Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Understanding the Bible: the Study of Ancient Letter Writing

The letter is one of the oldest forms of written communication, becoming a very important means of interaction in the early church. Epistolography, the study of ancient letter writing, is particularly relevant to biblical analysis because the letter is the most common literary genre in the New Testament. Twenty-one of the New Testament’s twenty-seven documents are rendered in letter form. All of Paul's extant writings are letters. The General Epistles exhibit epistolary features, and Hebrews, despite the ongoing debate concerning its genre, has an epistolary conclusion. In addition to these, there are two letters imbedded in Acts (15:23; 23:26), and even the book of Revelation has an epistolary frame.1

Due attention ought to be given to the exegetical implications of this mode of communication whenever New Testament writings are examined. For at least three centuries before and after the beginning of the Christian era, rigid epistolary conventions were in force. Much of our knowledge of ancient letter writing has come since the latter part of the 19th century, with the discovery and subsequent analysis of papyrus letters from Egypt.2

A particularly important contribution of Greek papyrus materials is the abundant evidence they provide of the frequent, if not common, presence of amanuenses in letter writing during the Hellenistic age. Business documents were often written in two, three or more different hands. Many personal letters show signs of having been drafted by an amanuensis on behalf of another. Repeatedly a refined hand is seen in the body of the letters, with the closing subscription written in a less sophisticated hand. During the time approximating the composition of New Testament letters, it appears from the papyri evidence that it was a common practice to use a secretary to draft a document, after which the correspondent himself would often add a word of farewell, his personal greetings, and the date in his own hand. 

That Paul and other New Testament writers used amanuenses in writing their letters is generally acknowledged. Paul appears to have followed the customary practice of his contemporaries by employing the aid of secretarial expertise (Rom. 16:22) and then writing his own subscription (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17; Philem. 19).Even in the letters wherein attention is not specifically drawn to Paul having taken the pen from his amanuensis, the original autographs probably evidenced a shift to the apostle’s distinctive handwriting (cf. 2 Thess. 3:17). Apparently this was Peter’s convention as well (1 Pet. 5:12).

Even though New Testament letters are not private correspondence in the usual sense, the inspired authors did not abandon the immediate epistolary situation to write theological essays with merely an epistolary flavoring (W. G. Doty, Letters 26-27). New Testament letters were occasioned by real situations, requests, and problems in different Christian communities, and while the letters differ considerably in content, they show a consistent general pattern in form, particularly at the beginning and end.   

The letter in the Greco-Roman world served as a means of communication between separated parties and functioned in three basic ways: to sustain contact with friends and family, to disseminate information, and to request information or favors. For New Testament authors, however, the letter was more than just a mode of conversation – it was also an extension of divine authority as inspired communicators of heavenly truth.

--Kevin L. Moore

     See E. S. Fiorenza, “Composition and Structure” 367-81; J. M. Lieu, “Grace to You” 172-73; J. L. White, “Saint Paul” 444.
     See K. L. Moore, “Epistolography and the Writings of Paul,” in A Critical Introduction to the NT 100-114; also J. H. Greenlee,  Introduction to NT Textual Criticism 8-23; B. M. Metzger and B. D. Ehrman, The Text of the NT (4th ed.) 3-33, 206; J. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer 1-41.  
     G. J. Bahr suggests that the noticeable difference between Paul’s unimpressive oratory and his impressive letters (2 Cor. 10:10) may be attributable to the writing ability of his secretary (“Letter Writing” 476). W. G. Kümmel notes that the specific references to Paul’s own handwriting were likely included because the letters were read aloud and this was the only way for the listening audience to be made aware of the fact (Introduction 251). In one of the most comprehensive studies on Paul’s use of secretarial services, E. R. Richards concludes that the following letters were probably written by or with the help of an amanuensis: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon (Secretary201).

