Two distinct traditions exist regarding the apostle Thomas, and these appear, at first glance, mutually exclusive. According to Eusebius of Caesarea and later Nestorian sources, the apostle brought the Gospel to the Parthians. By contrast, acording to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas and the Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum, the Doctrine of the Apostles, of the same age, he traveled to the court of King Gondophares in India… The two Thomas traditions can, in fact, be harmonized, since historical evidence, in the form of coins bearing his name and a stone inscription, proves the existence of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. He ruled over the region now encompassing south-eastern Iran and Pakistan, from c. 19 to 50 CE. It is thus conceivable that Eusebuis could have characterized his empire as ‘Parthian’. While nothing has been conclusively determined regarding the historical veracity of the Thomas mission, the possibility of his journey to India cannot be excluded, especially since regular maritime traffic took place between Rome and India.Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 15
Remember that sweeping accusation from Titus 1:12-13, where Paul that all Cretans are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons?” Well, it’s actually a quotation. And that quotation has a known context, which I had never heard before. Turns out it’s a fight about whether or not the chief of the gods could be dead in a tomb. Paul – whether he’s alluding to this context or merely commandeering a well-known literary rebuke – agrees, following with quite the understatement. “This sentence is true” (v. 13). Clearly, Paul and the Holy Spirit weren’t messing around. This Cretan tendency toward empty and deceptive talk had gone far enough.
“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan poet from the sixth century BC. In his poem Cretica, Epimenides accuses the Cretans of being liars and evil beasts because they claim to host a tomb of Zeus, the chief of the gods. Since Zeus “lives and abides forever,” the Cretans must be liars. Paul quotes from this same poem in his sermon to the Areopagus in Acts 17:28. Crete also claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus, known in antiquity as the Dictaean Cave, which legend placed on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain. Reputedly from Knossos, Epimenides was supposed to have the gift of prophecy, which was bestowed on him after he allegedly slept for 57 years in a cave sacred to Zeus.ESV Archaeology Study Bible, Note on Titus 1:12-13
Ever feel offended by broad-brush statements of scripture like this? That feeling’s probably a good sign of an area where we are being shaped more by our culture’s mores than by God’s word. Anytime we feel that inner twitch – that’s a good place to pause and lean in. Why exactly does this rub me the wrong way? And what might that mean?
In the region surrounding the principality of Orhay (Edessa), which claimed for itself the title of the first Christian state in the world, there was also a latent monotheism. There the god Marilaha was worshiped as the universal Lord-God. This proto-monotheism first paved the way for the success of Judaism in Edessa. Since there were in Edessa, as in all of Syria and western Mesopotamia, numerous examples of divine triads, the environment was again peculiarly receptive to Christianity, as it enriched these two concepts with the figure of a divine-human mediator and made them more accessible.Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 11-12
What exactly was going on in the progression of ancient peoples away from a pantheon of gods and toward something more like monotheism? And this seemingly right around the coming of Christ? Was the Holy Spirit using the influence of Judaism to slowly disseminate ideas in the ancient world that would prepare the it for the gospel? Or resurrecting an ancient “memory” of the monotheistic origin of the broken polytheistic systems of late antiquity?
Whatever was going on, a remarkable number of peoples in the Roman and Persian empires – and in their borderlands – were peculiarly ready for the preaching of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Perhaps this is one part of what the Scripture means when it says, at the fullness of time (Gal 4:4).
… our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, (2 Timothy 1:10 ESV)
2 Tim 1:10 brought life and immortality to light. First-century tomb epitaphs indicate that for most pagans, death was accepted (at best) with calm resignation. In traditional Greco-Roman religions, death was the end of everything. The best that could be hoped for was a shadowy existence in Hades, the realm of the dead. Paul contrasts this world of shadows with the light of immortality that faith in Christ brings.ESV Archaeology Study Bible
What an interesting contrast between the shadows of the pagan afterlife and the shining glory of the biblical vision of paradise and resurrected bodies. I’ve said it before, but we should not be shy to sometimes speak of ourselves as those who humbly “seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7). Especially when contrasted with the inferior pagan visions of the afterlife. Nothingness? Loss of individuality as we’re assimilated into the Atman? Gardens and virgins? Clouds and baby cherubs? No thank you, we have been freely welcomed into something so much better. Superior glory and satisfaction awaits – a life and immortality of light.
