Burial or Cremation in Christian Funerary Rites

Recently I was asked for my opinion on the question of burial or cremation as the more appropriate process for Christians to dispose of the physical remains of our departed.

The question came out of left field as I am not someone who spends a lot of time reflecting on death and addressing my own mortality. It is a given that I am indeed a mortal and that death will be an unavoidable experience sooner or later.

Here is the question:

What is the Anglican Churches position on burial. Should Christians be buried in a cemetery or is cremation of the body ok? My friends who are Catholic Church members are positive that burial is the proper manner. They believe in the resurrection of the actual body. I was just wondering what is your theological position on burial? For example, if one of your parishioners came to you and asked for your advice, what would you tell them?

My response to this question was as follows:

I do not think it makes the slightest difference how one’s remains are disposed of after death.

There is a very simple logic at work in all this.

If someone dies after being attacked and eaten by a wild animal, or in a fire, or is lost at sea (or in outer space), there is no option for either burial or cremation. Our theology of death and resurrection has to be flexible enough to accommodate such realities. In any case, “resurrection of the body” does not mean that a deceased person gets back the same body that they once had. Knowing what we now know about human cell cycles and what we anticipate to be the realities of any afterlife (e.g., no digestive system, no body waste, no sexual activity) then our whole concept of resurrection body needs a total makeover.

The point of 1 Corinthians 15, as I understand it, is that there is some kind of continuity between the body before death and the body after resurrection; but there is also radical change. There is no requirement for physical and chemical continuity between one body and the next body, otherwise those who die without prospect of burial or cremation would be without hope of resurrection. Such an idea would not — in my opinion — be a Christian concept of life after death. Rather, Paul talks about a spiritual body that is from above, and quite different from the physical body from “below”.

I am not sure if these opinions help in any way with the questions you are considering, but it is quite clear that both the Anglican Church and the Roman Church accept cremation as a perfectly acceptable way to dispose of the remains of the deceased person. Some people may prefer one option or another, but those are personal preferences and cultural traits. They are not matters of deep theological significance, and my own pastoral response would be to ascertain the preferences of the deceased and those of the immediate family. Nothing else matters really. (In my view.)

For those may like to think further about the interpretation of Paul’s resurrection tex in 1 Corinthians 15, there is an extended discussion in my Jesus Then and Jesus Now, pp. 135–39.

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A boundary crossing God

A GOD WHO CROSSES THE BOUNDARIES

A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany (25 January 2015) at St Luke’s Anglican Church, Haifa

Introduction

As always it is good to be here with you, and I appreciate the privilege of giving the sermon for our liturgy this morning.

As always we open our hearts to receive the portion of Scripture assigned for this week by the church. It is not always easy to understand the logic of the lectionary editors, but it is a valuable spiritual discipline to accept the set readings so that we pay attention to a wider array of texts than may be the case if the priest simply chose the passages that appealed to him.

As always, as we come to the table of the Word, we are seeking to discern what the Spirit might be saying to the church, here today, here in this place, here in these words.

Our Gospel today comprised two brief stories. One concerned the healing of a leper. The other involved the healing of a centurion’s servant. What has that got to do with us? And what might the Spirit be seeking to say to us through these stories?

THE PURPOSE

We can be sure that the point of these stories is not to offer us health advice. We are not intended to glean information about dealing with skin complaints, or expect a miracle cure every time we feel unwell. Just as the parable of the sower is not designed to teach farming techniques, these stories are not intended to influence how we seek medical help when we need it.

Rather, the stories are celebrating the healing power of God that we experience in and through Jesus, and that is an important theme in these weeks of Epiphany. We can expect to encounter the God who reveals himself in all kinds of everyday situations, and we can expect that God to transform and heal our lives.

Most of all, of course, these stories are about the significance of Jesus for us. As Christians, Jesus is our supreme epiphany or revelation of God. He not only shows us what God is like, but also what we can be like. He reveals God to us, and also reveals ourselves to us.

CONTEXT

That epiphany process will most likely happen in the everyday events of daily life, so that gets me thinking about context. Who we are, where we are, what we are, who we are with, and what opportunities are before us????

You will have noticed, I expect, that these are local stories. Maybe this is so routine for you that you do not even notice it all that often. But these are stories about places not far from here. They are set near the lake in Galilee. We could be there in less than an hour!

You are blessed to live in this land, even if living here is not always easy. When you look around the hills, and the valleys, and the lake, and the ocean – you are looking at the same sights that Jesus once viewed. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same.

As a visitor – even one who comes here often – I find myself asking if Jesus is any more present here than in my own country on the other side of the world? On this Australia Day weekend that is a question that comes to mind for me. Jesus has never walked the hills of my ancient land, but for sure he is no stranger there.

Where ever we are in the world, Jesus calls us to follow him, to be instruments of his grace, and to be agents of God’s kingdom in that place, at this time, and among those people.

CROSSING BOUNDARIES

So let’s go back to the stories from today’s Gospel and see if we can discern anything the Spirit of Jesus might be seeking to say to us.

When I do that, I notice something about these two stories. They both involve Jesus crossing very clear social boundaries in his own culture and among his own people.

The first story involves a leper. We are not quite sure what illness such a person had, but the consequence of their skin infection was that they were outcasts. It was understood that the infection could go away and the person could be given the OK to return to everyday life in the village. But until they had been checked by the priest, no one one was to go near them. Jesus crossed the boundaries. He accepted the person back into everyday life and then sent him to the priest to get the paperwork completed!

The second story also involves crossing pretty clear social boundaries. An army commander comes to Jesus and asks for his help as his servant is unwell. He may not have been a Roman centurion, as they were not based in Galilee at the time. But he could have been a Greek commander in the army of Herod Antipas. The same Antipas who had killed John the Baptist and had his men looking for Jesus. We often think of this story as being about the trust that the centurion had in Jesus, but it may also be a story about Jesus having great trust in this centurion not to arrest him!

THE GOD WHO CROSSES THE BOUNDARIES

One of the things that Jesus reveals about God this Epiphany is that our God crosses the boundaries that we like to enforce. God escapes our labels and our definitions.

Another of the things that Jesus reveals about us this Epiphany is that God expects us also to be people who cross the boundaries, and act out of compassion. We are not to stay back behind the lines. We are not to worry what people will think about us. We are not to be afraid to take risks with people who we can barely trust.

Imagine if we actually lived like that.

What a different kind of place the world would be!

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The final lectionary notes

Friends:

The lectionary notes just published for the Feast of Christ the King (23 November 2014) will be the last of my regular weekly lectionary posts.

I have been preparing and distributing these notes since 2002, so it seems time to conclude this weekly task and focus my energies on other projects.

The complete set of archived notes will continue to be accessible on the Jesus Database web site.

