When writing my commentary on Revelation chapters 1-3, I finally reached the point when I could no longer vacillate about the title of my commentary. How was I to translate the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) that the prophet John used for each of the communities that he wrote? It has certainly been traditional to entitle this kind of commentary as a study on John’s “Letters to the Seven Churches.” Should I call these communities that followed Christ “churches” or “congregations”?
Then I remembered the preface to the first edition of the King James translation of the Holy Scriptures. Toward the end of the eleven page “Translators to the Reader” that was regularly a part of the earliest printings of the KJV, one of the leaders of the translators from Oxford and Cambridge wrote, “Finally, we have on the one hand avoided the strictness of the Puritans, who reject old ecclesiastical words and adopt other words, preferring washing for baptism, and Congregation instead of Church” (Drs. E. F. Rhodes and L. Lupas, The Translators to the Reader, The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited, p. 84).
In fact, this strictness of the Puritans reflected not only their rejection of “old ecclesiastical words,” but also their accuracy in translation. For unlike the English term “church” which invariably refers to a Christian organization or structure, the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) used by John the prophet was a far less religious term in ancient Greek. When there is a meeting of the PTA, or a city’s council, or a group of legislators we do not designate any of these as a church. Acts 19:32, 39, and 40, as well as numerous examples from pagan literature, however, use this term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) for similar non religious meetings. Thus the KJV translators took a Greek term that was not essentially religious and changed it into an English term which was not only religious, but particularly Christian.
The term “congregation,” chosen by the Puritans and myself, certainly seemed closer to the non religious term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) used by John. Clearly the English verb “congregate” has no essential religious connotations. The noun “congregation” can refer to a Christian assembly/organization (but not a building) or a Jewish assembly/organization (but not a building) and sometimes in English can even refer to non religious gatherings. An article dated July 1, 2010 in the online edition of CNN
(http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/29/somalia.journalists.wounded/index.html) contained this non religious use of the term “congregation.”
“Warring sides have made it their habit to bombard or attack places with a congregation of journalists ostensibly to eliminate their enemy’s claims of political gains,” said Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ secretary-general. “But we must remind them of their responsibility to protect journalists and civilians.”
Accordingly, I decided upon “Seven Congregations” rather than “Seven Churches” since this choice not only seems to resonate with the spirit of John’s term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), but also does not as easily conform itself to the architectonic Christianity that dominated the thinking of King James I and his translators. These seven communities that John addressed were individual congregations of women and men who, with varying degrees of faithfulness, followed the Lamb, and certainly did not see themselves as part of a religious organization with a corporate profile.
I have pointed out earlier in this blog and now in my recent commentary (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible) that many Graeco-Roman pagans also believed in postmortem punishment in the afterlife. You might not be aware, however, that they actually believed they had discovered some of the entrance portals to Hell, Hades, and the underworld where one encountered smoky streams and lakes of fire and sulfur. Think of the science fiction TV series Stargate SG-1, but imagine a portal that does not transport you to another region of the universe, but into the underworld where the dead reside. Or, perhaps better known to those of us more familiar with earlier science fiction culture, think of Jules Verne’s 19th century work Journey to the Center of the Earth. This view about entrance points into the underworld was generally accepted in antiquity and even Jesus spoke of gates into the afterlife/underworld (Matt. 16:18). In Graeco-Roman mythology this type of site was called a Plutonium, named after the pagan deity of the underworld, Pluto, a.k.a. Hades.
It has been known for a long time that one such imagined portal into the underworld was located in the city of Hierapolis, not far from the city of Laodicea mentioned in Rev. 3:14-22. Paul’s letter to the church of Colossae (4:13-15) also mentions Hierapolis and Laodicea as all three of these were located in the Lycus Valley, about 100 miles east of Ephesus. Recently Italian archaeologists have extended their excavations at the site of the Plutonium in Hierapolis and even created some digital views of what it might have looked like.
Both friend and foe of the biblical message have acknowledged that the writers of Scripture often used the common language of the day to communicate Christian doctrine, values, and ideas to the surrounding culture. This is clearly the case regarding ideas about the afterlife, at least at times. 2 Peter 2:4, for example, contains the Greek verb ταρταρόω, tartaroō which means “to cast into Tartarus.” Tartarus is defined in the best lexicon for the Greek NT as a location, “thought of by the Greeks as a subterranean place lower than Hades where divine punishment was meted out,” and was also viewed this way by the Jewish author Philo and also in “Israelite apocalyptic” literature (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition, eds. Walter Bauer & F. W. Danker). It is no surprise that the archaeological museum at Hierapolis contains a clear example of the Greek deity Hades.
