Review of Baden’s The Promise to the Patriarchs

Anyone concerned with Paul’s use of Gen 12:3 (Gal 3:8) and his employment of Abraham as the litmus test for a Gentile mission free from the boundary markers of Jewish/Judean identity for Gentiles should spend some time with Joel Baden’s new work: The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) in order to understand the promise to which Paul refers in its literary context. This concise (it is c. 200 pages) and clear publication is a literary investigation into the promise texts of the Pentateuch from a source-critical perspective. The type of questions with which he wrestles are: (1) what is the promise; (2) what does the promise mean theologically; (3) why was it crafted; and (4) how does it affect the way we read the Pentateuch. Baden concludes that the promise texts naturally fall into the classical sources J, E, and P, each with their own emphases and perspectives. It was this diversity that the compiler of the Pentateuch attempted to maintain as he structured his sources. The promise to the Patriarchs is the glue that holds the Pentateuch together: “The story of the promise is not one among many in the Pentateuch. It is the sole story of the Pentateuch” (p. 158).

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to provide a thorough review of Baden’s book. However, I will point out a few laudable observations. Baden notes that the promise to the Patriarchs is constant throughout the entirety of the Pentateuch appearing in numerous chapters in Genesis (Genesis 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 24, 26, 28, 32, 35, 46, 48, 50) and at critical moments in the story of Israel, i.e., the call of Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, the descent to Egypt, the death of Joseph, the call of Moses, the golden calf incident, the condemnation of the exodus generation, and the death of Moses. This promise, therefore, is the “guiding force” for the narratives of the Pentateuch and is always either explicitly or implicitly in the text, and should be interpreted as YHWH’s promise to make Israel a nation, which includes land and progeny.

As Baden delves into the promise texts within J, E, and P, he discusses their versions of the promise texts complete with distinct perspectives, themes, and emphases. For example, P’s promise texts each use ברית; contain the phrase be fruitful and multiply; the patriarchs are called גוי; they contain a connection between family and promise; they note that the fathers’ progeny will be a multitude of nations and kings; and the giving of the promise results in the change of the patriarch’s name (p. 104). J’s are directed to the patriarch alone, are always contextual (p. 119), emphasis is on the land, and there is a concern about the nations that surround Israel (Gen 26:3, 12, 24, 28, 29; 33:1; 34:30; 46:31-34) (p. 114). Finally, E’s promise contains the phrase “fear not” as the introduction to the promise (Gen 15:1; 21:17; 46:3), and is refers to Egypt (Gen 15:13-16; 46:3-4), for the promise texts in E anticipate and predict Israel’s time there (Genesis 15; 46), which functions to give identity to God’s people (Exod 20:23-23:33; 19:5; 22:20; 23:9; 23:15) (pp. 124-25).

Like the author of Hebrews, time would fail me to tell you more about this fantastic work. In sum, it is careful, thorough, concise, well articulated, and Baden’s method is economic, taking into account the most data with the fewest outliers. Most laudable is his close attention to the text of the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of the promise that I wish Baden would have addressed. First, what is the socio-historical context for the formation and accentuation of the promise texts? Was their political influence in their formation? What is the relationship, if any, of the promise texts to the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah in the south? Second, how do these promise texts related to other literature within the HB? For example, how does J’s promise text relate to Second Isaiah? How does P’s promise text relate to Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah? Although Baden’s methodology precludes him from addressing these questions, his work is a must read for any one working on the promise texts of the Pentateuch, the narrative of Genesis, and I would say Paul.















Going Through Hell is Finally Published

I am happy to say that after three long years, my latest article, “Going Through Hell; ΤΑΡΤΑΡΟΣ in the Greco-Roman Culture, Second Temple Judaism, and Philo of Alexandria,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 4 (2013): 352-78 [click the hyperlinked title to gain access the article], has finally been published.

In the article, I question the long-standing assumption that a divided afterlife with rewards for the righteous and punishment for wicked developed during the Persian period. On the contrary, my thesis is that Second Temple Jews, especially Philo of Alexandria, are indebted to Graeco-Roman culture and not the Bible for the theological concept of postmortem punishment for the wicked.

Scripted Prayers in Civic Religion and the Gospel of Matthew

While this blog is dedicated to studying Paul in his Graeco-Roman context, since I have lived all semester with Matthew, I felt the need to address one grave error that is popular among Matthean scholarship.

One of the things Matthew constantly disparages throughout his Gospel is pagan mores. Readers of the First Gospel are encouraged to love their enemies and thus not be like Gentiles (Matt 5:47), they are not to seek after the necessities of life like the non-Jewish nations (Matt 6:31-21), and anyone excommunicated from the churches of which Matthew was a part was considered a Gentile (Matt 18:17). Not only does Matthew belittle Gentile customs, but also he disdains the way in which the non-Jewish nations pray. Hence, Matthew’s audience is specifically instructed not pray like them: “When you pray, do not βατταλογέω like the Gentiles, for they suppose that with their many words they will be heard” (Matt 6:7; translation mine).