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Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Understanding the Bible: the Study of Ancient History

In order to get the clearest sense of the Bible and its original setting, “historically oriented biblical scholars have assumed mastery of a range of disciplines as fundamental to the toolkit of their craft” (B. J. Malina, Social World of Jesus xi-xii). Particularly relevant to Bible study are disciplines that enhance our understanding of how ancient literary works were produced and transmitted. 

Historiography is the study of historical writing. Even though the Bible is not strictly a historical narrative, it is packed with historical information. It goes without saying that the aim of the historian is to record facts, not to invent stories. Nevertheless, the ancient historian’s methodology (familiar to his contemporary readers) was not entirely the same as that of modern times. While completeness and accuracy were important, there was less concern about precision of dating and chronological arrangement. This is clearly demonstrated in a comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, wherein thematic or geographical arrangement often trumps chronology.

Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 60-140?) reports that Mark was “Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord…. [he] followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in writing down single points as he remembered them” (as quoted by Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15; trans. K. Lake, LCL).

Long before the present-day copyright mentality, the meticulous documenting of sources was not deemed necessary. Without calling attention to it, writers could reasonably expect their contemporary readers to recognize well-known quoted materials. 

Every historian is interested in real people and actual events but is naturally limited to the amount of information he can realistically record. He must therefore be discerning and restrict his investigation and reporting to what he deems significant. The aim of the ancient historian, therefore, was to selectively portray historical accounts so readers could learn political, moral, or religious principles.

Dr. Luke would not fit into the category of the Roman historian, who tended to focus on events surrounding a single city and its people, or the Jewish historian, who was primarily concerned about the history of one ethno-political group. Rather, Luke shares much in common with the Greek historian, who often travelled to the places he writes about, observed the events he records, and presents a neutral account of the acts and persons he describes.2 

--Kevin L. Moore

     See R. Nocolai, “The Place of History in the Ancient World,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (ed. J. Marincola) 1-14.
     See B. Witherington III, Acts of the Apostles 25-36. Colin Hemer, in The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, views Luke’s writings according to the various methods of ancient historiography and identifies Luke as a traveling investigator in the same category as Polybius (cf. B. D. Ehrman, The New Testament: Historical Introduction [4th ed.] 124-26).

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Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Context, Context, Context

What the Bible says to me and how it applies to my life, as important as this is, places the proverbial cart before the horse when it is the first (or exclusive) consideration. Before any biblical text says anything to me, it has already spoken to those to whom it was first written. The conscientious Bible student should therefore begin his/her investigation of any passage of scripture by considering what the inspired writer was seeking to convey to his original audience and how they would have understood the message in the context in which it was first communicated. When this is the preliminary focus, one is in a much better position to correctly interpret and apply the sacred writings as they were intended.

Everything in the Bible is written in a particular context. To be unaware of the context is to significantly increase one’s chances of missing or misunderstanding just about anything recorded in scripture. Context includes:
·      Historical context: what has occurred.
·      Chronological context: when it has occurred.
·      Geographical context: where it has occurred.
·      Sociocultural context: how it has occurred.
·      Literary context: the manner in which it has been recorded. 

Historical context involves both the history in the text and the history of the text, including social, cultural, political, religious, and economic conditions that inform us about people and events in particular time periods and places. “We study history to help account for the distances in time and historical experience” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). The information provided by biblical writers includes individuals, communities, localities, time periods, and happenings that can be verified in the records of history. The Christian movement and its sacred text stand on historically verifiable data. The New Testament contains over 140 eyewitness details and references to more than thirty historical figures, confirmed by archaeological discoveries and ancient secular writings.The Christian movement began and flourished, not in a vacuum, but among real people in the first century who could readily test its claims (cf. Acts 26:26; 1 Cor. 15:6). G. Ernest Wright has well said, “the Bible cannot be understood unless the history it relates is taken seriously. Knowledge of biblical history is essential to the understanding of biblical faith” (Introduction to Biblical Archaeology ix).

