September 17: Revelation 2:18-29

Revelation 2:18-29

This is the fourth of the seven letters in chapters 2-3, addressed to Thyatira, an important commercial and manufacturing city southeast of Pergamum. The common format and outline of these letters was discussed in an earlier note; here, I will be addressing only those details which are distinctive of the fourth letter.

Rev 2:18

The introduction to the risen Jesus draws upon images and phrases in the vision of 1:11-16ff—here it is the imagery in vv. 14b-15a. Somewhat unique is the inclusion of the title “Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), which otherwise does not occur in the book of Revelation, though, of course, it is frequent elsewhere in the New Testament. On the Messianic background of this title, as applied to Jesus, cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus’ Sonship was tied specifically to his resurrection and exaltation (to the right hand of God). The idea of his divine pre-existence, as the eternal Son of God, was not recognized by believers, it seems, until a somewhat later point (c. 60 A.D. and thereafter). Here, it is still the resurrected/exalted Jesus which is primarily in view.

Rev 2:19

The praise accorded to the believers in Thyatira, as expressed in the formula at the start of the main message in each letter, is especially fulsome:

“I have seen your works, even your love and trust and service and remaining under [i.e. endurance], and (how) your your last works are more (numerous/excellent) than the (one)s (you did) at first.”

This draws upon the language used in the letter to Ephesus (vv. 2, 5). It is perhaps meant to contrast the Thyatiran believers’ improvement (in acts of love, etc), with the Ephesian Christians who “left” the love they had (and showed) at first.

Rev 20:20-21

The blame/rebuke portion of the message, while of limited scope (dealing with one flaw or issue), is presented in considerable detail. It is introduced with the typical formula:

But I hold (this) against you: that you (have) allowed [i.e. tolerated] the woman ‘Îzebel, the (one) counting herself (as) a foreteller [i.e. prophet], and (yet) she teaches and makes my servants [lit. slaves] go astray to engage in ‘prostitution’ and to eat (offering)s slaughtered to images.” (v. 20)

This is the same issue addressed in the previous letter to the believers in Pergamum (verse 14, cf. the earlier discussion)—that some were eating food (meat) which had been sacrificed to the Greco-Roman (pagan) deities, and even teaching that this was acceptable and encouraging believers in this regard. There the teaching and practice was symbolized by the character of Bil’am (Balaam); here it is ‘Îzebel (Jezebel), one of the most infamous figures in Israelite history and Old Testament tradition, the archetypal “wicked queen” (cf. 1 Kings 16:31; 18; 19:1-2; 21; 2 Kings 9). The figures of Balaam and Jezebel are clearly parallel, symbolizing the wickedness being addressed in two respects:

    1. Both figures played significant roles in encouraging the people of Israel to adopt, and participate in, Canaanite religious practices—specifically involving the worship/veneration of the deity (or deities) designed as Ba’al. This word is actually a title (“Lord, Master”, cf. my earlier article) which was applied primarily to the Canaanite sky/storm deity Haddu (or Hadad). In the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium, worship of Baal Haddu was at its peak in Syria and Palestine, and was the most prominent pagan religious ideology (and ritual) which could serve as an alternative to the worship of the Creator God El-Yahweh. Balaam’s role in the Baal-Peor episode (Numbers 25) is mentioned in Num 31:16 (cf. also Josh 13:22), and reflects the decidedly negative associations with his name in Jewish tradition (cf. 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11). The spread of Baal-religion in Israel at the time of Jezebel (and her role in it) is described in 1 Kings 16:31b-32ff and 18:17-19ff. According to 16:31a, Jezebel was a Syrian (Sidonian) princess, daughter of Ethbaal (“Ba’al is with him[?]”).
    2. Both were closely connected with wicked kings—Balak and the Israelite king Ahab, respectively. This emphasizes not only the idolatrous character of the pagan sacrificial offerings, but the wicked influence of Greco-Roman culture in general. The royal aspect of Balaam and Jezebel points to the Roman imperial government, especially in the province of Asia.

The space devoted in the letter to the issue of food sacrificed to idols indicates that the problem was especially acute in Thyatira, and that it reflects a longstanding situation:

“And I gave her time (so) that she might change (her) mind [i.e. repent], and (yet) she is not willing to change (her) mind (and come) out of her ‘prostitution’.” (v. 21)

As discussed in the previous note, pornei/a (lit. prostitution, sex for hire) most likely is being used in a figurative sense, referring to religious unfaithfulness (i.e. the eating of food sacrificed to idols). It does not necessarily mean that the Thyatiran Christians were involved in any blatant sexual immorality; indeed, the overall context argues strongly against this.

Mention should be made of “Jezebel” as “one counting herself (as) a prophet” (v. 20). Whereas, in the letter to Pergamum, “Balaam” signified issue generally, here a specific individual is singled out—a female prophet of some influence in the churches of Thyatira. According to the ideal expressed in Acts 2:17-18 [Joel 2:28-29], female prophets were known (and accepted) among early Christians, though, admittedly they appear to have been somewhat rare (Acts 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5ff; cf. also Luke 2:36, and earlier in Old Testament tradition, Exod 15:20; Judg 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14, etc). Paul seems to have accepted the role and position of women as prophets in the congregation, as long as the followed certain (social) customs and maintained proper order (1 Cor 11:2-16). Gradually, however, women were barred from any such ministerial position within most churches, and the exercise of the prophetic gift by women was reduced to heterodox circles (such as Montanism in the mid/late 2nd century, which was centered in Asia Minor). As I have discussed repeatedly, early Christian prophecy was not limited to predicting the future; rather, the prophet was a spokesperson for God, a gifted individual who communicated the word and will of God to other believers. Despite the singling-out of this “Jezebel” at Thyatira, it is by no means clear that the book of Revelation opposes the idea of female prophets as such; it is the content of her teaching that is at issue, not her gender (cf. Koester, p. 299).

