Archive Philosophy Reformed Irenicism Ruben Alvarado

The Greeks and the Gospel

In honor of the publication of the digital edition of The Greeks and the Gospel by J.B. Skemp, I present an excerpt:


The Greeks and the Gospel

TIMEO Danaos et dona ferentes—I fear the Greeks even when they are bringing gifts. This was the cautious reaction of the Trojan Laocoon to the introduction of the wooden horse into Troy, and it also indicates Virgil’s understanding of the hesitations the Romans felt about their more brilliant and less stable Mediterranean neighbours.1 Virgil’s line still seems to fit the situation when one turns to consider the entry of the Greeks and of things Greek into the Christian church. After all, it will be said, the Trojan horse was not a gift it contained the warriors who were to sack Troy. We may, of course, disclaim Laocoon’s word timeo, and say that the true faith will boldly repel this insidious foe without any fear. So we say, but I wonder whether we are as bold as we think we are. Is there not in us something of the trembling of Eli, or of the fear of Uzzah for the safety of the ark of the Lord?2 Suppose the Greeks do bring gifts after all, and that God has cleansed them so that they are neither common nor unclean? Are we not then found fighting against God if we reject them?

This whole question of the Greeks and the gospel is, of course, not a new one in the life and thought of the church. We can do no more now than seek to understand the form it takes in our own day. In particular, we have to consider it as it affects Anglo-American protestant theological thinking at a time when the aim of that thinking is above all to be ‘biblical’. Yet we must remember also that the suspicion that whatever is Greek is a corruption of pure revealed biblical truth is a factor in protestant thought from [2] the Reformation onward.3 I am grateful to Professor C. K. Barrett for pointing out to me Calvin’s comment on Titus 1.12. Not only did the Reformer turn the hexameter of Epimenides there quoted into a Latin one of his own (mendax, venter iners, semper mala hestia Cres est), but he tells us (trans. W. Pringle, Calvin Society series) that ‘from this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors.’ The rejection of scholasticism, that mediaeval marriage of Christian creed and Aristotelian reason, was bound to mean, for those who made the rejection, the repudiation of the Aristotelian in order to reassert the Christian. Modern distaste for metaphysical speculation renews the suspicions of the reformers. Insistence on activism and pragmatism is perhaps most triumphant in America; but the same anti-metaphysical bias was to be seen behind Adolf Harnack’s conviction a century ago that the original pure gospel was corrupted by Greek influences by the end of the second century of the Christian era. In him, as in other Germans, the notion that activism alone is ethical and that all speculation is fatal to the growth of a sense of duty still further loads the case against the Greeks; for they are presumed to be incurably speculative but morally questionable. Revealed truth is said by such theologians to be concerned with will—the will of God and the will of man—and the Greeks are said to have no word for ‘will’, or to reduce willing to reasoning.4 Finally, the renewed insistence on the importance of material [3] factors in history, for which the Jew Karl Marx is so largely responsible, is commonly thought to lend support to Hebraic insistence on the body and to tell against a supposed Greek concentration on the soul. The Marxist conception of history as developing to a climax in the victory of the proletariat and the withering away of the state would be considered by many to be closer to the Bible view—even if it is the preaching of another gospel—than the Greek philosophical doctrines are, whether these Greek doctrines teach the eternity of the universe or its cyclical transformation which brings again and again the restitution of all. The ‘cyclic’ view of history attributed to the Greeks is one of the chief targets of Biblical theologians.

The difficulty that any classical scholar finds in all this discussion is to recognize in the Greeks whom these theologians describe the flesh and blood inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world whom he has learnt to know in his classical studies. We have, of course, only limited evidence of the life these people lived, and all ancient historians bring their own framework of ideas to its reconstruction. So in turn do modern classical scholars. Even so, until the theologians’ reconstruction of the ancient world of Greco-Roman times comes nearer to that made by professional ‘secular’ historians, it must itself stand under suspicion. It is much to be regretted that we do not know more from independent ancient sources about life in the eastern Mediterranean cities and regions in the first centuries of our own era; but there is a great deal that we do know which is relevant to our understanding of early church history; and it cannot be said that most theologians show any familiarity with it. Yet it ought to be an essential part of their introduction to their task.5

There is one particular vice in the theological picture (or rather, caricature) of the Greeks. They are always represented as philosophical thinkers—though by no means always as holding [4] the same philosophical views. Yet in the main they are represented as philosophers committed to a cyclic view of the universe, to a strict division of soul and body (and usually as committed to a dualism which regards soul as good and body as evil) and to a doctrine of God which reduces him to the most abstract of all abstractions and drains him of the last vestiges of personality. Now this picture is a composite one representing what some Greeks undoubtedly did believe at some time—though none of them did in fact hold all these positions at the same time. Such a description of the Greeks ignores the fact that many other Greeks at all the relevant times thought differently, and that a multitude of them did not think in this systematic way at all. It is quite unhistorical to suppose that the earliest pure Greek converts to Christianity in Corinth and Salonica, Ephesus and Antioch held the cyclic view of history or thought their bodies to be the seat of evil or thought that God was the first unmoved mover. Even Dionysius the Areopagite, Damaris and the other members of the little church in Athens are not to be confused with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who challenged Paul in the market-place. In later centuries Greek philosophical doctrines were attributed to Dionysius, and on the strength of this these Neoplatonic doctrines achieved a kind of back-door admission into Christian circles; but the Dionysius we meet in the account in the Acts would be quite innocent of such doctrines.6 If he really was a member of the Areopagus, he would be of some social standing and would have had experience of public life in Athens when she was virtually part of the Roman Empire though technically still a free state. We can no more assume that he would be a philosopher than we can assume that a city councillor in Oxford or in Cambridge is alive to the issues that the dons discuss, when they are discussing what they ought to be discussing.

