Against Disembodied Spirituality: An Exegesis of Colossians 2:16-19

Translations of Colossians 2:16-19

Personal Translation

16 Therefore, do not let anyone judge you in eating or in drinking or in participation of feasts, new moon festivals, or Sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of the (things) to come, but the reality (is namely) Christ. 18 Let no one rule you out, taking pleasure in false appearances of humility and the worship of angels, which he has seen upon close scrutiny, being puffed up without cause by the mind of his flesh, 19 and not holding fast (to) the head, from whom the entire body, being supported and held together by (its) ligaments and bonds, grows out of the growth of God.

 

The New Revised Standard Translation

16 Therefore, do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

 

Historical Context

Authorship

The apostle Paul has traditionally been held as the author of the letter to the Colossians. The letter claims Paul as its author in three separate locations: in the greeting,[1] once within the body,[2]  and again in the letter’s conclusion.[3] The case for Pauline authorship is bolstered by the mention of Timothy in the letter’s greeting[4] and by the structure it shares with other Pauline epistles.[5] Finally, some evidence of the letter’s acceptance as Pauline exists in the writings of early church fathers. However, Pauline authorship has been challenged by noticing differences in the letter’s vocabulary, style, and theological viewpoint from other Pauline epistles.[6] The understanding of Paul’s apostolic office in relation to the Colossian church, along with evidence of reliance on five other Pauline letters, presents further challenges to those who claim Pauline authorship.[7] Dunn takes evidence from both sides into account and offers a middle perspective: he believes that Paul signed off on the letter, which was written by one of his contemporaries, possibly Timothy, while he was in prison.[8]

Colossae

The city of Colossae was one of three major cities in the Lycus River Valley of Asia Minor along a crucial east-west trading route linking the Aegean coast to the Asian interior. Approximately four to five centuries prior to New Testament times, the city had become wealthy and prosperous by dealing in the wool industry, which was bolstered by the city’s prime trading location. However, by the time of Roman rule, the city’s significance in the region had waned in comparison to the neighboring cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis. The entire region seems to have been heavily populated by Jewish peoples at the time of the letter’s writing. Unfortunately, the city of Colossae, along with Laodicea and Hierapolis, were devastated by a major earthquake in 60-61 CE. Archaeological evidence suggests that Laodicea and Hierapolis were quickly rebuilt but Colossae seems to have lain dormant until late in the second century.[9] Colossae’s character as a city experiencing economic downturn may be a factor that was motivating the Colossian philosophers’ desire for a religion that emphasized spiritual and other-worldly experiences as a means of escaping their grim reality.

Occasion

The letter to the church at Colossae seems to have been written in response to a certain “philosophy” that was prevalent in the region. This philosophy was apparently beginning to threaten, or at least undermine, the Christian community.[10] The author hints at the letter’s purpose for its readers in 1:23 by sharing a hope that they “continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that [they] heard.” Some have compared the letter with the letter to Galatia suggesting a similar harsh and polemical tone, but other commentators suggest that, while it does contain some polemical content, its purpose is focused more on encouraging and building up the church at Colossae as it faces criticism and judgment from the Colossian “philosophers”.[11],[12]

Much ink has been spilled attempting to reconstruct the nature of the Colossian philosophy which prompted this letter and no scholarly consensus currently exists on this topic. However, the letter seems to suggest four primary features of the Colossian philosophy: ascetic practice, worship of angels, cosmic elements, and full knowledge of God.[13] The nature of this philosophy is important to consider because the passage this paper addresses contains evidence for both ascetic practice and worship of angels.

DeMaris identifies five broad interpretive streams used to describe the “Colossian Controversy” throughout recent history: Jewish Gnosticism, Gnostic Judaism,  Ascetic or Apocalyptic or Mystical Judaism, Hellenistic Syncretism, and  Hellenistic Philosophy.[14] He departs from these five streams and suggests that the Colossian philosophy is composed of “a distinctive blend of popular Middle Platonic, Jewish, and Christian elements that cohere around the pursuit of wisdom.”[15] According to his analysis, the Colossian philosophy is centered upon the acquisition of wisdom.[16] He notes a deep concern for purity evidenced by the philosophy’s food and calendar regulations, seen in 2:16, and suggests that the worship of angels and the practice of false humility make up the core of the philosophy’s praxis.[17]

Literary Context

This passage begins a brief section of the letter that gives warning about rules and regulations being imposed on the Colossian community that the writer views as unnecessary and dangerous. These warnings about worthless regulations conclude the author’s polemical discourse that begins in 2:8. This discourse began with a general warning about the perils of “human tradition” or “philosophy” and then offered several affirmations of this warning. Prior to this discourse, the author has gone to great lengths to affirm the apostolic gospel of Christ. Afterwards, the letter transitions to a set of exhortations for Christian living.[18] It is important to note this passage’s position at the heart of the author’s argument against the Colossian philosophy.