Paul worked very hard at Thessalonica at his profession (tentmaking) so that he would not be a financial burden to the church while he was there. The church at Philippi had sent Paul financial assistance when he was working in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15); perhaps the financial assistance from Philippi was at the beginning of his ministry, functioning as “seed money” allowing Paul to rent a shop and purchase raw materials. Although shops sometimes were open in the late afternoon for more leisurely browsing, the average Roman merchant worked intensely in the six hours before noon and then closed the shop. Daylight was the main requirement for conducting business; hours would be longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Paul reminds the church that he even worked when most places were closed for the evening. By using the plural “we,” he implies that Timothy and Silas worked with him. This would have been a good model of Gentile-Jewish cooperation for Thessalonian believers and may have been part of the reason the Jews in the city were upset with him. He also may have “outworked” the competition, and financial envy perhaps contributed to opposition to the apostle.ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1779
Living in Central Asia, where the bazaar/market is a prominent feature of every city, Paul keeping his shop open after the others have closed is a vivid picture – and a challenging example. These notes on this passage (1 Thess 2:9) are helpful biblical background when considering the issues of contemporary tent-making and supporting locals.
The shield protected the bearer from both hand-carried and missile weapons. In the Pauline analogy, the shield is used to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (v. 16). Horse archers constituted the main combat units in the Parthian Empire – Rome’s primary eastern foe in this period. The Parthians’ fearsome reputation, having defeated the Roman legions in numerous battles, made Paul’s analogy of the flaming darts, or arrows, of Satan appropriate.ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1756
Though Christians and Westerners are generally aware of the northern barbarian threat to the Roman Empire, most learn almost nothing about Rome’s bitter rival empire to the East, the Parthians. WordPress, the platform I’m using, provides me a useful illustration here as it doesn’t even have Parthian in its dictionary and keeps flagging it as a misspelling. It’s as if we are conscious of the peoples east of the Euphrates up until the book of Malachi. Then, all of the sudden, the light of historical consciousness turns off and the focus shifts to the West.
Yet here was an empire not only able to go toe-to-toe with Rome, but even able to defeat many Roman armies throughout the centuries. The Parthians had risen to power following the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. At first glance they seem to be an interesting blend of Greco-Persian cosmopolitanism and the horse culture of the great steppes. They were certainly much more tolerant of early Christianity than the Romans were – an important point not to be dismissed. The great persecutions of Christians under Zoroastrian rulers would not come about until the Parthian empire gave way to the Sassanians and Rome had been Christianized.
Though we may be ignorant of them, inhabitants of the Roman empire would have been very aware of this other superpower. I found it interesting that this street knowledge of the political enemy may provide background for the familiar Armor of God passage in Ephesians chapter 6, particularly the part about “flaming darts” (6:14). As the passage quoted above states, the Parthian horse archers were the main fighting force of the Parthians. Apparently they were so skilled that they were able to ride their horses without stirrups and fire their arrows accurately at the enemy legions – even turning their torsos to shoot backwards while their horses sped in the opposite direction. This particular tactic came to be known as the “Parthian Shot.” This may have come down into modern English as “parting shot” since authors like Arthur Conan Doyle used “Parthian Shot” in their writing to describe a last comment or jab given during an exit.
Returning to Paul and Ephesians 6, the image the original readers may have had in mind was that of a Roman soldier’s shield deflecting the flaming arrows of Parthian horse archers – archers who were shooting at them while simultaneously riding with terrifying skill. Sounds like quite the dangerous situation, especially for a foot soldier. As such it was an effective analogy, not just communicating the danger posed by Satan’s attacks, but also the tremendous power provided by this shield of faith.