Rev 2:22-23

The seriousness of this situation is expressed by the solemn announcement of punishment in vv. 22-23; it is much more specific and graphic than that earlier in v. 16, though both passages doubtless convey the same idea:

“See, I will throw her into the (place) where (she) lays down [i.e. bed], and the ones engaging in adultery with her, into great di(stress), if they should not change (their) mind [i.e. repent] (and come) out of their works, and her offspring I will kill off in death.”

There is play on the word kli/nh here—the place where one “lays down”, i.e. one’s bed. It refers both to the bed as the place where the prostitute engages in sexual intercourse with her client, and to the place where the sick/ill person lays down (in hopes of recovery). It is a colorful and roundabout way of declaring that “Jezebel” (and all who follow her teaching/example) will be struck with serious illness, which may result even in death. The idea that this punishment would extend to the children of these sinning Christians should probably be taken literally. The earlier reference to Jesus coming to “make war” on the unrepentant believers in Pergamum may also denote the coming of plague or illness. The concluding statement in this announcement is a worthy echo of the prophetic word in Old Testament tradition (especially Jer 17:10); it is aimed at warning to all the congregations in Asia Minor:

“And all the (believer)s called out (to assemble) [i.e. congregations] will know that I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the (One) searching kidneys and hearts, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”

Rev 2:24-25

This warning continues into verses 24-25, reassuring the faithful believers in Thytira (i.e. those who have not accepted eating food sacrificed to idols), in light of the ominous warning of the previous verses:

“But I relate to the rest of you in Thyatira, as (many) as do not hold that teaching, who have not known the ‘deep (thing)s’ of the Satan, as they are counted [i.e. reckoned], I will not throw upon you (any) other weight—(no) all the more, you must grab firm(ly) to that which you hold until the (time at) which I should come.”

Special notice should be taken of the expression “the deep [baqu/$] (thing)s of Satan”. It may well be a parody of “the deep (thing)s [ba/qh] of God”, which Paul uses in 1 Cor 2:10 (cf. also Rom 11:33). Through the presence and work of the Spirit, believers have access to the “deep things” of God. It is perhaps significant that Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor 8-10 is specifically in response to certain believers at Corinth, who as a result of their (spiritual) knowledge (i.e. that idols and pagan deities have no real existence), felt that it was acceptable to partake in food which may have been sacrificed to “images”. By contrast with Paul’s careful and sensitive argument, the book of Revelation makes a blunt condemnation of the practice outright. However, we do not have enough information about the situation in the churches of Asia Minor, at the time the book of Revelation was composed, to make a definite comparison. In any event, it is certainly possible that “Jezebel”, in her function as a (would-be) prophet, may have determined and declared (by the Spirit/word of God) that there was no harm in eating food sacrificed to idols.

The eschatological context of these letters is confirmed by the closing words of verse 25. It indicates again, from the standpoint of the book, that Jesus’ coming (i.e. his return) would take place very soon.

Rev 2:26-28

The promise of heavenly reward here is expressed two ways:

    • The faithful believers will be given “authority [e)cousi/a] over the nations” (v. 26-27), described in terms of Psalm 2:8-9.
    • Jesus will also give to them “the early [i.e. dawn/morning] star” which he himself received from the Father (“even as I have been given [it from] alongside my Father”), v. 28.

Some question has been raised by commentators as to just what is involved, or is signified, by this “authority over the nations”. It probably is related in some way to similar ideas expressed by Jesus in Matt 19:28 (par Luke 22:28-30), and Paul in 1 Cor 6:2-3. There are several possibilities for how this should be understood here in the book of Revelation:

    • It is meant as a symbol of heavenly honor for believers in Christ
    • It refers to the participation of believers, with Christ, in the end-time Judgment
    • It specifically refers to believers ruling with Jesus in a Messianic kingdom on earth
    • It relates somehow to positions of honor and authority in heaven (over other believers)

While the book of Revelation draws upon the tradition of an earthly (Messianic) kingdom at several points (most notably in 20:1-6, which will be discussed), it is unlikely that this is intended here. All of the promise formulas in the seven letters refer either to eternal life or heavenly reward/honor for believers, and so it should be understood here in vv. 26-27. Some combination of the first two options above is to be preferred. The tradition itself, based on the scant New Testament evidence, refers to the second option; however, how the tradition is applied in the letter supports the first—i.e., it is an honorific description of believers’ participation in the ruling power and presence (of God) we share in Christ (cp. the promise in 3:21).

This ruling power itself is properly represented by the star in verse 28. Here it is said to be the “early (morning) star”—i.e. the star which appears at the dawning of a new day (or Age). The star itself is symbolic of rule, as in 1:16ff. Notice, of course, should also be taken of the Messianic interpretation of the star in Balaam’s third oracle (Num 24:17), and the star in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-10). The specific image of the morning star is also found in 2 Peter 1:19, where it refers to the indwelling word of God. While the star is said to be given by the Father to Jesus here in v. 28, at the end of the book (22:16), Jesus himself is described as the morning star, in language that draws strongly upon Messianic tradition.

September 16: Revelation 2:12-17

Revelation 2:12-17

The third letter of chapters 2-3 is addressed to the believers in Pergamum (Grk. Pe/rgamo$, modern Bergama). The name (i.e. a fortified site, or citadel) seems to refer to the ancient (pre-Roman) acropolis, which was renowned for its impressive walls and buildings. It was the center of a kingdom which was absorbed into the Roman Empire (in the mid-2nd century B.C.) and became a leading imperial city, even after the center of the provincial government had shifted to Ephesus.

The distinctive details in the letter are discussed here in turn (for the letter-format itself, cf. the earlier note).

Rev 2:12b

“These (things are) said (by) the (one) holding the sharp two-mouthed [i.e. double-edged] sword…”

Here, following the format in all the letters, the phrase introducing the risen Jesus is taken from the vision in 1:11-16ff—in this case, from the description in v. 16. The motif of the sword, emphasizes both the danger for believers of being put to death for their faith, as well as the judgment which is about to come upon evil-doers (utilizing the military aspect of the eschatological/Messianic image, Isa 11:4, etc [cf. 2 Thess 2:8]).

