Category Archives: Bible Backgrounds

The IVP Bible Background Commentary Part 2: Genesis – Kings

The IVP Bible Background Commentary Part 2: Genesis – Kings

untitledTHE IVP BIBLE BACKGROUND COMMENTARY: Old Testament. By John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 832 pages. Available at Amazon USA / UK

In my first review (which you can read by clicking here), I looked at the overall purpose and scope of the IVP Bible Background Commentary. In this review, I will focus on some of the interesting insights that can be learned by using this resource. Because of the sheer volume of material, I have chosen to focus on the Books of Genesis through 2 Kings. In a future review, I will look at the sections concerning the Psalms and Wisdom literature, as well as the Prophets.

Cultural Insights from the Ancient Near East

Since this is a commentary on Bible backgrounds, one expects information that provides insight into the culture of the ancient Near East. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, is loaded with wonderful insights that the ordinary Bible reader would be unfamiliar with. Moderns may think that the practice of polygamy in the ancient world was simply to satisfy the sexual desires of the male, but there were other motivating factors as well: “1) an imbalance in the number of males and females; 2) the need to produce large numbers of children to work herds and / or fields; 3) the desire to increase prestige and wealth of a household through multiple marriage contracts; and 4) the high rate of death of females in childbirth” (comment on Gen. 4:19, p. 34 and 1 Sam. 1:2, p. 281). Although this insight doesn’t justify polygamy, it does demonstrate some of the cultural factors that led to the practice.

From the movie "The Ten Commandments," Moses (Charlton Heston) and his father-in-law Jethro.
From the movie “The Ten Commandments,” Moses (Charlton Heston) and his father-in-law Jethro.

One interesting problem that the commentary resolves concerns the supposedly different names for Moses’s father-in-law. Was his name Jethro (Exod. 3:1), Reuel (Exod. 2:18), or Hobab (Judg. 4:11)? Did one man really have 3 names, or as some more sceptical scholars suggest, are 3 contradictory sources being used? The authors explain that, “The difficulty can be resolved once the ambiguity of the terminology is recognized. The term designating male in-laws is nonspecific. The term referred to a woman’s male relatives and could be used for her father, brother, or even grandfather” (comment on Exod. 3:1, p. 79). The authors suggest that Reuel may be the grandfather, Jethro the father (of Moses’s wife Zipporah), and Hobab a brother-in-law of Moses, or some other such combination.

<img class=” wp-image-961″ src=”https://www.biblestudywithrandy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/joshua.png” alt=”An account by Sargon II has similarities to Joshua 10:11” width=”173″ height=”213″ /> An account by Sargon II has similarities to Joshua 10:11

Other insights are provided by a brief discussion of the ancient Near East’s concept of corporate responsibility and how Achan’s sin impacted his whole family, not to mention the entire nation (comment on Josh. 7:1, pp. 218-219). A description of palace architecture also helps the reader better understand Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite king Eglon, and how he managed to escape (comment on Judg. 3:23, pp. 248-249). The authors also frequently quote from ancient texts that have similarities to biblical accounts. For example, one ancient Near Eastern text that comes from Sargon II, king of Assyria “reports that in his campaign against Urartu (714 B.C.) the god Adad stormed against his enemies with ‘stones from heaven’ and so annihilated them” (p. 225). This is reminiscent of the Lord’s intervention for Joshua against the kings of Canaan (Josh. 10:11).

The "witch" at Endor (1 Sam. 28)
The “witch” at Endor (1 Sam. 28)

One very interesting feature relates to an understanding of life after death in the ancient Near East. The authors discuss the strange story of the medium at Endor summoning Samuel at the request of Saul, after Samuel had died (1 Sam. 28). They comment, “This specialist from Endor used a ritual pit to conjure up the spirits of the dead….The pits were believed to be magical portals through which spirits could pass between the realms of the living and the dead. The practitioner was one who had special knowledge of the location of such a pit and who was familiar with the procedures necessary to summon the dead” (comment on 1 Sam. 28:7, p. 318). Of course, this doesn’t mean that the woman conjured up Samuel through her own power, but it does give insight into the ancient beliefs and practices involved. A comment on 1 Kings 16:4 regarding the fate of King Baasha of Israel and his family is also enlightening. The passage states that the king and his family members will be eaten by dogs if they die in the city or by birds if they die in the fields. The authors comment, “most ancient peoples believed that proper, timely burial affected the quality of the afterlife….We know that even Israelites believed that proper burial affected one’s afterlife, because they, like their neighbors, buried their loved ones with the provisions that would serve them in the afterlife; most often pottery vessels (filled with food) and jewelry (to ward off evil), with tools and personal items sometimes added” (p. 373).

IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Old Testament: Limitations

Me hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath).
Me hanging out with Philistines at Tel es-Safi (Gath).