Most commentators suggest the Greek term βατταλογέω means to stammer non-sensically and they surmise that Matthew condemns pagans for their unintelligible prayers to their deities (cf. Sim, “Attitude to Gentiles,” 177; Luz, Matthew 1-7, 1.305; France, Matthew, 240-41; Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 1.588)

The difficulty with interpreting this verse is that not only is βατταλογέω a hapax legomenon (i.e., it appears only one time) in the NT, but also βατταλογέω is a rare term in the broader Graeco-Roman world, with the majority of its subsequent uses by authors dependent upon the NT (BDAG, 172; LSJ, 311; MM, 107). As a result, I am suspect of the definition provided by the majority of commentators.

Contrary to popular opinion, I suggest that Matthew’s critique of Gentile prayer accurately reflects the manner in which prayer was offered in civic religion of Matthew’s day.

With regard to prayer in Graeco-Roman religion, Valerie Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 18 notes, “In any kind of prayer, precautions had to be taken to ensure that no error (vitium) might prevent its fulfillment. Formulaic invocations were like passwords that opened communication with the gods. If any mistake in the prayers or the ritual should occur, the gods would not respond to the request.”

This accords well with the polymath Pliny the Elder’s description of prayer in the first century CE:

“In fact the sacrifice of victims without a prayer is supposed to be of no effect; without it too the gods are not thought to be properly consulted. Moreover, there is one form of words for getting favourable omens, another for averting evil, and yet another for a commendation. We see also that chief magistrates have adopted fixed formulas for their prayers (certis precationibus); that to prevent a word’s being omitted or out of place a reader dictates beforehand the prayer from a script; that another attendant is appointed as a guard to keep watch, and yet another is put in charge to maintain a strict silence; that a piper plays so that nothing but the prayer is heard. Remarkable instances of both kinds of interference are on record: cases when the noise of actual ill omens has ruined the prayer, or when a mistaken has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing” (Pliny Hist. Nat. 28.10-11; translation from LCL).

One of the reasons for scripted prayers was the fact that the gods were not mind readers. Because Graeco-Roman religion was founded on the principle of orthopraxy and not orthodoxy, one had to spell out word for word what one wanted from them. It was not that you said something to the gods, but what you said, how you said it, and when you said it that mattered. As Pliny indicates above, there were devastating effects if prayers were not properly offered: “when a mistaken has been made in the prayer itself; then suddenly the head of the liver, or the heart, has disappeared from the entrails, or these have been doubled, while the victim was standing” (For more information see Jean-Louis Durand and John Scheid, “‘Rites’ et ‘religion’. Remarques sur certains préjudgés des historiens de la religion des Grecs et des Romains,” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 85 (1994): 23-43).

In sum, the necessity of the right words at the right time accounts for scripting prayers, which I suggest is what Matthew has in mind with his use of the term βατταλογέω and that Gentiles use numerous words (πολυλογία) as they petition their deities (Matt 6:7).

Contrary to popular Christianizing assumptions not only about Matthew, but also Graeco-Roman religion (cf. Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 210, who suggests Matthew means you do not pray “to manipulate an answer from their deities”), by actually examining the way in which prayer was offered in Matthew’s day, something about which Matthew was indeed familiar, we are able to arrive at a better explanation for Matthew’s condemnation of pagan prayers.



One of the many ways in which the grassroots phenomenon of emperor worship manifested itself in the Roman world was the incorporation of the emperor into the sacred spaces of the Roman world. This inclusion of a living ruler into temples of the gods is predicated upon the manner in which the denizens of the Roman world treated their deities. Since the gods of civic religion were the first citizens of the city, it was only natural for the gods, like the other citizens of the city, to dwell together. As a result, Plutarch (Quaest. conv. 7.6) says that people frequently not only pray to the deity for whom the temple, altar, or shrine was constructed but also they petition the gods who were sharing that particular sacred space with said deity. Consequently, this incorporation of the emperor into the sacred space is evidence to the extent that the denizens treated the emperor as a god and thus believed the living ruler to be divine.

For example, on the Greek island of Cyprus a sanctuary of the island’s patron goddess Aphrodite was re-dedicated in 79/80 CE to include the worship of the living emperor Titus:

Αὐτοκράτορι Τίτωι
Καίσαρι Οὐεσπασιανῷ
Σεβαστῷ καὶ Ἀφροδείτηι
Τόπον ἱερὸν ἀπο-
κατέστησεν τὸν ἐν-
τὸς τῶν στηλῶν
ὄντα Λούκιος Βρούττιος
Μάξιμος ἀνθύματος
ἔτους δευτέρου

“To Imperator Titus Caesar Vespasianus and to the great goddess of Cyprus Aphrodite. In the second year, Lucius Bruttius Maximus, proconsul, restored [this] sacred place confined by the steles” (Amathous no. 3).