So if and when you make your way to Hierapolis, Turkey try to get your guide to show you the remains of the Plutonium. If and when you make your way into the Gospels or the book of Revelation, keep two points in mind. First, Jesus and his earliest followers certainly felt compelled to announce the painful consequences of rejecting God and his ways. Secondly, when apostolic authors did announce this, they did it in a way that was intelligible to their audiences by using the vernacular to communicate their theology.
This URL will take you to a page of color photos from the commentary. I am not including the ones that were never in color, like many of the coin photos, but the rest that are enjoyable to see in color. Due to the number of color photos I will not try to display all of them at one time.
So, enjoy. Over the next week or so I hope to get all of them from the commentary on this blog.
Click this link, or copy and paste it: http://richardoster.com/color-photos-for-seven-congregations-in-a-roman-crucible/
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One of the current mantras in American theological education is globalization, and rightly so. Globalization should be built into the DNA of every congregation of followers of Christ. The world of Jesus was a world replete with views of globalization. Alexander the Great had created a world of globalization from Albania to Afghanistan and the Romans from the Thames to the Tigris (for Roman globalism see Oster, Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible, pp. 29-40).
In fact, globalism was an integral part of Roman politics and theology and contributed to the Roman State’s hostility and aspersions toward the church’s geopolitical Jesus. Buddhist “missionaries” had come to the Mediterranean before the time of nascent Christianity.
There exists a Greek navigation guide from the mid-first century AD, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, that demonstrates Roman sea trade into sub-Saharan Africa as far south as Tanzania and as far east as Sri Lanka and eastern India. In addition, the very presence of silk garments in the Roman world testified to the existence of China and the famous Silk Route, since it was not until centuries later, when China lost its monopoly on silk, that the West could produce its own silk.
When Dr. James Allan Francis, a Baptist minister, presented his essay (eventually) called One Solitary Life, he could not have known that it would become a Christmas classic. Nor did later believers realize the profound accuracy and significance of his words,
He never went to college.
He never put his foot inside a big city.
He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born.
Jesus’ provincial travel resume of “he never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born” stands in stark contrast to Paul and his co-workers, the itinerant Jewish exorcists of Acts 19, the tens of thousands of pagans and Jews who sailed in and out of the Herodian port at Caesarea, the first century AD, Lycus Valley merchant, Titus Flavius Zeuxis who made 72 journeys from his hometown of Hierapolis to Rome on business (according to his epitaph preserved in Hierapolis).
Had it been within the purview of Jesus’ divine calling to reach out to pagan sinners, it would have been relatively easy for him to travel the less than 30 miles from Nazareth to the major port city of Caesarea Maritima and to catch one of the many ships that would take him to Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, or Rome. What God did through Jesus to ignite the fuse of the Abrahamic Great Commission (Gen. 12:1-3) apparently required that Jesus not wander too far from home, which meant Christ, unlike Paul and virtually all Diaspora Jews, had little opportunity to mix and mingle with those who represented the seamy underbelly of pagan life and idolatry.
It is the uniform theological outlook of the New Testament that Jesus did exactly what he was supposed to do by his ministry primarily among the Jews in the Land of Promise and that the church did exactly what it was supposed to do by both declaring a divine globalism and living in a way that was commensurate with its declaration. It is certainly significant for us that neither the Gospels, nor Acts, nor Paul, etc. see a need, either doctrinally or missionally. to re-locate Jesus in the world of the Diaspora. If all of the canonical writers were at peace in confronting their own world of paganism with a Christ that never rubbed shoulders with true paganism, then, perhaps we could also.
A disclaimer is in order: First, I don’t think TobyMac is the Antichrist, a member of the Illuminati, or guilty of any other nefarious associations or behavior, and I think it is clearly helpful to the Christian movement worldwide that he won the Best Contemporary Christian Album at this year’s Grammy Awards. I also find many of his lyrics to be on target spiritually.
I must, however, take umbrage at one of his comments that shows up in interviews and was quoted in an article cited in Huffington Post. I am referring to an article entitled “Christian Music Bounces Back With TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Lecrae And More.” According to this article, “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church,” the artist [TobyMac] said. “He hung out with the people, where they were. And that’s to me where Christian music should be.” Since everyone knows there was no Christian church in existence in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this statement is designed for its rhetorical impact, rather than its historical accuracy. Sometimes, though, rhetorical statements have a life of their own, and hearers forget the limitations of rhetoric. More probably the rhetoric of this statement was meant to emphasize the viewpoint that Jesus did not spend time associating with religious/Jewish organizations or hanging out in Jewish meeting places or chillaxing with the officialdom of Jewish religion. A fact-check of this viewpoint led me to conclude that it did not represent the whole story of Jesus.