Thank you for the privilege of sharing these reflections with you over the past 12 years. No doubt I shall still post the occasional comment on the Sunday readings, as well as other topical matters, but the regular weekly posts have now ended.

Gregory C. Jenks

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Christ the King (23 November 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 & Psalm 100 [Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 & Psalm 95:1-7a]
  • Ephesians 1:15-23
  • Matthew 25:31-46

The Reign of Christ — Judgment Day

This Sunday (known as the Feast of Christ the King in some traditions) completes the annual cycle that began on Advent Sunday last year. The liturgical year ends with a celebration of the cosmic significance of Christ. It may be helpful to consider this week as a time to gather up the insights that have been contributed by the various seasons and holy days throughout the previous twelve months. Each of the readings will contribute in some way to this week’s central theme of Christ the King.

The story of Christ as the great king on the day of judgment is found only in Matthew 25, but it is one of the best known NT passages:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)

Approximately two-thirds of the 522 items in the inventory of historical Jesus traditions developed by John Dominic Crossan are represented in a single independent source. The remaining third occur in at least two independent sources, while just 33 are found in more than three independent sources.

Like this week’s Gospel, some of the best known sayings of Jesus have survived in just one independent source:

While this week’s Gospel has many parallels in the Old Testament and the later Jewish writings from the Persian and Hellenistic periods, it has none among early Christian writings. Even the Revelation to John fails to provide a parallel to this story, despite having its own version of the Great Judgment in Rev 20:11-15.

Jewish parallels

Parallels in Jewish texts include the following:

Break your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house.
When you see the naked, clothe him. [Isaiah 58:7]

If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right– if he does … does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances, acting faithfully–such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD. [Ezekiel 18:5-9]

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; [Proverbs 25:21]

Give some of your food to the hungry, and some of your clothing to the naked.
Give all of your surplus as alms, and do not let your eyes begrudge your giving of alms. [Tobit 4:16]

When he was about to die, <Joseph> called his sons and his brothers and said to them:
“My brothers and my children.
Listen to Joseph, the one beloved of Israel.
Give ears to the words of my mouth.
In my lie I have seen envy and death.
But I have not gone astray: I continued in the truth of the Lord.
These, my brothers, hated me but the Lord loved me.
They wanted to kill me, but the God of my fathers preserved me.
Into a cistern they lowered me; the Most High raised me up.
They sold me into slavery; the Lord of all set me free.
I was taken into captivity; the strength of his hand came to my aid.
I was overtaken by hunger; the Lord himself fed me generously.
I was alone, and God came to help me.
I was in weakness, and the Lord showed his concern for me.
I was in prison, and the Savior acted generously on my behalf.
I was in bonds, and he loosed me;
falsely accused, and he testified on my behalf.
Assaulted by the bitter word of the Egyptians, and he rescued me.
A slave, and he exalted me. [Testament of Joseph 1:1-7 – OTP]

The first thing:
When the congregation of the righteous shall appear,
sinners shall be judged for their sins,
for they shall be driven from the face of the earth.
and when the Righteous One shall appear before the face of the righteous,
those elect ones, their deeds are hung upon the Lord of the Spirits
he shall reveal light to the righteous and the elect who dwell upon the earth,
where will the dwelling of sinners be,
and where the resting place of those who denied the name of the Lord of the Spirits?
It would have been better for them not to have been born.
When the secrets of the Righteous One are revealed,
he shall judge the sinners;
and the wicked ones will be driven from the presence of the righteous and the elect,
and from that time, those who possess the earth will be neither rulers nor princess,
for they shall not be able to behold the faces of the holy ones,
for the light of the Lord of the Spirits has shined
upon the face of the holy, the righteous, and the elect.
At that moment, kings and rulers shall perish,
they shall be delivered into the hands of the righteous and holy ones,
and from henceforth no one shall be able to induce the Lord of the Spirits to show them mercy. [1 Enoch 38:1-6 – OTP]

[The Lord of all Spirits] placed the Elect One on the throne of glory;
and he shall judge all the works of the holy ones in heaven above,
weighing in the balance their deeds … [1 Enoch 61:8 – OTP]

Thus the Lord commanded the kings, governors, the high officials, and the landlords and said, “Open your eyes and lift up your eyebrows—if you are able to recognize the Elect One!” … On the day of judgment all the kings, governors, the high officials, and the landlords shall see and recognize him—how he sits on his throne of glory, and righteousness is judged before him, and that no nonsensical talk shall be uttered in his presence. … After that, their faces will be filled with shame before that Son of Man; and from before his face they shall be driven out. [1 Enoch 62:1,3, 11- OTP]

Commenting directly on Matthew 25, Samuel Lachs (Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 393f]) observes:

All of the deeds mentioned here are acts of kindness (Heb. gemilut hasadim): feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, hospitality, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, burying the dead, and freeing captives. He who performs any one of them is considered praiseworthy, and it is as if he has done them to God himself. “He who receives his fellow man kindly, it is as if he has received the Shekkinah.” “He who visits the sick will be saved from Gehinom.”

Critical scholarship

With such an extensive overlap between the underlying message of this story and traditional Jewish lore over several centuries, it is hardly surprising that the Jesus Seminar voted this passage Black, indicating that it preserves neither the words nor the ideas of Jesus, and that is an opinion shared by the conservative Roman Catholic Jesus scholar, John P. Meier. Gospel scholars of all persuasions seem to agree that we are listening to Matthew here, rather than to Jesus.

Gerd Lüdemann, Jesus, 236f observes:

This concluding text of Jesus’ eschatological discourse fits Matthean theology seamlessly. After the paraenesis in 24.32-25.30 the judgment by the Son of Man is depicted in a great painting. The judgment is of all human beings, but Matthew has his community in particular in view: cf. 13.37-43,49-50. In view of this similarity we must seriously consider whether the whole passage should be regarded as a Matthean construction.

John P. Meier, the conservative Roman Catholic Jesus scholar, shares the same view. When commenting on the use of phylake (prison) in Matt 11:2, Meier [Marginal Jew II,198] notes that “the whole passage depicting the last judgment is either a Matthean creation or heavily redacted by Matthew.”
The wisdom embodied in this famous story is found in all the great religions: a kindness done for the stranger is an act of devotion to one’s God. What is interesting here is that Matthew associates that older wisdom with Jesus. And Matthew may have been right in doing that, for this universal religious insight does fit well with what we know of Jesus from other traditions.

Not everything said by Jesus had to be original to him. He doubtless thought and said many things that were also taught by others, and especially by his own Jewish religious tradition. In this case, we may have a story created after Jesus’ lifetime which still captures something of his sense that God’s kingdom is not so much a future dream as an immediate possibility. Acts of kindness and service are not simply good things for religious people to do, but signs of God’s kingdom already present in our midst.

The kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ teaching and action. The Greek phrase (basileia tou theou) used in the gospels is best translated as “God’s rule,” or even as “God’s empire.” This reminds us that Jesus lived at a time when people thought there was only one empire that mattered: Rome. Such hierarchical language can pose problems in today’s world when used as a primary symbol for God’s gracious presence, but Jesus seems to have challenged Rome’s imperial pretensions with his radical idea of a kingdom of nobodies found wherever two or three of “these little ones” gathered to break bread, declare each other’s sins forgiven and celebrate the pax christi.

While this story has often been understood as teaching that admission to heaven depends on how we treat other people, it may also be helpful to read it as affirming that our religion should make the world here and now a better place for others. When read that way, this story has been a classic text for those who stress the social justice implications of the “good news.”

At its core, this story is about the final judgment. As the parallel texts from 1 Enoch demonstrate, this is an idea that comes from an apocalyptic belief system that despairs of human capacity to build a just and godly society, and instead awaits a divine intervention to set things right. In the past, the prospect of “meeting one’s Creator” and giving an account of one’s life has been a powerful influence on both private and public behavior. While this belief continues to be affirmed in the creeds, it is not clear that it still exercises much of a hold on the contemporary imagination.

If we lose a sense of ultimate accountability to God, do we also lose an important moral element of being human?

Are there ways to visualize our collective and individual responsibilities for the Earth and for other living creatures that avoid the hierarchical power structures implicit in many biblical symbols?

What would mutual responsibility look like in a Wisdom context?

Tolstoy, Where Love Is, God Is

Leo Tolstoy’s 1885 story, Where Love Is, God Is, (also known as “Martin the Cobbler” in a Claymation video) retells this classic NT story.

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (16 November 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Judges 4:1-7 & Psalm 123
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
  • Matthew 25:14-30

Waiting for God’s son from heaven

From very early times, Christians have anticipated that Jesus would come (back) to our world from heaven as the glorified and all-powerful Son of God. After almost two thousand years without such an appearance taking place, that primitive Christian belief is losing its hold on the spiritual imagination of many people but there remain large numbers of people for whom the “Second Coming of Jesus” is an event expected to occur almost any day. Indeed there are Christians who drive cars ands other machinery with stickers warning that the driver may disappear at any moment, should Jesus return and call them to his side!

As the common Eucharistic acclamation demonstrates, the idea of a return by Jesus is the other side of the Easter affirmation. The one raised to glory and now seated at the right hand of God is the same one who must come to earth with that divine power to set things right in the messianic age:

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

When Easter is understood as God raising Jesus to heaven (rather than returning him to normal human existence), it is highly likely that Easter faith will include some expectation of either his continuing presence and/or his eventual return. We see this expressed clearly in the sermon that Luke puts on Peter’s lips in Acts 3:

When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:12-21)

This belief is so early and so well-attested that it ranks as item #2 in John Dominic Crossan’s inventory of historical Jesus traditions. Only the traditions about the Mission and Message of Jesus rank before this item. That is a powerful reminder of how close this belief takes us to the core of the religious aspirations centered on Jesus, the risen Lord, that were the drivers for earliest Christianity.

Crossan lists the following texts as witnesses to the Apocalyptic Return of Jesus:

(1) 1 Thess 4:13-18;
(2) Did. 16:6-8;
(3) Matt 24:30a;
(4) Mark 13:24-27 = Matt 24:29,30b-31 = Luke 21:25-28;
(5a) Rev 1:7
(5b) Rev 1:13
(5c) Rev 14:14;
(6) John 19:37.

Even that list is far from exhaustive, since there are several additional references to the appearance or coming of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians, not to mention 2 Thessalonians:

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. (1Th. 1:9-10)

As for us, brothers and sisters, when, for a short time, we were made orphans by being separated from you—in person, not in heart—we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, wanted to again and again—but Satan blocked our way. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!(1Th. 2:17-20)

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1Th. 3:11-13)

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1Th. 4:15-17)

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. (1Th. 5:1-11)

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1Th. 5:23-24)

An interest in the coming of the Lord is a particular concern of 2 Thessalonians, and the additional details provided about this belief have made some scholars think that we are dealing with a later (post-Paul) stage of the tradition in this document:

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2Th. 1:5-10)

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion, leading them to believe what is false, so that all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned. (2Th. 2:1-12)

While the admonition against idleness does not explicitly associate that problem with millenarian expectations of the Lord’s imminent appearance, it seems likely that this is a further dimension of the problem:

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2Th. 3:6-13)

The parousia of the Lord

The most common term used in the NT for the coming of Jesus is parousia. In general use, parousia was simply a noun used to denote the presence, participation and/or arrival of some person or god. However, with Paul the terms seems to have taken a special significance as a term for the future arrival of Jesus as the divine Lord of all things.

According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT 5.860), the customary honors on the parousia of a ruler included the following ceremonies:

  • flattering addresses
  • tributes
  • delicacies
  • asses to ride on and to carry baggage
  • improvements of streets
  • golden wreaths (natural or precious metal)
  • feeding of the sacred crocodiles

Allowing for developments in technology, it seems that not much has changed in the way that visiting dignitaries like to be treated.

TDNT summarizes the situation in imperial Roman times as follows:

The imperial period with its world ruler or members of his household, if it did not increase the cost, certainly invested the parousia of the new ruler with even greater magnificence. This could be done by the inauguration of a new era … or holy day … or by buildings … or by the minting of advent coins, e.g., in Corinth on the coming of Nero: Adventus Augusti, or the like. Hadrian’s travels produced such coins in most provinces. That the parousia of the ruler could sometimes be a ray of hope for those in trouble may be seen from the complaints and requests made on such occasions, e.g., that of the priestesses of Isis in the Serapeion at Memphis (163/162 B.C.) to the “gods” Ptolemy Philometor and Cleopatra.

