Our Great High Priest

Acts 1:1-12; Heb 9:11-14, 24-28

I have come across the phrase “story arc” more and more as weekly television or cable shows have become more complex.  The increased use of such language reflects the increasing sophistication of some shows, where there are plots that are laid and find resolution within any single episode, but there are also plots that are laid in season one and continue to develop through many episodes, going through their own twists and complications until season four, or even until the final season.  Today, we focus in on a critical episode in Jesus’ story arc – an episode that is in many ways a satisfying conclusion to his story.

If we were to read the Gospels of Luke or Matthew, we would begin with the birth of a child who is somehow not merely of this world, but has come into this world from the divine realm.  If we were to read John’s Gospel, this is laid out all the more clearly: the Son of God, the eternal Word, descends into our world and into our story to accomplish some grand mission.  We follow the complications of the conflicts that arise as he pursues this mission, with his adversaries ironically facilitating the Son’s accomplishment of his ultimate goal for his mission, namely his offering of himself upon a cross and God’s glorious vindication of him in his resurrection.  On this, the Sunday of the Ascension, we celebrate his return, in a kind of aftermath of the “real” action of his story, to the divine realm.

This is precisely the way that Luke ends his Gospel, a nice season one finale: “Jesus led them out as far as Bethany and, raising his hands, he blessed them.  And while he was blessing them, he departed from them and was borne aloft into heaven.  And as they were worshiping him, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they continued to bless God in the Temple.”  Cue end title music and credits.

Acts is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel.  It’s the second season, as it were.  And it opens in what has become a time-honored way for a second season to open – by stepping back and replaying the season one finale, but this time with an important twist.  The disciples are left as we were at the end of the first season, staring up into heaven with a sense that Jesus’ story arc is completed with his return whence he came, his ascension back to the realm of God whence he descended.  One can almost hear their thoughts: “We’re sure going to miss him.  It was great having him around, even if that resurrection body was a little spooky – with him just disappearing on us in Emmaus or his just showing up inside our room with its doors still bolted.” We watch them gazing into heaven and we wonder: Is this the end of Jesus’ story arc?  Has our favorite character been cut from the show?  An angel appears to announce, “no!”  The story goes on – not just the disciples’ story as they return to the city to await the promised Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ story as well: “this same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

The ascension is the event that inaugurates a second story arc for Jesus.  The one who came down from heaven to take on our humanity has returned to heaven, still bearing our humanity; the one who ascended to heaven will return again at the unforgettable and not-to-be-missed series finale.  Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews echoes this: “Christ, having been offered once for all in order to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time – not for sins but for the salvation of those who eagerly long for him” (9:28).  Jesus’ story isn’t yet completed.  And we are living as part of this second arc, which encompasses the whole life of the Church.

I suddenly came to understand “ordinary time” in the Christian Year, that long, yawning stretch between Pentecost and Christ the King Sunday, which celebrates the consummated lordship of Christ over all things, when indeed at last “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and this to the glory of the Father” (Phil 2:10-11), just before the next Advent.  “Ordinary time” is our time; it represents the long season of the Church’s activity and work in the world, performed nonetheless in connection with and directed by the Christ who is the Head of the Body, the Church.

But Jesus, once enthroned as Lord and Anointed One, also has a story arc throughout this long season (by which I mean these 1984 years so far, not just the season of the “ordinary time” of June through November).  Jesus’ departure at the ascension turns out not to mean Jesus’ absence from the life of his people on earth. He keeps showing up in the second season.  Stephen, the first to die as a result of his witness to Jesus, glimpses Jesus in glory at God’s right hand.  The glorified Jesus intersects with and dramatically changes the story arc of Saul of Tarsus, turning him around from persecutor to preacher of the risen Lord.  We see the glorified Jesus again alongside John the Seer on Patmos at the far end of the Christian canon, still speaking words of instruction and warning to his congregations. 

It is, mysteriously, this very ascension, this very departure from his followers in terms of physical presence, that makes possible Jesus’ availability to all his followers by means of the Holy Spirit – and thus make possible Jesus’ continuing presence in every episode of the Church’s story, for as many seasons as this run extends.  At the outset of season one, God the Son had willingly limited himself to a body – first to the physical body of his incarnation, then to the spiritual body of his resurrection.  It was indeed essential for him to ascend, to “return to the Father” in the divine realm, if he was to transcend that bodily restriction.  He accomplished this, as he had promised, in the sending of his Holy Spirit – the Spirit of God that is also the Spirit of his Son – upon his disciples in every age, connecting the Son as the Head to the ever-growing Body of his followers, who are the means by which the Son enacts his reign during this long interim.  Many of us, hopefully all of us, know from personal experience how Jesus can be present with us, even while physically absent.  When we sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” we’re not confessing an absent mediator, but one who is very much present to us as we sing, indeed, as we “carry everything to God in prayer” sheltered by our “precious Savior, still our refuge,” day after day, year after year. 

Some of the richest reflections within the New Testament on the significance of Jesus’ ascension for us are to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews.  We have to reckon here with a basic fact: Jesus and his activities ceased to be observable to eyewitnesses when that cloud removed the ascending Lord from his disciples’ sight.  How is it, then, that the author of Hebrews goes on to speak of what Jesus did after he “crossed through the heavens” to enter “heaven itself,” the eternal realm of God’s dwelling?  The answer is to be found in his reading of the Old Testament.  As for so many early Christian teachers reflecting on the significance of Jesus and his work, so for the author of Hebrews the Old Testament provides the map for the journey that Christ ultimately undertakes.  It stood to reason for them that, since those ancient oracles of God lined up so well in hindsight with what they could see in his ministry, his miracles, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection from the dead, they would also line up well with those parts of Jesus’ story that they could not see (such as the Son’s activity prior to his incarnation or his activity beyond his ascension) or did not yet see (such as his return to judge the living and the dead).

The author of Hebrews looks particularly to Leviticus 16 for one particular map that illumines Jesus’ journey – both his journey outside the city to the cross and his journey into heaven itself.  Leviticus 16 outlines the ritual for the Day of Atonement, the solemn offerings that Israel’s high priest would undertake once per year in order to cleanse the people and the holy of holies from the accumulated pollution of a year’s worth of sin.  The relevant parts here center on the fate of the two goats that were involved in the ritual.  The first goat, over whose head the high priest would recite, and thereby transfer, the sins of the whole people, would be sent outside the camp and into the desert, removing the people’s sins from them.  The second goat would be slaughtered, and the high priest would take a basin of its blood into the Holy of Holies, the innermost chamber of the Temple where the presence of God burned brightest, to cleanse it of the defilement caused by the people’s sin, removing the memory of their sins from God’s presence in the Temple.

The author of Hebrews presents Jesus as our great high priest.  He is the priest of whom all the priests of the line of Aaron were but prototypes.  And Jesus’ death and ascension effected a cosmic Day of Atonement rite, universal in terms of scope, definitive in terms of accomplishment, in contrast to the sacrifices ongoingly and endlessly performed under the old covenant.  He was a high priest who offered himself, going willingly outside the gate of the city – outside the camp – “in order to sanctify the people by means of his own blood” (Heb 13:12); he was the high priest who brought the evidence of his own death into the very presence of God to cleanse God’s memory and God’s presence of the defilement our sins produced:

Christ, having become a high priest of the good things that were coming about, entered once for all through the better and more perfect tabernacle that was not made with hands (that is, that is not in this realm of created things) into the Holy Places, having established eternal redemption – and this not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood…. Christ didn’t enter into hand-crafted holy spaces, which were merely the model of the genuine ones, but into heaven itself, now to appear before God’s presence on our behalf. (Heb 9:11-12, 24)

Having completed this universal and decisive priestly act, Jesus sat down at the right hand of God – an event not seen by the author, but discerned from the “map” of Psalm 110, a text to which Jesus himself drew attention during his ministry as relevant to his story: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool under your feet” (Ps 110:1). 

We must not imagine the author to be expressing the view that Jesus is merely sitting on his resurrected posterior for eternity.  Rather, this is an expression of the completion and the completeness of his one great high priestly act of atonement:

Every priest [on earth] must remain standing about performing the daily religious service and offering again and again the same sacrifices that aren’t able to take away sins, but this one, after offering a single sacrifice for sins, sat down at God’s right hand… For by a single offering he has decisively perfected those who are being cleansed. (Heb 10:11-12, 14).

It is also an expression of his nearness to the God with whom he continues to intercede on our behalf, that very proximity assuring us that God will always receive us favorably, since our great high priest is right there at God’s side.  (This does not mean, of course, that he will always grant the particular help we request, but it does mean that he will always help.)

Jesus’ sitting at God’s right hand is also an expression of his reigning now, his participation in God’s reign over the cosmos as a whole and over the earth and its people in particular.  He is seated beside God “waiting until his enemies shall be set as a footstool under his feet” (Heb 10:13; Ps 110:1), and his call goes out now to all people to live in willing submission to his reign now, rather than in unwilling subjection to his reign (or worse) then at his coming again. The events of Ascension and Pentecost bring us back to the texts and themes I held before you on Christ the King Sunday in late November: Christ’s reign is real and visible in the world to the extent that it is real and visible in our own obedience to his commands as the guiding force in our lives; Christ’s lordship and the benefits to us of owning him our lord are only real for us to the same extent.

Jesus’ ascension has ultimate implications for our story arc as well, as the author of Hebrews makes clear at several points.  Jesus has entered into heaven itself as a forerunner for us (Heb 6:19-20); the Son who has entered into glory is also “leading many sons and daughters to glory” (Heb 2:10).  An ancient prayer of the Church makes this petition: “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace” (BCP, 220).  The ascension of Jesus provides firm assurance and even strong incentive to follow indeed in the way of the Crucified Messiah who has now taken the place of highest honor in the cosmos. 

Books for Sale (by Category) — updated 5/15/2021

I continue to seek to clear out some books and offer them here for sale.  I will ship domestically to the contiguous 48 states using Media Mail.  Please add these shipping costs in your calculations: first book, $4; second through fifth book, add  $1.50 each; sixth through whatever, add $1 each.  I’ll accept payment via PayPal (ddesilva@ashland.edu) or by personal check mailed to my address (2181 Taipei Court, Punta Gorda, FL 33983). Please e-mail me to confirm availability before sending payment!

Bibles, Study Bibles, General Bible Reference

Bauer, David.  An Annotated Guide to Biblical Resources for Ministry.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003.  PB. Very good.  $10.

Cleave, Richard.  The Holy Land Satellite Atlas. Volume 1.  Cyprus: Rohr Productions, 1999.  HC.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Cleave, Richard.  The Holy Land Satellite Atlas. Volume 2.  Cyprus: Rohr Productions, 1999.  HC.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Common English Bible. Nashville: Common English Bible, 2011.  Thinline leathersoft edition (tan & brick red).  Very good, still with presentation box.  $10.

Coogan, Michael D., et al.  The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha.  4th edition.  HC.  Fair.  (Pages are clean, but ex-library copy with usual markings; I have had to repair binding with clear shipping tape.)  $8.

Evans, John F.  A Guide to Biblical Commentaries and Reference Works.  10th edition.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. PB.  Like new. $10.

Glynn, John.  Commentary and Reference Survey: A Comprehensive Guide to Biblical and Theological Resources.  Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $5.

Historical Geography of the Bible Lands: Student Map Manual.  Israel: Pictorial Archive, 1979.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $15.

Holy Bible: New International Version.  Large Print.  Colorado Springs: International Bible Society, 1984.  HC (Black).  Very good.  $10.

Holy Bible: New Living Translation.  Tyndale Publishers.  HC.  New (shrinkwrapped).  $10.

Packer, J. I., Wayne Grudem, and Ajith Fernando, eds., Global Study Bible: ESV.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2012.  HC (casebound).  Very good/like new.  $10.

Patte, Daniel, ed.  Global Bible Commentary.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2004.  PB.  Interior like new; wear to cover.  $10.

The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha.  Edited by Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan.  College Edition.  New York: Oxford University, 1994.  PB.  Very good/like new.  Some wrinkling of lamination.  $15.

TNIV: Today’s New International Version New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.  PB.  Very good/like new. $3.

Hebrew Language

Brown, Francis, S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs.  Hebrew and English Lexicon.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1979.  HB.  Very good.  Owner’s name in front.  $10.

Fields, Lee M.  Hebrew for the Rest of Us.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $8.

Green, Jay P., ed.  The Interlinear Hebrew-Aramaic Old Testament.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1985.  3 volumes.  HC.  Very good.  $25 for set.

Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament.  2 volumes. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.  HC. Very good, interior clean. $30.

Seow, L.-C.  A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew.  1st ed.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1987.  HC.  Good.  Small amount of writing in interior.  $8.

The New Testament in Hebrew (Haberith Hahadasha).  London: Trinitarian Bible Society, 1985.  HC.  Like new.  $5.

Greek Language

Bauer, Walter, William Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.  Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957.  HC.  Interior very good, some wear to cover and edges.  $20.

Baugh, S. M. A New Testament Greek Primer.  Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1995.  PB.  Like new.  $15.

Black, David Alan.  It’s Still Greek to Me: An Easy-to-Understand Guide to Intermediate Greek. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.  PB.  Like new. $8.

Black, David Alan.  Learn to Read New Testament Greek.  3rd edition.  Nashville: B & H Academic, 2009.  HC.  Like new.  $15.  Also available: Ben Gutierrez and Cara L. Murphy, Learn to Read New Testament Greek Workbook.  PB.  Like new.  $15.

Brooks, James A., and Carlton L. Winbery.  Syntax of New Testament Greek.  Lanham, ND: University Press of America, 1988.  PB. Very good/like new.  Name inside front cover.  $6.

Campbell, Constantine.  Advances in the Study of Greek: New Insights for Reading the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.  PB.  Like new.  $15.

Croy, N. Clayton.  A Primer of Biblical Greek.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.  PB.  Very good. Interior clean.  $10.

Gibson, Richard J. and Constantine Campbell.  Reading Biblical Greek: A Grammar for Students.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. HC. Like new. $20.

Gibson, Richard J. and Constantine Campbell.  Reading Biblical Greek Workbook: A Translation Guide to Mark 1-4.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. PB. Like new.  $8.

Gibson, Richard J. and Constantine Campbell.  Reading Biblical Greek: Video Lectures.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.  DVD.  New.  $50.

Hewett, James A.  New Testament Greek: A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1986.  Includes separate key to exercises.  HC.  Like new.  $10.

Kohlenberger, John R., III.  NIV Greek and English New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012.  HC w/DJ.  New.  $20.

Lamerson, Samuel.  English Grammar to Ace New Testament Greek.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.  PB.  Like new.  $3.

Machen, J. Gresham.  New Testament Greek for Beginners.  New York: Macmillan, 1923.  HC.  Good/very good (cover shows wear; interior is pristine).  $10.

Metzger, Bruce.  Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek. 3rd. ed.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.  PB.  Like new. $4.

Metzger, Bruce.  Lexical Aids for Students of New Testament Greek. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.  PB.  Fair.  Highlighting (faded) throughout.  Name on cover.  Some misc. writing.  $2.

Morrison, Clinton, and David Barnes.  New Testament Word Lists for Rapid Reading of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.  PB.  Good.  Cover worn but interior very clean.  $5.

Moule, C. F. D.  Idiom Book of New Testament Greek.  Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1968.  PB.  Good.  Cover wear; some writing inside cover; interior pages clean. $5.

Moulton, W. F., A. S. Geden, and H. K. Moulton.  A Concordance to the Greek Testament.  5th rev. ed.  Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1978.  HC in slipcase.  Very good/like new (slipcase shows some wear).  $20.

Mounce, William D.  A Graded Reader of Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.  $15.

Mounce, William D.  Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek.  Second edition.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.  PB.  Like new, save for some curling to cover.  $8.

Nestle-Aland Novum Testament Graece.  Large Print.  OLD edition.  Stuttgart: Wuerttembergische Bibelanstalt, 1968.  HC.  Good/very good.  Cover shows some wear; interior is clean.  $5.

Newman, Barclay.  Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament.  New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.  HC.  Like new.  $12.

Newman, Barclay.  Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament.  New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.  HC.  Very good.  Name inside front cover.  $8.

Porter, Stanley, and Jeffrey Reed.  Fundamentals of New Testament Greek Workbook.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.  PB.  Like new.  $15.

Ramsay, Richard B.  Basic Greek and Exegesis. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007.  PB.  New.  $10.

Richards, W. Larry.  Read New Testament Greek in 30 Days [or less].  Berrien Springs: Breakthrough Books, 2006.  PB.  Very good/like new. $5.

Schmoller, Alfred.  Handkonkordanz zum griechischen Neuen Testament. (Compact concordance of the Greek New Testament.)  Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1963.  HC.  Very good (name inside front cover; otherwise very clean).  $10. 

Schwandt, John.  An Introduction to Biblical Greek: A Grammar with Exercises.  Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020.  HC.  New.  $20.

Summers, Ray.  Essentials of New Testament Greek. Revised.  Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995.  HC w/DJ.  Like new.  $10.

Summers, Ray.  Essentials of New Testament Greek: A Student’s Guide. Revised.  Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999. PB.  Like new.  $15.

Trenchard, Warren C.  Complete Vocabulary Guide to the Greek New Testament.  Revised edition.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.  HC. Very good (save for some impact damage to the spine; binding remains tight and firm, however).  $10.


Wheelock, Frederic M.  Latin: An Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors.  New York: Barnes & Noble, 1963.  PB.  Good/fair.  Shows wear, moderate underlining and writing throughout.  $2.

Exegetical Methods/Hermeneutics

Bauer, David, and Robert Traina.  Inductive Bible Study: A Comprehensive Guide to the Practice of Hermeneutics.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.  HC.  Very good/like new.  $20.

Carson, D. A.  Biblical Interpretation and the Church: The Problem of Contextualization.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984.  PB.  Very good.  $5.

Croy, N. Clayton. Prima Scriptura: An Introduction to New Testament Interpretation.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.  PB.  Like new.  $15.

Green, Joel B., ed.  Hearing the New Testament: Strategies for Interpretation.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.  HC.  Former library copy.  Pages clean save for usual library stamps.  $10.

Harrington, Daniel J.  Interpreting the New Testament: A Practical Guide.  Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1979.  PB.  Interior like new; cover shows some wear and fading.  $8.

Hayes, John H., and Carl R. Holladay.  Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook.  Revised ed.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987.  PB.  Mostly very good; marginal notes in pen, pp. 45-52.  $8.

Keener, Craig, and M. Daniel Carroll R., eds., Global Voices: Reading the Bible in the Majority World.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 2013. PB.  Interior like new; some scuffing on cover.  $8.

Kille, D. Andrew.  Psychological Biblical Criticism.  Guides to Biblical Scholarship.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Olesberg, Lindsay.  The Bible Study Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to an Essential Practice.  Downers Grove: IVP Connect, 2012.  PB.  Like new.  $10.

Ramsay, Richard B.  Basic Greek and Exegesis. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007.  PB.  New.  $10.

Staten, Henry.  Wittgenstein and Derrida.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1984.  PB.  Very good, save for underlining and marginal marks on a very few pages.  $5.

Sturrock, John, ed.  Structuralism and Since: From Levi Strauss to Derrida.  Oxford: Oxford University, 1979.  PB. Like new.  $5.

Watson, Duane F., and Alan J. Hauser, Rhetorical Criticism of the Bible: A Comprehensive Bibliography with Notes on History and Method.  Leiden: Brill, 1994.  HC w/DJ.  Like new.  $50.

Old Testament – General and ANE Environment

Baker, David W., and Bill T. Arnold, The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999.  HC (casebound).  Very good/like new.  $20.

Beck, Astrid, et al., eds.  Fortunate the Eyes That See: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.  HC w/DJ.   Like new.   $15.

Efird, James.  The Old Testament Writings: History, Literature, Interpretation.  Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982. PB.  Very good/like new (save for aging). $10.

Feinberg, John S, and Paul D. Feinberg. Tradition and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Lee Feinberg.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1981.  HC w/DJ.  Very good.  $15.

Keller, Werner.  The Bible as History: A Confirmation of the Book of Books. New York: Bantam, 1983.  PB.  Very good (shows age, though; my name stamped inside back cover).  $3.

Leeb, Carolyn S.  Away from the Father’s House: The Social Location of na’ar and na’arah in Ancient Israel.  JSOTS 301.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.  HC.  Like new.  $20.

Metzger, Bruce M., and Michael B. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible.  Oxford: OUP, 1993.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Morgan, Donn F.  Wisdom in the Old Testament Traditions. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981. HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Pritchard, James B.  The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures.  Volume 1,  Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1958.  PB.  Good. Markings on four pages; former owner’s name stamped inside front cover and on p. 118. $5.

Ringgren, Helmer.  Israelite Religion.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966.  PB.  Good. Pen marks in three chapters; spine cracked.  $5.

Schmidt, W. H. Einführung in das Alte Testament. 2nd ed.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1982.  HC.  Very good.  Former library copy, but very clean. $25.

Stanley, Christopher.  The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009. PB.  Very good/like new.  $30.

Stuart, Douglas.  Old Testament Exegesis. 1st ed.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980. PB.  Good; clean interior.  $3.

Von Rad, Gerhard.  Wisdom in Israel.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1972.  PB.  Good/very good.  Interior clean save for former owner’s stamp on cover and title page.  $10.

Wu, Daniel Y.  Honor, Shame, and Guilt: Social-Scientific Approaches to the Book of Ezekiel.  BBRSup 14.  Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016.  New.  $25.

Old Testament – Commentaries (canonical order)

Gaebelein, Frank E.  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Volume 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990.  HC.  Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover. $20.

Brueggemann, Walter.  Genesis.  Interpretation. Louisville: WJKP, 1986. HC.  Good. Owner’s name inside front cover; otherwise clean.  $10.

Boice, James Montgomery.  Genesis.  3 volumes. HC. Owner’s name inside front covers; some pen markings on a few pages throughout (mostly in vol. 1; some in others).  $15.

Childs, Brevard.  The Book of Exodus. Old Testament Library.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974.  HC.  Good; clean pages. Owner’s name inside front cover.  $15.

Boyce, Richard N.  Leviticus and Numbers.  Westminster Bible Companion.  Louisville: WJKP, 2008.  PB.  Very good, like new.  $15.

Wevers, John W.  Notes on the Greek Text of Numbers.  SCS 46.  Atlanta: Scholars, 1998. HC.  Like new.  $45.

Craigie, P. C.  The Book of Deuteronomy.  NICOT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.  HC w/DJ.  Good; clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $15.

Boice, James Montgomery.  Joshua: We Will Serve the Lord. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming Revell, 1989.  HC w/DJ.  Good/very good (DJ worn, small tears; owner’s name inside front cover; pen underlining on pp. 184-88).  $4.

Soggin, J. Alberto.  Judges. A Commentary.  Old Testament Library.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981.  HC w/DJ.  Good; clean pages. Owner’s name inside front cover.  $15.

Hertzberg, Hans Wilhelm.  I & II Samuel.  Old Testament Library.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Pen markings on about 8 pages.  $15.

Gaebelein, Frank E.  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Volume 4: 1, 2 Kings; 1, 2 Chronicles; Ezra, Nehemiah; Esther, Job. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988.  HC w/DJ.  Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover. $20.

Gaebelein, Frank E.  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991. HC.  Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $20.

Brown, William P.  Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor.  Louisville: WJKP, 2002.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $15.

Williams, Donald M.  Psalms 1-72. The Communicator’s Commentary 13.  Dallas: Word, 1986.  HC w/DJ.  Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $15.  

Williams, Donald M.  Psalms 73-150. The Communicator’s Commentary 14.  Dallas: Word, 1989.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Owner’s name inside front cover; some pen markings on a very few pages.  $15.  

Hubbard, David A.  Proverbs.  The Communicator’s Commentary 15A.  Dallas: Word, 1989.  HC.  Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $15.  

Hubbard, David A.  Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.  The Communicator’s Commentary 15B.  Dallas: Word, 1991.  HC.  Good.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $15.  

Lohfink, Norbert.  Qoheleth.  A Continental Commentary.  Minneapolis: Fortress. HC w/DJ.  New (shrinkwrapped).  $15.

Gaebelein, Frank E.  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Volume 6: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986. HC.   Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $20.

Gaebelein, Frank E.  The Expositor’s Bible Commentary.  Volume 7: Daniel, Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985. Good, clean pages.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $20.

Boice, James Montgomery.  Daniel: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989.  HC w/DJ.  Good/very good.  Owner’s name inside front cover; marginal mark on one page.  $10.

Boice, James Montgomery.  The Minor Prophets.  2 volumes. Owner’s name inside front covers; some pen markings on a few pages throughout.  $10.

Smith, Ralph L.  Micah-Malachi.  WBC.  Waco: Word, 1982.  HC.  Good.  Former library reference copy.  Yellow highlighting throughout Malachi.  $15.

Mays, James L.  Hosea: A Commentary.  NTL.  Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969. HC.  Fair (aged, ex libris).  $10.

Second Temple Judaism/NT Environment

Barrett, C. K.  The New Testament Background: Selected Documents.  New York: Harper and Row, 1961.  Good.  Pencil marginalia in two sections; crease in spine. $5

Bruce, F. F.  New Testament History.  New York: Doubleday, 1972.  PB.  Good.  Pencil marginalia; some creasing to spine.  $5

Carter, Warren.  Seven Events That Shaped the New Testament World.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.  PB.  Very good.  $10.

deSilva, D. A.  The Apocrypha. Core Biblical Studies; Nashville: Abingdon, 2012. PB.  New.  $10.

deSilva, D. A.  The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.  HC (casebound).  New. (Smudge on edge.)  $25.

deSilva, David.  4 Maccabees. Guides to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha; Sheffield: SAP, 1998.  PB.  New.  $30.

deSilva, David.  Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance.  Revised edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018.  PB.  New.  $25.

Fiensy, David, and James Riley Strange, eds.  Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods.  Volume 2. The Archaeological Record from Cities, Towns, and Villages.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015.  PB. Like new.  $20.

Hayes, John H. and Sara R. Mandell.  The Jewish People in Classical Antiquity: From Alexander to Bar Kochba.  Louisville: WJKP, 1998.  PB. Very good/like new.  $15.

Jobes, Karen, and Moises Silva.  Invitation to the Septuagint.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Some markings in red pencil throughout.  $8.

Josephus. The Jewish War.  New York: Penguin, 1974.  PB.  Aged but good.  $2.

Kaiser, Otto.  The Old Testament Apocrypha: An Introduction.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004. PB. Very good/like new. $5.

Kollek, Teddy, and Moshe Pearlman.  Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind.  A History of Forty Centuries.  Jerusalem: Steimatzky, Ltd., 1985.  HC w/DJ.  Very good.  $10.

Kugel, James.  The Bible as it Was.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.  HC.  Like new.  $20.

Longenecker, Bruce. 2 Esdras.  Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995. PB.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Mason, Steve.  Josephus and the New Testament.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992. PB. Very good/like new. $5.

Newsome, James D.  Greeks, Romans, Jews: Currents of Culture and Belief in the New Testament World.  Harrisburg: Trinity Press Intl., 1992. PB.  Very good/like new.  $20.

Russell, D. S. Between the Testaments.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965.  PB.  Good.  $4.

The Holy Land.  Knopf Guides.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.  PB (plasticized).  Very good. $5.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Charlesworth, J. H., ed.  The Dead Sea Scrolls. Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek Texts with English Translations: Volume 4a: Pseudepigraphic and Non-Masoretic Psalms and Prayers.  Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997.  New.  $80.

Charlesworth, J. H., ed.  The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, volume 1.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1983.  PB.  Like new.  $15.

Charlesworth, James H., ed.  Damascus Document II; Some Works of the Torah and Related Documents.  Dead Sea Scrolls 3. Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck and Louisville: WJKP, 2006.  HC.  Like new.  $50.

Charlesworth, James H., ed.  Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Controversy Resolved. ABRL. New York: Doubleday, 1992.  PB.  Very good/like new (save for aging).  $10.

Collins, John J.  The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature.  ABRL.  New York: Doubleday, 1995.  HC w/DJ. Very good/like new.  $15.

Davies, A. Powell.  The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  New York: New American Library, 1956.  PB.  Good/very good.  Clean and well preserved, but shows age.  $3.

Davies, Philip, et al.  The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.  PB.  New.  $15.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A.  A Guide to the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature.  Revised and expanded.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. Like new.  $15.

Gaster, Theodor H.  The Dead Sea Scriptures in English. New York: Doubleday, 1956.  PB.  Good.  Owner’s name inside cover.  Aged but clean.  $2.

Kampen, John.  Wisdom Literature.  Eerdmans Commentaries on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.  PB. Like new.  $15.

Schiffman, Lawrence.  Qumran and Jerusalem: Studies in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the History of Judaism.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.  New.  $25.

Schiffman, Lawrence.  Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls: Their True Meaning for Judaism and Christianity.  ABRL.  New York: Doubleday, 1995.  PB.  Good/very good.  Highlighting in one chapter.  $10.

Vermes, Geza.  The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.  2nd edition.  New York: Penguin, 1984.  PB.  Good.  Clean but shows age.  $2.

Vermes, Geza.  The Dead Sea Scrolls in English.  Revised and extended 4th edition.  New York: Penguin, 1995.  PB.  Very good (like new, save for aging).  $6.

New Testament – General, Introduction, Environment, Formation, Theology

Anderson, Paul.  From Crisis to Chris: A Contextual Introduction to the New Testament.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2014.  PB. Like new.  $15.

Bird, Michael F.  Crossing Over Sea and Land: Jewish Missionary Activity in the Second Temple Period.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010.  PB. Like new. $10.

Bruce, F. F.  The Books and the Parchments: The Languages, Canon, Manuscripts, Versions, History, and “Lost Books” of the Bible.  Rev. ed.  New Jersey: Fleming Revell, 1963.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Some underlining, a good deal of marginal marks.  $5.

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris.  An Introduction to the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  (Book in very good shape, but marred with my marginal pencil notes.)  $10.

Collins, Raymond F.  Introduction to the New Testament.  New York: Doubleday, 1983.  HC.  Interior very good; some wear and aging to cover.  $10.

Cousar, Charles.  An Introduction to the New Testament. Louisville: WJKP, 2006.  PB.  Like new, save for slight bend in corner of cover.  $10.

deSilva, D. A.  Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000.  PB.  New.  $18.

deSilva, David. The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and the New Testament. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999.  PB.  Like new (shows some aging).  $20.

Drane, John.  Early Christians: Life in the First Years of the Church.  San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.  PB.  Aged, but very good.  Light pencil markings on a few pages.  $5.

Feine, Paul, Johannes Behm, and Werner Georg Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1966.  HC.  Good.  Some underlining.  $10.

Gowler, D. B., L. G. Bloomquist, and D. F. Watson (eds.), Fabrics of Discourse: Essays in Honor of Vernon K. Robbins. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003.  HC w/DJ.  Like new.  $25.

Gowler, David B., L. G. Bloomquist, and D. F. Watson, eds.  Fabrics of Discourse: Essays in Honor of Vernon K. Robbins.  Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2003.  HC w/DJ.  Like new (except dj is a little warped).  $18.

Grech, Propser.  An Outline of New Testament Spirituality.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.  PB. Like new.  $5.

Harris, Stephen L.  The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction.  New York: McGraw Hill, 2012.  PB.  Very good.  $15.

Keener, Craig S.  The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament.  2nd edition.  Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2014.  HC w/DJ.  New.  $20.

Lamsa, George M.  New Testament Light.  New York: Harper and Row, 1968.  PB.  Interior like new; wear to cover.  $10.