Interesting Words and Phrases

σκιά vs. σῶμα

The writer uses these two terms to contrast the three categories of judgment – eating, drinking, and the keeping of the religious calendar – with the person of Christ.  The term σκιά translates as “shadow” and refers to a “faint archetype which foreshadows a later reality.”[19] On the other hand, σῶμα translates as “reality,” which is the fulfillment of a corresponding archetype.[20] Together, these terms denote a copy-original type relationship that originated from Jewish Hellenistic theology.[21] However, this Hellenistic thought finds a new depth of meaning when the eschatological and Christological dimensions found in 2:17 are considered. The copy-original relationship becomes a new way for the author to describe the well-known Pauline theme of “old-aeon-new aeon.”[22]

ταπεινοφροσύνη

The term ταπεινοφροσύνη is a compound word that combining ταπεινός, “humble, lowly,” with φρήν, “thinking, understanding” to form a word that is translated simply as “humility” in the six other New Testament passages in which it appears.[23] It occurs three times in the book of Colossians and each occurrence has a unique meaning.[24] Within the polemical context of 2:18, ταπεινοφροσύνη takes on a sense of inauthenticity and suggests the false appearance of humility while remaining proud. This connotation can only be discerned from the word’s context since nothing in the word signals this change in meaning. [25] Danker interprets the term to mean “wrongly directed humility”[26] while Grundmann suggests “mortification” because he believes the term describes a specific cultic practice that was operative in the Colossian philosophy that has prompted the writing of the letter.[27] As seen above, the NRSV has translated ταπεινοφροσύνη as “self-abasement,” which offers a sense of false humility in the performance of some sort of practice. This paper has chosen the more general phrase “false appearances of humility” in order to include a wide array of practices to which the author could be referring.

θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων

Translated literally, this phrase simply means “worship of angels” but it could have at least three meanings.[28] The first view follows the literal translation and regards the angels as objects of specific acts of worship by the Colossian philosophers and their followers. A second meaning is based on the interpretation of θρησκείᾳ in a broader sense to denote a whole system of religion. With this meaning, the phrase could be translated as “religion instituted by angels.”[29] Finally, Dunn suggests that τῶν ἀγγέλων should be classified as a subjective genitive.[30] If this classification is accepted, the genitive, “angels,” would become the subject of the genitive’s verbal noun, “worship”, which would result in a translation akin to “worship rendered by angels” or “angels worshipping.” Dunn argues for a subjective genitive reading because he believes the Colossian philosophy to be rooted in a Jewish synagogue, where “worship of angels” would not be accepted. Instead, Dunn links the “worship rendered by angels” in Colossae with the recorded visions of angelic worship found in apocalyptic Jewish literature at the time of the letter’s writing. He suggests that the members of the synagogue viewed their worship as a participation in the heavenly worship described in the apocalyptic visions. This evidence leads Dunn to believe that the Colossian synagogue belittled the “low church” worship of the Colossian Christians.[31] However, this paper has chosen the first view which interprets τῶν ἀγγέλων as an objective genitive due to the rarity of the subjective genitive in extant Greek literature.[32]

ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων

The meaning of this phrase has eluded commentators for centuries. The key term is ἐμβατεύων, which does not occur at any other point in the New Testament. Literally, it could mean “to set foot upon” or “to enter” or possibly “to come into possession of.”[33] In Jewish writings, such as 2 Maccabees 2:30 Philo, it is used to denote “intense concern with or enquiry into something.”[34] However, it is also found in mystery religion writings where it described the second act of an initiation ceremony in which the celebrant enters into, or finds completion in, the true mystery.[35] Preskier rejects this view because in all the sources where it occurs ἐμβατεύων is always paired with the term that describes the first act of the initiation ceremony and the setting is always a sanctuary. Since none of these conditions are met in 2:18, Preskier argues for the Jewish sense of the term and relates it to Colossian philosopher’s desire for ecstasy.[36] According to DeMaris, “the careful inquiry conducted by one of the philosophers has produced an insight regarded as authoritative,” which the philosophers then use to coerce their followers into their practice of false humility and angel worship.[37] Danker agrees and concludes by saying simply that “the context suggests an element of posturing or pomposity.”[38]