Now the theologian might reply to all this criticism of his [5] historical unreliability that he is not concerned at all with reproducing a true picture of the Greeks of the earliest Christian centuries, but rather with expounding biblical doctrine; and he might claim that true biblical doctrine is most clearly defined by contrasting it with certain views held at certain times by certain Greek thinkers because these form its natural antithesis; and that therefore he is fully entitled to do as he does because he is an expositor of biblical truth. This seems to me a bad defence if put forward by theologians who insist on the importance and decisiveness of the historical element in Old and New Testament revelation. For in setting biblical truth in antithesis to a composite philosophical view labelled ‘Greek’ they are, whether they know it or not, putting ‘biblical truth’ forward essentially as a rival philosophy—a philosophy extracted from history, no doubt, but still a philosophy. Boman’s7 very influential and interesting study of the contrast of Hebrew and Greek language and ideas is expressly the setting up of one world-view in contrast with another. The Greek is interested in seeing, the Hebrew in hearing—and so on. Bultmann in his review of Boman’s book8 has no difficulty in showing how the antitheses in it are too sharp and how the Greeks did also think along the allegedly Hebrew lines and had expressions freely current for the concepts supposed to be foreign to them. One might perhaps add that purely ‘Hebraic’ teaching about ‘seeing’ God is prominent in the Old Testament: in Psalm 27, for instance, seeing and not hearing is the way of reassurance. But the basic question really is whether a man rightly hears the word of God if he seeks to build up out of it the kind of construction Boman has built.9

Karl Barth would probably [6] question whether Religious Ideas of the Old Testament is a good title for a theological book: there can be little doubt that he would reject out of hand Philosophical Ideas of the Old Testament. He would do so rightly as a hearer of the word.

It would be unfair, however, to say that all or even most biblical theologians have fallen into this snare: they tend only to be caught in it occasionally when finding themselves obliged to rebut something they label as ‘Greek’. For the most part they seek to be interpreters of God’s acts as revealed in scripture. The most important question therefore that a Christian who studies the Greco-Roman world can put to them is whether they do adequately what they profess to do as their main biblical task. I think that there is good reason to believe that they do not, and that their failure appears rather when they come to interpret God’s acts in history as revealed in the New Testament. For they no longer seem to adhere to the principles they need for their interpreting of his acts in history as revealed in the Old Testament. I accept very gladly the basic postulate that Christianity is essentially a historical revelation, that it rests on what God has done, does and will do; that it entails the so-called ‘scandal of particularity’—the fact that God acted here and not there (or not in the same sense there), now and not then (or not in the same sense then), and that under the old covenant he called one people among all the peoples of the earth. But I find this strict faithfulness to history observed only in the theologian’s treatment of the Old Testament and of the life of ancient Israel. It is rare to find similar faithfulness to the truth revealed in the historical record of God’s actual call of the Gentiles and in particular to his actual call of the Greeks. We shall, indeed, have to ask precisely what this means and who these ‘Greeks’ were. But Paul’s declaration that ‘there is no difference’ [7] (in spite of the fact that the Jew has much advantage every way) and his repeated insistence that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ is a revelation of a supreme act of God to which Acts provides the commentary. It is evidence of a Divine break-through to which Exodus points but which goes dramatically beyond Exodus; and no biblical theology is biblical which does not attempt to extract all the meaning of God’s mighty acts. It might seem, on some interpretations of biblical theology, very heterodox on the part of the author of the fourth gospel to say that the law came by Moses but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. I do not doubt the Bible is a unity in the fundamental and important senses made clear by a very distinguished predecessor of mine as Whitley lecturer,10 one to whose work and ministry we are all indebted; and I have no desire to achieve shock effects by quoting particular sayings out of context. But the testimony of the New Testament scripture is unanimous in this matter. At a time when the Old Testament and that alone was the Bible for Christians, Christian writers agreed to declare one thing, in writings which were only later canonized. Surely the canon of New Testament scripture was made no less under the Holy Spirit’s guidance than the canon of the Old Testament scriptures. What then did these New Testament scriptures declare? They declared that the end of the ages had come; that God had spoken through his Son whom he had raised from the dead and that the promised new covenant was even more novel than the Jeremianic prophesy had led them to expect. There can be no detachment of one covenant from the other; but the Christian attitude to the relation between the covenants has been made explicit once for all by the author to the Hebrews (who was almost certainly a Jew writing to Jews) in the eighth chapter of that epistle. Here is a fixed standpoint from which all Christians, Jewish or Gentile, must from now on view the whole long story of God’s faithful dealings with Israel. The writer to the Hebrews does in fact so view that history in the eleventh and twelfth chapters of this same epistle. His viewpoint is truly historical, even [8] if he gives detailed attention to the more recent Maccabean saints though time fails him to tell of Gideon and of Barak. The danger of so many outlines of biblical theology offered to us today is that they suggest that Old and New Testaments may be used indifferently to illustrate one and the same level of God’s dealing with man, and they assume that the language in which this dealing is expressed is essentially Hebrew even where it is accidentally Greek. These interpreters concede that it was not necessary for a Gentile convert to be circumcised, but they imply that he had to be Hebraized if he was to belong to the Christian church. It is high time that we were willing to look critically at this basic assumption in the light of the New Testament evidence. When the glorious vision on the way to Damascus halted Saul in his tracks, it was a Greek saying that reinforced the disclosure of the risen Christ. ‘It is hard to kick against the goads’ was something Greeks had long said to each other. Paul did not report this when explaining himself to rowdy Jews in the Hebrew tongue, but there is no reason to suppose that he (or Luke) invented it for his speech before Agrippa.11