Rev 2:13

As in the previous letter (to Smyrna, cf. the most recent note), the praise given to the congregations is related to their faithfulness and endurance in the midst of (religious) persecution:

“I have seen where you (have) put down house—(in) the (place) where the ruling-seat of the Satan (resides)—and (yet) you (have) held firm(ly) to my name, and did not deny the trust of [i.e. in] me, even in the days of Antipas my trust(worthy) witness, who was killed off (from) alongside you, (in) the (place) where the Satan puts down house [i.e. dwells/resides].”

The emphasis here has to do with the location (i.e. Pergamum) where the believers currently reside. It is marked by a two-fold (parallel) expression:

    • “the (place) where [o%pou] the ruling-seat [qro/no$, i.e. throne] of the Satan (resides)”
    • “the (place) where [o%pou] the Satan resides [katoikei=, lit. puts down house]”

This is a remarkable declaration that “the Satan” (o( satana=$) both resides in Pergamum and has his “seat of rule” (qro/no$) there. The title “Satan”, of course, derives from ancient Israelite and Jewish tradition, by which the (heavenly/angelic) opponent of God’s people, so understood, came to be described with the title /f*c* (“[the] adversary”)—cf. Job 1:6ff; Zech 3:1-2; 1 Chron 21:1. The Greek transliteration of this title ([o(] satana=$), generally treated as synonymous with [o(] dia/bolo$ (“[the] one casting [slander/evil] throughout”, i.e. ‘Devil’), occurs 36 times in the New Testament, including 8 times in the book of Revelation (5 in chaps. 2-3).

How should we understand the specific use of the term here, with the idea that Satan lives (and rules) in Pergamum? There are several possibilities:

    • It refers to Pergamum’s legacy as a leading center of Roman rule/government in Asia Minor. [#1]
    • It is an allusion to Pergamum as the first city in which the imperial cult (i.e. venerating the Emperor) was established in Asia Minor (c. 29 B.C., in honor of Augustus and Roma, the goddess personifying Rome). [#2]
    • It is a colorful reference to the influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) religion and culture (in Asia Minor) generally; the specific application to Pergamum is circumstantial. [#3]
    • It relates primarily to the persecution of Christians, which, in Pergamum, has led to at least one believer being put to death. [#4]
    • It refers back to the Jewish opposition to Christians (verse 9; also 3:9), which may have involved the denouncing of believers to the provincial authorities; there, such Jewish opponents were called “a gathering together [i.e. synagogue] of Satan”. [#5]
    • More generally, it refers to false teaching and religious belief/practice [#6]

All of these relate to definite themes and points of emphasis (and conflict) both in the letters and the book as a whole:

    • The influence of Greco-Roman culture and religion.
    • The images and practices surrounding the imperial cult, in particular.
    • The persecution of believers.
    • Religious identity of believers, both in relation to Judaism and the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.
    • False teachings and beliefs which are gaining influence in the congregations.

Here, in this letter specifically, the twin motifs of persecution and false teaching appear to frame the issue, though it is certainly also related to the influence of Greco-Roman (pagan) religion. Central to the message in verse 13 is the idea of faithfulness and endurance in the midst of persecution, even to the point of death—as in the case of one Antipas, about whom we otherwise have no reliable information. This is the first clear instance in the New Testament where the term “witness” (ma/rtu$) is tied directly to the idea of being put to death for being a Christian. This, of course, would come to be the primary denotation of the term, in its special Christian sense, transliterated in English as “martyr”.

Rev 2:14-15

Verses 14-16 make up the blame/rebuke portion of the “mixed” message of the letter, which, according to the regular formula, begins, “But I hold (this) against you…” The use of the adjective o)li/go$ reflects the primarily positive side of the message (i.e., their faithfulness in the midst of persecution): “…I hold a few (thing)s against you”. The complaint, or charge, is two-fold:

    • “you have (among you)…(one)s grabbing (hold) firmly [kratou=nta$] (to) the teaching of Bil’am…” (v. 14)
    • “you have (among you) (one)s grabbing (hold) firmly [kratou=nta$] (to) the teaching of the Nikolaitans…” (v. 15)

The use of the verb krate/w (“take strong/firm [hold of]”) is meant as a clear contrast to the faithful believers in v. 13, who are said to have “grabbed (hold) firmly” [kratei=$] to Jesus’ name. If the issue was persecution in verse 13, here it is the influence of false teaching among believers. Two kinds of such teaching are indicated.

The teaching of Bil’am (v. 14)—The name Bil±¹m (Heb <u*l=B!), transliterated in Greek (as Balaa/m), and in English (as “Balaam”), derives from the book of Numbers in the Old Testament, and draws upon several ancient lines of tradition, including one which is positive, and another which is decidedly negative:

    • Positive (Num 22:1-6ff; 23-24): The king of Moab (Balak) called on the seer/prophet Bil’am to curse Israel, which, according to the ancient (magical) worldview, meant bringing about Israel’s demise. However, Bil’am, under God’s influence, instead blessed Israel, uttering four oracles which announced what God would do for his people.
    • Negative (Num 25): The Baal-Peor episode, in which Israelites joined together (intermarriage?) with Moabite women and then took part in Canaanite (pagan) religious ceremonies (vv. 1-5ff); this is combined with a (separate?) tradition involving Midianite women (vv. 6-15ff). Bil’am’s involvement is not mentioned in this narrative, but only through a separate notice in 31:16 (cf. also Josh 13:22).

The statement here in Rev 2:14 combines both traditions, though it is certainly the latter which is primarily in view, in accordance with the dominant (negative) association with the name of Balaam among Jews and Christians at the time (cf. 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11)—Jewish tradition generally depicted Balaam as a magician and false prophet. The mention of Balak (the Moabite king) here may also be a subtle way of connecting false religious teaching and practice (represented by Balaam) with the imperial Roman government (i.e. Balak), the two being closely connected.

