Guest Post#6: Violence and Christian Holy Writ: Philemon and Onesimus: To be free in the Lord and in the Here and Now Flesh

One in ChristAs I stated in the previous post, the current piece deals with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and both were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


As is well-known, St. Paul, in his very short letter to Philemon,[1] devotes significant space to the master/slave relationship. Some scholars have concluded that in his letter to Philemon St. Paul’s position on slavery has changed and changed for the better in comparison to his exhortations to slaves in 1 Cor 7.[2] But has he altered his view in any substantive way?   Perhaps not, if we keep firmly before us the fact the specific appeals regarding the recently converted Onesimus are directed at Philemon, St. Paul’s friend and co-laborer in Christ (Plm 1). In contrast, there is no indication that the slaves addressed in 1 Corinthians had exclusively Christian masters.  Rather, it is more plausible to suggest that at least some, and perhaps even most slaves whom St. Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians, had non-Christian masters.[3] In Philemon, then, what we have is an impassioned plea to a mature Christian leader to enact in this world the kind of relationships that will characterize the age to come.

As Brown observes, “[t]he letter, designed to persuade, is astute, with almost every verse hinting at something more than is stated.”[4] Apparently, Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, had been converted by St. Paul during the latter’s imprisonment (Phlm 9-10).  St. Paul addresses Philemon as a Christian brother and one whose life and works had been a great source of encouragement to him (Phlm 4-7).  Now that Onesimus has been brought into union with the living Christ, St. Paul challenges Philemon to recognize Onesimus’s new status in Christ, not simply in a “spiritual” inner sense, but καὶ ἐν σαρκὶ καὶ ἐν κυρίῳ (“both in the flesh and in the Lord,” Plm 16, NRSV).  In other words, pace Nietzsche’s complaint that Christianity has an exclusively “other-worldly-world” focus, new life in Christ necessarily involves socio-political ramifications.  Thus, St. Paul, in a pastoral and caring manner, encourages his fellow brother in Christ, Philemon, to embody this Gospel in his relationship with Onesimus.  Consider, for example, the strong emotional language Paul employs to urge Philemon to action, “I am appealing to you for my child [in the Lord], Onesimus” (v. 10, NRSV); “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17, italics added, NRSV); “Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (v. 21, italics added, NRSV).  Acknowledging the strong rhetorical flavor of this letter, we may reasonably conclude that St. Paul expected Philemon to manumit Onesimus—to receive him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Plm 16, NRSV).[5] Even if one were to concede that St. Paul to some degree participated in the cultural blindness of his day by not directly speaking against slavery as an institution (and in part due to his strong apocalyptic convictions), nonetheless, he does call the Christian community to a different standard, as it were, to kingdom values.

Many scholars, of course, are quick to point out that slaves were the economic backbone of Roman society.  For instance, Bartchy writes,

[i]n such an economic context it was virtually impossible for anyone to conceive of abolishing slavery as a legal-economic institution.  To have turned all the slaves into free day laborers would have been to create an economy in which those at the bottom would have suffered even more insecurity and potential poverty than before.[6]

Though this is no doubt true historically speaking, arguments along these lines have been employed (and sadly enough by Christians) to justify slavery as an institution.[7] As I shall contend in the concluding section, Christians ought to see slavery[8] as a consequence of the fall and, hence, as completely un-natural and inconsistent with God’s ideal for human beings and with human ontology (viz. as free beings).   Bartchy goes on to say that neither Jesus (nor the Twelve) nor St. Paul owned slaves.  By example of their own lives, both Jesus and the pioneers of early Christianity issued a challenge to the “early Christians to conceive of themselves as living already among themselves in an alternative social-legal environment.”[9] Through God’s activity of calling into being these “alternative households,” that is, Christian communities in which the slave/master relationship is relativized and slavery to Christ (the ultimate suffering, foot-washing Servant) is the only form of servitude that will continue into the eschaton, we see the Gospel and St. Paul’s exhortations to kingdom living issuing a threat to the economic structure of Roman society.[10]


[1] With Sampley and Witherington, I conclude that 1 Corinthians was composed in Ephesus in the late fall or early winter 53-54 AD. Cf.  Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 777.  Sampley presents his case for this early dating based on Paul’s travel information given in 1 Cor 16:5-9.   In this passage, Paul announces his plan to visit Corinth after a stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the second day of the Passover celebration (p. 776).  This has led some scholars to postulate that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians “in late fall or winter, leaving time for the pre-Pentecost, remaining work in Ephesus to which Paul alludes by the metaphor of the ‘wide door’ opened him there (1 Cor 16:9)” (p. 776).  The question then becomes, which late fall or winter?  According to Sampley, if one gives credence to the Acts 18 account of Paul’s missionary activity (vs. 22-23), coupled with the time needed to secure his mission in Ephesus, one may posit an early date for 1 Corinthians, ca. late fall or winter 53-54 AD (pp. 776-77).  Witherington also opts for an early dating (53-54 AD) of 1 Corinthians, pointing to the evidence of the inscription found at Delphi mentioning Gallio’s name, which corroborates with the Acts 18 account and thus allows us to establish a date for Gallio’s service in Corinth (50-51 or 51-52 AD) (see, Conflict and Community in Corinth, pp. 71-73).   With Brown, I hold that Philemon was also composed in Ephesus in 56 AD, approximately two to three years after 1 Corinthians. See, Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 507-8.  Felder opts for Rome as the place of composition and a later date as well (ca. 61 AD).  If Felder is correct, my overall argument is not diminished and perhaps even strengthened.  See, Felder, “The Letter to Philemon,” p. 884.

