Pleasures In Rome

I am certain that the young couple I saw was not only enjoying their kiss and embrace for obvious romantic pleasures, but also for some of the intentional symbolism, standing as they were at the front of what in Roman times was the magnificent Temple of Venus (= Greek Aphrodite). Venus was regarded as the divine mother of the Roman people as well as the goddess of romance, love, sexuality, beauty, etc. — Just the right place for a young couple to enjoy a pleasurable kiss and embrace!

Proposed 19th century view of Temple of Venus.

All cultures are filled with some contradictions and paradoxes. On the other hand, sometimes what at first seems to be a contradiction can in reality be the evidence of a somber situation. If you stand on the west side of the famous Flavian Amphitheater (=Colosseum) in Rome and look westward toward the equally famous Roman Forum, you see the sparse remains of this temple of Venus. Since many tourists often only look at what is currently standing tallest and most intact among the ruins, this temple is not one of the most visited monuments among the numerous remains within the rectangle formed by the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.

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Google map showing Colosseum on right and the temple and forum on center and left.

This temple of Venus was initially built within a generation of the writing of the book of Revelation during the reign of the Philhellenic emperor Hadrian. Unknown to many visitors interested in the ancient city of Rome, these temple remains situated at the eastern end of the Roman Forum apparently formed the largest temple in ancient Rome. Since this structure was closely associated with the goddess Venus, it is not a total surprise when Dio Cassius (Roman historian and consul) reports that,

it was decreed by the senate that silver images of Marcus [Aurelius] and Faustina [the Younger, wife of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius] should be set up in the temple of Venus and Rome and that an altar should be erected whereon all the maidens married in the city and their bridegrooms should offer sacrifice (Roman History, LXXI.31).

The reason Dio Cassius mentions the temple of Venus and Rome is that there was one large temple for two distinct

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Overview of Temple platform with both cellae in red where statues of deities were.

goddesses, the goddess Venus and the goddess Roma. Often temples with two deities had two cellae (inner chambers where the idol stood). In this particular arrangement the cellae were not next to each other but rather back-to-back, forming one long temple. The part of the temple with the cella of the goddess Roma faced the Forum Romanum, while the part with the cella of the goddess Venus faced the famous Colosseum, a venue seating about 70,000 spectators.

cella of Venus temple

Remains of cella in Temple of Venus, facing Colosseum. Photo property of Richard E. Oster, Jr.

 What seemed to me at first to be a major contradiction —the juxtaposition of the temple of Venus and the Colosseum —made sense after further reflection. Although initially disoriented by the physical proximity of these two marvels of Roman engineering, one designed to promote the worship of love and beauty and sexuality and the other to celebrate the comfortable viewing of massive carnage and pain, the wholesale slaughter of human beings and animals, in the end it made complete sense.

 This “city planning” stratagem by the Roman Emperor Hadrian did bespeak loudly the zeitgeist of Rome at its peak of luxury and wealth. In Rome, the coin of the realm in the time of Hadrian was personal pleasure, likewise attested by Juvenal’s famous reference to appeasing the masses in Rome with “bread and circuses” (panem et circenses). These two monuments, the temple of Venus and the Colosseum, represent both sides of the same coin of the realm.

 Although we Westerners might approve of Venus’s love and beauty while we wince and blanch at the extraordinary human pain, injustice, and carnage in the Colosseum, many denizens of Rome found the activities in the Colosseum to be quite pleasurable also. To be sure, the pleasures afforded by Venus were different from those pleasures provided by the excitement coming from human torture and bloodlust (as the latter was clearly depicted by the Roman author Seneca). But never doubt, for even a moment, whether both venues offered pleasures to the Roman population.

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Google earth map. Quick walk from temple of Venus (left center) to Colosseum (right center).

A stroll from the temple of love, beauty, and sensuality to the venue for the cries and screams coming from the Colosseum was a matter of only a few minutes. The proximity of these two architectural behemoths seems to followers of Christ to reveal an unfathomable absurdity, that was not apparent to those living during this ostensible zenith of Roman civilization.

The more the inhabitants of Rome looked for satisfaction from pleasure as the gold standard to evaluate a “good time in the city,” the more counter cultural and anti-urban culture the early Christian movement appeared. What a vast gulf separated the dystopian values associated with these architectural masterpieces of Rome from the contrarian views proclaimed by the Apostles and others! The inexorable intrusion of the Christian faith into the Roman Empire came about because of the proclamation of a different Empire with a different King than Rome could ever have imagined, and all this without benefit of the marvels of engineering and architecture or the political bully pulpit!