The authors frequently site knowledge that is available through archaeology. This could be regarding certain cities, or artefacts. For example, when speaking of the Tabernacle (2 Sam. 6:17, p. 332), the discovery of a Midianite tent shrine that dates from the 12th century B.C. is noted. While this is interesting information, it also points up a shortcoming in the commentary. A photo of such discoveries would be helpful (or a reference where further info and pictures might be found). Additionally, it is the archaeological information contained in the commentary that particularly cries out for a new updated edition. For example, when the Philistine city of Gath is mentioned in the text, the authors constantly remind us that there has been no archaeological work done at this site (see e.g., the comment on 1 Sam. 27:2, p. 317). However, this is no longer the case. In fact, excavations have been going on at Tel es-Safi (biblical Gath) since 1996 with many fascinating discoveries made (see my article on Philistine cities here).

Although the authors have intentionally omitted the use of references for the sake of the average reader, still the lack of references hurt the commentary. Besides the Midianite tent shrine mentioned above, there are many places that references would be extremely helpful, even for the average reader. For example, there is a brief discussion of the problem of the date of the Exodus on page 86. Although the article gives the basic outline of the problems involved, it is still very general. The curious reader, however, is not left with any suggestions on how to pursue a deeper treatment of the subject.

The commentary is also full of repetition. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be quite helpful to have information at your fingertips rather than being told to go to another place in the commentary to find it. The problem is the authors do both. For example, whole sections of the commentary on 1&2 Kings refer the reader to 2 Chronicles. Again, if this was the practice throughout the commentary, I would have no problem with it. In fact, it would shorten the commentary considerably and might allow for the photos and references that I believe would be helpful. My complaint is that the decision to repeat information (sometimes 3, 4 or more times), while at other times saying, “see such ‘n such” for information on this passage, seems arbitrary.

Evaluation of Genesis – 2 Kings, IVP Bible Background Commentary

In spite of the shortcomings I have mentioned, I believe this commentary is extremely useful and informative. Besides simply providing a review, I have attempted to show the reader some of the interesting insights available. Other helpful features include geographical information (stating how far it is from one place to another, or what the terrain is like). This can raise important issues for interpretation. For example, what are we to make of the fact that Saul’s hometown is only a short distance away from Samuel’s hometown, and yet Saul had never heard of Samuel! (comments on 1 Sam. 9:6, p. 293). Other helpful explanations include the value of different types of money (shekels, etc.), the times of year represented by the names of various months, and the meaning of certain political or military offices (e.g., the Assyrian official known as Tartan means “field marshal, 2 Kgs. 18:17, p. 405). Although I am hopeful that an update on the Old Testament volume will be forthcoming from IVP (as the New Testament one which appeared this year), I would still heartily recommend this commentary as a source of valuable information in better understanding the Bible and the ancient Near East.

(A copy of this commentary has been provided for the reviewer in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. Many thanks to the publishers at IVP!)

The IVP Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament is available at ivpress.com, ivpbooks.com, and at Amazon USA / UK

 

 

Bible Background Knowlege: Why is it Important, How does it Help?

Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?

nt background
Available at Amazon USA / UK
untitled
Available at Amazon USA / UK

I am  currently in the process of reading two large commentaries on Bible backgrounds. Both are from IVP, the first is entitled Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, and the second, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. As some of you are aware, I have already posted an initial review of the Old Testament Bible background commentary (click here to read the review). Why spend so much time learning about Bible backgrounds? Why not just jump right in and study the Bible itself? Well, I do believe we all should “jump in” and study the Bible, however, when it comes to understanding the Bible, knowing things about the history of Israel and the ancient Near East, the cultural settings of the biblical world, yes, and even the languages, can make a huge difference in understanding a passage properly.

As I noted in a previous post (Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes), reading the Bible is like taking a trip to another country. At first we might not even think about the differences; we’re just excited to be making the journey! However, once we arrive, we inevitably experience culture shock. Not only is the language different, but what is considered polite, humorous, or acceptable behaviour is often quite different. Living conditions, how governments work, how (or if) children are educated varies from place to place. Even when countries speak the same language, the meanings of words, as well as what is considered socially acceptable, can be quite different, as I have learned as an American living in England these past 11 years. Cultural knowledge is indeed important. As a result, when it comes to the Bible, I have become a bit of a Bible backgrounds junky. This is why I am constantly reading and reviewing books that deal with Bible background material (like my review of The World of the New Testament), or posting articles that deal with some aspect of ancient culture which can enlighten our reading of Scripture (see, for example, my articles on Grace in 3D, Envy and the Cross, or Cross Examination). It also explains my fascination with archaeology and why I love reading about the excavations of ancient biblical cities, or the discovery of interesting artefacts (see the articles under Biblical sites).

Any number of passages confuse Bible readers who are unfamiliar with the “world of the Bible.” Even the simplest of things such as the mention of weights, measures, or money can be frustrating. What’s a cubit, or a seah, or a denarius, and how do they compare to modern standards of weight, measure, or currency? What makes Sarah think it is OK to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as a wife? What is Paul’s discussion of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11 all about? Not only are there things we don’t understand, but there are also presuppositions we carry with us from the 21st century when reading the text. For example, we may forget that ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, not an industrial culture. Or, when we read Paul’s letters we may assume that he is writing to Christians who worship in large public buildings like we do today, as opposed to smaller house-churches, or even smaller apartment buildings. This may seem like a small matter, but understanding that Paul is addressing many small house-churches in Romans, and not some big metropolitan church that meets in a large public facility, helps us to better understand some of the problems he confronts in this letter. Being aware of cultural values that were important in the ancient world such as honor and shame, can deepen our understanding of a number of passages throughout Scripture, including Jesus’ clash with the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Gospels.

