Book Review: Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World

cookTitle: Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World

Series: Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament 327

Author: John Granger Cook

Bibliographic info: xv + 465 pp. + 55 pp.

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Mohr Siebeck for the review copy.

The author of this book, John Granger Cook, has authored several articles on the topic of crucifixion, including such issues as the lex Puteolana (the law of Puteoli), the Palatine graffito, and so forth. Upon the request from Martin Hengel to revise his classic book on crucifixion, Cook found it expedient to write his new monograph on the subject.

Apart from Hengel’s book, two other important works on crucifixion are Crucifixion in Antiquity by Gunnar Samuelsson and David Chapman’s Ancient Jewish and Christian Perceptions on Crucifixion. Whereas Samuelsson’s work provides a focus on semantic research into crucifixion and Chapman’s provides a survey of Jewish and Christian attitudes towards it, Cook’s approach sees as of chief importance the need to read Greek texts that discuss crucifixion against the backdrop of Latin texts and actual Roman historical practice. Thus, Cook investigates the evidence of crucifixion by examining Latin texts and inscriptions together with the archaeological evidence (e.g. graffiti, the Arieti fresco, the calcaneum bone discovered with a crucifixion nail in Jerusalem, and so forth), and then once he has shed light on the meaning of Latin crucifixion terms (e.g. patibulum and crux), Cook turns towards the Greek texts and their crucifixion terminology.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-50), Cook begins by discussing definitions and methodology. He defines crucifixion as “‘execution by suspension’ is acceptable as long as one excludes impalement or hanging” (2), though notes that “it is impossible, of course, to completely exclude impalement in all cases that use crux, σταυρός (stauros) and the associated verbs, but explicit impalement is (textually) rare as a Roman punishment” (3). Furthermore, one must keep in mind that

Greek terminology for ‘cross’, ‘stake’, and ‘crucify,’ ‘impale,’ or ‘suspend’ is ambiguous at times. One must pay special attention to the context. The context is a reliable guide for determining if an act of suspension is a penal execution. During the Roman era there does not exist much doubt that suspension (i.e., crucifixion) was a frequent form of execution. (4)

Cook then looks at the Greek and Latin terminology for crucifixion. Some Greek terms he examines are σταυρός (pole, cross), σταυρόω (crucify), ανασταυρόω (crucify, suspend, impale), σκολόπς (stake, cross), ανασκολοπίζω (impale, crucify), κρεμάω and κρεμάνυμμι (suspend, crucify), and αποτυμπανισμός and αποτυμπανίζω (expose on a board/beam). And some Latin terms are Patibulum, crux, crucifigo, furca, and arbor infelix

Cook then concludes the introduction with the following summary:

The survey above does not encourage the researcher to demand a fundamental revision of the lexicons. There are no texts that describe explicit impalements (i.e., with details or additional semantic clues) or hangings (by a noose) of living bodies using σταυρός (stauros) and the associated verbs. Consequently, “to crucify” is still the preferred translation of the verbs when a text describes a person being execute, and “cross” or “pole” is the preferred translation of the noun. (50)

Chapter One (pp. 51-158) then takes up the task of examining the instances of crucifixion in Latin texts, which begins appearing in them during the second Punic war (218-201 BCE). Fifty-nine authors are looked at, from those of Quintus Ennius and Vitruvius Pollio, to those of Marcus Iunianus Iustinus and Hermetis Trismegisti. In summary of the Latin evidence, Cook says:

Latin texts provide good evidence for the practice of Roman crucifixion, not only because of the use of technical language such as crux and patibulum, but because of the details that often emerge that illuminate the practice of crucifixion. Only Seneca explicitly refers to impalement (twice), and his word of choice for that extreme penalty is stipes. (158)

Chapter Two (pp. 159-217) then discuss instances of Roman crucifixions, from the ear of the second Punic war to the time of Constantine. I was surprised to learn that there is a notable paucity of evidence for the Roman crucifixion of Christians, and even for Roman crucifixions in general there are many gaps of knowledge. For example, Tacitus mentions crucifixions several times, yet he never mentions any occurring in Palestine. If it wasn’t for Josephus telling us about crucifixions in Palestine, we would have a notable gap in the record. The following quote is pulled from the chapter’s summary:

The longest surviving narrative of anyone crucified by the Romans in antiquity is that of Jesus of Nazareth. Historical crucifixions per se seem to have been of little interest to Roman writers in the literature that has survived, with the exception of the crucifixion of Gavius, which Cicero mentioned frequently in his (never delivered) speech in prosecution of Verres. … Most of the juridical reasons for the crucifixions are commonplace: brigandage or political disturbance such as rebellion, slave revolts, disobedience of slaves, various crimes of soldiers including acts of disobedience, and piracy. (216)

Chapter Three (pp. 218-310) then examines the instances of crucifixion in Greek texts. While crucifixion was relatively rare in pre-Roman Greece (hanging and impalement were apparently not penalties used in Attic Greece), “crucifixion and related forms of execution have a rich and somewhat ambiguous history in Greek texts. Many are clear enough to indicate Roman crucifixions” (309).