κεφαλήν, ἁφῶν, σῶμα, and συνδέσμων

All four of these terms appear in 2:19 where the author provides the final description of those who should be allowed to disqualify the Colossians and then goes on to explain why these “disqualifiers” are themselves disqualified. These words are interesting because they all refer to physical, bodily things: κεφαλήν is “head”[39]; ἁφῶν is “ligaments”[40]; unlike in 2:16, σῶμα now refers to a human “body”[41]; συνδέσμων refers to physical “bonds.”[42] This series of physical, “down-to-earth” terms provides the reader with a sharp contrast to the high-minded philosophers who boast about their false humility, which may have included practices that diminished the body, and their worship of angels.

Synthesis

While many scholars have used this passage in their attempts to uncover the true nature of the Colossian philosophy, the letter’s original audience would have no need for these explanations. Rather, they simply needed encouragement in the truth to sustain them while they endured the attacks of those who were judging them and attempting to disqualify them. In this passage, the author makes two bold exhortations to the Colossian Christians that provide to this end.

First, the writer declares that the practices of the Colossian philosophers are mere shadows; only copies of the one reality that they truly desire. They are relics of the old age that are fit to be discarded now that the new age has begun. In this new age, Christ is the reality from which all of those shadows are cast. Now that the true reality is here, the claims of those who cling to the shadows have lost all authority.

Second, the writer paints a vivid contrast between the puffed-up, angel worshiping, ecstatic visionaries of the Colossian philosophy and the Colossian Christians who make up a physical body, held together by bonds of flesh and blood that remain connected to the head. The message is clear: the Colossian philosophers, along with their beliefs and practices, are nothing more than disembodied shells. They do not “hold fast” to the head; they are not part of one body; they are not held together and supported; and they cannot grow. In turn, the Colossian Christians are reminded that they need each other to sustain their life together under Christ.

Alternative Voices

In his commentary on Colossians, John Paul Heil provides further insight into the σκιά vs. σῶμα contrast found in 2:17. He explains that, since the readers belong to the body, they also belong to Christ, who is the body’s ruling and sustaining head. He then links this idea with the Christological statement in 2:9-10 that “in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” in order to reveal the author’s message to the Colossian church that they too are being filled with the fullness of deity. As a result, they can enjoy in the present what the σκιά can only anticipate.[43] Heil’s thoughts are helpful because they establish a stronger connection between the conclusions of this paper and the broader context of the letter’s argument against the Colossian philosophy.

Commentator Eduard Lohse shares an interesting ecclesiological insight from 2:19. In his view, the key relationship in this verse is between the “head” and the “body.” Similar to Heil, Lohse recalls two previous statements from the writer that define the body, of which Christ is the head, as the church.[44] He then concludes that “a person can only adhere to the head insofar as he belongs, as a member of Christ’s body, to the ‘church’ which is the domain of his present lordship.”[45] Lohse takes this paper’s conclusion one step further by issuing a direct call to active participation in “church” as a necessary requirement for belonging to Christ.

A Bible Study Outline

  1. A look at Colossae
    1. Illustrious past, bleak future
    2. The “runt” city of the region
    3. Do you know any cities like Colossae? What would it be like to live there? How would you be a different person growing up in a city like Colossae?
  2. The Colossian Philosophy
    1. Read Colossians 2:8-23 :: What does the letter writer seem to be so upset about?
    2. Briefly review scholarly opinions on the Colossian philosophy
  3. Let no one judge you
    1. How have you experienced judgment in the past?
    2. Briefly review the nature of the practices listed in 2:16
    3. Explain “shadow” vs. “reality” concept
    4. What “shadows” is our church clinging to that we may need to surrender in order to embrace the “reality” of Christ?
  4. Let no one rule you out
    1. Share a concise summary of those who are attempting to “rule out” the Colossian Christians
      1. Practiced false humility
      2. Worshipped angels in visions
      3. Puffed up and arrogant
    2. Point out the sharp contrasts between the individualist, super-mystical Colossian philosophers and the down-to-earth, communal Colossian Christians
    3. How are we disqualifying people in our church today? What values do we exalt and use as gateways for membership in our exclusive church clubs?
    4. What are some ways our church could encourage mutual support and cooperation and challenge our society’s extreme individualism?