The false teaching of “Balaam” (Bil’am) is specifically defined here, according to the language of the ancient tradition, as:

“to throw (down) in the sight of Yisrael something to trip (them) up [ska/ndalon]—to (make them) eat (offering)s slaughtered to images, and to engage in ‘prostitution’.”

The key terms are: (1) ei)dwlo/quta and (2) the verb porneu/w. The first is a plural noun which essentially means “(offering)s slaughtered [vb. qu/w] to an image [ei&dwlon]”. It is a uniquely Jewish (and Christian) way of referring to sacrificial offerings made to Greco-Roman (pagan) deities, for which the common term was i(ero/quton, i.e. a sacred offering slaughtered (more rarely, qeo/quton, offering “slaughtered to [a] god”). The Jewish/Christian term is a pejorative, reflecting the basic idea that the other (pagan) deities have no real existence, but are represented merely by lifeless images.

In the Greco-Roman cities, food sacrificed to deities could be eaten as part of a religious ceremony; but the meat (from animal sacrifices) could also be subsequently purchased in the marketplace and eaten in a wide range of ordinary (secular) settings. For Jews and early Christians, this aspect of the surrounding Greco-Roman culture was particularly problematic, and is addressed at several points in the New Testament—most notably, in the Jerusalem “decree” (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25), and by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8-10. The view among most early Christian leaders seems to have been that believers must absolutely avoid eating any food that had been sacrificed to “idols”. However, Paul, while sharing this basic outlook, takes a more careful, nuanced approach when addressing the Corinthians, devoting three whole chapters to the subject. Here, in the letter to the believers in Pergamum, no such consideration or qualification is given—those who allow/accept the eating of food sacrificed to idols, and especially, those who teach and encourage this, are characterized as “Balaam” and are condemned in no uncertain terms.

The verb porneu/w literally refers to taking part in prostitution (i.e. sexual intercourse for hire), but could also be used (together with the related noun pornei/a) as a catch-term for any sort of sexual behavior which was deemed immoral or improper. While it is possible that the message here does refer to sexual immorality (it is certainly associated with “Balaam” through the tradition[s] in Numbers 25), the overall context suggests otherwise. Frequently in the Old Testament “prostitution” (using the comparable Hebrew hnz) was used figuratively, as a way to symbolize unfaithfulness in a religious sense (i.e. to God). Any sort of false or illicit religious practice, regardless of whether a sexual component were involved, could be called “prostitution” (tWnz+[T^], pornei/a). Thus, it is perfectly appropriate to regard the improper participation of believers in Greco-Roman religious culture—i.e., through the eating of food sacrificed to “idols”—as committing pornei/a (cf. 1 Cor 6:12-20, in light of Paul’s following discussion in chaps. 8-10). Most likely, the term here is not limited strictly to the question of food sacrificed to idols, but extends to the influence of (pagan) Greco-Roman culture as a whole (cf. again, the association of ei)dolw/quta and pornei/a in Acts 15:20, 29).

The teaching of the Nikolaitans (v. 15)—The group called “Nikolaitans” was mentioned in the first letter (v. 6). As I indicated in the earlier note, we have virtually no reliable information about the teachings or practices of this group. Many commentators assume, based on the context here, that they followed in the example of “Balaam” and taught that it was permitted for believers to eat food which had been sacrificed to other deities (cf. above). However, I am by no means convinced of this. The point of the comparison seems to be that there are two distinct groups (and sets of teachings) involved in vv. 14-15: (1) those who accept/allow the eating of the sacrificed food, and (2) the Nikolaitans. We simply cannot be certain of what the Nikolaitans taught or believed, other than: (a) they seem to have exercised considerable influence among Christians in Asia Minor, and (b) their teachings/practices were serious enough that, in the message, the risen Jesus could be said to “hate” (vb. mise/w, v. 6) them and their “works”. I find rather dubious the suggested association between the name Nikolaos (Niko/lao$, “victor[ious] over the people”) and an etymology of Bil’am as “he destroyed the people” (<u* ul^B*), though this is at least possible.

Rev 2:16

The warning, stern and foreboding, is given in verse 16, drawing upon the earlier reference to the two-edged (lit. two-mouthed) sword that comes out of the risen Jesus’ mouth (v. 12):

“Therefore you must change (your) mind(set) [i.e. repent]; and if not, (then) I (will) come to you quickly and will make war with them in [i.e. with] the sword of my mouth.”

It is interesting to note the way that the focus shifts here. While the call goes out to the believers in Pergamum as a whole (“you must [repent]…”), the threat of making war is narrowed to the ones who are erring/sinning (i.e. those in vv. 14-15): “…I will come to you [soi] and will make war with them [au)tw=n]…” As noted previously, the motif of the sword coming out of the mouth is an eschatological and Messianic image (coming mainly from Isa 11:4 and 49:2). However, it is not clear whether its use here refers to the end-time Judgment in the full, traditional sense, or to a local manifestation of God’s Judgment (through Jesus) which might take place at some point prior. Probably it is best to view the idea of “Jesus coming” as a generalized expression signifying here “the coming of judgment” upon evil-doers. The orientation would still be eschatological, but not in as precise and dramatic a context as the reference in 2 Thess 2:8.

Rev 2:17

The final exhortation and promise in the letters always beings “(To) the (one) being [i.e. who is] victorious…”. Here the promised (heavenly) reward is two-fold (“I will give to him…”):

    • “(to eat) of the hidden manna”
    • “a white pebble” upon which was written “a new name…which no one has seen [i.e. known] if not [i.e. except] the (one) receiving (it)”

According to Old Testament/Israelite tradition, after the manna had ceased to fall from heaven (Josh 5:12), it only existed through the portion stored away in the tabernacle (Exod 16:32-34), and then, it would seem, in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, it was “hidden away” by God, to be restored to his people in the future, when it would come down again from Heaven (2 Baruch 29:8; Mekilta on Exodus 6.82; cf. also 2 Macc 2:4-8, etc; Koester, p. 289-90). In the great Bread of Life Discourse in John 6, Jesus plays on this idea of believers eating the manna (“bread”) which comes down from heaven, which he identifies with his own person (his word, his sacrificial death, the Spirit he gives). Here in the book of Revelation, the eating of the “hidden manna” is more or less synonymous with the earlier motif of “eating of the tree of life” (v. 7)—i.e., partaking of Eternal Life at the end-time. There may also be a contrast here between the errant Christians who eat food sacrificed to idols, and the faithful believers (who do not), and, as a result, are allowed to eat of the heavenly food (“manna”).

