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Rightly Understanding God's Word

Bible Background

Part 2 of 2

by Craig S. Keener

PNEUMA REVIEW Winter 2005 (Volume 8, Number 1)




Examples of Using Cultural Background continued from the Fall 2004 issue of the Pneuma Review:

7. The Kingdom Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13

Many pagans added up as many names of their deities as possible, reminding the deities of all their sacrifices and how the deities were therefore obligated in some sense to answer them. Jesus, however, says that we should predicate our prayers instead on the relationship our heavenly Father has given us with himself: we can cry out to him because he is our Father (Matt 6:7-9).

Jesus used some things in his culture, which was already full of biblical knowledge. Jesus here adapts a common synagogue prayer, that went something like this: "Our Father in heaven, exalted and hallowed be your great and glorious name, and may your kingdom come speedily and soon..." Jewish people expected a time when God's name would be "hallowed," or shown to be holy, among all peoples. For Jewish people, there was a sense in which God reigns in the present, but when they prayed for the coming of God's kingdom they were praying for him to rule unchallenged over all the earth and his will to be done on earth just as it is in heaven. Jesus therefore taught his disciples to pray for God's reign to come soon, when God's name would be universally honored.

To ask God for "daily bread" recalls how God provided bread each day for Israel in the wilderness; God is still our provider. To ask God to forgive our "debts" would stir a familiar image for many of Jesus' hearers. Poor peasants had to borrow much money to sow their crops, and Jesus' contemporaries understood that our sins were debts before God. To ask God not to "lead us into temptation" probably recalls a Jewish synagogue prayer of the day which asked God to preserve people from sinning. If so, the prayer might mean not, "Let us not be tested," but rather, "Do not let us fail the test" (compare 26:41, 45).

8. Enemy Soldiers Torture and Mock Jesus in Matthew 27:27-34

Over six hundred Roman soldiers were staying at the Fortress Antonia and at Pilate's palace (which once belonged to Herod the Great). Not recognizing that the true king of Israel and humanity stood before them, they mocked him as a pretend king. Roman soldiers were known for abusing and taunting prisoners; one ancient form of mockery was to dress someone as a king. Since soldiers wore red robes, they probably used a faded soldier's cloak to imitate the purple robe of earlier Greek rulers. People venerating such rulers would kneel before them, as here. Military floggings often used bamboo canes, so the soldiers may have had one available they could use as a mock king's scepter. "Hail!" was the standard salute people gave to the Roman Emperor.

Spitting on a person was one of the most grievous insults a person could offer, and Jewish people considered the spittle of non-Jews particularly unclean. Romans stripped their captives naked—especially shameful for Palestinian Jews; then they hanged the convict publicly.

Normally the condemned person was to carry the horizontal beam (Latin patibulum) of the cross himself, out to the site where the upright stake (Latin palus) awaited him; but Jesus' back had been too severely scourged beforehand for him to do this (27:26). Such scourgings often left the flesh of the person's back hanging down in bloody strips, sometimes left his bones showing, and sometimes led to the person's death from shock and blood loss. Thus the soldiers had to draft Simon of Cyrene to carry the crossbeam. Cyrene, a large city in what is now Libya in North Africa, had a large Jewish community (perhaps one quarter of the city) which no doubt included local converts. Like multitudes of foreign Jews and converts, Simon had come to Jerusalem for the feast. Roman soldiers could "impress" any person into service to carry things for them. Despite Jesus' teaching in Matthew 16:24, the soldiers had to draft a bystander to do what Jesus' disciples proved unwilling to do.

Crucifixion was the most shameful and painful form of execution known in the Roman world. Unable to privately excrete his wastes the dying person would excrete them publicly. Sometimes soldiers tied the condemned person to the cross; at other times they nailed them, as with Jesus. The dying man thus could not swat away insects attracted to his bloodied back or other wounds. Crucifixion victims sometimes took three days to finish dying.