Chronological context, involving dates and sequence of events, is just as much a part of biblical history as the events themselves. R. L. Cate reminds us, “No matter how much students may dislike the study of dates, history can neither be adequately nor accurately studied apart from dates. Dates are the cement which hold events together and relate them to one another” (History of the New Testament 115). By viewing the scriptures in light of related past or contemporary occurrences, the record is not only confirmed but illuminated. Although assigning exact dates is not always possible due to the imprecision of ancient time reckoning and record keeping, studying chronology is helpful in determining the order of events, how much time elapsed between them, and contributing factors that charted the course of history. 

Geographical context concerns the places (lands, mountains, seas, cities, provinces, nations, etc.) where important events occurred. Biblical geography is the canvas upon which God’s scheme of redemption has been painted. C. G. Rasmussen observes, “once one has a basic understanding of the geography of the Middle East, one has a much better chance of coming to grips with the flow of historical events that occurred there…. Historical events were oftentimes greatly influenced by the geographical environment in which they occurred” (Zondervan Atlas of the Bible 13). W. Stiles adds: “Those of us who seek to understand the meaning of the Bible strongly believe in interpreting a passage in its context. But context is more than words…. The more one understands the land of the Bible, the more he or she will understand the Bible itself” (“Bible Lands,” <Link>).

Sociocultural context involves learned behaviors shared by members of a society that shed light on the cultural and linguistic distinctiveness of the biblical writings. Ancient documents “assume that their readers share their world and know what they mean… Our difficulty as modern Western readers is to relate meaningfully to documents that are the products of a radically different world in terms of institutions and values…. Because our social and cultural experiences do not match those of the biblical authors, we can be seriously misled about what they mean” (K. C. Hanson and D. E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus 2). The goal of biblical interpretation is to discover what the writings originally communicated to the immediate audiences, so “any adequate understanding of the Bible requires some understanding of the social system embodied in the words that make up our sacred scriptures” (B. J. Malina, New Testament World 1-2; Social World of Jesus xi). If we are unfamiliar with the world of the early Christians, we will not understand early Christianity.2

Literary Context is the connection of thought a passage bears to the larger discussion of which it is part. Each statement in the Bible is surrounded by and connected to additional information that helps determine its meaning. Literary context includes:
·      Genre: the type of literature that governs the purpose and meaning of a particular writing. The Bible consists of various literary genres (historical, prescriptive, poetic, proverbial, prophetic, apocalyptic, epistolary), a working knowledge of which aids in determining what biblical authors were seeking to impart. 
·      Immediate context: the paragraph or general discussion in which a statement occurs.
·      Remote context: the entire document or collection of writings of which a statement is part. 
·      Overall biblical context: how a statement or series of statements relate to the rest of the information in the Bible.
·      Layers of context: a passage of scripture might incorporate multiple genres, communicants, settings, and even borrowed materials from other sources. For example, the Gospel of Matthew is generally viewed as biographical but is also kerygmatic in that readers are expected to learn spiritual truths as information is disclosed. Matthew’s record has incorporated genealogical data (chap. 1), narrative (chaps. 1–4), discourse (chaps. 5–7), scripture referencing (2:6, 18; 3:3), apocalyptic imagery (24:27-31), et al. When analyzing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in addition to the actual words (in Greek-English translation), consideration ought to be given to the unique perspectives of the speaker and his original listening audience, as well as the inspired author and his first reading audience, inclusive of their respective historical–cultural–religious environments.

--Kevin L. Moore

     N. Geisler and F. Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist 270-71. 
     W. A. Meeks, First Urban Christians 2.