Lightfoot, John.  A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica.  reprint edition.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1989. 4 volumes.  HC.  Like new.  $60.

Lohse, Eduard. The New Testament Environment. Nashville: Abingdon, 1987.  PB.  Like new.  $15

Maier, Paul L.  Pontius Pilate. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1968.  PB.  Very good, save for some aging.  $5.

Marshall, I. Howard.  A Concise New Testament Theology.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2008.  PB. Like new.  $15.

Meeks, Wayne A.  The Moral World of the First Christians.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986.  PB.  Good.  Highlighting through p. 38.  $8.

Neville, David J.  A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.  PB.  New.  $12

Neyrey: Jerome H.  Christ Is Community: The Christologies of the New Testament.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1985.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Patzia, Arthur G.  The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text & Canon.  Downers Grove: IVP, 1995.  PB. Very good.  Interior clean; spine has crease.  $8.

Porter, Stanley, and Lee Martin McDonald, New Testament Introduction.  IBR Bibliographies 12.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.  PB.  Very good. $5.

Reid, D. G., ed. The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004. HC.  Like new.  $25.

SBL 1996 Seminar Papers.  Altanta: Scholars Press, 1996.  PB.  Very good/like new. $50

SBL 1998 Seminar Papers.  Part 1.  Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $30.

Tenney, Merrill C.  New Testament Times.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.  HC w/DJ.  Interior and cover very good (owner’s name); dj shows wear and a small tear.  $5.

The New Interpreter’s Bible New Testament Survey.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.  HC.  Very good.  Highlighting in chapter on Revelation.  $20.

The New Testament in Hebrew (Haberith Hahadasha).  London: Trinitarian Bible Society, 1985.  HC.  Like new.  $5.

Wenham, David, and Steve Walton.  Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Gospels and Acts.  InterVarsity, 2001.  HC w/DJ.  Very good.  $10.

New Testament – Historical Jesus

Barnett, Paul.  Finding the Historical Christ.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.  PB.  Like new.  $10.

Crossan, John Dominic.  The Essential Jesus: Original Sayings and Earliest Images.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Crossan, John Dominic.  The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.  San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.  PB.  Interior clean and very good; cover shows shelf wear and foxing on edges.  $10.

Dawes, Gregory W. The Historical Jesus Question: The Challenge of History to Religious Authority.  Louisville: WJK, 2001.  PB.  Like new.  $10.

Keith, Chris.  Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.  PB.  Like new.  $10.

Jeremias, Joachim. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus.  New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1966.  HC.  Good.  Some underlining in red pencil (mainly in two chapters).  Owner’s name marked out inside front cover.  $10.

Pelikan, Jaroslav.  Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture.  New York: Harper & Row, 1985.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $5.

Powell, Mark Alan.  Jesus as a Figure in History.  Louisville: WJKP, 1998.  PB. Like new. $10.

Schweizer, Albert.  The Quest of the Historical Jesus.   New York: Macmillan, 1964.  PB.  Interior yellowed but otherwise clean; cover shows wear (and scuffing on spine).  $5.

Witherington, Ben, III.  The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth.  Downers Grove: IVP, 1995.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Some markings in pen; signs of separation from cover inside front.  $8.

New Testament – Gospels: Studies

Barton, Stephen C.  The Spirituality of the Gospels.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992.  PB. Like new.  $10.

Bauckham, Richard, ed.  The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.  PB.  Very good/like new. $10.

Burridge, Richard A.  What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography.  2nd edition.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. PB. Very good/like new.  $15.

Brown, Raymond.  The Death of the Messiah: A commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1994.  2 volumes.  PB.  Very good, almost like new.  $25.

Helyer, Larry R.  The Life and Witness of Peter.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2012.  PB.  New.  $15.

Martyn, J. Louis.  History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel.  2nd edition.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.  HC.  Good.  Former library with all the usual marks and stuff.  Pages otherwise clean.  $5.

Robinson, James M., et al.  The Critical Edition of Q.  Hermeneia Supplements.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $50.

New Testament – Gospels: Commentaries (canonical order)

Kistemaker, Simon. Matthew.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973.  HC. Good. Some underlining in chs. 5-7, 9; owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Boice, James Montgomery.  The Gospel of Matthew. Volume 1: The King and His Kingdom (Matthew 1-17).  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.  PB.  Very good.  Interior clean.  $6.

Betz, Hans Dieter.  The Sermon on the Mount.  Hermeneia.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.  HC w/DJ. New (still shrinkwrapped).  $65.

Davies, W. D., and D. C. Allison.  Matthew 1-7.  ICC.  London: T. & T. Clark International, 1988.  PB.  Like new (a little edge wear).  $40.

Fenton, John.  Saint Matthew.  Pelican NT Commentaries. New York: Penguin, 1963. PB. Very good.  $5.

Kingsbury, Jack Dean.  Matthew.  Proclamation Commentaries.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.  PB. Very good; wear to cover.  $4.

Kistemaker, Simon. Mark.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975.  HC. Good/very good.  Pen marks on a few pages.  $10.

Nineham, D. E.  Saint Mark.  Pelican NT Commentaries. New York: Penguin, 1963.  PB.  Very good save for small tear on front cover.  $4

Achtemeier, Paul J.  Mark. Proclamation Commentaries.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975.  Very good, save for light pencil markings in margins of three chapters.  $4.

Guelich, Robert A.  Mark 1—8:26.  Word Biblical Commentary.  Dallas: Word, 1989.  HC w/DJ.  Very good (owner’s name blackened out on front page).  $10.

Lane, William.  The Gospel according to Mark.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.  HC.  Good. Owner’s name inside cover. $10.

Kistemaker, Simon. Luke.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978. HC.  Good/ very good. Pen marks on a few pages.  $10.

Caird, G. B.  Saint Luke.  Pelican NT Commentaries. New York: Penguin, 1963.  PB. Very good save for a few pen marks in intro.  $4

Marshall, I. Howard.  Commentary on Luke.  NIGTC.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Some underlining in red pencil (less than 20% of pages).

Nolland, John.  Luke 1—9:20. Word Biblical Commentary.  Dallas: Word, 1989.  HC.  Pretty worn, tears on spine, former library markings. Pages clean save for pencil markings throughout 193-203.  $5.

Kistemaker, Simon. John.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953.  HC.  Very good.  Inside clean save for owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Boice, James Montgomery.  The Gospel of John.  5 volumes in 1. HC.  Good.  Owner’s name inside front cover; some pen markings on a few pages throughout.  $15.

Smith, D. Moody.  John.  Proclamation Commentaries.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.  Very good; some wear to cover.  $4.

Michaels, J. Ramsey.  John. Good News Commentary.  New York: Harper & Row, 1983.  PB.  Very good, save for aging.  $5.

Marsh, John.  Saint John.  Pelican NT Commentaries. New York: Penguin, 1968.  PB. Very good. $7.

Barrett, C. K.  The Gospel According to St. John.  London: SPCK, 1965.  HC.  Good.  Underlining in first quarter of book; owner’s name.  $8.

New Testament – Acts through Revelation: Studies

Barr, David L.  Reading the Book of Revelation: A Resource for Students.  Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. PB.  Good.  Pen markings in two chapters.  $10.

Bruce, F. F.  Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $15.

Beker, J. Christiaan.  Heirs of Paul: Their Legacy in the New Testament and the Church Today.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.  PB. New. $6.

deSilva, David. The Letter to the Hebrews in Social-Scientific Perspective. Cascade Companions; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012. $15.

deSilva, D. A. Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014. PB.  New.  $8. Multiples available.

deSilva, D. A.  Unholy Allegiances: Heeding Revelation’s Warning. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013.  PB.  New.  $8.  Multiples available.

Drane, John.  Paul: An illustrated documentary on the life and writings of a key figure.  New York: Harper & Row, 1976.  Good (some pencil markings).  $4.

Elliott, John H.  A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981.  HC.  Fair.  Book is in good condition, but there is a great deal of underlining and highlighting.  $8.

Hawthorne, Gerald.  Philippians.  Word Biblical Themes.  Waco: Word, 1987.  PB.  Very good.  Interior clean.  $6.

Helyer, Larry R.  The Life and Witness of Peter.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2012.  PB.  New.  $15.

Howard, George.  Paul: Crisis in Galatia: A study in Early Christian Theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1979.  HC.  Good.  Former library copy.  Pencil markings on pp. 1-8.  $10.

Lane, William L.  Hebrews: A Call to Commitment.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1985.  PB.  Good/very good.  Interior clean save for owner’s name; cover shows some wear.  $8.

Käsemann, Ernst.  The Wandering People of God: An Investigation of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.  HC.  Aged, but otherwise like new.  $20.

Knowles, Michael P.  We Preach Not Ourselves: Paul on Proclamation.  Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $10.

McGinn, Sheila E., ed. Celebrating Romans: Template for Pauline Theology.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.  HC w/DJ.  Like new. $8.

Meeks, Wayne A.  The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul.  New Haven: Yale University, 1983.  HC w/DJ.  Good (some highlighting throughout).  $8.

Morris, Leon.  1, 2 Thessalonians. Word Biblical Themes.  Waco: Word, 1989.  HC w/DJ.  Very good.  $10.

Perkins, Pheme.  Paul in Asia Minor.  Life and Letters of Paul.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.  PB.  Very good.  $5.

Philipps, John.  Exploring Revelation.  Chicago: Moody, 1974.  PB.  Good/very good. Interior is clean; owner’s name; cover shows wear.  $8.

Ramsay, William.  St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen.  London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1902.  HC.  Good (library rebound, ex-library copy with usual marks and stamps; otherwise clean).  $8.

Schenck, Kenneth.  Understanding the Book of Hebrews: The Story behind the Sermon.  Louisville: WJKP, 2003.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $8.

Thompson, James W.  Apostle of Persuasion: Theology and Rhetoric in the Pauline Letters.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.  HC w/DJ.  New.  $18

Wilson, A. N.  Paul: The Mind of the Apostle.  New York: Norton, 1997.  PB.  Very good.  $10.

Winter, Bruce W.  Seek the Welfare of the City: Christians as Benefactors and Citizens.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.  PB.  Good.  Pen underlining throughout. $5.

Winter, Bruce W. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.  PB. Like new.  $10.

Witherington, Ben, III.  Revelation and the End Times: Unraveling God’s Message of Hope.  Nashville: Abingdon, 2010. PB. Like new.  $5.

Witherington, Ben, III.  A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem.  IVP Academic, 2017.  PB.  New.  $10

New Testament – Acts through Revelation: Commentaries (canonical order)

Kistemaker, Simon. Romans.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980. HC. Very good. Inside clean save for owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Nygren, Anders.  Commentary on Romans.  Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1949.  HC w/DJ.  Good.  Owner’s name; scattered pen underlining on about one fifth of pages.  $5.

Bruce, F. F.  I & II Corinthians.  New Century Bible.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.  PB.  Poor.  Glue has dried and cracked, pages separating from binding in chunks.  $1.

Witherington, Ben.  Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.  Fair (a ton of highlighting and marginal notes). $5.

Fee, Gordon D.  The First Epistle to the Corinthians.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.  HC w/DJ.  Very good, save for a few pencil checks in intro and pen marks on pp. 49-50.  $10.

Ruef, John.  Paul’s First Letter to Corinth.  Westminster Pelican Commentaries.  Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971.  HC w/DJ. Very good.  $10.

Thrall, Margaret E.  II Corinthians.  Volume II: VII-XIII.  ICC.  Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000. HC w/DJ.  Like new (save for acquisition date and price inside front cover and some light rubbing to DJ).

Barrett, C. K.  The Second Epistle to the Corinthians.  New York: Harper, 1973.  HC w/DJ.  Very good interior (pages clean), outside shows its age.  $10.

Barrett, C. K.  The Second Epistle to the Corinthians.  New York: Harper, 1973. Reprint, Peabdoy: Hendrickson, 1987.  HC.  Very good.  Owner’s name blacked out inside front cover.  Underlining on fewer than 10 pages.  $10.

Carson, D. A.  From Triumphalism to Maturity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $5.

Kistemaker, Simon. Galatians, Ephesians.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.  HC.  Good/very good; a few pen marks within.  $10.

Barclay, William.  The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians.  Revised edition. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976.  PB.  Good.  Pen/pencil markings on about 20 pp.  $3.

Betz, Hans Dieter.  Galatians.  Hermeneia.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1979.  HC.  Very good (some highlighting in introduction).  $25.

deSilva, David.  Galatians. Baylor Handbooks on the Greek New Testament; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014. PB. New.  $20.

deSilva, D. A.  The Letter to the Galatians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018. HC w/DJ.  New. $30.

Bruce, F. F.  Commentary on Galatians.  NIGTC.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.  HC w/DJ.  Very good. Owner’s name inside front cover; otherwise clean interior. Cover nice; DJ has a tear and some curling.  $15.

Dunn, J. D. G.  The Epistle to the Galatians.  Black’s NT Commentary.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995.  HC w/DJ.  Good/very good.  Owner’s name blacked out inside front cover.  Pen/pencil markings on a very few pages.  $10.

Luhrmann, Dieter.  Galatians.  A Continental Commentary.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.  HC (casebound).  Like new.  $12.

Luhrmann, Dieter.  Galatians.  A Continental Commentary.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.  HC (casebound).  Very good.  Owner’s name inside front cover; otherwise clean.  $10.

Martyn, J. Louis.  Galatians.  Anchor Bible.  New Haven: Yale, 1997.  PB.  Poor. Spine/glue cracked top to bottom, book almost in two pieces.  Heavily marked. $4.

Ridderbos, Herman.  The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953.  HC.  Good.  A good amount of pen underlining.  $6.

Kistemaker, Simon. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.  Good/very good.  Some markings in Colossians; owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Krodel, Gerhard, ed.  The Deutero-Pauline Letters.  Proclamation Commentaries.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.  PB.  Very good.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $6.

Talbert, Charles H.  Ephesians and Colossians.  Paideia Commentaries.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.  PB. Very good/like new.  $10.

Simpson, E. K., and F. F. Bruce, Ephesians and Colossians.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.  HC.  Very good.  Pages clean.  $10.

Cohick, Lynn.  Ephesians.  NCCS.  Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010.  PB. Like new.  $12.

Lohse, Eduard.  Colossians and Philemon.  Hermeneia.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.  HC.  Very good.  Pages clean (owner’s stamp inside front cover).  $10.

Martin, Ralph P.  Colossians and Philemon.  NCB.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973. PB. Very good.  Pencil markings on pp. 79-88; highlighting on p. 81.  $5.

Kistemaker, Simon. Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus.  New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.  Good/very good.  Some markings in Pastoral Epistles; owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Malherbe, Abraham J.  The Letters to the Thessalonians.  Anchor Bible.  New York: Doubleday, 2000.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $30.

Johnson, Luke T. The First and Second Letters to Timothy.  Anchor Bible.  New York: Doubleday, 2001. HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $30.

Johnson, Luke T.  1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus.  Knox Preaching Guides.  Atlanta; John Knox Press, 1987.  PB. Very good/like new.  $8.

Lock, Walter.  A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles.  Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1959.  HC.  Very good.  Owner’s plate inside front cover.  $15.

Witherington, Ben, III.  Letters and Homilies for Jewish Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Hebrews, James and Jude. Downers Grove: IVP, 2007.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $15.

Bruce, F. F.  The Epistle to the Hebrews.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.  HC.  Good.  Pen markings on a very few pages, owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Hagner, Donald A.  Encountering the Book of Hebrews: An Exposition.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Lane, William L.  Hebrews 1-8.  Word Biblical Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.  HC (casebound).  Like new $25.

Lane, William L.  Hebrews 9-13.  Word Biblical Commentary.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000 [1991].  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new (one sticker inside front cover) $25.

MacArthur, John. Hebrews.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1983. HC.  Good.  Pen/pencil markings throughout second half.  $6.

Wright, N. T.  Hebrews for Everyone.  Louisville: WJKP, 2004.  PB.  New.  $9.

Adamson, James.  The Epistle of James.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.  HC w/DJ.  Good/very good.  Pencil and pen underlining on a very few pages.  $10.

Adamson, James.  The Epistle of James.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.  HC.  Fair. Former library copy.  Pencil marks on some pages. Signs of use and wear.  $6.

Dibelius, Martin, and Heinrich Greeven.  James.  Hermeneia.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976. HC.  Good.  Former library copy. Some pencil marks on a very few pages.  $10.

Dibelius, Martin, and Heinrich Greeven.  James.  Hermeneia.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976.  Good.  Highlighting throughout (mostly yellow, some pink and some blue).  $10.

Wiersbe, Warren W.  Be Mature. A New Testament Study – James.  Colorado Springs: Cook, 2004.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $5.

Achtemeier, Paul J.  1 Peter.  Hermeneia.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.  HC w/DJ.  Like new.  $40.

Davids, Peter H.  The Book of 1 Peter.  NICNT.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.  HC.  Very good.  Owner’s name inside front cover.  $10.

Patterson, Paige.  A Pilgrim Priesthood: An Exposition of First Peter.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982.  PB.  Good.  Pen markings on a few pages; cover shows some wear.  $5.

Bauckham, Richard.  Jude, 2 Peter.  Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word, 1983.  HC.  Very good. Owner’s name inside front cover.  $12.

Boice, James Montgomery.  The Epistles of John: An Expositional Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.  HC w/DJ.  Very good. Owner’s name inside front cover; pen markings on a very few pages.  $10.

Brown, Raymond E.  The Epistles of John.  Anchor Bible.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1982.  HC.  Good/very good.  Former library reference copy with usual stickers and stamps.  Clean otherwise. $10.

Burdick, Donald W. The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary.  Chicago: Moody, 1985.  PB.  Good.  Owner’s name inside front cover; some pen markings on a few pages; spine creased twice.  $5.

Wiersbe, Warren W.  Be Real.  A New Testament Study – 1 John.  Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 1972.  PB.  Like new. $5.

Gonzalez, Catherine Gunsalus and Justo L. Gonzalez. Revelation. Westminster Bible Companion.  Louisville: WJKP,1997.   PB.  Like new.  $8.

Keener, Craig.  Revelation.  NIVAC.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.  HC. Like new.  $15.

Morris, Leon. Revelation. TNTC.  Downers Grove: IVP, 1983.  PB.  Very good.  $5.

Mounce, Robert. The Book of Revelation.  NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.  HC. Good/very good.  Interior clean, cover shows some wear.  $10.

Roloff, Jurgen.  The Revelation of John. A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.  HC w/DJ. Like new.  $10.

Wright, N. T.  Revelation for Everyone.  Louisville: WJKP, 2011.  PB.  New.  $9.

Early Church (Post-NT)

Chadwick, Henry.  The Early Church. New York: Penguin, 1967.  PB.  Good.  Former library copy.  Pages clean.  $2.

Eusebius.  Ecclesiastical History.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1955. PB. Interior very good; cover and edges show aging and foxing.  $2.

Fox, Robin Lane.  Pagans and Christians.  New York: Knopf, 1987. HC.  Very good.  Owner’s impressing on title page and frontispiece.  $8.

Hennecke, Edgar, and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds.  New Testament Apocrypha.  2 volumes.  Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963.  HC.  Good. Former library copy.  Interior very good save for usual stamps; cover shows wear; separation happening in vol. 2.  $15 for both.

Layton, Bentley, tr.  The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1995.  PB.  Very good/like new (save for aging).  $10.

Niederwimmer, Kurt.  The Didache.  Hermeneia.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new (only issue: sun damage to front of dj and top edge of cloth).  $30.

Pagels, Elaine.  The Gnostic Gospels.  New York: Vintage, 1981.  PB.  Good.  Pencil notes throughout.  $2.

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.  New York: Random House, 1988.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $8.

Pratscher, Wilhelm, ed.  The Apostolic Fathers: An Introduction.  Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010.  PB.  New.  $28.

Greco-Roman World

Boardman, John, et al., eds.  The Oxford History of the Classical World.  Oxford: Oxford University, 1986.  HC.  Former library copy.  Good.  Missing front flyleaf.  Interior otherwise very clean.  $5.

Cook, S. A., et al., eds.  The Cambridge Ancient History.  IX: The Roman Republic. 133-44 B.C.  Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1962.  HC. Former library book.  Cover and edge wear; interior pages clean. $25.

Cook, S. A., et al., eds.  The Cambridge Ancient History.  XI: The Imperial Peace. A.D. 70-192.  Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1965. HC. Former library book.  Cover and edge wear; interior pages clean. $25.

Durant, Will.  The Life of Greece.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1939.  HC.  Good; interior very good.  Shows age, however.  $5.

Hadas, Moses.  Imperial Rome.  New York: Time-Life Books, 1965.  HC.    Former library book. Small rectangle cut out of flyleaf.  Otherwise good; pages clean.  $3.

Mattingly, Harold.  Roman Imperial Civilization.  New York: Norton, 1957.  PB.  Former library copy.  Good/fair.  $4.

Meier, Christian.  Caesar: A Biography.  New York: Basic Books, 1982.  HC w/DJ.  Very good.  $35.

Price, S. R. F.  Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor. Cambridge University Press, 1984. PB.  Like new/very good (remainder mark).   $30.

Greco-Roman Literature

Aeschylus.  The Oresteia Trilogy; Prometheus Bound.  Laurel Classical Drama.  New York: Dell, 1965.  PB.  Cover shows wear; interior very clean.  $2.

Aeschylus.  The Oresteia Trilogy; Prometheus Bound.  Laurel Classical Drama.  New York: Dell, 1965.  PB.  Cover shows significant wear; interior clean but yellowed.  $1.

Aristophanes.  The Complete Plays of Aristophanes.  New York: Bantam, 1982.  Aged but good.  $3.

Aristophanes.  The Complete Plays of Aristophanes.  New York: Bantam, 1962. PB.  Good, but shows age and cover shows wear.  My name stamp on edge.  $2.

Aristotle.  Rhetoric and Poetics.  New York: Modern Library.  HC.  Fair cover; interior very good and clean.  $2.

Auden, W. H., ed. The Viking Portable Library Greek Reader.  New York: Viking Press, 1965. PB. Good/very good (interior bright and clean). $5.

Epictetus.  Discourses. Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, 1944.  HC.  Good/fair.  Wear on cover; pencil marks in first quarter.  $2.

Euripides.  Alcestis and Other Plays. Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin,

Euripides.  Ten Plays.  New York: Bantam, 1966.  PB.  Cover fair, interior good and clean (but aged).  My name stamped on edge.  $2.

Homer.  The Iliad.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1966. PB.  Fair/good.  Cover shows wear; pencil marks throughout first quarter.  $1.

Homer.  The Odyssey. Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1946.  PB.  Fair/good.  Cover shows wear; pencil marks throughout.  $1.

Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Roslyn, NY: Walter J. Black, 1945.  HC.  Good/very good.  $2.

Nahm, Milton C., ed.  Selections from Early Greek Philosophy.  New York: Crofts,1947.  HC.  Fair/good.  Cover shows wear and use; red pencil underlining throughout. $1.

Ovid.  Metamorphoses.  New York: Penguin, 1982.  PB.  Aged but very good.  $3.

Ovid.  The Metamorphoses.  New York: Mentor, 1960.  PB.  Aged but good.  $2.

Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius.  The Harvard Classics: Collector’s Edition.  New York: Grolier, 1980.  HC.  Like New.  $20.

Plato.  The Trial and Death of Socrates.  Dover, 1992.  PB.  Good/very good.  Very faded highlighting in the “Apology.”  $1.

Plato. Great Dialogues of Plato.  New York: Mentor, 1956.  PB.  Fair exterior, very good interior (but shows age).  $2.

Plautus.  Six Plays of Plautus.  Edited by Lionel Casson.  New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1963.  PB.  Cover good, interior like new.  $5.

Pliny.  The Letters of the Younger Pliny.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1969.  PB.  Very good (cover shows some wear).  $4.

Sophocles.  Electra and Other Plays. Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1967.  PB.  Cover fair, interior good and clean.  $1.

Sophocles.  The Complete Plays of Sophocles.  Edited by Moses Hadas. New York: Bantam, 1967.  PB.  Good/very good save for aging. My name is stamped on edge.  $2.

Sophocles.  The Oedipus Cycle.  Translated by Dudley Fitts and Robert FitzgeraldNew York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1949.  PB.  Very good, save for aging.  $2.

Sophocles.  The Theban Plays.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1947.  PB.  Fair.  Pen marks.  $1.

Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1975.  PB.  Shows age, but still good/very good. $2.

Tacitus.  The Agricola and the Germania.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1970.  PB. Good; interior very good.  $2.

Tacitus.  The Annals.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1971.  PB.  Very good, save for a very few marginal notes.  $4.

Tacitus.  The Histories.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1986.  PB.  Very good.  $4.

Tacitus. Complete Works of Tacitus. Modern Library College Editions.  New York: Modern Library, 1942. PB. Cover/edges shows wear; spine creased; interior clean save for owner’s name on front page.  $8.

Thucydides.  The Peloponnesian War.  Penguin Classics.  New York: Penguin, 1954.  PB. Fair/good.  Pencil marks sparingly throughout.  $1.

Vergil.  The Aeneid.  New York: Mentor, 1961.  PB.  Aged but good.  $2.

Virgil’s Aeneid.  Translated by John Dryden.  New York: Airmont, 1968.  PB.  Cover fair; interior clean and very good (but yellowed).  $1.  

General World Literature

Anouilh, Jean.  Becket.  New York: New American Library, 1960.  PB.  Good, but aged.  $1.

Boccaccio.  The Decameron.  New York: Penguin, 1975.  PB.  Good/very good.  Cover shows wear; interior clean.  $2.

Brecht, Bertolt.  Mother Courage.  New York: Grove Press, 1966.  PB.  Very good.  $1.

Byron, George Gordon.  The Selected Poetry and Prose of Byron.  Introduction by W. H. Auden. New York: New American Library, 1966.  PB.  Very good (but aged).  $2.

Camus, Albert.  The Plague.  New York: Modern Library, 1948.  PB.  Good/very good.  Owner’s name inside cover.  $1.

Castiglione.  The Book of the Courtier.  New York: Doubleday, 1959.  PB.  Good/very good.  Some pen markings on a few pages.  $2.

Cervantes. Don Quixote.  New York: Penguin, 1982.  PB.  Very good.  $2.

Chekhov, Anton. The Major Plays: Ivanov, The Sea Gull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard.  New York: New American Library, 1964.  PB. Very good.  $2.

Dante.  The Divine Commedy 1: Hell.  New York: Penguin, 1980.  PB.  Good.  Name stamped on edge.  $1.

De Santillana, Giorgio, ed.  The Age of Adventure: The Renaissance Philosophers.  New York: Mentor, 1956.  Good/very good interior.  $1. 

Dumas, Alexandre. The Three Musketeers.  New York: Pyramid, 1974.  PB.  Good/very good.  Inside clean,  $1.

Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays.  New York: Dutton, 1959.  PB.  Fair/good.  $1.

Hobbes, Thomas.  Leviathan.  New York: Penguin, 1977.  PB.  Very good, save for aging.  $3.

Hugo, Victor.  Les Miserables.  New York: Fawcett, 1961.  PB.  Cover fair, interior very good (but yellowed).  $1.

Ibsen, Henrik.  Four Great Plays: A Doll’s House; The Wild Duck; An Enemy of the People; Ghosts.  New York: Bantam, 1959.  PB.  Fair.  Some writing.  $1.

Lord, Walter.  A Night to Remember.  New York: Bantam, 1955.  PB. Good.  $1.

Malory, Sir Thomas.  Le Morte D’Arthur.  2 volumes. New York: Penguin, 1982.  PB.  Very good, save for aging.  $5.

Milton, John.  Paradise Lost and Other Poems.  New York: New American Library, 1981.  PB. Good.  Interior clean.  $1.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. By Merritt Hughes. New York: Odyssey, 1962.  PB.  Good (cover fair).  $1.

More, Thomas.  Utopia.  New York: Penguin, 1982.  PB. Very good.  $1.

Osborne, John. Luther.  New York: New American Library, 1961.  PB.  Good/very good (except for aging).  Small corner cut from front cover.  $1.

Petrarch.  Selected Sonnets, Odes and Letters. New York: Meredith, 1966. PB.  Very good (save for aging).  $1.

Scott, Sir Walter.  Ivanhoe. New York: New American Library, 1962.  PB.  Very good.  $2.

Shaw, George Bernard.  Caesar and Cleopatra.  New York: Airmont, 1966.  PB.  Very good (but aged).  $1.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley. New York: New American Library, 1966. PB. Very good (cover shows a little wear).  $2.

Tennyson, Alfred.  Idylls of the King.  New York: Airmont, 1969.  PB.  Cover fair, interior very good.  $1

The Portable Machiavelli.  Ed. By Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa.  New York: Penguin, 1979.  PB.  Good.  Some underlining in introduction and The Prince.  $5.

Tourneur, Cyril.  The Revenger’s Tragedy.  Ed. By Lawrence Ross.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.  Good (interior clean save for name stamp inside cover).  $2.

World Religions

Heilman, Samuel.  Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction.  Chicago: University of Chicago, 1976.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $6.

James, William.  The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.  New York: Mentor, 1958.  PB.  Very good save for aging (and my name on edge).  $1.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching.  Translated by Victor Mair.  New York: QPBC, 1998.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $4.

Rahula, Walpola.  What the Buddha Taught.   Kandy: Buddhist Cultural Centre, 1966.  PB. Like new.  $8.

Tanenbaum, Marc, et al., eds.  Evangelicals and Jews in an Age of Pluralism.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $5.

The Qur’an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammed.  Annotated by Sohaib N. Sultan.  Skylight Illuminations.  Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths, 2007.  PB.  Like new.  $5.


Berger, Peter L.  Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1963. Interior very good, cover and edges show age and foxing.  $1.

Berger, Peter L.  The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion.  Garden City: Doubleday, 1967.   PB.  Good.  Pages clean save for some (very faded) highlighting; former owner’s name on edge.  $1.

Weber, Max.  The Sociology of Religion.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.  PB.  Interior very good save for library marks; cover shows wear (and usual ex-library stamp and markings).  $2.

Christian Theology

deSilva, D. A.  In Season and Out: Sermons for the Church Year. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019.  PB.  New.  $10.

Oden, Thomas C.  Systematic Theology.  In three volumes.  Volume 1: The Living God, Volume 2: The Word of Life, Volume 3: Life in the Spirit.  Prince Press, 1999.  HC.  Very good.  $60.

Piper, John, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth, eds.  Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2003.  PB.  Like new.  $10.

Ramm, Bernard L.  An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic and Historic.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.  HC w/DJ.  Very good/like new.  $10.

Yong, Amos.  Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions.  JPTS 20. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $20.

Youngblood, Ronald, ed.  Evangelicals and Inerrancy: Selections from the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.  Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984. PB. Very good. $4.


a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ: Selections Annotated & Explained.  Annotation by Paul Chilcote.  Woodstock, VT: Skylight, 2012.  PB.  Very good; iInterior clean.  $5.

Allen, Charles L.  God’s Psychiatry.  New York: Fleming Revell, 1953. PB. Good.  $1.

Bryon, John, and Joel Lohr, eds.  I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.  PB.  Very good/like new (a little curling to cover).  $4.

Chan, Francis.  Letters to the Church.  Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2018.  PB.  Very good/like new. $4.

Graham, Billy.  Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horse of the Apocalypse.  Waco: Word, 1983.  HC w/DJ.  Good. Tear in DJ taped; DJ taped to inside cover. Pencil markings on pp. 9-23.  $6

Hendel, Kurt K., ed.  Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings.  2 volumes.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.  HC w/DJ.  New.  $50.