[2] Cf. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, pp. 506-7.

[3] Witherington concurs. Cf. Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 183.

[4] Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 505.

[5] As Lewis highlights, it is curious that Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner of Christ,” rather than a “slave of Christ” (Phil 1:1) or a “slave” and “apostle” of Christ (Rom 1:1) (Lewis, “The Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” pp. 240-41).  In this letter, Paul is clearly appealing to Philemon as a friend and fellow brother; thus, he refrains from imposing apostolic authority.  Perhaps he avoids the title “slave of Christ,” because his aim is to persuade Philemon to manumit Onesimus and to en-flesh the eschatological reality of Christian relationships that characterize the next aeon in the present aeon.

[6] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[7] Cf. Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine, p. 156, footnote 3.

[8] That is, human ownership of other human beings in which those owned are considered as “things” and property of their masters.

[9] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.

[10] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 546.  Witherington has similar comments, cf. e.g., Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 185.

Guest Post#5 Violence and Christian Holy Writ: 1 Cor 7:20-24 In Christ Equality and Its Horizontal Repercussions in the Christian Community and Beyond

One-in-Christ-229x300The post below as well as the one which shall follow deal with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


As many commentators observe, Corinth was a religiously diverse city of considerable socio-economic import. The Corinthian church was a microcosm of the social structures of the larger culture.  “There was no middle class in the Greco-Roman world.  At the top of the pyramid were a few rich persons who were, therefore, automatically persons of power and status.”[1] This reflection of the larger culture is indicated in 1 Cor 1:26, where St. Paul states that few of the saints at Corinth were wise according to worldly standards (σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα), few were powerful (δυνατοί), and few were of noble or high birth (εὐγενεῖς). Thus, we can reasonably posit that most in the church at Corinth were of low birth (perhaps slaves), weak or lacking in worldly power (perhaps women, who, in a patriarchal society, generally occupy subordinate socio-political positions), and unsophisticated, non-philosophical individuals (those whom the world considered“foolish”).  To these no-bodys (τὰ μὴ ὄντα, literally, “things that are not,” italics added) by worldly standards, St. Paul speaks words of immense encouragement:  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-28, NRSV).  Yet, to those few in the Corinthian church who were wise, powerful, and high born, St. Paul’s words are meant to convict, to urge them back to God’s system of values, which in the eyes of the world is weakness and foolishness. St. Paul then informs the Corinthians of his purpose by reminding them who they were and who, by God’s gracious call, they now are in Christ:  “so that no one (πᾶσα σὰρξ) might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29-30, NRSV). As we shall see, St. Paul’s exhortation in this opening chapter to the Corinthian believers to relate to one another in a way that recognizes their mutual equal status in Christ is a theme permeates the letter as a whole and has particular bearing on our focus passage, 1 Cor 7:20-24.

1 Corinthians chapter 7 falls between St. Paul’s admonitions regarding lawsuits and sexual immorality and his directives concerning food offered to idols.  More specifically, chapter 7 consists of St. Paul’s responses to particular questions, which the Corinthians had raised and sent to him by letter on an earlier occasion (1 Cor 7:1). The focus of the present essay centers on St. Paul’s teaching regarding slaves in 1 Cor 7:20-24. Before explicating the more controversial aspects of my translation and interpretation of this passage, a few preliminary remarks are needed.

The Gospel for St. Paul necessarily affects one’s relationships with others, and, hence, ipso facto affects the broader socio-political sphere.  A believer’s redemption in Christ involves not only the vertical dimension (God and humans) but the horizontal dimension as well (humans and other humans).  In fact, the horizontal, socio-political dimension is precisely where the radical transformation resulting from one’s redemption is embodied and displayed to an on-looking world, for good or for ill.