The second reward is “a white pebble”, which may also echo the motif of the manna (both are small and white in color, cf. Exod 16:31). Of course, white is also a common symbol of purity, and the believers who receive this white pebble (yh=fo$) have likewise kept themselves pure (from sin, in faith, etc). There are several possible meanings to the idea of a “name” being written on the pebble (cf. Koester, p. 290):

    • It indicates a favorable judgment—white (instead of black) indicating victory or vindication, through the vote, in court, etc.
    • A similar use of a white pebble was involved in determining who would be the one to receive certain honors.
    • A name written on a stone could conceivably allude to a kind of (magical) protection for the person—the inscribed stone functioning like a talisman.

The second option seems most probable—that it signifies a special honor for the believer, much like the wreath/crown in verse 10. What is the significance of the “new name” written on the pebble, which is known only to the one who receives it? There would seem to be two possibilities:

    • It is a special name, i.e. of honor, etc, given by Christ, to the believer (cp. Matt 16:17; John 1:42)
    • It alludes to the name of Jesus and/or the name of God (cf. Phil 2:9f). The idea that the name of God is something ‘hidden’ which is made known (by Jesus) to believers is found at several points in the Gospel of John (e.g., 17:6ff).

The latter option would seem to be preferable, in light of the similar language in 3:12 (and cf. also 14:1; 19:12ff; 22:4). The believer’s new “name” is that of Jesus’ himself—not necessarily the simple name “Yeshua/Jesus”, but the name which identifies him with God (Son and exalted One of the Father). As I have discussed previously, a name, in ancient thought, typically represented and embodied the true nature and essence of the person.

July 9: Acts 15:19-21ff (concluded)

In the two previous notes, I have been discussing the so-called “Apostolic Decree” from the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15, focusing in particular on the four restrictions (prohibitions) required of Gentile believers in v. 20, 29 (cf. also Acts 21:25). The prior day’s note examined each of the four items which Gentile Christians were to “hold/keep themselves away from”. It is now necessary to look again at the best way to understand and interpret the decree. I had indicated three main views:

    • They are legal—that is, they indicate the portions of the Law (Torah) that Gentile converts are required to observe; these restrictions (generally understood as deriving from Lev 17-18, cf. below), and only these, are necessary and required. [View #1]
    • They are practical—the purpose is to promote and facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; according to this view, the items mentioned are those which would be especially offensive to Jewish sensibilities, and would make table fellowship (sharing of meals) more difficult. [View #2]
    • The orientation is religious and ethical—the purpose is to guard Gentile believers against idolatrous or improper (pagan) practices common to the surrounding culture. [View #3]

The way the matter is framed in the letter from the Council (vv. 28-29), addressed to Gentile believers, would suggest the first option—that these four restrictions are the (only) regulations from the Torah which are binding on Gentiles. It might be better to state that they are the only ritual/ceremonial regulations which apply, the essential ethical precepts (e.g. of the Ten Commandments) remaining in force as part of basic Christian instruction. However, it is difficult to associate the four items specifically with commandments in the Torah. Often Leviticus 17-18 is cited as the source of the prohibitions—with parallels to the four in Lev 17:3-9, 10-12, 13-16, and 18:6-18—and yet, only the command against (eating) blood is clearly addressed (Lev 17:10-12). The identification between the sojourner/foreigner in Israel (the g¢r) and Gentiles is also highly questionable, especially since there are numerous other laws which also would apply to the g¢rExod 12:48-49; Lev 24:16, 22; Num 9:14; 15:14-16, 26, 29-30; cf. also Exod 20:10; Lev 16:29; Num 19:10; 35:15; Deut 5:14; 16:11, 14; 26:11; Josh 20:19 and the “Noachide laws” of Gen 9:8-18. In addition, the interpretation of pornei/a as illicit/improper marriage relationships (according to Lev 18:8-18) is far from certain.

A more fruitful line of reasoning, perhaps, relates specifically to the dietary/food laws. Consider again, the vision of Peter (10:9-16; 11:5-10), which effectively eliminates the distinction between clean and unclean animals. Christians now (and, in particular, Gentile Christians) may eat any meats without restriction. The decree, however, establishes three specific principles of kashrût which must still be observed: (1) no meat which has been sacrificed/associated with idols, (2) no meat which has not been properly butchered (draining the blood), and (3) a prohibition against eating any blood itself. This would still leave the question of where/how pornei/a is related to these.

The second interpretation (above) is probably the most popular and widely adopted today, especially by more traditional-conservative commentators. The basic idea is that these four restrictions are enjoined upon Gentile believers in order to promote peaceful relations and (table) fellowship with Jewish believers, especially in areas (such as Jerusalem and Antioch) where the Jewish element in the congregations (and in society at large) tends be dominant. As such, the restrictions are often viewed as local (cf. verse 23), and of a temporary nature (Paul does not cite them in his letters), based on historical and cultural circumstances. This line of interpretation, however, seems rather colored by Paul’s own instruction in Romans and 1 Corinthians, for example, and almost implies that the restrictions would be adopted voluntarily by Gentile believers out of concern for peace and fellowship. However, the language in the letter itself makes it clear that the four prohibitions were seen as compulsory (that is, required)—note the use of the adverb e)pa/nagke$ in v. 28. The verb kri/nw (“judge”) in v. 20 (cf. also 21:25) indicates an authoritative decision, and not simply good advice. Moreover, nothing in James’ words (or the letter) suggests that the purpose of the restrictions was to facilitate table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. If the decree (and the letter) was in any way a response to the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14 (which involved Jewish Christians eating with Gentiles), it would provide support for this interpretation, but there is too little evidence to say for certain.

