Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Intermediate State in the New Testament: Introduction

Note: This post is the introduction to a series that will unfold here over the next week or two, taken from a paper I wrote last semester (Fall 2011).

Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have tried to gather information from the New Testament (NT) about the intermediate state between death and the eschaton. What, however, does the NT teach about this subject? To provide an answer to this question, I will first place the NT pareschatologies* within their broader Jewish context, then I will survey each NT author’s writings in chronological order, in order to discover what exactly they teach about an intermediate state. I conclude with the argument that the NT does not, in fact, provide a uniform picture of the intermediate state; instead, each author speculated about the intermediate state based on his sources, background, and situation, writing as he saw fit.

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* I am indebted to John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 22 for this term. We should distinguish between eschatology (the last things) and pareschatology (the next-to-last things—the state between death and the eschaton).

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Greek Wednesday: Structural Elements in Greek Tragedy, pt. 2

[This guide is adapted from Donald J. Mastronarde, Euripides: Medea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 74-75. All links in citations point to Perseus.]

Note: This is part two in a series. Part one is here.

Iambic trimeter is the main meter of dialogue. In addition, some plays use trochaic tetrameter as a “by-form” (74) of dialogue. Trochaic tetrameter was used frequently in early tragedy, then were used infrequently in mature tragedy, and then saw a revival in many of the plays from Euripides’ last decade. The tetrameter is more dance-like and is potentially less serious than iambic verse, and it often accompanies more agitated action or emotion than iambic verse.

Early trochaic tetrameter: Continue reading

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“Ecumenism is the Devil’s Game”

“I agree that ecuminicism [sic] is the devil’s game…”
(From a comment on this blog post.)

Such a sentiment flies in the face of how Christians are to treat each other. The Bible clearly says that God’s followers should love each other and have unity among them:

How good and pleasant it is
when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the LORD bestows his blessing,
even life forevermore.

(Psalm 133)

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. . . . We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

(1 John 4:7-12, 19-21)

To declare that ecumenism, which may be succinctly defined as “inter-denominational humility, charity, and love,” is “the devil’s game” is to profoundly misunderstand the nature of Christian teaching. Doctrine is not a weapon to be wielded against others, nor is it barbed wire for setting up division within the Church.

To take the the Bible seriously — to believe truly that it is “good and pleasant . . . when God’s people live together in unity,” that “there the LORD bestows his blessing, / even life forevermore,” and that “whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” — means that efforts to unite God’s universal church (i.e., ecumenism) must be received not with hate, but with joy.

So, is ecumenism the devil’s game? No. In fact, it is quite the opposite — it is a movement of the Spirit to unite God’s church after two millennia of division.

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Greek Wednesday: Structural Elements in Greek Tragedy, pt. 1

[My apologies for the belated Greek Wednesday. This guide is adapted from Donald J. Mastronarde, Euripides: Medea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 74-75. All links in citations point to Perseus.]

Note: This is part one in a series. Part two is here.

“The alternation of song and speech was basic to the genre of tragedy from its inception” (74). The contrast between sung lyric meters and spoken meters largely parallels the contrast between the chorus and the actors, though crossover sometimes does occur. For instance, though the chorus usually sings, members of the chorus may, at times, speak; likewise, though actors usually speak, they may, at times, sing.

The head of the chorus (the koryphaios) speaks in iambic trimeters, sometimes in short dialogue with an actor: Continue reading

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My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy and heresy are interesting things.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that the limits of true Christianity are often inscrutable. That is, I’m willing to count not only the orthodox as true believers, but also many heretics, as well. I’m finding that this position is becoming increasingly hard to hold without some measure of doublethink. On the one side of things, the weight of church tradition stands firmly on the side of a sharp distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, with only the orthodox being counted as true believers. But on the other hand, the weight of church history stands firmly on the side of pluralism, because if only the orthodox are true believers, then no one is a true believer.

On the one hand, church tradition. Ever since Justin Martyr’s denunciation of Marcion in the second century, extending all the way to contemporary culture warriors, the church has had a strong tradition of heresy-hunting. This view makes sense for two reasons. First, in order for an ethnos (a “people,” which is the way the early Christians saw themselves — as a race) to be a true ethnos — that is, for all the members of the ethnos to share common practices — ethnic boundary markers must be in place. It must be very clear who is and who is not part of the Christian people. By necessity, that entails defining what is right practice (orthodoxy) and wrong practice (heterodoxy/heresy) and setting those up as religio-ethnic distinctives. Second, this view is the most scientific. According to the scientific method, a hypothesis is either right or wrong — there is no “maybe” in a rigorous description of how the world works. Likewise, since God is knowable and has revealed himself objectively, it is possible to determine exactly what modes of worship and service he finds acceptable and which he finds unacceptable. Therefore, we may distinguish very easily between right and wrong worship.

On the other hand, church history. Since 1054 CE, every Christian has been a heretic. (1054, of course, was when the Great Schism took place, with the Eastern and Western churches excommunicating each other.) To an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heretics. To Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox are heretics. To Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are heretics. Each subgroup of Christianity has claimed to be the only right way to worship God. The problem, of course, is that each side uses the same text (the Bible) to support their views, and each side is deeply convinced of their own superiority over the others. So, among the Christian churches, it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong worship.

Thus, the two sides rage inside me. It is intensely difficult to believe, based on church tradition, that there is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable worship, while also believing, based on church history, that it is impossible to know what that distinction is.