In a future article I will seek to demonstrate some of the benefits of applying background knowledge to our understanding of the Bible (meanwhile, if you’re unfamiliar with some of the posts I’ve mentioned above please feel free to read them. Just click on the links provided). I will also share some of the insights that can be gained from the Bible background commentaries mentioned above as I continue my review of them.

 

IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament: Part 1

IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament

untitledTHE IVP BIBLE BACKGROUND COMMENTARY: Old Testament. By John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000. 832 pages. Available at Amazon USA / UK

This one volume commentary on the Old Testament is a companion to the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament (also available at Amazon USA / UK). The purpose of both of these volumes is to provide helpful information regarding the cultural context in which the Bible was written. This is a daunting task for the authors seeking to provide this information for the Old Testament. The number of books in the Old Testament, the length of historical time involved, and the vast knowledge required of different ancient cultures makes this a challenging undertaking. But Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, all well-known Old Testament scholars, are up to the task.

Author John Walton
Author John H. Walton

The authors do not claim that the material included in the commentary will necessarily help with the theological interpretation of the Bible (p. 7). Although the authors include this disclaimer, one could certainly debate that a knowledge of cultural context can enhance one’s understanding of a given text of Scripture. In fact, throughout the commentary (as we shall see in future reviews) the authors demonstrate how a knowledge of background material influences one’s interpretation of the text. That being said, the authors’ main concern, according to the preface, is to provide enough cultural context so that the Old Testament is not misinterpreted by imposing our own cultural biases and worldview on the text. Regarding the background information provided they state, “In many cases there may not be anything that can be done with the information, but having that information may prevent one from doing something with the text that should not be done” (p. 9).

Author, Victor H. Matthews
Author, Victor H. Matthews

This commentary is written with the lay-person in mind. As a result, references to scholarly or ancient sources are omitted. There are no footnotes; only a 10-page bibliography for those who might wish to pursue a topic further. While this uncluttered approach makes reading easier, this volume is also intended for the pastor and student and the lack of references makes further research more difficult. A helpful glossary of terms is included at the back of the book for those not familiar with certain terms or names. The back of the commentary also includes charts on the various ancient tablets and inscriptions mentioned in the commentary, a timeline, and some general maps, all in black and white. Better maps are available in other resources, but for a quick general reference regarding a particular site or city, the maps included are adequate. Although it would have added to the length and expense of the commentary, photographs, charts, and maps within the commentary would have been very helpful for the lay-person.

Author, Mark W. Chavalas
Author, Mark W. Chavalas

The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament only treats the books of the Protestant Canon (as opposed to the Catholic Canon) and approaches them in that order (as opposed to the order in the Hebrew Bible). The commentary is divided into four main sections: The Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy); Historical Literature (Joshua-Esther); Wisdom and Poetic Literature; and Prophetic Literature. Each section includes an introduction to the books or type of literature found in it. Scattered throughout the commentary are discussions on important topics such as, “Ancient Near Eastern Flood Accounts,” “The Date of the Exodus,” “Egyptian Information About Canaan and Israel,” “Afterlife Beliefs in Israel and the Ancient Near East,” and many others.

All in all, this is an extremely useful and interesting commentary. Because of the size of the IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament, I will be breaking it down into bite-sized chunks and reviewing various books, or sections, in future articles. Stay tuned for more on this excellent resource.

(Thanks to IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for an unbiased review. For other books from IVP please visit ivpbooks.com)

A Week in the Life of Corinth

A Week in the Life of Corinth

A Week in the Life of Corinth is a charming story by New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III. Although it is fictional, it is based on Witherington’s knowledge of the New Testament world (not to mention his commentaries on Acts and 1&2 Corinthians) and includes real historical figures like the apostle Paul, the proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-17), and Erastus the treasurer of Corinth (Rom. 16:23). It is a book that not only “tells” us about the 1st century world, it “shows” us through the medium of story.

Buy A Week in the Life of Corinth see link below.
Buy A Week in the Life of Corinth at amazon. Click on the book above for USA or at the link below for UK or USA.

The story revolves around a fictional character named Nicanor, a former slave of Erastos (the Greek spelling used by Witherington), but now a freedman. By following Nicanor’s life for one eventful week, the reader is treated to many insightful details about life in the 1st century AD. For example, rather than being told about the relationship between a patron and client as a textbook would do, the reader experiences patronage first hand through the life of Nicanor. (For an example of understanding the importance of patronage, see my article: “Grace in 3D”.) We also learn the potential dangers involved in these kinds of relationships when Nicanor’s loyalty to Erastos clashes with the desires of the powerful Marcus Aurelius Aemilianus.