It might, however, be well before proceeding further to consider how and why in all good faith biblical interpretation has tended to this unduly united presentation, forgetting too much the reminders of Dr Rowley that recurring patterns and precise typology are not the basic clues, and that ‘there cannot be the slightest suggestion that by the careful study of the Old Testament anyone could have written the New before its context of history took place.’12 I think that this tendency to unbalance and this [9] speciously unified exposition of scripture are due to several causes. The excessive attention to patterns and typology is in part due to a fear of reasoned and systematic doctrinal teaching, which is thought to depend too much on an alien Greek wisdom simply because it is systematic. This arouses the desire in present-day theologians to find clues in pictures rather than in propositions. There will be more to say about this later on. But there is no doubt about the main cause of the one-level exposition of scripture current today. This is certainly the rediscovery of the meaning and message of the Old Testament after long absorption in merely critical and historical study of its content.13 This is indeed an important fact of our generation, and there has been nothing comparable to this pendulum swing in New Testament studies. Perhaps one may say that, in so far as there has been a comparable ‘swing’, the period of fragmentation on the critical side in New Testament studies has come later in time; and so the synthesis giving an overall interpretation of the New Testament is only now beginning to be achieved. The revival of Old Testament theology has naturally and necessarily affected New Testament interpretation; but it has led to too much stress on the continuities, and too little stress on the contrasts. Meanwhile, intensified eschatological discussion has stressed elements within the New Testament which belong not indeed so much to the main Old Testament revelation as to Hebraic inter-testamental thought and conviction. But the whole effect has been to make doctrines and practices which are distinctively Hebraic in their setting the most luminous part for us to-day of the whole record of revelation. Cultic interests have increased the attention given to [10] scripture as a record of the ongoing worship of God; but the sense of a break in cultus which is so clear in the epistle to the Hebrews (as it was clear to Jews and Christians alike at the time) has become obscured for us by the strong ‘cultic’ interests of biblical scholars.

On top of all this has come the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a discovery popularized by Picture Post and television as well as by scholars writing explanatory paperbacks.14 I need not remind you of the great volume of the serious literature the Scrolls have occasioned—a literature which Dr Rowley has so indefatigably chronicled.15 I do not presume to make any judgment on the Scrolls themselves, but speak only as the onlooker who is said to see most of the game. I think one can fairly say that any such striking discovery is likely to assume a disproportionate importance at first and that it finds its true level of importance only later on. No doubt it is very important to have a text of some portions of the Old Testament older by eight centuries than the massoretic. This may in the end prove more important than the cryptic evidences of the ascetic community living in the isolation of the shores of the Dead Sea. It is good to have more direct and more intimate evidence than Josephus has hitherto provided on these people; but, Essenes or not and contemporaries of John the Baptist or not, they will probably be found to do no more than fill in with decisive firmness some of the hitherto shadowy outlines of the total environment in which God wrought his mighty act by [11] raising Jesus from the dead. The notion that they can tell us more about early Christianity than we can learn from the canonical books of the New Testament is likely to be dismissed in due time as one of the wildest of the many wild exaggerations that biblical study has known. The importance of the Scrolls for church history is probably considerably less than that of the Didache, which was the ‘discovery’ of the end of the last century but now is unduly neglected and forgotten. However, whatever the truth may be about the importance of the Scrolls, they have come to tell powerfully in support of the general conviction that one should keep to the circle of Hebrew life and thought if one is really concerned to interpret the New Testament in general and the gospels in particular. All this study of messianic prophecy and its fulfilment and of the prevalent expectation of the end of the age concentrates our attention on the Hebrew antecedents of the divine intervention in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus.

But the fathers were prepared to see a wider preparation for Christ than the preparation in Israel. We may turn therefore at this point to consider the ancient conception of praeparatio evangelica, of previous history seen in the shape of a preparation for the coming of Christ. Perhaps the claim that any history apart from the history of Israel could be so interpreted would find little general favour today. In Israel things seem to be clearer and more established, for the inter-testamental development of eschatology and the fuller doctrine of the resurrection of the dead seem to support the contention that such experience and such preparation was indeed necessary before the true Messiah could appear. I take the liberty of quoting Dr Rowley once more:


‘It is not merely that we have the blending of the expectation of the Messiah and the Suffering Servant and other forms of the thought of the Golden Age in relation to Christ and His work. Many other Old Testament streams run to Him and to His Church; or, if they do not run to Him run nowhere…. Streams [12] which do not in any sense run to Judaism run to Christianity, and unless they have meaning in relation to the Church they can have no meaning at all.’16


But scepticism would soon begin if we took the doctrine of preparation beyond Israel, and sought to establish that the pax Romana was established in time for the angels to sing at Bethlehem, or that philosophy was a schoolmaster to lead the Greeks to Christ as the Law led the Jews to him. Here the secular ancient historian, who would hesitate to question the assertions we have made about the religious history of Israel, would feel entitled to express serious doubts. In these, he would be joined by those who hold that history carrying revelation within it is only to be read in God’s dealing with Israel. It might, indeed, be conceded that the other peoples are to be seen as manipulated by a providence watching over Israel—‘Cyrus is my shepherd’, in fact; but this would be the limit of concession to those who looked for preparation for Christ in ‘secular’ history.