Though many New Testament scholars often highlight the positive ways in which slaves in the Roman world were treated—some received an excellent education, others gained greater economic security than poor, free-born individuals—nonetheless, slaves were still considered legally the property of another person.  As S. Scott Bartchy observes, “a slave was a res, a thing, a chattel to be owned, bought, and sold.”[2] In addition to this de-humanizing reification, a slave could not enter into a legal marriage, could not represent himself or herself legally, could not inherit, and was subject to physical, sexual (particularly if a female but not excluding males) and other abuses by his or her master.[3] With these very concrete, tangible realities in mind, St. Paul wants the slave to understand who s/he is and to whom s/he now belongs.  Those who currently find themselves under the yoke of human masters are in actuality ἀπελεύθεροι κυρίου (v. 22), who have been “bought with a price” (v. 23), the shed blood and broken body of our Lord.  St. Paul, as one who knows what it is like to be concerned for his own safety and the well-being of others, to be beaten, to be despised and humiliated, is no doubt acutely aware of the daily hardships endured by slaves and exhorts them not to allow their current status as slaves consume them such that they forget who they truly are in Christ.[4] Yet, in the very same breath, he encourages them to seize their freedom, should they be presented with such an opportunity (v. 21).

As a pastor and fellow sufferer for the sake of Christ, St. Paul exhorts these slaves not to allow the cares of this (presently fading) world to consume them, causing them not only to lose sight of their Christocentric identity and mission, but perhaps also to lose hope.  Thus, for those slaves who are not presented with the opportunity to obtain their freedom (manumission was clearly not in their power to decide, as they were not considered persons under Roman law, and consequently, had no legal rights),[5] St. Paul wants to encourage them with the truth that in Christ they have been freed from the bonds of sin, and in Christ their status before God is not less but equal to their (free) fellow-Christians.

St. Paul likewise urges various other groups of believers at the church in Corinth (the married, unmarried, widows, virgins, 1 Cor 7:25-39) not to allow the understandable, legitimate concerns of this life to distract them from their kingdom callings. These exhortations as a whole must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic conviction that the “present world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). In fact, 1 Cor 7:25-31 is permeated with eschatological language, which reflects St. Paul’s belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., he expected the parousia to occur during his own lifetime).  For example, in the pericope immediately following our focus passage, he speaks of the “impending crisis” (1 Cor 7:26), stresses that the “appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), and, as just mentioned, describes the present structure of the world as “passing way” (παράγει γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, 1 Cor 7:31). With St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological views in mind, we are now in a position to discuss my translation and interpretation of 1 Cor 7:24.

In 1 Cor 7:24, St. Paul states, “[o]n account of this, brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation in which he was called, so remain” (ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ).  St. Paul has made use of an inclusio to frame this passage; yet, he has also varied his original theme.  In 1 Cor 7:20, we read, ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη, ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω, whereas in verse 24, we find two substitutions, (1) ἐν ᾧ for ἐν τῇ κλήσει and (2) ἐν τούτῳ for ἐν ταύτῃ.  Are these variations significant?  More specifically, do the substitutions in the second parallel passage serve both to establish the inclusio structure and yet simultaneously function as a prelude to the explicit eschatological themes in the pericope which immediately follows (1 Cor 7:25-31)? I contend that verse 24 does serve this dual purpose, as it creates an organic connection between the two passages (1 Cor 7:20-24 and 1 Cor 7:25-31)—passages, which must be interpreted in light of St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological concerns and emphases. Moreover, emphasizing the temporal dimension of 1 Cor 7:24 helps us to make sense out of St. Paul’s exhortation in verse 21 (μᾶλλον χρῆσαι, “by all means, take advantage of it,” that is, of gaining your freedom).  If we fail to take into account St. Paul’s strong apocalyptic orientation, then his instructions that follow regarding marriage, re-marriage and celibacy can easily be misconstrued as “nay-saying” (Nietzsche) and as espousing a disparaging view of embodiment and life in this world.  In light of St. Paul’s knowledge of the OT teaching affirming the goodness of creation, his high view of the Incarnation, his teaching on the sacraments as a means for sanctification in this life, and his firm belief in our embodied state in the age to come, the principle of charity demands that we seek a more this-world-friendly interpretation.

Wrapping up my exegetical discussion of this pericope, to what does the “this” refer in the phrase which I have translated, “on account of this” (ἐν τούτῳ, v. 24)?  In verse 23, St. Paul commands the currently enslaved believers not to become slaves of human masters. Why?  Because they have been “bought with a price” (ἀγοράζω (agorazō),[6] Christ’s blood, whose value infinitely outweighs any monetary amount offered for the purchase of a human being.  Consequently, the only true Master for a Christian is Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of devotion and unyielding submission.[7] The Christian community then must exhibit kingdom relationships to the on-looking world—relationshipscharacterized not by the arbitrary, self-serving, exploitative standards of unregenerate human beings, but by mutual respect and recognition of the equal status of all believers before God.  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, NRSV).

In the next post in our series, I shall bring the 1 Cor 7 passage into dialogue with St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.


[1] Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 814.

[2] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.

