Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (25 October 2014)



  • Deuteronomy 34:1-12 & Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17 [Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 & Psalm 1]
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
  • Matthew 22:34-46

First Reading: Death of Moses

The first reading this week describes the death of Moses—alone on a mountain, in sight of the promised land but unable to experience it, dying without any companions and with no one to bury him except Yahweh. It is a poignant ending to the story of Israel’s founding hero and its unsatisfactory character was perhaps intended as a device to encourage the reader to press ahead to the story of Joshua, the one who would lead the people of God into the land of blessing.

Dewey M. Beegle (Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary IV, 909–18) comments on this scene:

Thus, Moses vicariously bears Yahweh’s wrath against his people. His death alone in Moab takes on a vicarious quality as well. Yahweh buries him and “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (34:6). There can be no sacred monument where pilgrims can share in a memorial ceremony for Moses. He must live in the hearts of the people as the greatest prophet of all, the one with whom Yahweh spoke “face to face” (34:10).

Second Reading: Church as religious club

Collegia and Koina in the early Christian movement

As we continue our series on 1 Thessalonians, this week we consider the question of what kind of social organization Paul formed as he moved from one place to another, leaving more or less viable Christian communities in his wake. Paul addressed his friends in Thessalonika as:

… the Assembly (Greek, ekklesia) of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ

But how did he understand this new community? How would the members of Thessalonika “assembly” have understood their community, and in what way did it relate to the wider civic community? Were these primitive churches new social types created from nothing, were they adaptations of the traditional Jewish synagogue, or were they traditional Hellenistic social types?

For some time now, it has been clear that the voluntary associations found in many Hellenistic centers provide a convincing model for the creation and early development of Christian communities such as the Thessalonian church.

The Greek word for such a group is koinon (from which we derive the word koinonia, community or fellowship), while the Latin collegium survives in the English word, College. With that in mind, the familiar words of “The Grace” take on a new significance:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Categories of voluntary associations

Richard S. Ascough has been a prolific researcher in this area with numerous publications to his credit:

  • “Associations, Collegia, and Clubs.” The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld. Nashville: Abingdon.
  • “Greco-Roman Philosophic, Religious, and Voluntary Associations.” in Richard N. Longenecker (ed), Community Formation in the Early Church and the Church Today. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002) Pages 3-24.
  • “The Thessalonian Christian Community as a Professional Voluntary Association.” Journal of Biblical Literature 119 (2000): 311–28
  • “Translocal Relationships among Voluntary Associations and Early Christianity.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 5 (1997): 223–41.
  • “Voluntary Associations and Community Formation: Paul’s Macedonian Christian Communities in Context.” Ph.D. diss., University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology, 1997.
  • What Are They Saying about the Formation of Pauline Churches? New York: Paulist, 1998.

Ascough (2002) provides a helpful definition for voluntary associations as a specific kind of group in antiquity:

A “group” is generally defined as a collection of persons with a feeling of common identity, goals, and norms. For example, slaves working the Roman mines in Spain had—whether they liked it or not—a common social identity (slave), a common goal (mining), and shared norms of behavior (work or be punished). “Associations,” however, are more formal than groups. Associations are composed of persons who not only share common interests and activities but also have deliberately organized for some specific purpose or purposes. As such, associations have established rules of organization and procedure and established patterns of leadership.
Associations can be divided into two basic categories: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary associations have a membership based on birth or compulsion. This was generally the case with the demes and phratries of ancient Athens. It is also true of a conscripted army. Voluntary associations, however, are formed by persons who freely and deliberately choose to join and who can likewise choose to resign. Examples would be a guild of actors or a gathering of Isis worshippers.
Voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world have a long history, going back at least to the laws of Solon in sixth-century B.C.E. Athens. Such associations continued to grow through the classical period and were flourishing in the Hellenistic period. During the first century C.E. their presence was felt throughout the entire Roman Empire in cities and villages alike—although, of course, there is considerably more attestation for associations in urban centers than in rural areas. A variety of extant sources attest to various voluntary associations in antiquity. These include literary texts, papyri, inscriptions, and archaeological remains.