[1] Col. 1:1 NRSV

[2] Col. 1:23

[3] Col. 4:18

[4] Col. 1:1

[5] Victor Paul Furnish, “Epistle to the Colossians,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1092.

[6] Ibid., 1092-3.

[7] Ibid., 1094.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians,” in The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 705.

[9] James D. G. Dunn, “Colossae,” in The New Interpreters Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, A – C, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 701-2.

[10] Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians”, 703.

[11] Ibid., 703.

[12] Furnish, 1090.

[13] Furnish, 1091-2.

[14] Richard E. DeMaris, The Colossian Controversy: Wisdom in Dispute at Colossae, Journal for the study of the New Testament supplem. (Sheffield: JSOT, 1994), 38-39.

[15] Ibid., 17.

[16] Ibid., 73.

[17] Ibid., 99.

[18] Furnish, 1090.

[19] J. P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 593.

[20] Ibid.

[21]Gerhard Friedrich ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VII, Σ (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 398.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ac 20:19; Eph 4:2; Phil 2:3; Col 2:23; 3:12; 1 Pe 5:5.

[24] Gerhard Friedrich ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, Τ – Υ (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), 22.

[25] Louw and Nida, 748.

[26] Frederick William Danker, ed. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000),989.

[27] Friedrich, Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. VIII, Τ – Υ, 22.

[28] DeMaris, 59-60.

[29] DeMaris, 60.

[30] Dunn, “Letter to the Colossians,” 704.

[31] Ibid., 705.

[32] DeMaris, 60.

[33] Louw and Nida, 593.

[34] Gerhard Kittel ed. Τheological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. II, Δ – Η (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 536.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] DeMaris, 66.

[38] Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 124.

[39] Louw and Nida, 95.

[40] Ibid., 101.

[41] Ibid., 93.

[42] Ibid., 222.

[43] John Paul Heil, Colossians: Encouragement to Walk in All Wisdom as Holy Ones in Christ (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 122-3.

[44] Col. 1:18, 24.

[45] Eduard Lohse, Colossians and Philemon, Hermeneia, ed. Koester, trans. Poehlmann and Karris (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 122.

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The Way to Truth and Life in the Non-Violent Kingdom: An Exegesis of John 18:33-38a

Translations of John 18:33-38a

Personal Translation

33 Pilate walked back inside the governor’s residence and summoned Jesus and asked him: “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34 Jesus replied: “Is this (what) you say or did other people say this to you about me?” 35 Pilate replied: “I am not a Jew am I? Your people and the chief priests handed you over to me. What did you do?” 36 Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom was of this world, those who serve (under my authority) would be (passionately) struggling (with all their might) so that I might not be handed over to the Jews. But now – my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate then asked him: “So you are a king?” Jesus replied: “You say that I am a king. I have been born for this (mission) and for this (mission) I have come into the world: that I might bear witness to the truth. Everyone who (abides in) the truth hears (and obeys) my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him: “What is truth?”

The New Revised Standard Translation

 33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”[1]

Interesting Words

ἀλήθεια

            In John’s gospel, ἀλήθεια is a signature term. It is usually translated as “truth.” In the Synoptic gospels, ἀλήθεια simply means “truly existing” or “reality”[2], but in John’s gospel it takes on a deeply theological and highly nuanced meaning. In John, Jesus “possesses this truth in its fullness and reveals, transmits, and explicates it.” To see Jesus is to see truth; He is the way that leads to truth and life. In essence, Jesus is the “Revealer par excellence”[3] of the truth; he is the “self-revealing divine reality.”[4]

The ἀλήθεια that Jesus reveals requires his followers to know Him as the source of all truth. In this text, those who would follow Jesus are called to be “ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας” (of the truth); they are to “depend on, abide in” the truth, which implies a sense of permanent obedience to the truth as it is revealed in Jesus. Disciples of Christ are sanctified in ἀλήθεια as they are “invaded by it and transformed within.”[5]

ὑπηρέτης and ἀγωνίζομαι

             In verse 36 of the text, Jesus says that, if his kingdom were of this world, his ὑπηρέται would be ἠγωνίζοντο so that he would not be handed over to the Jews. These words are translated rather vaguely by the NRSV as “followers” and “fighting” respectively. Unfortunately, this translation fails to communicate the powerful meaning these words express.