Lucado, Max.  In the Eye of the Storm; He Still Moves Stones; A Gentle Thunder.  Combined edition.  Dallas: Word, 1991.  HC (casebound).  Very good/like new.  $10.

Lucado, Max.  The Applause of Heaven; When God Whispers Your Name; In the Grip of Grace.  Combined edition.  Dallas: Word, 1996.  HC (casebound).  Very good/like new.  $10.

McGinn, Bernard. Antichrist: 2000 Years of the Human Fascination with Evil. SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994.  HC. Very good.  $10.

Morley, Patrick.  The Man in the Mirror: Solving the 24 Problems Men Face.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.  PB. Very good (but shows aging).  $1.

Peck, M. Scott.  The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.  PB.  Good/very good.  Underlining on a few pages.  $4.

Snyder, Howard A.  Homosexuality and the Church: Guidance for Community Conversation.  Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2014.  PB.  Very good/like new.  $4.

The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling.  Edited by William Johnston.  New York: Doubleday, 1973.  PB.  Good/very good.  Used book store stamp inside cover; interior otherwise like new.  $2.

Wardle, Terry.  Healing Care, Healing Prayer: Helping the Broken Find Wholeness in Christ. Abilene: Leafwood, 2001.  PB.  Good.  Some highlighting and pencil notes throughout.  $2.

White, C. Dale.  Making a Just Peace: Human Rights & Domination Systems.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.  PB.  Very good.  Interior clean.  $12.

White, John.  The Fight: to know God’s word, to share the faith, to communicate with God, to know God’s will.  Downers Grove: IVP, 1978.  PB.  Good (clean, but shows age).  $5.

Witherington, Ben, III, and Ann Witherington.  Return to Zion: the Seventh Art West Adventure.  Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015.  PB.  New.  $10.

The Use of the Apocrypha in the Early Church

(forthcoming in some book 🙂 )

The collection known as the Old Testament Apocrypha exists as a discrete and identifiable body of works as a result of the reading practices of the Christian churches throughout the centuries and the different decisions made concerning the level of authority to be accorded to these particular texts in different Christian circles (related, in part, to the different degrees of value placed upon the Jewish community’s – that is, the parent religion’s – decisions about what texts ought to enjoy canonical authority).  The question of canonical authority, however, is secondary to the phenomenon of the expansive use and evident influence of these texts in the Christian movement from its inception. 

Influence at the Earliest Stages

We can speak of “use” with confidence where we have explicit citations of these texts, but the evidence for “influence” pushes considerably earlier, indeed, even to the Judean and Galilean milieu of Jesus himself.  Citation of a text by name (or less precisely with an introductory remark like “as it is written” or “as the scripture says”) already presumes, on the part of the writer, the expectation that the text ought to be accorded some level of authority by the audience, such that explicitly drawing attention to the fact of reciting the older text should carry persuasive or argumentative weight.  None of the authors of the New Testament introduce passages from the books that come to be called “Apocrypha” in this manner, which strongly suggests that they did not expect their audiences to recognize the first-level authority of these texts that they would assume (require?) for Deuteronomy, Isaiah, or the Psalms.[1]  Indeed, it suggests that these authors themselves did not accord such authority to Tobit, Ben Sira, Wisdom of Solomon, and the rest.  That said, however, it seems evident that they used these texts or, at the very least, that these texts were used sufficiently in their own contexts that they could become familiar with, approve, and incorporate a broad range of the material found therein.

            Jesus famously taught his followers that the most prudent use of wealth was to use it to relieve the pressing needs of those around them:

“Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust ruin and where thieves break in and steal; rather, lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust ruins and where thieves neither break in nor steal.” (Matt. 6:19-20)

“Sell your belongings and give alms: provide for yourselves moneybags that don’t wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in the heavens, where a thief doesn’t approach nor does a moth spoil.” (Luke 12:33)

While the Law of Moses prescribed charity toward the poor and the prophets reinforced this as an essential practice, the second-century B.C.E. scribe and teacher Yeshua ben Sira promoted a commitment to charity as the best way in which to “lay up a treasure” for oneself:

“For the commandment’s sake, help a poor person; don’t send him or her away empty-handed because of their lack of means [to repay]. Deprive yourself of silver on account of a brother and a friend, and don’t allow it to rust under a stone unto destruction. Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Highest, and it will prove more advantageous to you than gold. Stash away almsgiving in your storerooms, and this will deliver you from every hardship.” (Sir. 29:9–12)

Several points of contact emerge.  Both teach that the way to amass a lasting treasure is not through hoarding one’s possessions, but rather through sharing them with neighbors in need.  Ben Sira and Jesus further promote this shift in savings strategy by pointing to the vulnerability of the pile of possessions that sit idle that can end up lost and unfruitful. 

            Jesus is also remembered to have taught that our experience of God’s forgiveness of our sins depends in some way upon our willingness to extend forgiveness to other people.  This is enshrined within the Lord’s Prayer (undoubtedly the Jesus tradition most familiar to the greatest number of Christians!): “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12; cf. Luke 11:4).  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives further comment on this petition (and this petition only): “For if you forgive people their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive people, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14-15).  This teaching is further reinforced in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35).  A slave who owes his master a tremendous debt is forgiven that debt rather than thrown into prison till the debt be (impossibly) repaid.  He then goes out and has a fellow slave cast into prison over a modest debt.  Upon hearing of this, the master reinstates the debt of the first slave and hands him over to the torturers till his debt be repaid.  Jesus concludes solemnly: “Thus also will my heavenly Father do to you, unless you forgive – each his or her brother or sister – from your hearts” (Matt 18:35).[2]

            This is a claim without precedent in the Hebrew Bible, though not without precedent in earlier Jewish literature.  Ben Sira had taught his students a very similar lesson:

The vengeful person will experience the Lord’s vengeance;

the Lord will surely remember that person’s sins.

Forgive your neighbor a wrong

and then, when you are praying, your sins will be dismissed.

Does a person treasure anger against another person,

and seek healing from the Lord?

He doesn’t have mercy on a person like himself,

and he makes petition concerning his own sins?

He himself, being mere flesh, treasures anger;

who will propitiate for his sins? (Sir 28:1-5)

Ben Sira provides a clear rationale for the claims he is making: since God’s honor is incomparably greater than our own, we must not treat affronts to our honor (concerning which we cherish grudges and for which we seek satisfaction) as more weighty than our affronts to God’s honor.  To do otherwise would be to offer God a double insult. The reasoning embedded in Jesus’ parable is very similar, expressed however using the financial metaphor of “debt” to speak about affronts to honor.  Ben Sira, moreover, has already articulated both the warning and the assurance that stand behind Jesus’ own reinforcement of  the petition, “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:14-15).[3]

            I dwell here on these examples to stress that the texts of the Apocrypha were used and exercised influence even in circles where they were not generally accorded canonical authority – and several were in a position to exercise such influence upon the founding leaders of the Christian movement.  Ben Sira was particularly well situated to exercise such influence.  He was a respected teacher, the head of a school in Jerusalem in the early part of the second century B.C.E., who had committed a sizeable sampling of his instruction to writing.  It continued to be read in the land of Israel.  Physical evidence for this exists in the form of a small fragment of his work found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and a fragment containing several chapters found at Masada.[4]  Literary evidence for this exists in the form of the clear imprint his work has left in rabbinic literature, where it is sometimes (against the prevailing view, to be sure) cited as carrying scriptural authority.[5] It should come as no surprise, therefore, that some of Ben Sira’s teachings may have filtered through to pious Jews, like the family of Jesus and his brothers, who were raised and taught in the synagogues of Judea and Galilee.  This particular text, however, was also made available to Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt by virtue of the efforts of Ben Sira’s grandson, who translated it “for those living abroad who wished to gain learning and are disposed to live according to the law” (Prologue to Ben Sira, NRSV), thence to be disseminated first to other Greek-speaking Diaspora communities and then to the assemblies of Christ-followers who were birthed therefrom.

The Use of the Apocrypha for Ethical Guidance

            The books of the Apocrypha would continue to be mined by the early church for the ethical value of the instructions included therein, perhaps motivated in part by the growing recognition on the part of its leaders of the consonance of these instructions with the ethical teachings of Jesus, James, and other voices preserved in the texts that were emerging as part of a New Testament canon.  Indeed, the New Testament texts could be seen to endorse a good deal of material found in the books of the Apocrypha but not explicitly present in the books of the Hebrew Bible.  This might help to account for the elevation of the value of the former alongside the latter in early Christian communities (who were clearly open to affirming the value and even authority of texts outside the emerging Jewish canon, given the very fact of a New Testament).

The promotion of almsgiving, the rationales for the practice, and the specific advice found in Tobit and Ben Sira, for example, continue to appear in early Christian exhortations.  Thus Polycarp in the early second century echoes Tobit’s promise that “charity delivers one from death” (Polycarp, Phil. 10.2; cf. Tob. 4:10).[6]  The nearly contemporary church manual known as the Didache admonishes Christians not to be like “one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving” (Didache 4.5; see also Epistle of Barnabas 19.9), repeating Ben Sira’s instructions (Sir. 4:31); Didache 1.6 also cites a proverb, “Let your gift sweat in your hands until you know to whom you give,” which recalls an admonition from Ben Sira: “If you do good, know to whom you do it, and you will be thanked for your good deeds” (Sir. 12:1).  The older sage had advised showing charitable generosity only to the righteous poor; the compilers of the Didache utilize the proverb to urge being a good steward of charity, taking care to bestow it on the genuinely needy.  Both Ben Sira and Tobit had promoted almsgiving as an atonement for sins (Sir. 3:30; Tob. 12:9), a motivation that also persists in Christian teaching (Did. 4.6). Gaudentius of Brescia (fl. 395) shows how well the ethical teaching of Tobit and Jesus might be combined in the early church as affirms the atoning power of almsgiving and connects this with Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus: “Not out of malice but out of providence has God made you rich.  He intended that through your works of mercy you would again find medicine to treat the wounds of your sins.  ‘Certainly alms freely given preserve one from death and purify from every sin.’  The rich man was not tormented because he was rich but because Lazarus suffered hunger while he feasted.”[7] Examples of how Ben Sira and Tobit’s ethical precepts pervaded early Christian discourse could be multiplied exponentially.[8]

            Early Christian writers frequently look to the characters encountered in the Apocrypha as models for piety (which was itself a cardinal value in Greco-Roman ethics).  Already at the end of the first century, Clement of Rome presents Judith alongside Esther as examples of women who, “being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed many manly deeds” (1 Clem. 55.3), pointing to their piety as the root of their strength.  He was clearly reading the expanded, Greek edition of Esther, for he marks Esther’s preparation, how “through her fasting and her humiliation she entreated the all-seeing Master, the God of the ages” (1 Clem. 55.4-6).  Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) similarly holds up Esther, with her “perfect prayer to God,” as a model of the faith and service to the cause of God and his people to which Christians of both genders can attain (Strom. 4.19).  His student, Origen (c. 185-254), likewise points to Tobit and Azariah as models for proper prayer, mingling petition with praise of God, though he adds the example of Hannah from 1 Samuel specifically because the authority of the additions to Daniel and of Tobit are disputed ( On Prayer 14.4).  Cyprian of Carthage (fl. 250) commends the example of Tobit to parents among his congregations, who should be as attentive to giving their children sound instructions for life and piety (Works and Almisgiving 20).

            A number of texts from the Apocrypha not only modeled prayer for the faithful but entered into early Christian liturgical practice.  Most notable among these is the Prayer of Manasseh, a moving penitential psalm, that is preserved and prescribed for use in the Didascalia (3rd c.) and the Apostolic Constitutions (4th c.).  The Prayer of Manasseh appears alongside the two liturgical additions to Daniel, namely the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, in a book entitled “Odes” in the fifth-century Greek Bible now known as Codex Alexandrinus.  The book consists of liturgical pieces culled from the whole of scripture (along with an additional “Morning Hymn”) and appears immediately following the book of Psalms as a kind of early “hymnal supplement.”

            A cluster of texts among the Apocrypha address the issue of Gentile religious practice and seek to reinforce their Jewish (especially Diaspora Jewish) readers’ insulation against thinking that there might be something to such practice, since so many of their neighbors carry out their rites with such evident devotion.  These texts would include the Letter of Jeremiah (a short but potent tirade), portions of Wisdom of Solomon 13-15 (a more thoughtful attempt at deconstruction), and the tale of Bel and the Dragon (a more satirical, even farcical, presentation of the theme).  Christian leaders found these works equally suitable for encouraging the Christian heirs to the Jewish commitment to one and only one God to persevere in abstaining from the religious practices around them (indeed, that many of them had personally left behind).  Wisdom of Solomon sought to delegitimate Greco-Roman idolatrous cults by explaining their very human origins, for example in the desire of the bereaved to memorialize their dead or the desire to flatter monarchs.  These explanations reappear in the work of Minucius Felix (Octavius 20.5; c. 200) and Lactantius (Inst. 2.2–3; c. 300). It is difficult to demonstrate a direct link, but the fact that Wisdom was widely read in the early church makes it the most likely source. Writing in the second century, Aristides drew upon the scathing logic of Letter of Jeremiah in his assault on Greco-Roman practice, centered on the impotence of idols to help themselves.  Their neighbors “shut [their gods] up together in shrines, and worship them, calling them gods, even though they have to guard them securely for fear they should be stolen by robbers. . . . If their gods are unfit to look after their own safety, how shall they bestow protection upon others?” (Apologia 3; cf. Let. Jer. 18, 49, 57–58).  After his own conversion to Christianity in the early fourth century, Firmicus Maternus also attacked pagan religion reciting portions of the Letter of Jeremiah (De errore profanarum religionum 28.4–5; cf. Let. Jer.  5–10, 21–24, 28–31, 50–57).[9]

            It was, of course, precisely this withdrawal from their neighbors’ gods – this flagrant display of atheism, as their neighbors counted it – that early Christians from Gentile backgrounds met with increasing hostility.  Here, too, their shepherds found a great deal of inspiration and encouragement from the books of the Apocrypha to help them remain firm in their loyalty and commitment.  Tertullian (c. 225) recites Letter of Jeremiah 6—“Say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship’” —as the unshakable commitment that allowed Daniel’s three companions to face the bitter consequences of refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Scorpiace 8; cf. Dan. 3:16–18).  His near-contemporary Hippolytus read the tale of Susanna allegorically as a depiction of the contest of the early church against its pagan and Jewish antagonists, who sought to denounce and eliminate her.  He reads Susanna’s statement of her predicament and stance and finds there the plight of every Christian martyr: “I am completely trapped. For if I do this, it will mean death for me; if I do not, I cannot escape your hands” (Susanna 22-23, NRSV).[10]

            By far the most important texts for Christian martyrs, however, were 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:42 and 4 Maccabees, which focused on nine Jews who endured grisly tortures to the point of death rather than renounce their loyalty to the covenant God.  The story of these martyrs, woven as it was into the larger story of the Maccabean Revolt and the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple celebrated annually during the festival of Hanukkah, were well known in Jewish circles and in early Christian communities.  The so-called Letter to the Hebrews was written to Christians who had endured significant deprivation and hardship as a result of their allegiance to Jesus, encouraging them to persevere in that allegiance.  As part of his exhortation, the author presents a series of exemplars of faith-in-action.  Toward the climax of this segment, he contrasts the faith of those mothers who received back their dead children through resuscitation (as in the stories of the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kgs. 17:17-24 and the Shunammite woman in 2 Kgs. 4:18-37) with that of “others [who] were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection” (Heb. 11:35, NRSV).  The author refers here to the martyrs known from 2 Macc 6:18-7:42, especially the seven brothers whose defiance of the tyrant is grounded in their conviction that God will restore their bodies in an everlasting existence as a reward for their faithfulness (2 Macc. 7:9, 11, 14, 23, 29), which is indeed “better” than resuscitation to the moribund life of this age.

            As hostility against the early church rose to the pitch of empire-wide persecutions in the third century, the example of these martyrs became ever more important and useful – even as Christian themselves were increasingly facing similarly gruesome experiences in the course of inquiries and executions.  Origen of Alexandria turned to their example during the emperor Maximin’s persecution of Christian clergy (c. 235) in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, written to encourage two young deacons named Ambrose and Protoktetos to remain steadfast in the face of torture and death (see Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.28).  Origen alternately paraphrased and recited portions of the account of the martyrs’ contest in 2 Macc 6:18-7:42 closely, notably referring to these as examples taken “from the Scripture” (Exh. 27), conferring that level of authority upon 2 Maccabees.  Origen also drew upon 4 Maccabees as a secondary resource throughout his Exhortation.  That text provided him with the images of the “noble contest” (4 Macc. 16:16) as well as the idea that the martyr’s death represented the “perfection” of a life nobly and faithfully lived (4 Macc. 7:15), both images by which he could encourage the deacons to face martyrdom not as victims but as active contenders and witness-bearers (Exh. 18, 28).  Origen also appeals to the same logic that one finds in 4 Maccabees, namely that showing loyalty to God to the point of death is an appropriate expression of gratitude to the Gog who gave the gift of life in the first place (Origen, Exh. 28; 4 Macc. 13:13; 16:18–19).[11]  During a persecution launched by Valerian in 256 CE, Cyprian of Carthage also turned to the story of the Maccabean martyrs (from 2 Maccabees) to encourage his congregations to hold fast for the sake of the faith (Exhortation to Martyrdom 11).  Their example was so valued that they rose to the stature of Christian saints, celebrated on August 1 – the only pre-Christian figures so honored.  While some objected to the practice, both Augustine and Chrysostom defended these martyrs’ right to recognition for having endured so bravely for piety’s sake even before Christ had overcome death and conquered its fearsomeness (thus Chrysostom, Sermon on Eleazar and the Seven Boys, 5; see also Augustine, City of God 18.36).

Christian teachers continued to return to 2 Maccabees 6-7 and, more especially, 4 Maccabees long after Constantine’s edicts of toleration quenched the flames of persecution.  With the threat of martyrdom removed, Christian leaders focused more explicitly on the original ethical goal that motivated the author of 4 Maccabees himself, namely to affirm God-centered reason’s mastery over the passions – the emotions, cravings, and sensations that could lead one to relinquish virtue and indulge vice. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), for example, drew extensively upon 4 Maccabees in his treatise On Jacob and the Blessed Life, promoting virtue and mastery of the passions as the marks of any life that could be called “happy” or “blessed.”  He opens his work with an elaborative paraphrase of 4 Macc. 1:1-3:18 (De Jacob 1.1.1-1.3.8) and, after finally discussing the example of the patriarch Jacob, returns to a lengthy reflection upon the contests of the nine martyrs, largely following 4 Maccabees but showing clear awareness of 2 Maccabees as well, to underscore the power that reason can exercise over the flood of the passions (De Jacob 2.10.43-2.12.57).  Ambrose, however, appears to draw a distinction between 4 Maccabees and canonical texts: as he transitions from the material he has borrowed and developed from 4 Maccabees, he states his intention to turn next to examples from “Scripture” that will also demonstrate the teachability of particular virtues (De Jacob 1.3.9).  This suggests that he did not think himself to be drawing upon “scriptural” resources up to that point.  At the same time, the distinction does not diminish the obvious value and utility he believes 4 Maccabees to possess for the edification of his Christian audience.

Gregory of Nazianzus (fl. 372-89) and John Chrysostom both preached sermons upon 4 Maccabees, applying its principal lesson to Christian audiences: the example of the martyrs’ victory over the most extreme pains and emotions should spur the hearers on to display the same endurance in resisting “anger, greed, lust, empty pride, and all other such things,” so that they might similarly be crowned before God (Gregory, Or. 15, In Maccabaeorem laudem; John Chrysostom, De Maccabaeos homiliae; De Eleazaro et de septum pueris; quote from Chrysostom, De Maccabaeos homiliae 1, 11). For all his own scruples concerning the precise authority that ought to be ascribed to these texts, Jerome also cites 4 Maccabees as proof that reason can “overcome and rule the disturbances of the soul” (Dialogus adversus Pelagianos 2.6). Fourth Maccabees thus comes to be used to support New Testament authors’ exhortations that Christians should contend against the “self with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:25) and against the “passions that wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11, my translation).[12]

Discovering Further Prophecies Concerning the Christ and His Work

Just as early Christians pored over the books of the Hebrew canon, reading the texts for intimations of the fulfillment of the scriptural hope that they had found in Jesus the Christ, they gave the same attention to other Jewish texts held in high esteem among them for signs that the shape of Jesus’ Messiahship was indeed the outworking of a divine plan announced long before. 

Several church fathers seized upon Baruch 3:35–37 as a prophecy of the incarnation – the scandalous notion that the immortal and immutable God would take on physical form: “This is our God; no other can be compared to him. He found the whole way to knowledge, and gave her to his servant Jacob and to Israel, whom he loved. Afterward she [he?] appeared on earth and lived with humankind” (NRSV).  The NRSV (rightly) translates the subject of the last verse as “she,” understanding the verse to pick up on the career of “Wisdom.”  The Greek, however, does not specify the gender of the subject and most church fathers read the verse as a continuation of the action of God, the subject of the preceding verse.  Thus here, according to Irenaeus (for example), we find “the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by human beings and interacting with them on the earth” (Haer. 4.20.4).[13] Here was a prediction not merely of the appearance of a Messiah, but of the coming of a divine being in human flesh.  

            A passage in the Wisdom of Solomon – a product of the Hellenistic Jewish Diaspora that also has impressive parallels with Pauline texts (compare Rom. 1:18-32 with Wis 13:1–9; 14:22–27) – also attracted considerable attention as a prophecy about the suffering and degrading death that “the righteous one” would suffer. 

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord… and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture …. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” (Wis. 2:12-13, 16-20)

The author of Wisdom of Solomon was speaking about the mindset that possessed apostate Jews, who had become self-seeking animals, toward the Torah-observant Jews in their midst that were a living reproach to them.  His description of the righteous person as God’s son, however, and the plot to impose a shameful death upon this one, led Christians to see herein a reflection – indeed a prediction – of Jesus’ story.  Augustine, for example, found “the passion of Christ is most openly prophesied” here in a speech that could just as easily have been uttered by “his impious murderers” (City of God 17.20).[14] 

            Early church fathers found not only predictions about Christ but also about the work of the church and the consummation of God’s kingdom in several passages from the Apocrypha (alongside texts from the books of the Hebrew canon).  Augustine (Civ. 17.20) read the opening of a prayer in Ben Sira, in which the Jewish sage asked God to “put all the nations in fear of you” and make them come to “know, as we have known, that there is no God but you” (Sir. 36:1-5) as a prophecy “in the form of a wish and a prayer.”  The fulfillment came not through God’s intervention to consume the nations in God’s wrath, but through God’s intervention to illumine them with the light of God in Christ, fulfilled in the church’s proclamation of the good news among the nations.  In his dispute with those who held that God’s kingdom was a spiritual, heavenly reality only, Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202) cited the vision of the restored Jerusalem in Baruch 4:36-5:9 as proof that God would yet establish his kingdom on earth, for God would “show [Jerusalem’s] splendor everywhere under heaven” (5:3; see Adv. Haer. 5.35.1-2). His use of Baruch in a theological debate far from incidentally shows that he himself regarded this book to carry the authority accorded scripture and that he expected that his disputants would as well.  Along with the Letter of Jeremiah, Baruch tended to be regarded as an extension of Jeremiah’s own prophetic work, since Baruch was Jeremiah’s scribe (Jer. 36:4-10, 26, 32).  This is indeed Irenaeus’s assumption in the passage in question, but it was pervasive in the early church (see also Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 1.10.91–92; Lactantius, Inst. 4.38; Methodius, Symposium of the Ten Virgins 8.3; Fulgentius of Ruspe, Letters 17.10.18; Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 4.42; John Chrysostom, Commentary on Isaiah 1.3).  The result was that even some church fathers who regarded Tobit and Ben Sira, for example, to occupy a second tier of authority tended to accept Baruch and Letter of Jeremiah as part of Jeremiah’s corpus (along with the longer, Greek forms of Daniel and Esther).

The Use of the Apocrypha for Early Christian Theology

            While Jerome would urge that the books of the Apocrypha be read for general edification but not for the development or confirmation of doctrine, these books had already made (and would continue to make) significant contributions to the emerging theology of the church. One can find traces of this process at work already within the writings of the New Testament themselves as their authors continued to reflect upon the person and work of Jesus.  As Christian thinkers pushed beyond regarding Jesus as merely “born” but also as having been “sent” in some sense prior to that birth, they found the raw material for their expressions concerning the pre-incarnate being and activity of the Son in Jewish texts reflecting on the figure of “Wisdom.” Proverbs already presented Wisdom in personified form inviting disciples to seek her and speaking about her role beside God in creation itself (see esp. Prov. 8:22-31).  The author of Wisdom of Solomon, writing within a few decades of the turn of the era, had developed this theology of Wisdom considerably farther.  Writing in the persona of Solomon, the famed student of Wisdom, he says:

“Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me…. because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” (Wis. 7:22, 24-26 NRSV)

The relationship of Wisdom to God gave early Christian theologians the images they needed to speak about the relationship of the pre-incarnate Son to the Father.  In one of his most elevated reflections about the Son, Paul speaks of him as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), attributing to the Son agency in creation and the ordering of creation (Col. 1:16-17).  The author of Hebrews, also within Paul’s circle (see Heb. 13:23), also speaks of the Son as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” and as the agent through whom creation happened (Heb. 1:2-3, NRSV).  Both authors attribute to the Son an ongoing role in sustaining or governing creation, as the older text did in regard to the figure of Wisdom (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; Wis. 7:27; 8:1). Immediately after the New Testament period, Ignatius of Antioch used material from Wis. 7:29–30 and 18:14–15 when he spoke of Christ’s manifestation (Ign. Eph. 19.2–3; Ign. Magn. 8.2).

            Christian theologians through the fourth century (and beyond) would continue to return to this passage from Wisdom alongside texts whose authority was not in dispute as they worked out their positions on the relationship between the persons of the Trinity – positions that came to be enshrined in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.  In their debate with the Arian position, the equation of the Son with Wisdom proved particularly useful.  Ambrose, for example, wrote:

“Arius asserts that the Father is different from the Son.  He maintains that the Father generated someone who is different from him, as though he were incapable of generating someone like himself.  The prophets say, “In your light we see light.”  They say, “He is a reflection [or, “he is the radiance”] of the eternal light, an unspotted mirror of the majesty of God and an image of his goodness.”  See in how many ways they speak.  “Radiance,” because the brightness of the Father’s light is in the Son.  “Unspotted mirror,” since the Father is visible in the Son.  “Image of his goodness,” since it is not one body seen reflected in another but the whole power of the Godhead in the Son.  “Image” teaches that here is no difference.” (On the Christian Faith 1.7.48-49; tr. Voicu, Apocrypha, 99).

Ambrose includes Wisdom among the books of prophetic inspiration.  Its figure of the relationship between a light source and the light emitted was critically important for establishing the equality and the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son.  Thus Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264) reasoned that if the Son is “an emanation of the power of God” (Wis 7:25), as the “radiance” from God’s light (Heb 1:3), the Son and the Father must share in the same eternal nature since an eternal light source will eternally emit radiance (To Dionysius of Rome 4).  The Son is thus “eternally begotten of the Father, Light from Light, true God from true God,” in the words of the Creed – words that would come to enshrine the phrase inspired by reflections such as those by Dionysius:

“Because the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, since he is light from light… God is light, Christ is radiance” (To Dionysius of Rome 4).[15] 

            These same metaphors bespeak the identity of the unity of essence shared by the Father and the Son, such that they are not two beings, but one.  As Augustine would argue, again on the basis of Wisdom of Solomon, “It is said of his wisdom that ‘it is the splendor of the eternal light’… If you could separate the sun’s splendor from the sun itself, so also could you separate the Word from the Father” (Tract. in Joh. 20.13).[16] Thus Wisdom supported the affirmation of the Creed that, the Son is “of one being with the Father.”  Against the claim that the Fourth Gospel’s depiction of the Son as “sent” by the Father (see, famously, John 3:16) implies the Son’s inferiority or subordination to the Father, Augustine argued that “the Son is sent, not because he is not equal to the Father but because he is ‘a pure emanation of the light of God’ almighty.  Here what is emanated and that from which it emanates are of one, identical being,” and therefore exhibit complete equality (On the Trinity 4.20.27).[17] Similarly, Quodvultdeus (fl. 430) argues that the Son “reaches in strength from one corner of the earth to the other, ordering all things well” – applying Wis. 8:1 to the Son – argues for the Son’s equality with the Father, as he displays the same omnipresence and omnipotence (On the New Song 7.1-17). Wisdom of Solomon thus proved very useful for the affirmation of core Christian doctrines concerning the Trinity and the person of Christ.[18]

Conclusion: The Authority of the Apocrypha in the Early Church

            The widespread use of these texts generated conversations about their level of authority, and it is important to recognize that many of those early voices that believed they should be accorded a level of authority below that of other books nevertheless continued to use them regularly for a wide variety of pastoral ends. A major question in this conversation concerned whether the decisions made by Jewish community concerning the canonical scriptures that would enjoy the highest level of authority among them ought to inform Christian decisions about the extent of their “Old Testament.” 

Melito of Sardis (d. 190) answered the question in the affirmative, for the narrower canon emerged in “the place where it all happened and the truth was proclaimed” (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 4.26.7).[19]  Jerome (d.420) would champion this position as a result of his own close study of the Hebrew texts and canon (having learned Hebrew there from a resident rabbi) during his years resident in Bethlehem working on the Latin translation that would become known as the Vulgate. At issue here was not only the question of books like Tobit and Ben Sira, which stood completely outside the Hebrew canon, but also those parts or textual traditions of books that differed from the forms in the Hebrew canon.  Thus in his prefaces to Daniel and Esther, for example, Jerome carefully noted the absence of large portions of both from the Hebrew text that he himself regarded as the authoritative form.  Jerome nevertheless affirmed a place for the outside books, which he designated “ecclesiastical” rather than “apocryphal” in light of their longstanding use in and value to the Christian Church. 

            In an important exchange of letters between Julius Africanus and Origen (d. 254), Origen affirmed that usage in the Christian churches was a more important factor in determining the canonical authority that books or forms of books should enjoy.  While he was himself deeply aware of the differences between the Hebrew and Greek text traditions of the Old Testament as a result of his work on his Hexapla, he argued that it would be wrong to abandon the forms of Daniel and Esther that had nurtured Christian communities for over a century and a half.  His final word is theological, to trust the providence of the God who had redeemed the Christian churches at the cost of his own Son’s death in regard to the textual tradition that had come down to those churches (Epistula ad Africanum 4-5). 

            Augustine fervently championed the scriptural authority of the disputed books against the claims of his contemporary, Jerome.  In his On Christian Doctrine, he affirmed that canonical authority must be determined by usage among the Christian churches.  Those books that were accorded such authority by all or a majority of churches were to be regarded as canonical, that is, the measure by which other books and statements concerning Christian faith and practice are to be evaluated.  Where there is some dispute, the opinion of the largest number of churches, particularly where those of weightiest authority agree, was to be followed (2.8.12).  He therefore listed Tobit, Judith, 1 & 2 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and the Wisdom of Solomon among the books of the Old Testament, as these had broadly gained “recognition as being authoritative” (2.8.13).  The additions to Daniel and Esther were naturally included in the form of each book used in the West.  The Third Council of Carthage would affirm Augustine’s position in 397 CE.