[3] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.  Bartchy acknowledges that slaves were considered property and things; yet, he seems at times to present an overly romanticized view of slaves in the Greco-Roman world, emphasizing the varied roles slaves had, depending on to whom they belonged.  Bartchy adds that slaves in the NT period constituted   a “logical” and a “juridical” class but not a social class (p. 544). I find this a somewhat confusing claim.  If such were the case, why would the apostle Paul feel the need to address gender and social status issues, as he does in our current passage as well as other crucial texts such as Gal 3:28?  For a less romanticized view of slavery in the Roman period, cf.  Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity.   Cf. also A.A. Rupprecht’s discussion of the use of the ergastulum to house slaves who worked in chain gangs (“Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background,  p. 881) and J.A. Harill’s comments on the severity of the physical torture of Roman slaves by means of the flagellum (“Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 1125).

[4] It is also worth highlighting that in 1 Cor 7:18-19, two verses immediately prior to our focus passage, Paul relativizes the circumcised verses uncircumcised distinction.  Thus, we have in close proximity two of the three distinctions annulled in Gal 3:28:  “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV).  In light of Kenneth Bailey’s thesis that women in the Corinthian church had misconstrued Paul’s message and were engaging in anti-male sexism, perhaps the absence of the relativization of the male-female distinction in Christ was purposed by Paul. If so, once again, the cultural-historical and occasional nature of the letter must be stressed, and one must resist a “timeless truth” application of Paul’s commands to women in the Corinthian church (e.g., in 1 Cor 14:34-36) to our contemporary, ecclesial situation (cf. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 6ff.).

[5] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 184.

[6] The same verb is used in 1 Cor 6:20, where Paul exhorts the believers to, glorify God with their bodies, since they were “bought with a price.”

[7] The following goes beyond my competence, but I propose it as “food for thought.”  In contrast with the Covenant (Ex 20:22-23:33) and Deuteronomic (Dt 12-26) Codes, the Holiness Code in Lev 25:39-55 explicitly forbids the enslavement of fellow Hebrews, as they are God’s “slaves,” whom he delivered from Egyptian bondage (Lev 25:42).  Is it possible that Paul has Lev 25:39-55 in mind and is engaging in a Christocentric variation on an OT theme?  That is, just as the Hebrews were commanded by God not to re-enslave their fellow Hebrews because God himself had delivered them from the hands of their oppressors and made them his slaves, so too Christians, using Paul’s language, are slaves of Christ, having been bought with a price, Christ’s blood, and ideally are not to be the slaves of other human beings.  Brown, for example, notes that Paul “betrays his Jewish roots” in his outcry against the sexual immorality condemned in 1 Cor 5:1-2; “for marriage within such a degree of kindred was forbidden by the Mosaic Law” (Lev 18:8; 20:11) (An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 518).  Sadly, American slaveholders in the South appealed to Lev 25 to justify their proslavery position, claiming that just as God permitted the Hebrews to enslave other people groups, so too, they, as God’s chosen people, have a divine sanction to enslave African Americans (cf. Martin, “The Haustafeln,” p. 215).

John M.G. Barclay on St. Paul and Multiculturalism

I recently read John M.G. Barclay’s excellent essay, “Neither Jew Nor Greek:  Multiculturalism and the New Perspective on Paul.”  In the first major section,  Barclay provides a clear concise overview of the main players of the New Perspective on Paul (henceforth, NPP). His sketch begins with Krister Stendal’s groundbreaking essay, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” moves to E.P. Sanders’ notion of “covenantal nomism” as presented in his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, and then turns to James D.G. Dunn’s contributions via his commentaries on St. Paul, viz., “his explorations of the social aspects of Paul’s critical engagement with Judaism” (202).  Particularly important given our post-Holocaust existence is the fact that the NPP scholars are sensitive to the unfortunately marred history of Christian scholarship and its participation in anti-Semitism.One in Christ

The second section of Barclay’s essay is devoted to a discussion of the social and ideological background of the NPP.  Here the major subdivisions include the following, all of which characterize the NPP’s methodological stance: (1) a self-conscious theological respect for Judaism, (2) a turning “from an individualistic to a communal reading of Pauline theology” (i.e. Bultmann’s existentialist Heideggerian-inspired readings are out), (3) a concern for multiculturalism and difference.

The third section focuses on Daniel Boyarin’s reading of St. Paul as expressed in his book, A Radical Jew:  Paul and the Politics of Identity.  Barclay finds Boyarin’s engaging, insightful, sympathetic and attentive to St. Paul’s unique role in the Christianity; yet, he finds Boyarin’s reading at times to miss the ways in which St. Paul’s works might be applied fruitfully to our current concerns with multiculturalism and difference.

The fourth and final section of the essay involves a more sustained discussion of St. Paul and multiculturalism.  It is here in the first part of this final section that I want to linger.  Barclay opens by drawing our attention to the fact that “[a]ll Jews in the Graeco-Roman world were affected to some degree by the dominant Hellenistic culture” (209).  Given that Hellenization had a variety of inflections, Barclay offers a helpful distinction between “acculturation” and “assimilation.”  The former speaks of the “adoption of Hellenistic speech, literary forms, values and philosophies); the latter refers to “social integration into Hellenistic society” (209).  A Jew fluent in high Greek might be acculturated but not assimilated.  What bound Jews together most intimately were social and religious practices such as

aniconic monotheism (the refusal to participate in non-Jewish religion), the male mark of circumcision (which among other things, limited marriage relations), the dietary laws (which restricted social intercourse) and the observance of the Sabbath (which affected employment relations).  Such customs defined Jewish difference:  they created social boundaries between Jew and Greek, even where the two might otherwise speak the same language and employ the same though-forms.  Greeks who wished to become Jews (as some did), needed to adopt precisely these social practices to achieve full integration into the Jewish community (209).