This common use, and especially its wide dissemination as imperial propaganda stamped on the coins used in daily commerce, reminds us once again that Paul is drawing on political terms as he develops his newly-fashioned Christology. Not only are Christians the ekklesia of God, but the divine kyrios they worship is soon to make his parousia as he ushers in the age of ultimatepeace and security. At every one of those highlighted terms, there was a direct conflict with the imperial theology of Rome.
Parousia occurs some 24 times in the NT and we can see the range of meanings went well beyond the “coming” of Jesus:

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying,
“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3)

For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west,
so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. (Matt. 24:27)

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man.
… and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away,
so too will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. (Matt. 24:37,39)

But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits,
then at his coming [parousia] those who belong to Christ. (1Cor. 15:23)

I rejoice at the coming [parousia]of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus,
because they have made up for your absence; (1Cor 16:17)

But God, who consoles the downcast, consoled us by the arrival [parousia]of Titus,
and not only by his coming [parousia], but also by the consolation with which he was consoled about you,
as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. (2Cor. 7:6-7)

For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong,
but his bodily presence [parousia tou somatos] is weak, and his speech contemptible.” (2Cor. 10:10)

so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus
when I come [parousia] to you again. (Phil. 1:26)

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence [parousia],
but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; (Phil. 2:12)

For what is our hope or joy or
crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming [parousia]?
Is it not you? (1Th. 2:19)

And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness
that you may be blameless before our God and Father
at the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1Th. 3:13)

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive, who are left until the coming [parousia] of the Lord,
will by no means precede those who have died. (1Th. 4:15) May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely;
and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless
at the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Th.5:23)

As to the coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, (2Th. 2:1)

And then the lawless one will be revealed,
whom the Lord Jesus will destroy with the breath of his mouth,
annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming [parousia].
The coming [parousia] of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan,
who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, (2Th. 2:8-9)

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.
The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth,
being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.
You also must be patient.
Strengthen your hearts, for the coming [parousia] of the Lord is near. (James 5:7-8)

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths
when we made known to you the power and coming [parousia] of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2Pet. 1:16)

and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming [parousia]?
For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” )2Pet. 3:4)

waiting for and hastening the coming [parousia] of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? (2Pet. 3:12)

And now, little children, abide in him,
so that when he is revealed we may have confidence
and not be put to shame before him at his coming [parousia]. (1John 2:28)

Like a thief in the night

One of the interesting twists to the parousia expectation of the earliest Christians is the metaphor of Christ coming like a thief in the night. This image modifies significantly the dominant metaphor of the triumphant visitation by a new emperor. Now we have an unexpected intruder coming under cover of darkness and catching the householder unprepared.

This motif is also widely-attested in the early Christian texts:

012 Knowing the Danger

(1a) 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5
/1/ Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. /2/ For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. /3/ When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! /4/ But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; /5/ for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

(1b) 2 Peter 3:10
/8/ But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. /9/ The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. /10/ But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

(2a) Thom 21
/1/ Mary said to Jesus, “What are your disciples like?” /2/ He said, They are like little children living in a field that is not theirs. /3/ When the owners of the field come, they will say, “Give us back our field.” /4/ They take off their clothes in front of them in order to give it back to them, and they return their field to them. /5/ For this reason I say, if the owners of a house know that a thief is coming, they will be on guard before the thief arrives, and will not let the thief break into their house (their domain) and steal their possessions. /6/ As for you, then, be on guard against the world. /7/ Prepare yourselves with great strength, so the robbers can’t find a way to get to you, for the trouble you expect will come. /8/ Let there be among you a person who understands. /9/ When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it. /10/ Anyone here with two good ears had better listen! [Complete Gospels]

(2b) Thom 103
/1/ Jesus said, “Congratulations to those who know where the rebels are going to attack. [They] can get going, collect their imperial resources, and be prepared before the rebels arrive.” [Complete Gospels]

(3) Q Gospel ( Luke 12:39-40)
/39/ “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. /40/ You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
=Matt 24:43-44
/43/ But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. /44/ Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

(4a) Rev 3:3
/3/ Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.

(4b) Rev 16:15
/15/ (“See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and is clothed, not going about naked and exposed to shame.”)

Jesus Database

  • 178 The Entrusted Money: (1a) 2Q: Luke 19:(11)12-24,27 = Matt 25:14-28; (1b) GNaz. 18.
  • 040 Have and Receive: (1) Gos. Thom. 41; (2) 2Q: Luke 19:(25-)26 = Matt 25:29; (3) Mark 4:25 = Matt 13:12 = Luke 8:18b.
  • 125 Gnashing of Teeth: (1a) 2Q: Luke 13:28a = Matt 8:12b; (1b) Matt 13:42b; (1c) Matt 13:50b; (1d) Matt 22:13b; (1e) Matt 24:51b; (1f) Matt 25:30b; (2) Dial. Sav. 14e

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (9 November 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 & Psalm 78:1-7 (or WisSol 6:12-16) [or Amos 5:18-24 & WisdSol 6:17-20, or Psalm 70]
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Matthew 25:1-13

First Reading: Renewing the covenant

The OT reading from the RCL invites us to reflect on the theme of covenant renewal, and specifically renewal of the covenant as the people of God near the end of the beginning.

As the biblical narrative of Israel’s origins tells the story, the 12 tribes of Israel (under the leadership of Joshua/Jesus) have now taken possession of the land. They have worked together for the common good, and they have overcome great obstacles (with the assistance of their god, Yahweh). All they hoped for is now in their grasp. The land of promise is theirs.

All of us familiar with the story know it was too good to be true, and the ensuing narratives will show a never-ending struggle to retain the land and sustain anything like a viable sense of being the covenant people.

Even the collective promise to put away (finally? after all these years?) the pagan gods of their ancestors has no substance. Later episodes in Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings—not to mention the testimomy of the prophetic literature—show that ancient Israel and Judah were attached to their plethora of deities (as well as their sacred images) until at least the time of the Exile.

Even so, the story in Joshua 24 is a classic scene in which the essence of Israel’s faith is proclaimed:

  • gratitude to Yahweh for past and present blessings
  • a sense of collective vocation/identity
  • a rejection of other gods, and their sacred paraphernalia
  • commitment to serve Yahweh and no other gods

1 Thessalonans 4: Facing death as Easter people

Despite considerable diversity in making their selections from 1 Thessalonians over the past three weeks, all the major lectionaries agree in their choice of 1 Thess 4:13-18 this week:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage is well know from its use in Christian funerals, but it may be helpful to consider the significance of this first Christian attempt to offer an interpretation of death and to address the dilemma caused by physical death within a new religious movement that promised its followers “eternal life” as they participated in the resurrection life of the risen Lord Jesus.

The fact that Paul found it necessary to deal directly with the question of the status of dead Christians reminds us that a “Christian funeral” was not yet a familiar experience.

It is not possible tell whether there had been a death within the Thessalonian community, or whether Paul is addressing a more general question coming out of the millenarian tendencies of the Thessalonian community.

This raises the question of what kind of message Paul had proclaimed when he established the Thessalonian “assembly of our divine patron and Jesus our anointed ruler.”

That translation of 1Thess 1:1 – “church in God the father and the Lord Jesus Christ” – is deliberately radical, but takes up the point that “God the father” (theos patros) refers not to the first person of the Trinity (a formulation not yet developed by the primitive Christian movement in the 30s and 40s), but to the “patron god” worshipped by the Thessalonian Christ cult created by Paul some weeks, or at most months, prior to this letter. We need to set aside our traditional trinitarian filters and imagine how these phrases would have been heard in a Thessalonian private religious association devoted to the worship of Jesus as a dying and rising “anointed Lord” in the year 49.