In his opening contribution to the 2002 set of essays edited by Richard Longenecker, Ascough focuses on three types of associations in the Greco-Roman world:

(1) philosophical associations, which are sometimes called philosophical schools;
(2) public religious associations, which are often called “mystery religions”; and
(3) private religious and professional associations, which are usually referred to more generically as “voluntary” associations.

His comments on the public religious associations can be noted briefly before we consider in more detail his description of the private religious associations which may have provided the model for many early Christian communities:

When discussing “religious associations” the primary focus is usually on the ancient mysteries, which are often misnamed “mystery religions.” Walter Burkert distinguishes three types of organization around the ancient mysteries: (1) the itinerant practitioner; (2) the sanctuary; and (3) the association of worshipers (Ancient Mystery Cults, 31). In the case of the itinerant, “there was no backing by a corporation or community” (ibid., 31). The remaining two categories can be characterized as “public” and “private” religious associations, respectively. And although they had some similar organizational characteristics, they were dissimilar enough to warrant separate investigation. Public religious associations were most often found connected to a public sanctuary and fell under the administration of the city (polis). Within this realm lies the mystery cults, which themselves were often tied to the polis—as was the case of the mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, near Athens. Other well-known and popular mysteries include those of Dionysus, Demeter, Isis, and Mithras. For the most part these mysteries began as local cult groups but, at least by the first or second century C.E., grew to have a broader appeal throughout the Greco-Roman world.

His general observations about the character of private religious associations are immediately relevant to early Christianity:

Whereas the philosophical associations (“philosophical schools”) and public religious associations (“mystery religions”) were legal within the Roman Empire, private religious associations and professional associations (usually referred to more generically as “voluntary” associations) were technically barred under various Roman laws enacted as early as 184 B.C.E. Exceptions were granted to associations considered to have been established for some time—as, for example, the Jewish synagogues, which used this exemption to claim protection from local civic authorities. Yet despite occasional suppression by the authorities, voluntary associations never completely disappeared, and they were always able to reassert themselves as a viable presence in Greco-Roman society.

Private Religious Associations

Private religious associations met for the primary purpose of religious worship, but did so outside of the larger, civically sanctioned mysteries and cults of the day. Their domain was generally domestic—although a number of associations met in public spaces, and some even met as private religious associations within a larger public cult. Membership in a private religious association was based primarily on the attraction of the particular deity or deities worshiped. As such, they tended to draw persons from all strata of Greco-Roman society— although the elites of society were probably not as numerous in such associations as were the urban poor, slaves, and freed persons. Religious associations were generally gender-inclusive, at least in admitting to membership both males and females. As one inscription puts it, they are open to “men and women, freeborn and slaves” (SIG, 3d ed., 985). One even finds instances of the membership of children in Dionysiac religious associations. Nevertheless, there were also religious associations that were gender-exclusive—either all male or all female. And in mixed gender associations positions of leadership tended to be predominantly male, although there were a number of exceptions.

In view of Paul’s personal occupation as a “tent maker,” it is also worth noting what Ascough has to say about professional associations based on the members’ occupations:

Professional voluntary associations, or guilds, were made up of artisans or manual laborers. Guilds from a wide range of professions existed throughout the Greco-Roman world. Among laborers there were guilds for almost every profession, including leather-workers, purple-dyers, carpenters, bakers, tanners, silversmiths, and the like. Domestic workers tended to stick together and so formed associations comprised exclusively of such. Entertainers had their own guilds; evidence exists for such associations as actors (“Dionysiac artists”), gladiators, and athletes. Professional musicians even formed themselves into professional associations, with their members being employed each year for the various cultic celebrations—such as those of the Andanian mysteries. There are, in fact, very few professions not represented in the extant records of the professional voluntary associations of antiquity.
Although the central commonality among members of professional associations was their occupation, the religious aspect of such associations should not be discounted. In every instance professional associations claimed the patronage of a deity or deities, and they took seriously their worship of such deities; whenever they met, the gods were invoked, and special festivals and rituals were central to their communal life. Often the deity or deities chosen had some connection to the particular profession. Thus we find such connections as a Delian association of shippers who worshipped Poseidon, the god of the sea, or an association of gardeners dedicated to the earth goddess Demeter. A number of different professions were associated with Dionysus, such as winegrowers, cowherds, actors, and pantomimes.
Professional associations, as well as private religious associations, were generally small in terms of membership, averaging perhaps fifteen to one hundred— although at times they could reach as high as four hundred or even twelve hundred members. The social status of the members was generally tied to the status of their particular profession within Greco-Roman society. As a highly structured culture, each profession would have had its place within the social stratification of the day. It is therefore safe to assume that, being laborers, the majority of the members of professional associations were of the artisan class, and so generally poor. Within this underclass, however, professional associations could include slaves, freed persons, and free persons. In a number of instances, in fact, recorded members of professional associations have three names, which indicates that they were Roman citizens. Likewise, the professional associations of antiquity had some wealthy members and drew on patrons to sponsor their activities.

Ascough discusses questions such as the role of gender in these associations, their organizational structures, their finances and key functions, the role of benefactors and the pathways to leadership roles within the association, tensions between different associations and between members of the same association, allegations of immorality made by outsiders and internal admonitions to moral conduct.

He then cites a particularly illustrative text from Philadelphia, in Egypt, where a papyrus text sets out the “authoritative” laws of the association (synodos) of Zeus Hypsistos (P. Lond. 7.2193; dated about 69–58 B.C.E.). The association met in a public temple and elected a president and his assistant for a one-year term, during which time a monthly banquet was to be held, with libations, prayers, and “other customary rites on behalf of the god.” The text then goes on to set forth the association’s communal regulations:

All are to obey the president and his assistant in the matters pertaining to the association (koinon), and they shall be present at all command occasions to be prescribed for them and at meetings and assemblies (synagogai) and outings. It shall not be permissible for any one of them to [. . . . . . . . ] or to make factions or to leave the brotherhood of the president to join another brotherhood or for men to enter into one another’s pedigrees at the banquet, or to abuse one another at the banquet, or to chatter or to indict or charge another or to resign for the course of the year or again to bring the drinking to nought.

The Island of Delos

Ancient Delos is often cited as an example of a Hellenistic community whose archaeological remains provide a glimpse into the diversity of public and private religious associations from that era. John Dominic Crossan (In Search of Paul, 48) describes the evidence from Delos:

Over twenty congregational cults are mentioned on Delian inscriptions, and a number of their buildings have been excavated. Down in the civic center, altars and inscriptions testify to the “Hermaistai,” a collegium of Italian merchants who gathered under the patronage of and sacrificed to the Roman god Mercury, whom the Greeks called Hermes. Another inscription mentions the association called the “Heraclesiastai of Tyre, Merchants and Shippers,” a group from the Phoenician coastal city of Tyre who worshipped the ancient Semitic god Melkart, now called Heracles in Greek. Another Phoenician association, the “Poseidonistai of Berytos, Merchants, Shippers and Warehousemen,” met under the patronage of the sea god Poseidon and sacrificed to him for safe passage.

A little later on the same page, Crossan describes one of the sarapeia, buildings dedicated to the worship of the Egyptian god Sarapis and his consort, Isis:

[The first Sarapeion] enclosed by walls and rooms encircling a courtyard that contained a small temple, was somewhat sheltered but not quite hidden from public view. That temple housed the deities’ images and was built above a subterranean crypt and spring. Outside the temple in the courtyard there was a moneybox for donations and three altars where oxen, pigs or birds were once sacrificed, and behind that was a large trapezoidal dining hall with marble benches lining all four walls. A lengthy inscription found there proclaims that “seats and eating couches were installed in the dining hall for the feast to which the god invites us,” and a now damaged relief portrays the goddess Isis serving Sarapis as he dines at a banquet. The members not only sacrificed but also socialized in the Sarapeion by eating the meat at sacred meals honoring Sarapis and Isis.