The term ὑπηρέτης is used only twenty times in the New Testament and nine of those appearances are in John’s gospel. Of those nine appearances, five are found in the 18th chapter. The reference in verse 36 is the final reference in the chapter, and in the four previous references the word refers to the “temple police” or “officials”.[6] The ὑπηρέται are not simply followers, but are rather those who are “in the service of a higher will and [are] fully at the disposal of this will.”[7] Jesus is employing the language of a king who has full authority to order his servants according to his will.

The translation of ἠγωνίζοντο as “fighting” is even more inadequate. In Hellenistic writing, this word refers to a hero struggling for virtue. It was used in the book of 4 Maccabees to relate the passion of a martyr to the struggle of an athlete in the arena. While it takes on a more nuanced meaning in the New Testament, the author of John means to say that those under Jesus’ authority would be passionately struggling at the expense of all their energy and resources in order to keep Jesus from being handed over to the Jews.[8] This is the kind of struggle where one must be willing to give everything. Otherwise, the struggle would have no purpose.

Grammatical Analysis

Use of Emphasis

            The author’s use of grammar to add emphasis in this text is very interesting. On six occasions in this brief dialogue, the author supplies a personal pronoun as the subject of the sentence. This is a common method of adding emphasis in koine Greek since the subject is already implied in the verb.[9] This use of emphasis heightens the sense of drama in the narrative as Pilate questions, and is questioned by, Jesus. The Jesus in John’s gospel does not remain virtually silent before Pilate like the Jesus of the Synoptics. Instead, he responds to the force of Pilate’s questioning with equal rhetorical strength. This display of strength in the face of death contributes to John’s majestic presentation of Jesus as king and reminds the reader that Jesus’ life is not being taken from him – he is choosing to lay it down.[10]

Literary Analysis

This text presents an episode in the gospel of John’s passion narrative. The Synoptic gospels also include passion narratives, but John’s is unique in the amount of conversation it includes between Jesus and Pontius Pilate. In the period of the gospel’s writing, a crucifixion was a shameful event. This shame drove early followers of Jesus to reinterpret the event in various ways, which they did through the passion narratives. These stories are based on an ancient literary genre known as court-conflict. According to this genre, the life of an innocent protagonist is put in danger by an evil scheme. The outstanding qualities of the protagonist, who is usually vindicated after suffering or death, are celebrated. These characteristics of ancient court-conflict literature help to reveal the source of a popular reinterpretation of the cross event by early Christians. Because of its combination of “vindicated innocence” and “vicarious death,” the prophet Isaiah’s image of the suffering servant of God was used by New Testament authors to embed the shameful event of the cross into God’s greater story of redemption for both Israel and the world.[11] The court-conflict genre also helps to focus attention of the reader on the qualities of Jesus revealed in the passion narratives. By paying close attention to these specific qualities, Christians today can gain a clearer understanding of what kinds of people the gospel writers are calling them to be.

Historical and Cultural Analysis

Dating

The dating of John’s gospel has been thoroughly disputed in the past and the debate continues amongst scholars today. The date of authorship has traditionally held as later than that of the Synoptic gospels. A later date was assumed due to the prevalence and depth of theological reflection found in John. While this observation is correct, it was coupled with a separate assumption which held that the author used the Synoptic gospels as a source for this theological reflection. In addition, most scholars saw no need to consider an earlier dating of John since they believed John’s gospel to be a spiritualized version of the Synoptic gospels and thereby unconcerned with historicity.[12]

The assumption that the Synoptics were used as a source for John’s spiritualized gospel account has been heavily criticized in recent years. The most commonly held view puts the writing of John’s gospel sometime in the last decade of the first century. This date is based on the dating of the Ryland’s manuscript, a fragment of John’s gospel. This manuscript dates to 125 CE, and by allowing a few decades for dissemination, scholars place the gospel’s original writing late in first century.[13] However, since the dating of the Ryland manuscript is also debated and because no references to the gospel are found in extant writings until the late second century, some scholars continue to date the gospel to the middle second century.[14]