Here we must set a tantalizing limit upon our enquiry, but we may at least ask whether the nations, peoples and tribes out of which ‘after the flesh’ came the body of Christ under the new covenant are of no account as nations and peoples in the total story of salvation. Theologians who are only too ready to find patterns in revelation-history ought perhaps to be reminded that Toynbee is commonly execrated by his colleagues for finding broad patterns in secular history. Yet pattern may be there, and unique significance of particular events or groups of events may call for recognition. We might indeed ask what history is secular, and also why certain times and places are thought to be more significant than others. Greek history too, has its ‘scandal of particularity’—if we are going to affirm that the history of the Greek [13] city-states of the age from Solon to Demosthenes is in any way more important than the history of the Scythians at the same time. If one holds that Greek history at that time is particularly significant, one might go a step further and ask whether it is only by a quirk of the almanac that at the very time the Jews (or some of them) were returning from exile, Greek questioning of the nature of the universe came to take a scientific turn. We readily forget that the time in which Nehemiah rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem and Ezra proclaimed the law from his wooden pulpit was the time in which the Greeks repelled the Persians, Socrates was born, Aeschylus and Sophocles produced their tragedies and Pericles instigated the building of the Parthenon. Two groups of events, each of very great later importance, were happening contemporaneously but in complete isolation and insulation each from the other. Is there any divine strategy to be detected here in the light of revelation?

These are fascinating questions, but we must not allow ourselves to be further fascinated by them at present. The only immediate relevance to our theme lies in the effect of what happened then in Greece on the Greeks who entered the church. It is the fact that what we call ‘Greek’ in later antiquity was indelibly influenced by what happened in Greece itself in this significant classical period. The later Hellenic culture might be skin-deep and might be imposed on the unwilling by what any good Athenian democrat would detest as a tyrannical exercise of power; and yet what was stamped on even this second or third-hand article was a character derived, however remotely, from a small number of people formed by a special development and tradition in separated city-state units in the four or’ perhaps five centuries before Alexander the Great. We shall see how persistent this character was when we consider the ‘ordinary Greek’ meeting the gospel nearly four centuries later.

Our more direct concern is, however, with the immediate historical setting of Calvary, the empty tomb and Pentecost. It might indeed be said that to speak of an ‘historical setting’ in this [14] way is unsound, and might seem to limit divine sovereignty and deny the ‘otherness’ of the word. It is, of course, necessary to beware of facile human demonstrations that it had to happen then and there; but on the other hand we do not really glorify God by representing his interventions as other-worldly unpredictable atomic bombs destroying every frame of reference. Preachers who attempt to relate the year that king Uzziah died to the vision of Isaiah are not necessarily to be dismissed with contempt. If they are to be dismissed, we have to revive our understanding of the prophets very drastically. At any rate, it is legitimate and instructive to show how the effects of God’s acts in history took one form rather than any other because of the total environmental situation at the time of his act. Old Testament theology has turned from the study of Israel in her historical setting in the near east to theological interpretation of her covenant relationship with Jahweh, but in spite of this, no Old Testament interpreter would deny that the exodus, the occupation of Canaan, the exile and the return are, as facts of history, relevant to the story of the covenant relationship. If so much is commonly agreed, must we not also consider the relevance of the total historical situation at the time of God’s coming to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?

It is here that the concentration on Hebrew factors, and especially on Palestinian Jewish factors, which the most recent biblical scholarship has shown is likely to become seriously misleading. For it ends by presenting us with an unbalanced picture. We ought not to under-estimate or to neglect any of this new evidence, but we ought to get the situation into proportion and cease to imagine that the Palestinian story tells us all that we ought to know if we are to read the canonical books of the New Testament with historical insight. Furthermore, what is much more serious, undue concentration on contemporary Judaism impedes us in declaring and interpreting what God actually did in our Lord’s coming. We are impeded by it from gaining a full understanding of the media he chose to make known his mighty acts [15] among the peoples of the earth.17 Messianic studies and rabbinic parallels to synoptic materials, however interesting in themselves, will never explain the Acts of the Apostles. Our present purpose is not to force Greek elements into the story but to point to what is manifestly there already. But our purpose, if we are true to the record, must also be to try to show what is meant by saying that there is neither Jew nor Greek in Christ. Clearly there were both Jews and Greeks in the membership of the early churches: what does it mean to say that in Christ there is neither of them or that there are both of them indifferently?