The women of Jerusalem prepared a pain-killing potion of drugged wine for condemned men to drink; Jesus refused it (cf. 26:29). The myrrh-mixed wine of Mark 15:23, a delicacy and possibly an external pain reliever, becomes wine mixed with gall in Matthew; cf. Ps. 69:21 and the similarity between the Aramaic word for "myrrh" and Hebrew for "gall." Even without myrrh, wine itself was a painkiller (Prov 31:6-7). But Jesus refused it. Though we forsook him and fled when he needed us most, he came to bear our pain, and chose to bear it in full measure. Such is God's love for us all.

9. Adultery and Murder in Mark 6:17-29

Herod Antipas's affair with his sister-in-law Herodias, whom he had by this time married, was widely known. Indeed, the affair had led him to plan to divorce his first wife, whose father, a king, later went to war with Herod because of this insult and defeated him. John's denunciation of the affair as unlawful (Lev. 20:21) challenged Herod's sexual immorality, but Herod Antipas could have perceived it as a political threat, given the political ramifications that later led to a major military defeat. (The ancient Jewish historian Josephus claims that many viewed Herod's humiliation in the war as divine judgment for him executing John the Baptist.)

Celebrating birthdays was at this time a Greek and Roman but not a Jewish custom, but Jewish aristocrats had absorbed a large amount of Greek culture by this period. Other sources confirm that the Herodian court indulged in the sort of immoral behavior described here. After taking his brother's wife (Lev. 20:21), Antipas lusts after his wife's daughter Salome (cf. Lev. 20:14). He then utters the sort of oath one might give while drunk, but which especially recalls that of the Persian king stirred by Queen Esther's beauty (Esther 5:3, 6, 7:2), though this girl's request will be far less noble. But as a Roman vassal Herod had no authority to give any of his kingdom away anyway.

Salome had to go "out" to ask her mother Herodias because women and men normally dined separately at banquets. Excavations at Antipas's fortress Machaerus suggest two dining halls, one for women and one for men; Herodias thus was probably not present to watch Herod's reaction to the dance. Josephus characterizes Herodias the same way Mark does: a jealous, ambitious schemer.

Although Romans and their agents usually executed lower class persons and slaves by crucifixion or other means, the preferred form of execution for respectable people was beheading. By asking for John's head on a platter, however, Salome wanted it served up as part of the dinner menu—a ghastly touch of ridicule. Although Antipas's oath was not legally binding and Jewish sages could release him from it, it would have proved embarrassing to break an oath before dinner guests; even the emperor would not lightly do that. Most people were revolted by leaders who had heads brought to them, but many accounts confirm that powerful tyrants like Antipas had such things done.

If a man had sons, normally the eldest son was responsible for his father's burial; here, John's disciples must fulfill this role for him. Since he had been executed, the disciples performed a dangerous task unless they had Herod's permission to take the body. Their courage underlines, by way of contrast, the abandonment of Jesus' male disciples during his burial.

10. A New King's Birthday in Luke 2:1-14

Censuses were used especially to evaluate taxation requirements. A tax census instigated by the revered emperor Augustus here begins the narrative's contrast between Caesar's earthly pomp and Christ's heavenly glory. Although Egyptian census records show that people had to return to their homes for a tax census, the "home" to which they returned was where they owned property, not simply where they were born (censuses registered persons according to property). Joseph thus must have still held property in Bethlehem. Betrothal provided most of the legal rights of marriage, but intercourse was forbidden; Joseph was courageous to take his pregnant betrothed with him, even if (as is quite possible) she was also a Bethlehemite who had to return to that town. Although tax laws in most of the Empire only required the head of a household to appear, the province of Syria (then including Judea) also taxed women. But Joseph may have simply wished to avoid leaving her alone this late in her pregnancy, especially if the circumstances of her pregnancy had deprived her of other friends.

The "swaddling clothes" were long cloth strips used to keep babies' limbs straight so they could grow properly. Midwives normally assisted at birth; especially since this was Mary's first child, it is likely (though not clear from the text) that a midwife would have been found to assist her. Jewish law permitted midwives to travel a long distance even on the Sabbath to assist in delivery.