Does “the Lord Jesus Christ” (perhaps better translated as “Jesus our anointed ruler”) refer to a second divine person alongside the patron god of the community, or is it a naming of the patron god (theos patros) in whose honor the voluntary associations gathers as an assembly (ekklesia)? If we interpret Paul’s choice of words in the way that I am suggesting, then we have a very early affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. Paul would be asserting that Jesus is the patron god of the Christ cult that he has established in Thessalonica, rather than a secondary figure alongside “God the Father.”

This once-dead-but-now-risen Jesus was worshipped as patron deity of the Christ cult and even understood to be a rival to the emperor, as the “anointed Lord” (kyrios christos). Paul’s terminology represents an early form of the explicit struggle between “Christ” and “Caesar” that we find in the Revelation to John, and also in Gospel traditions such as the question about paying taxes to Caesar — not to mention the charges on which Jesus was crucified.

Whatever the precise relationship between Jesus and God in Paul’s mind, the question remains as to precisely what his gospel offered potential converts at this very early stage in his career as an apostle and church founder.

It seems safe to assume that Paul proclaimed Jesus (or perhaps “Christ”) as a dying and rising savior god, not all that dissimilar to the gods worshipped in many of the mystery religions as well as the private religious associations devoted to foreign gods such as Serapis and Isis. In particular, the popularity of the Cabiru cult across the region and especially in Thessalonica suggests that Paul taught his converts that the blessings previously anticipated from Cabiru would now be theirs as gifts from the Lord Jesus Christ.

In particular, how was the promise of eternal life presented to those who gathered to form the “assembly of the Thessalonians in God” in response to Paul’s message?

Scholars have tried to press behind the words of 1 Thess 4:13-18 with varying degrees of plausibility.

Robert Jewett

Jewett (The Thessalonian Correspondence, 1986:94) gives this summary:

The discussion in 1 Thess 4:13-18 indicates the congregation was in a state of shocked dismay at the death of some of the members. Paul spoke of their grief as if they had lost hope that they would ever see the deceased again (4:13) and his emphasis was that while the dead would rise first at the parousia, those who remained alive would be “caught up with them at the same time that they shall be caught up.” Given the thrust of this argument, it appears that the congregation had not only discounted the possibility of mortal death for members of the new age, but also lacked the typical early Christian hope that death would be resolved by resurrection. For some reason they were assuming the separation of death would be permanent.

Willi Marxsen

Marxsen (Der erste Brief an die Thessalonicher, 1979) had connected their grief with an excessive spiritual enthusiasm. Jewett describes Marxen’s proposals as follows:

Assuming that Paul’s intense expectation of the parousia would have obviated the need for for a traditional resurrection teaching during his founding mission in Thessalonica, Marxsen contends that the problem for the congregation was not the death of members as such, but their death “before the parousia” which seemed to imply that they had “believed in vain.” The prospect of death prior to the parousia would also have threatened the faith of those still alive, a threat that Paul counters with his argument that the dead will not be disadvantaged because they will rejoin the living Christians at the sound of the last trumpet.

Joseph Plevnik

Jewett prefers the solution proposed by Joseph Plevnik (“The Taking Up” CBQ 46, 1984:274-83). Jewett outlines that solution as follows:

Joseph Plevnik has provided the basis for an alternative view by showing that Paul’s language concerning resurrection in 1 Thess 4:13-18 indicates he had taught a doctrine of assumption into paradise. This apocalyptic doctrine involves the translation of the whole person from this world to the next, but it only functions for persons who have not experienced death. As Lohfink has shown in his definitive study of heavenly ascension and assumption narratives, “the one who is assumed does not have to taste death, and conversely, the one who is really dead cannot be assumed.” This could help explain the confusion of the Thessalonians, according to Plevnik: “If … Paul had already taught the Thessalonians that at the parousia of Christ they would all be assumed and gathered around the risen Lord forever, then the death of some of the faithful would obviously cause consternation in the community. They would naturally think that the dead could not participate in the assumption — one had to be alive to be assumed.” To draw out the implications of this doctrine in a manner congruent with the evidence in 1 Thessalonians 4, it appears that the Thessalonians believed that the presence of the new age should have eliminated the possibility of death for true believers, so that when deaths occurred they fell into despair about their eschatological faith, discounting the possibility of ever seeing their loved ones again.

Karl P. Donfried

Donfried has continued to work on the problems posed by the Thessalonian letters since the earlier work of Jewett. His article on 1 Thessalonians in Harper’s Bible Dictionary offers this more moderate proposal:

Despite Paul’s affection and high regard for these Christians whose faith served as “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1:7), he must correct and clarify one major area of misunderstanding: the status of those who have already died in Christ since the end has not yet come. In 4:13 Paul shifts from the repetitious “you know” language (1:5; 2:1,2,5,9,10,11; 3:3b-4; 4:1,2,6,10,11; 5:2) to the phrase “we would not have you ignorant …” … This problem surfaced when some in the community died prior to the eagerly expected imminent Parousia and this anxiety may well have been fueled by those outside the church who mocked what seemed to them the absurdity of Christian eschatological claims. Paul assures his audience that the dead in Christ will not suffer disadvantage, they will not be overlooked, and that they “will rise first” (4:16) on the last day. Paul then reiterates the imminence of the Parousia (5:1-3) and then only in 5:10 does he give his final answer concerning the dead in Christ: “our Lord Jesus Christ … died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.”

John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed

Crossan and Reed (In Search of Paul, 2004) suggest that the death among Christians in Thessalonica may have been due to martyrdom rather than natural causes:

The Thessalonian question concerns the relative status of those dead and those alive at the Lord’s parousia, or coming from heaven to earth. The Thessalonians were worried that those who had already died might somehow be disadvantaged at the parousia. Had those Thessalonians died natural deaths or had they been martyred during that persecution because of Paul? The latter alternative seems most likely for two reasons. One is that Paul us extremely defensive about himself in this letter, for example, “You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers” (1 Thess. 2:10). That tone would be very understandable if he had escaped Thessalonica by flight while others had died there as martyrs. Another is that it may have been martyrdom that made them “an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia,” so that “not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it” (1:7-8).

Crossan and Reed contrast the answer proposed by Paul to the answer offered around 50 years later in the Jewish apocalypse, 4 Ezra, written in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem (and its temple) but attributed to the biblical character, Ezra:

I said, “Yet, O Lord, you have charge of those who are alive at the end,
but what will those do who were before me, or we ourselves, or those who come after us?”
He said to me, “I shall liken my judgment to a circle;
just as for those who are last there is no slowness,
so for those who are first there is no haste. (4 Ezra 5:41-42 NRSV)

Paul, the apocalyptic Jewish preacher and the anonymous Jewish apocalyptic author who penned 4 Ezra, were both dealing the dilemma of how the righteous dead will participate in the blessings of the messianic era. While 4 Ezra does not presume that the present generation will still be alive at the End, Paul does assume that the parousia is so imminent that “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” Consequently, 4 Ezra teaches the idea of simultaneity in eternity rather than addressing the question of precedence, as Paul needed to do.