Political and Economic Considerations

As the first century CE came to a close, the political climate of Palestine and Asia Minor was, at best, hostile towards the Jews and the early Christians. After a period of semi-autonomous rule lasting nearly a hundred years under the Hasmonean dynasty, followed by a period of decreasing freedom as a vassal Roman state, Palestinian Jews attempted to revolt against Roman rule in 66 CE. Unlike the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid dynasty in 166B BCE, the Jews suffered massive defeat at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE with the destruction of Jerusalem along with its temple. After this event, most Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire.[15] Life for Christians was not much better in the second half of the first century. As they grew progressively distinct from non-believing Jewish communities, Christians lost the protection of religious freedom that Jews enjoyed.[16] Severe Roman persecution began under Emperor Nero in 64 CE and continued until the mid-second century under Emperors Domitian, Trajan, and Hadrian.[17] In addition to this external persecution and oppression, there was often conflict between Jewish and Christian groups as evidenced by the book of Acts.[18]

While there was a definite political hostility towards Jews and Christians in the first and second centuries, they lived in the midst of a prosperous economy. The pax Romana created by Caesar Augustus in the late first century BCE provided a fertile environment for economic growth.[19] However, this economic growth was never fairly distributed and as a result the society was deeply divided along class lines. Heavy, and often corrupt, Roman taxation, especially on vassal states and conquered peoples, ensured that a significant portion of any financial gain by Jews and Christians did not lead to subsequent prosperity. This economic oppression contributed to even more tension and division in the society at large.[20] While surrounded by a thriving economy, the majority of Jews and Christians had no access to this wealth or the power it could provide.

Authorship, Setting, and Audience

Similar to the Synoptic gospels, the gospel of John is written anonymously. In the gospel, the author is only identified as the “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Several theories have been suggested to name this disciple based on loose textual evidence, but church tradition, namely through the writings of Irenaeus, names the apostle John, the son of Zebedee, as the author. However, even church tradition is not absolutely clear on this point. A statement by the fourth century historian Eusebius, who quotes the early church father Papias from the early second century, has led some scholars to believe that John the Elder, not John the apostle, is the gospel’s author. While debate continues on this point, there is currently not enough evidence to reject the authorship of John the apostle.[21]

Traditionally, the gospel is said to have originated from Ephesus, where the apostle John ministered. Some scholars have noted the presence of traditions that probably originated in Palestine and were further developed in Hellenistic cultural centers with significant Jewish populations – which supports the Ephesus location. Other major centers, like Alexandria or Antioch, have been suggested.[22]

The audience for John’s gospel is usually described as the Johannine community – a faith community that gathered around the apostle John; following his teachings and preserving them for later generations. This community would have been distinguishable from other Christian communities and composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It is most often described as a group that broke away from the Jews in the synagogue either because of persecution or by their own choice. While the concept of the Johannine community has been debated amongst scholars,[23] there is ample textual evidence that suggests an audience of second generation believers, both Jews and Christians, who are in need of guidance about their life together under the Spirit. If there was hostility between this community and the synagogue, it was probably over by the time of the gospel’s final publication. While it does take on a sharp polemical tone when referencing “the Jews,” there is not enough evidence to support an audience whose identity is based on persecution from non-believing Jews associated with the synagogues. Rather, the gospel seems to be written to a group of believers that need to be reminded of Jesus’ life and mission.[24]

Conclusions for Exegesis

            At least two conclusions can be drawn from this historical and cultural. First, since both the author and audience of John’s gospel are members of a politically and economically marginalized group, the power dynamics presented in the gospel, along with their political implications, should be considered carefully. Second, close attention should be paid to the gospel’s portrayal of violence since it was written to guide second generation believers through a period of extremely violent persecution.

Theological Themes

Two major theological themes of John’s gospel are evident in this text. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his kingdom, or eternal life, as a spiritual reality that is universally accessible to all those who are “born again of the Spirit.”[25] In this text, Jesus explicitly states that his kingdom is “not from [this world].” He rejects the title of “king of the Jews” because he is king over all creation. His reign does not extend over a piece of land, but into the lives of those who hear and obey his voice.

The Gospel of John’s Christology emphasizes the role of Jesus, the Son, revealing the true nature of the Father. This was built on the Jewish idea of agency. An agent was a surrogate who was sent on a specific mission with the authority of the sender. The agent was considered as an equivalent to the one who sends and would act on behalf of the sender; speaking to the agent was the same as speaking to the sender.[26] In this text, Jesus defines his mission in terms of agency. He has been born to testify to the truth, which is to say that he has been born to be an agent of His Father.

Conclusion

The Essential Message of the Text

            In this dialogue between the Jesus and Pilate, the author of John’s gospel reveals the impotence of all worldly power and points the reader towards the one and only source of life.