The third view (above) in some ways best explains all four restrictions taken together—the three dietary restrictions are all related to (idolatrous) pagan practice involving animals slaughtered for sacrifice or used in meals. This does not necessarily require a specific cultic ritual—Jews (and Jewish Christians) were highly sensitive to the idolatrous character of the Greco-Roman culture around them, touching many aspects of daily life, everything from coinage to the meat sold in the marketplace. In this view, the emphasis is not so much on a requirement to observe the Torah, but on avoiding the defiling elements of pagan culture (note the expression which leads the list in 15:20). Any of the three main interpretations of pornei/a (see previous note) would fit this view as well. The four restrictions essentially relate to three defiling aspects of pagan culture: (1) food associated with idolatrous sacrifices, (2) improper handling or consumption of blood, and (3) improper sexual and/or marital relationships.

Before concluding, it will be useful to examine the statement by James in verse 21; after listing the four prohibitions he states:

“For out of [i.e. from] beginning (time)s (that have) come to be, according to (every) city, Moshe {Moses} has the (one)s proclaiming him, being known again (in writing) [i.e. being read] in the places of bringing-together [i.e. synagogues] according to every Shabbat {Sabbath}”
In more conventional English:
“For from earliest times/generations, in every city, Moses has those proclaiming him, being read in the Synagogues every Sabbath”

In other words, the Law (Torah) “of Moses” is read and proclaimed in every city—i.e., in cities all throughout the Roman Empire. The specific interpretation of this declaration, however, remains much debated, especially in connection with the restrictions of v. 20. There are two main approaches:

    1. The Law is in force, and is binding (on Jews and Jewish Christians) throughout the Empire, even in areas which might be otherwise influenced by Greco-Roman culture. Gentile believers everywhere are required to observe these four simple restrictions which relate, in some manner, to the Torah commands.
    2. Since there are devout, observant Jews in cities all over the Empire, Gentile believers should be sensitive to their religious scruples and beliefs, especially in matters of food and sexual/marital relations, which might otherwise be overlooked or taken for granted. Particularly for Gentile Christians in Judea, Syria and the surrounding regions, where Jewish believers dominate, this would be important.

The first option generally corresponds with view #1 (regarding the four restrictions) above. The second option (by far the more popular among commentators today) corresponds with view #2. As I mentioned above, the language of the letter itself (vv. 28-29) tends to suggest view #1, as does James’ reference to it in 21:20-25. The context of this latter passage is important; James and others in Judea have heard about Paul’s extensive missionary work among the Gentiles, and James is concerned about the way it is being viewed and characterized in some quarters. Verse 20 reads (in conventional translation)—

“You notice, brother, how many (tens of) thousands there are among Jews who have trusted (in Jesus) and they all live under zeal for the Law”

and continuing with v. 21 (in a literal, glossed rendering):

“but it has sounded down (in their ears) about you, that you teach a standing-away from Moshe {Moses} (for) all the Yehudeans {Jews} down (among) the nations, relating (that) they (are) not to circumcise th(eir) offspring and (are) not to walk about [i.e. live] by the (proper) customs.”

Clearly this is a distortion of Paul’s teaching, even in Galatians. At most, Paul taught that Jewish believers were free to observe (or not observe) the Torah, though even that is not stated so directly, but is implied from a number of passages. At any rate, one finds nothing of this in the book of Acts, and here (vv. 22-24) James urges Paul to demonstrate that these claims are completely unfounded, advising him to participate in a purification ritual at the Temple. Verse 24 concludes:

“…and all will know that the (things) which were sounded down [i.e. reported] about you are nothing [i.e. are not true], but (rather that) you step in line and (you your)self guard/keep the Law”

In verse 25, directly following this, James mentions the decree and the four requirements for Gentile converts (from 15:20, 29). Clearly, then, the context has to do with observing the Law.

I would, however, be inclined to modify this interpretation, according to the third view (regarding the decree and its restrictions) mentioned above. This could be summarized as follows:

The purpose of the restrictions is for Gentile believers to keep themselves away from those (ordinary) elements of Greco-Roman (or otherwise non-Jewish, pagan) culture which expressly violate the Law. Above, I outlined what these three basic elements would be: food associated with idols, improper handling or consumption of blood, and improper sexual and/or marital relationships. None of these would necessarily appear obviously sinful or problematic to Gentile converts, especially when ingrained as part of the ordinary fabric of society and daily life. Yet, they violate the Law at key points, even if in a technical sense, and, at the same time, would likely offend the sensibilities of observant Jewish Christians. This may contrast somewhat with Paul’s subsequent approach (see his treatment of such matters in 1 Corinthians), but it seems to be the best way to understand the decree (with its restrictions) in its historical context and within the book of Acts.

Within a few generations, among Gentile believers, the significance of the “Jerusalem Decree” (and its restrictions) was soon forgotten, for the most part being of little or no relevance to local congregations. Even in the mid-1st century, among the churches of Asia Minor, there is no surviving evidence for the Decree, nor any sign of its influence, as is clear from the New Testament writings themselves. Paul never once refers to it in any of his surviving letters, nor is it mentioned anywhere in the New Testament outside of the book of Acts. It remains instructive, from a historical standpoint at least, as an example of how early Christians sought to realize their new identity, as believers in Christ, within the context of the surrounding culture—both Jewish and Pagan.