 As I was completing this post, the thoughts of an early Christian writer came to mind, and you deserve to read his thoughts if you do not already know them.

 The author is unknown, but the work is usually called the Epistle to Diognetus (edited and adapted),

 They [Christians] dwell in their own countries, but only as 
sojourners; they bear their share in all things as 
citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers.
 Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and 
every fatherland is foreign.
 They marry like all other men and they beget 
children; but they do not cast away their offspring.
 They have their meals in common, but not their
 . . . They are put to death, and yet they are endued with
 They are in beggary, and yet they make many 
rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they 
abound in all things (chapter 5:5-13).

 And marvel not that a man can be an imitator 
of God. He can, if God wills it.
 For happiness consists not in lordship over 
one’s neighbours, nor in desiring to have more than
 weaker men, nor in possessing wealth and using force
 to inferiors; neither can any one imitate God in these
 matters; nay, these lie outside his greatness. But

 1. whosoever takes upon himself the burden of
 his neighbor

2. whosoever desires to benefit one that 
is worse off in that in which he himself is superior

3. whosoever by supplying to those that are in want 
possessions which he received from God becomes a “God”
 to those who receive them from him

this one is an imitator
 of God (chapter 10:4-6).


Choose your Kingdom and its pleasures wisely!

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Thoughts about Hell from Jesus Himself.

There are obviously so many channels from which one can learn about the concept of the afterlife. Many world religions teach the concept of a painful afterlife, often deriving the idea of a painful condition due to a life of immoral living and/or the stultification of God. I have treated the idea of the portal into the underworld/afterlife elsewhere. We have likewise looked at some of the ancient pagan beliefs about post-mortem existence. In my own experience it has been a real help to be led by the hand, by Christ himself, through the labyrinthine conceptions about Hell.

Recently there seems to be an increase in those who would deny or marginalize the doctrine of Hell, ironically by referring to Jesus’ himself. In addition to Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, the site “Red Letter Christians” also seems to prefer authors who desire to discredit the concept of Hell. Consider the following by Christian Piatt,

“Does hell exist? Perhaps. But the God of my understanding – the God revealed to me by the life and teachings of Jesus – is a God that seduces us, beckons us toward love, toward light. It is not a kingdom governed by fear and the avoidance of pain, but rather a kingdom in which the hungry are feed, the weak are empowered, and the desperate find hope.”[; March 24, 2014]

It is understandable that Christians do struggle with the doctrine and teaching about Hell, but it is certainly disingenuous to state, or even suggest, that the doctrine of Hell was remote to the piety and teachings of Jesus. How foolish to suggest that Jesus did not employ the idea of fear to motivate others.

Matt. 10:28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Luke 12:4-5   “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.  But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!

The following texts patently depict a situation that everyone would fear.

Luke 13:27-28 But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.

Matt. 22:11-14   “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.  Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Matt. 25:30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Luke 16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

Luke 16:28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

The truth is that Jesus himself uses the term and concept of “Hell” more than any other figure or author mentioned in the New Testament and does not hesitate to employ fear and dread in that context.

A beneficial aspect of Jesus’ teaching for me is to realize that the term traditionally translated “Hell” comes from a Greek term that Jesus already uses in a highly metaphorical sense. Jesus is the one who taught me to think about this issue in terms of metaphor and symbol, rather than literally. The Greek term γέεννα (Gehenna), always rendered “Hell,“ ”is derived from a Hebrew phrase meaning ‘Valley of Hinnom,’ a ravine running along the south side of Jerusalem and a place where the rubbish from the city was constantly being burned“ (”γέεννα,“ J. P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek–English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Geographical Object and Features, # 1.21, p. 6).  When Jesus spoke of ”Gehenna“ he certainly did not think that this location on the south side of the temple mound was the literal location of ”Hell“ and post-mortem punishment. Rather, this site of constant burning provided an apt illustration or metaphor for Jesus‘ purposes of instilling trepidation and sorrow into his audience. Jesus believed in the reality of ”Hell,“ but knew that the use of well-known metaphors was the proper way to point to its pain. Rather than attempting to literalize an experience that can only be spoken to us mortals through metaphors, Jesus employed a term that was well known to anyone who visited Jerusalem.