            The boundaries of the Christian Old Testament would continue to display some flexibility, as evidenced by the slightly different contents of the three great surviving Septuagint codices from the 4th and 5th centuries. Nevertheless, esteem for, and the use and influence of, the collection that would come to be called “the Apocrypha” continued despite ongoing discussion of their canonical authority, even in the early history of the Protestant churches led by the great Reformers.[20] 

[1] Jude’s recitation of 1 Enoch 1.9 (see Jude 14-15) is a noteworthy exception, though there he refers to a text that stands outside of the standard collection we call “Apocrypha.”

[2] On the authenticity of these sayings, see D. A. deSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude: What Earliest Christianity Learned from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Oxford and New York: Oxford University, 2012), 72-74 and the literature therein discussed.

[3] For further discussion of Ben Sira and his potential influence on the teachings both of Jesus and his half-brother James, see deSilva, Jewish Teachers, 58-85; on the potential influence of several of the Apocrypha across the New Testament, see D. A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Content, and Significance (2nd edition; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 8-14, 79-81, 157-59, 206-10.

[4] The five fragments of the book of Tobit found among the Dead Sea Scrolls provide physical evidence that this text was also read in Israel during the time of Jesus and the growth of his movement there.

[5] See Solomon Schechter “The Quotations from Ecclesiasticus in Rabbinic Literature,” JQR 3 (1891): 682–706; J. R. Labendz, “The Book of Ben Sira in Rabbinic Literature,” AJSR 30 (2006): 347–92; Lee McDonald, The Formation of the Biblical Canon.  Volume 1: The Old Testament (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 396-400. 

[6] Quotations from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).

[7] Trans. Voicu, Apocrypha, 27.

[8]See the collection of excerpts from the patristic period citing and interpreting Tobit and Ben Sira in Voicu, Apocrypha, 1-33, 176–415.

[9] Carey D. Moore, Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1977), 324.

[10] See Hippolytus, Comm. Dan. 1.14.4–6; 1.20.1–3; 1.23.23; texts in Voicu, Apocrypha, 462–65.  P. Boitani (“Susanna in Excelsis,” pp. 7-19 in E. Spolsky, ed., The Judgment of Susanna [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996], 11–17) offers a helpful discussion.

[11] On the possible influence of 4 Maccabees on the reflections of, or upon, the earlier Christian martyrs Ignatius of Antioch (d. c. 110) and Polycarp of Smyrna (d. 154), see deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 420-21. 

[12] On the influence of 2 and 4 Maccabees, see further: Raphaëlle Ziadé, Les martyrs Maccabées: de l’histoire juive au culte chretien: Les homelies de Gregoire de Nazianze et de Jean Chrysostome (Leiden: Brill, 2007); Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkowski, Christian Memories of the Maccabean Martyrs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); D. A. deSilva, Fourth Maccabees and the Promotion of the Jewish Philosophy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020), 182-210. Translations of the major patristic works are available in John J. O’Meara,Origen: Prayer, Exhortation to Martyrdom (Westminster, MD.: Newman, 1954); St. Ambrose, Seven Exegetical Works (tr. Michael P. McHugh; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1972); St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Select Orations (tr. Martha Vinson; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2017); and St. John Chrysostom, The Cult of the Saints: Selected homilies and letters (tr. Wendy Mayer; Yonkers, NY: Vladimir Press, 2006).

[13] Translation from Voicu, Apocrypha, 432.  See also Athenagoras, Legatio pro Christianis 9; Cyprian, Exhortation to Martyrdom 2.6; Lactantius, Divine Institutes 4.13; Epitome 44; Athanasius, Against the Arians, Discourse 1, 13.53; Discourse 2, 19.49; Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith 1.3.28, 2.9.80; Chrysostom, Hom. Matt. 2.2; 19.12; Apostolic Constitutions 5.3.20; Gregory of Nazianzen, Or. 30.13; Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 4.42; 5.39; Jerome, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed 5; Quodvultdeus, The Book of Promises and Predictions of God 3.3; Augustine, Civ. 18.33. Voicu (Apocrypha, 416–38) provides a good sampling of excerpts.

[14] See also Origen, Homilies on Exodus 6.1; Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 11.2; Hilary of Poitiers, Homilies on the Psalms 41.12; Ambrose, Expositions on the Psalms 35.3; Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms 48.1.11.  Most of these passages may be found in Voicu, Apocrypha, 49-52.

[15] Trans. from Voicu, Apocrypha, 99.

[16] Trans. from Voicu, Apocrypha, 100. See also Ambrose, On the Christian Faith, 1.7.48-49; Gregory of Elvira, On the Faith 5; Augustine, On the Trinity 4.20.27. 

[17] Trans. from Voicu, Apocrypha, 100.

[18]See further the fine discussion of the use of Wisdom in the patristic period in Moyna McGlynn, Divine Judgement and Divine Benevolence in the Book of Wisdom (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeckm 2001), 237–45.

[19] Eusebius, The History of the Church (tr. G. A. Williamson; London: Penguin, 1965), 189.

[20] For a fuller account of the question of the level of authority accorded the books of the Apocrypha in the synagogue and church, see deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, 14-30.

“We Are Debtors”: Grace and Obligation in Paul and Seneca

(Published as pp. 150-78 in Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, eds., Paul and Seneca in Dialogue.  Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017.  Bracketed numbers in bold refer to page numbers in the published version of this essay.)

“Paul knows no gift of God which does not convey both the obligation and the capacity to serve.”[1]

           With these words, Ernst Käsemann concisely captures the essence of grace, and Paul’s understanding of God’s grace in particular, when rightly understood from within the cultural context, lived social experiences and relationships, and ethical reflection of the first-century Roman Mediterranean.  God’s gift or favor is not a one-way transaction; it is an act that creates relationship with, and makes living out that relationship possible for, human beings.  The perfect gift-in-isolation is not the goal of givers in the first century CE.[2]  The perfect gift that creates, solidifies, celebrates, and deepens relationships of trust, loyalty, and mutuality is the goal of the most enlightened givers in the Greek and Roman periods. 

           In such a context, reciprocity – the moral obligation of a person to respond favorable and generously to one who has shown favor and generosity to that person – is not a theological problem.  It is, rather, an indispensable facet of how God’s grace “works” to reconcile human beings, to restore the relationship human beings ought to have lived out before their Creator from the beginning, and to transform the self-centered, self-serving person into a person whose just acts and other-centered orientation received God’s verdict of “righteous” when he judges all impartially.  God’s acts of favor initiate an ongoing relationship of mutuality; God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom Christ, God’s righteous one, comes to life in each person, empowers human beings to live out this relationship of mutuality.

            [151] This essay is concerned primarily with the ethics of receiving and returning favor for favor shown and the degree to which the ethic evidenced in Seneca, our primary exemplar, permeates Paul’s understanding of God’s gracious interventions in humanity’s situation and the way human beings ought to respond to these interventions (though important distinctions remain between these two ethicists).  In particular, it is concerned with the relationship between an act of favor and the obligation to respond appropriately both in social relationships between human beings and, conceptually at least, in relationships with the divine in both authors. Like many modern theologians in their reservations about linking grace and obligation too closely, Seneca is deeply concerned to protect the virtue and beauty of giving from the kind of calculation that turns a gift into a loan, an attitude of which he is highly critical.  It is equally clear, however, that he would not countenance recipients of favor claiming, ostensibly so as to protect the integrity of the giver’s generosity, that they have received a gift but have no obligation to the giver and no absolute moral demand upon them to make a return.  Indeed, ancient ethicists univocally urge the opposite, and so does Paul.

Seneca on the obligation of gratitude

           Seneca is pointed and unambiguous in his view of the moral obligation of returning favor where favor has been shown: “The giving of a benefit is a social act, it wins the goodwill of someone, it lays someone under obligation” (Ben. 5.11.5).  Seneca refers here to one and the same “someone.”  A gift, whether it consists of material assistance, social influence, or any other form of kindness, most naturally arouses reciprocal feelings of goodwill and appreciation in the one benefited.  Thus “favor (χάρις) gives birth to favor (χάριν),” as Sophocles expresses the natural cycle (Ajax 522).  At the same time, a gift necessitates this very response.  The gift creates an obligation to respond graciously, such that Seneca can refer to the “debt of gratitude” or “owing favor.”[3]  Or, in [152] the words of Euripides, “favor (χάρις) is due for favor (ἀντὶ χάριτος)” (Helen 1234).[4] 

           How can both be true at the same time?  First, let it be admitted that Seneca almost delights in creating paradoxes in his discussion of patronage and friendship and the ethos of reciprocity that creates and maintains these relationships, defying neat systematization (not unlike Paul!).[5]  As in many of those paradoxes, however, the variable is the person whom Seneca visualizes as he speaks.  In the virtuous person who is most attuned to the value of another’s grace and favor, the desire to reciprocate arises naturally without constraint or sense of being burdened; an act of grace “conceives” within such a person a response of gratitude that, in due course, gives birth to a favor in return.  The person who is more self-orientated and inclined to gain rather than to virtue, on the other hand, needs to hear and heed the warning: “Not to return gratitude for benefits is a disgrace, and the whole world counts it as such” [153] (Ben. 3.1.1).[6]  To live as a person of the first type is best, as there is no moral state more blessed than to desire to do what one ought to do.  But, failing that, Seneca will not allow a person to think that he or she may both receive a benefit and also keep back all of himself or herself from the giver.[7]  To do so undermines the primary purpose of favor in the ancient world, which is to create and maintain relationships.[8]  Troels Engberg-Pedersen captures this with poetic aptness and beauty: “The mutual emotional attitude and relationship between giver and receiver … defined the gift element in those acts.  By giving, accepting, and returning benefits between one another, giver and receiver establish, support, and give expression to a personal involvement with one another that generates a space of sharing and community within which they may live.”[9] 

           This is a facet of patronage, friendship, and benefaction that theologians and exegetes guided by certain, typically Protestant theological commitments tend to neglect.  Showing favor and responding with gratitude are not about trying to even out a score or settle accounts or earn future favors or manipulate outcomes.  These practices are about creating relationships of a certain kind and quality and enjoying the wide range of the fruits of such relationships.  Seneca writes that “a benefit is a common bond and binds two persons together” (Ben. 6.41.2).  Because of the social bond that is created by the exchange of favor, “I must be far more careful in selecting my creditor for a benefit than a creditor for a loan.  For to the latter I shall have to return the same amount that I have received, and, when I have returned it, I have paid all my debt [154] and am free; but to the other I must make an additional payment, and, even after I have paid my debt of gratitude, the bond between us still holds.  [Thus] friendship endures”  (Ben. 2.18.5). The social interaction of giving and reciprocating is not a matter, or at least not merely a matter, of the exchange of commodities.  It cannot be reduced to transactions, as it creates a potentially long-lasting connection between the parties involved. Returning a favor is not “repayment,” hence “annulment” of debt.  It represents the ongoing refreshing of the relationship and its character of mutual favor and seeking to please and advance the interests of the other.[10] The practice, therefore, of giving and reciprocating benefits that permeates the first-century Roman world thus becomes “the practice that constitutes the chief bond of human society” (Ben. 1.4.2).  The cycling of gifts creates the social bonds just as surely as the circling of electrons creates molecular bonds, holding together the physical world.

            For a person in the first-century Roman Empire – more particularly, for a first-century recipient of grace – to regard an act of grace as a one-way transaction would be well nigh unthinkable.  If such a person were to regard it as such and leave it at that would be beyond reprehensible.  Rather, an act of grace was a snapshot within an ongoing and ever-flowing relationship – or, to use an image for the relationship current in the first century, a dance.  Although the ideal of reciprocity was often corrupted by the venality of individuals and in need of being recalled to its virtuous basis,[11] this ideal was readily available and ubiquitously inculcated.  One of the cultural icons of this institution and its ethos was the image of the Three Graces, the three goddesses dancing [155] hand-in-hand or arm-over-shoulder in a circle.  Seneca offers an exegesis of the image: “Some would have it appear that there is one for bestowing a benefit, another for receiving it, and a third for returning it…. Why do the sisters hand in hand dance in a ring which returns upon itself?  For the reason that a benefit passing in its course from hand to hand returns nevertheless to the giver; the beauty of the whole is destroyed if the course is anywhere broken, and it has most beauty if it is continuous and maintains an uninterrupted succession…. They are young because the memory of benefits ought not to grow old…. the maidens wear flowing robes, and these, too, are transparent because benefits desire to be seen” (Ben. 1.3.3-5). Seneca expresses hesitations regarding such moral allegorizing (see Ben. 1.3.6-10), or at least its overextension, but his moralizing interpretation of this image says something at the very least about contemporary thinking about grace and reciprocity.[12]  There is, however, also nothing here that is not explicitly affirmed elsewhere in Seneca’s own teachings. 

            Initiating the circle dance with a gift was a matter of choice on the part of the giver; showing gratitude and returning the favor for a gift once accepted was an absolute moral obligation.[13] Just as one partner’s dance step almost simultaneously precipitates the partner’s corresponding movement, “the man who intends to be grateful, immediately, while he is receiving, should turn his thought to repaying” (Ben. 2.25.3).[14]  There is opportunity even in the moment of receiving to allow grace to kindle grace. “When we have decided that we ought to accept, let us accept cheerfully, professing our pleasure and letting the giver have proof of it in order that he may reap instant reward; for, as it is a legitimate source of happiness [156] to see a friend happy, it is a more legitimate one to have made him so.  Let us show how grateful we are for the blessing that has come to us by pouring forth our feelings, and let us bear witness to them, not merely in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere.  He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt” (2.22[.1]). The first phrase is important: accepting is a matter of choice, and thus of personal responsibility (see Ben. 2.18.5, cited above).  Accepting the gift means accepting the relationship with – and the obligation to – the giver.  If one decides to dance, one must dance gracefully and in step with one’s partner.  The first response is one of joy, appreciation, and testimony.  An act of grace should redound to the fame of the giver, contributing positively to his or her reputation as a person of virtue (specifically, of the virtue of generosity).[15]  Saying “thank you” was not to be a private affair (or, at least, not only a private affair), but a broadly public one: “Waiting for there to be no witnesses before one renders thanks amounts to denying one’s obligation” (Ben. 2.23.2). 

           Displays of gratitude, appreciation, and honor were appropriate responses to the favor and goodwill of the giver, but the actual gift or assistance conferred also calls for some return.[16]  In personal relationships of friendship, where the parties were essentially social equals, it might be possible to find an opportunity to return a gift or assistance of equal or even greater value.[17]  In personal relationships of patronage, however, where one party was socially and/or economically inferior to the other, the junior party would nevertheless do what [157] was within his or her power to do by way of making a return – for example, giving even more attention to increasing the honor of the giver through personal testimony and, in Roman contexts, being visible among the giver’s entourage (Seneca, Ben. 2.22.1; 2.24.4),[18] and offering whatever service might be needed or requested by the patron (Seneca, Ben. 6.41.1-2). Returning a favor with a view to provoking a further favor is as ungracious as giving with a view to preparing the way for a particular return (Ben. 4.20.3).  There is no room in Seneca’s thought for a do ut des (“I give so that you might give”) strategy; it must always be do quia dedisti (“I give because you have given”) or do ut tibi placet (“I give in order to please you”).

            Sometimes the dance step was rigorous, even demanding.  Gratitude required loyalty to one’s partner in a grace relationship, even when costly.  “There is advantage in being grateful; yet I shall be grateful even if it harms me,” if, for example, association with the person to whom I am indebted has become unpopular (Ben. 4.20.1-2).  The ingrate reasons: “I should have liked to return gratitude, but I fear the expense, I fear the danger, I shrink from giving offence; I would rather consult my own interest” (Ben. 4.24.2).  The bond of favor and gratitude was to be held inviolable, certainly above any considerations of self-interest: “If you wish to make a return for a favor, you must be willing to go into exile, or to pour forth your blood, or to undergo poverty, or,…even to let your very innocence be stained and exposed to shameful slanders”(Seneca, Ep. 81.27).[19]

            Receiving favor without reciprocating – without feeling grateful, bearing witness to the value of this act of favor, and being watchful for opportunities to benefit in return – was simply ugly.  It defaced grace.  Seneca indulges a bit further in his use of the image of the Three Graces, commending one comment from Chrysippus, who “urges us by saying that, in view of the fact that the Graces are the daughters of Jupiter, we should fear that by showing a lack of gratitude we might become guilty of sacrilege and do an injustice to such beautiful maidens!” (Ben. 1.4.4).[20]  Seneca classed it as the worst of anti-social crimes: “Homicides, tyrants, thieves, adulterers, robbers, sacrilegious men, and [158] traitors there always will be; but worse than all these is the crime of ingratitude” (Ben. 1.10.4).[21]

           Ingratitude was also highly imprudent.  Even though patrons and benefactors were to give in the interest of the recipient and not in their own interest (Seneca, Ben. 1.2.3; 4.29.3), they had limited resources and needed to give wisely—that is, to individuals or groups that understood how to be grateful (Seneca, Ben. 1.1.2; 3.11.1).[22] The person who understood how to show gratitude developed a kind of positive credit rating in the eyes of future benefactors (Seneca, Ben. 4.18.1),[23] whereas the ingrate was recognized to be poor soil for the crop of favor: “That which must go to a beneficiary of my own choosing will not be given to a man whom I know to be ungrateful” (Ben. 4.28.6).  Snubbing those who have shown favor would potentially diminish the willingness to extend favor on the part of the snubbed and those who have become aware of the snubbing.  While Seneca himself would urge his readers not to allow the vice of others to diminish their own commitment to acting virtuously (specifically, by extending favor and acting generously), it was nevertheless a danger of which he was aware and which he used to caution his readers against ever thinking it advantageous to refrain from returning the favor (Ben. 4.18.1-2).[24]

           Though there was no law on the basis of which gratitude might be compelled or ingratitude punished – indeed, if there were such a possibility the return of favor would no longer be favor (Seneca, Ben. 3.7.1-3) – the sanction of the general contempt of all virtuous people reinforced each individual’s commitment to act nobly as a recipient of favor and to honor the grace relationship (see especially Seneca, Ben. 3.17.1-3; 4.16.2).  Conversely, the affirmation of all virtuous people would provide positive reinforcement in this regard: “What is so praiseworthy, upon what are all our minds so uniformly agreed, as the repayment of good services with gratitude?” (Ben. 4.16.3).

           Critics of attempts to read Paul’s discussions about God’s grace against the background of reciprocity in the Greco-Roman world sometimes seek to [159] distinguish the social practice from God’s giving by pointing out that God’s favor is so immense that it cannot be repaid, almost drawing the corollary that it is pointless for the recipients of God’s favor to regard it as their absolute duty to try.  Seneca, however, is well acquainted with the case of the gift that cannot be repaid. Patrons and benefactors typically had all the resources necessary to out-give their clients. Clients nonetheless would be expected to reciprocate for the benefits they received regardless of their benefactor’s wealth and self-sufficiency. These relationships were voluntary and asymmetrical involving “two parties of unequal status,” who exchange different goods and services.[25] Seneca writes: “No one is justified in making his weakness and his poverty an excuse for ingratitude, in saying: “What am I to do, and how begin?  When can I ever repay to my superiors, who are the lords of creation, the gratitude that is due?” It is easy to repay it – without expenditure if you are miserly, without labour if you are lazy; … for he who receives a benefit gladly has already returned it” (Ben. 2.30.2). The expression of joy, appreciation, and thankfulness is, once again, a good beginning.  The junior party will also respond by giving the gift of increasing his or her patron’s reputation: “I shall never be able to repay to you my gratitude, but, at any rate, I shall not cease from declaring everywhere that I am unable to repay it” (Ben. 2.24.4).  The junior party can match the senior party’s devotion to the relationship, can show himself or herself just as intent on making as fulsome a return as possible as the giver was intent on making a pleasing and beautiful gift.[26]  Thus the giver’s act of favor irrevocably binds the recipient to himself or herself, and, indeed, binds the two parties together.  The recipient [160] will also devote himself or herself to looking for the opportunity to return the favor in some way, perhaps through a service, perhaps through a timely, if smaller-scaled, gift or intervention (Ben. 7.14.4, 6).  In such exchanges, Seneca guides the patron to regard the gift as having been returned and the recipient to understand that he or she has not yet made full and ample return (Ben 7.16.1, 4).  When the latter says “I have done all in my power,” Seneca says, “Well, keep on doing so” (Ben. 7.16.2). 

            Seneca describes the obligation of gratitude not as a burden, but as a delight – at least to the virtuous person who understands the nobility of generous giving and reciprocating and the value of the relationship that is the end served by the means of giving and reciprocating. “The grateful man delights in a benefit over and over, the ungrateful man but once.  But is it possible to compare the lives of these two?  For the one, as a disclaimer of debts and a cheat are apt to be, is downcast and worried.  He denies to his parents, to his protector, to his teachers, the consideration that is their due, while the other is joyous, cheerful, and, watching for an opportunity to repay his gratitude, derives great joy from this very sentiment, and seeks, not how he may default in his obligations, but how he may make very full and rich return” (Ben. 3.17.4). The “disclaimer of debts,” begrudging a return to the generous parties who have benefited him or her, regards the obligation of gratitude merely as a debt, something that will diminish his or her resources, freedom, and pleasure.  Seneca lampoons this person because these attitudes move in the opposite direction of investing in others and in the webs of relationships and mutual bonds that, in his view, weave a strong society.  The generous-hearted soul, by contrast, gives himself or herself to the social dance of grace and finds it to be a delight, no doubt, in large measure, because of the relationships that this dance is creating, cementing, extending.

Paul and the obligation to reciprocate within human relationships

           It might be objected that Seneca writes from and to the upper echelons of Roman society, and that the sentiments and relationships to which he gives [161] voice are far removed from the general population.  The ethos of reciprocity, however, though not its forms, permeated all levels of society, from the polis to the oikos, from senators to the agrarian peasant villages.[27]  It is therefore not surprising to find this ethos reflected in Paul’s letters to his congregations, all the more as Paul himself would have been located in the upper hues of this spectrum and the members of his congregation would reflect a broad palette of the same.[28] 

            Paul characterized his relationship with the Christians in Philippi as one of friendship.  They enjoy a “partnership” (κοινωνία, Phil 1:5) in the Gospel.  The Philippians have sent Paul material support to help him during a period of imprisonment in the hands of Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25; 4:14-20), showing themselves to be his partners (συγκοινωνήσαντές μου τῇ θλίψει, Phil 4:14) at a time of need.  Most tellingly, Paul speaks of them as the only congregation that has “enacted a relationship with me in the matter of giving and receiving” (ἐκοινώνησεν εἰς λόγον δόσεως καὶ λήμψεως, Phil 4:15), a classic invocation of the language of friendship qua a relationship of reciprocal assistance.  Given Paul’s evident attention to this relationship, it may be preferable to read his affirmation in Phil 1:7 as a statement as “all of you being my grace-partners” or “all of you sharing a relationship of grace with me,” rather than sharing together “in God’s grace,” as the NRSV renders this verse with a note acknowledging the absence of “God’s” as a qualifier in the text.[29] 

            [162] Paul’s assumptions about reciprocity are evident particularly in Phil 2:1-4, where he makes an admittedly unselfish request: “If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any experience of love’s consolation, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any experience of compassion or mercy, fill up the measure of my joy so that you may be like-minded, having the same love, harmonious, agreeing – nothing out of strife or empty conceit, but humbly considering one another to surpass yourselves, not looking out each one for his or her own interests but indeed each for the interests of the others.”[30] Paul’s request to “fill up the measure of my joy” that follows upon the “if” clauses commands attention here.  This clause could easily have been omitted, with Paul moving directly into imperatives to “be like-minded,” etc.[31]  Instead, he focuses the various individuals in the congregation, some of whom are clearly not disposed to “be like-minded” (4:2-3), on their debt of gratitude to their imprisoned friend, whose burden they now have the opportunity to ease beyond their material assistance by dealing with those internal problems that give him cause for concern or even grief.  The “if” clauses that serve as preamble to this request recall facets of the congregation’s experience of God’s favor and gifting and perhaps also the experience of intimate human fellowship that followed as a consequence.  These experiences are the direct consequences of Paul’s mediation of divine favor, effected in the preaching of the good news in Philippi and nurturing of this congregation in the new faith.  The propriety of reciprocating – even more fully than they have in the form of the gifts sent [163] through Epaphroditus – becomes an incentive to the believers to deal with the internal discord.  Love for Paul, their partner in the matter of giving and receiving, the partner who has connected them with the Divine Patron,[32] is expected to outweigh internal strife and lead to the restoration of harmony.

            Paul exhibits here a very subtle use of recalling benefits to harness the hearers’ sense of gratitude and obligation so as to motivate a particular return on [164] this new occasion.[33]  He is far less subtle when he writes to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus.  Indeed, by Seneca’s standards, Paul appears rather rude.  Onesimus has likely sought out Paul as a member of Philemon’s circle of friends and patrons, hoping that he might act as a mediator with Philemon in his situation.[34]  He would, nevertheless, have been in considerable danger had he been apprehended en route to Paul, and only a short letter protected him on his return.[35]

            Paul prominently acknowledges Philemon’s favors bestowed on fellow Christians (Phlm 5, 7), perhaps chiefly among those in the congregation meeting in his house (Phlm 1b-2).  He appeals to Philemon now on the basis of the latter’s reputation for and evident commitment to generosity, which Philemon’s “love,” perhaps here specifically the love of amicitia shared between Philemon and Paul, will no doubt support and make effective in this particular instance.  Nevertheless, Paul makes the claim that what he requests he could command (Phlm 8, 14), claiming a degree of superior status in the relationship and also hinting at the possibility of his putting that relationship explicitly on the line should his request be refused.

            The point at which the expectation of reciprocity becomes glaringly explicit is Phlm 17-20: “If, then, you hold me as a partner (κοινωνόν), receive him [Onesimus] as you would receive me.  And if he has wronged you in regard to any matter or owes you anything, charge this to me. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: ‘I will make compensation’ (in order that I may not say to you that you owe me your very self).  Yes, brother, I want to have this benefit from you in the Lord: refresh my heart in Christ!” Among other motivators, here we find Paul using a reminder of his own past benefactions to Philemon as an incentive for – even a rhetorical constraint upon – Philemon to grant Paul’s present request.[36]  Paul’s attempt at “not mentioning” this debt does not begin to soften the fact that he does mention it, and quite openly.[37]  There was a hint of this also in verse 13, where Paul asks Philemon to allow Onesimus to remain with Paul to serve him during his imprisonment in Philemon’s stead or on Philemon’s behalf (ὑπὲρ σοῦ).  The assumption here is that this service is owed Paul; the only question ought to be who will actually discharge this service.  Paul’s logic is simple: “this is your chance, Philemon, to show gratitude for my previous salutary interventions in your life; this is your chance to discharge that debt of gratitude, to give the next Grace a twirl in the dance of reciprocity.”  Once again, any friction in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus is swallowed up by the bond of friendship with Paul and the obligations to “make his joy complete.”

            [166] A third example of Paul’s expectations of reciprocity in human relationships, particularly extending to relationships within the Church, can be found in Romans 15:25-27: “And now I am going to Jerusalem to do service to the saints.  For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a certain connection[38] with the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem.  For it pleased them, and they are their debtors.  For if the Gentiles received a share in their [i.e., the Jerusalem Christians’] spiritual things, they [i.e., the Gentile Christians] owe it to them to be of service to them in physical things.” Here we find the clearest expression by Paul of the collection as an act of reciprocity, a response of gratitude to the “saints at Jerusalem” for the share the Gentile Christians have enjoyed in the Jewish Christian saints’ spiritual blessings. Interestingly, Paul invokes both topics found also in Seneca in discussing the giving of a benefit and its reception by the intended beneficiary, namely provoking reciprocal favor and incurring an obligation (see discussion of Ben. 5.11.5 above): the Gentile Christians “were pleased” to make this gift to the Christians in Jerusalem, and the Gentile Christians “are indebted” to them so as to do so.[39]

[167] Paul and the obligation to reciprocate in the divine-human relationship

            Greek and Roman ethicists placed the gods on a continuum with human benefactors; they were simply the greatest and most perfect givers of all.  Honoring the divine for its great and innumerable benefits was generally regarded as the appropriate – and essential – return.[40]  The premise of a debt of gratitude owed the deity is rooted not just in Greco-Roman ethics, but in the heritage of the Jewish Scriptures as well.  It is apparent, for example, in the first commandment: “I … brought you out of Egypt; you will have no gods before me” (Exod 20:2-3; Deut 5:6-7).  God’s act of deliverance calls for a response of exclusive loyalty and reverence for the Divine Benefactor.  Certain offerings are conceptualized as gifts “given back” to God in acknowledgment of God’s gifts (Num 18:9: LXX: ἀποδιδόασίν; MT: יָשִׁ֣יבוּ ).  The psalmist asks the rhetorical but necessary question: “What shall I give to the Lord in light of all the gifts he had given to me?” (מָֽה־אָשִׁ֥יב  in Heb Ps 116:12; τί ἀνταποδώσω in LXX Ps 115:3).  He goes on to name a variety of acts that he will undertake as a fitting response, most of these having to do with bearing witness to God’s acts of deliverance and increasing God’s fame in the land.  Jewish authors express the conviction that [168] God’s gift of life necessitates loyalty to God, even at the cost of life itself, which is regarded as a fitting return of the benefit (see, e.g., 4 Macc 13:13; 16:18-19).

            There is considerable resistance to acknowledging the presence of expectations of reciprocity – or, perhaps more precisely, the obligation of reciprocity – on the part of human beings in the New Testament, and especially in Paul, the champion of the Gospel of “grace alone” or “faith alone.”[41] Nevertheless, there are many passages in which Paul appears very much to believe that God’s favor requires a matching human response of gratitude and reciprocal self-giving – at least that the natural, proper, virtuous, and expected response to God’s favor would be a reciprocal self-giving on the part of those who embrace God’s generous gift. 

            One of the most outstanding of these is found toward the climax of Paul’s reflections in 2 Corinthians 1-7 on the nature of his ministry and how it makes the power of God in Christ known and evident in the world: “Christ’s love[42] constrains us, who have decided this: that one person died on behalf of all people, therefore all people died; and he died on behalf of all in order that those who continued living might live no longer for themselves but for the one who died and was raised on their behalf” (2 Cor 5:14-15). Paul declares himself to be motivated, even compelled, by Christ’s love for him and for his fellow human beings.  His mission represents a part of his discharge of his obligation to the Christ who “loved me and gave himself over for me” [169] (Gal 2:20).  Christ having died for Paul, Paul now honors his Benefactor and his Benefactor’s gift by living for him, for his purposes, for his agenda, to the extent that he can say “I’m living, but it’s no longer me, but Christ is living in me” (Gal 2:20a).  Paul feels gratitude toward Christ and has reciprocated Christ’s disposition to be generous: “Goodwill we have repaid with goodwill; for the object we still owe an object” (Ben. 2.35.1), here a life for a life. 