While Paul himself claims that this teaching (that the dead in Christ will rise first and then the living faithful will be taken up as well) comes an authoritative word from the Lord (en logo kyrio), Crossan and Reed suggest Paul’s response involved “a brilliant use of metaphor.”

First of all, the metaphor of a formal urban visitation gives Paul a powerful visual answer to the question of the Thessalonians. Any important visitor coming along the major road to an ancient city would first meet the dead before they were greeted by the living. Take for example the city of Hierapolis … if you walk out along the northern road, for example, you find yourself today in absolute jumble of broken sarcophagi, shattered tombs, and wrecked mausoleums. But if you put that destroyed and quarried necropolis back in its original format, you can easily imagine an imperial visitor meeting first the elite dead before any meeting with the elite living. And, of course, says Paul, dancing fast and fancy on his theological feet, that is how things will be at the parousia of Christ. We will not all go up together, but first the dead and then the living.

Crossan and Reed continue with an insight that challenges most of the older interpretations of this passage:

Second, the parousia metaphor means that Christians do not ascend to the stay with Christ in heaven, but to return with him to this transformed world. Paul says nothing about an eschatological world or utopian earth here below, but simply that all believers “will be caught up in the clouds … to meet the Lord in the air; so we shall be with the Lord forever.” The metaphor of parousia as state visit would presume that those going out to greet the approaching ruler would return with him for festive rejoicing within their city. So also with Christ. Paul probably took it for granted that all together would then descend to dwell upon a purified earth. The parousia of the Lord was not about destruction of earth and relocation to heaven, but about a world in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness. And, of course, as mentioned above, a transformed world would demand not just spiritual souls, but renewed bodies.

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13

The International Q Project reconstructs an original Q saying behind Matthew and Luke as follows:

When the [householder has arisen] and locked the door,
[and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door,] saying:
Master, open for us, and he will answer you: I do not know you.

The Jesus Seminar (The Five Gospels, 347) notes that Luke’s brief saying is reminiscent of the longer parable of the ten maidens in Matthew 25. On the Matthean parable, the commentary observes:

This story does not have any of the earmarks of Jesus’ authentic parables. it does not cut against the religious and social grain. Rather, it confirms common wisdom: those who are prepared succeed, those not prepared will fail. Consequently, it does not surprise or shock; there is no unexpected twist in the story; it comes out as one expects, given the opening statement that five of the maidens were wise and five foolish. The story lacks humor, exaggeration, and paradox: it is straightforward, unimaginative, and moralizing …

Jesus Database

Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:

Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (2 November 2014)

Contents

Lectionary

  • Joshua 3:7-17 & Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 [Micah 3:5-12 & Psalm 43]
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
  • Matthew 23:1-12

Thessalonica in the time of Paul

This is the third in a series focused on 1 Thessalonians:

  • Week One: Letters in Antiquity: Paul as a Letter Writer
  • Week Two: Paul as founder of new Christian communities
  • Week Three: Faith making a difference in first century Thessalonica
  • Week Four: Facing death with courage and hope
  • Week Five: Living in meantime: Awaiting the coming of the Lord Jesus

This week the focus moves to what we know of ancient Thessalonica.

The BiblePlaces.com web site has a Thessalonica photo gallery with a brief summary, together with some selected photographs.

These notes will draw heavily on the description of Thessalonica (and Paul’s activity there) in Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, while supplementing their material with information from other sources.

Location

Thessalonica is located in northern Greece (ancient Macedonia) at the head of the Thermaic Gulf where several rivers enter the Aegean Sea.

The city had the double benefit of being a major port, as well as being a main station on the main East/West highway (Via Egnatia) that linked the Balkans to Turkey. Crossan and Reed comment on the ancient and modern versions of that same road:

… you pause to read the big blue and gold sign in Greek and English, put up by the European Union, that announces the new Egnatia Odos, the new Via Egnatia. The sign emphasizes that half the cost of those cranes, bulldozers, and cement mixers in front of you is being paid by the European Union’s Community Support Framework and much of the rest is funded by the European Investment Bank. You learn later that the total cost is estimated at 1.15 trillion Greek drachmas, a currency made obsolete by the Euro …
Construction along that 1100-yard-wide swath of land has unearthed 270 historical and archaeological sites, which have slowed the project down and required the contractors to pay over 2.5 billion drachmas for salvage excavations at over 40 sites. That, of course, is a reminder of the ancient geopolitics along the original Via Egnatia, which had much the same purpose, to link Rome and Italy with Asia Minor and the East. But that ancient project, built by the Roman proconsul Gnaeus Egnatius between 146 and 120 B.C.E., was much more impressive, since travel by air was not available and travel by sea all but impossible for six months of the year. The only way to send the legions eastward and bring booty westward was to construct, on an unprecedented scale, an all-weather road with solid pavement, bridges, leveled grades, water stations, and milestones.
… As you relinquish your small strip of the new Egnatia Odos that summer morning, you ponder the obvious parallels with the original one. Is it still about empire for the few or about justice for the many? Here is a simple test. By the time that the new Egnatian motorway is completed, will Turkey be a full member of the European Union; will Turkey be the first non-European and non-Christian country to join that alliance? If not, if its 65 million inhabitants are excluded, we will then know that the new motorway is, like its ancient predecessor, again about empire, still about empire, always about empire. (2004:153f)

History

The city of Thessalonica was founded in 316 BCE by Cassander, the King of Macedon and brother-in-law of Alexander the Great. The city was created on (or near) the site of an older settlement (Therme), but it is named for Cassander’s wife, the half-sister of Alexander. She was given her name by her father, Phillip II of Macedon, to commemorate the fact that she was born on the day of his victory (Greek: nike) over the Thessalians. The new foundation included the ancient Therme as well as some 35 other small settlements.

Thessaloniki developed rapidly and as early as the 2nd century BC the first Hellenistic walls were built, forming a large square. It was, as all the other contemporary Greek cities, an autonomous part of the Macedon kingdom, with its own parliament (Ekklesia tou Demou, Assembly of the People) but the king was represented and could interfere in the city’s domestic affairs. (Wikipedia)

In 146 BCE, Macedonia became a Roman province and Thessalonica was made the capital. As the center for Roman administration, the city prospered. It was later to side with Antony and Octavian in their successful struggle against the Republican forces at the battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. The description in Harper’s Bible Dictionary is evocative of Thessalonica’s success:

… we know that the Roman statesman and orator Cicero spent part of his exile in Thessalonica in 58 B.C., that the Roman general Pompey took refuge from Julius Caesar in the city in 49 B.C., and also that such prominent literary figures as Lucian and Polyaenus visited the city. The extensive coinage of Thessalonica underscores its prosperity, certainly due to its status as a free city (i.e., one granted certain tax concessions and some other privileges) and its location as a main station on the Via Egnatia.