By the early second century even pagans were widely aware of the tradition that Jesus was born in a cave used as a livestock shelter behind someone's home. The manger was a feeding trough for animals; sometimes these may have been built into the floor. The traditional "inn" could as easily be translated "home" or "guest room," and probably means that, since many of Joseph's scattered family members had returned to the home at once, it was easier for Mary to bear in the vacant cave outside.

Many religious people and especially the social elite in this period generally despised shepherds as a low-class occupation; but God sees differently than people do. Pasturing of flocks at night indicates that this was a warmer season, not winter (when they would graze more in the day); December 25 was later adopted as Christmas only to supercede a pagan Roman festival scheduled at that time.

Pagans spoke of the "good news" of the emperor's birthday, celebrated throughout the empire; they hailed the emperor as "Savior" and "Lord." They used choirs in imperial temples to worship the emperor. They praised the current emperor, Augustus, for having inaugurated a worldwide "peace." But the lowly manger distinguishes the true king from the Roman emperor; Jesus is the true Savior, Lord, bringer of universal peace. God is not impressed with human power or honor; he came as the lowliest of all among the lowliest of all, revealing God's special heart toward those who most depend on him for their help.

11. Demands of Discipleship in Luke 9:58-62

Warning a prospective disciple that the Son of Man has less of a home than foxes and birds indicates that those who follow him may lack the same securities. Disciples usually sought out their own teachers (in contrast to Jesus, who called some of his own). Some radical philosophers who eschewed possessions sought to repulse prospective disciples with enormous demands, for the purpose of testing them and acquiring only the most worthy disciples. Many Palestinian Jews were poor, but few were homeless; Jesus had given up even home to travel and was completely dependent on the hospitality and support of others.

The man who wants to bury his father is not asking for a short delay: his father has not died that day or the day before. Family members carried the body to the tomb shortly after its death and then remained at home for seven days to mourn. The man could be saying, as in some similar Middle Eastern cultures, "Let me wait until my father dies someday and I fulfill my obligation to bury him." The other possibility is that he refers to his father's second burial, a custom practiced precisely in this period. A year after the first burial, after the flesh had rotted off the bones, the son would return to rebury the bones in a special box in a slot in the wall. This son could thus be asking for as much as a year's delay.

One of an eldest son's most basic responsibities was his father's burial. Jesus' demand that the son place Jesus above the greatest responsibility a son could offer his father would thus have defied the social order: in Jewish tradition, honoring father and mother was one of the greatest commandments, and to follow Jesus in such a radical way would have seemed like breaking this commandment.

But while the second inquirer learned the priority of following Jesus, the third learns the urgency of following Jesus. One prospective disciple requests merely permission to say farewell to his family, but Jesus compares this request with looking back from plowing, which would cause one to ruin one's furrow in the field. Jesus speaks figuratively to remind his hearer of the story of Elisha's call. When Elijah found Elisha plowing, he called him to follow him, but allowed him to first bid farewell to his family (1 Kings 19:19-21). The Old Testament prophets sacrificed much to serve God's will, but Jesus' call here is more radical than that of a radical prophet! Although we must beware of others who sometimes misrepresent Jesus' message, we must be willing to pay any price that Jesus' call demands on our lives.

12. God's Friends Rejoice in Luke 15:18-32

The religious elite were angry with Jesus for spending time with tax-gatherers and sinners; after all, Scripture warned against spending time with ungodly people (Ps 1:1; Prov 13:20). The difference, of course, is that Jesus is spending time with sinners to influence them for the kingdom, not to be shaped by their ways (Lk 15:1-2).

Jesus answered the religious elite by telling them three stories: the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. A hundred was roughly an average sized flock, and when one sheep strayed the shepherd would do whatever necessary to recover it. He could leave his other sheep with fellow shepherds who would watch over their flocks together with him. Sheep would often roam together and be separated by their shepherds' distinctive calls or flutes. When he finds what was lost, he calls his friends together to rejoice, and Jesus says it is the same way with God: those who are really his friends rejoice with him when he regains what was lost (15:3-7). The implication seems to be that the religious elite are not God's friends, or they would be rejoicing.