Chapter Four (pp. 311-57) then tackles crucifixion in Hebrew and Aramaic texts, including sections looking at penal suspension in the culture of the Middle East and in the Muslim world. Chapter Five (pp. 358-416) then looks at crucifixion from the perspective of law and historical developments.

Chapter Five (pp. 358-416) looks at crucifixion from the perspective of law and historical development. Emperor Constantine was responsible for the end of crucifixion in the Roman Empire, and the last known crucifixion was that of Calocerus in 335 are was probably at the direction of Constantine’s nephew Dalmatius. Of course, Constantine’s discontinuation of crucifixion was simply replaced by execution by other means (the furca and burning at the stake were favorites).

Chapter Six (pp. 417-49) then looks at the the New Testament and early Christianity. It goes without saying that the crucified Christ was a of central importance to the earliest Christians, from which arose much theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death, e.g., the (possibly pre-Pauline phrase) θανατου δε σταυρου of the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2). Included in this chapter was an interesting section of the medical causes of death from crucifixion. To quote a part of it:

There are numerous medical hypotheses concerning the reason for an individual’s death on a Roman cross. One recent discussion by Matthew W. Maslen and Piers D. Mitchell lists the following possibilities that have been raised in the literature to explain the death of Jesus or “crucifixion in general”: “cardiac rupture, heart failure, hypovolaemic shock, syncope, acidosis, asphyxia, arrhythmia plus asphyxia, pulmonary embolism, voluntary surrender of life, did not actually die.”  (430)

One can merely conclude that individuals died from “different physiological causes” and that the orientation of the crucified individuals was also important. (435)

Another good section in this chapter was on the theology of the cross in the Gospel of Mark. Here are a couple of snippets:

Jesus’ cry of dereliction and the Greco-Roman material on the misery of crucifixion illuminate one another to a certain extent … Attempting to insert the entire psalm into Mark 15:34 fundamentally ignores the brutality of Roman crucifixion. (448)

Clearly results from Roman procedure are relevant for the interpretation of the NT. Although one cannot claim that there was one form of crucifixion used by Rome during the Republic and imperium, it is not difficult to find many threads that appear in many of the accounts, such as flogging. Hypotheses about the medical causes of death from crucifixion are too tenuous to formulate reliable conclusions.(448)

This volume ends with a brief Conclusion (pp. 450-52), eleven pages of images, and indices of ancient individuals, modern authors, and subjects. The following are a few interesting conclusions of the author’s:

There are no uses of σταυρόω or ανασταυρόω that refer to explicit impalements of living (or dead) bodies. By “explicit” I mean texts that have additional semantic clues that indicate impalement. (450)

Based on the methodology and linguistic results developed in the introduction and the rest of the work, it seems apparent that writing a history of crucifixion may not be possible. Near Eastern texts and images indicate that impalement was practice by cultures such as that of the Persians. Herodotus presumable was aware of this and probably used ανασκολοπίζω (and not ανασταυρόω) to refer sometimes to that penalty. He apparently was aware of another form of penalty used by the Persians, however, one that is closer to Roman crucifixion (the case of Sandoces in which he used ανασταυρόω ). (451-52)

Archaeological remains and some texts show that the ancient Greeks practice some form of execution in which individuals were nailed to boards or similar structures. It is also clear that the Greeks exposed individuals on a beam in various poses (standing or seated), and there are numerous depictions of the penalty on Attic vases. … Greek rulers such as Antiochus IV used crucifixion according to Josephus. Jewish authorities practice crucifixion in at least one instance [Alexander Jannaeus]. Beginning with the Second Punic War, it becomes clear that the Romans developed a form of crucifixion that remained in place until the reign of Constantine when it was replaced by the furca (fork), a form of execution that result in a quick death. (452)

Crucifixion was the fundamental servile supplicium (slave punishment) and this volume provides a great survey on its practice in Greco-Roman society. Research on crucifixion in the Mediterranean world can provide an important perspective for the study of the New Testament, particularly as it relates to a theologia crucis (theology of the cross) and to a deeper understanding of the “scandal” of the cross (Gal. 5:11).

Book Review: Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context

jesusgospeltraditionsTitle: Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context: A Study in the Interdirectionality of Language

Series: BZNW 186.

