Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ministry Can Be More Brutal than Boxing

Continuing from my last post on Lucillius' epigrams satirizing the viciousness of ancient boxing, I turn to 1 Cor 9:24-27 where Paul makes an explicit comparison of the athlete (runner, boxer) with the challenges of Christian life and ministry. 
Ancient Wrestling (grave relief; 510BC)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014 Athens Museum 
  This athletic illustration is actually the 2nd used by Paul as part of his ongoing exhortation that the Corinthians give up their rights (to eat idol food) and express their freedom by loving their fellow brothers and sisters in the church. In 9:1-23, Paul uses himself as an example by explaining how he gave up his apostolic rights to receive material support so that he could present the gospel "free of charge" to the Corinthians. In 9:24-27, Paul appeals to the example of competitive Greco-Roman sports to talk about the self-control (ἐγκράτεια) and discipline needed to deny one's desires. In 10:1-13, Paul turns to the wilderness generation of Israel's exodus to warn the Corinthians against the consequences of letting wrong desire and idolatry spiral out of control (Thiselton, 1Cor, 708-9). Concerning the 2nd athletic metaphor, I cite my translation of the text again and highlight two exegetical points:

Do you not know that in the stadium (σταδίῳ) all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run in this way that you may receive it. 25 Every competitor/athlete (ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος) exercises self-control over all things (πάντα ἐγκρατεύεται); they do this to receive a perishable wreath (στέφανον), but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box (πυκτεύω) as though beating the air; 27 but I beat my body (ὑπωπιάζω μου τὸ σῶμα) and enslave it (δουλαγωγῶ), so that after I proclaim (κηρύξας) [the gospel] to others, I myself shall not become disqualified.
  1. Paul remaps the violence done to one's opponent to himself, literally to his own body (μου τὸ σῶμα). Pardon the pun, but the verbs he uses to illustrate self-control are "striking": "beat" (ὑπωπιάζω), "enslave/subdue" (δουλαγωγῶ), "box" (πυκτεύω) and "struggle against" (ἀγωνίζομαι). 
  2. Paul remaps the temporary honor and glory received by the victor on behalf of his city (symbolized by the perishable wreath στέφανον), to the eternal honor and glory of the Christian (symbolized by an imperishable wreath) who receives his/her recognition from God, and it is this God and his gospel which are proclaimed (κηρύξας). 

   Concerning the 1st point: We are our own worst enemy.  Me, myself and I constantly get in the way of loving the other person. At the core, we don't want to love, we don't want to sacrifice, we don't want to give up our rights but guard them violently. People can be such blackholes of ingratitude (i.e., they receive what we give, suck it up like a blackhole, and not reciprocate anything in return, let alone any thanks). So why deny ourselves and go the extra mile to love them? But paradoxically, Paul not only insists that we do, but he considers the practice of denying our appetite and especially our ego as the greatest expression of Christian freedom. To do this, God has to suspend the grip and gravity of sin and enable the Christian athlete to struggle against his/her own selfish impulses, beat them into submission, and pursue a different course other than self-preservation: that is, sacrificial love and service. Ministry can be more brutal than boxing, because we have to constantly fight against our own resistance to serve.
   Concerning the 2nd point: for whom do we run and for what do we box? Hopefully, at the end of the day, even if the other person never responds to our relinquishing of rights for their sake, the glory will go to the Lord Jesus Christ because of how we struggled, both against ourselves and for the service of others. If I run for myself, I'll burn out. Run for Christ, and He acknowledges and sustains me.

Postscript: The above photo of a grave relief (probably of a famous athlete) was taken at the Athens museum during my Greece trip this past January 2014. In the center, two athletes are wrestling with one another. The left wrestler is ready to jump into the fray, and the right person is preparing the pit where the match takes place. Yes, they are naked, and athletes did complete this way during the classical period from which this relief comes (ca. 510 BC).

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Brutality of Boxing in the Greco-Roman World

I'm reading through some ancient Greek and Latin epigrams from the Roman period for fun as a way to treat myself after an intense week of grading. Some of them are really humorous, since many epigrams are parodies of various cultural features of Greco-Roman life. The English translation I'm reading is by Gordon Fain in his Ancient Greek Epigrams (201o). The Greek text varies, but most is translated from Anthologia Palatina
    I wanted to share something from Lucillius, 1st century AD court poet commissioned by Emperor Nero, who has some vivid descriptions of the brutality of boxing in the ancient world in some of his satirical poems which poke fun at ancient athleticism. Here are two that deserve a closer look (with key words in Greek highlighted in blue; where I modified Fain's translation in green

Epigram 1 (= AP 11.81)
At all the contests (ἀγωνοθετοῦσιν) where Greeks appear, 
I fought (ἀγωνισάμαν) Androleos at every one
My prize at Pisa was to save one ear
At Plataia, one eyelid is what I've won.