In order to educate the reader, the book is punctuated by information boxes entitled, “A Closer Look.” These boxes include a mountain of informative details including such topics as, Slaves and Manumission, The Roman Calendar, Gladiators and their Contests, Paul, a Visionary with an Eye Problem, Home Schooling Greco-Roman Style, Jews in Corinth, Roman Trials, and a host of other subjects. Besides these information boxes, Witherington also includes a number of photos and diagrams. Among the diagrams included are a layout of “First Century downtown Corinth,” and the layout of a Roman domus (house).

Erastus inscription in Corinth
Erastus inscription in Corinth

Photos include a number of pictures of the remains of ancient Corinth such as the diolkos (the shortcut used to drag small boats across the isthmus where Corinth is located rather than sail them all the way around Greece), or the Erastus inscription (see photo on right). Other helpful photos feature a gladiatorial school, an ancient Roman road, and a street in Pompeii. Although the photos are helpful, in order to keep this slender volume at a reasonable price, they are in black and white which affects their quality.

The book is suitable for the average reader seeking to learn more about life in the New Testament world in an entertaining way. However, there are a few shortcomings. Further character and plot development would certainly have created a greater emotional attachment to the story and its characters. The numerous Latin and Greek words used by Witherington are sometimes, but not always, explained. Although the use of these words adds to the atmosphere of the story, those who aren’t acquainted with these ancient languages may find it a little exasperating. More importantly, there appear to be some errors in the use of Greek and Latin words or names. For example, Tyche is definitely a feminine name, though Witherington uses it for a male doorman. In spite of these shortcomings, Witherington’s book is an enjoyable and educational read. I recommend A Week in the Life of Corinth to all who are interested in ancient Corinth or the world of the New Testament.

Buy “A Week in the Life of Corinth,” by clicking on one of the following links at Amazon: USA / UK

(Thanks to the publishers at IVP for providing this review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.)

The World of the New Testament: Book Review

“The World of the New Testament”: Book Review

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts
The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts

The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts
eds. Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 616 pp.

The World of the New Testament is a mini dictionary of New Testament background topics. It is edited by Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald and consists of articles by scholars (seasoned veterans and new up and coming ones) who specialize in studies of the field known as Second Temple Judaism (meaning the period following the exile until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD). Studies of this period have opened up a new window on understanding the New Testament. This book is an effort to treat many of the important topics related to a better understanding of the New Testament and the Roman World in which it was conceived.

The Contents of “The World of the New Testament”

The World of the New Testament is broken into 5 sections: 1) Setting the Context: Exile and the Jewish Heritage which includes such topics as the Exile, the Hasmonean Era (including the Maccabean Revolt), the Herodian dynasty, as well as others; 2) Setting the Context: Roman Hellenism which looks at such topics as Greek religion, the Imperial cult, slavery, family life and education in the Greco-Roman world, etc.; 3) The Jewish People in the Context of Roman Hellenism includes topics on the Temple and priesthood, Jewish sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, etc.), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other matters pertaining to Judaism and Jewish life; 4) The Literary Context of Early Christianity focuses on the reading and writing of manuscripts, and what can be learned from sources as divergent as Homer and Josephus as regards the New Testament; and 5) The Geographical Context of the New Testament is the final section which includes articles about Jesus research and archaeology, and places such as Egypt, the province and cities of Asia, Macedonia, and of course, Rome. As indicated, this is not a complete listing of topics under the various sections, but a sampling so that the reader might have an idea of the subject matter.

Most of the articles in this volume are designed to present an overview of the various subjects that concern New Testament backgrounds study. One who is acquainted with this field may not find much that is new, but the student or curious person seeking an introduction to this area of study will discover a wealth of information at their fingertips. One significant area that was overlooked, however, concerns first century social values and institutions such as those addressed in David A. DeSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity (although family life is addressed in chapter 14 and there is a short section on purity in chapter 25). Perhaps the editors thought this would make a long volume even longer, or that this information could be gleaned from other resources such as DeSilva’s book. Nonetheless, it is an important shortcoming in this volume and there is no explanation offered as to why as significant a subject as honor and shame is overlooked.

Critiquing “The World of the New Testament”

On a more positive note, I greatly enjoyed E. Randolph Richards article entitled, “Reading, Writing, and Manuscripts.” Richards discusses literacy in the first century world, as well as the writing methods employed in producing manuscripts. One point I found particularly fascinating was the expense involved in producing a large manuscript. Richards constructs a chart of some of Paul’s letters and, based on the number of lines and the cost for materials and labor, projects what it would cost in the modern world to produce them. Richard’s estimates that Romans, Paul’s longest letter, would cost $2,275.00, while Philemon, Paul shortest letter (and closer to the usual size of an ancient letter), would cost $101.00. Even if Richard’s figures aren’t totally accurate, this certainly provides a perspective on the value and cost involved in producing the New Testament documents! Other chapters I found particularly helpful include, “Greek Religion” (Chap. 8), “The Imperial Cult” (Chap. 9), “Jews in the Diaspora” (Chap. 23), “Literary Forms in the New Testament” (Chap. 30), and “Jesus Research and Archaeology” (Chap. 36) by the renowned scholar James H. Charlesworth. This is not to say that I didn’t find many other helpful and interesting articles in The World of the New Testament, but these chapters stood out to me. Of course, knowledge and interest often dictate what one finds appealing and another reviewer might chose a different selection of chapters.