Image by Wikimedia Commons
The Irish are part of a larger ethnic grouping called the Celts (preferably pronounced with a hard “c”) who first entered western consciousness about 600 B.C. – only a century and a half after the legendary founding of the City of Rome – when, like the German barbarians long after them, they crossed the Rhine. One branch of the Celtic tree settled in present-day France and became the Gauls, whom Julius Caesar would conquer in the century before Christ and who in their Romanized phase would produce the effete Ausonius. A cognate tribe settled the Iberian peninsula and became great sea traders; indeed, found as far afield as New Hampshire – which would make the Celts the first Europeans to reach the Americas. In the third century B.C., Celts invaded the Greek world, advancing as far south as Delphi and settling in present-day Turkey, where, as the Galatians (note the similarity of consonantal sounds in “Celt,” “Gaul,” and “Galatian”), they were recipients of one of Paul’s letters.Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p.79
There are some passages of scripture that we tend to merely skim before quickly moving on. For me, the genealogies were definitely that kind of content. Sure, I believed that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching and instructing in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But it was awfully hard for me to see how the genealogies would actually impact my life as a believer or be relevant in evangelism. “Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram” is not exactly the inspirational material that typically shows up on Christian embroideries. Sure, the genealogies served an important historical purpose, but I assumed that was about it. I would be proved powerfully wrong.
When my friend *Hama agreed to read the Bible with me, we started in the book of Matthew, probably for the simple reason that it was the first book in the New Testament which I had given him in his language (The Old Testament wouldn’t be published for another 8 years). As a twenty-year-old new to the Middle East, this would be my first time studying the Bible with a Muslim friend. So why not start with Matthew?
I was not expecting the first half of the first chapter to deal such a blow to my friend’s worldview.
“Bro,” Hama said. “Jesus is incredible.”
“I agree. But why do you say that?” I replied.
“Look at his family line… look at all of the prophets in his line. There are so many, starting all the way back at Abraham. Bro, I never knew this.”
“And?” I was not understanding why we shouldn’t just take note of this neat historical content and move on the meatier portions.
Hama’s eyes had that far-off look he got whenever his mind was working hard. He seemed conflicted.
“…Mohammad doesn’t have a family line like this… he doesn’t have any kind of lineage to compare to this.” Hama was disturbed.
I didn’t know this at the time, but genealogy, specifically the father-line (patrilineage) is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern and Central Asian identity. You are who your fathers were. Their honor and their shame is imputed to you and your success and the success of your descendants depends on being able to draw upon an honorable reputation rooted in ancestry. A traditional Middle Easterner must be able to name their male ancestors at least to the seventh generation. Even though this is becoming a little less common among the modern and urbanized, it still is a primary lens through which people understand who they are and who others are. Your father-line makes a claim about you; it is a message in itself.
Hama was seeing something in Matthew in his first reading that I had never seen despite many years of devotions in Matthew, sermons, and bible classes. His Middle Eastern culture was helping him to understand implications of the text that I had missed as an American raised in Melanesia. In this and many other areas, Hama’s culture was not too far off from Jewish New Testament culture. He saw Matthew 1:1-17 as a devastating blow against what he had been taught his whole life – that Mohammad’s lineage was just as strong as that of the other prophets.
Yes, Islam maintains that Mohammad was descended from Abraham via Ishmael, but from Ishmael to Mohammad spans over two thousand years of plain old human without a whiff of inspired revelation. But Jesus, his line contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, and Solomon! And all of them descendants of Abraham through Isaac’s line, not Ishmael’s. Jesus’ claims therefore to be The Prophet of Prophets are bolstered by this amazing pedigree. Mohammad’s seeming emergence out of nowhere six hundred years later as “the seal of the prophets,” in this light, appears to be unnatural and not in keeping with how God acted in history – always sending his prophets through Isaac’s line and with a strong prophetic father-line.