Crossan and Reed suggest a population around 40,000 at the time of Paul, making Thessalonica one of the smaller provincial capitals within the Empire. Its natural advantages have hindered archaeological research. The city has been continuously occupied since its foundation in 316 BCE, allowing little opportunity for excavations. The current excavations of the Roman forum in downtown Thessalonica has mostly uncovered structures from the second and third centuries, although other contemporary construction projects have yielded some fragmentary first-century remains.

Population and religion

Crossan and Reed (2004:156-60) comment on several significant social groups within Paul’s Thessalonica:

  • Greek
  • Romans
  • Jews
  • Christians

The Greeks (including Macedonians and Thracians) were the local population. They were deeply engaged in the internationalization processes driven by the conquests of Alexander and the continued struggles of the successor kings. With the ascent of Rome, the people of Thessalonica cast their lot with the new world order and reaped significant rewards for their city as a result.

Foreign gods were welcomed into the public affections of the city, as one would expect in a commercial port. In particular, the mysteries associated with worship of Serapis and Dionysius were prominent and well integrated into the civic cult. Of particular significance, according to Robert Jewett (The Thessalonian Correspondence, Fortress: 1986), was the mystery cult of the Cabirus. The evidence suggests that this cult was “not only the most distinctive but also the most important factor in the religious environment” (Jewett, 1986:127). Here is Jewett’s summary description:

The Cabirus figure worshipped in Thessalonica was structurally similar in some regards to the apocalyptic Christ proclaimed by Paul. He was a martyred hero, murdered by his brothers, buried with symbols of royal power, and expected to return to help lowly individuals and the city of Thessalonica in particular. Whereas in other cities, two or three Cabiri figures are honored … in Thessalonica there was a concentration of devotion on a single hero. … the worship of Cabirus exhibits some intriguing parallels to Pauline Christianity. In what appears to be a Cabiric cult in Samothrace, the initiation of participants involved donning special robes, confessing sins, and cleansing through water baptism and through symbolic immersion in the blood of martyred god. Another source refers to ceremonial participation in the shed blood of Cabirus by means of blood sacrifices. … If the experience of initiation involved identification with the god, the gift of apotheosis, the achievement of equality [between participants], the relief of guilt and the promise of elimination of threats, [then] a raucous celebration would seem as appropriate as it appeared for Pauline Christians whose violent apocalyptic theology evoked repentance, regeneration and joy.

Jewett quotes Robert M. Evans (Eschatology and Ethics Basel PhD diss, 1967) on the social impact when the Cabiru of Thessalonica was absorbed into the civic cult:

By the time of the first century in Thessalonica, the city-cult had meaning only for those most directly interested in the welfare off the city. Thus the transformation is complete. The Cabiri rose to be identified with the city god of Thessalonica, but in so doing lost their religious value and contact with the lower classes.

Jewett continues:

The cooptation of the figure of Cabirus, whose primary role had been to provide equality, aid and succor for Greeks whose livelihood came from manual labor, left the craftsmen and laborers of Thessalonica without a viable benefactor. The process of propagandistic cooptation of the democratic civic ideals … is here matched by the exploitation of the laborers’ hero by the ruling class in Thessalonica. This cooptation would also have entailed a measure of moralistic domestication, because the orgiastic components of the Cabiric cult would surely have been curtailed by the Augustan establishment. A religious and social vacuum was thereby created, which may have made possible the remarkably rapid acceptance of a new and more viable type of Christian proclamation and piety that offered in a new and more viable form many of the features that had been provided by the now discredited Cabiric cult. This might also help to explain why some of the distinctive excesses of the Thessalonian church were adumbrated by the outlines of the coopted Cabiric piety.

The Romans in Thessalonica included members of the elite class who administered the province on behalf of the empire. While they had their own associations, and were especially concerned with the imperial ruler cult that was served by a temple in honor of Julius Caesar and a program of sacred games, the Romans also participated in cults such as those devoted to Sarapis and Isis. Even when not active in these cults, some Romans were benefactors whose generosity is attested in surviving inscriptions. As city that minted coins for the province, Thessalonica celebrated the cult of the divine emperor on its coins. When Paul arrived in the city, recent coin issues included one struck with the image of Augusust and the legend theos sebastos (“the god Augustus”) on one side, and the image of Claudius on the other:

RPC 1580.jpg
SOURCE MACEDON, Thessalonica Claudius. 41-54 AD. Æ 21mm (9.26 gm).
TI KLAU KAISAR SEBASTOS GER-M, laureate head of Claudius left
QESSALONEIKE[WN QE]OS SEBASTOS, radiate head of Augustus right (sic)
Jews are thought to have been in Thessalonica from early times, with both Philo (Embassy to Gaius 36/281) and Luke (Acts 17) mentioning their presence in Macedonia. To date no clearly Jewish archaeological remains have been found from the middle of the first century.
The Christian community in Thessalonica happens to be attested by the survival of Paul’s first letter to the church there, and also by the survival of a second letter from Paul to that community (whether or not it is judged to be authentic). On the basis of Acts 17 one might think that Paul’s converts had come from the Jewish community, but it seems more likely that Paul drew his adherents from the wider Greek population in the city — perhaps even converting at least one local private professional association (a koinon) across to the worship of a new patron deity: “Jesus the anointed ruler” (Kyrios Iesous Christos). Crossan and Reed address the question of Paul’s appeal to the Greeks who had gathered around the Jewish synagogue community:

Our proposal is that Paul went to the synagogue not for the Jews, but for those pagan sympathizers, and it is precisely his focus on those semipagan or semi-Jewish sponsors, protectors, and patrons that would obviously have infuriated Jewish synagogue members. Put bluntly, Paul was poaching on dangerous territory, dangerous not just in very abstract theology, but in very practical politics. That could certainly cause serious trouble between Paul and loyal synagogue Jews or even between pro-Pauline and anti-Pauline God-worshippers.
Even though Paul himself never uses the term “god-fearers” or “God-worshippers,” he does make it clear in 1 Thessalonians that those converts had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God” (1:9), that, in other words, they were originally pagans. They might have “feared” or “worshipped” the Jewish God, but they did not accept that God fully or follow that God completely. You, Paul would have said to them, are neither Jew nor Greek, and your only salvation now is God in Christ. Because, he would have said to them, you cannot have pagan gods at meals, baths and festivals six days a week and the one true God at the synagogue on the Sabbath. Torah is all or nothing.