Part of what made the apostle Paul so controversial was his proclamation that Gentiles need not embrace these social practices to be full members of the Abrahamic covenant.  Rather, through faith in Christ, they too could enter into intimate life with YHWH and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Gentiles, of course, must manifest this new life in their actions, and St. Paul did exhort them to live free of idols—in line with Jewish custom and a requirement so to speak of monotheism.  However, St. Paul “did not allow the other three ‘social markers’ [i.e. dietary laws, circumcision and required observance of feast days] to characterize the common life of believers] (210).  On this point, Barclay states,

[i]n this sense Paul preached to Gentiles a partially ‘dejudaized Judaism’ and attempted to create church communities which were multiethnic and multicultural:  in Christ ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek’ (Gal. 3:28)” (210).  Contra Boyarin, Barclay claims that St. Paul was not engaging in a spiritual or allegorical interpretative move—he was “not reaching behind Jewish particulars to some abstract ‘essence’ or disembodies ‘ideal’:  he was placing alongside the Jewish community another which was equally physical and embodied in social reality.  To be sure, he can relativize circumcision by claiming that what counts is ‘faith working through love’ (Gal. 5:6), but that faith and love are designed to take extremely practical shape in the life of a community (Gal. 5:13-6:10).  Similarly, he will not allow the Roman churches to define themselves by distinction in food or drink, but the ‘righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ which he puts in their place (Rom. 14:17) are meant to have immediate impact on their common life, not least in their common meals (Rom. 14:1-15:6) (210).

Consequently, Barclay believes that Boyarin is wrong to conclude that St. Paul engages in an allegorical hermeneutic on these points in order to locate a common human essence.  Instead, according to Barclay, St. Paul seeks “to enable an alternative form of community which could bridge ethnic and cultural divisions by creating new patterns of common life” (210).  In sum, St. Paul’s aim is not to “eradicate” or “erase” cultural differences, but to “relativize” them (211).  He continues to respect Jewish customs (circumcision) and to hold the Jews in high regard, especially given their function in salvation history (recipients of the covenant and the Torah).  Christ was after all a  Jew, and we must neither forget nor attempt to downplay his Jewishness;  yet, He is “now the Lord of both Jews and Gentiles, who call on him in faith on the same terms, whatever their cultural identity” (211).  St. Paul is free to draw from both the Jewish and Greek traditions in order to translate the Gospel more effectively into various contexts to people of diverse ethnic, religious, and socio-cultural backgrounds.  “No one’s culture is despised or demonized, but by the same token none is absolutized or allowed to gain hegemony” (211).

The Samaritan Other, the Practice of Mercy, Living in Gratitude and Being a Neighbor

Good SamaritanIn the Gospel of St. Luke 17.11-19, we read of Jesus’ healing of ten lepers.  Of the ten lepers, only one took the time to thank Jesus for his healing.  In fact, the text says that this man expressed his gratitude vocally and bodily.  “[O]ne of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17.15-16).  Notice that we are told that the man was a Samaritan.  During Jesus’ day, the Samaritans were more or less considered Gentiles, which of course means that they were despised by Jews.  Samaritans claimed that the focal place of worship was Gerizim rather than Jerusalem (cf. John 4.20) and that the holy books consisted of the Pentateuch alone.  In light of these significant religious differences, one can readily see that relations between Jews and Samaritans, whom the Jews considered “half-breeds,” were strained and at times hostile and violent.  St. Luke takes particular interest in the Samaritans—the others, the foreigners, the social outcasts.  His Gospel account, as well as the theological history he crafts in Acts, highlights several stories in which Samaritan others are central figures or topics of discussion (Luke 9:51–56; 10:30–37; 17:11–19; Ac. 1:8; 8:1–25; 9:31; 15:3).   Though Jesus commanded his disciples to proclaim the kingdom of heaven and engage in works of healing among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” forbidding them to enter the “way of the Gentiles” and “any city of the Samaritans” (Matt 10.5), when He Himself encountered Gentiles and Samaritans, He neither turned them away nor refused to heal them.   Rather, he treated them with respect (see John 4 and the exchange with the Samaritan woman), which often involved transgressing established social and religious norms and customs.  In Luke 17.18-19, Jesus praises the Samaritan leper’s response—a faith response marked by gratitude and thanksgiving. “‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner [ἀλλογενής]?’  Then he said to him, ‘Get up [ἀναστὰς] and go on your way; your faith has made you well [σέσωκεν].’”  As N.T. Wright observes, the Greek word, ἀναστὰς (translated here as, “get up”) is the same word which is translated as “resurrection” in other contexts.    Early Christians would not have missed this connection with resurrection, nor should we.

