Understanding Faith (04)

24 11 2008
Julius Caesar Bust

Image by iirraa via Flickr

Today’s entry is where I put in a plug for knowing something about the culture behind the NT. Here is where I mention that many Christians feel really comfortable with the current Scholarly focus on Judaism. And why not? Those who read the Bible are familiar with Judaism through the OT and the controversies of the NT. Jesus, Peter, Paul… they were all Jews. So of course we’ll feel at home with this! But there is another context, which we don’t feel so at home in… i.e. the Graeco-Roman world. But let’s not forget that Paul (at least) was also very connected to this world. He had to be if he was going to be a missionary. So the Graeco-Roman world is relevant to the context into which Paul was writing. Therfore it must be of some importance for us who read the NT today! This will be something I will come back to in future entries. For now though, we need a quick lesson into the fabric of Romans society in the first century. The Roman world was literally held together by relational exchange A ↔  B. As Richard Saller says in his exceptional little book Patronage in the Early Empire, “The Romans could hardly conceive of friendship apart from reciprocal exchange.” In fact from the Emperor all the way down to the lowest citizen it was reciprocal exchange which held everything together. And so fides (the Latin word for faith) has been defined as “”confidence” (fides) and, especially (in a more derivative sense of fides), the “good faith” or “trustworthiness” that inspires confidence.” Whenever the Romans thought about a relationship they thought in terms of two way exchange (A ↔ B). When we talk then about “faith” or “grace” as exchange words because they are used in relationships, this is therefore not a big jump. Rather, the culture of the day confirmed that this was a logical way for people to see things. Now we are ready to tackle pistis Christou which we’ll do next entry.

Bruce Lowe

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3 responses

26 11 2008

This is fascinating.

But I would argue that we in the West are intellectually much more comfortable, albeit unknowingly, with the world of the New Testament, being the philosophical and intellectual descendants of that Graeco-Roman world. I think it’s one of the major reasons Western Christians find it so much easier to interact devotionally with the New Testament than the Old.

26 11 2008
Bruce Lowe

This likewise is a fascinating response Laura which I thank you for. You could very well has a point. I kind of wonder though whether Christians in general are more comfortable with the NT because we’re Gentiles. What I do think is that the NT is a whole lot more in tune with issues that have direct overlap with issues of today… for example intellectualism. Also moralism… the stoics were right in turn with this one. Sometimes I read Epictetus and some of the other stoics and thinks they sounds far too much like an evangelical for my liking. I’ve got my suspicions that certain Christians today are more stoic than they should be! Thanks again for your response.

28 11 2008

Thanks for your kind reply! Here’s my thinking on the subject. We in the West are automatically well-trained students (alas!) of Platonist philosophy — the idea that the material, tangible, physical realm is inherently evil and the transcendent, intangible, spiritual realm is inherently good (as well as the idea that those two realms are separate) — to such an extent as Western Christians that it’s almost impossible, in my experience, to identify when we’re falling prey to it! We see it constantly. The confusion over the language of “the flesh” and “the body” in Scripture, the fantasy of disembodied personal eschatology rather than bodily resurrection, even that Joel Osteen-esque “happiness Gospel.”

And you are on the mark about moralism! Whew. Sometimes I’m tempted to just go all the way to doily-wearing KJV-only fundamentalism just because it’s so much easier than working out all these cultural complexities. 🙂

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