There is a very remarkable phrase in the ninth chapter of the epistle to the Romans where Paul is listing the advantages of Jews over Gentiles even within the Christian fellowship: ‘of whom’, he says of the Jews, ‘came Christ as concerning the flesh’—κατὰ σάρκα.18 This and the similar saying in the second letter to the Corinthians must not be pressed to mean that the Davidic descent, the identification with the preaching of John, the rejection by the chief priests and elders of the people, or even involvement in the curse of him who hangs upon a tree are to be neglected in a full Christian gospel. It does not mean either that these things no longer belong to the life of the risen high priest in his heavenly intercession. It is rather that these things have their meaning because in Jesus himself God has acted anew at a level which transforms the significance of what they which were at Jerusalem and their rulers did. If this were not so, how could he that is least in the kingdom of heaven be greater than John the Baptist? To this rather strange new kingdom of heaven, looking more like a very little flock, they had come from the north and from the south, from the [16] east and from the west to sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Now it will here be said: ‘What does this mean? Does it not mean that though the personnel of the early churches might be Greek or Barbarian, Scythian or what you will their life and thought were in essence Hebraic? How else could these incomers sit down with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?’ Likewise, in the eleventh chapter of that same epistle to the Romans Paul, in supreme disdain of the facts of arboriculture, says that the Gentiles are grafted like the wild olive (a particularly Greek tree, incidentally) into God’s good cultivated olive tree; but they must remember that they do not sustain the root but the root sustains them. Are not all who are in Christ incorporated in the rod of the stem of Jesse, the branch that comes from his root? Are there not Jesse windows in our cathedrals?

The whole weight of the earliest Christian experience and the natural tendency of the earliest preaching was to the affirmation of a Saviour born in the city of David, of David’s household and lineage. Even Ephesians still insists that aliens from the commonwealth of Israel had become fellow-citizens with the saints. Yet their struggles with this natural and inevitable picture of the Gentile Christians as grafted into Israel brought to the early Christians an increasing sense that the gospel has made all things new and that a new creation is evident where any man is in Christ Jesus: ‘To the Jew first, but also to the Greek’ Paul says when he looks at the matter from his own historical and traditional stand-point; but as soon as he goes on to expound Christian doctrine, we learn that ‘he is not a Jew who is one outwardly’, and from that we reach the conclusion that all have sinned and come short, and all are freely justified. The hair’s breadth of a preposition19 [17] still seeks to distinguish how faith operates in the case of Jews and Gentiles, but all is of faith and faith alone. We must not forget that the sola fide affirmation of Luther and the reformers was first reached by Paul when he declared what God had done in creating Jews and Gentiles anew in Christ by a common and equal justification by faith. Even in the eleventh chapter of Romans in the passage to which we have already referred, in a context expressing his agony of spirit over his fellow Jews, Paul insists that faith or its lack is the sole criterion of vital connection with God: the Gentiles are now in a succession of faith, walking with God as the fathers did and so inheriting their blessings.20 One must no more put undue stress on this passage and make it declare the way of faith to be essentially Hebraic than one must unduly extend the meaning of the other sayings that Jesus himself was a Hebrew only ‘as concerning the flesh’. Nevertheless, it will be said in reply, scripture testifies to covenant relationship; and this relationship is developed rather than annulled in the new covenant. I know that some interpreters feel that the gracious self-disclosure of God in a covenant relation with his people, according to their faith in each age and generation, is the heart of everything; and they think that this is inexpressible in any language but Hebrew. No one can ever deny that this gracious disclosure was first made in the covenant with Israel and so in Hebrew language, which was the language Israel spoke. But the day of Pentecost when it was fully gone showed that God is not and has never been of one tongue. Many of Israel’s braver sons had believed and taught that God would judge Israel by at least the same standards of righteousness by which he judged the Gentiles; and as with judgment so with mercy—this was for the Gentiles too. Ezekiel can tell Israel that God will not restore her for her own sake (Ez. 36. 32). Perhaps a few of the prophets even got beyond the natural conviction of [18] their fellow-prophets that the Gentiles would have to come to Jerusalem for their fuller light and that it must be from Zion that the law would go forth to inaugurate the era of world peace. Jonah is the most striking example. God’s concern for the six-score thousand persons of Nineveh who cannot discern between their right hand and their left does indeed bring them to repentance and faith, but not apparently to pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is, to quote Dr Rowley once again, only to be expected that God’s fulfilment of prophetic insights will go beyond even what the prophet could speak, though even so God’s act will be recognized as its fulfilment. In this sense the new covenant went beyond its Jeremianic foretelling: it was not only inward and personal in a new sense, it was also universal, in a new sense; and it was not ‘with the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ in any sense in which the prophet himself can have understood those words.

We are thinking now of a truth whose dramatic revelation dominates the Acts and colours all the Pauline letters; it is less dramatically dominant in the synoptics, and the fourth gospel represents the calm on the other side of the conflict. But conflict it undoubtedly was, a story chiefly of conflict of human wills and traditions with God’s newly declared purpose; though, at the more superficial level it might be seen first as a conflict between the Jews of the time and the followers of Jesus and next as a conflict between the Judaisers in the church and Paul as apostle to the Gentiles.21 But it was in fact the Spirit contending with the traditions of the church. This conflict was particular and passing, sharp and short. It falls in history between Pentecost and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. What one may call the ‘long-term’ tension between Judaism and Christianity is another story. I refrain from entering upon it except to say that I know and [19] deeply respect several devout Jews and that I loathe anti-Semitism; and, in particular, that one of the wartime occupations which taught me a great deal was that of obtaining and selling passover bread for the refugee Jews in Cambridge. I am sure, however, that well-meaning attempts to minimize the differences between Judaism and Christianity (though motivated often by a proper sense of guilt for past persecutions of Jews by Christians) do no good and may do harm; for almost always they fail to acknowledge sufficiently what God did when he established the new covenant with us in our Lord Jesus Christ. One does not show disrespect for old wine or for old wineskins in acknowledging the arrival of new wine which bursts the old skins.