Jesus then turns to the story of the lost coin. If a woman had ten coins as her dowry, the money she had brought into her marriage in case of divorce or widowhood, she was a very poor woman indeed: ten coins represented about ten days' wages for the average working man. In any case, one out of ten is more than one out of a hundred, and she is desperate to find the coin! Most small, one-room Galilean homes had floors of roughly fitted stones, so coins and other objects routinely fell between the cracks and remained lost until excavated by modern archaeologists! Further, most of these homes had at most one small window and a doorway, so there was little light to help her find her coin. She thus lights a lamp, but in this period most lamps were small enough to hold in the palm of one's hand, and these did not provide much light. So she sweeps with a broom, hoping to hear it tinkle—and finally, she finds it! Her friends rejoice with her, just as God's friends rejoice with him—implying, again, that perhaps the religious elite are not among God's friends (15:8-10).

Jesus then turns to the story of the lost son. The younger son says to his father, "I want my share of the inheritance now." In that culture, the son was virtually declaring, "Father, I wish you were dead"—the epitome of disrespect. The father was under no obigation to divide his inheritance, but he divided it anyway; the elder brother would have received two thirds and the younger one third. Under ancient law, by dividing the inheritance the father simply was telling them which fields and items each would get after his decease; the son could not legally spend the estate before then. But this son does it anyway; he flees to a far country and wastes his father's years of work. In the end, however, reduced to poverty, he has to feed pigs; for Jesus' Jewish hearers, this was a fitting end for such a rebellious son, and a fitting end for the story. If the young man were involved with pigs, he would be unclean and not even be able to approach fellow Jews for help!

But the young man decides that he would rather be a servant in his father's house than starve, so he returns home to beg for mercy. His father, seeing him a long way off, runs to meet him. In that culture, it was considered undignified for older men to run, but this father discards his dignity; his son has come home! The son tries to plead that he might be a slave, but the father ignores him, instead calling for the best robe in the house—undoubtedly his own; and a ring for the young man's finger—undoubtedly a signet ring, symbolizing his reinstatement to sonship; and sandals for his feet—because most servants did not wear sandals, the father is saying, "No, I will not receive you as a servant! I will receive you only as my son!" The fatted calf was enough food to feed the entire village, so he throws a big party, and all his friends rejoice with him.

So far the story has paralleled the two stories that preceded it, but now Jesus goes further, challenging the religious elite more directly. Ancient literature sometimes framed an important paragraph by starting and ending on the same statement, here that his lost son has come home (15:24, 32). When the elder brother discovers that the father has welcomed home his younger brother, he has nothing to lose economically; the inheritance was already divided (15:12). The problem is that he regards as unfair his father celebrating the return of a rebellious son when he himself needed no mercy; he thought himself good enough without his father's mercy. He protests to his father, refusing to greet him with a title, reducing the father to coming out and begging him to come in. He is now disrespecting his father just as much as the younger brother had earlier! "I have been serving you," he protests (15:29), thereby revealing that he saw himself as a servant rather than a son—the very role the father refused to consider acceptable (15:21-22).

The religious elite despised the "sinners" who were coming to Jesus, not realizing that their hearts were no better. The sinners were like the younger brother, the religious elite like the older one. All of us need Jesus; none can be saved without God's mercy.

13. The First Gentile Christian in Acts 8:26-27

Since Samaritans were considered half-breeds (8:4-25), this African court official is the first fully Gentile convert to Christianity (though probably unknown to most of the Jerusalem church, 11:18).

The angel's instructions to go south toward Gaza (8:26) probably would have seemed strange to Philip; Samaria yielded many converts, but who would he find on a generally deserted road? Two roads led south from near Jerusalem, one through Hebron into Idumea (Edom) and the other joining the coast road before Gaza heading for Egypt, both with many Roman milestones as road-markers. Old Gaza was a deserted town whose ruins lay near the now culturally Greek cities of Askelon and New Gaza. The command to head south for a few days toward a deserted city may have seemed absurd; but God had often tested faith through seemingly absurd commands (e.g., Exod. 14:16; 1 Kings 17:3-4, 9-14; 2 Kings 5:10).