This anti-institutional view of Jesus has a long history, but it stands in stark contrast to the picture of Jesus given us by the major writer of the New Testament, Luke, and also by John the prophet. Let’s look at a few facts. There was a very small nucleus of Jewish people for whom God pulled back the curtain to allow them to see and understand the historic and spiritual realities associated with the nativity story. This nucleus found in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 includes:
1. the priest and temple functionary, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth
2. Simeon who was guided by the Holy Spirit into the Jewish Temple (the epicenter of Jewish officialdom and pious folk) rather than into a local tavern to encounter there Mary, Joseph, and Jesus
3. and, finally, the prophetess Anna who would have only left the Temple if she were dragged out screaming and kicking (Lk. 2:37, “She never left the temple.”)
There were of course Jesus’ parents who had to be from the line of David and could not be priestly, but who seemingly went to the Temple at every ordained time. It seems that none of those chosen by God to be insiders into the miracle of Jesus’ birth felt compromised or dragged down by “hanging out in church” in their own day.
Then, of course, there is the 12 year old Jesus (Lk. 2:41-48), who had clearly broken away from the typical obedient child model and who began to establish his own spiritual identity. To establish his identity and mission early on, he chose to go to the center of Jewish formality and regulations. Since Jesus chose to be at the Temple discussing theology with Jewish teachers and theologians at the age of 12, he was about as churchy as a Jewish boy could be. When the frustrated parents of Jesus finally discovered him and questioned him about his behavior he replied (Lk. 2:49, The Message), “Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” It would be difficult to construe this response into an anti-institutional statement by Jesus; in fact, it shows Jesus’ preference for hanging out at “Jewish church!” The words recorded next in Scripture preserve the response of Jesus’ mom and dad, but they also could have come right out of the mouths of many modern Christians who have been persuaded by the hip/hop-pop picture of Jesus, “But they had no idea what he was talking about” (Lk. 2:50, The Message).
To be sure, the validity of Christian ministry is determined by the authenticity of its message and accompanying lifestyle and not by its location. Bars and brothels are certainly within the purview of modern Christian ministry, but we need to be clear that this was not the fundamental approach used by Jesus. Most of Jesus’ time was spent in synagogues, in travel through the Jewish countryside, and in Jewish homes. It does not seem to have been an erratic choice when Jesus decided to give his inaugural teachings in synagogues (Lk. 4:14-15). There were inns and taverns in the Roman world and apparently in the social knowledge of Jesus’ audiences (Lk. 10:34-35), but based upon the historical record preserved in the Gospels, it does not seem possible to place Jesus in them for the purpose of reconstructing his public ministry. Moreover, many of the “outcasts” and “sinners” that Jesus encountered were in fact Jewish. For example, we might remember Zacchaeus regarded as the “chief tax collector” and known by the crowd in Luke 19 as “one who is a sinner.” Even though Zacchaeus was a tax collector and sinner, according to Jesus, Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9). From a Lukan theological perspective, this spiritual reclamation of Zacchaeus, the back-sliding “son of Abraham,” is seen as a clear manifestation of Jesus’ missional identity as the “Son of Man who came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).
For sake of space, let me encourage you to read through Luke’s second volume, Acts, to see whether most of the gentile converts came from religious settings and religious buildings or from the bars and brothels of the Roman world. When Paul (if I may leave Acts of the Apostles for a moment) refers to saints in Corinth as former “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10), there is no reason to exclude these converts out of paganism from the “outsiders or unbelievers” that would have heard the truth of God when they attended the church’s worship services in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:23-25).
Now let’s turn to Revelation. Admittedly John is not concerned primarily with evangelism and outreach, but his view of Christ, believers, and the church seems to have a different flavor than the idea that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church.” In the mind of some, the statement that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church” might leave the impression that one could love Jesus and ignore the church, for example. That outlook would strike John as unacceptable, based upon what Jesus told him in the beginning of the book of Revelation. For the seven congregations in Revelation the defining picture of Jesus was not, as many might expect, the sacrificial Lamb of God (which does not show up until chapter 5:6), but instead the Son of Man. John’s message for his contemporary Christians did not focus on Jesus on the clouds (Rev. 1:7), contrary to the belief of some fundamentalist millenarians and evangelicals. Rather, for the Christians of his own day, John the prophet’s focus was upon Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands” (Rev. 1:13), the very lampstands Jesus himself identifies as the seven churches to whom John wrote (Rev. 1:20). For John the prophet, the Enthroned Christ lives and moves among the congregations of God. As I noted in my commentary, (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3, p. 89),
From first to last the Christ of Revelation is an ecclesiastical Jesus, a Jesus for the congregations of God. Whether seen under the rubric of the 144,000 sealed on their foreheads, or the Bride of the Lamb, or the city he loves, or the great multitude that no one can count, or the saints, or the witnesses of Jesus, or the New Jerusalem, the Jesus Christ that John knows and proclaims is one for the collective people of God, the congregations of Roman Asia. The prophet John’s identity is inseparably linked with congregations (ekklēsiai, ἐκκλησίαι, 1:4); the identity of Jesus is inseparably linked with seven congregations (epta ekklēsiai, ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι, 1:11); and the significance of the book of Revelation is inseparably linked with congregations, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches” (epi tais ekklēsiais, ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, 22:16).