            It is to this same response of gratitude, of returning a life to the one who gave his over “for all,” that Paul calls all people in his mission (2 Cor 5:14-15), announcing  Christ’s gracious act and calling all to live within and from the reciprocal relationship God has initiated in Christ.  This is a key statement reflecting the ethos of reciprocity and the expectations attached to receiving benefits (even, in this case, presented in terms of the benefactor’s purposes or expectations).[43]  Many commentators notice here the purpose of Christ’s death, namely to free human beings from a self-centered to an other-centered (by means of becoming Christ-centered) existence.[44] Fewer recognize the element of reciprocal obligation on the part of human beings to respond in this manner, namely by giving up their self-serving lives and using their remaining time in the flesh to serve Christ’s interests instead.  C. K. Barrett and Victor P. Furnish are notable exceptions: “His once-for-all death is the death of all men, so far as they are willing to die with him; there is no question of such a change taking place apart from the realm of actual obedience and unselfish living…. Whereas [170] Christ lives, he lives to God (Rom. vi. 10b), and corresponding to this is the new life lived in indebtedness and obedience to Christ by those who have died in his death and risen in his resurrection.”[45] Thus, faith is understood to be truly liberating precisely because it places one under the claim as well as the gift of Christ’s love (v. 14a).[46] “All” have (potentially) died to their sinful, self-centered drives that pervert their lives and invite God’s wrath, and Paul calls all people, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, to receive this liberating gift and experience the liberation fully in their reciprocal offering of themselves to Christ who, by the Spirit, can live in and through them a life that invites God’s pleasure and approval.[47] 

            In connection with this statement, Paul’s warning against receiving God’s grace “in vain” (2 Cor 6:1): God’s favor in Christ only begins with the death of Jesus on behalf of those who receive this gift; it does not achieve its end until Christ has come alive in the believer, transforming his or her life into a God-centered, other-centered life of righteousness, giving to the Creator as the Creator honors, living before the Creator as pleases the Creator.  The obligation to respond is not an obligation to match the gift; it is an obligation to allow God’s gift to have its full effect by allowing the love of Christ to change one’s own orientation to living.

            Paul’s convictions concerning human obligation to the divine Benefactor also emerges clearly in Romans.  A failure of gratitude lies at the heart of every human ill: “God’s anger is revealed from heaven upon every act of impiety and injustice enacted by human beings who suppress the truth with injustice…. because, though knowing [the existence of] God, they neither brought God honor nor expressed gratitude, but rather they became empty-headed in their reasoning and their uncomprehending hearts were benighted…. [They] distorted the truth about God with a lie and [171] they revered and served the created thing in place of the Creator who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:18, 21, 25). God’s existence and creative activity were on display throughout creation, to be read and known by all (Rom 1:19-20; see also Wis 13:1, 5-9).  Nevertheless, rather than give the One God the return of gratitude that was his due for the gift of existence, people denied that they had been benefitted by him and gave the honor due God to idols.[48]  Dunn comments: “Paul is obviously thinking more in terms of thanksgiving as characteristic of a whole life, as the appropriate response of one whose daily experience is shaped by the recognition that he [or she] stands in debt to God, that his [or her] very life and experience of living is a gift from God…. This failure to give God his due and to receive life as God’s gift is Paul’s way of expressing the primal sin of humankind.”[49] God’s response of “anger” is the response of the slighted Benefactor (see Aristotle, Rhet. 2.2.8).  It is the verbal cue that affront (refusal to honor) had been offered on the part of the beneficiaries to the benefactor.[50]  An important purpose and effect of Paul’s mission is the reversal of the general population’s [172] ungrateful behavior, their highly insulting in denying their Creator his due acknowledgement, in favor of awakening to God’s gifts and their reciprocal obligations (1 Thess 1:9).

            This debt of gratitude for the gift of life itself does not go away.  The question becomes, how does God bring it about that human beings receive and respond to God’s gift of life appropriately?  The very fact that God would invest himself in this question is a further act of generous favor: wrath – the satisfaction of God’s slighted honor as the unrequited Benefactor – would have been the expected and fully justified response, with no way out or way back provided.[51]  God’s love shown in Christ is the further act of grace that has the power to quicken gratitude even in the soil of the ingrate’s heart (see Seneca, Ben. 7.31.1-7.32.1).  Paul expects, and suggests rather plainly that God expects, this second act of χάρις to produce rather different results from the first acts of χάρις manifested in creation and the preservation of life.  God’s forbearance is intended to lead to repentance (Rom 2:4); God’s gift of the life of his Son on behalf of human beings is intended to lead these human beings into changed lives such that they no longer use their created bodies to multiply sin (affronts against the Creator) but to do what is righteous (in line with the values and purposes of the Creator; 6:1-23). Now the response of the redeemed to his or her Redeemer will bring him or her also in line with the response of the created to their Creator, “one whose daily experience is shaped by the recognition that he [or she] stands in debt to God.”[52]

            [173] Paul is careful to stress that, though God’s act in Christ is performed on behalf of all people, it is also performed on behalf of each person.  Paul’s emphasis on God’s love is important in this regard as a signal of God’s personal investment in each (potential) recipient of his favor.[53] “One will scarcely die on behalf of a just person (for on behalf of a good person someone might indeed dare to die), but God demonstrates his love for us because, while we were still sinners, Christ dies on our behalf” (Rom 5:7-8). The personal character of this love is experienced by means of the activity of the Holy Spirit in the believers’ lives: “God’s love has been poured out into hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:5).

Seneca had written that the person who was included in a general benefit, for example, a grant of citizenship to all Gauls or an exemption from taxation for all Spaniards, would not feel particularly indebted to the giver beyond being part of a group that had benefited.  “’The emperor,’ he says, ‘had no thought of me at the time when he benefited us all; he did not desire to give citizenship to me personally, nor did he direct his attention to me; so why should I feel indebted to one who did not put me before himself when he was thinking of doing what he did?’” (Ben. 6.19.2-4). A gift given to an entire population does not make the individual a personal debtor, since “an act that lays me under obligation must have been done because of me” (Ben. 6.19.5). “The feeling of indebtedness presupposes that the gift has been given to me personally” (Ben. 6.18.2).[54] Paul does not allow God’s benefits in Christ to be such “general” benefits without also being intensely personal benefits.  The Christ “who loved us” (Gal 1:4) is also the Christ “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20), as well as each among [174] Paul’s audience, binding each to himself in a personal relationship of reciprocity.[55] 

            Later in Romans 8, Paul draws the conclusion that, on the basis of Christ’s dying and rising on our behalf and, thus, our dying with him to one kind of life and rising with him to another kind of life, “we are debtors (ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν).”  Robert Jewett observes that Paul “always employs this term as a predicate nominative with the verb εἰμί (‘to be’), reflecting a social status of having received patronage and being required to render reciprocal service.”[56] The full clause in which it appears is frequently translated, particularly in markedly conservative translations, as “We are not indebted to the flesh” (HCSB, GW, TLB, NLT, The Voice).  It is, however, translated more accurately (note the position of the negating adverb: ὀφειλέται ἐσμὲν οὐ τῇ σαρκὶ), “we are indebted, not to the flesh” (as in the KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, GNT).  The NIV is particularly strong: “we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it” (similarly, CEB).  The syntax of a positive statement of obligation followed by a negation of one possible creditor for this obligation suggests that there is a positive statement of the actual creditor forthcoming.  Paul does not finish this sentence in this way, since he is moved to expand on the consequences of “living according to the flesh” in 8:13a: “for if you live in line with your self-serving impulses (“flesh”), you are going to die.”  The introduction of the alternative in 8:13b (“but if by means of the Spirit you put the deeds of the body to death, you will live”), however, invites us to complete Paul’s thought thus: “we are indebted, not to the flesh to live in line with the flesh, but to the Spirit to live in line with the Spirit.” For, indeed, it is those who are guided by the Spirit who are truly God’s children (8:14).

            Paul’s framing of the relationship of the redeemed with the Divine in terms of God’s beneficence and the obligation to respond gratefully, although [175] objectionable to some on theological grounds,[57] is actually quite moderate in comparison with another prominent framing of this relationship.  This alternative frame appears between his expressions of human failure to return gratitude and God’s loving favor nevertheless (Romans 1 and 5) and his expressions of our obligation now to live no longer to gratify our self-centered impulses but to allow the Spirit to lead – the metaphor of slaves of one master being purchased to become slaves of a new master, still much to the benefit of the slaves in question.[58]  Even though Paul admits that the slavery metaphor arises from his felt need to “speak in human terms” (Rom 6:19), it nevertheless conveys unambiguously the nature of the obligation and response expected on the part of those redeemed from another kind of slavery that led to death (both natural death and death in a more ultimate sense).

            Human sin (their failure to live out a response of obedient gratitude to their Creator) was followed by the further generous acts of God, extending the means of reconciliation and restoration to a grace-relationship.  Continuing to live for one’s own ends, however, is not a feasible response to grace: “Are we to persist in sin in order that favor may be multiplied further?  Certainly not!” (Rom 6:1); “Shall we keep on sinning because we are not under law but under favor?  Certainly not!” (Rom 6:15).  Being “under grace” and having experienced Christ’s deliverance from slavery to sin mean investing ourselves fully in a reciprocal God-ward act: “Don’t offer your life-in-the-body to sin as a vehicle for unjust action, but offer yourself to God as people now living from among the dead and offer your life-in-the-body to God as a vehicle for just action” (Rom [176] 6:13).  The person who has previously failed to respond to God’s creative gift is now, by virtue of encountering and receiving God’s love in Christ, awakened to gratitude and its obligations and, thereby, positioned to give God his due – to act justly rather than unjustly.[59]  Paul is clear that one’s failure to allow God’s favor thus to re-orient him or her means that he or she remains Sin’s slave and has only death to which to look forward: “Don’t you know that … you are slaves of the entity whom you actually obey, whether you serve as Sin’s slaves, with the result that you die, or Obedience’s slaves, with the result that you live justly?” (Rom 6:16). 

           “Eternal life” remains God’s gift (Rom 6:23) – but to those whose lives reflect their reception and response to his beneficent creating and redeeming interventions, or, in Paul’s more crass metaphor, to those who have indeed lived as God’s slaves, putting their lives at his disposal rather than at the disposal of their own sinful, self-centered, self-gratifying impulses (Rom 6:20-22).  God’s gift will result in human acknowledgment of the Creator-Redeemer and in transformed lives characterized by just action as gratitude, the experience of divine love, and the Holy Spirit work upon the human heart.[60]

Conclusion: Paul, “Good News,” and the Obligation of Gratitude

           It remains true that “the χάρις of Christ stands in opposition to the do ut des mentality of the Graeco-Roman world” (though Seneca notably also stands against such a mentality) and that “to think otherwise is to return to justification [177] by works … and to reverse the direction of our indebtedness to God.”[61]  Paul is clear that no human being, qua creature, can indebt God with a view to leveraging future favors: “Who has anticipated God in giving a gift, so that it will be repaid to him or her?” (Rom 11:35). The rationale is telling: “Because all things are from him and through his agency and directed unto him” (Rom 11:36), an obvious formula about creation, and thus indebtedness to God – specifically, indebtedness to give back to God – as the starting point for every created being.[62]

           Nevertheless, Paul does advocate very strongly a do quia dedisti mentality which is entirely in keeping with Greco-Roman convictions about the absolute necessity of meeting favor with favor, of recipients of favors responding to their benefactors and friends with equal commitment and investment.  This is true for him both in regard to human relationships and relationships between human beings and the divine.[63] Reciprocity demands that the recipients of God’s favor, particularly as shown in Christ, honor their Creator-Redeemer with their speech, hearts, and actions subsequent to receiving grace, that they at last live “toward” and “for” the Giver.  This is not, by any stretch, a return to “salvation by works,” but it does promote “salvation as the result of God’s gracious action having its full effect in and upon the recipients of God’s favor,” where that effect includes the response of re-oriented lives that God’s favor naturally and necessarily provokes where it is well received.

           Where transactional understandings of God’s grace (an isolated act that transfers something irrevocably to me on the basis of “belief”) trump dynamic, relational understandings of grace, theologians are wrenching Paul and his message out of the social, ethical, and lived contexts in which Paul was shaped and his gospel formulated, preached, and heard.  There is an almost automatic response on the part of many Christian exegetes and theologians to demonstrate that Paul or some other New Testament author is in some way different from and, therefore, “better than” the classical authors with whom he is being compared.  In regard to the obligation of gratitude, however, Paul would rather challenge all Christian disciples, in their response to the overwhelming favor of God in Jesus the Messiah, to live up at least to the measure of virtue [178] promoted by classical authors.  Theology that excuses us for doing less does not serve God’s purposes for the relationship God has sought to renew and redeem in his giving.  

[1] Ernst Kasemann, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” pp. 168-193 in New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), 170.

[2] This is ably addressed by John Barclay in his contribution to this volume, building upon the essay by Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship: Seneca and Paul in Romans 1-8 on the Logic of God’s χάρις and Its Human Response,” HTR 101.1 (2008) 15-44.  Both scholars rightly critique the application of the theories of gift (or the impossibility of the pure gift) advanced in authors such as Jacques Derrida.

[3] “We need to be taught to give willingly, to receive willingly, to return willingly, and to set before us the high aim of striving, not merely to equal, but to surpass in deed and spirit those who have placed us under obligation (quibus obligati sunt), for he who has a debt of gratitude (qui referre gratiam debet) to pay never catches up with the favor unless he outstrips it; the one should be taught to make no record of the amount, the other to feel indebted for more than the amount” (Ben. 1.4.3). Cicero had previously asserted that no duty (thus, moral obligation) is more important than returning gratitude to one’s benefactors (Off. 1.47); see also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 8.14.3 (1163b12-15).

[4] The polyvalence of χάρις is an interesting reflection of the social scripts and their ethos, as it is sometimes used to denote a person’s disposition to benefit another, or to show favor (Aristotle, Rhet. 2.7.1 [1385a16-20]; Gen 6:8; 18:3; Exod 33:13; Prov 3:34; 22:1; Luke 1:30; Rom 5:15, 17; Heb 4:16; Jas 4:6); sometimes to denote the favors given (this is particularly the case in the inscriptions gathered in Frederick W. Danker, Benefactor: Epigraphic Study of a Graeco-Roman and New Testament Semantic Field [St. Louis, MO: Clayton House,1982], see esp. p. 328; see also Esth 6:3; Sir 3:31; Wis 3:14; 8:21; 4 Macc 5:9; 11:12; Rom 12:3, 6; Heb 12:15; 1 Pet 1:10, 13; 3:7; 4:10; 5:15), almost exclusively in this sense when it appears in the plural; and sometimes to denote the recipient’s reciprocal response (Demosthenes, De Corona 131; 2 Macc 3:33; 3 Macc 1:9; Luke 17:9; Rom 6:17; 7:25; 1 Cor 10:30; 2 Cor 8:16; 9:15; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 1:3; Heb 12:28; see, further, D. A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000], 104-105; James R. Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace in its Graeco-Roman Context [WUNT 2/172; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003], 179-183). “We observe a subtle interplay of meaning that shifts from benefactor to beneficiary, with χάρις in each case spelling out the appropriate behavior and responsibilities of each party.  Thus the semantic versatility of χάρις ensured that the word became intimately identified with hellenistic reciprocity rituals” (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 51).

[5] See D. A. deSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on the Epistle “to the Hebrews” (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 240-244; idem., Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 116-119.  It is worth noting that this paradox continues essentially unchanged to this day among Mediterranean communities.  See Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript: The Place of Grace in Anthropology,” pp. 215–46 in Honor and Grace in Anthropology (ed. John G. Peristiany and Julian Pitt-Rivers; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 231, 233: “You cannot pay for a favor in any way or it ceases to be one, you can only thank, though on a later occasion you can demonstrate gratitude by making an equally ‘free’ gift in return”; “A gift is not a gift unless it is a free gift, i.e., involving no obligation on the part of the receiver, and yet … it nevertheless requires to be returned.”

[6] In Ben. 1.1.13, Seneca equates the failure to reciprocate with “sinning” (qui beneficium non reddit, magis peccat).  This is just one half, however, of one of Seneca’s paradoxes, the other half of which is directed to the person who refuses to give a benefit out of fear that the recipient will prove ungrateful: to act thus is perhaps to sin less, but it is still to sin, and to do so “earlier” (qui non dat, citius).

[7] To continue the conceit of conception, one simply may not keep within oneself the baby that has come to full term.

[8] This is well and rightly recognized in the literature on gifts and reciprocity.  Thus, for example, C. A. Gregory, Gifts and Commodities (London: Academic Press, 1982), 19: “What a gift transactor desires is the personal relationship that the exchange of gifts creates and not the things themselves”; Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003) 92-113, esp. p. 97, specifically commenting on Seneca’s De beneficiis, “Acts of beneficence are presented as creating a relationship of amicitia.” See also Cicero, Off. 1.56.

[9] Troels Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 20.  See also John Barclay, in this volume: “benefits are designed to create or cement relations of mutuality, such that a return to the giver does not diminish or pollute the gift, but constitutes its fulfillment.”

[10] I would hesitate to agree with Stephen C. Mott (“The Power of Giving and Receiving: Reciprocity in Hellenistic Benevolence,” pp.60-72 in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation. Studies in Honor of Merill C. Tenney [ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975], 60-61) that “the act of benefitting sets up a chain of obligations” (emphasis mine) with the result that the return of a favor obliges the initiating giver to give again, particularly in relationships that are clearly between people of unequal status and resources.  It would be more accurate to say (and a more accurate analysis even of his example of King Attalos and the Sicyonians) that returning a favor disposes a benefactor to continue to show favor toward that particular recipient (see Josephus, A. J. 4.8.13 §212).  In the case of longstanding friendship, of course, where parity exists and where the question of “who started it” has receded in a long history of mutual assistance, support, and delight, Mott’s observation would be accurate.

[11] Miriam Griffin (“De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” 113) rightly observes that Seneca reinforces “the code at its most demanding level.” Regarding philosophical critiques of the ethos of reciprocity, see, further, Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 194-195.

[12] Indeed, this line of commentary on the Three Graces extends at least as far back as Aristotle, who spoke of the public shrines dedicated to the Graces as reminders to all to return kindnesses (Eth. Nic. 5.5.7).

[13] Seneca, Ben. 1.4.3; see also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1163b12-15; Isocrates, Demon. 26; Sir 35:2.

[14] The language of “repaying” is imprecise (Latin, de reddendo cogitet).  It is not the return of a favor qua recompense or repayment so much as a reciprocal act of seeking-to-benefit-in-return.  See Robert Parker, “Pleasing Thighs: Reciprocity in Greek Religion,” pp. 105-26 in Reciprocity in Ancient Greece (ed. Christopher Gill, Norman Postlethwaite, and Richard Seaford; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), especially 108-109.

[15] This was a long-standing element of reciprocity, constant from the Greek period into and through the Roman period.  See, e.g., J. H. Quincey, “Greek Expressions of Thanks,” JHS 86 (1966), esp. 157: “Greeks saw an obligation created by a favor received and sought to discharge it,” often using praise as a readily available and eagerly received medium. Jerome H. Neyrey, S. J. (“Lost in Translation: Did It Matter If Christians ‘Thanked’ God or ‘Gave God Glory’?” CBQ 71 [2009] 1-23) is correct to insist that verbs of honoring or testifying retain their semantic value in translation, rather than being rendered merely as “thanking,” and that even where verbs of thanking are employed there is also an element of rendering public honor and testimony.

[16] “When a benefit has been graciously received, the giver has forthwith received gratitude in return, but not yet his full reward; my indebtedness, therefore, is for something apart from the benefit, for the benefit itself I have repaid in full by cheerfully accepting it” (Ben. 2.33.3); “Goodwill we have repaid with goodwill; for the object we still owe an object” (2.35.1).

[17] On the distinction between patronage and friendship, see Richard P. Saller, “Patronage and friendship in early imperial Rome: drawing the distinction,” pp. 49-62 in Patronage in Ancient Society (ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill; London: Routledge, 1989); idem, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 8-11.

[18] See also Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 1163b1-5, 12-18.

[19] Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (“Patronage in Roman Society,” 82) observes that, in practice, clients might readily desert a patron who fell into political trouble.  Seneca clearly writes against such practice as a fundamental violation of the mutual obligations forged by the grace relationship.

[20] Dio Chrysostom would agree that ingratitude was tantamount to sacrilege against these goddesses (Or. 31.37).

[21] Creating another paradox, Seneca writes: “Do you beware of committing this crime as being the greatest there is; if another commits it, pardon it as being the most trivial” (1.10.5, emphasis mine).  The one giving is urged always to be gracious, the one receiving to honor the gift and the intentions and goodwill behind it.

[22] See also Isocrates, Demon. 24; Sir 12:1. Although Seneca himself does not go so far, other writers from the Greek and Roman periods bear witness to the fact that affronted benefactors could become dangerous enemies (Aristotle, Rhet. 2.2.8; 3 Macc 3:20-22 a; 4 Macc 8:5-8; 9:10).  Ingratitude could turn favor into all-out wrath.  This, too, persists in a modern Mediterranean context (see Pitt-Rivers, “Postscript,” 236).

[23] See also Anaximenes, Rhet. Alex. 1421b33-1422a2; Sir 3:31.

[24] See also Cicero De Offic. 2.63.

[25] B. J. Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace: Paul on Benefaction and the Corinthians’ Ingratitude (2 Cor 6:1),” BBR 24.2 (2014) 207-226, esp. p. 213; see also Miriam Griffin, “De Beneficiis and Roman Society,” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003) 92-113, esp. p. 95.  Aristotle viewed this as a typical situation (see Eth. Nic. 8.14.2 [1163b1-5]).

[26] “A man may have received more than he gave, greater ones, more frequent ones, yet, for all that, he has not been conquered.  If you reckon those that you have given over against those that you have received, it is true, perhaps, that benefits are surpassed by benefits; but, if you match the giver against the recipient, taking into consideration, as you must, their intentions in themselves, the palm will belong to neither” (5.3.3); “If he matches his benefactor in spirit, even though he cannot match him in deeds.  So long as he continues in this state of mind, so long as he holds the desire to give proof of a grateful heart, what difference does it make on which side the greater number of gifts is reckoned?” (5.4.1).

[27] See Harrison’s illuminating study of charis and reciprocity in non-literary papyri (Paul’s Language of Grace, 64-95); also Peter Garnsey and Greg Woolf, “Patronage of the rural poor in the Roman world,” pp. 153-170 in Patronage in Ancient Society (ed. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill; London: Routledge, 1989); deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 99-100; Hesiod, Works and Days 342-51; 401-404.

[28] On the diversity in social level within a Pauline congregation, see the classic studies of Gerd Theissen (The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982], 69-119) and Wayne A. Meeks (The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983], 51-73 ) as well as the overview by Bengt Holmberg (Sociology and the New Testament: An Appraisal [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990], 21-76).  Markers suggestive of a higher rather than a lower status for Paul include: Roman citizenship; formal education (in Tarsus and Jerusalem); and social networks (personal connection with the rabbi Gamaliel, a commission from the high priest).  All of this depends, of course, on the reliability of the picture of Paul in Acts to this extent.

[29] That God is a third party within this grace-relationship, however, is also evident from 4:10-20.  See further D. Briones, “Paul’s Intentional ‘Thankless Thanks’ in Philippians 4.10-20,” JSNT 34 (2011) 47-69 as well as Barclay’s essay in this volume.  Ben Witherington III (Friendship and Finances in Philippi [Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994], 122-133) offers an instructive delineation of the fine lines that Paul is attempting to walk in the span of these few verses.

[30] Attention is frequently given to the significance of the textual variant in this verse, namely the presence or absence of καὶ in the second clause: μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστος σκοποῦντες ἀλλὰ [καὶ] τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστοι (Phil 2:4).  External evidence strongly supports its presence (the text-critical quadrifecta of P46, א, A, and B); the two cardinal rules of textual criticism would omit it as the shorter and more difficult meaning.  If its inclusion is accepted, it is hardly clear that the word should be read as “also” (thus affirming self-centered concern as long as it coexists alongside concern for others), all the more as there is nothing to qualify the negation of self-centered concern in the first clause (no “not only for one’s own interests,” as inserted in some fashion by ESV, NLT, NASB, HCSB, NET), and not rather as an intensifier (“even, indeed”).   

[31] So, rightly, Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 183.   Peter T. O’Brien (Commentary on Philippians [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991],176) recognizes this to provide additional motivation for the Philippians to resolve their internal issues.

[32] David Downs (“Was God Paul’s Patron? The Economy of Patronage in Pauline Theology” pp. 129-156 in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception [ed. Bruce Longenecker and Kelly Liebengood; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) challenges the propriety of using the term “patron” or “benefactor” to characterize God in Paul’s theology, primarily on the grounds of Paul’s not using the term to refer to God (preferring the language of parent and, therefore, kinship relations, pp. 155-56) and of “the unbalanced and potentially exploitative

nature of patron-client relationships” which would be unseemly if applied to the relationship between God and human beings.  While this is not the place for a detailed critique of Downs’s essay, my reasons for rejecting his arguments are, briefly, as follows. (1) Downs claims that “nowhere in the Corinthian correspondence is God described with terminology taken from the realm of the Roman patronage system” (132 n.9), but he really means that God is not named using the nouns for “patron” or “benefactor.”  God is certainly described as a benefactor by virtue of the fact that Paul speaks often of the good things that God has done and the good gifts God has given.  The prominence of the terminology of “grace” (χάρις) in Paul, moreover, evidences Paul’s use of “terminology taken from the realm of … patronage” (though, it is true, not particularly the Roman patronage system).  (2) Adoption of an adult child, while establishing a kinship relationship, is the ultimate act of patronage.  Julius Caesar did not abandon his role as Octavian’s patron by becoming his father; he consummated that role in this act.  That Paul speaks of God as adoptive father (Rom 8:15, 23; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) to himself and to the converts is no argument against Paul’s conceiving of God as their benefactor and patron.  (3) Just because a system could be perverted, it does not follow that Paul cannot think of patron-client or benefactor-beneficiary relationships  at their best as illustrative of divine-human relationships.  (4)  A lot of Jewish authors contemporaneous with Paul speak of God’s benefits and the reciprocal obligations of human beings (4 Maccabees, Hebrews), some even going so far as to use the language of “benefactor” (e.g., Philo); Paul stands more squarely within this trend than against it, particularly once point 2 above is understood.  (5) While Downs is correct that Paul does not conceive of God’s economy as one of limited goods (pp. 152-54), it does not follow that God cannot be the ultimate Patron or Benefactor in an economy of unlimited goods.  The point of differentiation is not the relational model, but the conceptualization of the “market.”  Downs is, of course, correct to distance Paul’s conception of the relationship between the Divine Patron and the human recipients of divine χάρις from the peculiar forms and practices of Roman patron-client relations (e.g., the morning salutation, though one wonders if the development of the practice of morning prayer in the Roman church was not thought of as a kind of parallel to this by the worshipers), but this distinction is hardly novel.

[33] One cannot help but draw the comparison with Seneca’s musings concerning how he would formulate such a reminder as motivator, drawing upon lines from Vergil’s Aeneid and the relationship of Dido and Aeneas: “Not even when complaining of him [the friend slow to reciprocate] would I ever say ‘Needy I found him, a wretch, cast up on the shore/And, fool, the half of my kingdom I made his store.’ This is not to remind, but to reproach…. It would be enough, and more than enough, to refresh his memory with the gentle and friendly words: ‘If I to you by aught have help or pleasure brought’ and he, in turn, would say:  ‘Brought me help? “Needy you found me, a wretch, cast up on the shore!”’” (7.25.2)  Paul comes close to the tone and effect of Dido’s “If I to you by aught have help or pleasure brought” in Phil 2:1.

[34] See Peter Lampe, “Keine ‘Sklavenflucht’ des Onesimus,” ZNW 76 (1985) 135-37; Joseph Fitzmyer, Philemon (AB; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 20; Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 328-329.  For a more thorough review of how Paul has crafted his appeal by playing both on the conventions of friendship and brokerage and on the rhetoric of making a public request for favour, see D. A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004), 671-75.

[35] Markus Barth and Helmut Blanke, The Letter to Philemon (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 228.

[36] Seneca was very cautious about recalling former benefits as a motivator for a return of favor, a practice about which he can write scathingly (Ben. 2.11.1-2).  He does leave room for such reminders, however, where the stakes are compellingly high – “if … the safety of my children is at stake, if my wife is threatened with danger, if the safety of my country and my liberty impel me to a course that I should prefer not to take” (Ben. 5.20.7).  He denies that he thus “turns a benefit into a loan,” for his aim is merely to remind and to awaken the goodwill that is latent and dormant (5.21.2), giving the friend or client “an opportunity to show his gratitude” (5.22.2-5.23.1).  In every case, this is to be done “modestly, with no air of making a demand or of claiming a legal right” (7.23.3). On this point, see also Stephan J. Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy and Theological Reflection in Paul’s Collection (WUNT 2/124; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 46; Oropeza, “Expectation of Grace,” 215.  The recent essay by Thomas Blanton (“The benefactor’s account-book: the rhetoric of gift reciprocation according to Seneca and Paul,” NTS  59 [2013] 396-414 ) draws a sharp contrast here between Seneca, who refuses to turn a benefaction into a loan, and Paul, whose economic location does not afford him the same luxury as he attempts to obtain Onesimus’s services from Philemon.

[37] Harrison (Paul’s Language of Grace, 329) reads Phlm 18-19a as “Paul … abandon[ing] his traditional right to reciprocity from Philemon, his client, when he offers to reimburse personally any losses that Philemon may have incurred through Onesimus’ absence.”  I would read this, instead, as an ironic “I. O. U.” on which it would be impossible for Philemon in good faith to collect – “[I make this offer] in order that I might not have to say to you that you owe me your very self” (v. 19b).

[38] See Gerald Peterman, “Social Reciprocity and Gentile Debt to Jews in Romans 15:26-27,” JETS 50.4 (2007) 735-46, on the idiom κοινωνίαν τινὰ ποιήσασθαι (15:26) as more likely meaning “establish fellowship” than “make a contribution,” emphasizing the relational consequences of gift-giving (esp. pp. 735-40).  BDAG, 553, prefers this meaning for the idiom as well, based on Peterman’s earlier article, “Romans 15.26: ‘Make a Contribution’ or ‘Establish Fellowship’,” NTS 40 (1994) 457-63.  David Downs (The Offering of the Gentiles: Paul’s Collection for Jerusalem in Its Chronological, Cultural, and Cultic Contexts [WUNT 2/248; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008], 17 n.55) rightly notes that in other instances this formula is used to express the expectation not only of friendship but of the sharing of actual resources, though the formula κοινωνίαν  ποιήσασθαι is significantly qualified to make this more precise nuance clear (in Demosthenes, 3 Philip. 28.1-6, “to establish a fellowship of help and friendship,” κοινωνίαν βοηθείας καὶ φιλίαν … ποιήσασθαι).  Of course Paul also expects that this “connection” will be established on the basis of an act of friendship involving the sharing of material resources, as is appropriate for friends who “hold all things as common property” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 9.8.2 1168b7-9), but Peterman is right that the act is more than a “contribution”; it is an act that binds two parties together in a relationship.

[39] Expectations of reciprocity appear to be at work also in Rom 1:11-15, where the step Paul takes from his affirmation of a desire to benefit the Christians in Rome to an affirmation of his intention that they should mutually benefit one another could be explained in terms of reciprocity rather than the apostle’s modesty, as well as in Rom 16:2 and Paul’s commendation of Phoebe, who has acted as a benefactor to him “and to many” in Corinth/Cenchraea, whom Paul’s contacts in Rome (e.g., Prisca, Aquila, Paul’s relatives named in his greetings) can now receive as a friend and to whom they can and should extend every courtesy (see Susan Mathew, Women in the Greetings of Romans 16.1-16: A Study of Mutuality and Women’s Ministry in the Letter to the Romans [LNTS; London: Bloomsbury, 2013], 83-85).  On Phoebe’s role as “benefactor” in a relationship of equals with Paul rather than as “patron” in an unequal one, see Erlend D. MacGillivray, “Romans 16:2, προστάτις/προστάτης, and the Application of Reciprocal Relationships to New Testament Texts,” NovT 53 (2011) 183-199.  Nevertheless, the fact of her benefitting “many” attests to her prominence and, from a social point of view, precedence within the Christian community. Harrison (Paul’s Language of Grace, 325-26) raises questions about how effective Paul’s commendation of Phoebe would be if Romans 16 is indeed addressed to a congregation that does not know Paul personally.  However, Paul knows a good number of people in the Roman churches (Rom 16:3-15), and these individuals would, at the very least, seek to “repay Phoebe on [Paul’s] behalf,” if not act as catalysts for the broader house churches to receive Phoebe.