July 8: Acts 15:19-21ff (continued)

In the previous day’s note, I began looking at the statement of James in Acts 15:20-21 which introduces four restrictions (prohibitions) which are required of Gentile converts (repeated in the letter of vv. 22-29). This is sometimes referred to as the Jerusalem or Apostolic Decree. I posed the three principal questions related to these verses as:

    1. What is the correct form/version of the text that has come down to us?
    2. How are these prohibitions to be understood in context—both from the stand point of the apostles (James) and the author of Acts?
    3. How do they relate to the broader witness of the New Testament in regard to the Law?

I dealt with the first question in the prior note. Here it remains to touch upon the next two, and to examine specifically the statement in verse 21.

With regard to an interpretation of the prohibitions, there are three main ways to understand them:

    • They are legal—that is, they indicate the portions of the Law (Torah) that Gentile converts are required to observe; these restrictions (generally understood as deriving from Lev 17-18, cf. below), and only these, are necessary and required.
    • They are practical—the purpose is to promote and facilitate fellowship between Jews and Gentiles; according to this view, the items mentioned are those which would be especially offensive to Jewish sensibilities.
    • The orientation is religious and ethical—the purpose is to guard Gentile believers against idolatrous or improper (pagan) practices common to the surrounding culture.

Before offering any evaluation, it is necessary first to examine each of the four restrictions. As indicated above, they are often seen as deriving from Leviticus 17-18 (part of the so-called Holiness Code), involving regulations which apply both to Israelites and to the foreigners/sojourners dwelling among them. In 15:20 (and v. 29), the four items are introduced by the infinitive a)pe/xesqai, “to hold (onself) away from”; in 21:25 the verb is fula/ssesqai, “to guard (oneself from)”. The injunction is, then, to abstain or keep away from the following four things (the order differs between v. 20 and 29, I am using the order in the letter):

ei)dwloqu/ton (eidœlothy¡ton, pl. “things slaughtered [i.e. sacrificed] to images”)—in verse 20, the expression is “pollutions (a(li/sgema, pl.) of/from images”, clarified in v. 29 and 21:25 as “things [i.e. food/meats] sacrificed to images”. This is familiar to students and readers of the New Testament from 1 Corinthians 8-10. It relates not only to involvement in pagan religious/cultic meals, but also the (ordinary) purchase or consumption of meat in the marketplace which had been sacrificed to pagan deities (“idols/images”). As Paul’s discussion makes clear, in a Greco-Roman cultural setting a complex social dynamic was at work, and it was not always easy to be certain whether food had been sacrificed. Paul the Jew may have been inclined to offer a blunt and simple answer to the question, along the lines of the Jerusalem decree; instead, he presents a long, nuanced and highly sensitive argument (spanning three whole chapters). However, it is clear that he ultimately warns strenuously against any association with what here is called “pollution of idols/images”.  Interestingly, Leviticus 17-18 (cf. above) does not deal specifically with this matter; rather, 17:3-9 offers regulations regarding sacrificial offerings, emphasizing specifically that they are to be offered, in the proper manner, within the central sanctuary (the Tent/Tabernacle or later Temple), rather than out in the open field. These regulations may, at least in part, have been intended to eliminate pagan tendencies; verse 7 particularly mentions the practice of sacrificing to ´®±îrîm (<yr!yu!c=), “hairy/shaggy ones”, goat(-shaped) deities/demons and presumably spirits personifying the wilderness (cf. also the ±¦z¹°z¢l in Lev 16), though the precise cultural context is lost to us. Verses 8-9 apply the regulations to the foreign traveller/dweller (rG@, g¢r) in Israel (see below). A more direct prohibition against sacrificing to pagan deities is found in Lev 20:2-3 (cf. also Ezek 14:7-8).

ai!ma (haíma, “blood”)—though this may have been understood by later scribes and commentators as “bloodshed”, there can be no doubt that it refers to the ritual prohibition against eating blood. Of the four items in the Jerusalem decree, this is one most clearly reflected in Lev 17-18—17:10-12 expressly forbids the eating of any blood, the prohibition applying equally to the foreigner/stranger (g¢r) dwelling in Israel. See also Lev 3:17; 7:26-27; Deut 12:16, 23; it is also found among the so-called Noachide laws (Gen 9:4), which subsequent Jewish tradition applied to Gentiles.

pnikto/$ (pniktós, “thing[s] choked [to death]”, pl. in verse 29)—here again a ritual context is involved, for the term refers to an animal choked/strangled rather than being slaughtered in the proper fashion (with the blood drained). The basic idea is dealt with in Lev 17:13-14, being extended (in vv. 15-16) to any animal that dies of itself (rather than being slaughtered); this regulation is related distinctly to the prohibition against eating blood (above). However, within the context of Acts, the regulation appears to be highly problematic; suddenly it seems as though the Jewish Christians are beginning to impose upon Gentiles the sort of legal ‘burden’ that they sought to remove (Acts 15:10, 28). It is not surprising that Western (and other) manuscripts omit this item from the list, some ‘replacing’ it with a version of the Golden Rule, giving the prohibitions an ethical, rather than ritual, emphasis.

pornei/a (porneía)—this term has perhaps caused the greatest difficulty for interpretation; there are three main options:

    • In the general sense of “sexual immorality”
    • As a symbolic description of idolatry
    • As a reference to improper/illicit marriage relationships

For those who view the four prohibitions specifically as legal restrictions (from the Torah) applicable to Gentiles, the last option is preferred, since it is addressed in Lev 18:6-18, and is known to be an issue dealt with by Paul among Gentile believers at least once (cf. 1 Corinthians 5). However, it must be asked if Gentile believers would make this connection based on the simple use of pornei/a, without further explanation. On the other hand, the general sense of the word (indicating “sexual immorality”, spec. “fornication”) seems somewhat out of place in the context here, which is doubtless the reason why a few manuscripts and textual witnesses omit it from the list. If the other three items mentioned are all connected with pagan animal sacrifices, then the second option could be possible—the Hebrew tWnz+ (z®nû¾), largely synonymous with Greek pornei/a, is often used as a shorthand pejorative for idolatry and the deviation from true religion (2 Kings 9:22; Ezek 23:11, 29; Hos 2:4, 6; 4:12; 5:4, etc). It should also be remembered that the fundamental meaning of pornei/a is prostitution, though in the New Testament it is typically used in the wider or more general sense of illicit sexual intercourse.