The famous parable of the Good Samaritan is also worth considering.  Here Jesus, in response to a lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor,” replies with a parable which presents a Samaritan as the moral hero (in contrast to the villains—a priest and a Levite).

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’  Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’” (NRSV, Lk 10:30-37).Good Samaritan

It is highly likely that the man who fell into the hands of robbers was a Jew.  He was after all, “going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.”  So the Samaritan is not only helping some stranger in need, he is showing mercy to an “enemy.”  The priest and the Levite in order to avoid becoming unclean choose to ignore the man in need.  As N.T. Wright puts it, “it was better that they remain aloof, preserving their purity at the cost of obedience to God’s law of love”—a law which was, by the way, an OT law and not simply something that emerged with the NT (Luke for Everyone, p. 127).

The lawyer in the story is disingenuous and poses his question in order to test Jesus.  The lawyer wants to know whom he should consider as his neighbor.  Again, Wright offers helpful commentary on the exchange.  Pointing out that the lawyer’s question and Jesus’ answer don’t exactly correspond, Wright goes on to say,

For him [the lawyer], God is the  God of Israel, and neighbours are Jewish neighbours.  For Jesus (and for Luke, who highlights this theme), Israel’s God is the God of grace for the whole world, and a neighbour is anybody in need.  Jesus’ telling question at the end isn’t asking who the Samaritan regarded as his neighbour.  He asked, instead, who turned out to be the neighbour of the half-dead Jew lying in the road.  Underneath the apparently straightforward moral lesson […], we find a much sterner challenge, exactly fitting in with the emphasis of Luke’s story so far.  Can you recognize the hated Samaritan as your neighbour? (Ibid., pp. 127-28).

I suppose the question to ask is, can you, can I, can we recognize ____________ as our neighbor/s?

Eschatological Developments Within the Pauline Corpus?

Does a study of the NT itself show that that the apostles unequivocally believed that Christ’s return was imminent in their lifetime?  Is it the case that as a result of this belief, the apostles and their early followers lived a radically devout life of prayer, contemplation etc. and likewise de-emphasized “worldly” (for lack of a better word) endeavors?  Although this interpretation has been at times accepted and promoted by the Church, I am not convinced that NT itself sustains such a position.    It seems to me that one could make a strong case for a development of the early Church’s view on eschatology within the Pauline letters themselves.Apostle Paul by Rublev

As current Pauline scholarship emphasizes, St. Paul’s eschatological orientation was rooted in his Jewish, Pharisaic past.  Christians were not the only ones who looked forward to the resurrection of the dead and a final judgment—the Pharisees did as well.  Their position was rooted in the OT, in God’s promise of a glorious future (e.g., 2 Sam 7, Isaiah). St. Paul, already operating within this Jewish eschatological, apocalyptic framework, reinterprets the schema in light of the Christ-event.  That is, with the death and resurrection of Christ—the key Christian eschatological event and new “hermeneutical lens”—the future age is in part brought into the present.  Put slightly differently, in the Christ-event and the experience of the Holy Spirit, God’s followers experience prolepticly the future age.  So the eschaton of Jewish expectation had already arrived, but it is arriving in two stages:  stage one is the Christ-event, the first coming, and the second coming is the second stage.  Hope then becomes the fundamental virtue connected with the Christian eschatological vision.  This hope is not a fleeting, sentimental hope, but a hope grounded in the reality of the Christ-event.  In short, St. Paul has transformed a traditional Jewish eschatological schema Christologically—the eschaton has become partially present now, and the gift of Spirit is God’s assurance of better things to come (2 Cor 5:5).

With this brief background in mind, I can return to my claim of development or a revised eschatological view within the NT, particularly in St. Paul (the undisputed letters) and other “Pauline” texts.  Most NT scholars today consider 1 Thessalonians to be the first of St. Paul’s epistles (c. 50-1 A.D.).  An interesting way to read the letter—not “the” way but a way—is to focus on the triad of theological virtues mentioned twice in the letter.  The triadic order in this letter, in contrast to, 1 Corinthians 13 where we have faith, hope and love, is faith, love and hope.  The last item in the list becomes thematic and is related to the specific epistolary occasion of the letter.  (For example, the Corinthians had all kinds of divisions within their community; they were puffed up with pride etc. and needed to be reminded about the importance of love).  The situation is quite different in 1 Thessalonians.  In this letter, hope is thematized and is closely related to eschatology, as eschatological themes permeate the letter.  As a pastor of a newly formed (mostly) Gentile flock, St. Paul wanted to communicate to this fledgling Christian community the importance of eschatology to the Christian life.