[40] See Seneca, Ben. 1.1.9; 2.30.1-2; 4.26.1; 4.28.1; Aristotle, Eth. Nic. 8.14.4 (1163b16-18); Philo, Plant. 126-131.  Mott (“Power of Giving,” 64-65) finds several references in Philo on the failure to honor the divine as the greatest species of ingratitude among the genus of responses to benefactors: Philo, Leg. 118; Op.169; Q.G. 2.50; Q.E. 2.49.

[41] It is relevant, though it would take us too far afield here, to consider the role of the πίστις word group in the context of relationships of patronage, friendship, and benefaction.  πίστις (“faith”) is not merely believing something about what God has done, but keeping faith within the grace-relationship that God has created – or, better, that God has revived after humanity had already proven unfaithful in the past.  See deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity, 115-116; Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 29, 31

[42] While the phrase ἡ γὰρ ἀγάπη τοῦ Χριστοῦ can be construed on the basis of either a subjective genitive (“Christ’s love” for others) or an objective genitive (our “love for Christ”), the subjective genitive has the stronger support among commentators and their arguments.  See Frank J. Matera, II Corinthians (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 132-33; Raymond F. Collins, Second Corinthians (Paideia; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 118; C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (HNTC; London: Harper & Row, 1973), 167 (though he allows more room for a plenary sense); Margaret E. Thrall, 2 Corinthians 1-7 (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994), 408-409; Victor P. Furnish, II Corinthians (AB; New York: Doubleday, 1984), 309, 326. See also Rom 5:5, 8; 8:35; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 2:20.

[43] N. T. Wright reads 2 Cor 5:14–21 in the context of Paul’s extensive defense of his apostleship in 2:14–6:13, which is surely correct, but this leads Wright to incorrect conclusions about the limits on the meaning this verse, namely that 2 Cor 5:15b is all about Paul living for Jesus and not a general statement that all indeed are bound now to live for the one who died and was raised on their behalf (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009], 161). The phrase “being convinced that” is vitally important here: Paul steps out of his discussion of himself and his team as ambassadors to speak of the fundamental convictions that drive him in his mission, and this conviction quite naturally applies to all human beings for whom Christ died.  Paul’s mission is thus indeed to bring about the obedient response to the self-giving patron and the return on the part of all benefitted (a life for a life) that the patron merits, calling “all” – “those who [still] live” and are thus able to receive and give back to the one who died for them – to render to Christ his due by yielding their lives to him, even as Paul does (see Gal 2:19–20) and as Paul hopes will occur in his converts (see Gal 4:19).

[44] See, e.g., Collins, Second Corinthians, 119; Matera, II Corinthians, 135; Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth:A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 394; Thrall, 2 Corinthians 1-7, 411-12.

[45] Barrett, Second Epistle, 169.

[46] Furnish, II Corinthians, 328.

[47] Thus rightly Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220: “believers must relocate the concept of obligation in terms of living for Christ’s sake, and they are to interpret it in light of being controlled by God’s Spirit.” See also D. A. deSilva, Transformation: The Heart of Paul’s Gospel (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 10-14, 38-43, 58-63.

[48] Craig Keener, Romans (NCCS; Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 34, also regards this as a case of “humanity abandoning gratitude toward God.”  Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 24) suggests that “Paul argues that human beings (that is, non-Jews) should have grasped (1:20), praised, and given thanks to (1:21) God for his works in the world “since the creation” (1:20). However, in spite of the fact that Paul does speak in 1:21 of “giving thanks” to God (even using the very term for gratiam referre: εύχαρίζεσθαι), what he emphasizes in 1:20 about God’s creation of the world is not so much God’s gift as his “power” (δύναμις) and “divine majesty” (θειότης). Correspondingly, what was missing in human beings is not so much the proper reaction to a gift but giving God “honor” (δοξάζειν, 1:21, 23).”   I think, however, that the obligation of gratitude (and thus honoring God in gratitude for the gift of life itself and the sustaining bounty of creation) would be sufficiently embedded in both Gentile and Jewish culture for Paul to assume this.  It is inherent in Paul’s reference to God as “Creator” (1:25) and in the denial of God’s expectation of “thanks/acknowledgement as giver” (1:21).

[49] J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8 (WBC; Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 59.  He helpfully refers readers also to 4 Ezra 8.60: “those who were created … have been ungrateful to him who prepared life for them now.”

[50] See also Col 3:5, where God’s wrath falls upon the disobedient, revealing an underlying assumption of a just claim to obedience on the part of vastly inferior parties whom one has benefitted (again, here, with the very gift of existence). Philo may indeed have suggested that all creation is to respond to the Creator’s benefits with thanksgiving and praise, as mortals have no power to render anything else in return (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 129), but Paul does suggest other components to our response to God’s generous acts in creation and redemption, particularly a change in life orientation to serve God rather than “the flesh” or “sin.”

[51] “Surely beneficiaries have to respond worthily to their benefactor – or admit their inability to do so – if munificence was to be extended and maintained?  Yet God had responded in an unprecedented way to His dishonoring as the cosmic and covenantal Benefactor.  Instead of avenging His honor, He had demonstrated forbearance and extended χάρις to the ungrateful in His crucified Son” (Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 219).

[52] Dunn, Romans 1-8, 59. Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 28) concludes that the Christ-event “shows that God staged his relationship with human beings precisely in the form of a gift in order to achieve his own aims.” As God’s dealings with humanity in Rom 1:18-32, 2:23-24, and 8:3-4 suggest, these aims include an interest in God’s creatures honoring God and doing the divine will.  Human responses of faithfulness (πίστις) and love are means of reciprocating the gift and thus fulfilling the divine will. The magnificent love and grace of God in the giving of Christ expects a response, so much that no one “acts rightly, then, if he does not respond to that act in kind …. Any other response will amount to annulling God’s gift” (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41). See also Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220: “Now that God has granted them Christ and salvation, believers must assent to the Spirit’s work in their bodies both collectively and individually.”

[53] Engberg-Pedersen, “Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 27.

[54] See also Stephan Joubert, Paul as Benefactor: Reciprocity, Strategy, and Theological Reflection in Paul’s Collection (WUNT 2/124; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 51: “For a service to qualify as a benefit it must have been undertaken because of a specific individual, and not just bestowed on him as one of the crowd.”

[55] Troels Engberg-Pedersen (“Gift-Giving and Friendship,” 41) perceptively adds: “With human beings meeting God’s love with a love of their own in a mutual, interlocking pattern, there is nothing they may wish to do other than fulfilling God’s will. Everything is ready, therefore, to make them return God’s gift (compare the idea in Seneca of beneficium reddere) by actually fulfilling his will. In this way, by God’s use of the gift-giving system, the original purpose of the covenant is achieved.”

[56] Robert Jewett, Romans (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 493, adding that “commentators consistently overlook this social background in interpreting v.12.”  He refers readers further to Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak. Romans 14.1-15.13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 176-86.

[57] For example, Jason Whitlark objects that “reciprocity transforms grace into debt” (“Enabling χάρις: Transformation of the Convention of Reciprocity by Philo and in Ephesians,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 [2003] 325-357, especially 356) and cautions that introducing reciprocity as “the dynamic upon which salvation is based” results in a soteriological scheme of “covenantal nomism or a synergistic semi-Pelagianism” (“Enabling χάρις,” 341).  The specter of semi-Pelagianism and other theological convictions, however, here stand in the way of actually hearing Paul and acknowledging the more complex relationship between grace, reciprocity, generous response, and debt that comes into play in discussions of gratitude contemporary with Paul.

[58] On Paul’s use of slavery metaphors in Romans 6, see the masterful study in John Byron, Slavery Metaphors in Early Judaism and Pauline Christianity (WUNT 2/162; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 207-219.  The grace-gratitude paradigm is also taken further to redemption-ownership in 1 Cor 6:19-20: “You don’t belong to yourselves, for you were purchased (ἠγοράσθητε) for a price: bring honor to God, then, with your body.”  This is clearly an underlying paradigm for Paul, underscoring obligation to live for the redeemer/benefactor, with the latter becoming actually the far gentler metaphor.

[59] “Now that they are ‘under grace,’ the faithful in Christ are under obligation, ‘to which Paul calls for willing assent to serve the purposes of grace by yielding their bodies as [spiritual] weapons employed by the God and Father of Jesus Christ, serving their fellows in righteousness’” (Oropeza, “The Expectation of Grace,” 220, quoting Robert Jewett, Romans, 412. See also the analysis of Paul’s metaphor of the Christians as obligated beneficiaries in Rom 6:12-23 in Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 234-242.

[60] Other passages that could profitably be analyzed from this vantage point include Paul’s warnings in regard to responding properly to God’s favor in Gal 4:8-11; 5:1-4; the thanksgiving and benediction sections in each of Paul’s letters (1 Cor 1:4-7; 2 Cor 1:3-7; 2:14-16; Phil 1:3-5; Col 1:3-5a; 1 Thess 1:2-3; 3:9-10; Phlm 4-5); exhortations to congregations to dwell on God’s favors by engaging in ongoing thanksgiving (Col 2:6-7; 3:16-17; 4:2; 1 Thess 5:16-18); and Paul’s understanding of God’s provision as supplying Christians with the means to accomplish God’s ends, as especially in 2 Cor 9:8-15 (where dedit ut dare possumus).  A particularly helpful study in regard to the last of these texts is Stephan Joubert, “Religious reciprocity in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15: Generosity and gratitude as legitimate responses to the χάρις τοῦ θεοῦ,” Neotestamentica 33.1 (1999) 79-90.

[61] Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace, 350.

[62] See also Col 1:16: “All things were created through him and unto him.”

[63] Theologians go astray when they seek to answer the question “What will God do if we don’t do the right and honorable thing within this relationship?” and formulate their conclusions about divine grace and human response on the basis of their answers.  Paul is not interested in asking this question, only in urging his hearers: “Do the right and honorable thing within this relationship!”

Introduction from _Fourth Maccabees and the Promotion of the Jewish Philosophy_ (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020)

Why should anyone invest himself or herself in reading, let alone studying in minute detail, the book we call 4 Maccabees?  This is a question with which I have been long familiar, as I have had to answer it dozens of times over the course of the last twenty-five years after first answering the question, “What are you working on these days?”

The first part of my answer concerns what this particular text reveals about the quality and nature of the interaction of Judaism and Hellenism in the first century of the common era.  Even though we are close to celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Hengel’s landmark work on Judaism and Hellenism, many of my students (and even a number of scholars whose work I have critiqued or who have critiqued my own work) continue to look upon Judaism – and especially pious Jews – as standing apart from all things Greek as if from something unclean.  Faithful Jews think “Hebraically” and not “Hellenistically.”  It still surprises many in the classroom and in the pews that the majority of faithful Jews throughout the Diaspora knew their Scriptures in Greek and only in Greek.  In the author of 4 Maccabees, we find a man who has excelled in Greek composition and rhetoric, who has provided for himself a more-than-passing acquaintance with Greek philosophical ethics and Greek drama, speaking in the most Greek modes to promote the most Jewish way of life.  Here is a man who has developed fully Greek rationales for remaining true to the Jewish way of life, who has thought about for himself and now proclaims to others the significance and value of his ancestral Law and the kind of life it shapes in terms that any non-Jew could understand (if not accept).  Fourth Maccabees thus provides a witness to the possibility of being fully Hellenized in terms of knowledge, cultural literacy, and training in the arts of communication while remaining fully dedicated to promoting continued, unyielding commitment to the Jewish way of life – the possibility of being fully acculturated while resisting assimilation in any and every sense.

The second part of my answer concerns what 4 Maccabees reveals about the way Paul’s contemporaries or near-contemporaries – who did not have a life-changing encounter that distanced them significantly from the convictions and pursuits of the first part of their careers – thought about the Jewish Law.  In light of popular Christian (and particularly Protestant Christian) tendencies to view the Law as impossible in its demands – a crushing burden that drives people either to hypocrisy or despair – it is most illumining and even refreshing to encounter a book that portrays the Law of Moses as a divinely-given good without qualification.  The author of 4 Maccabees preaches with an evangelistic fervor about the value and benefits of the Torah-driven life.  It is not only possible to live in line with the Torah (2:6).  It is also the way of life most suited to our created natures and to God’s plan for how we will realize our best selves in the here and now (2:21-23; 5:25-26).  It is the educative discipline by means of which we become well-formed and mature moral agents (1:15-17; 5:23-24) and the training program whereby we gain the moral muscle needed to escape the domination of our passions and desires (1:31-2:14). It strengthens human and humane feelings without allowing one to be overcome by feelings and turned away from the just and right course of action by them at any point (13:19-27; 14:13-20).   A text like 4 Maccabees provides, in this way, an important corrective to theologically-rooted prejudices against a Torah-centered piety – not that 4 Maccabees is likely to make Christian theologians discard Galatians or Romans, but it is likely to make them read them (and their treatment of the Law of Moses) in a far more nuanced fashion.[1]

The third part of my answer (if my interlocutor has not yet walked away) concerns the impact of this book – one that seems so remote to modern readers – on Christian martyrology and ethics during the second through fifth centuries, to which it was seen to have immediate relevance.  In the face of increasingly hostile persecution and, in particular, trials before governors and other representatives of the imperial power that typically ended in grisly forms of execution, Christian leaders turned for their own inspiration and that of their charges to the story of the Jewish martyrs who chose death for the sake of piety over release at the cost of apostasy as found in both 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees.  After Constantine I and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan declaring Christianity a tolerated religion, Christian leaders continued to draw inspiration from 4 Maccabees and its author’s assurance that the piety-infused mind could successfully master the impulses, cravings, and emotions that threatened a consistent commitment to virtue.  Neither the political situation of the global Church nor the ethical situation of humanity has advanced to such a state as to render either contribution of this ancient text superfluous in the modern world.

This volume contains ten essays written on 4 Maccabees over the course of what I hope is only the first half of my career (1995-2016). Each contributes in some way to the reader’s appreciation of one of these three focal points concerning the abiding value of this text.  In the first part (“Rhetorical Situation and Strategic Response”), I focus more fully on the question of the author’s relationship to his Jewish identity and community, on the one hand, and his Hellenistic-Roman context on the other.  The first chapter (“The Author of 4 Maccabees and Greek Paideia: Facets of the Formation of a Hellenistic Jewish Rhetor”) represents an attempt to reconstruct the kind of educational background that would have produced a communicator like the author of 4 Maccabees.  I look first for signs of elementary and secondary training in his work, exploring points of contact between the skills developed by the curriculum of exercises known as the “Progymnasmata” (elementary exercises in composition) and the skills exhibited in 4 Maccabees.  I examine also the author’s level of mastery of Greek language, philosophical ethics, and literature against scholarly reconstructions of secondary and tertiary curricula and consider, on the other hand, how he was likely to have come by his significant facility in his own, Jewish tradition and practice.

In the second and third chapters, I examine the use to which the author has put his education.  In “Honor and Shame as Argumentative Topoi in 4 Maccabees,” I consider the correspondences between 4 Maccabees and the kind of oratory and rhetorical aims addressed by epideictic and deliberative speeches (and, specifically, how considerations of the honorable and the shameful are used to position the author’s audience vis-à-vis their commitment to their ancestral way of life.  In “Fourth Maccabees as Acculturated Resistance Literature,” I employ a “postcolonial optic” more forthrightly to examine 4 Maccabees as a specimen of resistance literature – specifically, as a work whose author has puts his facility in the tools and knowledge of the dominant culture to carve out a space for his own subaltern culture and model strategies for sustaining a minority cultural identity in the midst of a dominant and majority culture that fairly aggressively promotes assimilation.

In the second part (“The Rhetorical Contributions of Intertexture”), I examine how the author has used both Greek and traditional Jewish resources to advance his goals for his audience.  Chapter 4 (“The Strategic Retelling of Scripture in 4 Maccabees: David’s Thirst [4 Macc 3:6-18]”) examines four accounts of a particular episode in the life of David and the correspondences between the various authors’ redaction or re-invention of that episode to better support each author’s particular goals for the story – in the case of our author, the demonstration that, while intense sensations cannot but be felt, they need not lead one to intemperate or unjust actions.  Chapter 5 (“Engagement with Greco-Roman Intertexture: Conversations About Maternal Affections”) examines the correspondences between the presentation of the love that the mother of the seven brothers felt for her sons (and the pains she endured as they were tortured) with discussions about “affection for offspring” in Aristotle and Plutarch and, then, the correspondences between the laments of bereaved mothers in Euripidean tragedy and the lament that the author crafts for the mother – “had she been of cowardly disposition” (4 Macc 16:5).  This provides a case study in the author’s use of Greek cultural knowledge to advance claims for nothing less than the superiority of training in the Jewish way of life (the Torah-prescribed life) for the attainment of the ideals prized by the dominant Hellenized culture.  A third essay (chapter 6, “‘Father Knew Best’: Intertextuality and Argumentation in 4 Macc 18:6-19”) investigates the string of examples and brief quotations from the Jewish scriptures that the author incorporates into the mother’s second speech as the “epitome” of the instruction her husband passed along to their sons before his own death with a view to laying bare the implicit argumentation advanced by the sequence of material, even in the general absence of explicit inferential conjunctions and particles.

In the third and final part (“The Legacy of 4 Maccabees”), I give attention to the ongoing contributions of 4 Maccabees to theological reflection in general and the early church’s responses to pastoral needs in particular.  Chapter 7 (“The Human Ideal, the Problem of Evil, and Moral Responsibility in 4 Maccabees”) explores the responses that this text gives to the perennial questions of human existence: What does it mean to be fully human? What are the origins of the evils that invade human lives?  How will good be restored – and justice done – where we see unjust suffering?  In chapters 8 (“Fourth Maccabees and Early Christian Martyrdom: The Influence of 4 Maccabees on Origen’s Exhortatio ad Martyrium”) and 9 (“Ambrose’s Use of 4 Maccabees in De Jacob et Vita Beata”), I trace out the impact of 4 Maccabees on two early Christian texts that exemplify the twin interests of the early church in this text noted above.  Finally, in chapter 10 (“Beyond the Eclectic Text of 4 Maccabees: Reading 4 Maccabees in Codex Sinaiticus”), I inquire into how readers of 4 Maccabees as represented in a particular, fourth-century Christian manuscript will experience the text differently than readers of the reconstructed, eclectic text (or translations based on the same).  It is, incidentally, also a testimony to the importance of 4 Maccabees for the early Church that it should have been included in Codex Sinaiticus (as well as Codex Alexandrinus) in the first place.

I have been drawn again and again to 4 Maccabees because the author and his work demolish stereotypes – the stereotype of the Second Temple Period Jew who eschews rather than deeply engages Greek culture without yielding his or her own way of life for a moment; the stereotype of the Second Temple Period Jew laboring under “the curse of the Law”; the stereotype of the extrabiblical text that exercises little or no influence and is little or nothing valued by the Church in its formative centuries.  As one who is primarily a scholar of the New Testament, I have found the study of 4 Maccabees to be indispensable for my primary work because it teaches me again and again to think about Christian origins and early Christian literature more clearly and honestly, because it teaches me to do so apart from these stereotypes.

[1] I have considered elsewhere the possibility that 4 Maccabees is suggestive for the ways in which the rival Jewish Christian missionaries who came to Paul’s converts in the province of Galatia might have presented Torah-observance in precisely the attractive manner that threatened to win Paul’s converts over to their understanding of what trusting Jesus opened up for the Gentile convert (D. A. deSilva, The Letter to the Galatians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018], 19-22).

A Community of Love in a World of Hate

(A presentation prepared for the staff team of CRU [Campus Crusade] at Ohio State University, August 19, 2020.  The team was asked to read Ephesians prior to our time together.)


The reviews for 2020 are in.  “One star: Did not like it; would not recommend.”  I’m giving the year one star myself, and it’s not merely because the pandemic messed up some really fabulous travel plans I had, nor because my congregation has met all of two times in the past five months, nor because my university is shuttering thirty or so academic programs as part of an effort to contain costs in the face of staggering shortfalls in enrollment courtesy of the pandemic, nor even because 750,000 deaths across the globe are being attributed to the “novel coronavirus.”  No, what’s weighed on me more than anything else this year has been the exponential degradation of civil discourse about everything, the unprecedented levels of impatience, verbal abusiveness, divisive rhetoric and practice, and ultimately hatred that I have seen erupting across this nation.  Advocating for something is transformed more and more into protesting against (and even demonizing) someone or some group – as “Black Lives Matter” morphed more and more into “defund the police,” “abolish the police,” and even “f*** the police” (appearing, in its most disturbing manifestation, on the sign held aloft by a toddler who had been taught to recite the slogan as her first creed).

The way parties on both sides are demonized is a testimony to the deadly levels of impatience, divisiveness, and, yes, hatred rampant across our nation: the protesters all become “vicious rioters,” the police all become “racist killers.”  “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” have become shibboleths that can put a person in mortal danger if he or she says the wrong slogan in the wrong place, revealing himself or herself to be in the “enemy” camp.  The same ethos pervades our political scene and its unprecedented tribalism.  Trump supporters are shouted down as “white supremacists”; Biden supporters are shouted down because they “hate America.”  Even relatively trivial issues have become storm centers of controversy, contempt, and hatred.  If you wear a mask in public places, you’re just one of the stupid “sheeple”; if you don’t wear a mask in public, you’re a self-centered conspiracy theorist.  Social media has never been a reliable venue for thoughtful and civil discourse, but the verbal abuse that strangers and increasingly estranged friends are willing to heap upon one another this year seems to me to have reached a new level.  But the mainstream media have become every bit as partisan and divisive as Facebook since the goal of “controlling the narrative” has replaced “truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness” – the former core values of journalism.

I’ve spent this space ranting about all of this because I’ve noticed how many of my colleagues (not just at my Seminary, but across the field of biblical and theological studies and religious publishing), how many members of my congregation, how many family members, friends, and acquaintances are spending more and more of their time and energy getting wrapped up in these various debates, weighing in heavily on one side or another (heaven forbid one should try to weigh in toward the middle looking for common ground and suggesting criticisms of the extremes!).  Truth be told, I’ve read more news stories, kept closer track of these virus counts or that city’s nocturnal saga, and lost more time being sucked into fruitless exchanges on Facebook in the past five months than in the past fifteen years and I know what it’s done to me personally.  It’s not made me happier, certainly; it’s not made me more productive for the long-term work of equipping disciples or extending God’s kingdom; it’s not made me more the person the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures would shape me to become.

Alongside the degeneration of 2020 into the year of the plague, protest, and political polarization, it has also been the year that, in the course of my research and writing, has had me immersed in Ephesians since about mid-April.  I have found the juxtaposition of 2020 and Ephesians to lean a little toward the surreal.  Here’s a text that begins with a lofty celebration of the “God who blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms” (1:3) and who had made “known to us the mystery of his will” (1:9), the God who has advanced his purposes for all of humanity in the Christ who “himself is our peace, he who made both [Jews and Gentiles] one and, in his flesh, tore down the partition wall – the enmity – between the two … that he might make the two into one new person in him, making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, killing the enmity with it” (2:14-16).  It verges on the surreal because this has not been a year for “blessing,” God’s purposes are not at all apparent in the events around us, and it has certainly not been a year for “peace” and “reconciliation.”  Ephesians seems so far removed from our present reality and experience that I have wondered throughout this season if it truly addresses us at all.  More often, however, I have wondered if it presents us with precisely the perspective that we need to orient ourselves and those sisters and brothers with whose formation we are entrusted more healthfully to the present reality.

Ephesians reminds its readers that God has a plan for God’s creation – for things in heaven and things on earth.  Indeed, words related to God’s willing, planning, advancing his purposes, and the like pervade the first half of this communication.  It is a plan formulated and set in motion from “before the foundation of the world” (1:4) and looking all the way ahead to its consummation beyond the end of the epoch of human history.  That already puts the present moment in perspective, no?  2020 has thrown God no curve balls; neither the pandemic nor the outcome of the presidential election is going to require God to make any mid-course corrections to his plans.  It’s really all just so much more background noise beneath the hymn praising God’s glorious display of grace that has been swelling for millennia as more and more people have been caught up in the trans-temporal and trans-local community that he has been forming, that “new humanity” being re-created together in Christ.  And that hymn is not sung in order to drown out the legitimate cries and groans of people suffering injustice, oppression, and grief – but it does create a very different context in which not only to address injustice, oppression, and grief but to embrace and lift up the very real people who have experienced injustice, oppression, and grief.

I should point out here that Paul is addressing people who live within the often-oppressive economic, religious, and domination systems of Roman imperialism.  This is a system with its own 1%, its yawning chasm between those few who have the majority of the wealth of the empire and those multitudes who count themselves fortunate to have enough day-by-day for their families to get by day-by-day.  It was a world in which one in four people were still slaves themselves, in which populations regularly knew the ravages of famines and epidemics, in which difference often met with open contempt without any of the hesitation of political correctness, in which privilege was flouted without apology, and in which the Roman “police” force had on one notable occasion amused themselves by coming up with creative, new positions in which to nail thousands of people up on poles and crosses.  In other words, it was a far tougher world than anyone alive in 2020 America has ever, ever known.

Ephesians begins with an extended sentence blessing God.  It is written in the idiom of worship, celebrating God’s favor and interventions on our behalf, because that is ever the starting point for being a community of love.

Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms, even as he chose us for himself in Christ – before the founding of the cosmos – to be holy and blameless in his sight in love, destining us for adoption unto himself through Christ in accordance with what he decided would be pleasing, for the purpose of the glowing praise of his favor with which he favored us in the Beloved, in whom we have redemption through his blood – release from our trespasses – according to the abundance of his favor which he made to abound toward us, in all wisdom and thoughtfulness making known to us the mystery of his will in accordance with his good pleasure which he set forward in Christ as a plan for the fullness of the times: to sum up all things in the Christ, the things in the heavenly places and the things upon the earth in him, in whom it was also apportioned to us (who have had a destiny set for us in accordance with the purpose of the one who acts in regard to all things in accordance with the counsel of his will) that we should be for the purpose of his glowing praise – even we who had hoped beforehand in the Christ, in whom you also, having heard the word of truth, the good news of your deliverance, in which you also trusted, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (which is the first installment of our inheritance) with a view to our redemption as a special possession, unto the praise of his glory! (1:3-14)

Ephesians opens with a narrative.  It is not one of the narratives that many other Jews are promoting around this time.  One of those other narratives was the old narrative about how God chose the biological descendants of Jacob to be God’s special possession out of all of humanity, along with, perhaps, those few other people who would accept circumcision and adopt all of those distinctive practices of the biological descendants of Jacob laid out in the Law of Moses. Another, complementary narrative promoted in Judea concerned Roman domination and oppression, regarding them not as God’s agent to chasten a disobedient Israel, but as the oppressive and godless foreigners to be opposed by violent force and driven out of a newly liberated Israel.  A contrary and competing narrative – believed and promoted even by some in Judea – was that the Roman empire was the God-given (or gods-given) vehicle for establishing the rule of law and the stability that had allowed prosperity to return throughout the eastern Mediterranean.  “Controlling the narrative” is not a modern innovation.

Ephesians doesn’t take up any of these narratives. Rather, Paul writes a narrative about God’s plan to extend his favor to all people – Jew and Gentile – in Christ and to make a new people for himself out of all peoples, both the Jews who were sure God had loved them and the Gentiles whom many Jews were sure that God had long since rejected.  It is a narrative of God’s unbridled and unbounded generosity towards all people in Christ, particularly seen in God’s willingness to grant “redemption through Christ’s blood, release from our trespasses” (1:7), to grant “adoption” into God’s own, eternal family (1:5), and to “seal” as many as trust God’s favor “with the promised Holy Spirit,” the deposit ensuring our full inheritance (1:13-14).  The ability to be generous – in attitude and in action – starts with understanding how richly we have been favored, how much we have been given.  If our starting point is how much we are owed, we will not be a community of love that shows itself in kindness and generosity.  If our starting point is how much we are owed, we will contribute to the division and hatred born of envy in our society.  If we have learned to pray “forgive us what we owe, as we forgive those who owe us” – if we can “forgive each other just as God forgave [us] in Christ” (4:32) – then we can more readily “be good-hearted and compassionate toward one another” (4:31).

It is also a narrative about election.  I’ve heard some people talking about the election coming up in November as “the most important election of our lifetimes.”  Both Trump/Pence and Biden/Harris supporters are claiming this which, of course, makes supporters of the other ticket an even greater “threat” now than in 2016 (the last “most important election of our lifetime”).  Many people are heaping scorn and vitriol on the opposing ticket and its supporters, as if either ticket is going to mean the salvation or the loss of the soul of this nation.  But nations don’t have souls.  They’re not eternal.  They come and go along with all their agendas, their partisanship, their hate and division-inducing strategies.  Whichever ticket wins, there will be some good outcomes, some bad outcomes, a great deal of division and hate still, and a great deal for the people of God still to do to advance God’s agenda and serve God’s outcomes in the midst of all the mess no matter whoever – and even in spite of whoever – prevails in the election.

We need distance from the myth that this election is simply that important, so that we can attend with appropriate attention and energy to the election that is supremely important – for us and for all. Paul writes: “God chose us” – God elected us – “for himself in Christ – before the founding of the cosmos – to be holy and blameless before him in love, destining us for adoption unto himself through Christ in accordance with what he decided would be pleasing, for the purpose of the glowing praise of his favor with which he favored us in the Beloved.” Becoming “holy and blameless before him in love” surely includes thinking about and extracting ourselves from our own participation in racist attitudes and practices, for example, but from a distinctly different starting point and within a distinctly different framework from what we see going on in the streets and in social media.  The present moment can help us to stretch our thinking about how we love more fully and more truly, how we move toward holiness and blamelessness in love, but that is not the conversation that the society is having at the present moment.  The Christian community needs to find its own ways – the Spirit-driven ways – to have those conversations in love.

The narrative Paul writes continues throughout the second chapter of this letter.  There are two parallel narratives, in fact, at work in this chapter.  The first concerns the reconciliation of people, formerly alienated from God, to the Creator:

And you, being dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you formerly walked in line with the span of time allotted to this world, in line with the ruler of the aery dominion, the spirit that is now operating in the children of disobedience; in which we all formerly conducted ourselves in the desires issuing from our flesh, as we continued to do as our flesh and dispositions willed, and we were by nature children of wrath like everyone else.  But God, being rich in mercy, on account of his great love with which he loved us, made even us, who were dead in our transgressions, come alive together with Christ – by favor you have been saved – and raised us up and seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, in order that he might show in the coming ages the surpassing abundance of his favor expressed in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (2:1-7)

The second parallel narrative concerns God’s reconciliation of people to one another particularly across lines of ethnic differentiation and, indeed, enmity:

Be mindful, therefore, that you – formerly “Gentiles” in regard to the flesh, the ones called “uncircumcision” by what is called “circumcision” (performed in the flesh by human hands) – that you were, at that time, without Christ, excluded from the body politic of Israel and aliens to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. Now in Christ Jesus, however, you who were formerly far off have come near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, he who made both one and tore down in his flesh the partition wall between the two – the enmity – nullifying the law made up of its commandments in formal decrees in order that he might make the two into one new person in him, making peace, and might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross, killing the enmity in it. And coming, he announced the good news of peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near: that, through him, we both have right of access in one Spirit to the Father. So, then, you are no longer aliens and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens of the holy ones and members of God’s household, you having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the capstone, in whom the whole building, as it is being fitted together, is growing into a holy sanctuary in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together spiritually into a dwelling for God. (2:11-22)

The “mystery of God’s purpose” that Paul lays out in the open here speaks of all of us coming out together from a life practice of “transgressions and sins” and “works of darkness,” lived under the influence of hostile spiritual powers.  Such a narrative calls us (as Paul will explicitly in the second half of his letter) to continue to examine ourselves, to repent, to keep adopting new practices, but with all of us doing this together as those whom God has forgiven, specifically with a view to reconciling us to himself and to one another in a “new humanity,” “one new person.”  What difference does it make when this becomes the master narrative and framework for our own lives, for our life together as a community, and for our engagement with the society around us?