"Ethiopia" (a Greek term) figured in Mediterranean legends and mythical geography as the very end of the earth, sometimes extending from the far south (all Africa south of Egypt, the "wooly-haired Ethiopians") to the far east (the "straight-haired Ethiopians" of southern India). Greek literature often respected Africans as a people particularly beloved by the gods (the Greek historian Herodotus also calls them the most handsome of people), and some sub-Sahara Africans were known in the Roman Empire. The most commonly mentioned feature of Ethiopians in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature (also noted in the Old Testament) is their black skin, though ancient Mediterranean art also depicted other typically African features and recognized differences in skin tone. Egyptians and other peoples were sometimes called "black" by comparison with lighter Mediterranean peoples, but the further south one traveled along the Nile, the darker the complexion and more tightly coiled the hair of the people. Greeks considered the "Ethiopians" the epitome of blackness.

Here a particular African empire is in view. While we might confuse "Ethiopia" here with modern Ethiopia, that is probably not in view. That kingdom, Axum, was a powerful east African empire and converted to Christianity in the early 300s, in the same generation the Roman empire converted. The empire here, however, is most likely a particular Nubian kingdom of somewhat darker complexion, south of Egypt in what is now the Sudan. "Candace" (kan-dak'a) seems to have been a dynastic title of the Queen of this Nubian Empire; she is mentioned elsewhere in Greco-Roman literature, and tradition declares that the queen-mother ruled in that land. (Ancient Greeks called all of Nubia "Ethiopia.") Her black Nubian kingdom had lasted since c. 750 BC; its main cities were Meroe and Napata. This kingdom was wealthy (giving a royal treasurer like this one much to do!) and had trade ties to the north; Rome procured peacocks and other African treasures through such African kingdoms in contact with the interior of Africa, and Roman wealth has turned up in excavations of Meroe. The trade also extended further south; a bust of Caesar has been found as far south as Tanzania. Still, the trade connection with Rome was limited, and this official and his entourage must have been among the few Nubian visitors this far north.

This Nubian court official was probably a Gentile "God-fearer." Although it was not always the case (As Potipher had a wife, Gen. 39:1 LXX), eunuchs referred to castrated men. While these were preferred court officials in the East, the Jewish people opposed the practice, and Jewish law excluded eunuchs from Israel (Deut. 23:1); the rules were undoubtedly instituted to prevent Israel from neutering boys (Deut. 23:1). But eunuchs could certainly be accepted by God (Isa. 56:3-5, even foreign eunuchs; Wisd. 3:14). An Ethiopian "eunuch" in the OT turns out to be one of Jeremiah's few allies and saves his life (Jer. 38:7-13). This African court official was the first non-Jewish Christian. Such information may be helpful in establishing that Christianity is not only not a western religion, but that after its Jewish origins it was first of all an African faith.

14. Paul preaches to Philosophers in Acts 17:22-31

Paul "contextualized" the gospel for his hearers, showing how it related to their own culture without compromising its content. (Today we often err on either one side or the other—failing to be culturally relevant, or failing to represent accurately the biblical message.) Paul speaks to two groups of philosophers present, Stoics and (probably a smaller group) Epicureans; his faith held little common ground with Epicureans, but the Stoics could agree with a number of Christian beliefs.

Paul opens by finding some common ground with his pagan audience. It was customary to begin a speech by complimenting the hearers in the opening of a speech, the exordium. One was not permitted to flatter the Areopagus (the leading philosophical and educational leaders of Athens), but Paul would remain free to start on a respectful note. "Religious" meant that they were observant, not that he agreed with their religion ("superstitious," in the King James Version, does not convey the right idea).

Then Paul turns to more common ground. During a plague long before Paul's lifetime, no altars had successfully propitiated the gods; finally Athens had offered sacrifices to an unknown god, immediately staying the plague. These altars were still standing, and Paul uses this as the basis for his speech.