There are many examples from the epistle that I could cite to show that eschatology  is a major theme of the letter.  However, let me mention two very important passages.  First, 1 Thess 1:9-10, which reads:

For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming (NRSV).

Here we may infer that St. Paul was likely addressing a largely Gentile Christian audience, as he states that they “turned to God from idols.”  This, of course, would not apply to monotheistic Jews who had “converted,” as they already worshiped the true and living God, YHWH. Then St. Paul mentions the second coming (“to wait for his Son from heaven”) and the “wrath” to come—again, eschatological themes.  Scholars have postulated that verses 9-10 are perhaps a summary of what St. Paul preached when he first visited Thessalonica.  So he is reminding these new Gentile converts of what he taught them previously.  Since they did not have an eschatological framework (as the Jews did), they needed to be reminded of the significance of eschatology for Christian existence.

Second, we have 1 Thess 4:13-5:11, which is the eschatological “heart” of the letter.  Here St. Paul is addressing concerns of the local community.  Because some within their community have died, questions have arisen regarding the status of dead Christians.  Was there something wrong with them?  Are they second-class? Etc. These questions then naturally raise concerns about the parousia.  Perhaps this early group did in fact have an imminent expectation of the parousia.  If so, they were now unsure as to the status and meaning of fellow Christians who had died prior to the parousia. St. Paul has been made aware of their concerns and is responding to their questions in this letter.

The literary framing of the letter is by way of the aforementioned triadic inclusion of faith, love and hope (the first instance occurs at 1:3 and the final instance at 5:8).  Then if you turn to the middle, exhortation part of the letter, you find an incomplete triad at 3:6.  Here St. Paul encourages the Thessalonians regarding their faith and love, but hope is not mentioned.  Why?  The Thessalonians are struggling with this Christian virtue, and St. Paul as a pastor wants to encourage them.  He tells them specifically grieve, but don’t “grieve as others who have no hope.”  The resurrection and the coming parousia[1] are sources of Christian hope, and St. Paul wants them to draw from these sources and to encourage one another with them.

Here I enter into highly “problematic” territory, but philosophers tend to do this, so here I go!  The authorship of 2 Thessalonians, of course, is disputed.  There are, in my opinion, very good arguments on both sides.  Given that I am not a NT scholar etc. etc., my personal view regarding the authorship is open—perhaps it was St. Paul, or perhaps it was written by a later Pauline follower under the pseudonym, “Paul.”  Either way, what interests me is the development of the eschatological views presented in 2 Thessalonians.  Here, particularly in chapter two, “Paul” addresses concerns of false reports that “the Day of the Lord” has already occurred.  “Paul” denies that it has come and says that certain signs must happen prior to the end (2 Thess 2:2-9).  (How does one reconcile this claim with the statement in 1 Thess 5 that the day of the Lord will come like a “thief in the night?”).  Likewise, in 2 Thess “Paul” exhorts rather sternly those in the community who have stopped working (3:6-15).  Why have they stopped working and are now idle?  Presumably, because they believe that the end is near; thus, “furthering” their career is pointless.  There is, however, no clear indication in the text for that inference.  Nonetheless, given the eschatological themes linking 1 and 2 Thess, it is a plausible suggestion.  At any rate, it does appear that some kind of revision has taken place regarding the imminent return of Christ.  The parousia could still happen at any time (now only following certain “signs”), but a space has opened for the possibility that the event may occur in the distant future, a future beyond the life-span of the early Christians.

I’d really like to hear from my NT scholar friends and readers.  Please send your thoughts/comments!


[1] Regarding the parousia, Thessalonians seem to have many questions—questions that focus on orderings of end time events; see, for example, 4:14-15 where St. Paul’s response indicates that he was responding to some very specific questions.

On the Neglected and Underprivileged Metaphors of the Western Tradition

Jesus Heals the LeperAs Alfred North Whitehead famously said, the history of Western philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”  The more I study the Western philosophical tradition, the more convinced I am that this is the case.  At the center of Plato’s philosophy is his doctrine of the Forms or Ideas.  In Greek there are two words, which we translate into English as “idea”:  εἶδος (eidos) and ἰδέα (idea).  Interestingly, in Greek these works mean something that is seen; however, Plato uses the terms to mean that which is not seen physically, but mentally.  Nonetheless, seeing is still the root metaphor pervading his philosophy.  Consider some of his most famous images-the cave, the sun, and so on.  In the cave, there is no light, no knowledge.  When one emerges from the cave into the light, one comes to know (or potentially comes to know) reality by first seeing the things of the sense world and then ascending to the Forms or Ideas in which the sense objects participate and imitate.  As is well-known these days, postmoderns have challenged this privileging of the visual metaphor and have attempted to imagine what it might mean for some of the other senses to serve as a central metaphors.  For example, postmodern philosophers and theologians such as Jean-Luc Marion and Catherine Pickstock have written with great effect on the more “neglected” senses such as taste and hearing.