Author: Sang-Il Lee

Bibliographic info: 418 pp. + 103 pp. (biblio + indices)

Publisher: Walter de Gruyter, 2012.

Buy the book at Amazon or at Walter de Gruyter’s.

With thanks to Walter de Gruyter for the digital review copy.

 This volume is a revised version of the author’s Ph.D thesis, originally submitted at Durham University, 2008, under the supervision of Professor James D.G. Dunn and Professor Loren T. Stuckenbruck.

In this study Lee aims to examine the transmission of Jesus traditions by employing a model of the linguistic state of affairs of first-century Palestine. A classic view regarding gospel and Jesus traditions has been that of unidirectionality. Jesus traditions were transmitted unidirectionally in the following three ways (see pp. 1-2):

  • oral —–> written (i.e. modal unidirectionality)
  • Judaeo-Palestinian —–> Hellenistic (i.e. geographical unidirectionality)
  • Aramaic —–> Greek (i.e. linguistic unidirectionality)

The author seeks to expose the fatal flaws in the unidirectionality paradigm, specifically in regards to the linguistic unidirectionality (which would then undercut the other two unidirectional hypotheses listed above). This, of course, has implications for historical Jesus studies because the oral, Judaeo-Palestinian, and Aramaic attributes are reckoned to be earlier and thus contain more authentic Jesus traditions. But Lee argues that these three attributes do not necessarily indicate earlier traditions, nor that earlier traditions are necessarily more original than later traditions. If Lee is correct then the usefulness of the criteria of authenticity related to these attributes (e.g. the criterion of underlying Aramaic) are severely undercut.

Lee’s hypothesis is that from early on, even during the time of Jesus’ ministry, there could very well have been Aramaic and Greek traditions floating around, as well as oral and written. He says:

When the bilingualism of first-century Palestine and the Roman Near East is considered seriously, it must be granted that the Jesus and gospel traditions were interdirectionally transmitted. In other words, there was a complex and interactive relationship between Judaeo-Palestinian and Hellenistic tradition, between oral and written tradition, and between Aramaic and Greek tradition. (pg. 2)

Lee begins with the obligatory examination of the history of scholarship which is done by taking a look at specific scholars, their views, and how they impacted the field of research on the topic at hand. The three unidirectional methods are tackled independently:

  • Sitz im Leben unidirectionality from Judaeo-Palestinian into Hellenistic tradition (pp. 6-20)
  • Modal unidirectionality from Oral into Written tradition (pp. 20-36)
  • Linguistic unidirectionality from Aramaic into Greek tradition (pp. 36-58) [I was surprised not to see Maurice Casey discussed here considering he has been a notable proponent of the criterion of Aramaic in historical Jesus studies]

In the concluding sections Lee reinforces his thesis, saying that both the “transmission of Jesus and gospel traditions” and “the linguistic transmission” are “not unilinear, teleological, or unidirectional but hybrid, circular, and interdirectional” (pp. 36, 50-51).

Lee then looks at scholars who have shown flaws in the unidirectionality tendencies prevalent in scholarship (pp. 58-73). An obvious example of this is Martin Hengel whose work weakened the supposed boundary between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaisms.

Part I (chapters 2-5) is on the bilingualism of first-century Palestine and the Roman Near East. In chapter 2, Lee argues that the linguistic milieu of first-century Palestine is best characterized with bilingualism rather than diglossia. A lot of various aspects of bilingualism are discussed here, such as sociolinguistic models for the analysis of a diglossic situation, primary bilingualism vs. acquired bilingualism, oral bilingualism vs. literate bilingualism, and so forth. Lee’s working definition of “bilingualism” follows the work of W.F. Mackey who sees it simply as the alternate use of two or more languages (80). This is then followed by examinations of the regional bilingualism of first-century Palestine (chapter 3), the Diaspora (chapter 4), and the earliest Christian communities (chapter 5).

Part II (chapters 6-8) discuss the interdirectional transmission of Jesus traditions in the bilingual contexts at the levels of syntax (chapter 6), phonology (chapter 7), and semantics (chapter 8). In regards to syntax, this includes examining alleged examples of Semitisms and Septuagintalisms to be found in the Gospels (from three different types of speech: verbs, conjunctions, and adverbs), with Lee considering them instead from the angle of grammaticalization theory, his argument being that they are due to internal-induced syntactic changes (i.e. the interdirectionality hypothesis), rather than as Semitisms or Septuagintalisms due to contact-induced syntactic changes (i.e. the unidirectionality hypothesis).  In regards to phonology, phonologically variant spellings of certain words in the Gospels are examined (e.g. Nazareth), with the idea being that the original spelling is not the correct spelling but only one of many conventional correct spellings (which is different to how most NT scholars look at these variant spellings from orthographical and monolinguist perspectives, naturally entailing that the more Semitic spellings are earlier and thus have temporal priority over Greek spellings). And, finally, in regards in semantics, the author looks at the Aramaic words embedded in the NT text (e.g. amen, maranatha), with a view to showing that they are instances of code-switching by the NT authors (with the purpose being to create vividness, emphasis, solidarity, etc), rather than the typical view which sees them as borrowings (or interferences) from the Aramaic-speaking church in Jerusalem. Furthermore, since they are deliberate instances of code-switching, they must be seen on the level of pragmatics rather than that of syntactics, morphology, or phonology.