Crossan expresses the underlying question:

Is this little dining hall, which seats some or or two dozen people, the sort of place we should imagine Paul celebrating the Lord’s Supper? Or is this the sort of place that newcomers expected after Paul invited them to a communal meal? Or did they anticipate a Jewish model instead of a pagan one?

Crossan answers his final question with a brief description of a Jewish synagogue found at Delos, whose architectural features are “not much different from that of any other voluntary association.” The structure is identified as a synagogue mostly because of epigraphic data from some surviving inscriptions that refer to “the Most High God.” Crossan draws out the significance of this discovery:

… the structure was not radically distinct from its context or clearly identifiable as Jewish. Jews had, to some degree, assimilated architecturally to their diaspora settings, and those on Delos had adopted the more or less common structure of the island’s other voluntary associations. Like the members of those other groups, they sat on benches and held banquets; and they inscribed in Greek like their neighbors and not in Hebrew like their ancestors. But unlike their neighbors they had no altars and no sacrifices, since, for Jews, sacrificing was only valid in Jerusalem, just as, for Samaritans, it was only valid on Mt Gerazim. In accordance with the second commandment of Moses, they had no shrines set aside for statues and no images of their deity, even though a few lamps with pagan images were found inside the building. Like many later synagogues, it faced the rising sun, but so did many pagan temples.

Paul and the koinonia of Christ

The widespread social phenomenon of the congregational cult, as Crossan terms the ancient koina, provided Paul with both a network of communities within which he could operate, as well as a familiar model for his fledgling communities to adopt for their own communal gatherings to celebrate the supper of the Lord, to share the cup of blessing, to share the one bread and to pool their resources for the common good. This context helps us make sense of a text such as 1 Cor 10:14-22, which now reads almost like a Christian parallel to the rules of the synodos of Zeus Hypsistos:

Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Gospel: Jesus and the Pharisees

The Gospel this week presents two incidents in which Jesus confronts the Pharisees, serving here as representatives of post-70 Judaism.

Recent studies of Second Temple Judaism and of Galilee prior to the Jewish-Roman war have suggested that Pharisees were not typically found in Galilee in the time of Jesus, but would have been present in Jerusalem. While Christians have often contrasted the theological emphases of Jesus and the Pharisees, these stereotypes may not reflect the situation in Jesus’ own time. Indeed, the only first century Pharisee whose religious writings have survived is Paul of Tarsus, the great Apostle of Jesus. While he describes himself as a persecutor of Christians prior to his own encounter with the risen Christ, it is not cear whether his vehement opposition to “the Way” was derived specifically from his beliefs as a Pharisee or more generally from his disposition as a Torah-observant Jew.

Anthony J. Saldarini has been one of the leading scholars researching this topic. The following extracts from the synthesis at the end of his extensive article in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (V, 289-303) is both enlightening and cautionary:

The Pharisees in Josephus’ narrative function as a political interest group which had its own goals for society and constantly engaged in political activity to achieve them, even though it did not always succeed. They generally did not have direct power as a group and were not as a whole members of the governing class. They were members of a literate, corporate, voluntary association which constantly sought influence with the governing class. As such they were above the peasants and other lower classes but dependent on the governing class and ruler for their place in society. They were found in Jerusalem, and they probably fulfilled administrative or bureaucratic functions in society at certain times. They appear in each era of Jewish history from the Hasmonean period until the destruction of the Temple struggling to gain access to power and to influence society.
The Pharisaic association probably functioned as a social movement organization seeking to change society. The social, political, and economic situation of Palestinian Jews underwent a number of upheavals in the Greco-Roman period which demanded adaptation of Jewish customs and a reinterpretation of the Jewish identity fashioned by the biblical tradition. The Hasmoneans and the governing class changed Israel into a small, militarily active Hellenistic kingdom and took control of political and economic resources in order to control society. The Pharisees probably sought a new, communal commitment to a strict Jewish way of life based on adherence to the covenant. If they did so, they sought to capitalize on popular sentiment for rededication to or reform of Judaism. Such popular sentiment can produce a social movement which seeks reform, but a long-lasting, complex campaign for reform or renewal requires the formation of a social movement organization which aims at promoting or resisting change in society at large.

