Wednesday, 21 August 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 9): The Kiss Greeting and Feet Washing

Kiss Greeting

“Greet one another with a sacred kiss” (Rom. 16:16b; see also 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Pet. 5:14).1  Ignoring the cultural setting of this oft-repeated biblical directive might lead some to conclude that all Christians today ought to be kissing each other. However, the kiss-greeting was the conventional form of social interaction in ancient Mediterranean cultures (see Gen. 27:26; 29:13; 2 Sam. 20:9; Matt. 26:49; Acts 20:37). Rather than initiating a new form of greeting to be bound on the churches, Paul and Peter were simply regulating the customary greeting that was already practiced by their original audiences. In other words, when greeting one another in the customary way, readers are reminded to ensure these intimate exchanges are kept “holy” or “sacred” and in “love,” i.e., sincere and with moral integrity (cp. Matt. 26:48-49; 1 Cor. 6:18; 1 Thess. 4:1-8). In whatever ways Christians ordinarily greet one another in any historical-cultural environment, the underlying principle is the same.
 
Feet washing

In John 13:14 Jesus is recorded as saying, “If I, therefore, the Lord and the Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Failing to consider the sociocultural context of this passage has led a number of interpreters to regard the directive as a religious rite or church ordinance. Contextually, however, the Lord is not speaking to the church but to his twelve apostles whose feet he had just washed. They had been bickering over which of them should be considered the greatest (Luke 22:14-24), so Jesus teaches humility and servitude by washing their feet (John 13:3-17). 

In ancient Mediterranean cultures where sandals were worn and travel was mostly by foot on dusty roads, visitors entering a home could expect water and towels to be provided for washing dirty feet. It was a customary act of hospitality (see Gen. 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24; 1 Sam. 25:41; Luke 7:44; 1 Tim. 5:10). Sometimes the host himself would do the washing, but typically this was the job of a house slave. What Jesus teaches on this occasion to his prideful, selfish apostles, employing an object lesson that was practical and familiar at the time, is humbleness and service, not a specific, permanently binding religious ritual. The underlying principle rather than the explicit act remains relevant in all historical-cultural settings.2  

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     This is different from the Lord’s Supper, for example, the particulars of which have much broader applicability (cf. Matt. 26:29; Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:23-26).


Image credit: https://jaminism.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/the-hidden-meaning-of-jesus-washing-the-disciples-feet/

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 8): Public Reading

From earliest times the Jews gave attention to the public reading of God’s word (Exod. 24:1-7; Josh. 8:30-35; 2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3; Neh. 8:1-9, 18; 9:3; 13:1). In fact, Hebrew narrative, which comprises more than 40% of the Hebrew Bible, was designed primarily for hearers, not readers.... these texts were composed altogether with the hearer in view and thus contain structural features designed to make the narrative more memorable.1  In the 1st century AD public reading was a regular part of the synagogue gatherings, where both the Law and the Prophets were read aloud (Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21). Jesus customarily attended synagogue meetings and participated in the communal reading and exposition of the sacred writings (Luke 4:16-22).2

The prevalence of illiteracy in the 1st-century Mediterranean world made public reading indispensable.Speaking to the educated elite, Jesus could ask, “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Luke 10:26), while in addressing the common masses it was more appropriate to say, “You have heard that it was said” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43; cf. 7:24, 26; 13:19-23), albeit with reference to oral instruction. James charges his audience to be doers of the implanted word and not just “hearers” [akroataí] (Jas. 1:21-25; cf. Rom. 2:13). The apostle John pronounces a blessing on “the one reading and those hearing the words of the prophecy ...” (Rev. 1:3a).4

Paul commends the holy scriptures to Timothy, charging him to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 3:16–4:2) and “to give attention to the public reading [anágnōsis]” (1 Tim. 4:13; cf. Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14). At the time, in addition to the Old Testament, the writings of Luke were already regarded as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18), and within a comparable timeframe so were Paul’s (2 Pet. 3:15-16) [see What the Scriptures Say]. In the earliest extant Pauline document, the directive is given: “I solemnly charge you [in] the Lord, [that] this letter be read to all the brethren” (1 Thess. 5:27). Seeing that the Thessalonian correspondence would naturally have been read publicly when the Thessalonica church assembled together, the exhortation potentially includes the nearby brethren in Berea and Philippi and beyond (cf. 1:7-8; 4:10). Paul intended for his writings to be circulated rather than kept isolated in their respective localities: “and when this letter shall be read in your presence, have it also read among the church of [the] Laodiceans, and that also you may read the [one] from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16) [see Paul's Missing Letters].

By the mid-2nd century Justin Martyr writes from Rome, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits …”E. Ferguson remarks,“The Gospels and Prophets may have been a Christian counterpart to the Jewish readings from the Law and the Prophets…. the reading may have been continuous from Sunday to Sunday, taking up where the reading left off the last week, but not of a predetermined length. The indication is that the readings were rather lengthy ...”6

P. F. Esler provides helpful insights into examining the New Testament writings as they were originally designed. He reminds us that the author of each inspired document has communicated with the aim of informing and motivating a particular group of Christ-followers, most of whom potentially were illiterate. Since the text would have been read aloud when the church gathered, the message was conveyed orally and received aurally. It is therefore appropriate to consider the 27 New Testament documents as nonliterary in character, “as scripts for oral performance delivered within a setting of face-to-face dialogue …”

Conversely, when modern readers in literary cultures interact with the written text, the tendency is to read and examine each word but fail to hear the words collectively as interpersonal discourse. “The omnipresence of printed text in our lives as a result of Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention of the printing press represents quite an obstacle to our understanding and benefiting from these communications in a manner that accords with their original and oral and interpersonal nature.”Esler challenges us to pay attention to the biblical author’s “communicative intentions” and listen to the New Testament “in a way that does justice to its oral and interpersonal origins.”9