The book finishes off with a summary of the author’s findings (chapter 9), as well as a bibliography and four indices (ancient sources, language and place names, modern authors, and subjects).

The only shortcoming I can see is that there seems to be an underlying assumption that the existence of Aramaic and Greek in first-century Palestine indicates that it was a largely bilingual society (even if one is –like the author– working with a pretty minimalistic definition of what constitutes bilingualism). After all, the data found in the NT that can be used to speak on the linguistic situation of first-century Palestine is rather thin and thus not able to give any really meaningful conclusions concerning the level of bilingualism, so maybe the study should have delved more into the concrete sociolinguistic condition of first-century Palestine.

All in all, this is undoubtedly one of the most interesting doctoral dissertations in the field of early Christianity I have had the pleasure of reading. Not only does it mesh together two fields of study I thoroughly enjoy – linguistics and New Testament studies, it also argues a thesis that, if accurate, has unavoidable implications for not only historical Jesus studies, but also for the synoptic problem, textual criticism, and much more.


Book Review: James, ICC (Dale Allison)

jamesdaleallisonTitle: James: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary

Series: International Critical Commentary

Author: Dale C. Allison, Jr.

Bibliographic info: 848 pp.

Publisher: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Bloomsbury T&T Clark for the review copy.

Dale Allison is a Professor of the New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has authored a previous volume in the the International Critical Commentary series: the three-volume commentary on Matthew.

The introduction to this volume on James spans a little over a hundred pages, covering the expected issues: author, date, Sitz im Leben, sources, genre, structure, literary characteristics, leading ideas (on the epistle’s theology), the local origin of the epistle, the text used, and the epistle’s reception. Of particular value was the fantastic (20 page) section on the sources of the epistle.

After discussing the issue of authorship for a few pages, Allison states his position:

One can indeed slot James into pre-70 Palestine if so inclined. But one can equally read the epistle, as does this commentary, as a second-century pseudepigraphon composed in the diaspora. (13)

Allison also dates the epistle to the second century. His view on authorship and the date are due to a variety of reasons, amongst which is the lack of a “clear knowledge” of James prior to Origen, some early references to a pseudonymous letter of James, the resistance the epistle received at making it into the canon, and, of course, the dubious probability that “the brother of Jesus could have written fairly accomplished Greek, possessed such a large Greek vocabulary, employed the LXX, and adopted Hellenistic literary topoi(25).

The epistle was written “for a group that still attended synagogue and wished to maintain irenic relations with those who did not share their belief that Jesus was the Messiah” (43), and regarding provenance, Allison says, This author, while conceding that the evidence is circumstantial and fragile, believes that the best bet is Rome” (95).

On the Greek text used of James in this commentary, Allison uses the text of the Editio Critica Maior (1997), with one instance of him using a reading that the ECM relegated to the apparatus (in 5.19) and two instances where he goes with his own conjectural emendation (in 2.1 and 4.2).

Allison divides the epistle up into the following sections:

  • 1.1
  • 1.2-27
  • 2.1-13
  • 2.14-26
  • 3.1-12
  • 3.13-18
  • 4.1-12
  • 4.13-5.6
  • 5.7-12
  • 5.13-20

Mention has to be made, of course, to Allison’s view on the faith and works pericope (Jas 2.14-26). His commentary on these twelve verses is over 80 pages long, though this shouldn’t be surprising considering the controversial nature of the passage in the history of interpretation for the past five centuries. Indeed, Allison notes that “the secondary literature on Jas 2.14-26 seemingly exceeds that dedicated to the rest of James put together” (426).

