Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Holy Kiss as Family Practice among Christian Brothers

Among the biblical imperatives almost universally ignored by modern western Christians is Paul’s repeated injunction to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26). In an effort to live up to its Truth Made Clear™ motto, the New Living Translation replaces the concrete kiss with the abstraction of “Christian love.” This attempt to retain a timeless meaning while discarding the cultural husk obscures the real—and really challenging—point of the command, which has less to do with the heartiness of the handshake than with the embodiment of family.

In the Bible we encounter kissing between rulers and subjects (2 Sam 15:5; Ps 2:12), between a host and his guest (Luke 7:45), and between close friends (1 Sam 20:41), but in both the Bible and Greco-Roman society kissing was most commonly practiced between relatives (see Song of Solomon 8:1). In its first-century context, then, the “holy kiss” was a transgressive act:
“In the early years of Christianity, followers of Jesus were noted for kissing each other (probably, though not necessarily, on the lips) and for making the exchange of such greetings a part of their public liturgy. Paul’s emphasis that this greeting was to be a ‘holy kiss’ (cf. 1 Pet. 5:14) makes clear that nothing erotic was implied. Still, the practice was a novel one. … [T]here does not appear to have been any precedent in Jewish or Greco-Roman society for kissing between men and women who were not either relatives … or lovers.” - Mark Allan Powell summarizing Michael Philip Penn*
When slaves and their owners, gentiles and Jews, and males and females in Paul’s churches kissed each other, they enacted family unity, demonstrating to themselves and others that they really were brothers and sisters in Christ, members of one body. If the goal of translation is to convey the—in this case shocking—effect of the original, NLT’s “Greet each other with Christian love” fails miserably. I am not proposing that churches today should add a literal “holy kiss” into their order of service, but they should probably have the chance to be exposed to what Paul actually said so that they can reflect on what an analogous contemporary practice might look like. (If you are like me, such reflection is unsettling.)

Alongside the kiss was the early Christian practice of addressing fellow believers as “brothers.” Unfortunately, readers of the NIV, NLT and other dynamic equivalence translations will sometimes miss the import of this speech act. I have no objection to replacing the Greek word for “brothers” with the gender neutral “brothers and sisters,” but when translators substitute the less cumbersome “believers,” the family connotations of the underlying Greek expression are lost—and these connotations are hugely significant both for the meaning of the term and its effect on those among whom it was used.

In the early Jewish book of Tobit, for example, marriage makes husband and wife “brother” and “sister” (7:12)—if, that is, marriage is kept in the family. Tobias addresses his new bride Sarah as “sister” (8:4) after he dutifully followed his father’s instruction to choose a wife from among his brothers, just like Abraham and the patriarchs (4:12; 6:16). In Tobit, the family ultimately includes all Israelites, who as descendants from Abraham are “brothers” (e.g., 1:3, 10, 16). The marriage between Sarah and her close relative, Tobias, is emblematic of a concern in the book to promote endogamy within the larger family of Israel and prohibit intermarriage with gentiles.

In 1 Maccabees, “brothers” frequently denotes those faithful Israelites who stood with Judas and his literal brothers (e.g., 1 Macc 2:40-41; 5:32). It is true that later in the book, Jonathan and the “assembly of the Jews” address the Spartans as “brothers,” but this exceptional usage proves the rule, for the Spartans explain in their reply that they had discovered that both Jews and Spartans were descendants of Abraham (1 Macc 12:21). (With Christopher Jones**, I take it that the assertion of kinship was believed to be genuine, not just a rhetorical device.)

Despite differences in where they draw the boundaries, Tobit and 1 Maccabees illustrate a wider Jewish pattern of usage drawn from the Hebrew Bible, which can use “brother” to refer to any descendant of Israel (e.g., Deut 17:15).

Much like giving a kiss, then, Christians in Paul’s churches who addressed each other as “brother” or “sister” were signaling that they were family, insiders as opposed to outsiders. (I should add that even though the new Christian family reflected in Paul’s letters crossed ethnic boundaries, it was just as exclusive in its own way as the Jewish pattern from which it was derived.)

In the next post, I want to explore how “brother” is used as a form of address in Acts. There is, I think, a consistent pattern that is intentional, but also rather puzzling.

Works Cited 
*Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament: A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2009), 379, summarizing Michael Philip Penn, Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).
**Christopher Prestige Jones, Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Sunday, November 11, 2018

A November Miscellany

You can chalk October's blog silence up to a trip to Dublin at the beginning of the month, for which I needed to prepare a paper, a trip to Caronport at the end of the month, for which I needed to prepare a course, and the ancillary packing, unpacking, and follow-up that simply takes time.

Both trips were a treat. In Dublin we got to see biblical manuscripts in the Chester Beatty Library ...