This metaphorical approach to the teaching of Jesus on this topic certainly gives the modern interpreter some latitude in explaining and teaching this idea. In the book of 2nd Peter 2:4, Peter himself follows Jesus‘ model even more dramatically, by using the idea of Tartarus derived from Greek legends. Peter clearly did not feel bound to the same topographical location in Jerusalem that Jesus employed for metaphorical purposes. The older Greek lexicon by Joseph H. Thayer comments on this term ” ταρταρόω (tartaroō),“ that it points to a place ”regarded by the ancient Greeks as the abode of the wicked dead, where they suffer punishment for their evil deeds; it answers to the Gehenna of the Jews“ (Thayer‘s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, # 5020).

For those who can trust their vision while reading the Gospels, there is no doubt that Jesus talked about ”Hell,“ especially with conviction when teaching about the Kingdom of God. For those who hold to the historic, orthodox conviction that an eternal punishment awaits those not received by God (Matt. 25:46; ”into eternal punishment,” εἰς κόλασιν αἰώνιον) it could assist them in modern formulations of this ancient belief if they embraced the practice of both Jesus and Peter in using metaphors.


Revisiting Literalism in Prophecy ~~ The Inspiration of Imagination

Gambling affords the proper metaphor here; I will lay my cards on the table.  I believe that the prophet John, just like the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12:1; Gal. 1:12; 2:2; Eph. 3:3; Acts 16:9; 18:9), the Apostle Peter (Acts 10:17), gifted believers (1 Cor. 14:26, 30), and followers of Jesus (Matt. 17:9; Lk. 24:23; Acts 2:17) had visions and revelations from God.  There were many prophets and prophetesses in early communities of believers (Acts 2:17; 15:32; 1 Cor. 11:4-5).  What happens, however, when one sees visions and revelations and does not draw what is seen, but puts it into words?  Some ancient religions would put their visions and revelations into pictures on papyri or stone monuments.  Apparently earliest Israelite faith and earliest Christianity thought that prophetic visions should be put into words, not pictures and paintings; perhaps, faith is based upon words and not pictures.  In one case, the prophetic book Obadiah begins “The vision of Obadiah“ and then continues with ”This is what the Sovereign LORD says about Edom — We have heard a message from the LORD.“  Both pagan monuments and papyri earlier than Obadiah contain visuals, drawings, and paintings to accompany religious texts.  Or, Nahum 1:1, “An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.“  Then this book of the vision of Nahum continues with text and words.

The point is that images and scenes in visions must be rendered into words, and this process, in my judgment, involves the prophet’s choice of words and the decision of what to describe and what not to describe from the vision and its many scenes and colors.  It is in this sense that I talk about Ezekiel’s and John’s involvement in the process of writing the content of their respective books and making choices about the wording, themes, and so on.  It is similar to God’s allowing NT authors the right of their own vocabulary, themes, etc. in the books they author and compose.

One of John’s favorite prophets was Ezekiel and his reliance upon Ezekielian imagery about metaphysical experiences (Ezek. 40:2 || Rev. 21:10) certainly indicates that John placed himself in a sphere of mysticism similar to Ezekiel’s.  This 6th century Jewish prophet demonstrates that strict adherence to literalism is sometimes unnecessary and other times even unfeasible when studying writings within the prophetic genre.  Even before noting how John alters and adapts some of the scenes preserved in the writings of this exilic prophet Ezekiel, we must note how Ezekiel himself reveals a non-literalistic outlook within his own material.  A celebrated text in Ezekiel is his depiction of the “four living creatures” in Ezek. 1:4-14, and then a supplementary text in Ezek. 10:1-22.  Aspects of the intriguing iconography from Ezekiel’s picture, including the ocular ornamentation (Ezek. 1:18; 10:12), is not our concern here.  I do, however, find it very instructive for my point to notice the ease with which the Ezekielian depictions shatter any rigid sense of literalism.  With these chapters of Ezekiel (1 and 10), we can readily discern that one of the prophet John’s most significant spiritual mentors had neither hesitation nor apprehension in depicting a heavenly scene without reflecting a rigid devotion to literalism.  This is especially worthy of our attention since Ezekiel deals here with the “four living creatures” (Ezek. 1:5; cf. 1:13, 15, 19, 20, 21, 22; 3:13; 10:15, 17, 20.) who dwell at the ganglion of each and every activity of God, both earthly and supernal.