Both Acts and 1 Thessalonians acknowledge that Paul had to leave Macedonia to escape persecution. Despite Luke (typically) seeking to blame the Jewish community for the trouble stirred up around Paul, Crossan and Reed note that “it was only provincial Roman and Rome-appointed authorities that could force a flight from Macedonia and into Achaia.” While Luke may be misleading about the complainants, the account in Acts 17 may preserve the actual complaint:

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go. (Acts 17:1-9, NRSV)

According to Acts 17:7, Paul and his companions are accused of acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor (Claudius) and promoting another king (basileus), named “Jesus.” In other words, Paul is accused of being anti-Roman and promoting an alternative ruler (Kyrios, Lord) whose claims contradicted those of Caesar. In fact, as Crossan and Reed observe, “one of the most striking aspects of 1 Thessalonians is the number of Pauline terms that were religio-political in a world where those two aspects of power were never separated at any depth.”

Terms that we tend to hear as religious vocabulary but which had political meanings in ancient Rome include the following:

  • ekklesia (church, assembly) – citizens of a free Greek city assembled for self-government
  • peace and security (5:3) – a spiritual blessing, or a benefit flowing from good government (cf Pax Romana)
  • kyrios (Lord) – a title used by the emperor
  • kingdom and glory belonging to God (2:12) – or to the emperor?
  • gospel (euangelion) – used in 1:5; 2:2,4,8,9; 3:2, but also for official news from the government
  • parousia (advent, arrival) – used for a visitation by a conquering ruler, or for the arrival of Christ as ruler of the universe (2:19; 3:13; 4:15,17)

Diatribe against the Pharisees

It would be remiss of me to allow this week’s lectionary notes to be published without adding a comment on the denunciation of the Jewish religious leadership that we find in Matthew 23.

Matthew took up the cue provided by the warning against the Pharisees in Mark 112:37–40 and then reshaped a set of seven woes from Q (cf Luke 11:39–52) to create his own diatribe against his rabbinic rivals. As in their material for the Great Sermon, Matthew and Luke differ so markedly that Luz [Matthew 21–28, 94] notes it is no longer possible to reconstruct the original form of this material in Q.

This passage is constructed as a set of seven prophetic denunciations of the Jewish religious leadership: “the Pharisees” and “the (rabbinic) scholars.” The seven woes are introduced by a more general criticism of the hypocrisy of the author’s opponents (23:1–12), and they conclude with a damning indictment of the opponents as bearing blood guilt for all innocent victims in human history (23:34–36). These seven woes form part of a larger section (21:1–25:46) depicting Jesus in controversy with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem in the final days before his death, and that section itself is part of the larger structure for the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew’s editorial fingerprints can be found all over this passage. Hypocrite (hypokrites) is a key Matthean term, occurring 13 times in Matthew, once in Mark and twice in Luke. The repeated naming of the opponents as Pharisees and scribes is also typical of Matthew [Pharisees: Matt 3:7; 5:20; 9:11,14,34; 12:2,14,24,38; 15:1,12; 16:1,6,11-12; 19:3; 21:45; 22:15,34,41; 23:2,13-15,23,25,27,29; 27:62; Mark 2:16,18,24; 3:6; 7:1,3,5; 8:11,15; 10:2; 12:13; Luke 5:17,21,30,33; 6:2,7; 7:30,36-37; 11:39,42-43,53; 12:1; 13:31; 14:1,3; 15:2; 16:14; 17:20; 19:39. Scribes: Matt 2:4; 5:20; 7:29; 9:3; 12:38; 15:1; 16:21; 17:10; 20:18; 21:15; 23:2,13-15,23,25,27,29,34; 26:57; 27:41; Mark 1:22; 2:6,16; 3:22; 7:1,5; 8:31; 9:11,14; 10:33; 11:18,27; 12:28,35,38; 14:1,43,53; 15:1,31; Luke 5:21,30; 6:7; 9:22; 11:53; 15:2; 19:47; 20:1,19,39,46; 22:2,66; 23:10]. The general representation of Jesus as a superior (and indeed the only) Torah teacher is also a typical Matthean device.

As a literary form, the “woe” is a form of prophetic denunciation—possibly with origins in deprecatory rituals, but later adapted for prophetic critique of Israel. It is the logical opposite of the beatitude and is attested alongside the beatitude in Jewish writings from the Second Temple period. Jesus is being represented as a prophet proclaiming judgment on the city of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, in the tradition of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.

The historical and religious context of Jews and Christians (including Jewish Christian communities such as Matthew’s readers) in the final quarter of the first century – or possibly the first decade of the second century – helps to locate the conflict and also to identify the “rhetorical register” of the denunciations. Studies on the role played by scribes and Pharisees after 70CE, and their distribution around Palestine prior to that date, also assist in locating these conflict traditions in the post-Easter experience of Jesus’ followers rather than in his own life time.

As canonical text, Matthew projects this conflict back into time of Jesus and gives the conflict an added dimension since the alleged perversity of the Jewish rivals brings about the death of Jesus and also the destruction of Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most significant theological question in this passage is the contribution it has made to the development of Christian anti-Semitism. This is seen especially in the stereotyping of Pharisees as legalistic Jews obsessed with ritual and lacking interior spirituality. The assignment of guilt for all the deaths of the righteous from Genesis onwards has played into accusations of deicide against the Jews.

This “unloveliest chapter in the Gospel” [Viviano, cited by Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21–28, 94] reflects the conflict between the rabbinic communities of post-70CE Judaism and Jewish-Christian groups such as the Matthean community. The bitterness of the rhetoric points to the painful schism happening within Jewish communities around the question of Jesus and his distinctive practice of Torah.

Conflict over deeply-held beliefs is inevitable, as indeed we continue to see in various parts of the Christian churches and also between some major world religions. Such beliefs (including the perceptions we may have of the other) can be very powerful in defining ourselves and our community. The legacy of Jesus as someone who seems to have practised a radically inclusive interpretation of Torah, will not necessarily prevent his followers from bigotry and prejudice. Christian-Jewish relations are especially complex and sensitive, and facing the evil of Christian anti-Semitism is a necessary step in developing a healthy dialogue between the two communities. In particular, negative stereotypes about Pharisees and about the authenticity of Jewish spirituality can poison community attitudes.

On this side of the Holocaust, we have to acknowledge the danger of toxic theology – especially when combined with political and coercive power. When such a combination occurs there is immense social pressure to scapegoat a minority group as the cause of difficulties experienced by the majority. Churches can too easily become implicated in such tensions, but they can also learn from our history and confront popular politics that demonises the other. The religious literacy of the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:52), can serve as a valve to release community tensions rather than, as Matthew seems to have done, to exacerbate them.

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