Personally, I think that touch offers particularly fertile ground that ought be explored and put to use in philosophy.  To be touched is, I submit, something that all humans need.  Unfortunately, it is something that has been lost in our interactions with one another-perhaps in part due to our technological mode of being-in-the-world and perhaps also because of a fear of communicating the wrong idea or of a negative response from the other to whom we wish to encourage. Yet, an embrace and a simple clasping of hands can often communicate more than anything we might say.  Two examples come to mind:  one personal and the other Scriptural.

My husband and I lived in Moscow, Russia for about three years.  During our time in Russia, we had the opportunity to visit various cities, small towns and villages. One winter we traveled by train to Kirov, staying approximately two weeks. While there we were invited to spend a day at one of the orphanages just outside the city. The memories of that visit are quite vivid, and the time with the children, though brief, was a life- changing experience. When we first arrived, the children, who ranged in age from 4-16 years old, were extremely shy and stand-off-ish. I noticed immediately a small, very cute little boy, Sasha, who was about 5 years old and very withdrawn. I walked up to Sasha and said, “Привет Саша,” (“hello, Sasha”).  But Sasha said nothing – no smile, no handshake, no eye contact – nothing. As the day progressed, we played games, performed skits, ate lunch and attempted to get to know the children better. While playing one of the more active games (something like dodge-ball), Sasha and I began slowly to “bond.”  When it was time to eat, I noticed that he wanted to sit with me (which made me of course extremely happy), so I tried to take his hand; however, he did not want me to touch him and quickly pulled his hand away.  Nonetheless, he still wanted to sit with me. So we sat and ate borsch together and then went off to play more games. As the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting on a bench resting and Sasha walked up to me, sat next to me, and to my surprise (and joy) he let me hold his hand. After that connection, he would not leave my side and even let me hold him. He actually wanted very much to be held and touched, but he of course was simply “one among many” in the orphanage and had been for most of his short life deprived of physical touch. When it was time to leave, he did not want to let go of my hand (nor did I want to let go of his). Then the dreaded time came and we were told that the bus was leaving and we’d better pack up and board the bus. As we drove off, the kids ran behind the bus as long as they could keep up, and we of course cried our eyes out. I often think about Sasha, and hope that he remembers me-more than that, I hope that he finds a home and a family that will give him the love and affection for which he longs, needs, and deserves.

Not long after our short trip to Kirov, I began studying the book of Leviticus, which among other things describes the law of the leper’s cleansing (chapter 13).[1] For example in Lev. 13:45-46, we read,

The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.

Why must the leper wear torn clothes?  In the Old Testament, the rending of a person’s clothes was a symbolic expression of mourning over death. Here the leper is to wear torn garments to represent his/her absolutely hopeless condition-after all, the disease was incurable.  Prior to aids, leprosy was perhaps the most dreadful disease a person might contract.  For example, the body becomes covered with ulcers, the person loses his/her hair, s/he experiences extremely slow bodily decay even to the point of losing limbs, and the mental and psychological anguish endured is excruciating.  The person with leprosy is alienated from his/her own family and from societal life; s/he experiences death daily, moment by moment over period of many years and, worse of all, isolated, alienated.   Although we are not exactly certain of the kind of leprosy that existed in the time of the OT, we can, however, grasp how this disease illustrates well the nature of sin in the spiritual sphere.

In addition to wearing torn clothes, the leper must cry, “Unclean, unclean.” Here “unclean” is not so much a reference to the physical disease itself, but speaks of the ceremonial status of the person according to Levitical law. That is, the individual remains unclean ceremonially until s/he is pronounced “clean” by the priest – that is, when and if healing comes. As mentioned above, “He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” The leper experiences a separation, s/he has no koinonia with the people of God, and is considered ceremonially under judgment.

Though we do read in the OT of some lepers who were healed, there are very few illustrations of healing the disease until Jesus came on the scene. In other words, as to the “tonal center” of the OT, it was extremely unusual for anyone to be healed of leprosy. Yet, in Mark’s Gospel account, we read:

A leper came to him [Jesus] begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’  Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

Jesus, who was well-acquainted with the Torah and the intricacies of Levitical law, did not rebuke the leper, explaining that lepers are social outcasts who belong outside the camp.  Nor did He worry about being socially stigmatized or becoming ceremonially unclean through contact with the leper.  Rather, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the leper.  Then the Incarnate Word said, “be made clean,” and it was so.  Jesus, who would soon know exile, alienation, condemnation and ultimately death, stretched out his hand of flesh and touched this diseased, dying leprous man.  Jesus, whose body was rent and broken for us – we, who in Adam are spiritual lepers – acted with compassion towards the leper, touching him and thereby affirming his humanity, and I assure you the leper knew love as he had never known it before.

If philosophy can’t find a use for these kinds of images, then theology certain should, indeed, it must.


[1] Many of the observations given here were first brought to my attention about a decade ago through a lecture series on Leviticus by Dr. S. Lewis Johnson.