Related PostsAncient History

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Thursday, 22 November 2018

Introducing the Book of Revelation (Part 3 of 3)

Literary Genre and Structure
     Three different genres are apparent. First, Apocalypse (1:1)1 – a genre characterized by extensive symbolism, visions, strong contrasts between this world and the world to come, and victory over evil. Second, Prophecy (1:3) – combined with apocalyptic elements, it carries on the tradition of OT books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah. Third, Epistle (1:4) – with an opening address and greeting, it functions as a circular letter to the seven churches of Asia (1:4-5, 9-11), including a specific message for each one (2:1–3:22).2 “The complicated character of Revelation therefore suggests that we should not place it neatly into one genre category. Elements of prophecy, apocalypse, and letter are combined in a way that has no close parallel in other literature” (D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 716-17).  
     As for the structure of the book, Revelation is logical in sequence rather than chronological. It begins and ends in physical reality but includes a panoramic view of heaven and the future. The introduction (chaps. 1–3) is followed by three series of concurrent judgments (seals, trumpets, bowls) and depictions of worship in heaven (chaps. 4–16), concluding with a declaration of triumph (chaps. 17–22).
Methods of Interpretation
     1. The Preterist View (lit. “that which has gone by”). This interpretation method holds that everything in Revelation was fulfilled not long after it was written (either at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, or the legalization of Christianity in 313, or the fall of Rome in 476). The problem with this view is the great difficulty of interpreting some things in Revelation as having already been fulfilled (e.g. 20:10-15; 21:4).
     2. The Futurist View. This perspective argues that most of Revelation has not yet been fulfilled, interprets much of the symbolism literally, and is generally held by those advocating the theory of premillennialism. Problems with this view include the following. It literalizes symbols that were almost certainly intended to represent other things (e.g. 7:4; 14:1; 20:4, 6). It fails to appreciate the relevance the message needed to have for the Christians to whom it was originally addressed (e.g. 2:1 ff.).4 It ignores the fact that much of Revelation was to be fulfilled relatively soon after it was written (cf. 1:1, 3; 22:6).
     3. The Idealist View. This view suggests that Revelation is not related to specific historical events but merely symbolizes the general, ongoing struggle between the Lord’s church and evil forces. The problem with this view is that it overlooks Revelation’s claim that it does address actual historical events and circumstances and prophecies to be fulfilled (e.g. 1:1-3, 19; 22:10-19).
    4. The Historical View. This interpretation argues that Revelation deals with actual historical events, many of which were fulfilled by the time the Roman Empire fell, but some of which are yet to be fulfilled in the future (e.g. 20:11 ff.). While each of the above interpretive philosophies has its merits, the last one seems to be least problematic.
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 The opening self-identification is: Apokalupsis Iēsou Christou (“a revelation/apocalypse of Jesus Christ”). See B. M. Metzger, The NT: Its Background, Growth, and Content 302-303; C. R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the NT 536-41.
     2 Revelation is regarded as having an epistolary frame (see E. S. Fiorenza, “Composition and Structure” 367-81; J. M. Lieu, “Grace to You and Peace” 172-73; J. L. White, “Saint Paul” 444).
     3 See C. S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary 759; B. M. Metzger, Breaking the Code 11-19; D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, Introduction to the NT 697-700; S. L. Harris, Understanding the Bible [7th ed.] 519.
     4 “Some prophecy teachers have interpreted and reinterpreted Revelation according to the whims of changing news headlines.  But John’s images would have meant something in particular to their readers …. Whatever else his words may indicate, therefore, they must have been intelligible to his first-century readers …” (C. S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary 760-61).

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Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Introducing the Book of Revelation (Part 2 of 3)