At Delphi, I was carried out as dead
My father with citizens (ὁ πατὴρ σὺν πολιήταις)
    were proclaimed (καρύσεττο),
And told to lift me up so I'd be led
Out of the stadium (σταδίων), a corpse or maimed

Epigram 2 (= AP 11.75)

This man Olympikos whom now you see, 
Augustus [= Nero], had a nose,
Chin, forehead, ears and eyelids, then he
A boxer's (πύκτης) calling he chose

And lost them all, so his birthright, too, 
He couldn't even claim;
His brother put his portrait up to view:
The court said, "Not the same!"
(Eng. trans. by Fain, Ancient Greek Epigrams, p. 212)

Greco-Roman boxing could send you home dead or crippled for life, to say the least. No gloves, and bare-fisted, these ancient athletes make modern MMA fighters look like wimps. 
   In the first epigram, Lucillius jokes that the real prize for a boxer is walking away saving one of two ears, or an eyelid. In the 2nd, Lucillius explains to Nero that one boxer Olympikos was so maimed, he became unrecognizable. He could not claim his inheritance because his mutilated face was nothing like the portrait his brother brought to court. The court did not think the boxer vs. the heir in the painting were the same. 
   But what is particularly striking is the irony of the 1st epigram. Boxers fought not for their own honor but for the praise and glory of the city they represented. While the father and citizens of one city lifted up the winning boxer in victory and paraded him around the stadium, the winner ironically looked more like a corpse than a victor. 
   In my next post, I want to look at Paul's famous comparison of the ancient runner, boxer, and athlete with the Christian minister in 1 Cor 9:24-27. May be you can make some insights of your own as you look at what key phrases are parallel with the epigrams above: 

Do you not know that in the stadium (σταδίῳ) all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run in this way that you may receive it. 25 Every competitor/athlete (ὁ ἀγωνιζόμενος) exercises self-control over all things; they do this to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box (πυκτεύω) as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after I proclaim (κηρύξας) [the gospel] to others, I myself shall not become disqualified.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Haiku on Grading

Exams crush my soul
I ponder my nothingness
wearied by wry words

Definition of a haiku: 1. a Japanese short poem consisting of 3 verses with a literary structure of a 5 syllable line + 7 syllable line +  5 syllable line (= 17 on); 2. a way for a frustrated teacher to lament the stack of papers and final exams that still need to be graded

I hope to start blogging again after I turn in my Spring semester grades. Stay tuned! 

PostScript edit: I changed the last line of the original haiku to make it cohere and end better.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Koiné Greek Music Videos

Theater Mask (ca. 2nd century BC; Athens Museum)
Photo taken by Max Lee © 2014
It is probably the most miserable time of the semester for me. I just finished giving my last set of final exams and now have stacks of papers to grade, exams to read, essays to assess, student Greek translations to decipher. PTL for an endless supply of coffee, red bull, and chocolate-covered expresso beans to keep me going!
   But a touch of humor is also always welcome (and hence the photo above of a relief featuring a comic mask from the 2nd century BC, taken during my visit to the Athens Museum). Thanks to James McGrath over at Patheos (whom I got to know back when we were both part of the steering committee for the Intertextuality and New Testament Interpretation Section at SBL) for cluing me to the following Koiné Greek music video
   It looks like a group of students in the classical studies department at the University of Auckland decided to dress in togas and sing a Koiné version of "Let It Go!" from the Disney animated hit film Frozen. The nice part is that the music video has Karoake-style subtitles at the bottom of the screen so you can follow along in Greek. It's the Erasmian pronunciation too (as far as I can tell!) and it's a great way to introduce students to Koiné Greek outside of the New Testament (though there is an overlap in the vocabulary). Here it is (below): 

   This video also reminded me of an older musical tribute (called "All Things Are Better in Koiné"by a band of Biola University students working through their beginning Greek classes. It's still one of my favorite music videos (Greek-teaching wise) and you can watch it here:
 Enjoy! Now back to grading... 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Grace and Gift according to Professor John Barclay of Durham University

There are others who take much better advantage of educational videos and lectures on youtube than I do. However, every now and then, I do stumble across a lectureship series by Tom Wright or other New Testament scholars that catch my attention. The biblioblogosphere has made several mentions of Prof. John Barclay's highly anticipated two-volume magnum opus on "Grace and Gift in Paul's Thought" (I have yet to see the definitive title for the work to be published by Eerdmans). 
   I had the pleasure of visiting Durham University back in 2010 for post-doctoral work, and Prof. Barclay was my patron and supervisor for a project on Philo of Alexandria (funded by the Lilly Theological Scholars Grant). Though my stay was short, I learned a great deal from him, Prof. Francis Watson, and Prof. Walter Moberly and am forever grateful for the warm welcome I received and the insights I was able to glean as I studied, wrote, and presented my work to them and others at the NT Seminar held by Durham's Department of Religion and Theology. 
photo credit:
Needless to say, when I heard that John recently gave a lecture summarizing some of the basic tenets of his work on χάρις (translated as either "gift" or "grace"), I "youtubed" it (is this a verb?) and enjoyed the lecture thoroughly. His basic tenet: we in a North American and European context often associate with grace false/wrong/distorted notions on how gift-exchange operates. 
   Barclay attempts to outline a more nuanced understanding of how in the ancient world the complex relationships between giver, gift, and receiver operated from which Paul drew his own description of salvation as a divine gift to believers. The youtube link to the video is below:

   Quick highlights: after a fairly thorough explanation of his methodological (social-scientific) approach to understanding how gift exchanged worked in the wider Greco-Roman world, starting at 34:08 into the video, he explains the core of his argument: What constitutes the perfection of grace? Grace or gift has six common perfections or ideal components by which an ancient giver and receiver can measure the quality of the gift. 
  1. Superabundance: the scale or size of the gift: The larger the gift, the more important the gift is.
  2. Priority: manner in which the gift is given: the gift-giving is initiated by the giver without having received a previous gift from the recipient
  3. Singularitymotivations behind the gift: the goodness / benevolence of the giver is what motivates him/her to give the gift.
  4. Incongruency: relationship between the recipient and gift-giver: the more undeserved the gift is, the more perfect the gift. Or, in other words, this category focuses on the unworthiness of the receiver
  5. Efficacy: goal of the gift-exchange: that gift accomplishes what the giver has set out to do for the receiver
  6. Non-Circularity: the response of the receiver: this category does not mean that there are not expectations made of the recipient. This category means that no material response, or gift of equal value, was expected from the recipient. However, there were non-material expectations. Often this meant the loyalty of the recipient to the giver.
What do we mean by "unconditional gift" or "pure grace" depends on the interpreter. The challenge, then, is to de-aggregate the umbrella category of gift into its constituent parts so we can identify the particular emphases of a given interpreter. Barclay argues that the great 16th century German reformer, Martin Luther, focused on the feature of non-circularity: that is, God's grace is freely given to the believer without any expectation of receiving back anything from the recipient. It is arguably Luther's emphasis on free grace as non-circularity which has dominated Protestant views of justification, especially those from the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.
    Barclay provocatively insists, however, that Paul's emphasis lies elsewhere. Paul focuses on the incongruity of grace rather than the non-circularity. In fact, Paul expects the believer to respond to grace in concrete ways. Paul, for example, expected the Corinthians to participate in the offering to Jerusalem as a response to their having received God's grace (2 Cor 8:1-14). 
    Here, I break from Barclay to offer my own thoughts and reflections on this initial presentation. I, for one, never thought of grace as being "free" in the modern sense of the word. To me, this is just "cheap grace" to quote Bonhoeffer. Grace is costly. We can never earn salvation so it always remains a gift. But the response to the incongruity of the gift should be complete surrender. Faith is an absolute trust in God that is costly, not cheap. 
    If Barclay is correct in arguing that the Lutheran/Reformed emphasis of grace as non-circularity is incorrect, and this is not what Paul has in mind when the apostle talked about salvation as a gift (Rom 3:24 δικαιούμενοι δωρεὰν τῇ αὐτοῦ χάριτι), then Barclay has done us a great service in helping us to understand the particular emphases of gift language used by Paul. He has given us tools by which to evaluate past interpreters of Paul as well. I wonder how many Pauline interpreters have attributed to Paul a feature of gift-exchange that Paul himself did not emphasize. 
   Of course, we all have to read Barclay's work to see if he is correct in positing that Paul's focus was on incongruity (vs. non-circularity). I'm also curious to see how Barclay interacts with a previous study on grace and benefaction by James R. Harrison (Paul's Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context - 2003). Nevertheless, even before the book is out, John has given us plenty to ruminate over. I, for one, cannot wait until his 2-volume work is published by Eerdmans. Hopefully, it will happen before this 2014 year ends. 

Anecdote: When I was in Durham, to my chagin, I never took a photo with John, Francis, or Walter. Hence I borrowed the above photo from John's time in New Zealand when he was working on his "grace and gift" project. Next time I'm in Durham, I'm going to remember to take more pictures. 

Postscript 02/20/15: Eerdmans announced the book's release date. Click here for more details.

Postscript 06/13/14: Exegetical Exercise: 1) Read the above post. 2) I suggest listening to the lecture directly but start at 34:08 minutes into the video and finish to the end. 3) Go to the bible dictionaries/encyclopedias in the reference section of library and learn more about "grace" or "gift" in the Greco-Roman world (in Greek charis/χάρις). 4) Interpret 2 Cor 8:9-15 ("For you know the grace (χάρις) of our Lord Jesus Christ...") drawing insight from your background study. In other words: how does understanding how grace was expressed, or gift-exchange operated, in the Greco-Roman world help you to understand Paul's message/exhortations in 2 Cor 8:9-15? 4) Be sure to consult at least one academic commentary on your biblical text from the reference section.