We contemporary believers just might need to reconsider whether we want to recapture apostolic belief by acknowledging and confessing “that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” (p. 89), but a churchy Jesus, notwithstanding all the abuses and heresies propagated by his ostensible followers, both past and present. It cannot be doubted that Jesus of Nazareth, Luke, and John the prophet all knew very well the abuses and unspeakable atrocities engendered by God’s people over the centuries, but it never seemed a viable spiritual choice for them to dishonor God in response to the lamentable behavior of his people.
Now, go and watch the official music video for TobyMac’s “Eye on It.” http://tobymac.com/videos/eye-it-official-music-video
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It has been assumed for years by leading NT scholars that the oldest archaeological artifacts that can be traced back to early Christians were produced after AD 180 [Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, rev. ed. 2003]. Therefore, many do not know that it is time to abandon that earlier assumption in light of relatively recent discoveries in Asia Minor. Now there is earlier evidence, earlier by two generations than was previously thought, and this new material culture pertains to one of the seven congregations to whom John wrote. Equally significant, this archaeological material reflects some of the facets of the Johannine practice of numerology. Any one of these three aspects about this new artifact, its date, its location, or its numerology, would justify posting this evidence, but the combination of all three of these relating to the book of Revelation is extremely noteworthy.
The evidence comes from the area of graffiti excavated by archaeologists working in early Roman Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), and the evidence is dated no later than AD 125. Prof. Roger Bagnall, former professor of classics and history at Columbia University and now Director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University, reported these findings recently in his important work Everyday Writing in the Græco-Roman East [Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press; Reprint edition 2012].
Bagnall reports that there are graffiti found in layers of plaster in the Roman basilica in Smyrna, and one of these layers of plaster can be dated precisely to AD 125, using a Roman era date contained in the plaster. The layer dated AD 125 is the “uppermost layer of plaster” and it “follows that the earlier layer or layers of plaster, and the inscriptions on them, must date before 125.”
In the plaster pre-dating AD 125 Bagnall mentions “a most remarkable graffito” which “can only indicate a Christian character.”
Before reproducing the information given by Prof. Bagnall, some might need a brief refresher course in the Graeco-Roman technique of numerology known as isopsephism, since it is impossible to understand this graffito without this. Even if you are conversant with the details of biblical numerology, you might have slept through the lecture and demonstration about isopsephism in seminary. The term isopsephism comes from the Greek word ἰσόψηφα [=isopsephism] which means “of equal numerical value.” The presupposition for isopsephism to work and have meaning is the fact that “each letter of the original Greek alphabet . . . serves also as a numeral,” (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Greek Papyri Beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World, 2007, p. 205) thereby making it possible to assign a numerical value to words as also happens in gematria. Isopsephism is a technique where two words, or a word and a phrase, or a word and a letter of the alphabet had the same numerical value. Thus, to give one example, the Greek word “Amen” [=ἀμήν] has the numerical value of 99 [ἀ=1; μ=40; ή=8; ν=50]. According, we have early Christian documents which end with the term “Amen” given in its numerical amount, 99. Now we can appreciate the meaning and significance of this new discovery that brings the modern interpreter of Revelation closer to the world of John and his congregations.
Discovered at Smyrna was the following Greek wording:
ἰσόψηφα “Of equal value”
κύριοϲ ω “Lord 800″
πίστιϲ ω ”Faith 800”
Putting this in the context of ancient Smyrna and its community of believers, we see an artifact standing chronologically between John’s admonition to the congregation at Smyrna that, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested” (Rev. 2:10) and the brutal martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of the congregation in Smyrna (ca. AD 155). If the church in Smyrna continued to experience suffering in the time between John and Polycarp, it would be difficult to imagine two other words more important to a suffering congregation than the words “Lord” and “faith.”
The close correlation of these two pregnant theological terms through the technique of isopsephism clearly shows the outlook of the believer who scrawled this isopsephism because of his or her association of them. Contrary to what many scholars affirm, I have yet to be persuaded that this use of numbers is all about “secret code” coming from a persecuted and marginalized sect. Rather isopsephism here is a technique for the association of beliefs, ideas, values, etc that stand in an essential relationship to each other and whose fuller meaning is manifested through this association.
In the next post, deo volente, I will give some more historical evidence about modern misconceptions about the use of numbers by those early Christian believers, especially “secret code” interpretations.