Another criticism I have of The World of the New Testament, is the quality of photos included in this volume. Photos are certainly a good idea for a work of this kind, but the black and white photos included are not helpful and in my opinion they mar the overall appearance and quality of the book. The photos are usually very indistinct. Shadows frequently obscure details and frustrate rather than illuminate. The book also includes many maps and charts. Again, this is a helpful feature for a book of this nature. Some charts and maps are very helpful, others less so. For example, in section 5 which looks at the geography of the New Testament world, some of the maps don’t list the cities that are being written about, or, in other cases, you only find a particular city on a map a few pages later and so you have to flip back and forth.

In spite of its shortcomings, there is still a lot of good material in The World of the New Testament, and thus I would recommend it to those who are interested in this field of study. This is a book for the beginning or intermediate student, or interested layperson. However, the language is often technical when simpler expressions could have been substituted or better explained. The terminology and subject matter does not make for casual reading, but for one seeking a deeper knowledge of the New Testament world this book will provide ample information.
(Thanks to Baker Academic for providing this copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.)

Buy The World of the New Testament: Amazon USA / UK

Grace in 3D

Grace in 3D

Did you know that there is a depth of meaning to the word “grace” which is frequently overlooked by the modern church? In my last article, we noticed the connection between obedience and grace and I promised that we would further investigate the meaning of grace. Grace is often defined as “unmerited favor,” or “getting what I don’t deserve.” Although these are accurate definitions, they only communicate one aspect of the Greek word charis (grace).
We often find that a 3-dimensional representation of something is much more effective than simply seeing it in 2-dimensional form. Hence the popularity of new 3D movies and televisions. Similarly, it is disturbing to hear Christians speak of grace 1-dimensionally (the definition noted above), when in fact the New Testament authors’ usage encompasses more. Grace has been put on a diet by many well-meaning Christians and has lost its well-rounded meaning in favor of a more slimmed-down version. This is not done intentionally; it is usually the result of a lack of knowledge of the 1st century cultural context in which this word occurs. Recovering this context reveals that there are two other important aspects to the meaning of grace. Recapturing the 3-dimensional nature of this word, strengthens what is quickly becoming an anaemic theology of grace within the evangelical church, and, most importantly, allows us to walk more fully in the grace that God has bestowed.

Grace and Patronage

The Roman world of the 1st century was a world of limited goods. This means that a lot of things necessary for existence were in short supply. There were no shopping malls, large department stores, and there certainly was no eBay. This meant that people had to depend on others who could supply whatever their need might be. These people were called “patrons.”

Patronage (picture taken from http://www.coopertoons.com/merryhistory/martial/valeriusmartial.html)
Patronage (picture taken from http://www.coopertoons.com/merryhistory/martial/valeriusmartial.html)

Patronage was a way of life in the Roman world; everyone had one or more. Much can be learned from examining the concept of patronage, but, for our purposes, the most important thing is that the word “grace” was part of the everyday vocabulary. A patron was able to supply what I could never obtain on my own. This was called an act of grace, and it is the definition that we are most familiar with. For example, Paul talks about the “grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2) which we have received through God’s act of love in sending His Son to die for us “while we were still sinners” and “when we were [His] enemies” (Rom. 5:8, 10). Because of my sin, reconciliation with God is beyond my grasp. I don’t have the necessary resources in and of myself to make reconciliation possible, but Jesus, who lived a perfect life, does (Rom. 5:18-19). In Christ’s act on the cross I receive a forgiveness that I could never obtain on my own. That is grace, and it is the good news that was preached by the early church!
However, in the world of patronage, grace was much more than the act of giving what could never be earned, it was also the gift itself. Whether the gift was food, legal help, paying off debts, etc., it was called “grace.” There are a number of examples of this usage in the NT. For instance, when Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23), the word “gift” in Greek is charisma––grace. When Paul is speaking of the “gifts” of the Spirit given to the church in Romans 12:6, the word he uses is charismata, from which we get our word “charismatic,” as in charismatic gifts. Therefore, grace is not only the act of giving; it is the gift itself.
Third, and most important for our discussion, the word grace includes the meaning of giving thanks. We still use it this way today. When we ask someone to “say grace” we mean, “Will you give thanks for the food?”