A few tidbits from Allison’s commentary on this pericope:

The argument is complete in itself. It sets up a contrast between two sorts of faith. The first is no more than theological belief (v. 19). It has no deeds (vv. 14-17) and so is dead (vv. 17, 26) and barren (v. 20). It cannot make one righteous (vv. 21-25). But there is also a second and superior sort of faith. This is the saving faith that co-operates with deeds and is perfected by them (vv. 21-26). It is the faith of Abraham and Rahab, who were justified by their works. (443)

James is rejecting a view which allegedly claims that faith does not need works, a view associated with a scriptural argument that he seeks to overturn. (443)

For James, religion is walking, not talking; it is halakah, a way of life, not dogma. (444)

On the possible connection between James and Paul, Allison says:

The point to emphasize with regard to James and Paul is simply this: the constant reading of the former in terms of the latter is exactly what one would expect if the author of James intended auditors of his work to think about Pauline theology. To complain that readers too often and too readily turn to Paul may be akin to objecting that Heb 13.2–‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’–has regularly moved readers to recall Gen 18, where Abraham hosts three mysterious visitors. Hebrews 13.2 is supposed to prod an intertextual exchange, to move informed readers to go back to Genesis. Maybe, in like fashion, Jas 2.14-24 is also a deliberately allusive text: it wants us to recall Paul. (445)

Allison then goes on to demonstrate why everyone reads James with Paul in mind. For example, Paul’s writings are the earliest extant texts to use δικαιοω in the passive + instrumental εκ (seven times in Romans and Galatians). And guess what… it shows up in three times in James as well (2.21, 24, 25).

Allison translates Jas 2.18 as follows:

Yet someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have deeds’. Show me your faith without deeds, and I by my deeds will show you my faith.

This verse has produced a lot of differing interpretations. After listing twelve of them, Allison says:

Not one of these explanations satisfies, and as this commentator is unable to offer anything better in their place, he reluctantly concludes either that the text is corrupt, the original beyond recovery, or that James expressed himself so poorly that we cannot offer any clear exposition of his words. If every interpretation seems dubious, it is best to defend none. (471)

A few of my favorite aspects of this commentary are the fifty page(!) bibliography, the copious amounts of in-depth footnotes (the author seems quite at home in all the secondary literature), and how each pericope of the epistle contains a section on its reception history.

All in all, I think that Allison’s contribution to the epistle of James will be held as the definitive commentary on the epistle for some time to come. This isn’t just because it is the latest commentary to have been written on the epistle. After all, look at Bauckham’s commentary on Jude and 2 Peter in the Word Biblical Commentary series. It was written way back in the early 80s and it is still the commentary on those epistles, despite the fact that several very good contributions have been published since then. In a similar manner, I think this volume by Allison will be the yardstick by which all other commentaries on James will be measured for quite some time. It is superb.


Quick Review: Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013


Title: Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013

Author: N.T. Wright

Bibliographic info: 642 pp.

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon.

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

This will be just a quick review of this volume instead of my usual overview of each chapter.

Pauline Perspectives is basically a companion volume to Wright’s magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. It contains thirty-three studies on Paul that Wright published from 1978-2013, including a few written specifically for this book.

The essays cover a lot of ground, tackling such issues as Paul and empire, Romans 9-11, justification, 4QMMT, eschatology in Paul, E.P.Sanders, and much more. I appreciated how Wright notes (at the beginning of each chapter) what the impetus was for writing each article. That was quite helpful to put each study in its proper perspective.

The studies are presented in a geographical and chronological listing:

  • Oxford and Cambridge (1978-1993), [five essays]
  • Lichfield and Westminster (1994-2002) [twelve essays]
  • Durham (2003-2010) [ten essays]
  • St. Andrews (2011-2013) [six essays]

This collection of essays presents a great look at Wright’s (new) perspective on Paul, how it developed over the decades, and will provide the interested reader with clear and informed scholarship on Paul’s theology. It is a great collection of Wright’s oeuvre on Paul and I would recommend it over Paul and the Faithfulness of God. So if you want to purchase a book by Wright on Paul, get this one! It is fabulous.

Ellul’s Books on Jonah and Living Faith

The Judgment of Jonah is a theological commentary on the book of Jonah. I typically don’t read theological commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one and quite enjoyed it.

Towards the beginning Ellul says:

The word of God … is power and not just discourse. It transforms what it touches. It cannot be anything but creative and salvific. It never fails to take effect. A human order, when not obeyed , is without effect, but God’s word always attains its end. In fact this is one of the main lessons of the Book of Jonah.

On the historicity of the book:

Whether or not the story of Jonah is authentic history does not affect in the least its prophetic character. The important thing is that the story, whether it be biography or inspired fiction, points to Jesus Christ. It is in the light of Jesus Christ that the story is true and Jonah concerns us.