Provenance and Destination
     John writes from the Mediterranean island of Patmos (1:9), a rugged, rocky island about 40 miles (24 kms) southwest of Ephesus in the Aegean Sea, used by the Romans as a place of exile (see Pliny, Natural History 4.23). The document is written to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (1:4, 11; 2:1–3:22).
Date of Writing
     The two main proposals for dating Revelation center on the respective reigns of Nero (54-68) and Domitian (81-96). The key pieces of evidence are as follows:
     1. Persecution of Christians. The Christians to whom Revelation is addressed seem to have been suffering severe and widespread persecution that would eventually worsen (1:9; 2:10, 13; 3:10; 6:9; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; 20:4). Nero’s persecution lasted from 64 to 68, but it was primarily confined to the city of Rome. The persecution of Domitian was most intense from 95 to 96, and though the strongest evidence for it comes from later writers,1 the imposition of emperor worship during this time (see below) adds more credence to this potential setting than do the alternatives.
     2. Emperor Worship. Christians in the book of Revelation were being pressured to worship the secular ruling power (13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4). The seeds of emperor worship were to some degree evident in Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Caligula, but it was not until Domitian that the imperial cult was enforced.2
     3. Condition of the churches. A Christian named Antipas had already suffered martyrdom in Pergamum (2:13) and members of the church at Smyrna were soon to face imprisonment and potentially the death penalty (2:10). Spiritual stagnation was a problem in many of the Asian churches (2:4, 5; 3:1-3, 15-17), and the church of Laodicea was wealthy at the time (3:17).3 These conditions are more conducive to the period of Domitian’s reign.
     4. The temple of God. John is called upon to measure “the temple of God” (11:1-2). If this is taken as a reference to the literal Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a date before 70 would be implied. However, since the book of Revelation is filled with signs and symbols, the most natural interpretation of this passage is metaphoric, not literal. Some see a prophecy of the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem in the allusion to the “holy city” being trampled for “forty-two months” (Rev. 11:2). However, when Ezekiel saw his vision of the temple being measured (Ezek. 40:1–42:20), the temple and the city had already been destroyed by the Babylonians fourteen years earlier (Ezek. 40:1).
     5. The succession of kings. In 17:9-11 eight kings are mentioned, and the one that appears to have been reigning at the time of writing was number six. If this passage is taken literally and the succession of kings begins with the first recognized emperor, an earlier date is then suggested. However, this argument is not decisive. Are the kings in this vision past, present, or future? Is the count to begin with Julius Caesar (the first dictator), Augustus (the first emperor), or Caligula (the first persecutor)? Should the comparatively insignificant rulers, who were in power for only brief periods (e.g. 68-69), be counted or not? Should the respective numbers be interpreted literally or symbolically?
     Internal evidence places the most probable context of Revelation toward the end of the reign of Domitian, i.e., 95-96. This conclusion is supported by the weight of early testimonies, viz. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5.30.3; Victorinus, Apoc. 10.11; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.18; Clement of Alexandria, Quis div. 42; Origen, Matt. 16.6.
-- Kevin L. Moore

     1 See Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.18.4; Sulpicius Severus, Chronicle 2.31; Paulus Orosius, Book 7 of Historiarum lib. Vii, adv. paganos. Even though the most definitive information comes from Orosius in the year 417, his history is substantially based on the much earlier works of Justin and Eutropius (see M’Clintock and Strong 7:455-56), and he also had access to other documentation that is no longer extant. 
     2 According to the Latin writer Suetonius (Dom. 13.1-2), Domitian required his subjects to address him as dominus et dues noster (‘our lord and god’). See also Dio Cassius 67.4.7; 67.13.4; and Pliny the Younger, Pan. 33.4; 52.2. The first imperial cult temple in Ephesus was established in the year 89 under Domitian’s rule. In fact, it was during this period that “in some areas – especially in Asia Minor – governors and other local officials demanded public participation in the cult as evidence of citizens’ loyalty and patriotism” (S. L. Harris, Understanding the Bible [7th ed.] 518).
     3 Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake in 60 (cf. Tacitus, Annals 14.26-27), and it is commonly assumed that an extensive period of time would have been necessary for the city to be rebuilt and become prosperous. This assumption, however, is tentative at best, since the residents of Laodicea were wealthy enough to rebuild the city without aid from the Roman government. Nevertheless, the fact that a congregation was in existence in Smyrna may be suggestive of a later date (see D. A. Carson and D. J. Moo, An Introduction to the NT 710).

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