I’m taking a week off from the Throwback Thursday books, because there’s so much to say about the texts for this week’s preaching. I’ll focus on the second reading in this post and the next one.
What does it mean to have a god? This is the fundamental question Luther raises in his Large Catechism as he thinks about the First Commandment. “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god,” Luther writes, “is nothing else than to trust and believe in him with our whole heart” (paragraph 2). To have a god, Luther asserts, is to trust someone or something in life and in death. “To cling to him (sic) with all our heart,” Luther later writes, “is nothing else than to entrust ourselves to him (sic) completely” (paragraph 14).
Idolatry, then, is about setting up and maintaining images of divine beings. But more than that, idolatry is an orientation of the heart. “Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it,” Luther writes. “It is primarily in the heart, which pursues other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils.” In having no other gods, Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism, “we are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.”
Luther’s perspective would seem odd to the first century pagan world and spot-on to Paul. Paula Fredricksen gives us some excellent insight into how odd Paul’s monotheistic insistence would be to first century pagans. It’s worth spending time on her three youtube.com lectures, two of which are noted and linked in the “References and Resources” section.
Frederiksen notes that Israelite religion was “aniconic,” that is, representations of God or of other gods were forbidden in the Torah. The prohibition against images, Frederiksen suggests, is not the same as the assertion that other gods do not exist. The existence of the gods of other nations is assumed in a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible, all the while insisting that the God of Israel is supreme, or “highest of the gods.” Some texts in the Hebrew Bible even portray other gods as part of the heavenly council or court.
Once Jews moved into the Diaspora, they had to deal with these other gods on the home turf of those gods. In the Greek translations, the pagan gods are sometimes referred to as “daimonia.” That doesn’t necessarily mean “demons,” as we might now assume. In Greco-Roman understanding, particular, daimonia were lesser gods, gods junior grade, godlets. They were still real and had power and authority in their home territory and among their people. But for the Jews, these other gods were created by and subject to the one God of the Jews.
According to Fredriksen, for first century pagans “the world was full of gods.” She describes the century as “god-congested”! When pagans announced, however, that their particular god was the greatest god, she continues, that was not the same as declaring that the god in question was the only god. Ancient monotheist, she says, understood the gods to be in a hierarchy of power and authority. That hierarchy extended from the highest God to the lowest point in creation in a descending degree of divinity. “Godness, theos, in antiquity,” Fredriksen notes, “was a fluid idea.”
In particular, we should note that Roman emperors were considered first “sons of god,” and then later themselves “gods” (first, after death and then later during their earthly lives). This can be seen on Roman coinage, statuary, cameos, and in documentary evidence. This doesn’t mean that emperors displaced the “higher” Roman gods in the imperial pantheon. Instead, the emperors simply took a place in that pantheon higher than any other human beings. So, the divine status of the emperors simply reflected their status on earth in relationship to other humans.
This matters in part because a major assertion in the New Testament is that Jesus is “Lord,” and Caesar is not. This is a contested and even dangerous political claim that could result in persecution of Christians by local and/or imperial authorities. We see some of this described in Acts and Revelation. It is described in Paul’s writing as well.
Fredriksen points to Paul’s own words, including here in 1 Corinthians 8, that point to the existence of other gods. (Gal 4:8-9 1 Cor 2:8 1 Cor 10:20-21 1 Cor 15 24-27 Phil 2:10 Rom 8:38). She notes that Paul does not expect Jesus to destroy all these other gods. Paul expects that Jesus will triumph over them and make them fall into line. So, in Philippians 2, every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. That conquest shall impact all who are above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth. So, Jesus’ victory (in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Final Coming) will bring order and justice to every part of the cosmos, both mortal and divine, both material and spiritual.
Fredriksen suggests that “gods are in the blood.” In antiquity, gods and humans formed kinship groups. Gods were the senior members of the group, but divine beings and their people were members of the same family. Those families were anchored to specific places as well as specific peoples. Like modern politics, most ancient religions were local. Gods were authoritative on their own territory and with their own kinship groups. If those gods strayed from their home territory, they sometimes acted as hostile invaders (just like their people). At the least, gods wandered with their people and up against other divine beings and their families.
Ancient and modern paganism associate gods with “blood and soil.” If that reference makes you squirm, I’m glad. That is one of the slogans of the Nazis in twentieth-century Germany. No matter how the Nazis sought to claim and co-opt Christianity (and no matter how successful they were in that project), the National Socialist worldview was essentially pagan rather than Christian in any orthodox sense. The Nazis worshipped the gods of blood and soil, people and place. As the movement developed, that essential paganism became more public and pronounced. Too late, many German Christians discovered that their national religion regarded Hitler as Lord rather than Jesus. But I digress.
In the Roman empire and other ancient empires, Fredriksen notes, gods bumped up against one another as their people moved from place to place. Empires would not tolerate “religious wars,” and for most people such conflicts were not necessary. Gods could follow their people but didn’t need to claim another god’s territory. In the Roman empire there wasn’t so much religious tolerance as there was divine peaceful coexistence. “A sensible display of courtesy towards the gods of others,” Fredriksen says, went far toward maintaining social peace.”
Since gods didn’t demand exclusive allegiance, they weren’t in competition with one another. “Practical pluralism prevailed,” Fredriksen alliteratively asserts. But the gods didn’t appreciate it when gods poached family members from one another. Ethnic gods were in the blood. Even the God of Israel seems to be Jewish, without a desire to steal sheep from other flocks. Therefore, no matter how odd the Jews seemed to their pagan neighbors, the Roman Empire could allow a Jewish exception to a number of rules and laws because for the most part the Jews stuck to the religious rules.
Christians declare that God is not limited to one nation but is transnational. Christians declare that God takes in converts from other nations and calls them to be exclusive with God – the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This God is highest god, the only one deserving of worship (see the First Commandment). So, Christians cannot be good citizens of the Empire in the same way that other religious people could be. This will take us to the problem of eating meat offered to idols, that is, divine beings who no longer deserve that worship. Christians cannot be promiscuous in their religion, in their diets, or in their sex lives (all items address in First Corinthians).
The chaos of divinity in the first century, then, is the milieu in which Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians. As I noted earlier, I think that Paul and Luther would have understood one another better than Paul’s pagan neighbors would have understood him. Every sin, Luther said, is a sin against the First Commandment. That is, every sin can be resolved into some form of idolatry. And idolatry, as N. T. Wright suggests, is the source of human evil in the Jewish analysis.
More on this text in the next post.
References and Resources
Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”
“GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0
“GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.
Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.
Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.