When Jesus recalls the sign [of Jonah] he seems to regard it as historical. Is not this reference enough to close the discussion and to force us to humbly accept that the miracle took place? – our task being simply to adore and to believe, not to discuss and explain. I must admit that this does not satisfy me. This attitude seems to smack more of sloth than humility, and is not at all to God’s glory since it fails to divide the Scriptures. The statement of Jesus does not have to have this implication. Jesus as true man enjoyed no special information on scientific matters. His eyes did not see ultra-violet rays nor did his ears hear sub-sonic sounds. But his eyes saw the hearts of man and his ears heard the words of God and his mind pondered the Scriptures … Jesus was not interested in historical criticism or scientific exegesis (which ought to put historians and exegetes in their very lowly place); nor is this the important thing. But Jesus made no mistake concerning the spiritual meaning and prophetic character of the story of Jonah. His teaching relates to the truth in it, not to the historicity of the miracle.

Ellul’s Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World was a bit of a letdown. It’s the biggest theological book of Ellul’s I’ve seen (so far), yet the first half of it is a colloquy (in the form of a fictional conversation) between two characters, Una and Monos, which wasn’t really that interesting. The second half of the book was a lot better though and, like a lot of Ellul’s stuff I’ve read, contained great insights on God’s freedom, revelation, and grace – all of which are keynotes to Ellul’s theology.

Ellul on apologetics:

Apologetics tries to prove that Christianity is true, that it’s superior to other religions (which of course leaves us arguing on the religious level), and that it answers all human questions … These debates among intellectuals are utterly sterile: nobody ever succeeds in persuading anyone else.

And again:

There is no intellectual road to the altitude (and more than the altitude – the life) of faith. The logical, intellectualist approach winds up in a ditch. Even the person who may have been convinced by your reasons can’t make the transition from intellectual demonstration or even intellectual acceptance of a proposition to the deep life of faith. These are two different worlds and the intellect does not call forth or show the way to faith.

This next snippet from Ellul reads like a succinct summary of (what I’ve found to be) the main thrust of Barth’s writings (particularly his commentary on Romans):

The opposition between religion and revelation can really be understood quite simply, and before working out its consequences, we can reduce it to a maxim: religion goes up, revelation comes down. Once you have truly grasped this, you have the key to the problem.

Further on he says:

Never in any way, under any circumstances can we ascend to God, however slightly. God has chosen to descend and to put himself on our level. It’s not just that God expressly declares in the story of the Tower of Babel, “Let us go down.” And yet the myth is very clear: people build the tower to climb up and enter into contact with God, to equal him, to get hold of him, and whatever else one can imagine. In the face of this God proclaims his intention to go down and see … The religious person wants to go up, but the God of the Bible is a God who comes down, and it’s on this God that revelation (which is thus contrary to religion) finally rests. I would go as so far as to say that this is what revelation is all about.

Book Review: The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development

languageofNTTitle: The Language of the New Testament: Context, History, and Development (Early Christianity in its Hellenistic Context, Vol. 3)

Series: Linguistic Biblical Studies, 6

Editors: Stanley E. Porter and Andrew W. Pitts

Bibliographic info: 467 + 56 (indices)

Publisher: Brill, 2013.

Buy the book at Amazon or Brill.

With thanks to Brill for the review copy!

This volume focuses in on two of my favorite areas of study: the New Testament and linguistics. The chapters within are divided into three sections: Context, History, and Development. The studies on Context discuss topics such as bilingualism and Atticism. Those on History look at things like the history of the Greek language and its dialects. And those on Development range from a very specific focus of the development of one Greek verb in the LXX and New Testament to the broader issue of Greek word order.

The first chapter is the standard introductory chapter from the editors and then there are seven chapters on the context of the language of the New Testament.

First up is Jonathan Watt’s contribution (pp. 9-27) on some implications of bilingualism for New Testament exegesis. The first two-thirds of this study looks at some key ideas in linguistic research on bilingualism (such as code-switching). The last part discusses the implications for New Testament exegesis with Matt. 5:22 as a case study.

The next study is from Stanley Porter (pp. 29-41) and zooms in on what we can learn about Greek grammar from a mosaic. He begins with a brief conspectus on what is generally known regarding tense and time from the ancient Greek grammarians, followed by a look at the mosaic from Antioch-on-the-Orontes. This mosaic depicts four seated figures that are personifications (and labeled as such) of four temporal conceptions: αιων (age; here meaning bounded time, human time, or gnomic time), μελλων (future), ενεστως (present), and παρωχεμενος (past), with the four falling underneath the label of χρονοι (time), which is the means of joining together all four of the temporal conceptions. In conclusion Porter says:

One must treat the ancient Greek grammarians carefully, since their discussion seems to be centered more on forms within the language rather than on semantic distinctions (and they seem to fail to differentiate form and function) … in interpreting the Greek tense-forms, there seems to be warrant for looking to the ancients themselves for seeing the variety of forms as indicating at the least past, present, future, and enduring time. (pp. 40-41)

The next study is from Rodney Decker (pp. 43-66) and looks at various grammatical features that may indicate a Markan idiolect. These features include the author’s use of parataxis, redundancies and dualities, multiple negatives, periphrasis, indefinite plural, diminutives, historical present, and the author’s frequent use of euthus. A couple of disputable characteristics of Markan idiolect –asyndeton and anacoluthon– are also examined.

