Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Part of what has been keeping me off the blogosphere has been a collection of issues such as illness (two bad colds in quick succession), the SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) Annual Meetings and Thanksgiving. This is enough to grind writing for a blog to a standstill, but there is still another issue: academic writing. Sometimes the demands of my actual job overwhelm the demands of a blog, even one as closely aligned with my work in the classroom and my research goals. I have some December deadlines to meet for articles and a conference paper, and one November deadline just met, which have pushed my blog writing to the side. I am not telling you this to complain, but to share some of the fruits of these labors, namely, two of the excellent books I have read in carrying out my research.

First, I read Michael Peppard's book The Son of God in the Roman World: Divine Sonship in its Social and Political Context. It is cutting edge scholarship, but also very readable. Peppard proposes that the term "son of God"in the Gospels (particularly the Gospel of Mark), which has some significant influences through Judaism (Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7:14), might be influenced as well by the language of divine adoptive sonship through the Roman imperial cult. It is a fascinating claim, though it has scholarly precedent (The Priene Inscription has been noted as a possible significant influence on Mark's Gospel for some time), but Peppard really pushes the evidence to see where such a claim might take us. The evidence he amasses is plausible and the notion of "adoption" of the Son in early Christianity is given a new twist and flavor, not as a way of reviving ancient claims of "adoptionism," but for understanding the high claims of adoption in Roman society and what it meant to claim that an Emperor was "adopted" by God. The possible impact of these understandings on the portrait of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is fascinating.

Second, I read Kyle Harper's book From Sin to Shame: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in late Antiquity. This is a terrifically ambitious book, tracing the place of sex in the Roman Empire prior to and on the cusp of the rise of the Christian Church until the 6th century CE and the Christianization of the role of sex not just within the Church but within the Empire and its legal codes. Harper has a clear eye for the reality of sex in the Roman Empire, which served the needs of free Roman male citizens through household slavery and enslaved prostitutes. It was not a cheery, happy -go-lucky erotic world in which everyone enjoyed themselves equally; the sexual world was grounded on force and coercion for most people. That is certainly not the whole story, naturally, the sexual world was far more complex than that, but it does give a fair flavor.

The turn to Christianity, though, turned the social world and a myriad of social and political realities dependent upon its balance upside down. While sex in marriage had always been valued by freeborn Romans, especially for procreative purposes, the other means of sexual behavior which had been licit (especially one has to say for men as part of a deeply embedded double standard) came to be seen as sinful. While this impacted the Church initially, and those negotiating the Roman and the Christian worlds simultaneously, as the Church grew in late antiquity and began to take a fundamental role in influencing the culture itself, sex which had been acceptable was now seen as sinful and impermissible for the larger culture. Some of this, I must say, was positive, such as harsh penalties for pederasty and even an acknowledgement in later antiquity that force and slavery were at the heart of the sex trade.

The problem, and this will be dealt with in more detail in a later post, is that sex itself came to be seen as the enemy, barely to be accepted or licit even within marriage. Same-sex desire could find no acceptance and Harper shows the brutal treatment some faced at the hands of civil authorities as the Church's teaching aligned with the civil law. It is a successful book and I should mention that Harper does something unique by tracing sexual attitudes not just via theologians and law codes, but by looking at ancient novels, and Christian monastic, martyrdom and other stories. He also sets the whole discussion in the context of the turn from pagan determinism to Christian free will and its impact on how sex came to be not a fact of human social life, dependent upon one's place in the social order, but one's choices. It was not so much about shame and honor, but the human will and human choice. That, too, is another story.

Both of these books are accessible, I think, to an audience that is unversed in these areas if they are willing to put in the time to read the footnotes and to move carefully while they read. The prose is not cluttered in either book and the Greek is transliterated in both books. Both books are also affordable and at least Harper's book is available on Kindle. Last comment? Both of these are young scholars and this speaks volumes for the good state of biblical studies.

You can follow Michael Peppard on Twitter @MichaelPeppard and Kyle Harper @Oklahomaharper.

John W. Martens
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