... and to marvel at Trinity College Dublin's Old Library:

Saskatchewan in October calls for a more refined palette that can appreciate different shades of brown, but the interaction with students, friends, and colleagues was rich, and the week of teaching "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" was very satisfying. I also had a few conversations that make me excited about the prospect of returning to full-time teaching next fall (see #4 below).

Real life takes precedence over the virtual, but I want to mention a few things quickly:

(1) Ambiguities in Acts: I hope to resume my blog series on the Law (and related topics) in the book of Acts shortly.

(2) The soundtrack to my daily commute right now is the audiobook version of Charles Marsh's superb Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Vintage, 2015). This is no hagiography of Bonhoeffer, and all the better for that. Perhaps most remarkable from my middle-aged vantage point is that by age 25 Bonhoeffer had two doctorates, and by the age of 30 he was one of Germany's most vocal opponents to Hitler. What might the 20-somethings of today accomplish?

(3) One of the best available Bible programs--one that also happens to be free--has decided to make its accurate tagged databases of the Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, and Greek New Testament freely available for others to use and develop. Kudos to David Instone-Brewer and STEP Bible.

(4) Learn Ancient Greek as a Living Language in 2019: I am delighted to announce that Briercrest College and Seminary plans to offer an intensive sequence of 5 Greek courses next fall, all in one semester. Instead of the traditional grammar-translation approach, the courses will be team-taught in Koiné Greek, drawing on best practices in second language acquisition. I will have more to say about the program later on. In the meantime, you can read a selection of my earlier posts about teaching and learning Greek and Hebrew as living languages here, here, here, and here

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Faculty Job Openings at Briercrest College and Seminary

Briercrest College and Seminary is currently looking to fill faculty positions in Old Testament, Theology, Philosophy, Psychology, Business Administration, and Leadership and Management.

More information is available on the Briercrest website here.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts: Preliminary Taxonomies

Bonus marks if you can identify the location of the stairwell.
Note: This is part 2 in a series on the Law in Acts. Part 1 is here.

At the risk of caricature, I begin with two rough-and-ready ways of classifying the major options.

Taxonomy 1: The first typology plots Jewish-Christian Torah observance along a trajectory from least observant (option 1) to most observant (option 2c):

(1) Freedom from the law within Acts: The book of Acts tells the story of a progressive, divinely-orchestrated, abandonment of the law, in tandem with the spread of the gospel to all nations. Acts narrates the emergence of Christianity out of Judaism and the replacement of Israel by the church as the people of God.* This view is the starting point for many ordinary readers who conflate Acts with a conventional understanding of Paul, and who assume the New Testament is about Christianity not Judaism; it remains a common scholarly option as well. [*Supersessionism is a slippery term. Some scholars finesse “replacement” differently, while still holding that Luke presents a move away from the law among Paul and other right-thinking Jewish-Christians within Acts.]

(2) Law-observant Jewish Christians & law-free gentile Christians: A second broad approach grants (a) that the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10-11 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 are focused on a law-free mission to gentiles, and (b) that Luke depicts Jewish Christ-believers within Acts—including Paul—as obedient to the law. What this means for Luke’s understanding of the significance of the law in his own time remains debated:

(a) A Torah-observant past within Acts vs. a law-free post-70 present in Luke’s own day: Acts distinguishes between Jewish and gentile Christians, defending a law-free gentile Christianity but depicting Paul—and therefore all Jewish Christians—as fully Torah observant. However, between the story of Acts and the time of writing a major break between Judaism and Christianity occurred. In Luke’s own post-70 (gentile?) context, there is no longer a distinction between Jewish and gentile Christians, and the law is not considered binding on anyone in the church. Supporters of this view (2a) often regard Luke’s description of law-observant Jewish Christianity in Acts as an attempt to justify the claims of gentile Christianity to be the people of God and heirs of Israel’s ancient heritage. As a result, view 2a often resembles view 1.

(b) A Torah-observant past within Acts and a Torah-observant option in Luke’s own day (?): Luke knows of Torah-observant Jewish Christians among his contemporaries, and he thinks it is fine for them to continue to keep the law, but he doesn’t think it is necessary to do so.

(c) A Torah-observant past within Acts and in Luke’s own day: Acts makes it clear that both Jews and gentiles are saved by faith alone, but the author distinguishes between “a people from the nations” who are not required to observe the law, and God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, which, Luke assumed, remained in effect. Faithful Jewish believers in Jesus are thus expected to continue to keep the law. More clearly than view 2a, adherents of this view tend to deny that Luke depicts gentile believers as replacing Israel as the people of God. The “true Israel”—not a biblical term, but a sectarian concept—consists rather of Jewish believers in Jesus.

This taxonomy helps us see at a glance the difference between the two major approaches to the law in Acts. On the first approach, Acts can be made to correspond with conventional readings of Paul's letters. On the second approach (options 2a-c), Acts presents Paul as fully Torah-observant.