In chapter one of Ezekiel he received a vision while he was by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians (Ezek. 1:3).  In this vision he saw the four living creatures (=cherubim=cherubs, Ezek. 10:20), and each of the four living creatures is depicted with these four following faces: face of a man; on the right side each had the face of a lion; and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle (Ezek. 1:10-11a).  In contrast, Ezekiel chapter 10:14 reads,

Each of the cherubim had four faces: One face was that of a cherub, the second the face of a man, the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.  

Clearly the face of the ox has been replaced by the face of the cherub.  Later Rabbis themselves could not tolerate Ezekiel’s disregard for literalism and created a tradition that has no basis within Scripture to solve the “problem” of the genre of prophecy having this kind of diversity.   The Rabbis suggested that Ezekiel was bothered by the ox because it reminded him of the episode of the golden calf and idolatry (Exod.32), apparently overlooking the fact that the term for “calf” in Exodus 32:4, 8 is not the term for ox in Ezekiel 1:10.  According to this Rabbinic “tradition,” Ezekiel asked God to remove the four faces of the oxen distributed across the four cherubs and replace it with the four faces of a cherub distributed across the four cherubs.  What the Rabbis might have chosen as an alternative is to believe Ezekiel’s estimation in 10:22 when he wrote, “Their faces had the same appearance as those I had seen by the Kebar River.“  Even though the faces were clearly not literally identical in both chapters (1 and 10), since Ezekiel is not addicted to literalism in the genre of prophecy he could say with complete inspiration that the four living creatures had ”the same appearance“ in both chapters.

Turning to the book of Revelation and John‘s perspectives on the four living creatures, we can see that as a Christ follower who writes within the genre of biblical prophecy John also does not have a slavish commitment to literalism when recording his visions from Patmos.  For John, the four living creatures no longer exist in the form recorded by Ezekiel.  Rather than accepting a straightforward reading of John’s prophecies, some dispensational scholars with an unwarranted devotion to literalism assert that the forms of the living creatures are identical in the time of Ezekiel and John.  These writers attribute the “ostensible” differences between John and Ezekiel to the phenomenon of parallax, where one’s description differs from another based upon one’s location at the time of observation.  Parallax, however, cannot explain all the significant differences between John and Ezekiel.  John sees four faces (as in Ezekiel), but now, unlike Ezekiel, each creature has a single countenance, not multiple ones.

Following the description of each face (lion, ox, human, and eagle) in Ezekiel 1 rather than Ezekiel 10 (lion, cherub, human, and eagle), John writes (Rev. 4:7),

The first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle.

Furthermore, the four living creatures have evolved into a form that resembles both Ezekiel‘s cherubs in chapter 1 and Isaiah‘s seraphim in chapter 6 of Isaiah.  This prophetic adaptation is clear in John‘s discourse (Rev. 4:8),

Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” 

The concept of the four living creatures having “six wings,” clearly not the number four seen by Ezekiel, can only be traced back to Isaiah’s seraphim vision (Isa. 6:2-3).  Six winged beings are seen nowhere else in Scripture except Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4.  The close association of John’s imagery with Isaiah’s is furthermore demonstrated in the singular appearance of the Trisagion, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” again only in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4.

Instead of resorting to either tortuous exegesis or a preclusionary reading of the texts of Ezekiel and Revelation, a student of Scripture ought to experience no hesitation in acknowledging the disregard for a strict literalism in the writings of biblical prophets.  When any biblical author shares vignettes from the eternal, unseen world associated with God’s throne, we should remind ourselves, with the Apostle Paul, that ”now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face“ (1 Cor. 13:12).  In my judgment the rendering from the Message wonderfully captures Paul‘s insight on this point,

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then.

This adaptable iconography of this Ezekielian “visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1), when “the heavens were opened” (Ezek. 1:1), provides an important example of the prophet’s visionary disinterest in literalism.  These inspired presentations of heavenly scenes and supernal creatures, vouchsafed by prophetic images, are abused when contorted to fit within the limits of a narrow, unscriptural literalism.