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 93-103 (emp. in the text). 
     Cf. Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:39, 21; Luke 4:44; 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20; etc. Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     It has been estimated that in the world of the Roman Empire, only about 10 and at most 20 percent of the entire population could read, and in the western part of the Empire no higher than 5 to 10 percent (W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy 130-45). Considering the diversity of the multi-cultural and multi-lingual contexts in which early Christianity developed and spread, it is difficult to determine the educational and literacy levels within these Christian communities (H. Gamble, Books and Readers 3).
     At times a note may be inserted in the written text for the public reader (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). C. Bryan says this “is probably to be understood as a stage direction to ‘the one who reads aloud (that is, to the assembly).’ If so, then in performance these words should be omitted, on the principle that one does not recite stage directions, one carries them out” (Preface to Mark 111 n. 9). Others, however, see this as applicable to the reader of Daniel (R. T. France, Gospel According to Matthew TNTC 340; R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary 481).
     A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, “The First Apology of Justin” 1:186.
     E. Ferguson, “Justin Martyr and the Liturgy,” RQ 36 [1994]: 271-72.
     P. F. Esler, NT Theology: Communion and Community 8-9. See also K. L. Moore, The Study of Ancient Rhetoric.
     P. F. Esler, op cit. It is helpful to note that “the difference between oral and written material was less distinct in antiquity” (E. R. Richards, “Reading, Writing, and Manuscripts,” in The World of the NT [eds. J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald] 349).
     P. F. Esler, op cit., 88-118, 148-70.


Image credit: http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/sites/305/2018/05/women_learning.jpg

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 7): Hospitality

Due to the scarceness and poor conditions of public lodging in antiquity, providing visitors with food and shelter was a virtual necessity. Hospitality (Greek philoxenía phílos [friend] + xénos [stranger]) under one’s own roof was deeply rooted in ancient society, highly valued, and even viewed as an obligation. The large number of itinerant evangelists and other Christian travelers made this particularly relevant to the early church. NT writers consistently remind their readers of this duty (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:10; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9; 3 John 5-8), according to “standards much more widely recognized and lauded” (J. D. G. Dunn, Theology of Paul 677). Nevertheless, the prospect of receiving and serving Christ himself (Matt. 10:40; 25:31-45) was of far greater significance than the secular ideas of reciprocity or honor and shame (see Part 2).

Exhorting the believers at Rome, Paul writes, “sharing [continually] the needs of the saints, pursuing [continually] hospitality” (Rom. 12:13).From a Christian perspective the apostle is reminding his readers, “Even under persecution one should not allow himself to be so preoccupied with his own troubles that he becomes insensitive to the needs of others…. To share with others is never more meaningful than when one is hard pressed to find a sufficient supply for himself” (E. F. Harrison, “Romans,” EBC 10:133). Paul is calling upon his readers to “put into practice the love and concern for one another that he has mentioned earlier (v. 10)…. to have fellowship with, to participate in, the ‘needs’ of the saints. These ‘needs’ are material ones: food, clothing, and shelter… sharing of our material goods …. to go out of our way to welcome and provide for travelers” (D. J. Moo, Romans 779-80). See also Acts 2:44-45; 4:35; 6:3; 20:34; 28:10; Eph. 4:28; Phil. 2:25; 4:16; Tit. 3:14; 1 John 3:17; Rev. 3:17.

Letters of recommendation helped open doors of hospitality for traveling Christians (Rom. 16:1-2; 1 Cor. 16:10-12; cf. Phil. 2:25-30; Col. 4:7-9; Eph. 6:21-22). “There are hints in the Pauline letters and elsewhere in the New Testament that ordinary Christians traveling to another city could already expect to find accommodation with ‘brothers,’ very likely following a custom established among diaspora Jews. Thus hospitality is already among the virtues of the Christian common life stressed in the traditional admonitions Paul includes in his letter to the Romans (12:13)” (W. A. Meeks, First Urban Christians 109, 230 n. 169). E. A. Judge comments further, “Security and hospitality when traveling had traditionally been the privilege of the powerful, who had relied upon a network of patronage and friendship, created by wealth. The letters of recommendation disclose the fact that these domestic advantages were now extended to the whole household of faith, who are accepted on trust, though complete strangers” (The Conversion of Rome 7). 

Jesus and his immediate disciples were able to devote full attention to spiritual service because of the benevolent assistance of others (Matt. 10:9-14; 26:17-19; Mark 9:28, 33; Luke 8:3; 10:4-8; 19:5; 24:28-29; Acts 1:13). While financial contributions were still necessary (1 Cor. 9:4-14; 2 Cor. 11:7-9), there were many other ways God’s servants could be supported (cf. Rom. 12:4-13; Gal. 6:16). Paul clearly relied on the hospitality and provision of his fellow-Christians (Acts 9:19; 16:15, 34; 18:1-3; 20:11; 21:4, 7-10, 16-17; 28:13-14; 24:23; Rom. 15:24; 16:2, 23; 1 Cor. 16:6; Gal. 1:18; Philem. 22; 2 Tim. 1:16-18; cf. 2 Tim. 4:13). Leadership in the church was also predicated upon being hospitable (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8).2

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     On the negative side, see Luke 9:51-55; 2 John 7-11; 3 John 9-11.


Image credit: https://www.africaresource.com/rasta/sesostris-the-great-the-egyptian-hercules/portraits-of-famous-black-romans/