A problem with the taxonomy is that it combines questions about the story Luke tells--“Are Jewish Christians Torah observant in Acts?”--with speculative reconstructions of Luke’s own later church context--for example, “Were Jewish Christians in Luke's later church still Torah observant?”

Taxonomy 2: Before attempting to form conclusions about Luke's own church context, we should probably begin by trying to relate the story Luke tells about the law with another closely-related theme (or themes) in Acts. So here is a second taxonomy organized like a JoHari Window that combines Luke’s depiction of the law in Acts (the x-axis) with Luke’s depiction of Jewish Christianity within Acts (the y-axis):

  • The x-axis plots Jewish Christianity as described in Acts as either “Torah observant” or “Law-free.” 
  • The y-axis focuses on the significance of the story Luke tells, with “(gentile) church replaces Israel” at one end, and “Israel reduced to a Jewish sect” at the other. 
View 1 on the first typology belongs in the top right quadrant: According to this view, the church described in Acts claims to replace Israel as the people of God and has already abandoned the law.

Views 2a and 2b belong in the top left quadrant: Acts depicts Jewish Christians as fully Torah observant, but presents all believers in Jesus, both Jews and non-Jews, as part of a single new people of God. In the opening chapters of Acts, we see the development of a sectarian movement consisting only of Jews who claim to be experiencing the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel. As the sectarian assembly (or "church") expands to include non-Jews alongside Torah-observant Jews, non- or "trans-" ethnic Christianity begins to emerge out of Judaism and to replace ethnic Israel as the people of God.

View 2c belongs in the bottom right left [!] quadrant: According to this view, Luke not only distinguishes between Torah-observant Jewish believers (including Paul) and law-free gentile believers, he also continues to distinguish between a Jewish-Christian sectarian group that claims to be “Israel restored,” and a non-Jewish “people from the gentiles” who share in salvation, the Holy Spirit, and the other blessings brought by Jesus, but who are never fully merged with Jewish followers of Jesus and who are never described as Israel.

No doubt there are still other ways of organizing the scholarly options. Before pursuing these further I hope in the next few posts to begin to lay out the evidence that is so variously interpreted by modern readers of Acts.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I keep returning to the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law. In 2014, in what was at least the third post on some aspect of the topic, I concluded that leaving the puzzle unsolved would be better than forcing all the pieces to fit:
Rover as "sober second thought"
As I have tried to push for consistency, for an interpretation of Acts that makes sense of all the data, I have found myself offering readings of individual passages that, on sober second thought, seem unsustainable. After multiple attempts to walk away with a solution to the problem of Luke and the law, it dawned on me that allowing two readings of Luke's silences to sit side-by-side without deciding finally between them is better than a tour de force that forces all the evidence to fit instead of admitting honestly where the difficulties are. (Click here for the whole post; here and here for earlier posts; and here, here, and here, for subsequent posts.)
For better or worse, by the time the essay I was working on was complete, I had decided to try my hand at a tour de force. Although I did allow that Luke may have envisioned a change in the food laws to enable Jewish believers to eat whatever was set before them by baptized gentile believers, I argued not only that Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Acts as consistently Torah-observant, but that he also thought Jewish believers in his own day should continue to observe the law.

I am now far enough removed from the argument of that essay to want to subject it to “sober second thought.” I like to tell myself that when I am not completely convinced by what I am saying I am probably trying to get at something important. Difficult questions exist for a reason. If the answers were obvious, the questions would have been resolved already. Still, while I was confident enough to go into print with it, aspects of the argument have always troubled me.

For one thing, my conclusions seem to put the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts at odds with the apostle Paul. Try as I might, I have not been able to persuade myself that comments about the law in Paul’s letters are addressed only to non-Jews, as proponents of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective tend to argue. When in Romans 6:15 Paul declares “we are not under law but under grace,” I take it that he includes all believers in Jesus, both Jews and gentiles. Paul’s self-description as one who became “without the law to those without the law” (1 Cor 9:21) and who was “persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14) is difficult to square with the Paul of Acts who insists, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews” (Acts 25:8 NRSV)—if, that is, Luke means that Paul maintained a fully Torah-observant lifestyle.

To be clear, Paul’s letters do not determine what Acts must mean or vice versa. The unity of Scripture is, in my view, a theological dictum, not a hermeneutical method that can be used to impose an artificial harmony on the text. Nevertheless, I admit that my inability to reconcile the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters results in a certain amount of uncomfortable dissonance.

More importantly, the difference between my reading of Acts and my reading of Paul’s letters raises historical questions about the setting and purpose of Acts. Where in the late first or early second century would you encounter a church composed of Torah-observant Jewish Christians and law-free gentile believers? Was Luke really so unaware of the kind of things Paul said about the law in his letters?