Papyri and the First Systematic and Empire Wide Persecution of Christians

Quest Post this week is from Clint Burnett.  I am delighted to have a friend and former student write this week’s post. Clint has academic training that has given him the opportunity to study the historical backgrounds of early Christianity.  Clint has completed the MDiv degree from Harding School of Theology and the Master of Sacred Theology (STM) from Boston University.  He is currently enrolled in the doctoral program at Boston College, working on a PhD in Biblical Studies.  Clint has had opportunity to combine work done in a graduate course in papyrology at Harvard University with his longstanding interest in the mistreatment of early followers of Christ during the Roman Empire.  He was kind enough to write up a post about one aspect of the persecution of early disciples for this blog on the book of Revelation (Clint also has a blog that looks at material cultural and the historical context of early Christianity, which you can find at

Egyptian Papyri and the Persecution of Christians 

For the first 220 years of the movement, no empire wide, systematic persecution of Christians occurred. While there is evidence for persecution of Christians from the earliest days of Christianity (e.g., the testimony of Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 Peter, the book of Revelation, the Neronian persecution of Christians in Rome in the AD 60s), these persecutions seem to have been localized, and with the exception of the persecutions of Christians under the Roman Emperors Nero (AD 54-68), Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), and Maximinus Thrax (AD 235-38), not state sponsored, i.e., the Roman government did not actively seek out Christians. It seems that most Roman officials were content to follow the modus operandi of the Emperor Trajan. That is, when Pliny the Younger wrote to Trajan c. AD 110 and asked him what he should do about Christians, Trajan instructed the governor of Pontus-Bithynia, “These people (i.e., Christians) must not be hunted out; if they are brought before you and the charge against them proved, they must be punished” (Pliny, Letters 10.97; translation from LCL, Betty Radice).   


Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius

Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius

Nevertheless, the Roman Emperor Gaius Messius Quintus Decius, who assumed the surname of Trajan (Trajanus), abandoned Trajan’s modus operandi with regard to Christians in AD 250. It is important to note the historical backdrop of Decius’s persecution. The third century AD was a time of constant upheaval for the Roman state. In a time span of 50 years, there were 18 emperors with only one dying of natural causes. The Romans (and most of the inhabitants of the empire) worked with the assumption that if the empire is in a state of chaos, then the gods are not happy. Thus in order to restore peace and order, the Romans attempted to propitiate their gods and return order to their world. One way in which Decius attempted to do so was to have everyone in the empire worship the gods. While Decius was not necessarily singling out Christians (other people were persecuted as well), because Christians refused to worship the Roman gods this resulted in a pogrom against Christians in which: “[Christian] leaders were arrested, imprisoned, and executed. Sacrifices were then ordered, and all citizens of Rome had to make offerings to the gods and in return received certificates guaranteeing their actions and their safety” (Matthew Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, 170). These certificates are known as libelli (singular libellus).

This persecution not only resulted in the death of numerous Christians, but also it divided the church in Northern Africa, for some Christians purchased official Roman documents known as “libelli pacis” (i.e., a formal government communication of peace) that declared the holders had made the proper sacrifices to the pagan gods, thus exempting them from further ones (Bunson, Encyclopedia, 320). Other Christians lapsed under the penalty of death and offered sacrifices to the pagan gods. When the Decian persecution ended, both of the above-mentioned groups, called the lapsi for relapsing into paganism, attempted to return to their churches. The churches in North Africa were faced with a difficult decision. What were they to do with those who lapsed? Should they be allowed to return? We can only imagine the emotional uproar and difficulty the returned lapsi caused the faithful Christians who survived the persecution and even lost loved ones to it!

Be that as it may, one of the most fascinating things about the papyrological discoveries of the last 130 years is that we actually have some libelli from the Decian persecution. To date, 46 libelli have been discovered, all from Egypt, and all from AD 250 (Rea, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 58.30).

The first libellus that we will look at is from the Graeco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus (see picture #2):

“To the superintendents of offerings and sacrifices at the city from Aurelius . . . . thion son of Theodorus and Pantonymis, of the said city. It has ever been (ἀεί) my custom to make sacrifices and libations to the gods, and now also I have in your presence in accordance with the command poured libations and sacrificed and tasted the offerings together with my son Aurelius Dioscorus and my daughter Aurelia Lais. I therefore request you to certify my statement. The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 20” (P. Oxy 4.658; translation taken form Grenfeld and Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 4.49-50).

A few things are interesting about this papyrus and the person who is represented in it. First, the worshiper (whose name is probably Aurelius) must attest to the fact that it has ever been (ἀεί) his “custom to make sacrifices and libation to the gods.” Second, not only does this papyrus indicate that the worshiper must prove his orthopraxy, but also that his children must do the same. We have no idea the age of the two children, Aurelius Dioscorus and Aurelia Lais, mentioned in this papyrus. Nevertheless, they were not exempt from the Decian edict.