Grace and giving thanks
Grace and giving thanks

Our English word “grace” comes from the Latin gratia and has entered Spanish and Italian in the forms of gracias and gratze which mean “thanks.” All these words are derived from the Greek verb eucharisto (notice the word charis––see e.g., Rom. 1:8). The important point here, is that everyone in the Roman world who received “grace” (meaning both the undeserved act, as well as the gift) would expect to give “grace” (meaning “thanks”) in return. The Roman philosopher Seneca pictured grace as a dance between 3 sisters which consisted of the act of giving (grace), the gift received (grace), and the recipient giving thanks (grace) for the gift. As long as each one of these ingredients was present, the dance of grace continued in a flowing unbroken way. No honorable person (see my article on honor under “Cross-Examination”) would ever consider not returning thanks for the gift received. This means that, although a person could never pay for the grace given, they were expected to respond with gratitude. Grace begets grace!
If a person could never repay their patron for the grace they had received, then what did giving of thanks consist of? In the Roman world, gratitude was expressed in several different ways: 1) The recipient of grace would freely proclaim the name of his benefactor and tell everyone he came into contact with about the generosity of his patron. This increased the honor of his patron. 2) Each morning a person would appear before his patron and find out if there was anything he could do for him or her that day. 3) One would always be loyal to their patron, defending them against accusations, and even going to battle with them if necessary. These, and other actions, were ways in which an individual could express thanks (grace) for a gift (grace) they could never repay (grace).

The Complete Circle of Grace

Hopefully it is not hard to see the parallels for the Christian. The Christian has received a gift (grace), they don’t deserve and could never repay (grace). This is where modern conversations about grace frequently end, but biblically speaking it is not the end of the grace-conversation. Just because we can never repay what God has done for us in Christ, doesn’t mean that there is nothing for us to do! Like the people of the ancient world, we should continually give thanks to our Patron (God). We give thanks by praising His name, and by telling others about Him (this is worship and evangelism). We seek Him out each day to see what He would have us to do, and we defend His name and even go to battle with Him, if necessary. All of these responses are ways of saying “thank you” for a gift we can never repay. Notice that all of these responses involve acts of obedience! This is why a life lived “under grace” is an obedient life (Rom. 6:14-23––see last week’s article). Why settle for a 1 or 2-dimensional view of grace when we can, and should, have it in 3D! For the doctrinal health of the church we need to restore this biblical 3D portrait of grace to our modern theology. Like love and marriage, grace and obedience go hand in hand.

Many of my insights on patronage and grace are indebted to David A. deSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Please check out his book on this link from amazon.

Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)

Envy and the Cross (Mark 15:10)

Mark says that because of envy, the chief priests sought to kill Jesus.
Mark says that because of envy, the chief priests sought to kill Jesus.

Did you know that, biblically speaking, there is a difference between envy and jealousy? In fact, envy was considered one of the great evils of the ancient world, while jealousy, in the proper context, was considered a natural and proper response. Many people use these words interchangeably today. So what is the difference and what does this have to do with the Cross as our title suggests? First, we will look at the biblical meanings of the words jealousy and envy, and then, in honor of Passion Week, we will notice the connection between envy and the Cross.

The Greek word for jealousy in the NT is “zelos” from which we also get our word “zealous.” One can be jealous of something or jealous for something. In other words, context determines whether the jealousy spoken of is a positive or negative quality. Jealousy for something speaks of the positive quality of protecting and nurturing what naturally belongs to us. If a husband or wife doesn’t care about their spouse having other lovers, we would (rightly) consider this bizarre. After all, when two people have committed themselves in marriage to belong only to each other, then a husband or wife has the right to be jealous for that special relationship they share. Similarly, we are jealous for our children. If we wanted a baby-sitter for the evening, we would not consider just asking any stranger off of the street to watch them. Our jealousy for our children demands that we find someone we can trust. When the Scriptures speak of God being a jealous God (e.g., Exod. 20:5), it is this positive kind of jealousy that is in mind. The relationship between God and His people is often described as a marriage relationship in both the Old and New Testaments, and God has gone to extreme measures (i.e., the sacrifice of His Only Son), to make that special relationship possible. Therefore, God is jealous for us, a perfectly natural expression of His deep love and concern for us.

The Negative and Dangerous Emotion of Envy

On the other hand, the word “zelos” can also be used in the negative sense of “to be jealous of,” or in other words, “to envy.” As mentioned above, context is the determining factor. So what exactly is envy? A popular definition of envy is, “my pain at your gain.” Envy involves a grudging feeling toward another person that desires to take what is theirs, or, at the very least, to see them stripped of what they have and to perversely enjoy their being deprived of it (“If I can’t have it, no one should” kind of attitude). Besides the word “zelos” sometimes carrying this meaning in the NT, another Greek word “phthonos,” (translated “envy”) always carries a negative connotation.[1]

Not only is envy a negative emotion, more importantly, it leads to destructive behavior. In particular, there are at least six harmful ways that envy came to expression in the ancient world: 1) ostracism; 2) gossip and slander; 3) feuding; 4) litigation; 5) the evil eye (placing a curse on someone); and 6) homicide.[2] The danger with envy is that it is not simply an internal emotion; it has a way of finding expression in harmful behavior, and this is why it is considered such a great evil. Thus, envy always seems to find a place among those NT passages that list a catalogue of the worst sins (e.g., Rom. 1:29; Gal. 5:21).

Sketched against this background, Mark’s statement, concerning the trial of Jesus before Pilate, takes on even more sinister overtones as he writes, “For he [Pilate] knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10). This declaration, easily overlooked by moderns, is a resounding condemnation of the Jewish leaders’ intentions and motives. It was not a concern for holiness or righteousness that motivated these men, according to Mark, but one of the baser qualities of human nature: envy.