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Redaction Criticism and Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking about redaction criticism lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the folly of assuming that a book of the Bible was composed by a single author simply because it has traditionally been attributed to a single author. For instance, the Pentateuch was most probably edited from several source documents over the course of a few centuries, rather than being written all at once by Moses (with Joshua adding a tag at the end). It is also highly likely that 1 and 2 Corinthians have at least a couple interpolations, from marginal notes being copied into the text. Interestingly, the sample problems are being explored in Homer scholarship, too — whether the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by Homer (who may not even have existed) or were composed over the course of a long period of time and only later attributed to Homer.

(As a sidebar, I do wonder if conservative Christians during the early 1900s rejected historical criticism not for the methodology so much as for the results, which they saw as an attack on their faith, and, rather than thinking through  the evidence, shooed it away and declared it anathema. But that’s another post for another day.)

Let’s take a contemporary example of redaction and interpolation: Wikipedia. We all know that no one single person is “the author” of Wikipedia. However, let’s imagine a time, maybe 1000 years in the future, where the original Wikipedia was lost to the ravages of the Internet, but someone had the foresight (or luck) to preserve a print copy of some of Wikipedia’s entries, which was then, through some miracle of history, meticulously copied and transmitted for 1000 years. Over the course of a millennium, a tradition has cropped up regarding Wikipedia, assigning a single author to each of the articles.

By this time, a group of Wikipedia scholars has cropped up. However, because the only remaining evidence of Wikipedia is the collection of articles, which have no authorship attached, but which also show clear signs of multiple authors, there is a lively debate in this niche of scholarship about Wikipedia’s authorship. On the one side, some scholars claim that, because each article is a unified source, each article must have been written by a single person. On the other side, other scholars claim that they have determined, through redaction and linguistic criticism, that the articles were, in fact, written by several people over the course of time. (Thankfully, scanners and photocopiers kept the number of textual variants to a minimum!)

We all know, of course, how silly it is to assert that a given Wikipedia article, especially one of the featured articles, has been written by a single author. But, assuming all we had was the text of major Wikipedia articles, would it be any more valid to say that Wikipedia articles are the work of a single author? Of course not.

The implications of this Wikipedia principle are, I would hope, very clear. In the case of a text like the Pentateuch, or the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even our hypothetical Wikipedia, multiple authorship is infinitely more likely than single authorship. It is invalid to perpetuate a tradition in the face of contrary evidence.

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1 Peter 3:18-20 and Gospel of Peter 38-42

I’ve been pondering a lot lately the remarkable similarities between 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6, and Gospel of Peter 38-42. Here are these three passages, for comparison’s sake:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

1 Peter 3:18-20

For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.

1 Peter 4:6

And so those soldiers, having seen, awakened the centurion and the elders (for they too were present, safeguarding). And while they were relating what they had seen, again they see three males who have come out from they sepulcher, with the two supporting the other one, and a cross following them, and the head of the two reaching unto heaven, but that of the one being led out by a hand by them going beyond the heavens. And they were hearing a voice from the heavens saying, “Have you made proclamation to the fallen-asleep?” And an obeisance was heard from the cross, “Yes.”

Gospel of Peter 38-42

These passages in 1 Peter have been devilishly hard for interpreters. At face value, they seem to say that Jesus, after he was crucified, traveled to a heavenly prison where God kept the souls of the sinners who died in the Noahic flood, converted them, and then was resurrected. It is now virtually scholarly consensus, however, that, following 1 Enoch, the “spirits in prison” are fallen angels. Moreover, according to consensus, ἐκήρυξεν (ekēruxen, “preached”) in 1 Peter 3:19 does not mean that Jesus preached to these fallen angels in order to convert them; instead, it means that he proclaimed to them his victory. This text thus has no direct relation to 4:6; “the spirits in prison” of 3:19 are not “the dead” of 4:6.

It seems to me, though, that Gospel of Peter 38-42 functions as a sort of narrative commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6. That is, it seems entirely plausible to me that a later community, having a copy of 1 Peter, read 3:18-4:6 at face value and inserted them into the resurrection narrative: Jesus quite literally preached to the dead between the time he was crucified and the time he was resurrected.

Another option, though somewhat less likely, is that 1 Peter 3:19-20 and 4:6 are interpolations into the text of the epistle, based on the sequence of events that found its way into the Gospel of Peter. For instance, here is the latter part of 1 Peter 3 both with and without verses 19-20. (For the sake of space, I won’t show the same comparison with 1 Peter 4; 1 Peter 3 represents them both well enough.)

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. . . . Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.

Notice that the second paragraph still makes perfect sense; baptism here doesn’t correspond to the Noahic flood, it corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection (much like it does in Paul, in Romans 6). The “in which…” phrase could thus be an interpolation of a note, written in the margin by a member of the Petrine community or somesuch, but copied into the body of the letter by a later scribe (like we have in 2 Corinthians).

Unfortunately, while interesting the think about, the latter option is pure speculation, and should be taken with a grain of salt. I do find the first idea compelling, though, and would thus argue that in the Gospel of Peter we have an early commentary on 1 Peter 3 and 4. (From this conclusion, we may conclude two other things: 1) since 1 Peter and the Gospel of Peter have such similar ideas about what happened to Jesus between his death and his resurrection, they came from the same community, which was probably self-consciously Petrine; 2) this Petrine Christianity seems much more mystical than Pauline Christianity or that of the Evangelists.)

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