The second libellus from Oxyrhynchus dated AD 250 notes the following:

“To the commissioners of sacrifices at Oxyrhynchus from Aurelius Gaion son of Ammonius and Taeus. It has ever been (ἀεί) my habit to make sacrifices and libations and pay reverence to the gods in accordance with the orders of the divine decree (κελευσθέντα ὑπὸ τῆς θείας κρίσεως), and now I have in your presence sacrificed and made libations and tasted the offerings with Taos my wife, Ammonius and Ammonianus my sons, and Thecla my daughter, acting through me (δι᾽ ἐμοῦ), and I request you to certify my statement. The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messus Quintus Trajanus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Epeiph 3. I, Aurelius Gaion, have presented this application. I, Aurelius Sarapion also called Chaeremon, wrote on his behalf, as he is illiterate” (P.Oxy 12.1464; translation taken from Grenfeld and Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 12.190).

Of particular interest in this papyrus is that when we compare it with the previous one, there seems to be a standardization of the libelli. Like our previous one, the worshipper has to state, or rather to sign off because he is illiterate, that he has always (ἀεί) sacrificed to the pagan gods. This similarity is probably the product of the composition by professional scribes or amanuenses (singular amanuensis) who actually authored the document. This is clear in that the scribe names himself at the conclusion: “I, Aurelius Sarapion also called Chaeremon, wrote on his behalf, as he is illiterate.” Furthermore, this particular papyrus evidences deviation from the above libellus, for the scribe adds the phrase that the sacrifice is “in accordance with the orders of the divine decree (κελευσθέντα ὑπὸ τῆς θείας κρίσεως).” Thus this is evidence from material culture that the Decian persecution was not a fable, or something that later Christians blew out of proportion. Rather, it is a testament to the manner in which the denizens of the empire viewed the decrees of their emperors, i.e., it was a “divine decree.” Finally, it is not as clear in this libellus if Aurelius Gaion himself could represent his family, just his daughter, or neither, for the scribe uses the ambiguous prepositional phrase “through me” (δι᾽ ἐμοῦ) to describe Aurelius’s actions. If either of the first two options are correct, then there seems to be have been differences in the way the edict was carried out. While the first papyrus suggests that each member of the family had to sacrifice, this papyrus posits the possibility that the male leader of the household could act for his entire family or for his daughter.

Finally, another libellus from Oxyrhynchus contains the following:

“To the commissioners of sacrifices of the village of Thosbis, from Aurelius Amois officially known as the son of his mother Taamois from the village of Thosbis.  I have continued always (ἀεί) to sacrifice and pour libations to the gods, and since now too in your presence in accordance with the orders I sacrificed and poured a libation and tasted the sacrificial meats along with my mother Taamois and my sister Taharpaesis, I request that (you) subscribe to this fact for me. Year I of Imperator Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius, Pius Felix Augustus, Epeiph . . .

(2nd hand) I, Aurelius Amois, have submitted (the application). I, Aurelius . . .ion, wrote on his behalf . . .

Back. “Registration (ἀπογρ(αφὴ)) of Amoitas, mother Taamois” (P.Oxy 58.3929; translation from Rea, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 58.30).

Much like the two pervious libelli, the worshipper was requested to state, or rather to sign off that he had always (ἀεί) sacrificed to the gods. Like the first libellus, it seems that our worshipper sacrificed along with his mother and his sister, i.e., his family. Hence, his family was not excluded from sacrificing. Moreover, with this libellus we are able to see that they were some how archived or “registered (ἀπογραφὴ)” for official government use, which is evident from the writing on the back (or verso) of the papyrus (see picture #4), and that the term ἀπογραφὴ was typically used to refer to a census of some kind. For example, the following papyrus from Oxyrhynchus in which a brother requests that his sister “register” him, most likely for a census, uses both the noun form of ἀπογραφὴ and the verb form:

“To my sister, mistress Dionysia, from Pathermouthis, greeting. As you sent me word on account of the registration (ἀπογραφῆς) about registering (ἀπογράψε) yourselves, since I cannot come, see whether you can register (ἀπογράψε) us” (P.Oxy 8.1157; translation from Hunt, The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, 8.260).

In sum, the evidence from papyri indicates that the Decian persecution was an imperial, “divine” edict. Its purpose was to restore peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire by encouraging all its inhabitants to sacrifice to the Roman gods. While this edict was not passed with Christians directly in mind, it drew out Christians. Furthermore, the libelli surveyed seem to show a pattern of standardization. That is, each libellus contains the term “always” and cognates (ἀεί), and, for the most part, each libellus follows the same pattern. These similarities are best explained as the result of the work of professional scribes.