These opening chapters of Ephesians, even as they talk about God’s purposes, speak a great deal also about the identity of the people being formed as a result of God’s purpose working itself out.  The categories of “Jew” and “Gentile” divided all of humanity – as far as the “Jew” was concerned – into two groups: “us” and “them.”  While Gentiles carved up the population differently (for example, Greeks divided humanity into “Greeks” and “barbarians”), they also identified “Jews” as a specific and distinctive ethnic group.  And there was no love lost in either direction.  Gentiles typically considered Jews to be an intellectually and morally inferior social body infected with a superstition that rendered them “atheists” as far as every god but their own was concerned as well as “misanthropic” or “xenophobic” as far as every other people group was concerned.  Jews typically considered Gentiles to be benighted idolaters who didn’t know the first thing about God and were, as a whole, shamelessly depraved and interested only in self-gratification.  What a scandalous witness, then, the early church lived out before their own society of hate, as Jew and Gentile in Christ learned to welcome one another as sisters and brothers in God’s new family and, on that basis, to encounter one another afresh and to adopt new relational practices together that were no longer informed or formed by the mutual enmity, prejudice, and hatred into which both groups had been socialized from birth! Their experience might also suggest to us that our primary role in God’s purposes is not to “fix” society but to bear witness to our society and, above all, to the “powers and authorities” – the “spiritual forces of wickedness” (3:10) that infect, dominate, and drive our society – concerning the reconciliation that God has brought about in Christ, wherever people are “in Christ,” and that God is making real in the world specifically by making it real in the Christian community.

There were personal costs for that early community to realize this vision.  Jews in Christ, for example, did have to “check their privilege” in their approach to and their view of Gentiles in Christ, if they were to be part of this “community of love” together.  Gentiles in Christ did have to exorcise from their own hearts and minds the prejudice and contempt nurtured by generations. But look closely at who bore the fundamental costs, and how: God did, by giving himself up in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, to death on a cross – a death that released Jews and Gentiles from their sins and “works of darkness” even as it implicated both Jews and Gentiles together in the historical crime of the crucifixion itself.

We’re hearing a great deal about “identity politics.”  What would it look like for us to put our Christian identity in the center of our thinking about our own identities and to think about the politics in which this identity necessarily involves us?  We find people of all different ethnic backgrounds (which society’s discourse tends to divide simply into “White” and “People of Color”) being brought together into one people – across all manner of lines that our society identifies as “dividing lines.”  Wherever these socially-manufactured fault lines appear, we find Christ “making both one,” “tearing down the partition wall – the enmity – between the two,” “making the two into one new person in him, making peace.”

But to speak of “one people” does not yet sufficiently capture the intimacy of the connection the Holy Spirit of God is seeking to forge between people in Christ, so Paul also uses the image of adoption into the one family of God in Christ.  But even that image is not sufficiently intimate, and so Paul speaks of Christ “reconciling both groups” – those groups separated by a socially-constructed wall of enmity – “to God together in one body,” one new entity, “through the cross, destroying the enmity in it.”  What kind of framework is this – being joined together in the one Body of Christ – for our interactions in Christian community?  What distinctive orientation does this give us toward the “other” who is also part of the same Body in Christ as “I” am, such that the “other” is now more “my kind” than anyone in any group defined in some way other than as “Body of Christ”?  What kind of starting point does Paul claim our common bond to Christ gives us by creating a common bond with one another across all temporal lines of difference, such that Paul can talk about our connection to one another not just using the image of stones being fitted to one another (but remaining, essentially, separable units), but using the language of joints and connective tissue, of inseparable biological components?  What if this identity – which is not just my identity, but our identity together, across all of those other lines – was always in the foreground in our interactions with one another as we addressed, and sought God’s leading concerning, every issue to which our context might draw our attention?

This does not mean avoiding the issues that are tearing our society apart.  On the contrary, at the core of God’s agenda is “the reconciliation of all things.”  But God’s people are summoned to get on board with God’s vision for what that looks like and with God’s means for bringing it about and extending it outward to “all things in heaven and things on earth.” It seems to me that “identity politics” leads people to articulate their own identity in terms of categories that have been and continue to be divisive, polarizing, and enmity-inducing.  Our identity in Christ, however, means that “he is our peace,” directing us to (and, through our common connection in the Holy Spirit, empowering us to) affirm and embrace that divine act of peacemaking and discover how to allow God’s work of having made peace to seep out into the reality of all of our interactions with one another in Christ across all those lines of division.

We have watched all summer as supporters of “Black Lives Matter” protest in the streets against the most egregious violations of public trust on the part of police, denounce law enforcement as irretrievably racist and corrupt as a whole, one component of the racist system of criminal justice in our country, and call for the defunding or even abolishing of police departments in several major cities.  Can we imagine an approach to making peace between law enforcement officers in Christ and persons of color in Christ in the one body that is not informed by the society’s ways and means, but by God’s ways and means, built upon the work that God has already accomplished in Christ – the peace that Christ has already made? Is that something that Christ’s “community of love” can facilitate in a way that the society of hate could never – and with long-lasting beneficial effects in how a body of law enforcement officers in Christ think about and encounter persons of color in Christ that no protests or policies will ever achieve? Can we gather ourselves together in such a way that we become a place to encounter, experience, and learn about one another from the starting point of being family in Christ?  A people who share together in the one Spirit and the one hope that will make us family forever – so that we might as well learn how to live as family now?

Christians ought not to adopt the world’s modes of discourse about important issues as our own “default mode” for talking about or addressing those issues.  This seems to me to be a pervasive way in which a divisive society invades and divides Christian community.  We need to discover our own mode – the mode that addresses these issues from the distinctive framework of God’s narrative and with the larger goals of God’s agenda for the world and for the new community of Christ’s Body at its foundation.  Paul gives us important pointers towards this distinctive mode throughout the second half of his letter:

Let all bitterness and fury and anger and clamor and slander be removed from you, along with all ill-will.  [Instead] be good-hearted toward one another, compassionate, forgiving each other just as God forgave you in Christ.  Become imitators of God, therefore, like children who are loved and keep walking in love, just as the Christ loved us and handed himself over on our behalf as an offering and sacrifice to God, for a pleasing fragrance. (4:31-5:2)

Perhaps the most vital element is the overarching framework for our interactions with one another, particularly where those interactions become strained.  In our society, people react to the evils – real or perceived – perpetrated by others, denounce them (both the actions and the others!), and call for redress or reparations.  In the Christian community – or, perhaps I should begin to say, the Christian “counter-society” – people react to the generosity and graciousness of God and respond to injuries perpetrated by others not in reaction against those injuries but out of the momentum of their own experience of being forgiven by God.  Positively, we can offer love to one another across lines that are typically divisive for our society, even while giving attention to those issues that would quickly polarize people in our society, out of the momentum of experiencing Christ’s love for us.  This is perhaps why Paul’s earnest prayer for his readers – the agenda to which Paul hopes we will open ourselves and in which he hopes we will invest ourselves – is that we would “be sufficiently able to grasp, along with all the holy ones, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of, and to know, the love of Christ that surpasses knowing – in order that you might be filled up with the full measure of all God’s fullness” (3:18-19).  The ongoing experience of that love gives us the fullness that we need in order to be generous and gracious ourselves to one another, the fullness that remedies the emptiness of insisting that the other owes me something and moves everyone beyond the resulting stalemate.

Paul sets before us as a matter of first importance – a priority never to be sacrificed in any interaction – that we should continue “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all humility and consideration, with patience continuing to bear with one another in love, eagerly seeking to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the common bond of peace” (4:1-3).  Disciplining ourselves to remain mindful of these values will allow us to perform a perpetual “self-check” on ourselves in our interactions with one another and to remember that we hold as our core value that which has become the most counter-cultural value of all: unity.  In the midst of this society of hate, marked by ever-widening polarization and division, what could be more counter-cultural than to remain committed to one another in the one Body across all of our differences as we continue to allow God to draw us further and further along towards being “holy and blameless before him in love”?

Living out so counter-cultural a value, however, requires keeping before us regularly – so regularly that it is subconsciously present with us in the midst of dealing with the difficult issues together – the basis for such unity: “one body and one spirit, even as you were also called in the one hope that comes from your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:4-6).  Is there not enough in all these “ones” to motivate us to hold onto one another in love? Are any of these “ones” of less value than the issues over which our society seeks to divide and polarize its population?

Paul continues to unfold the means by which God’s purpose is working itself out in the world:

And Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the proclaimers of good news, the shepherds and teachers, with a view to the equipping of the holy ones for the work of service, for the building of Christ’s body, until we all arrive at the oneness produced by faith and by knowing the Son of God – at the mature person, at the measure of the stature of Christ’s fullness – in order that we might no longer be children, tossed about on the waves and carried along by every wind of teaching through the trickery and cleverness of human beings when it comes to scheming to lead others astray. But speaking truthfully in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head – Christ, from whom the whole body, as it is being fitted and joined together through every supporting joint in line with the measured working of each and every part, produces in itself the growth of the body for its own edification in love.  (4:11-16)

There have indeed been a lot of winds and waves blowing and driving people this way and that!  Masks versus no masks, common good versus my rights and freedoms, every stance taken by Democrats versus every stance taken by Republicans, Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter, peaceful protests versus opportunistic looting and destruction.  How much are we blown one way or another and led to engage these issues divisively? How much have we witnessed our fellow Christians doing so?  Do we see fellow Christians more energized by promoting (or debunking) this or that conspiracy theory than they are by promoting the “Divine Conspiracy” by which God is infiltrating every society of hate with the new community of love?

How, then, does Paul position us for greater stability, deepening our rudder against the effects of such winds and waves on our course through a day, through a week, through 2020?  He focuses us on God’s purposes that span the entirety of human history, that transcend the momentary blip that is 2020.  He focuses us on becoming each of us ourselves and all of us together “the new person,” who is the “mature” or “complete” person that measures up to Christ, while extricating ourselves – against each of us and all of us together – from “the old person” that our society has shaped and still pushes each of us, in our distinctive configurations of that “old person,” to be.  We do this by being intentional to keep God’s narrative foremost in our minds and in our conversations; by being intention to continue to experience together the love of Christ that becomes, in turn, the primary driver in our encounters with one another across any and all differences; by being intentional – in the face of what seems an unprecedented amount of deceit being spread about in our society to draw in the support of the unwary for this or that agenda – to continue “speaking the truth in love,” something that has never seemed so important and counter-cultural as now; and by being intentional about holding up the warning signs and the “green-light” indicators to which we may pay constant attention in ourselves and in Christian community – and committing together to pay attention together to these things and to let them indicate when we need to hit “pause” on our interactions and examine the dynamics at work among us.

God is certainly a God of justice who stands alongside and raises up the oppressed and those who suffer injustice, and God certainly calls his people to do the same.  But God’s plan for doing so, and God’s means of bringing this about, at least as far as Paul is aware, center not on reforming society, per se, but on our living together as an alternative society that bears witness to what justice and mutual love look like in community relations.  Our principal task in the economy of God is to build up and to nurture this community of love and to invite more and more people into it, to shape and “resocialize” them into its ethos, and in this way extend God’s reach and rule throughout this world.





Contending for the Faith

This is a sermon by Dr. Ivor Poobalan, principal of Colombo Theological Seminary and a dear brother in the faith.  It strikes me as an important sermon both as a window into the kinds of struggles with cultish distortions of Christian faith that the Sri Lankan church encounters on a daily basis and as a reminder to my fellow clergy and other Christian leaders here in the West to be attentive to grounding their parishioners in the historic faith of the church so that they are not prey to the advances of such movements here as well.  Ivor’s closing advice to the local church, it seems to me, should become part of the “DNA” of our own ministries and our church culture — as it was for Jude himself.


Contending for the Faith! How to Overcome Distortions of Christianity and Cultism (An Exposition on the Letter of Jude)

Ivor Poobalan, Principal, Colombo Theological Seminary


In the last three to four years there has been a Korean movement working in Sri Lanka reaching out particularly to young, English-speaking Christians in the city. They are part of Shincheonji, a cult founded by Lee Man Hee, who imagines himself to be the “counsellor” or “advocate” promised by Jesus in the gospel of John.  “God, Jesus and Lee Man-Hee are working together to restore God’s kingdom on earth through establishing the New Heaven and the New Earth spoken about in Revelations [sic]” (Roshan Mendis).

This cult operates through one-on-one Bible studies, where they make contact with an eager young Christian and offer to provide deep and meaningful teachings from the Bible. The ‘student’ is asked to make an initial commitment of 1-3 weekly meetings for a three or four month period. During this time the mentor stays in very close touch. The student is asked not to divulge information to anyone about these meetings and to continue to be a part of the church or youth group he attends. A ‘new’ way of interpreting the Bible is carefully taught that causes the student to question all her previous assumptions about the Christian faith.  We thought that the cult had folded up until recently when our youth leaders became aware that sincere youth from several churches in Colombo were participating in these secret Bible studies!

“Shincheonji the Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony” is one of the most recent distortions of the Christian faith; a tradition that goes back unbroken to the very beginning, the period of the apostles.

The Letter of Jude: A Response to Distorted Christianity or Cultism

The letter of Jude begins with this explanation:

“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jd.3-4)

Jude says he would have preferred to write a letter to discuss the joys and the benefits of their shared salvation; to talk about the wonder of God’s grace, the assurance of his promises, and the joy of being a part of a redeemed and transformed community that love and support one another. But he has got wind of an imminent and insidious danger facing his Christians friends: “I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith”. What was the danger?

Some ungodly men have “secretly slipped in” among the believers to influence them to follow a distorted version of the Christian faith:

  1. They still talk about the grace of God, but twist it to make it a license for immorality
  2. They still talk about Jesus Christ, but deny his singular sovereignty and lordship

In the 1970s there were two very influential cults in Colombo whose influence impacted me personally. The first was the well-known Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose distinctive mark is that they “deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord”. The JWs believe that Jesus was not the Son of God, he was in fact the archangel Michael who became incarnate in order to save humanity from sin. They argue that the Church has misread the Bible, and has actually translated and interpreted the Bible wrongly. God is going to save 144,000 special Christians and take them to heaven, and the rest of those who join the JWs will live in a paradise on earth.

I was a thirteen year old Bible Quiz student when the JWs came calling at our home. Since they were all about the ‘Bible’ my dad thought I would be the best person to engage with them – “my son is very interested in the Bible” – and that way he could get away from what he felt would be a futile religious discussion! The man continued to visit me, he gave me leaflets and beautifully illustrated books, and share the JW ‘gospel’. Eventually he managed to get my whole family to come to a JW outreach programme at the Kathiresan Hall. But one factor kept me unconvinced: the things I had been taught in Sunday School, and the Bible I was studying for myself because of Bible Quiz. In a hundred years of existence the JWs have mostly misled people who once were members of churches.

The second cult that nearly got a hold of me was called the “Children of God” or the “Family of Love”. This was a movement that had been founded by David Berg, a pastor that had been disciplined by the Assemblies of God for immoral behaviour. He broke away with a group of followers and developed a distorted Christianity. They preached the importance of being born again and studying the Bible and living a radically simple lifestyle. Their followers left family and home in order to live in communes where they tried to become the true family of love, like the first Christians in the book of Acts. But at the core of David Berg’s teachings was what Jude had said: “They pervert the grace of God as a license for immorality”.

Berg taught that God is Love, and that the highest expression of love was sex. This means that when Jesus said, “A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I have loved you”, he meant that Christians should feel free to express their true love for other people through sexual means. All these boundaries and barriers that restrict people to marriage and to one sexual partner are dogmas taught by a dead, traditional church. True Christians know that Jesus has set them free to love one another.

This group lived a few doors from our home and visited us regularly because we were five church-going kids in one house. I loved their music and secretly admired their carefree lives, but again something in me was not at peace. Their persuasive leaflets and songs and preaching and kindness still didn’t harmonize with the truths that I had been privileged to learn at Sunday School and by Bible reading. God had graciously put his Word in my heart, and even though I was not obedient to him, his grace was at work protecting me from distortions of the faith.

David Berg and the “Children of God” have wreaked moral and psychological chaos on thousands of people around the world, and today the group no longer exists but their tragic legacy of pain, guilt and shame continues to impact the victims.

Four Descriptions of People who Distort Christianity or Propagate Cultism

Jude is very focused on his one theme: Christians must contend for the faith! He has warned that “certain men have secretly slipped in among you”. Jude is clear that they are destined for God’s judgment because they have dangerously violated the limits and boundaries set by God (see vv.5-7).

He now elaborates to provide four descriptions of the people that he is referring to. We can see this by noticing the repeated expression he uses: “these people”, in vv. 8, 10, 12 and 16. Following this clue we will be able to get a better understanding of the profile of the early founders of cultism.

I. They are Reckless and Arrogant (vv. 8-9)

They base their teachings on “the strength of their dreams” or their imagination, not on a careful and responsible reading of the Scriptures. They are creative people who are willing to take risks. Risks in what they say and how they do things. Risk-takers are very attractive to certain people; we instinctively feel drawn to someone who is willing to put himself out there, and wonder if perhaps he might be right.

Jude 8 tells us three things: “they pollute their own bodies, reject authority, and heap abuse on celestial beings”. They are reckless enough to challenge traditional limits and boundaries. Like David Berg they ask, who says that you should only show your deepest love to just one person? Why do you listen to your parents and your dead church? Look at how much pleasure and joy you can have by being ‘free’!

They are arrogant because they assume that the ‘final truth’ has been entrusted by God to them and to no other. Lee Man Hee claims that he is the successor to Jesus and the one who alone embodies the Holy Spirit.

A group very close to us is led by a person who claims to be a special being with a special revelation that the church has missed for two thousand years. Bishop Dr Kirby de Lanerolle and his wife are the founders of a movement called the WOW-Life Church. They say that they have discovered an energy-source that enables them to live and thrive without eating and drinking food and water.

Some years ago Kirby claimed that God sent angels to re-set his DNA and make his body capable of living without food. So now Kirby doesn’t need to eat at all, and Fiona only has three meals a week! What is this energy source? It is the elements of the Holy Communion – the wafer and the wine – when consumed with the right understanding and the right kind of faith. This ritualistic consumption of the bread and the wine transforms the human body at the “cellular level”, and because of the “vibrations of God” our bodies become younger and healthier.

This has now led to the most reckless teaching that is central to WOW-Life: the promise of immortality on earth. The followers are now promised that they are the first generation of Christians that will physically live on and not die until Jesus returns in the future. So they expect to “push” the normal boundaries of human experience and live beyond one-hundred-and-twenty years, because the “Father intends life and not death”

We all probably know someone who has been persuaded by this movement and its teachings. Unsuspecting pastors of over five hundred independent churches in Sri Lanka have signed to come under the leadership of this movement which is now registered as the Apostolic Diocese of Ceylon. On its website we are told that: “Rev. Dr. Kirby currently holds the position of Coordinator to the Ministry of Christian Religious Affairs for free and independent churches in Sri Lanka.”

II. They are Defensive and Deluded (vv. 10-11)

The second description of “these people” has to do with their teachability and understanding: “Yet these people slander whatever they do not understand and the very things they do understand by instinct – as irrational animals do – will destroy them” (v.10).

What must we do if we don’t understand something? We must adopt a position of humble teachability. We must pursue a learning posture, looking for those who can explain these difficulties to us. We must appreciate the complexity of these ideas. But some personalities don’t want to admit that they don’t understand; it makes them feel inferior to others. So they become defensive, they cut themselves off from people who are more knowledgeable than them, they criticize them and undermine them (“slander whatever they do not understand”) so that their followers see only them on the stage or the podium.

The mentors in Shincheonji are like this. They don’t want to be confronted by knowledgeable Christian teachers, so they ask for secrecy and hide their identities and meet in coffee bars using WhatsApp or other social media for communicating times and dates. Until a few years ago attendance at the WOW Life Church was only possible by invitation, and only registered members could have access to podcasts of Kirby de Lanerolle’s teachings. It’s only from 2015 that the movement has gone mainstream.

What does Jude mean by saying “they have taken the way of Cain”? Cain was the brother who couldn’t bear the fact that Abel had offered God the “better” sacrifice. So instead of humbling himself and learning from his brother’s example, Cain killed Abel to make sure there was no ‘competitor’ to him.

III. They are Insidious and Controlling (vv. 12-15)

“These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm – shepherds who feed only themselves” (v.12)

One of the most distinguishing marks of the early Christians was their fellowship. The walls that had once divided them – race, status, gender – had been torn down. Christians related one with another in an exhilarating atmosphere of freedom. They often met in each other’s homes and ate together. A tradition that developed later was the ‘agape feasts’ (love feasts) where they ate together and bonded and enjoyed an openness and trust.

But these people with sinister intentions have got right into the church; in fact they are fully involved, participating in the church’s love feasts and “eating with you without the slightest qualm”

But it gets worse. Not only are they insiders, they have taken up important pastoral positions in the church. Jude calls them “shepherds”, a common term used to describe the pastor of a church. They have the reputation of being leaders of the church, but actually they have no real concern or commitment to the ‘sheep’: “Shepherds who feed only themselves”.

Those who have become part of a cult and have come out of it know how emotionally dependent they had become on their leader of the group. He is always in their consciousness, there are constant communications from him or her, and the thought of leaving the group becomes terrifying.

For a JW to leave the kingdom hall, or “Children of God” member to leave the communal home, or for a member of Shincheonji to leave the membership of what has been called the ‘true church’ of the New Heavens and New Earth, would be a terrifying thought.

IV. They are Critical and Manipulative (vv. 16)

One of the common features of a cult is their initial message about how the established church, Christian traditions, and authority figures in our lives are wrong, misdirected, and often led by Satan. Jude says, “These people are grumblers and faultfinders”. They are constantly critical of everything and everyone you are attached to; even pastors, parents, spouses, could be agents of Satan.

The “Children of God” would regularly teach us that the traditional church was dead and working against the purpose of God. God was doing a new thing.  Similarly, “WOW encourages its congregation to pursue a deeper relationship with God through the Spirit Word over learned-response religion and that God’s love and grace transforms hearts and didn’t require outward behavior modification to enter church or His presence. The WOW message endeavored to set free religiously shackled Christians, those that once felt they would never be welcome in church and those condemned and discouraged by religion” (WOW-life website, accessed July 21, 2019). Notice how the movement sets itself up as the one that cares for these people who are misunderstood, rejected, condemned, and “religiously shackled Christians.”

Jude says they are critical (“grumblers and faultfinders”) and also manipulative: “they follow their own evil desires, they boast about themselves, and flatter others for their own advantage”. Once a person is sold out on these distorted teachings, there is no limit to what can be achieved. People become willing to give up anything and anyone that was once a part of their ‘normal’ life for the sake of this experience or its promises. One sad husband of a woman who joined Shicheonji in Korea says, “She was a wonderful wife and mother, now she thinks I’m a devil”. Others give up their wealth and property almost entirely to the movement.

How can a local church overcome the influence of distorted Christianity and Cultism?

Jude ends his letter with practical guidance on how that church would be able to overcome these reckless and dangerous distortions of the “faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people”. In Jude 17 – 23 the apostle presents three helpful responses: 1) Remember that the danger of false teachings was foretold by the pioneers of the Christian faith 2) Prioritise on your essential Christian Responsibilities, and 3) Intensify the church’s Pastoral Engagement.

1) Remember that the danger of false teachings was foretold by the pioneers of the Christian Faith (17-19)

The first safeguard against distortions of Christianity is the fact that Jesus and the apostles repeatedly warned about it. Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Paul writes in Galatians 1:8 writes: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the gospel we preached to you, let them be under a curse”. John wrote the Book of Revelation to seven churches in Turkey that were struggling because of persecution from without and heresies from within.

Distortions of Christianity and cultism are proliferating at an astounding pace because through the means of digital technology we can disseminate ideas with frightening speed. But we must remember that Jesus and his apostles foretold that this would happen.

2) Prioritise on your Essential Christian Responsibilities (20-21)

Second, Jude says, the Christian believers must take personal responsibility to pursue their essential Christian responsibilities: “But you dear friends, KEEP YOURSELVES IN GOD’S LOVE, by building yourselves up in the most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, and waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ to bring you into eternal life” (20-21).

So what are the responsibilities? The main thing is to “keep yourselves in God’s love”. This refers to the intimacy and trust that we continually develop in our relationship with our heavenly Father. It also suggests that the church must prioritise of living out the implications of love more than focusing on organization and programmes. What then are the means for keeping ourselves in God’s love?

Jude calls us, first, to build ourselves up in the Faith. We are not to remain static in our appreciation and application of Christian truth. We are to grow and to change through our knowledge of the Scriptures and our practise of a Christian lifestyle.  Second, we are to actively seek intimacy with God by “praying in the Holy Spirit”. Your body is the temple of God and the Holy Spirit now lives in every believer. You already have intimacy with God. Pursue and take advantage of this gift: pray in the Holy Spirit, speak simply and trust him for the daily mundane issues that face you and you will be amazed at what you will experience. Third, we are to animate our longing for the coming of Christ and the fulfilment of the promise of eternal life: “Waiting for the mercy of the Lord Jesus to bring you to eternal life”

3) Intensify the church’s Pastoral Engagement (22-23)

When members of the church are coming under the influence of false teachings and cultism, how should the church respond? There are different responses that are possible. Often the church is ignorant of these dangers, not even aware that such groups are in operation, nor about the serious damage they can cause to people, families and the Christian communities. Sometimes we can have an apathetic response: if people want to go after some new teacher or want to try a new fad, why not? They are individuals, and surely they can take responsibility for themselves.

Jude proposes a totally different response, a pastoral response. He suggests that we must become more active neither passive nor indifferent. In fact he is suggesting that we intensify our pastoral engagement. He recognizes that there are at least three different kinds of people in such a context: the doubtful, the endangered, and the defaulters.

The doubtful are those who have been challenged by this new teaching and are questioning the fundamentals of the Christian faith. We are to “be merciful”, compassionate, understanding, and sympathetic towards them, so that we can facilitate their comeback to a strong faith.

The endangered are those who are on the verge of crossing over into this group or movement. In such situations we are to go into a mode that is like that of a firefighter: “save others by snatching them from the fire”. It’s not a time to be discussing niceties but rescuing someone from something that can destroy them.

There is still another group. These are people who have defaulted and participated in the error. In the case of the “Children of God,” there were so many who had gone fully into the movement and then got disillusioned and come out. But they were so full of shame and guilt they couldn’t face family and especially church members. How are we to respond? Tell them that we told them so? No, we are to still reach out without compromising on the truth. Jude says, “to others show mercy mixed with fear – hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh”.


Jude has shown the importance of safeguarding the faith, contending for the faith that once for all has been entrusted to the saints. He has warned us about the danger of false teachers and cultism and described the major characteristics of false teachers. We have seen how relevant these warnings are to our time, because Jesus and the apostles have warned the church about this danger. We also know that we can do something to safeguard the church: keeping ourselves in the love of God and intensifying pastoral engagement.

So the letter ends with the benediction:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (24-25).



Story and Mission in Luke-Acts

A presentation prepared for the “Luke-Acts Colloquium” sponsored by the South Ohio Diocese of the Episcopal Church, delivered at St. George’s, Dayton.


The Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, together lay out the story of God’s mission in the world of the first century AD.  The story of this mission takes place in the midst of the world of the early Roman empire, beginning during the reign of Augustus and extending as far as the reign of Nero – though we only hear the names of Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius in the course of the story, and always quite tangentially.  It is the story of a mission that is decidedly uninterested in the mission of the early Roman empire and the missions of various other groups and parties active in that world.

As we read Acts, we learn of several Jewish freedom fighters, would-be leaders of insurrections hoping to change the story of Judea and to sideline Rome’s mission in that region in favor of a nationalistic mission of independence.  Early in Acts (5:36-37), Gamaliel makes reference to the revolt led by Judas the Galilean in connection with the imperial census taken under Quirinius, the legate of Syria famous for being mispronounced in nearly every reading of the Nativity story that I’ve ever heard, and the movement led by Theudas, who led a large mass of followers to the Jordan River in the expectation of a new parting of the waters and divine conquest of the land currently under Roman domination.  Later in Acts, when Paul is arrested, the commander of the barracks in Jerusalem wondered if Paul might be the Jew from Egypt “who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins (Sicarii) out into the desert” (21:38), another abortive revolt quickly put down by the Roman governor just a few years prior.  These revolutionaries grounded their mission in a particular story, believing that God’s former acts of deliverance on behalf of Israel would be repeated in the present conflict against Roman domination and lead to a restored kingdom of Israel. It appears that one man formerly enamored of this story and the mission it supported – Simon, “known as the Zealot” – detached himself from it and found himself caught up in another story, another divine mission.

The chief priests and leading elites that constituted the Sanhedrin throughout the period of Jesus’ ministry and the activity of Jesus’ apostles in Judea were also people on a mission that was rooted in a particular story.  In their case, this story focused on the covenant originally forged at Sinai and on the Temple that was so central an organ for the covenant’s ongoing operation, and their mission was to preserve both Temple and covenant as the indispensable and unsurpassable venue for the mediation of God’s favor and blessings for the people.  Of all the other stories and missions, theirs is the one to which Luke gives the greatest outright attention, no doubt because the story and mission of the Jesus movement clashed so directly with theirs.  Indeed, Luke’s story from Jesus’ indictment and occupation of the Temple after his triumphal entry through the sermon of Stephen can be read as a story of the shift of divine authority from the Temple administration to the apostles and the shift of divine presence and power from the Temple to the Spirit-empowered community of Jesus’ followers.

Luke knows that, if followers of the Christ were truly and fully to invest themselves in seeking the kingdom of God and in living out their allegiance to Jesus as their Lord, they would need to divest themselves fully from their investment of themselves in alternative, essentially incompatible stories and missions.

Luke’s primary audience is none other than the members of the communities of faith whose early formation is the subject of the Acts narrative.  What are Christians in Pisidian Antioch or Ephesus or Philippi or Corinth “hearing” when they hear Luke and Acts read to them in their assemblies?  How does it transform (or, at least, reinforce for them) their identity and location in “story and mission” in their world?  How can recovering this experience help us to hear the implicit challenge of Luke and Acts in our location?  As I reflect on the dominant story about divine mission in the world of these early Christians, I read Luke’s Gospel and Acts quite differently. Luke appears to me to work to displace that dominant story to make room for the new story of how the God of Israel is accomplishing his good ends through the mission of Jesus and of the early church, inviting Christians to locate themselves in the world no longer in terms of that dominant story, but rather in terms of the story of God’s kingdom.