The original audience of this gospel would have been well aware of the power differential at work in this scene. Jesus stands alone and condemned before Pilate, who is the representative of the greatest political power in the world. He has been utterly rejected by his own people, who claim to be the people of the one, true God. Jesus has no allies; he has been marginalized politically, culturally, and socially.

As followers of Jesus in late first or early second century, the gospel’s audience would have been searching for a source of strength to sustain them through brutal persecution. They needed wisdom to inform their encounter with a world that wanted them dead – just like Jesus. In this text, the author of John’s gospel clearly dismisses violent resistance as a viable option for the persecuted community. Jesus’ insistence in the text on the other-worldly character of his kingdom, one that cannot be bound to ethnic or national categories, makes the argument for political revolution irrelevant.

However, the text does not simply leave the reader without an option for moving forward. Jesus does not deny his kingdom. The readers of this gospel would know that Jesus is in fact the King. However, as the gospel has emphasized throughout, Jesus’ kingdom is first and foremost a spiritual reality. However, this does not imply that Jesus and those who serve under his authority have no earthly power. Rather, by its emphatic announcement of Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth, the text points its readers towards the only source of real power in the world. The power of nations that is imposed on others is not real power because it leads to death. Real power is found in knowing Jesus and being transformed by his life, his truth, from within. Followers of Jesus do not violently lash out against the powers that oppress them; they listen for the voice of Jesus and obey him with all their heart. When they do this, they will find life – even abundant life – in Christ.

Conversation with Other Commentators

            In Wes Howard-Brooks’ commentary of this text, more weight is given to how Pilate’s responses to the Jesus’ questions reveal the author’s message. He uncovers the irony of Pilate’s attempt to disassociate himself from Jewish infighting by explaining that Pilate actually becomes a Judean through his complicity with the Sanhedrin’s scheme to kill Jesus. He also points out the condescending nature of the title Pilate gives to Jesus, “the king of Judea,” which acknowledging the colonial nature of Roman rule over the area. He also points out the other-worldly source of Jesus’ kingdom in opposition to those who use this passage to claim an other-worldly location for Jesus’ kingdom. The kingdom is not from this world, but it is certainly in this world. Brooks also mentions that Jesus’ kingdom is of a completely different type than Pilate’s kingdom. It does not require violence or oppression. Instead, it is about the love of God revealed in truth by the life of Jesus. Attentive to the purely political language in this conversation, Brooks observes that there is no “God-talk” but only language that is familiar to Pilate. However, Pilate has no time for what seems like philosophical questions and sarcastically dismisses Jesus’ claim as the one who bears witness to the truth.[27]

In her commentary on this text, Dr. Sherri Brown, identifies kingship and the character of truth as the main issues in Jesus’ trial before Pilate. She also focuses on how Pilate’s responses to Jesus bring out the meaning of the text. While he begins the interrogation with a question concerning the political implications of the Jews’ accusation against Jesus, Jesus deftly shifts the dialogue back on to Pilate. As he attempts to defend himself, Pilate gives Jesus the opportunity to describe his other-worldly kingdom of those who are born from above. As Pilate continues with his questioning, still concerned with the political nature of Jesus kingship, Jesus stays true to his mission of bearing witness to the truth. Dr. Brown connects Jesus’ mission statement with the theme of covenantal gift that was introduced in the gospel’s prologue. She notices the great irony of Pilate’s denial of the existence of truth while he stands face to face with truth himself. For her, this passage is about Pilate’s refusal of the truth gift, which reminds the reader that Jesus’ kingdom is about hearing and accepting the voice of Jesus as the true revelation of God.[28]


[1] John 18:33-38a (NRSV).

[2] Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 1:70.

[3] Spicq, 76-77.

[4] Gerhard Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W. M. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 245.

[5] Spicq, 78, 80.

[6] John 18:3, 12, 18, 22 (NRSV).

[7] Kittle, 8:531.

[8] Kittel, 1:135-137.

[9] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 321.

[10] J.B. Green, “Death of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Kenneth DeRuiter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 162.

[11] J.B. Green, “Passion Narrative,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Kenneth DeRuiter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 603-604.

[12] M.M. Thompson, “Gospel of John,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Kenneth DeRuiter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 370.

[13] Thompson, 371.

[14] Colleen M. Conway, “Gospel of John,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nasvhille, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 3:362.

[15] Mark Strauss, Four Portraits One Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), NEED PG NUMBER

[16] Martin Marty, The Christian World (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 19.

[17] Marty, 31.

[18] Acts 16:19-40 (NRSV).