Dr Winter has recently made a careful study of the synoptic accounts of the trial of Jesus which seems to show that Roman action on political grounds really had more to do with his condemnation than Jewish action on religious grounds.22 Winter suggests that the Christian evangelists writing after the destruction of Jerusalem tended to stress the religious conflict and minimize the political in order to conciliate Roman favour. This is an important and interesting thesis which deserves to be studied as carefully and impartially as any thesis can be studied. I regret, however, a tendency to clutch at it as a means of softening the account of antagonism between Jews and Christians in the critical years before Jerusalem was destroyed. After all Paul never lived to see Jerusalem fall, and his Roman citizenship was hardly likely to affect his thought at this level, even if it affects considerably what he says in the thirteenth chapter of the epistle to the Romans. Yet the Pauline letters support the Acts account absolutely and in detail on the conflict both with the Jews and with Judaizing Christians. There was no need to placate the Romans when writing to the members of the churches of Galatia, and we rightly look to the epistle to the Galatians as primary evidence on the basic issues.

It would be more profitable to attempt to understand what in [20] fact scandalized the Jews in the Christian message and what in fact lay behind the efforts of the Christians who wanted Gentile converts to keep the full law. Every Jew believed that God is the same yesterday, today and for ever; but to say ‘Joshua the Messiah is the same yesterday, today and for ever’ cannot but sound blasphemous in the ears of those who recognize in this Joshua only the man whom the Romans had crucified on the eve of a recent passover, and who had not returned in the heavens on clouds of glory even if his followers believed him to be risen from the dead. The disciples themselves needed to have unfolded to them the Old Testament scriptures which proved that Christ must suffer and so enter into his glory: is it surprising, then, that, as Paul put it, ‘So they which dwell at Jerusalem and their rulers, because they knew him not nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, fulfilled them by condemning him’? This (with its note of tragic irony that reminds one of the Greek tragedians) must be understood and accepted by all who accept the Christian revelation.

But the more important outward conflict was not between Christians and Jews, even in these years of conflict; it was between the Judaizing Christians and the converts in the cosmopolitan Hellenistic cities. I cannot attempt even to sketch the history of these early Christian societies, and there is no need to do so here; but I would like to refer to the essay by Mr E. A. Judge, now of the University of Sydney, which is entitled The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century. This is a model of ancient history written impartially but with sensitivity from the Christian point of view; and Mr Judge draws upon the various writings of Professor A. H. M. Jones on the political situation in the eastern Roman provinces.23 Yet even all this study, important as it is, does not bring us to the heart of the matter. Judaism had been a proselytizing religion now for some time, and continued to be so until Jerusalem fell. Synagogues were to be found all over the Roman world and especially in the near east. These synagogues [21] provided the natural hearers of the first Christian proclamation. All this cannot be accident any more than the centring of the gospel events in Jerusalem can be accidental. Thus we see the providential purpose in the return to Jerusalem with the consequent faithful witness of Maccabean martyrs against the attempt to enforce Hellenic ways there and then. But we see purpose also in the wideness of the dispersion of the Jews among the cities of the Hellenic world, where Jews were well content to enjoy the citizenship if they could get it or settlers’ rights if they could not. Alexandria was the chief place of meeting with the Greek tradition: the Alexandrian Jews had a synagogue in Jerusalem itself. No doubt the stricter Pharisees eyed it askance, but God can be seen now to have been working both through hard-shell particularism at Jerusalem and through the more tolerant life of the synagogues in the great cities which welcomed the god-fearer whether or not he ever became a proselyte. Yet if a man did go on to be a proselyte, he must be circumcised and accept all Jewish obligations; and pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the great feast were made even from the most liberal-minded of the local synagogues.

The Jews themselves seem to have been shy of taking upon themselves the responsibility for translating the Old Testament into Greek: both the stories of pseudo-Aristeas and Aristobulus fix the responsibility firmly on Ptolemy. Whatever the truth here, there is no doubt that the synagogues exploited Ptolemy’s initiative for the benefit of their members, and probably there was a gradual extension of the translation during the proselytizing centuries up to the time of our Lord’s ministry itself. Was this only Ptolemy’s plan for his library? Did not the acceptance of the need for translation of the inviolate Hebrew into a language understanded of the people mean, in a real sense, an admission of Greeks to a potential fellow citizenship with the Jews? Perhaps a dim awareness of what was involved in this respect in the work of translation led to the desire to attach the responsibility for it to Ptolemy’s command. Present-day New Testament scholars are chiefly intent on detecting the Aramaic and the Hebrew behind [22] the Greek and in regretting, as some of the Rabbis must have regretted, that it had to be put into a Greek translation at all. But the actual historical calling of the first Christians in the great cities—Greeks or Jews—to be saints in Christ Jesus would have been hardly thinkable without Greek speech and a Greek Old Testament. Whom God called he foreknew, and the Septuagint was a necessary factor in his call. We see this dearly as we look back at the story of the Acts and the letters of the New Testament.