This story can challenge us to check our motives. These religious leaders could put on a false facade of spirituality. They could pretend to act for God and for the good of the community, but in reality their actions were motivated by the flesh. God sees through our actions to the heart of the matter. As Hannah sang long ago: “For the Lord is the God of knowledge; and by Him actions are weighed” (1 Sam. 2:3b).



[1] One possible exception to this is James 4:5 which is a notoriously difficult passage to translate. But see, for example, the NET, which is probably the correct way to translate this passage.

[2] This information is taken from Anselm C. Hagedorn and Jerome H. Neyrey, “It was out of envy they handed Jesus over’ (Mark 15:10): The anatomy of envy and the Gospel of Mark,” JSNT, 69, 1968 (p. 32).

Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World

Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World

Did you know that those who study the history and culture of the Roman world of the first century affirm that the Roman Empire (consisting of Romans, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, etc.) was founded on the cultural values of honor and shame? To quote David deSilva, “A person born into [this] culture was led from childhood to seek honor and to avoid disgrace. Honor comes from the affirmation of a person’s worth by peers and society, awarded on the basis of the individual’s ability to embody the virtues and attributes his or her society values” (An Introduction to the New Testament, IVP, 2004, p. 125). Words such as “honor,” “glory,” “praise,” and other synonyms, as well as “shame,” “reproach,” “mock,” and their synonyms, are part of the daily vocabulary of people who live in such a society. One can hardly turn a page of the Bible without finding one of these words, which suggests how an understanding of honor and shame might impact our understanding of Scripture. These articles are meant to be short and so I will not delve into the many ways in which our Bible reading can be enriched by understanding this cultural dynamic. Instead, I want to focus on how our understanding of crucifixion and the cross of Christ is enhanced when seen against this cultural background.

Shame and the Cross of Christ

Although none of us in the western world are exposed to crucifixion as a form of capital punishment, we are aware of the slow and horribly painful death experienced by its victims. But in the Roman world, a painful death was only one reason, and probably not the most important reason, for crucifixion. In a society built on honor, the cross was the most shameful death possible. The cross was not only intended to torture its victim, but to shame them so that no one would want to be affiliated with them. This is why a person was crucified naked, was beaten, mocked, and spit upon (e.g., Matt. 27:29-30, 39-44). If the Jewish leaders had only wanted Jesus dead, they could have sent someone into the throngs that surrounded him to stab him. Jesus’ death, however, was not enough; that would simply make a martyr of him. The Jewish leaders realized that he must die the most shameful death possible so that all of his followers would scatter and it would put an end to his influence. This idea of the shame of the cross is the backdrop for all of the passion narratives in the gospels and for passages such as Acts 18:32; 1 Cor. 1:18; and Heb. 12:2, to name only a few.

The Cross: A Sign of Victory

The fact is, Roman crucifixion was so effective that it quelled every rebellion in the ancient world. Whether we are talking about the slave rebellion under Spartacus, which saw the crucifixion of 6000 men, or the uprisings of would-be deliverers and messiahs, every movement was put down and silenced by the use of the cross. Every movement that is…except for one! The fact that the early disciples went about preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is an astonishing fact, given the cultural dynamics of honor and shame. No one in this society would think, “I believe I’ll start a new religion and base it on a man who was crucified.” Everyone wanted to stay as far away from the shame of crucifixion as possible. Even if, one person was crazy enough to imagine such an idea, it would never have gained a following. To identify with the cross was to guaranty a life of persecution and shame. This is why Paul said the “message of the cross [was] foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18). How then do we explain the fact that the cross of ChristChrist-on-the-Cross-Painting-by-Eugene-Delacroix, not only transformed many lives, but ultimately conquered the Roman Empire itself? The only logical explanation for this phenomenon is that there was a power behind the cross of Jesus that was not of this world; a power that went far beyond human intellect, social mores, and cultural norms. It was in fact, as Paul affirms, the power of God!

For a further explanation of honor and shame and how it impacts our understanding of the books of 1&2 Samuel, please see my book, Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel, especially chapters 4 and 18.

My Review of Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes

misreading scriptureMisreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders To Better Understand The Bible, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012.

As an American, I thought I knew England. After all, I had visited the UK on three occasions. However, when my wife and I moved to England a little over ten years ago, we realized that we had settled into a very different culture. Many have had the experience of being offended or bewildered by the words or actions of a person from a different culture. This is not because that person intentionally sought to offend or bewilder us, but because two people with different culturally conditioned mindsets viewed the same words or actions differently. Our experience with Scripture can be similar. Richards and O’Brien, the authors of, Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, state, “We can easily forget that Scripture is a foreign land and that reading the Bible is a crosscultural experience” (p. 11). One of their stated goals is “to remind (or convince!), [us] of the cross-cultural nature of biblical interpretation” (p. 12). The authors note that we all carry cultural assumptions which we may not even be aware of––in their words things that “go without being said.” The result can be, “When we miss what went without being said for them [i.e., the biblical authors] and substitute what goes without being said for us, we are at risk of misreading Scripture” (authors’ emphasis, p. 13).