[19] Strauss, NEED PG NUMBER

[20] Strauss, 114.

[21] Strauss, 334.

[22] Thompson, 371.

[23] Conway, 3:364.

[24] Thompson, 371-372.

[25] John 3:6 (NRSV).

[26] Thompson, 377.

[27] Wes Howard-Brook, John’s Gospel and the Renewal of the Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 119-122.

[28] Sherri Brown, Gift Upon Gift: Covenant through Word in the Gospel of John (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 203-207.

1 John 1:1-2 from the jmv

Homework can be pretty cool sometimes…

(The one) that was from (the) beginning, (the one) that we have heard, (the one) that we have seen (with) our eyes, (the one) that we beheld for ourselves and (that) our hands touched, concerning the word of life – and the life was revealed and we have seen and we bear witness and we announce to yall the eternal life, which was with the Father and was revealed to us –

1 John 1:1-2 (joe’s maybe version)

believe INTO[εισ] me

I’ve never been much for new year’s resolutions. If you have a goal, why put it off until January? Having said that, I’ll just go ahead and claim this post as my new year’s resolution – mostly because I happened to be thinking about it over the past week, which was the start of the new year. Good timing I guess.

I got this book for Christmas from my favorite soon-to-be sister-in-law: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith. Honestly, I had forgotten that I had even added it to my Amazon wish list (which is growing exponentially), but I’m glad that I did. I haven’t even made it through the introduction yet and I’m already excited.

The book examines how what we DO informs what we THINK. Smith asserts that the Church has been dominated by “worldview thinking” which is built upon the belief that human beings are primarily thinking beings. The emphasis is that we think rightly, ie that we have sound doctrine. He does not want to get rid of this, nor does he deny the influence of our thinking capacities. However, Smith wants to present a more basic understanding of human beings which will then provide a balance to our obsession with “worldview.” Basically, he says that our thinking arises from our material, embodied practices. The things we do everyday, or often – like going to the mall – shape and form our desires. He calls these “liturgical” practices simply because they form our desires. As indicated by the title, he wants to discuss how the Church might provide an alternative practice (alternative to practices like shopping) that will shape the people of God to desire the Kingdom. Pretty cool stuff…

You may be wondering: what on earth does that have to do with the title of this post? Well, good question. Here’s your answer: I began my first New Testament Greek class this week at Palmer. It has been pretty good so far and I’ve really enjoyed it (I’ve decided that I just love learning in general). Today, we discussed a very exciting topic… PREPOSITIONS! Exciting, I know.

Well, as we were going through the major prepositions, we came to this one: εισ [ pronounced as “ace”]. So, what does it mean? In Greek, nouns can take 4 forms. One of the forms is accusative, which just means that the noun is the direct object (I throw the ball). When εισ is used with an accusative noun, it means into but it can be translated as simply in. In general though, a preposition used with an accusative nouns implies movement in time or space and this understanding is key.

In John 14:1, Jesus says to his disciples,

Believe in God; believe also in me.

Pretty simple right? This seems like a pretty straightforward command and one that virtually all Christians accept. However, you may have noticed those pesky little prepositions. Guess what? that’s an εισ and it is used with accusative nouns (“God” and “me”). So, it implies MOVEMENT! This little preposition begs the question: is belief simply a thought that we accept or is it necessarily an action – a movement? Is Jesus commanding us to mentally affirm the idea that He is the Son of God, the Messiah, or is He commanding us to move into Him? 

Do you see the connection? In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is asking us to consider how our practices, our ritual actions, our movements shape the way we think. Too often, we look at this verse, and our faith in general, as a mental exercise. Our brains are our gods. But could it be that our actions – what we actually do with our lives on an everyday basis – mean more than our systematic frameworks? Do our actions shape our desire more than our thoughts? I say yes. I say we need to do a LOT more thinking about how we act and move in this world so that we might move INTO Christ.

What does our liturgy (literally, the work of the people) say about what we worship? What does it say about who we believe? Our faith is not merely a mental exercise. As James subtlety reminds us: “Faith without works is dead.” I fear that we have simply taken this to mean something like, “Oh, ok, well I’ll try to help some poor people every once in awhile.” We live the same, but with a little bit of “works” sprinkled on top. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is the kind of life Christ is calling His Church to bear. We are called to bear witness to the reality of His Kingdom on earth in every part of our lives.

In 2012, how bout we spend a little more time believing INTO Christ?