A major question unanswered by the sources concerns the daily activities of the Pharisees and the source of their livelihood. The older theory that they were urban artisans is very unlikely because artisans were poor, uneducated, and uninfluential. The more common theory that the Pharisees were a lay scribal movement, that is, a group of religious scholars and intellectuals who displaced the traditional leaders and gained great authority over the community (most recently, Rivkin 1978: 211–51), is likewise very unlikely. Though some Pharisees were part of the governing class, most Pharisees were subordinate officials, bureaucrats, judges, and educators. They are best understood as retainers, that is, literate servants of the governing class, who had a program for Jewish society and influence with both the people and their patrons. When the opportunity arose, they sought power over society. This means that their organizations cannot be viewed as a monastic-like community or withdrawn sect which demands primary and total commitment from every member. It is most likely that Pharisees were active in a number of occupations and roles in society and were bound together by certain beliefs and practices and by endeavors to influence social change.
Concretely, a person was not primarily a Pharisee. A member of the Pharisees retained his family and territorial allegiances, his roles in society and occupation, his friends and network of associates. In some way not revealed in reliable first-century sources he committed himself to be a Pharisee, and this commitment with its particular understanding of the Jewish covenant and Jewish life guided many of his endeavors and claimed a part of his time, energy, and resources. The Pharisaic movement has some characteristics in common with Greek schools of thought and must have educated its members to some degree. This view of the Pharisees, admittedly hypothetical due to lack of evidence, is consistent with what the sources tell us of the Pharisees, including the information given by Saul the Pharisee.

The greatest commandment

The first exchange this week presents a classic scene that certainly can be imagined within the context of 1C Judaism, but is even more likely to reflect the tensions between followers of Jesus and Torah-observant Jewsh communities in the final decades of the frst century.

The following excerpts from the notes at 201 The Chief Commandment underline the essential Jewishness of this question, and of Jesus’ response:

A proselyte approached Hillel with the request Hillel teach him the whole of the Torah while the student stood on one foot. Hillel responded, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the Law. Everything else is commentary. Now go learn that!” (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a) Jesus’ saying about the double commandment of love was clearly coined before his time. … both verses from the Bible (Deut. 6:5 and Lev, 19:18) begin with the same word. It was typical of rabbinic scholarship to see similarly phrased passages from the Bible as connected in content also. The first great commandment of Jesus—love of God—was thus in harmony with the spirit of contemporary Pharisaism. … the double commandment of love existed in ancient Judaism before, and alongside, Jesus. The fact that it does not appear in the rabbinical documents that have come down to us is probably accidental. Mark (12:28-34) and Luke (10:25-28) show that on the question of “the great commandment” Jesus and the scribes were in agreement. [David Flusser, Jesus, 89f]

Son of David

The theme of Jesus as a descendant of David enjoys early and wide attestation in ancient Christian texts, as reviewed at 007 Of Davids Lineage

In this scene the theme is asserted in an argument that relies on a pre-critical understanding of the Psalms, but reflects a widely-attested view of the Psalms as prophetic texts. Such views are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as in the New Testament texts. They presumably reflect the biblical knowledge of early Christian scribes rather than the rhetorical strategies of Jesus himself.

In the aphorisms and parables—which seem to reflect the “voice print” of Jesus more closely than a passage such as this—there is no suggestion that Jesus relied upon Scripture for his material, nor that he engaged in the hermeneutical practices of the scribal elites—such as we find in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, Jesus seems to have been an oral poet who drew his inspiration from observations of everyday life and from his participation in the life of Second Temple Israel, a community whose values and hopes were inscribed in the Scriptures but mostly transmitted in the living oral tradition of a society with minimal literacy rates.

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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  1. Dr. Jinks: Many thanks for this highly informative and engaging work. As a student, many years ago of Abraham Malherbe and Rowan Greer, the topics you mention remain of much interest to me. Have done a brief check of your website and look forward with eagerness to gaining the benefits your insights at greater length.
    Terry Boesen

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