Paul borrows a technique from Jewish teachers who had been trying to explain the true God to Gentiles for several centuries before Paul. Non-Palestinian Jews sometimes reminded Gentiles that even they had one supreme God, and tried to show pagans that their highest religious aspirations were best met in Judaism. Stoics believed that God permeated all things and therefore was not localized in temples (cf. also Is 66:1). Stoics and Greek-speaking Judaism emphasized that God "needs nothing," using the same word Paul uses in 17:25. Jews and many Greeks alike agreed that God was creator and divider of the earth's boundaries and of seasons' boundaries (17:26). (Stoics also believed that the universe periodically dissolved back into God, but on this there was no point of contact between them and the Bible or Judaism.)

Jewish people usually spoke of God as a father specifically to his people. But Greeks, Jews scattered among Greeks, and some second-century Christian writers spoke of God as the world's "father" in the sense of creator; though Paul elsewhere uses the term more specifically, he adopts the more general sense of father as creator in this case (17:28-29). The quote from Epimenides in 17:28 appears in Jewish anthologies of proof-texts useful for showing pagans the truth about God, and Paul may have learned it there. (Greeks cited Homer and other poets as proof-texts in a manner similar to how Jewish people cited Scripture.)

But while Paul was eager to find points of contact with the best in pagan thinking for the sake of communicating the gospel, he also was clear where the gospel disagreed with paganism. Some issues might be semantic, but Paul would not ignore any real differences. Although philosophers spoke of conversion to philosophy through a change of thinking, they were unfamiliar with his Jewish and Christian doctrine of repentance towards God (17:30). Further, the Greek view of time was that it would simply continue, not that there was a future climax of history in the day of judgment, in contrast to the biblical perspective (17:31). Finally, Greeks could not conceive of a future bodily resurrection; most of them simply believed the soul survived after death. Thus Paul's preaching of the resurrection offended them most (17:31-32). But in the end, Paul was more interested in winning at least a few of these influential people to genuine faith in Christ (17:34) than in simply persuading all of them that he was harmless and shared their own views.

15. Paul Adapts Ancient Family Rules in Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Some people used Ephesians 6:5-9 alongside Greek, Roman, and Arab discussions of slavery to support the kind of slavery practiced in the Americas, but a simple knowledge of the nature of the slavery Paul addressed would have disproved their understanding of the passage. Others even more recently have used 5:22-33 to treat wives in disrespectful and demeaning ways, which also misinterprets the entire tenor of the passage.

This passage addresses an ancient sort of writing called "household codes," by which Paul's readers could try to convince their prospective persecutors that they were not subversives after all. In Paul's day, many Romans were troubled by the spread of "religions from the East" (such as Egyptian Isis worship, Judaism, and Christianity) which they thought would undermine traditional Roman family values. Members of these minority religions often tried to show their support for those values by using a standard form of exhortations developed by philosophers from Aristotle on.

From the time of Aristotle onward these exhortations instructed the male head of a household how to deal with members of his family, especially how he should rule his wife, children, and slaves. Paul borrows this form of discussion straight out of standard Greco-Roman moral writing, even following their sequence. But unlike most ancient writers, Paul changes the basic premise of these codes: the absolute authority of the male head of the house.

That Paul introduces the household codes with a command to mutual submission (5:21) is significant. In his day it was customary to call on wives, children and slaves to submit in various ways, but calling all members of a group (including the pater familias, the male head of the household) to submit to one another was unheard of.

Most ancient writers expected wives to obey their husbands, desiring in them a quiet and meek demeanor; sometimes a requirement for absolute obedience was even stated in the marriage contracts. This made sense especially to Greek thinkers, who could not conceive of wives as equals. Age differences contributed to this disparity: husbands were normally substantially older than their wives, often by over a decade in Greek culture (with men frequently marrying around 30 and women in their teens, often early teens).