There are also niggling doubts about bits and pieces of Acts that could point in other directions. Was I explaining the text or explaining it away?

Apart from being more reluctant to draw conclusions from the narrative of Acts about law observance in Luke’s own later context, I haven’t changed my mind on any major point (yet). But I have decided that I want to re-evaluate the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law along the more expansive lines of what I suggested back in 2014—not by defending one option, but by presenting the main alternatives as persuasively as I can, and evaluating the evidence as fairly as I can.

My plan in subsequent posts is to use this space to think through the evidence and the options in more detail. Feedback, corrections, and comments are welcome.

Other posts in this series:
Preliminary Taxonomies

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Hypocrisy and Moral Bankruptcy of the American Evangelical Right

In 1998 James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, told his supporters that marital infidelity and lying should disqualify Bill Clinton from serving as president: 
"What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President's behavior even after they suspected, and later knew, that he was lying. ... As it turns out, character DOES matter. You can't run a family, let alone a country, without it. How foolish to believe that a person who lacks honesty and moral integrity is qualified to lead a nation and the world! Nevertheless, our people continue to say that the President is doing a good job even if they don't respect him personally. Those two positions are fundamentally incompatible. In the Book of James the question is posed, 'Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?' (James 3:11, NIV). The answer is no." - James Dobson, as quoted by John Fea here and here.

Two decades later James Dobson not only endorsed but continues to support Donald Trump as president because he offers "relief from judicial tyranny."

For more detail, and a response to American Evangelical reasons for supporting Trump, see John Fea's Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018).

Modular Course: Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity

I will be back in Saskatchewan in October to teach "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" as a week-long modular course at Briercrest. The class can be taken in the college as a 300-level undergraduate History or Biblical Studies elective, in the seminary (with a little more work) as a Masters-level Biblical Studies elective, or as an audit.

This is how I describe the course in the syllabus:
Contemporary scholars of Christian origins are committed to studying early Christianity carefully in its early Jewish context; they also agree that Judaism should be studied fairly on its own terms and not simply as the background to Early Christianity.

This course will adopt the same approach. We will examine pivotal “intertestamental” period events, such as the Maccabean revolt, and consider the impact of centuries of Persian, Greek and Roman rule on the beliefs, practices, and dreams of first-century Jews. We will learn about the distinctives of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, as well as what was common to the majority of ordinary Jews who did not belong to any group. We will also gain a first-hand acquaintance with early Jewish literature by reading selections from the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. By the end of this course, you will recognize more fully the richness and complexity of the Jewish milieu out of which Christianity developed. You will also be familiar with major trends in scholarship on early Judaism, and be better able to identify the nature and limits of the historical evidence, as well as to distinguish between speculative and solidly-grounded historical reconstructions.

And yet at every turn we will be concerned with the implications of what we are learning for our understanding of early Christianity. Our study of Jewish eschatological beliefs will shed light on the early Christian affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah. Our analysis of early Jewish interpretation of Scripture will help us pay attention to the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament; it will also provide an opportunity to explore the development of the Old Testament canon. Finally, what we learn about the role of the law in early Jewish life will provide a framework within which Paul’s statements about the law can be evaluated. Fresh ways of looking at familiar texts will raise new questions as well as answer old ones. This is good—not least because it can direct us back to the Bible, prepared to listen to Scripture more carefully and to hear its challenge with new force.
It's a course I've taught a bunch of times now--see here and here for past iterations--but never as a "mod." This time around I switched up some of the assignments to suit the intensive format, and, hopefully, my students. I also changed one of the key textbooks--assigning short essays from The Jewish Annotated New Testament instead of readings from George Nickelsburg's Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah. Here is the full list of assigned texts, in case anyone is interested:

Secondary Sources
Cohen, Shaye J. D. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. 3rd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2014.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Annotated NewTestament. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Reserve Reading 
Kugel, James L. “Early Jewish Biblical Interpretation.” Pages 151–78 in Early Judaism: A Comprehensive Overview. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Sandmel, Samuel. “Parallelomania.” JBL 81 (1962): 1-13.
Primary Sources
Apocrypha: Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New OxfordAnnotated Apocrypha: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Dead Sea Scrolls: Vermes, Geza. Penguin Classics Complete Dead SeaScrolls in English. 7th ed. New York: Penguin, 2012.
Pseudepigrapha (Note: You are not expected to purchase a copy, but you are required to bring a copy of the assigned readings from the Pseudepigrapha with you when they are discussed in class):
Charlesworth, James H., ed. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1983, 1985. Repr. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2010.
Or Charles, R. H., ed. Pseudepigrapha. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913. (Online at or

And here are the syllabi:
BLST 371 College Biblical Studies Syllabus
HIS 371 College History Syllabus
BLST 801 Seminary Biblical Studies Syllabus