From this inscriptions a few observations are evident. First, the emperor was worshipped alongside of the patron goddess of Cyprus. While there may have been a hierarchy in the temple with placement of the cult images of Titus and Aphrodite and Aphrodite may have remained (and probably did remain) the chief deity of the temple, that the emperor was included in the inscription in the same manner as Aphrodite (both Aphrodite’s and Titus’s names are in the dative case) indicates that Titus is in an exalted position and was probably given the same honors as Aphrodite. Thus the living Titus was treated as a god and in the same manner as Aphrodite. Second, although Titus was treated as a god, he is not called one in the inscription. It is possible that since the dedicator is a high-ranking Roman official he has followed Roman protocol and intentionally not referred to the living Titus as a god (cf. Cassius Dio, Rom. Hist. 51.20.6-8). Third, contrary to the manner in which many NT scholars interpret emperor worship, this honor given to the emperor was at the behest of Lucius Bruttius Maximus and not the emperor Titus. Therefore this is evidence of the political, religious, and monetary allegiance that people within the Roman empire gave to the emperor.



One of the biggest problems with studying Paul and the world in which he lived, moved, and had his being is the modern Christian baggage that we bring to the table. When many Protestants read Paul, they read Martin Luther’s and the Reformation’s Paul. Still, others read Paul in light of 2,000 years of Christian doctrine and believe that Paul worked with Chalcedonian and Nicean Christologies (which is clearly false); and that Paul was a Christian. However, Paul never uses the term and if we allow Paul to speak for himself, he says he is an Israelite and a Jew who confesses Jesus as the Messiah.

Notwithstanding our Christian baggage with Paul, we also bring it to the study of his world. In the early 20th century, because they could not fathom humans worshiping other living humans, many dismissed the phenomenon of Roman emperor worship as something devoid of all religious sentimentality. However, since the late 1970s and early 1980s, a turn has occurred in thinking about emperor worship. Many scholars are now aware of their modern Christian biases and the dangers of projecting them back on the Roman world. That is, looking for a similar Christian religious experience in ancient Roman religion. Moreover, noting that Roman religion was a religion of orthopraxy and not orthodoxy and accepting that the religious experience of the ancient Romans and Greeks was fundamentally different than the modern Christian experience, great work is being done in the area of emperor worship.

For example, I just finished Takashi Fujii’s excellent treatment of emperor worship on the island of Cyprus (an island Paul and Barnabas visited on their first missionary journey cf. Acts 13.4-12), Imperial Cult and Imperial Representation in Roman Cyprus (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013). Fujii’s work should be highly praised and read by everyone working on emperor worship, for he shows how different emperor worship could be across the diverse Mediterranean Basin. From his work, two things stuck out to me. First, he concludes that emperor worship on Cyprus differed from emperor worship in Asia Minor in that it “was part of a system that functioned without direct do ut des relationship between the emperor and the Cypriots” (p. 157). Thus: “this fact illuminates one of the most important characteristics of the imperial cult—the provincials venerated the emperor, not because he benefitted them in a direct way (with financial support and political benefaction), but for the very reason that he was the emperor of the Empire to which the provincials belonged” (p. 157). That is, while the denizens of Asia Minor had reason to worship to the emperor because of his continuous beneficence and aid to their cities, the inhabitants of Cyprus did not receive that kind of attention from the emperor. As a result, instead of having a practical reason to worship the emperor, i.e., he constantly provided money, games, buildings, etc. to the island, the Cypriots worshiped the emperor because he was the emperor!

Roman Cyprus is highlighted on the map. Map courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

Roman Cyprus is highlighted on the map. Map courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

This grass roots desire to worship the emperor is evident in my second take away from Fujii’s work. Fujii provides new critical editions and translations of some inscriptions from Cyprus. Four of these inscriptions are a testimony to individuals venerating and worshiping the emperor. First, a Greek inscription evidences that a certain man named Adrastos set up a temple for Tiberius Caesar Augustus in the gymnasium, instituted a hereditary priesthood for it, called himself and his son a “lover of Caesar,” and even called Tiberius his god:

“To divine Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, Imperator, pontifex maximus, holder of the tribunician power 31 times . . . Adrastos, son of Adrastos, lover of Caesar, hereditary priest of the temple and statue of Tiberius Caesar Augustus, which he founded at his own cost in the gymnasium, . . . founded the temple and the statue for his own god at his own expense. . . . Adrastos, son of Adrastos, lover of Caesar, consecrated (them) with his son Adrastos, lover of Caesar, . . . at his own cost, on the birthday of Tiberius . . .” (Lapethos no. 2; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 179-80).

Second, individuals dedicated votive offerings to the emperors. This means that they made vows to the emperors in the same manner they did to the gods and goddesses.

“Onesilos? (dedicated this) to Apollon Kaisar on behalf of his wife Themisphas in fulfillment of a vow. . .” (Kourion no. 7; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 173).

“Polyktetos, son of Timon, potter, (dedicated this) to Apollon Hylates and Apollon Kaisar on behalf of himself in fulfillment of a vow . . .” (Kourion no. 8; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 174).

“Sextus Cornelius Tychikos, having made a vow, (dedicated this) to Apollon Hylates and Apollon Kaisar” (Kourion no. 10; Fujii, Imperial Cult, 174).

Consequently, Fujii’s work is a great example of documenting the actions that individual Cypriots took toward the emperor. Actions that are a window into their beliefs about the divinity of their hegemonic overlords, i.e., to act is to believe in Roman and Greek religion.