Next, William Danker (pp. 67-90) tackles the alleged Pauline and Lukan Christological disparity with a linguistic-cultural approach. Danker contends that Luke-Acts depicts Jesus as the “Great Benefactor” and that Paul takes a similar approach by using a linguistic strategy to link together the divide between Jewish and Gentile audiences: “To interpret the significance of the Gospel for the Roman congregation, Paul uses as a basic hermeneutical framework the reciprocity system recognized throughout the Greco-Roman world.” (89)

Sean Adams (pp. 91-111) then provides a study on the relationship between Atticism, Classicism, and Luke-Acts. He begins with an analysis of the nature of Atticism and its influence on the literary world, particularly in the second century CE. He interacts with Albert Wifstrand and Loveday Alexander. After evaluating the arguments of the former, Adams concludes that it is best to discuss the influences on authors in the first century as classicism. Alexander then comes into play due to his taking Wifstrand’s assessment of Luke-Acts and pushing the envelope further by making it include the concepts of dialect and register. Adams himself then develops upon Alexander’s findings by developing the linguistic idea of register as it relates to dialect (i.e. one’s choice of register will influence the dialect one uses).

The study I found the most interesting in this volume is provided by Frederick Long (pp. 113-54). He examines the political-religious context for the interpretation of “the ruler of the authority of the air” in Ephesians 2:2 (this phrase is typically thought to refer to Satan in commentaries). The context he examines is that of Jupiter-Zeus and the Roman Imperial cult. Long says:

I will argue that one should take into account the surface grammatical structure of 2:2 and consider what the unique lexical content would have meant to the original Gentile audience in its socio-political and imperial context. […] In Mediterranean society, this age was under the particular guidance and influence of the Roman Emperor who is described as “the ruler” (at the time of writing, Nero). Roman rulers were under the jurisdiction of the patron god of Rome, Jupiter-Zeus, a god identified with “air” and as having authority over that domain. Moreover, beginning with Augustus, emperors were at times publically characterized as Jupiter-Zeus as Triumphator…. (115)

Long examines the New Testament usage of αρχη, αρχων, and εχουσια, the grammatical and syntactical relations in Eph. 2:2, and connections between Jupiter-Zeus, the Roman Emperor, and the realm of the air. There was also an interesting section on the demonization of Rome as the Dominion of Satan in Jewish apocalyptic thought. This study has interesting implications for the study of the Roman imperial cult in the New Testament (e.g. 2 Cor. 4:4 and “the god of this age”).

Long concludes:

Jupiter-Zeus in the broader Mediterranean world was associated with supreme power and authority, especially over the events in the air, but also even identified as air/aether in various scholia. The Roman emperors were additionally associated, if not identified, with Jupiter starting with Augustus. Thus, an audience, which heard Paul’s statement in Eph 2:2 of “the age of this world” along with “the ruler of the authority of the air” and was acculturated with the Greco-Roman Pantheon and the currents of Roman imperial ideology and propaganda, would naturally equate these phrases to the emperor and Jupiter-Zeus. (153)

The final study in the Context section of this volume is Jan Nylund’s study (pp. 155-221) on the influence of the Prague school of linguistics on New Testament language studies (the Prague School goes back to the 1920s). Nylund says: “The instrumental role that the Prague School linguistics played for the development of structuralism and for integrating theoretical linguistics cannot be overrated” (155).

It is in this vein that Nylund then looks at how the structuralism and functionalism of the Prague School has been utilized within New Testament language studies. After a lengthy section on the history and influence of the Prague School in linguistics, Nylund takes of survey of over two-dozen books on New Testament linguistics (e.g. Stanley Porter’s well-known book on verbal aspect) to see what influence the Prague School had. Links to the Prague School are seen in concepts such as an emphasis on a synchronic perspective, the verbal aspect/differentiation of tense and aspect, valence, discourse analysis, translation-theory, literary criticism, structural semantics, and semiotic aspects.