In this passage, however, Paul adapts the traditional code in several ways. First, wifely submission is rooted in Christian submission in general (in Greek, 5:22 even borrows its verb "submit" from 5:21); submission is a Christian virtue, but not only for wives! Second, Paul addresses not only husbands but also wives, which most household codes did not. Third, whereas household codes told the husbands how to make their wives obey them, Paul simply tells husbands how to love their wives. Finally, the closest Paul comes to defining submission in this context is "respect" (5:33). At the same time that he relates Christianity to the standards of his culture, he actually transforms his culture's values by going so far beyond them! Paul addressed Greco-Roman culture, but few cultures today give precisely the same expressions of submission as in his culture. Today Christians reapply his principles in different ways for different cultures, but these principles still contradict many practices in many of our cultures.

No one would have disagreed with Paul's premise in 6:1-4: Jewish and Greco-Roman writers unanimously agreed that children needed to honor their parents, and, at least till they grew up, needed to obey them as well. At the same time, Greek and Roman fathers and teachers often instructed children with beatings. Paul is among the minority of ancient writers who seem to warn against being too harsh in discipline (6:4). It should be noted that Greek and Roman society was even harsher on newborn children; since an infant was accepted as a legal person only when the father officially recognized it. Babies could be abandoned or, if deformed, killed. Early Christians and Jews unanimously opposed both abortion and abandonment. Ephesians 5, however, addresses the discipline of minors in the household, as in the household codes. Disobedience might be permitted under some exceptional circumstances (e.g., 1 Sam 20:32), but Paul does not qualify the traditional Roman view on children's submission as he does with wives and slaves, since the Old Testament also mandated minors' submission (Deut 21:18-21).

Finally, Paul addresses relations between slaves and slaveholders. Roman slavery, unlike later European slavery and much of (though not all of) Arab slavery, was nonracial; the Romans were happy to enslave anyone who was available. Different forms of slavery existed in Paul's day. Banishment to slavery in the mines or gladiatorial combat was virtually a death sentence; few slaves survived long under such circumstances. Slaves who worked the fields could be beaten, but otherwise were very much like free peasants, who also were harshly oppressed and barely ever were able to advance their position socially, though they comprised the bulk of the Empire's population. Household slaves, however, lived under conditions better than those of free peasants. They could earn money on the side and often purchased their freedom; once free they could be promoted socially, and their former slaveholder owed them obligations to help them succeed socially. Many freedpersons became wealthier than aristocrats. Ranking slaves in some wealthy households could wield more power than free aristocrats. Some nobles, for example, married into slavery to become slaves in Caesar's household and improve their social and economic position! Household codes addressed household slaves, and Paul writes to urban congregations, so the sort of slavery he addresses here is plainly household slavery.

Slaveholders often complained that slaves were lazy, especially when no one was looking. Paul encourages hard work, but gives the slave a new hope and a new motive for his or her labor (6:5-8). (In general, Paul believes we should submit to those in authority, when that is possible, for the sake of peace—cf. Rom 12:18; 13:1-7; but that does not mean that he believes we should work to maintain such authority structures; cf. 1 Cor 7:20-23.) Paul says that slaves, like wives, should submit to the head of the household as if to Christ (6:5), but again makes clear that this is a reciprocal duty; slaves and slaveholders both share the same heavenly master. When Aristotle complained about a few philosophers who think that slavery is wrong, the philosophers he cited did not state matters as plainly as Paul does here. Only a very small minority of writers in the ancient world (many of them Stoics) suggested that slaves were in theory their masters' spiritual equals, but Paul goes beyond even this extreme: only Paul goes so far as to suggest that in practice masters do the same for slaves as slaves should do for them (6:9a). (Jewish Essenes opposed slavery, but that was because they opposed private property altogether!)

Some have complained that Paul should have opposed slavery more forcefully. But in the few verses in which Paul addresses slaves, he confronts only the practical issue of how slaves can deal with their situation, not with the legal institution of slavery—the same way a minister or counselor today might help someone get free from an addiction without ever having reason to discuss the legal issues related to that addiction. The only attempts to free all slaves in the Roman Empire before him had been three massive slave wars, all of which had ended in widespread bloodshed without liberating the slaves. Christians at this point were a small persecuted minority sect whose only way to abolish slavery would be to persuade more people of their cause and transform the values of the Empire (the way the abolitionist movement spread in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain). Further, even if this specific letter were intended as a critique of social injustice (which is not the purpose of this particular letter, though that topic arises in other biblical passages), one would not start such a critique with household slaves, but with mine slaves, and then both free peasants and agrarian slaves. Even a violent revolution could not have ended slavery in the Roman Empire. In any event, what Paul does say leaves no doubt where he would have stood had we put the theoretical question of slavery's abolition to him: people are equals before God (6:9), and slavery is therefore against God's will.