While this systematic, empire wide persecution was c. 160 years after John composed his Revelation, it provides a framework through which to understand the consequences of persecution, and the purpose for John writing the Apocalypse. If the Christians of the mid-third century were anything like those of the latter part of the first, then they would have been divided. That is, there would have been varying responses from the Christians of the seven churches who faced the social pressure to assimilate to Graeco-Roman culture. Some would have lapsed. Others who had the means would have used their social standing and wealth to by pass, as best they could, any social pressure. Still, other Christians would have suffered and we know of one that was put to death, i.e., Antipas and also the many who were crying out from underneath the altar in heaven. Considering all of this, it is easy to see why John composed his Revelation. He desired to both encourage some believers and to warn others not to assimilate and thus to buy into their culture’s ideological framework.

Papyrus #3                                                                           Papyrus  #4

Picture 3Picture 4

The New Creation in Revelation 21-22, Summary & Musical Remix of Stories in the book of Acts

Next post is Guest Post ~~~ you will not want to miss it!

Post 07 [Whew!, the last one]


Tonight I have not wanted to spend my time illustrating John’s imagery and teachings against the important backdrop of Second Temple Judaism or against the backdrop of important sources from the Graeco-Roman world.  Although I do enjoy doing that, and I did some of that in my recent commentary on the Letters to the Seven Congregations of Revelation, that was not my goal tonight.  Nor did I want to do an exegesis of the texts of Rev. 21-22, although that is a crucial step in the process of good and reliable Bible study.  Rather, I wanted to highlight a few points on John’s spiritual agenda and then make some very needed applications for God’s people in the early 21st century.

I began with some brief comments about interpretive pitfalls.  Then I discussed a few of the contemporary issues that Christians in many places either can not or will not address with candor from certain texts of Revelation.

1. There is, first, the need for the church to re-embrace a biblical view of the judgment of God.  As believers we will certainly disagree on how, on when, and on why God reveals his righteous judgment, both in history and in eternity.  My hope was to reclaim John’s much needed insight that the kingdom of this world can only become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ by the decisive destruction of Babylon, in all its pretentious and dystopian manifestations.  The same prophetic voice that offers the vision of the new heaven and new earth gives the gruesome scene of the destruction of kingdoms that compete against the sole Ruler of the Universe.

2. Second, I wanted us to see that the focal point of heaven is not self-gratification or, God forbid, entertainment.  Nor do I see any evidence in John’s vision about ecological primitivism or purity.  In John’s spirituality and theology the goal is our participation in the glory and beauty of God.

3. Third, John, like Paul (Rom. 6; 2 Thess. 2:13), teaches that holiness and sanctification are necessary components of our participation in the new heaven and new earth.

In Revelation 1:3 John writes, “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it.”  I hope tonight you have been blessed by having heard some of John’s prophecies and by taking to heart what is written in them.

Stories from Acts, like you have never heard them before.

Some of you know that I require students to do multi-media projects in most of my courses now.  Often they are videos.  My last offering of the book of Acts gave one student the opportunity to do some songs.  Harrison Dell came up with these lyrics and ideas and his brother-in-law is James Easter worked on putting the music together, to tunes you might recognize.  If you wish to contact Harrison about this musical adventure and the several other songs he did for my Acts course, you can contact him at: .  

These audio files are a little quirky 😦 .  Let them finish buffering and they work better.

Ax of the Apostles no. 4

Ax of the Apostles no. 8

The New Creation in Revelation 21-22, Part 06


Life in the New Jerusalem

Continuation of Previous post,

Third, it is important to highlight the fact that John sees the New Jerusalem as a utopia and Babylon as a dystopia.  If dystopia is a new term to you, think of literary works and movies such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Soylent Green, The Matrix, or Hunger Games.  If literary works and film are not “your thing,” then just take a somber look at many of the kingdoms and cultures of Planet Earth as it stands today.  While I could spend several evenings discussing the contours of Jerusalem’s utopian features and Babylon’s dystopian features, there is one that is singular in its significance.  Babylon’s and Rome’s supposed greatness rested in part on their magnificent architecture and worldly prowess, their control of global real estate, while God’s utopia is imbued with all things human, a humanity redeemed and vitalized by its participation in the glory and nature of God himself.  John’s utopia has no tolerance for, no interest in, a love of precious and expensive celestial architecture and landscape.  John’s prophetic insight is certainly strange, even counter-culture, when compared to the many views expressed in the religious culture surrounding the early church, and at many Christian funerals today.