Using the illustration of an iceberg, Richards and O’Brien break their book down into three parts as they explore nine differences between Western and non-Western cultures (3 differences in each section). Part One, the tip of the iceberg represents the cultural differences that are most obvious. Part Two involves cultural assumptions which are just below the surface––they “are visible once you know to look for them” (p. 16). Part Three examines the bottom of the iceberg. These are “cultural issues that are not obvious to all” (p. 16). Readers of New Testament Background material will be familiar with some of these topics such as Individualism and Collectivism (chap. 4), or Honor and Shame (chap. 5). Having previously read Bruce Malina’s The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, and David deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, I wondered if I was simply going to go over familiar territory on these topics, but Richards’ and O’Brien’s approach is fresh and insightful, frequently suggesting a new route for understanding and applying a difficult verse or passage.

The authors frequently bring their own cross-cultural knowledge to bear. Richards was a missionary to Indonesia and shares some of his experiences there, demonstrating how an eastern culture often has a different perspective on an action or a biblical verse. O’Brien’s wife grew up in southeast Asia and he confesses to drawing on her understandings as a “third-culture kid” (his expression, p. 219), as well as the understandings of friends from other cultures. He also brings his knowledge of Church history to the topic. O’Brien does not mention any experience living in an eastern cultural setting however, and even with Richards’ experience in Indonesia, one can question if everything in Indonesian culture transfers directly to biblical culture.

Many chapters do offer valuable insights and interesting anecdotes. One example of this is chapter 6 entitled, “Sand Through the Hourglass.” This chapter looks at the different perspective on time between eastern and western cultures. Although people may be aware that different cultures view time differently, it may never have occurred to the average Bible reader just how their concept of time affects their interpretation of what they read. The authors point out that our concept of time affects everything from our understanding of the use of wisdom and the interpretation of proverbs, to our understanding of how biblical books were composed. For example, the western reader usually comes with the supposition that a narrative will follow chronological order. It is often confusing when we find things in Scripture that do not follow our preconceived ideas of time. The authors note that eastern cultures do not have the same preoccupation with chronology that westerners do. Richards point out “that telling stories for Indonesians is often more like making a soup: some ingredients had a specific timing, but the other elements just needed to be added in sometime” (pp. 147-148). This different understanding of time also attaches itself to the meaning of the word “soon.” When a man told friends he was having a banquet “soon,” it carried a different meaning for someone in antiquity, than it does for a modern westerner.  This made me think of Jesus’ statement, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20), and how we as westerners can attach a different meaning to the idea of “quickly.”

There are, however, a few things to quibble with in this book. One example is the author’s discussion of honor and shame in chapter 5. There is no doubt that honor and shame is a major cultural difference between western culture and the cultures reflected in Scripture. Understanding this dynamic has opened my eyes to many things recorded in Scripture. However, the authors maintain that in an honor and shame culture all actions are predicated on what is acceptable or not acceptable to that culture. Guilt plays no part; it is all about losing or saving face (p. 118). Their interpretation of the David and Bathsheba story, which they give as an illustration, raises certain questions which the authors do not satisfactorily address. According to their understanding, once Uriah was killed and David took Bathsheba as his wife, he would have considered the matter resolved and “it is likely that David never gave it another thought” (p. 125). My question is, “Isn’t the king supposed to know God’s law? (Deut. 17:18-20). Wouldn’t David be familiar with commandments like, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery?” (Exod. 20:13-14). In other words, does it really take a prophet (Nathan) to come and tell David these things are shameful when God has already spelled out that certain actions are displeasing to Him? Similarly, how does Nathan come to this conclusion if society is saying it’s alright for kings to act this way, as the authors maintain? The Bible clearly demonstrates that God’s law informs what is honorable and what is shameful in Israelite society. All one has to do is read any of the prophets to see that they constantly take their society to task for violations of God’s law. If the group was the measure of honor and shame, this wouldn’t be the case. Richards and O’Brien have made a serious error by ignoring this aspect of Scripture.

For readers unfamiliar with the cultural values of the ancient Mediterranean world, it might be helpful to read some introductory material such as that provided by David A. deSilva in his An Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 111-144), but Richards’ and O’Brien’s book is imminently readable, and therefore suitable for the beginning student of a New Testament Backgrounds course, or a course on Hermeneutics. As noted above, this book is not perfect, but it certainly provides food for thought. Pastors and teachers of the Bible would do well to familiarize themselves with the material in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, as we have all too frequently made some of the mistakes recorded in this book. Ultimately, the authors’ purpose is more laudable than simply saying, “look at the way you’ve misrepresented Scripture,” their desire is to make us aware of the presuppositions that we approach Scripture with. Particularly those presuppositions which are culturally conditioned and, therefore, easily overlooked. As the authors state, “We are not implying that all our Western reading habits are wrong….We want to unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a cross-cultural experience and to help you become aware of what you take for granted when you read” (pp. 21-22). No matter where you may have travelled, the authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes will take you on a journey that’s worth the trip.

(This copy was provided free of charge by IVP Press in exchange for an unbiased review)

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