(to be concluded in the next day’s note)

July 7: Acts 15:19-21ff

These three daily notes are supplemental to a discussion of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15. Elsewhere, I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21), and the narrative as a whole in relation to “The Law in the Luke-Acts”, along with a separate article addressing several key critical questions. Here I will be looking specifically at the so-called Apostolic “Decree” in verses 20-21 (at the conclusion of James’ speech), repeated in the Letter from the Council (v. 29).

In verse 19, along with the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18, James effectively confirms the words of Peter in the prior speech (vv. 7-11)—

“…And God the heart-knower witnessed (to them), giving them [i.e. Gentiles] the holy Spirit, even as he also (did) to us, and judged/separated nothing through between us and them, cleansing their hearts in trust/faith. Now, therefore, (for) what [i.e. why] do you test God, to set upon the neck of the(se) learners [i.e. disciples/believers] a yoke which neither our fathers nor we had strength to bear?” (vv. 8-10)

Peter here somewhat surprisingly referring to the Law as a yoke which even Jews are unable to bear! (verse 10, along with vv. 11, does have a certain ‘Pauline’ ring to it). James makes a simpler, more direct determination:

“Therefore I judge (that we are) not to crowd in alongside [i.e. to pressure/trouble] the (one)s from the nations turning upon [i.e. turning to] God” (v. 19)

This is stated even more clearly in the letter (addressed to Gentile believers):

“For it seemed (good/proper) to the holy Spirit and to us to set upon you not one burden…” (v. 28)

This decisively refutes the claim made by other Jewish Christians that Gentile converts must be circumcised and observe the Law (Torah) of Moses (v. 1, 5); though neither Peter nor James (nor the letter) specifically mentions circumcision, this is covered by the expression “not one burden” (mhde\nba/ro$)—i.e., not one regulation/restriction from the Jewish Law. So far, so good. This would conform with the “Law-free” Gospel and approach to the Gentiles proclaimed by Paul (and expounded so forcefully in Galatians). The difficulty comes with what follows from James in verse 20:

“…but to set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from pollutions of images [i.e. idols] and fornication/prostitution [pornei/a] and (anything) choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and blood”

This list of restrictions is repeated in the letter (v. 29), with the conclusion of verse 28 (picking up from above):

“For it seemed (good/proper) to the holy Spirit and to us to set upon you not one burden more than these (thing)s (which are) e)pa/nagke$…”

The four prohibitions of v. 20, 29 are described as e)pa/nagke$—an adverb which is somewhat difficult to render literally, but it refers to something which proceeds “upon force, compulsion”, typically translated in English as “by necessity, out of necessity”, etc—in other words, these things are necessary or compulsory, not optional. This is sometimes glossed over by commentators in light of v. 29b, where James states “…(these things) from which, thoroughly guarding yourselves, you will practice/perform well”, but is sometimes rendered as though James is simply offering good advice (i.e., “you will do good to avoid these things”). But James does indeed appear to be enjoining Gentile converts strictly to observe specific religious (legal) restrictions—but only these. In attempting to understand the prohibitions of v. 20/29, there are several main questions which tend to overshadow the exegesis:

    1. What is the correct form/version of the text that has come down to us?
    2. How are these prohibitions to be understood in context—both from the stand point of the apostles (James) and the author of Acts?
    3. How do they relate to the broader witness of the New Testament in regard to the Law?

With regard to the first question, the Alexandrian/Majority text of verse 20 reads as indicated above, with a similar set of prohibitions in v. 29:

V. 20: a)pe/xesqai tw=n a)lisghma/twn tw=n ei)dw/lwn kai\ th=$ pornei/a$ kai\ tou= pniktou= kai\ tou= ai%mato$
“…to hold (themselves) away from pollutions of images [i.e. idols] and pornei/a and (anything) choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and blood”
V. 29: a)pe/xesqai ei)dwloqu/twn kai\ ai%mato$ kai\ pniktw=n kai\ pornei/a$
“…to hold (yourselves) away from (things) slaughtered to images [i.e. sacrificed to idols] and blood and (thing)s choked (to death) [i.e. strangled] and pornei/a

The ‘Western’ text (D lat [d] Irenaeus, also MS 323 945 1739 1891), however, omits tou= pniktou=/pniktw=n (“{thing[s]} choked/strangled”) and reads in its place a negative form of the “golden rule”—”as many (thing)s as you do not wish to come to be unto yourselves, you should not do to others” (or, “and many things as they do not wish…”, using 3rd person pronouns). Several witnesses (including Ë45) retain tou= pniktou=/pniktw=n but leave out the reference to pornei/a. There seem to be two factors at work:

    • The Western text of D etc, finding the prohibitions problematic or difficult to understand, interprets them in a more general ethical sense: “blood” probably was understood as “bloodshed”, resulting in three basic ethical prohibitions—against idolatry, immorality [pornei/a], and murder/violence. The reference to “(thing[s]) strangled” may have been thought to be out of place, and so omitted; or, it may have been subsumed under the idea of “bloodshed/violence”. Exactly how the negative form of the Golden Rule, in particular, was added to this list is anyone’s guess; there may have been an attempt to preserve four items.
    • The omission of kai\ [th=$] pornei/a$ perhaps occurred for the opposite reason: among a list of three ritual/ceremonial prohibitions (see below), the reference to pornei/a (understood generally as fornication or sexual immorality) probably seemed out of place.

There are other minor variants, in the order of the items in the list, and so forth; but scholars are more or less in agreement that the Alexandrian/Majority text, though not without its own difficulties, is the best option. An interesting theory is that originally there were only two prohibitions—against things associated with idols and blood—which came to be expanded (to four) by various ways in the textual tradition. On this theory, and other related matters, see the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition), pp. 379-383.

(continued in the next day’s note)