The dispersion, the Septuagint, the political life of the virtually self-governing Hellenistic cities with a Greek pattern of government; and then an apostle to the Gentiles who came from one of these cities being himself a Roman citizen also, but who was a strict Pharisee and as touching the righteousness according to the Law blameless—all this, no less than the Maccabean witness and the eschatological fervour in Palestine, were available to receive and embody the proclamation of the new age. The Greeks were not admitted to the church in the same sense that god-fearers and proselytes were admitted to the life of Judaism: they were incorporated with those who after the flesh and after the Spirit had hitherto relied on the blessings of the old covenant. At this moment in the story, the newness of the covenant was more significant to the body of believers than the fact that it still was a covenant. Indeed, for them, the covenant was so new as to mark the end of the age: when they met to remember the Lord’s death ‘till he come’, they looked for the fullness of the new age in that coming as likely to break in upon mankind at any time. In our modern biblical thought we have had to rediscover the meaning of ‘covenant’ as such, and we have every reason to be thankful for this rediscovery. But this has its dangers too, for we are likely to fail to understand fully why the new covenant is new, and how new it is, not only for the first generations of Christian believers but for all who believe in Christ Jesus between the Easter events and the second coming. Our Puritan fathers when they were discussing sacerdotalism, both in ancient Israel and in contemporary Britain, were more alive to these matters. [23]

We can see how those directly involved were only partially aware of what had happened; that it was too big for them to grasp. The Jews in the Hellenic cities who at first listened to Paul’s expositions in synagogue worship, were understandably incensed by the institution of a rival synagogue which made no demand of circumcision upon proselytes and so had an apparently much less costly demand to make on its Gentile initiates than that of the synagogue. The first Christian believers in Jerusalem were very understandably perturbed at so rapid a development of the Gentile mission. The statesmanship of James at the Jerusalem council and Paul’s willingness, on his return there to report on his mission, to purify himself along with the four men who had a vow on them, are notable evidence of the tension and the cohesion of the church at that time. We have to remember constantly how Jewish the apostle to the Gentiles was. Only then can we assess adequately the autobiographical part of Philippians and the whole import of Galatians. These may be old familiar things to say, but the weight laid by recent scholarship on the Hebrew antecedents of Paul’s teaching make it all the more needful to say these familiar things again and again. The demands of his apostleship to the Gentiles were indeed wrung from him in the actual crises of his ministry. What he did, both in public action and in church relationships, reveals the new life of the church even more than his arguments reveal it.

So through much travail God called Jew and Greek into the new covenant of grace together. We must therefore look at these Greeks who were born again in Christ. But there is another question to be answered before we do so. What right have we to speak like this of the Greeks alongside the Jews as being apparently a privileged and distinct class of Gentiles? Does this special distinction belong only to Paul’s way of speaking of the matter and not to real church history? Have modern analysts, ready to distinguish Hebraic from Hellenic, been too quick to follow this lead of Paul? As far as the scope of the new covenant is concerned, some caution is needed here. Barbarian and Scythian as [24] well as Greek and Jew are all one in Christ Jesus. To be Greek is not in itself any more a claim to grace than to be a Jew. But the calling of the Greeks had its special importance even so, and it is this that I hope to examine under particular headings in the subsequent lectures. Let us simply note that ‘Greeks’ in some places in the New Testament does stand simply for all ‘Gentiles’, and that in others it may stand (as the word ‘Hellenists’ certainly does in our English authorized version) for Jews speaking Greek and living mostly in the dispersion but not necessarily outside Palestine. But after safeguarding ourselves on all these matters we can still say that the famous words ‘the Jews seek a sign, the Greeks seek wisdom’ imply something which is not merely a rhetorical antithesis but a recognition of fact which has to do with life in the early Christian church as well as with the general life of men and women outside it. These first Greek converts were not philosophers, as we have already said. They were not even the earliest converts who provided the ‘test cases’ for the original Jerusalem Christians: we hear of the Ethiopian and the Roman officer first in the story of the Acts. Yet with the progress of the mission, the significance of the calling of the Greeks had to be faced; and it is this we must now go on to consider.

1. Virgil, Aeneid ii. 49.

2. 1 Samuel 4. 13; 2 Samuel 6. 6.

3. The personal histories of Luther and Erasmus may have some relevance at this point: much would have been different had the Dutchman finally broken with Rome. The treatment of Wetstein by later ‘Scholastic’ protestantism did Holland no credit, however.

4. Will, expressed in decision for which one was accountable, undoubtedly dominated the legal and social life of the Greek city-state: the elaborate testing before office and audit after it is evidence enough of this. The Socratic paradox ‘no one errs willingly’ was sidestepped by Plato himself in the Laws (see especially ix. 863. C 2 and E. B. England ad loc., also 864 a 1 sqq.) and challenged by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, as it had already been by Phaedra in the Hippolytus of Euripides (lines 377-83). In Plato’s final assessment of man’s destiny it seems to be his βούλησις, his choice of good or evil, which determines his standing in the Universe. (Laws x. 904 b 9 sqq., d 5 sqq.) βούλησις clearly means ‘will’ in these Platonic passages. All Plato’s myths of the soul’s destiny include moral probation as a decisive factor.

5. Some works available in English for theological students are suggested in the bibliographical note before this chapter; but this note has limited scope, as is stated there and in the Preface. Some other works are referred to in footnotes.