The next four chapters take the approach of studying the history of the Greek language. First up is another study from Jonathan Watt, this one giving brief history of ancient Greek (pp. 225-41). His discussion focuses upon how varying historical and cultural factors led to the Greek language being used for the New Testament. Watt concludes:

An apostle who preferred “to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others” (1 Cor. 14:19, NASB), when considering Greek alongside other codes for conveying a cross-cultural kerygma, could hardly have chosen otherwise” (241)

Next is Christopher Land’s chapter on the varieties of the Greek language (pp. 243-60). This essay,

… presents a descriptive scheme that NT scholars can use to speak clearly about varieties of the Greek language…. The more clearly we can specify language varieties, the better we will be able to draw upon the language of the New Testament documents to address such longstanding issues as date, provenance, authorship, and occasion. (243)

Andrew Pitts then discusses the use of the Greek case of Hellenistic and Byzantine grammarians (pp. 261-81). The Hellenistic grammarians investigate here are the Stoics, Dionysius Thrax, and Apollonius Dyscolus. The Byzantine grammarians are Georgius Choeroboscus and Maximus Planudes. A conclusion that Pitts arrives at that I found interesting is that the Stoics “were not even concerned with grammatical case in their exposition of case theory and meaning” (280).

The final chapter in this section is John Lee on the Atticist grammarians (pp. 283-308). He looks at three three Atticist grammarians –Phyrnichus, Moeris and the Antiatticista– with the aim being to demonstrate how they can be employed as support for the linguistic character of the New Testament. I found his definition of Atticism to be interesting (I had never seen it described this way before). While noting that Atticism is a “complex phenomenon” and has been defined in various ways, Lee says that the

essential element [of Atticism] was the tendency to look back to the language and literature of a former era as the model to follow, from a later time when the spoken language had changed and original composition of that literature was in the past. (283)

The final six chapters are on the development of Greek. Andrew Pitts contributes another study (pp. 311-46), this one being on Greek word order and clause structure in the New Testament, with the analysis being used to determine how affects Greek grammar, syntax, discourse analysis, and exegesis.

Rodney Decker likewise contributes another chapter on Mark’s Gospel (pp. 347-64), this time examining the function of the inceptive imperfect tense in the Gospel. There have been thirty-four proposed inceptive imperfects in Mark, with the ESV only containing one, the ISV having fifteen, and a mere three instances in which at least half of the English translations agree (edidasken in1:21; diēkovei in 1:31; and periepatei in 5:42). Here is one interesting snippet from the study on learning and teaching Greek for biblical studies:

We have traditionally taught our students to translate imperfect verbs as past progressives in English: “ἔλυον, I was loosing.” I am not so sure that is helpful. Although there is pedagogical advantage of simplicity, it may well start the student off on the wrong foot, assuming that this is what the imperfect means. What ought to be asked, however, is if the imperfect functions the same way in Greek as the past progressive does in English. Is the primary significance of a Greek imperfect tense-form past time with progressive Aktionsart? […] One example will suffice to illustrate my point. In 5:8, ἔλεγεν would be more suitable represented in English as “he had said to him” (e.g. NRSV). The more commonly used, “For he was saying to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (ESV, cf. NASB), suggests to some that Jesus has made this demand repeatedly, but thus far unsuccessfully, showing (at least to one commentator) “how difficult a case he is dealing with.” (362)

Paul Danove (pp. 365-99) then presents a study on the usages of δίδωμι and thirteen δίδωμι compounds in the LXX (over 3,000 occurrences) and the New Testament (over 600 occurrences). Francis Gignae (pp. 401-19) then looks at the grammatical developments of Greek in Roman Egypt, specifically in regards to phonology, morphology, and syntax. Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts (pp. 421-38) then contribute a study on the disclosure formula in the epistolary papyri and the New Testament, where a “disclosure formula” is simply “an epistolary convention expressing the author’s desire that the audience know something” (pp. 421).

Lastly, Beth Stovell (pp. 439-67) examines John 3:1-15 and apocryphal gospels (particularly the Gospel of Thomas) for cohesion and prominence through the use of metaphor (e.g. the metaphors of “kingdom” and “life” that are found in the Gospel of John). While the average pew-sitting Bible reader notices the difference between the use of “eternal life” in John and “kingdom of heaven/God” in the Synoptic Gospels, that same pew-sitting Bible reader probably doesn’t think anything of the difference. Yet Stovell contends that, “the use of cohesion and prominence does not suggest a simple equation of the metaphors of ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘eternal life.’ The ‘Kingdom of God’ cannot accurately be said to equal ‘eternal life’” (454). Stovell maintains that the difference in metaphorical emphases between the gospels is reflected not only thematically, but also linguistically.

All in all, this volume contains a very interesting collection of essays on the language of the New Testament. There are a multitude of angles one could take when approaching the relationship between early Christianity and the language of the New Testament and this volume offers up a very nice medley of topics, with the studies ranging from very broad to very narrow focuses, and with some of the studies, such as Frederick Long on Ephesians 2:2, offering up fresh and fascinating perspectives.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 100 other followers