In what follows, I will introduce that dominant story about the divine mission in the world, the ways in which Luke may be heard to subvert that story, and finally the ways in which Luke’s agenda in this regard bequeaths an agenda to us to take up in our setting.

Rewriting the “Saecular” Ideology

I use the somewhat archaic word “saecular” to describe “ideology” here because I mean to denote “the ideology that belonged to the age in which Luke wrote and into which all his readers or hearers had been born.”  It was certainly not a “secular” ideology in the more common sense of “not religious, that which is not set apart as ‘sacred’.”  The “saecular” ideology was also a deeply religious one with its own body of faith claims, symbolically enacted in its own rites and liturgies.

The dominant story in the world of Luke’s audience is the story of the mission of Rome as the fulfillment of a divine plan for the world. One of the great evangelists of the Gospel of Rome was Virgil, a poet in Augustus’s court and author of the Aeneid, the court epic of the Augustan age.  The public story of Rome begins with the fall of Troy, from whose ashes emerges a hero, Aeneas, whose divinely-appointed mission would be to plant the seeds of a world empire.  The Aeneid celebrates the destiny of Rome, glimpses of which encourage the hero Aeneas on to the end of his quest.  Zeus, the king of the gods, promises that the Romans would “rule the sea and all the lands about it” (Aen. 1.236-37).  Zeus announces that Rome’s destiny would be to “bring the whole world under the rule of law” (Aen. 4.232), a mission that it came ever closer to fulfilling throughout the first and second centuries AD with each new conquest (and to preserving with each suppression of a new revolt). The fruits of this mission were widely celebrated as “stability and security” by creating “a single, unwavering cycle and world order of peace” (thus Plutarch, “On the Fortune of the Romans” 2 [Moralia 317]).

The power of Rome was visually portrayed in the image of the goddess Roma, the visible representation of the “order,” the “rule of law,” the “peace” and “stability” that Rome’s imperial rule brought.  She was often featured on the reverse of coins; she is more prominently visible in the cult statues throughout the Mediterranean.


Roma was given the epithet Aeterna, an epithet that persists to this day when we hear Rome called “the Eternal City.”  Thus Rome’s supporters and propagandists advanced the bold claim that Rome’s mission and destiny were unchanging and everlasting, in contradiction to all the lessons of world history.

According to this widely celebrated story, divine Providence – the provision of the gods for the good ordering of the world – was at work in the rise and reign of Rome, and it was particularly at work in the rise and reign of Augustus and his successors.  Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, brought an end to three major rounds of civil wars – in two of which he was a major player.  But, as the last man standing, it was he who restored “peace” to the whole world and, indeed, set in place a far more stable “peace” than had been known prior to the onset of the civil wars.

Let me take you next to the Roman province of Asia in what we would call the year 9 BC, where chance has left us a marvelous snapshot of how this dominant cultural story about a divine mission was articulated and celebrated.  I think the location of this snapshot in the Roman province of Asia – the area of what is now Western Turkey that contained cities with churches born of the Pauline mission like Ephesus, Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea – is significant.  In 9 BC, the 22nd year of the reign of the emperor Augustus, the Provincial Council of Asia invited proposals for the best way to honor Augustus for the gifts he had brought to the world.  Paullus Fabius Maximus, provincial governor at the time, offered the winning proposal, namely that the birthday of Augustus should become the official “New Year’s Day” of the calendar year, since his coming marked the beginning of a new era of peace and order.  The Council agreed that this should indeed be done,

because Providence … has set all things in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom      she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [sōtēra], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things well, and because he, Caesar, by his appearing [epiphaneis], … surpassed all previous benefactors and leaves posterity no hope of another surpassing what he has done, and because the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news [euangeliōn] for the world that came by reason of him.

The word from the inscription translated as “good news” here is a form of euangelion, the same Greek word that appears no fewer than seventy-five times in the New Testament (whether translated as “good news” or “gospel”).  This inscription lauded Augustus as Providence’s provision for the “highest good” of the people, a ruler whom Providence “filled with excellence for the benefit of humanity.”  It hailed him as “savior,” one whose gifts to humankind no one would ever surpass in the future, and as a manifestation of the divine (as the verb epiphanein was typically used to speak of the appearing of a god or goddess among or to mortals).  The word “savior” here admittedly comes from a portion of the inscription that had to be reconstructed, but Augustus, like other generally beneficent emperors, was frequently hailed as “savior,” as in the inscription over the temple of Augustus and Roma on the Athenian acropolis, located just behind the great Parthenon.   The word was part of the stock repertoire of acclamations of the emperor.


Another particularly important term in this repertoire is “son of [a] god.” After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman Senate declared him to have become a god.  Their decision was based, among other things, on the testimony of reliable witnesses to have seen a new star appearing in the heavens, an image frequently represented thereafter on the coins of Julius’s adopted son and successor, Octavian – who would shortly come to be named “Augustus.” Temples were erected in Rome and throughout the eastern provinces to this new deity. Thus Octavian became “son of the divine Julius” and this title divi filius, “son of the deified one,” would be featured prominently in every inscription and on every coin connected with Octavian.  Augustus was given divine honors during his life and, predictably, officially consecrated a god after his death, allowing his own adopted son and successor, Tiberius, to continue the tradition of being styled “son of a god.”  Nero, Titus, and Domitian were all also able to make use of this title after the divinization of Claudius and of Vespasian.


In this inscription from a triumphal arch honoring the emperor Hadrian, he is lauded, among other things, as “son of the God Nerva Traianus.”  This particular inscription shows us something important: if there was any distinction in Latin between the deus (god) and the divus (deified one), that distinction disappeared in the Greek-speaking world, where the divus was simply rendered theos, “a god.”

Son of a god

It is in the midst of such a world that Luke’s archangel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she will give birth to a child who “will be called ‘Son of God’” (Luke 1:35), a status that the voice of God itself confirms at both Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration (Luke 3:22; 9:35).  It is in the midst of such a world that Luke’s anonymous angel appeared to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem to deliver an alternative announcement of good news: “The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’” (Luke 2:10-11 NRSV).[1] When Luke speaks of the birth of Jesus, the “son of God,” as the “good news” concerning the appearing of a “savior” who will benefit “all people” – a story in which Augustus now appears offstage merely as the person drawing up a census to make sure he can get his tribute from all the subject peoples of his empire – his readers would have understood the political implications of his proclamation of Jesus’s place in the divine scheme of things.

Very significantly, Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius are introduced into the narrative only as background scenery, at most as part of an explanation for how the events that really matter in the divine story and mission unfolded.  Thus Augustus is named only as the cause of Joseph and Mary’s migration to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth; Tiberius is named in connection with providing something of a date for the beginning of the ministry of John, Jesus’ forerunner; and Claudius is mentioned only as the person whose expulsion of the Jews from Rome landed Prisca and Aquila in Corinth where they would make Paul’s acquaintance (Luke 2:1; 3:1; Acts 18:2).  They are not themselves the agents of the divine, and they are themselves far removed from the arena of divine action. The Christian gospel was thus very much a counter-gospel.  It both declared how God was intervening for the benefit of all humankind and sought to correct how the majority of people in the Roman world had thought that the divine had intervened for the benefit of all humankind, through whom, and to what end.

There is a “divine Providence,” to which Luke refers most often as “the plan of God” (Luke 7:30; Acts 2:23; 4:28; 13:36; 20:27), behind the counter-gospel.  This “plan” was announced in the Scriptures of Israel and was put in effect in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and in the mission of the disciples whom he commissioned:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke. 24:44-47 NRSV)

It is also a divine plan with a universal scope, the goal of which is to unite people from Israel and from all the nations together into a new political entity, the “kingdom of God” that is thematic throughout Luke-Acts.[2]  Jesus had outlined the strategy by which this invasion and annexation would take place:

“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” (Lk. 13:18-19 NRSV)

“To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Lk. 13:20-21 NRSV)

Unlike Rome’s forging of an empire through heavy-handed military conquest and political coercion, God’s kingdom would insinuate itself everywhere as yeast works through a lump of dough until it has taken over the whole.  And this is the process that we see beginning in the narrative of Acts as the seed is planted or the yeast injected in city after city in the northeast quadrant of the Mediterranean region.

And, of course, every kingdom has a “Lord” to whom allegiance, and to whose commands obedience, is ultimately due.  Luke proclaims the crucified and risen Jesus as this “Lord,” acting as the vice-regent of God in this kingdom – this empire that God is forming out of former subjects of “all the kingdoms of the world” (Luke 4:5) through the mission of the apostles and the sealing of the Holy Spirit.

Rewriting “Saecular” Geography

Luke’s neutralizing of Rome’s ideology – its presentation of its own role and importance in the unfolding drama of this world – is evident also in how Luke presents the geography of God’s story and mission, and particularly how he allocates “gravity” in his map.

There can be no doubt that Jerusalem stands at the center of Luke’s map.  All four Gospels, of course, place the climactic action of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem as a matter of public record, but Luke begins Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as early as Luke 9:51, about two-fifths into the narrative: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Luke will not let his readers lose sight of the fact that the actions of the next ten chapters occur “on the way to Jerusalem”:

“Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:22 NRSV)

“Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” (Luke 13:33 NRSV)

“On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” (Luke 17:11 NRSV)

“Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished’.” (Luke 18:31 NRSV)

“He went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” (Luke 19:11 NRSV)

After Jesus’ resurrection, Luke departs from the tradition of the other Gospels by not speaking of the disciples returning to Galilee at any point.  In Mark, for example, the message is sent to the disciples: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:1 NRSV).  In Matthew, the encounter between Jesus and his disciples in Galilee is narrated.  In John’s Gospel as well the disciples are found in chapter 21 having relocated to the Sea of Galilee after the initial resurrection appearances in Jerusalem.  In Luke, however, Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem and tells them: “see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49 NRSV).  The disciples must remain in Jerusalem because just as it was the focal point for Jesus’ mission of redemption, it will also be the center from which God’s mission to all nations will break forth.  Once again, in Jesus’ summary of the witness of the “hope of Israel” as attested in its Scriptures: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47 NRSV).

Acts, then, opens in Jerusalem, with Luke reminding the readers why: “While staying with them, Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4).  Immediately prior to his ascension – in Luke, from the Mount of Olives immediately across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem – Jesus says: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRSV). This programmatic statement creates an expectation in the hearers that, as Acts unfolds, this commission will be fulfilled.  The propriety of such an expectation is confirmed as the story of the apostolic mission proceeds: bold and effective witness to what God has done in Christ and the summons God has issued in Christ happens first in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7) and moves out into Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-9): “The church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31 NRSV).

From here, the witnesses begin to move out beyond Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria towards “the ends of the earth.”  What we notice as we read on, however, is that Luke does not speak of Thomas’s mission to India (if that tradition is reliable), the eunuch’s possible evangelistic activity in Ethiopia, and the like.  Rather, Luke speaks of the steady progression of the witness to God’s kingdom moving further and further out from Jerusalem in the direction of Rome – first through Syria and Cilicia, then through Cyprus and Anatolia, then through Macedonia and Greece.  And just as Luke’s Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem quite early, Paul similarly sets his face to go to Rome as early as Acts 19:21: “Paul resolved in the Spirit to go through Macedonia and Achaia, and then to go on to Jerusalem. He said, ‘After I have gone there, I must also see Rome’” (Acts 19:21 NRSV).  We are reminded of this divine necessity throughout Paul’s legal trials which, ironically, become the means by which he arrives in Rome, “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” for two whole years (Acts 28:30-31).  The expectation for the story of Acts raised by Jesus’ declaration that his witnesses would reach “the ends of the earth” is fulfilled, most ironically, as this witness proclaims the good news in Rome.

One scholar has written: “Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire—it would have been absurd to describe the power center of the Roman Empire with the label ‘end of the earth’.”[3]  This is no more absurd, I would say, than to claim that one of Rome’s crucified victims was, in fact, the agent at the center of God’s pre-determined plan for the redemption of Israel and the gathering of the Gentiles, the agent through whom and in whose name “the kingdom of God” would take shape in response to the proclamation of God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, beginning “in Jerusalem in all Judea and Samaria” and extending “to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NRS).[4]

Luke’s Challenge to Us in Regard to Story and Mission

I have dwelt on the linear stories and the horizontal maps at such length to show how Luke was hard at work making room in the Roman world for God’s story and God’s mission.  There was a lot out there in the way of Roman imperial ideology and in the way of people overtly and enthusiastically embracing and advancing that ideology.  Every last one of Luke’s readers and hearers was also nurtured in that world and had been extensively exposed to that ideology – and many if not most of them would have been among those who enthusiastically embraced it.  They had to stop believing in one gospel, one proclamation of “good news,” if they were fully to embrace and live from the other gospel proclaimed by Luke and his peers in the name of Jesus Messiah and if they were to fall in line with the One God’s mission in the world.[5]  They needed to cease to take their bearings from one story along with its preoccupations, its trajectory, its mission, and begin to take their bearings from – and live to advance – another story with its preoccupations, trajectory, and mission.

And – it also seems to me – we have to work just as hard to make room in our world, in our case the world of the United States of America, for God’s story and God’s mission.  We are bombarded with stories every day from conservative and liberal media framed from concern with our nation’s story and its contested future, stories that invade – or that we promote on, our social media feeds.  We need to think clearly about whether it is our mission to get fired up about the things that these media want to fire us up about, or whether we need to attend more conscientiously to a different mission that takes its bearings from the Holy Spirit and not the spirit of the age.

The national story of race and the various ideologies it has spawned continues to divide people from one another here, but it must cease to divide Christians of one range of colors from Christians of another range of colors here.  We are called to live from a different story, the story of a different political entity, God’s kingdom, that has made us parts together of one Body, and live into a different future together.

We are pushed – and often push those around us – into supporting the mission of one of two political parties as if either one would bring salvation to the nation.  But God’s mission is not going to be accomplished by either political party, nor advanced by our investment of ourselves in getting any political party into power.  At best, we can try with our voting to promote the conditions that will least hinder God’s mission.  God’s mission is advanced and accomplished through God’s people, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  Acts gives us a picture of the Church as a powerful, energetic, effective, ever-expanding body that is both the result of God’s mission and the vehicle for God’s ongoing mission.  It challenges us to stop waiting for the secular systems around us to accomplish the good we long to see and to become ever more completely that powerful, energetic, effective, ever-expanding body through which God accomplishes that good.  It calls us to stop sidelining ourselves as the Church, politely lobbying the secular powers to do what is right, and to take over the doing of what is right as we respond with our full investment of ourselves and our resources to the Holy Spirit’s direction and visions for us.

What we read of the story of God’s mission in Acts is just the beginning.  Think for just a moment about how that story has expanded – how that mission’s reach has expanded – across the centuries and across the continents to arrive at the point where we have been incorporated into that story along with our sisters and brothers ransomed, by this point indeed, from every nation, language, tribe, and people group.  Just as Acts was a sequel to Luke’s Gospel, there is a grand sequel to Acts – any good account of the history of the Church’s mission, preferably one that gives lavish attention to the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the majority world rather than one that supplies merely the “Church History” component of a Western Civilizations class.  Granted this is a story in which rulers and colonizers and venial people have coopted the Church’s mission for their own ends – and thus a story full of poignant warnings to help us become more vigilant in this regard now – but it is also a story in which the Holy Spirit has broken loose from those ends to reassert God’s mission again and again.

And in regard to maps.  We wake up, move about, and lie down to sleep in a country that is very much concerned about its borders – in the days of this particular administration, preoccupied with those borders and with inscribing those lines more concretely.  I have the distinct impression that we typically think about (and are led by most media to think about) the stories in our world in terms of how our country is impacting other nations, how what is happening in those nations is impacting our country, about our nation’s interests as the lens through which we look at what it happening globally and the filter through which our media prioritize what they put before our eyes to look at in the first place.

How radically different is the map configured in accordance with God’s interests and God’s mission in the world.  It remains a map with Jerusalem conceptually at the center – not because of any misplaced Zionist ideology, but because Jerusalem remains the historic “ground zero” of the explosion of God’s work in the world through God’s Anointed One, Jesus.  Every one of us has been invited into the people whose story began there, not here.  I suspect that a focal theater of action in that story now is far removed from Washington, DC, and from the obsession with border walls, and is to be found in spaces far removed from the center of our nation’s map of the world (that is, us!), far beyond our borders.  It is probably, rather, to be found in those places where the Church is most actively and wholeheartedly engaged in precisely the same mission of God that we see driving the plot of Acts forward from beginning to end. It is in the explosive expansion of God’s kingdom into South America, Africa, and the Far East.  It is in the courageous and costly witness of our sisters and brothers across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia who say, with the apostles, “we must obey God rather than human authorities.”  It is in the struggle for daily survival and finding some modicum of safety that untold millions in our world face, who need to have the good news of God’s kingdom brought to them and who need to be embraced by the care of the global citizenry of that kingdom.  But if we are to be part of that effective citizenry, we will need to make a great deal of room for God’s story and God’s mission through intentional divestment of our attention and energies from the stories and missions to which we are being otherwise constantly recruited.

[1] Luke admittedly shows a preference for the verb “to announce good news” (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι) over the noun “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον), though he does use the latter one occasion.  Peter speaks of his proclamation to Cornelius as “the message of the good news (τὸν λόγον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου; Acts 15:7); Paul speaks of his being commissioned “to testify to the good news (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον) of God’s favor” (Acts 20:24).

[2] For “kingdom of God,” see Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62;  10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28, 29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20-21; 18:16-17, 24-25, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51; Acts 1:3; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31; for “kingdom,” referring to the same, see Luke 11:2; 12:31-32; 22:30; Acts 20:25.

[3] Eckhard Schnabel, “Jesus’ Missionary Commission and the Ends of the Earth,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary: Acts through Revelation (ed. Barry Beitzel; Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

[4] The Judean author of Psalms of Solomon 8 also appears to have spoken of Rome as “the end of the earth”: “He brought someone from the end of the earth, one who attacks in strength; he declared war against Jerusalem, and her land” (Psalms of Solomon 8:15), referring to Pompey the Great, the Roman senator and general who came to intervene in Judean affairs in 63 BC.

[5] Where Luke’s Gentile readers see themselves in the narrative, they are leaving behind – perhaps indeed remembering their own leaving behind of – those practices that marked their embeddedness in that alternate story of the gods who had brought about peace and order for the world in the rise of Augustus – the Savior, Lord, and divine son of a divine father – and his successors.  Paul’s messages to the people of Lystra and to the council that met on the Athenian Areopagus encapsulate this fairly well.  If Gentiles respond favorably to those who proclaim God’s mission in the world and accept the invitation to become part of that story and mission, they must cease “to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:29) and “turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15).  Their involvement in such things no longer marks their support for and participation in the alternative story of divine providence; instead it marks their groping during “the times of human ignorance” (Acts 17:30).   There was nothing salvific in that period – quite contrary to the dominant story – apart from the traces of the providence of the One God in creation.

Easter Changes Everything

A sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Acts 5:27-32; Rev 1:4-8)

And leading the apostles forward, they made them stand before the Sanhedrin.  And the chief priest interrogated them, saying: “We strictly commanded you not to teach in this name, and now look – you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you want to bring the blood of this man down upon us.”  And Peter and the apostles said in response: “It is necessary to obey God rather than human beings.  The God of our forebears raised Jesus, upon whom you laid hands in violence, hanging him up on a tree.  This man God exalted to his right hand as leader and savior for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.  And we are witnesses to these matters, along with the Holy Spirit which God gave to those obeying him.” (Acts 5:27-32)


In the ebb and flow of church attendance and energy, the Sunday after Easter tends to fare poorly.  We in the ministries of word, sacrament, and the worship arts put forth our best efforts for Holy Week and Easter, in part because we know that we will be serving our largest assembly of congregants since Christmas Eve and until the next Christmas Eve.  Then we marshal whatever is left over for the Second Sunday of Easter with the relaxation that comes from knowing church attendance will probably not merely return to normal, but will drop below normal, as many of our parishioners will go on a short diet in regard to religion after the surfeit of Holy Week.  Throughout my life, whether serving in Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Methodist congregations, I have heard this Sunday most frequently called “Low Sunday,” as if this were the official designation of the day in the liturgical calendar. Last week we sang “The Strife is O’er”; perhaps today we ought to sing “The Hype is O’er,” as we begin to slump our way back towards ordinary time.

Our Scripture readings today, however, point in an entirely different direction.  The resurrection of this Jesus has changed everything.  The implications of the resurrection are stunning, and these readings urge us to discover these implications more fully and throw ourselves into falling in line with them more fully.  Easter is not the climax of events that had been set in motion; Easter has set events in motion, and there is work now to be done – divine purposes to be fulfilled as these purposes come to drive our lives, preparations energetically to be undertaken in view of future divine encounters!

Nothing makes this clearer than the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles.  The resurrection of Jesus, catalyzed by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, impels Jesus’ disciples to proclamation, mission, and the organization of a new community right there in the courts and porticoes of the Jerusalem Temple – under the noses of the very people who had hoped to defuse this Jesus movement by collaborating with the Roman overlords to dispatch its leader.  Giving all credit to the Holy Spirit, Luke portrays the phenomenal consolidation and growth of the Jesus movement in response to the preaching and wonder-working of its principal leaders, particularly Peter and John.  The chief priests and ruling council of Judea – the Sanhedrin – act quickly to quash it.  After arresting the apostles and letting them spend the night in the prison, they command them to cease and desist, to which Peter and John can only reply on behalf of the group, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).  The apostles’ response is to pray for greater boldness and to continue their work of declaring all that God had done and was continuing to do through Jesus, which leads to their arrest a second time.  This time, however, the Lord sent an angel to open the doors of the prison.  When the Sanhedrin sent for them, the guards reported that they were back in the Temple courts proclaiming Jesus.  And so we arrive at today’s reading.

The high priest believed the apostles’ actions to be directed against them, aimed at “bringing this man’s blood upon us” (5:28), arousing popular indignation such as might lead to mob violence against the members of the Sanhedrin in retaliation. He was understandably concerned. Peter has not been at all subtle on this point in his preaching up to this point (Acts 2:23; 3:13-15, 17; 4:10-11), holding the leaders and people of Jerusalem to have been complicit with Pilate and the Gentile occupation force responsible in the execution of God’s Anointed One.  No one escapes some responsibility for the guilt of Jesus’ execution, which is only theologically proper since, to borrow from Isaiah, “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).

Peter interrupts the high priest to clarify his aim and the aim of his apostolic colleagues.  It was not to bring down bloodguilt upon the Sanhedrin.  If Jesus’ story had ended on the cross or in the tomb, that might have been Peter’s motive, once he screwed up the courage to come out from behind his locked doors.  But the resurrection changed everything.

The God of our forebears raised Jesus, upon whom you laid hands in violence, hanging him up on a tree.  This man God exalted to his right hand as leader and savior for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.

God’s resurrection of Jesus, while it indeed vindicated Jesus from the accusations of blasphemy and covenant disobedience heaped upon him, also meant that God was offering the crucified and risen Jesus as a great olive branch to the disobedient nation, inviting them to repent and assuring them of forgiveness if they did.  The apostolic proclamation was not a call for the condemnation of the Jewish leaders but an invitation extended to all the people to reconciliation with God and the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.  Repentance and forgiveness did not merely have in view the city’s recent rejection of Jesus and their leaders’ cooperation with the Roman occupation force to eliminate him. Israel’s experience of foreign domination, essentially since 587 BC, and the scattering of the people throughout the lands of the Gentiles was widely understood to be a consequence of Israel’s historic and persistent disobedience to the covenant as a whole.  By bringing Jesus back from the dead as “Leader and Savior,” God was generously offering Israel a fresh start, setting them “free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39 NRSV), because the sacrificial system instituted by that law included no provisions for willful disobedience. At this stage in the narrative, the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection for Israel’s repentance is alone in view.  God will shortly lead Peter and the whole body of apostles to realize, however, that a similar opportunity for “repentance unto life” was being offered to the Gentiles – the other party involved in the death of the Messiah – as well (Acts 11:18).

The resurrection of Jesus speaks volumes about God’s ability to right wrongs.  The majority of the Sanhedrin and the Roman occupiers committed the quintessential wrong – brutalizing and killing God’s Anointed One.  But as Peter and the other apostles stand there before the Sanhedrin, God has already righted that wrong: God has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him from the disgrace of the false charges and degrading death, restoring the life that was taken from him – and then some!  As Jesus’ friends proclaim Jesus in the Temple courts and here stand before the court that handed Jesus over to Pilate, they seek only repentance and reconciliation, not revenge.  God has already reversed the wrong; now it falls to the apostles to reverse only the perceptions of Jesus that led to the wrong.

To what extent has God’s resurrection – God’s vindication – of Jesus penetrated our awareness of God’s ability and commitment to right the wrongs that we’ve suffered and that we’ve seen inflicted, such that we, too, are freed to call perpetrators to repentance and reconciliation (though, indeed, always to repentance as the path to reconciliation) rather than to call down revenge upon them?  If we can imagine extreme wrongs in regard to which we think a summons to repentance inappropriate because the wrong is so great as to be unforgivable, let us not allow those to negate the challenge that the apostles’ example here lays upon us to experience such a transformation in regard – let us be honest – to the vast majority of wrongs that we have ourselves experienced or witnessed.

The impetus for proclaiming this opportunity for repentance to all people comes not only from the past – from God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead for this purpose – but also from the future that looms before all.  We can count on John the Visionary to bring this to the fore, as he does in this day’s reading from Revelation: “Look! He comes with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and whoever pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn for him.  Indeed, so shall it be” (Rev 1:7). But Luke does as much in Acts, particularly holding up the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the assurance of Jesus’ future coming in judgment.  Luke’s Paul declares to an Athenian audience on the Areopagus: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).  Repentance – turning our lives back toward the One God and the grateful and loyal obedience due God – is the path to survival in the face of this future judgment.  It is the means by which that future coming will be experienced as salutary, bringing “times of refreshing … from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19-21 NRSV).  We see incidentally how all three elements of the mystery of faith hang consecutively and consequentially together – not just that “Christ has died” and that “Christ is risen,” but also indeed that “Christ will come again.”

Both Acts and Revelation speak about our primary loyalties during in this interim period.  In our reading from Acts, the apostles declare for the second time their commitment to obey God rather than human beings, where human beings make demands that run counter to the commission given them by God.  Their experience of the resurrected Jesus and the Holy Spirit convinced the apostles that they could know what God required of them better than the Sanhedrin could know, which the latter would have regarded as singularly presumptuous.  Nevertheless, the apostles had to risk making this affront and risk suffering the consequences in order not to offer affront to God by fearing human authorities above God.

Christians would continue to take such a bold stand throughout the ages.  Indeed, as we read about the boldness of those early apostles for whom angels threw open prison doors, we are bound to remember our sisters and brothers throughout the world today for whom prison doors do not open, but who, like the early apostles and their disciples throughout the ages, nevertheless rejoice to be “considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:41) and who, also like the early apostles, do not “cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (Acts 5:42), holding fast to their profession of faith and their hope in God’s reign and God’s kingdom, securing their citizenship there at the cost of their freedom, their enjoyment of all we take for granted, and often their very lives here.

They can do so, in part, because the resurrection of Jesus has changed everything.  As John described Jesus, he is “the firstborn from among the dead” (Rev 1:5); Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of God’s determination to raise with Jesus all who belong to Jesus and follow him in loyal obedience.  They can do so because the resurrection of Jesus is the sure sign that God has appointed him “the ruler of the kings of the earth”; God has determined that “the kingdom of the world” must cede its power and authority to “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah” (Rev 11:15).  The resurrection of Jesus summons them to obey this higher authority, no matter the cost inflicted by the temporary powers that oppose Christ’s kingdom in the person of his devotees.

Such people are our fellow citizens in that political body to which our first allegiance is also due – the kingdom of God, the people “from every nation and language and tribe and people” redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.  Our commitment to them as they pay the cost of obeying God rather than human beings is one necessary expression of our allegiance to the kingdom of which we are fellow-citizens together.  Their experience of our love and solidarity – to the extent that they experience this – is the confirmation of Jesus’ promise to all those who have left behind “house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news” that they will “receive a hundredfold now in this age” (Mk. 10:29-30 NRSV).

The mystery of faith makes no less robust a claim upon our lives, however, as it does upon the lives of our courageous sisters and brothers advancing Christ’s kingdom and holding loyalty to Jesus dearer than life and liberty in restrictive nations around the world.  On this side of Good Friday and Easter, we cannot give our first and best attentions and efforts to getting along and getting ahead.  On the other side of Christ’s coming again in glory, we will wail for our foolishness if we have done so.  Christ’s death, resurrection, and coming again claim our highest allegiance for the kingdom that we are called to advance in the most mundane of circumstances day after day, giving our first and best attentions and efforts to the work of priestly mediators, connecting human beings in their need to the God who supplies every need, and to the duty of loyal subjects, putting ourselves first and fully at God’s disposal so as to make Christ’s lordship fully a reality in, at the very least, the little space that we occupy every day in this world.

Some contextual reservations about my bishop’s exegesis of James 5:13-16

In a pastoral letter dated March 1, 2019, Bishop Kenneth Carter quotes James 5:13-16, helpfully calling the elders in each congregation – those who are mature leaders – to be attentive to the ways in which we can work toward healing in our congregations and throughout our congregation. This is indeed an important summons. He goes on to write, “James does not call us to identify the sins of one another. He calls us to confess our sins to one another, and to pray for one another, so that we may be healed.” This statement gives me pause. While this is indeed accurate in regard to James 5:13-16, narrowly taken, it does not take into account the paragraph in James that immediately follows:
“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20, NRSV).
James envisions one disciple helping another disciple see that he or she has wandered from the truth and working to bring that person back to the path of living in holiness and righteousness before God. Indeed, James seems to encourage this kind of risky investment in the life of another person, because the stakes for that other person are so high if he or she “wanders from the truth” (the death of “the sinner’s soul”).
If we were to take the whole counsel of James in this chapter, then, we would hear James call us indeed to confess our sins to one another and call us to identify the sins of one another that lurk in our own blind spots or in those areas in which we see to protect the life and practices of the “old person” that we were rather than set those aside on our own to make room for the life and practices of the “new person” that the Holy Spirit would nurture and bring to full maturity within us.
In our current context, identifying one another’s sins might be seen as problematic. It gets in the way of our living as we would wish. But in the context of the first-century church, it was far from problematic. Indeed, it was regarded as salutary and necessary. Beyond James 5:19-20, it is a practice demanded of Christian community in Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1-2; Jude 22-23. (Hebrews 3:12-13 also points in this direction, as the community is called, with second person plural verbs, to “take care lest any one of you be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”)
There are admittedly dangers when we spend so much of our energy in and direct so much of our attention towards identifying the sins of a sister or brother and investing ourselves in restoring them that we neglect self-examination, the recognition and confession of our own sins, and the amendment of our own lives. Paul seems to recognize this himself in Gal 6:1 when he writes, “Brothers and sisters, even if a person is overtaken in any transgression, you all who are Spirit-led are to restore such a person in a spirit of forbearance, each one of you watching yourself lest you also be tempted.” Jesus famously warned concerning imbalance here as well with his remark about specks and logs in the eyes of various parties (Matt 7:3-5), but even there one consequence of attending to the log in one’s own eye is to see clearly to remove the speck in the sister’s or brother’s eye.
We are all sinners on the journey of transformation. We all need the Holy Spirit’s illumination and empowerment. We all need to attend to our own progress from the flesh-driven life to the Spirit-led life. And we also need one another to help us see the sin in our blind spots, the sin we protect and refuse to name, the sin that has hardened our conscience by its deceitfulness.