get a summary and review of some papers from my posts throughout this week. 
  2. Want to have a say on the next set of topics I pursue on this blog? I'll be taking a vote throughout the week of the Symposium. I was thinking of starting a series of blog posts on either the topic of ancient traveling (by foot, sea, etc.) or military warfare or it can be something else if anyone has a good suggestion. Which topic are you interested in? To vote, become a subscriber to this blog. Look to the left of this page and click the button "Join this site" under the heading "Followers." You can sign up using a google, yahoo, twitter, and other accounts. Then reply to this post indicating what topic you would like this blog to pursue. Vote: ancient traveling, military warfare, or other (name the topic). Also, it would be great if you gave a quick intro and let me know who you are and your own interests in the ancient world or anything Apostle Paul (but this is optional). That's it! I'll let people know of the results next week. 
Hope to hear from the many anonymous readers of this blog out there in the world-wide web! Blessings!
The Antikythera Mechanism used to navigate sea-waters
Photo taken by Max Lee© 2014 Athens Museum

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.