6. The doctrines go back to the sixth century, and Erigena translated them into Latin in the ninth. They combine Neoplatonism with a doctrine of church hierarchies.

7. Thorlief Boman, Das hebraische Denken in Vergleich mit dem griechischen, Gottingen, 1952. English translation by J. Moreau, London, 1960. (Library of the History of Doctrine).

8. Gnomon, vol. xxvii (1955), 551-8. This is a very full and important review: it is a pity that it has not been translated into English.

9. Boman’s treatment of time in Hebrew thought was already challenged by Bultmann in the Gnomon review. Though many scholars (notably Cullmann) have taken matters further still, they have rightly come under the lash of Professor James Barr in Biblical Words for Time (Allenson, Naperville, Illinois, 1962). Professor Barr’s previous onslaught in The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford, 1961) is directed at semantic constructions rather than philosophical ones like Boman’s. Yet many of the semantic constructions are really philosophical ones in more fashionable sheep’s clothing; and the gravamen of Barr’s accusation is, after all, that it is the preconceived philosophy which spoils the lexicography.

10. H.H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible, London, 1953.

11. Acts 26. 14 (compare 9. 5, where the Laudianus (sixth cent.) and Latin manuscripts include the words, but against the consensus; and 22. 8). The saying πρὸς κέντα λακτίζειν occurs as early as Pindar’s second Pythian ode (at the end), and therefore before 470 B.C. With κωλον τείνειν for λακτίζειν but in the same sense it is found in the Prometheus Vinctus of Aeschylus at line 323; and the actual phrase is found in Aeschylus Agamemnon, 1633, and Euripides Bacchae, 793. It had evidently passed from Attic literature into the common language and thought of the near east.

12. H. H. Rowley, The Unity of the Bible (London, 1953), 99-100. I should also point out that Rowley says in passing (at p. 97) that just as the O.T. revelation was ‘given through a Person, yet guaranteed by historical events which could not be controlled by any impostor’ the same is true of the N.T. revelation. This is an important acknowledgment; but the N.T. events were less ‘macroscopic’ not a visible exodus so much as a turning to the Gentiles after fruitless arguments in synagogues a thing marked by no visible change at the time.

13. It is still fashionable to complain that people in the churches are interested only in the New Testament and do not accept or understand the Old. But this was always a hasty and a specious diagnosis.

14. I leave this paragraph as I spoke it, aware of course that it is shocking rather than dispassionate; but I think that a challenge to accepted attitudes on the Scrolls is very necessary. I mean no disrespect to the great scholars who have wrestled with the problems involved. I recognize that these problems exist and that scholars equipped for wrestling with them must continue to do so. But I think that publicity has not helped and that the sense of proportion has been lost. I would not desire any stronger statement of the position than the trenchant conclusions of Rowley himself in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament (London, 1957) 28-32.

15. For material up to 1952 in the footnotes and ‘list of works consulted’ in The Zadokite Fragments and the Dead Sea Scrolls; subsequently also as editor (up to 1956) of the book-list of the Society for Old Testament Studies.

16. H. H. Rowley, op. cit., 111-112. I believe that some scholars would hold that the Son of Man vision counted for more in the earthly ministry of Jesus than the Song of the Suffering Servant (see H. H. Rowley, op. cit., 104-105); but if one takes the wider term ‘Christ and his work’ which Rowley uses, I cannot think that any Christian scholars would dissent from his conclusions.

17. This is not to underestimate the value of a great book (W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism) which illuminates the way the Rabbi became more than a Rabbi, as part of the calling of the Gentiles.

18. Romans 9. 5, 2 Cor. 5. 16. It is quite impossible to enter on the vast questions of interpretation here. I indicate my understanding of the Romans 9 passage by seeing it in close relation to the Corinthians passage, even closer than to Romans 1. 3, 4., though naturally that must also be considered. Other Pauline uses of κατὰ σάρκα are different, though closer study of σάρξ in N.T. usage will probably cause them all to be seen as natural variants of one main meaning.

19. ἐκ and διά, at Romans 3. 30. The older explanations seem to make too much of this: one particularly doubts Sanday and Headlam, ad loc. They say Jews are justified ἐκ πίστεως διὰ περιτομης, Gentiles <ἐκ καὶ> διὰ πίστεως. But this seems to contravene the basic principle of the passage, which effectively asserts, like Galatians 6. 15, that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count in Christ. But we ought not to regard the difference of preposition as unintended and merely stylistic, even so.

20. Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans 11. 17, 18 is especially valuable in stating the doctrine in terms more likely to come home to us, the ecclesiastic and the ‘concerned’ non-ecclesiastic led alike to repentance and faith. See also his general summing up, on 11. 28-32. (Karl Barth, Der Romerbrief, Munich 1921; translated by E. C. Hoskyns, Oxford, 1933, 408-12.)

21. J. C. Leuba no doubt overstated the extent of this conflict, going beyond what is actually said in Galatians: but the writer in the recently revised Peake Commentary understates it; see the review of the new Peake by N. S. Moon in Baptist Quarterly, xix July 1960), 330-2.

22. P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, Berlin, 1961.

23. For these, see the bibliography.

By Ruben Alvarado

Mr. Ruben Alvarado is an independent scholar, publisher, and translator living to the east of Arnhem in the Netherlands. His writings, which span a wide variety of issues, can be found at WordBridge Publishing, Common Law Review, and Common Law Economics.

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