What a deliberate display of disrespect from God for all things Roman!  Modern Christians could learn a thing or two from the scorn and the insolence contained in John’s utopia.  John’s prophecies show no interest in competing with Babylon and Rome on their own terms and definitions of Utopianism.  God’s truth is always too precious to be limited by the expectations of the surrounding cultures.  The faithful people of God in the 21st century are currently surrounded by cultures of ignorance and arrogance when it comes to their imaginations about the destined future of humanity.  It is our peril if we turn to surrounding dystopias to imagine and to discuss the utopian visions and values associated with God’s New Jerusalem.  John knows well that all human rulers believe, or at least want their minions to believe, that their dystopias are, in fact, the long dreamed of utopias of humankind.  John displayed a total disdain for Rome, a world empire that stretched from the River Thames to the Tigris River.  This empire prided itself on efficient bureaucracy, massive roadways and interstate highways, well functioning water supplies, city planning, impressive sports arenas, massive bath complexes, triumphal military monuments, shopping centers and forums, luxurious villas and estates, and exciting venues for entertainment.  None of these amenities of the good life exists in John’s utopia of the New Jerusalem, not even one single golf course.

According to the Roman imperial biographer Suetonius, the very first Roman Emperor Augustus summarized his own architectural achievements in the capital city of Rome with these words, “I found Rome a city of brick, but I left it a city of marble.”  It is impossible to read John’s prophecies and not see his recurring counter-cultural, anti-imperial, oracles against the dominion of Rome (e.g., Howard-Brooks and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire. Reading Revelation Then and Now).  When you think about John’s unmasking of Rome’s impotence and pretense in the presence of God and the Lamb and his glorified saints, I hope you will appreciate the prophet’s total lack of interest in human amenities and architecture as yet another example of his counter cultural stance against Roman Babylon (and contemporary Christian organizations that ape Babylon).

The fourth major theme from John’s material that should challenge the contemporary Churches of Christ today is his emphasis upon holiness.  John, like most New Testament authors, clearly does not share our love affair with the term “Christian.”  The term “Christian” (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) barely occurs in Scripture, yet it is the term of choice for most modern followers of the Lamb.  John prefers terms like “saints,” which is what you call individuals who are set apart for God and who therefore possess and advocate holiness as a lifestyle.  In Rev. 4:8 the “Lord God Almighty” is called holy three times in an adaptation of Isa. 6:3.  The term “prayers” is mentioned only three times in Revelation (5:8; 8:3; 8:4) and each time it is the “prayers of the saints.”  It makes me wonder if you have to live a saintly life to get your prayers lifted up to God.  In Rev. 11:8 there is a preview of the final judgment of the dead.  It reads,

“The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great.”

The term “blood of the saints” is used three time to describe that group of believers who paid the ultimate price (Rev. 16:6; 17:6; 18:24).

Moving into our text, the New Jerusalem, the Bride, the people of God, is called “holy” three times, Rev. 21:2, 10; and in 22:19 in the epilogue.  Interestingly, instances of cognate terms related to “holiness” occur 23 times in the book of Revelation, while all cognates for the word agape, love, occur only six times.  Notwithstanding the ideas contained in the book Love Wins by Rob Bell, the important question for serious students of Scripture is not “does God love everyone equally.”  Love is not the crucial criterion for participation in the new heaven and earth.  The NT view that God loves both “saint and sinner” is expressed in verses that read,

“for God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and

God sent his Son as “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

The question is not whether those excluded from the new heaven and earth are loved by God, but whether they are participants in God’s process of sanctification.  The promise “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4) is for the saints, those who are participating in God’s personal holiness.  That is why the threat of the loss of salvation for believers stated in Rev. 22:19 is not that such people will forfeit God’s love, but rather “God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city.”  This Jerusalem is for those who are set apart, belonging to God’s purposes, and by their lives show their participation in God’s sanctification.  Little wonder that when the imagery of the Bride of Christ and her marriage to the Lamb is introduced in Rev. 19:7-8, the Bride’s necessary preparation for the marriage is putting on her wedding garments.  John identifies these wedding garments as “the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8, τὰ δικαιώματα τῶν ἁγίων ἐστίν).  Regarding Judgment Day and righteous deeds, I believe that John would tell Christ followers, “Do not show up without them.”