It was a blow that shook Hama’s world. It’s easy to take for granted religious claims that everyone around you simply repeats your whole life. But when faced for the first time with a compelling counter-claim, that’s when we get a true sense of just how strong a case our belief actually has. Sure, everyone in the bazaar says that Mohammad’s descent from the prophets legitimized his claims. But Matthew, in a thoroughly Middle Eastern way, had just thrown down the gauntlet.
It wasn’t the only way in which God would vindicate the gospel’s truth to my friend Hama, the jaded wedding musician. But it was a powerful start. One that I at least had never anticipated. Yet this is exactly what happens when we work through scripture with those who are different from us. We see new aspects of the text’s meaning, not different meaning, but insights uniquely apparent to those from other cultures. The diamond gets turned to reveal new beauty that was there all along. The Holy Spirit uses passages we gloss over as the vehicle for his convicting work. This argues, by the way, for the importance of working through books of the Bible systematically in our cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship – we just don’t know where exactly in the text the lightning is going to strike. And it may be where you never expected it.
1st Corinthians 11, with its discussion about head coverings, has been called one of the most confusing chapters in the Bible. Often the discussion about this chapter zeroes in on whether or not women are universally required to wear head coverings in the church, or whether this requirement was a local/historical application of a universal principle. I lean toward the latter, finding the case compelling which advocates that Corinthian female head coverings were a sign of modesty and faithfulness among the married women of the Greco-Roman world. So today, whatever forms communicate that principle of modesty and faithfulness in a contemporary culture would be a good way to apply 1st Corinthians 11 to the ladies of our churches.
But what about the men? Why would men in Corinth desire to cover their heads when praying or prophesying in the church? This is why I love learning about the New Testament background and culture. As L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Check out this revealing note from the ESV Archeology Study Bible:
Roman statuary depicts emperors and senior magistrates as partially covering their heads with fold of their togas when offering a public sacrifice (“praying”) or reading its entrails (“prophesying”). Paul instructs the Corinthian men not to dishonor Christ by praying to him in the same way that others addressed false gods such as Apollo. By praying with their heads uncovered, they show they are praying in a new way and worshiping a different deity than their pagan neighbors.ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1710
That’s right. Roman emperors and other officials covered their heads to pray and prophesy. There’s even a statue from Corinth of Caesar Augustus doing this very thing (pictured above).
So how in the world do you apply this underlying principle of countercultural worship forms to the men of contemporary churches, whether in the west, the global south, or among the unreached people groups of the world? In some contexts it might be simpler than others. Where we serve in Central Asia, we should apply this by raising up men who preach and pray and even dress differently enough from the mullahs and imams of the mosque that it’s clear that they are worshipping different deities. The god of the Qur’an is not the same God of the Bible and the apostle Paul would have that distinction reflected in the public praying and prophesying of men in the church.
How would this be applied in the post-Christian West? I’m not quite sure, and I would welcome help in fleshing this out. Who would be the equivalent of the emperor and other Greco-Roman officials? Perhaps the political, business, and culture leaders. And the equivalent of making a civic religion sacrifice and reading its entrails? Perhaps any false-salvation narrative held up publicly by one of these leaders, whether that be a president promising the answer is revived nationalism, an opposition promising liberation from oppression by means of more government regulation, or a tech titan on stage promising life change through their latest generation technology. Men in the church, do you sound like them when you pray and speak in the gathered assembly of believers? Or is there enough different about your public presentation that it’s clear you serve a different God?
And in the realm of the painfully obvious, don’t wear a toga to church and during prayer drape it over your head. A form that risked gospel clarity in Corinth, for us, would at least risk appropriate gospel gravity.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This provides an interesting angle on intra-Gentile cultural issues forming the backdrop of the New Testament world.
The cultural relation of Roman to Greek was, in many ways, not unlike the cultural relation of Englishman to Frenchman and of American to Englishman: In all three relations, simplicity is the virtue and complexity the vice on one side, while on the other subtlety is prized and (supposedly rustic) straightforwardness can give offense.Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, p. 44