16. Jesus Rebukes the Self-Sufficient in Revelation 3:15-18

Laodicea became an important Phrygian city in Roman times. It was capital of the Cibryatic convention, including at least 25 towns. It was also the wealthiest city in Phrygia, and especially prosperous in this period. It was 10 miles west of Colosse and its rival city was Phrygian Antioch. The city reflected the usual paganism of the larger Mediterranean culture: Zeus was the city's patron deity, but Laodiceans also had temples for Apollo, Asclepius (the healing deity), Hades, Hera, Athena, Serapis, Dionysus, and other deities. The church seemed to share the values of its culture, an arrogant self-sufficiency in matters including its prosperity, clothing and health, all of which Jesus challenges in 3:17-18. Laodicea was a prosperous banking center; proud of its wealth, it refused Roman disaster relief after the earthquake of AD 60, rebuilding from its own resources. It was also known for its textiles (especially black wool) and for its medical school with ear medicine and undoubtedly the highly reputed Phrygian eye salve. Everything in which Laodicea could have confidence outwardly, her church, which reflected its culture, lacked spiritually.

The one sphere of life in which Laodiceans could not pretend to be self-sufficient was their water supply! Laodicea had to pipe in its water from elsewhere, and by the time it arrived it was full of sediment; Laodicea actually acquired a bad reputation for its water supply. Jesus comments on the temperature of the water: they were lukewarm, neither cold nor hot. This does not mean, as some have suggested, that hot water was good but cold water was bad; Jesus would not want the Laodiceans "good or bad," but only good. Cold water was preferred for drinking, and hot water for bathing (also sometimes drunk at banquets), but the natural lukewarmness of local water (in contrast with the hot water available at nearby Hierapolis or cold water of nearby mountains) was undoubtedly a standard complaint of local residents, most of whom had an otherwise comfortable lifestyle. Jesus is saying: "Were you hot (i.e., for bathing) or cold (i.e., for drinking), you would be useful; but as it is, you are simply disgusting. I feel toward you the way you feel toward your water supply—you make me sick."

Cultural Background Conclusions

The above examples of cultural background are merely samples, but hopefully they have given you an appetite for more. Background sheds light on each passage in the Bible. This is a goal, of course, not a matter on which each interpreter will always agree. Paul recognized that we "know in part and prophesy in part" (1 Cor 13:9)—some texts remain obscure to us (but we have plenty of others to keep us busy till we can understand the more obscure ones). Until Jesus returns, we will never know everything, and we need to be charitable in our disagreement with others whose conclusions differ from our own. That brings us back to some of our earlier comments: focus on what is most central and hardest to dispute, and deal with details only as you are able afterward.




Coming in Next Issue:
Context of Genre: Narrative


Editor's Note

Professor Keener originally designed this course on Hermeneutics for use in Nigeria and not for traditional publication. Desiring to make it available to a wider audience, he has granted permission to publish this course in the Pneuma Review. These lessons will also be made available on the www.PneumaFoundation.org website. Dr. Keener grants permission for others to make use of this material as long as it is offered without cost or obligation and that users acknowledge the source.

Portions of this course follows these recommended works: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (Zondervan). Revelation, NIV Application Commentary by Craig S. Keener (Zondervan, 1999).




Craig S. Keener, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary. He is the author of ten books, including Gift & Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today (Baker Academic, 2001), and is married to Dr. Medine Moussounga Keener.

As appearing in Pneuma Review Winter 2005. The Pneuma Review is a quarterly printed journal of ministry resources and theology for Pentecostal/charismatic ministries and leaders.

Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by KenJ