BMCR 2024.06.09

Jesus, Paul, Luke-Acts, and 1 Clement: studies in class, ethnicity, gender, and orientation

, Jesus, Paul, Luke-Acts, and 1 Clement: studies in class, ethnicity, gender, and orientation. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2023. Pp. 382. ISBN 9781532659577.



This volume is a collection of eleven essays, most of which were published in edited volumes or journals between 2016 and 2023. David Balch, 80 at the time of publication and a prolific contributor to New Testament studies, calls this his “final collection of essays” (xi). The book’s extensive title encapsulates the volume’s broad range. The theme that unites them is a focus on a political and social reading of biblical and early Christian texts. For Balch, the New Testament is no parochial text and accordingly its interpretation should not be either. His engagement measures the political dimensions of the writings he examines both in their ancient contexts and their relevance for engaging modern political issues. His interpretations invariably focus on elements of political resistance to imperial power regimes or the ways in which political ideologies shaped New Testament and early Christian writings and their responses, even as he uses such a focus to interrogate modern political systems and policies that dehumanize and marginalize people. The Pax Americana is never far from Balch’s reconstruction of New Testament litigation of the Pax Romana.

Following a poignant autobiographical preface, the introduction orients the collection through a broad discussion of concepts of acculturation and liminality, motifs that implicitly and occasionally explicitly recur through the essays, although overt return to them in the course of discussion would have helped better to form the collection into a unity. Balch’s introduction presents the three concepts and intersects them with sometimes anecdotal accounts of debates and conversations with scholars over many decades. The result is a solid orientation to concepts, but one that at times devolves into reminiscences that scholars not acquainted with Balch and his interlocutors will find quirky. He represents early Christianity and its antecedent traditions monolithically as embodying a liminal period from 63 BCE–312 CE, a situation he claims is attested by martyrdom texts. Accordingly, his answer to the reason why “Christian innovations” and “Christian faith” thrived during the period was because of an “ability to face and to construct meaningful deaths”; to champion “ethnic ‘mixing’/multiethnicity”; “the translation of sacred texts into Greek”; and through “theological and political apologetic” (16-17). We may better ask why one strand of Christ religion flourished rather than a diverse and complex set of beliefs, practices, rituals, and ethics scholars today call “early Christianity” and the ways in which the qualities Balch identifies intersected with a variety of other ones. In fact, the elements Balch identifies monochromatically are in significant tension with his attention to intersectionality, class, and gender, all of which he identifies as critical to an understanding of ancient Christ religion (31-33). Taking those factors into account in addressing questions of the measure of the success or failure of different elements of Christ religion will yield multiple answers.

The first chapter, “Jesus and the Samaritan/Judean Border” weaves in and out of analysis of ancient texts and autobiographical anecdotes. The historical Jesus Balch discovers is one who crossed ethnic boundaries, which has incentivized Balch to urge rejection of construction of modern political boundaries of exclusion (Trump’s border wall, for example, 54). Yet what one notices in the Synoptic tradition is the lack of engagement with non-Jews (the Synoptics can count only one centurion, a demoniac, and a Syrophoenician woman), which is to be explained by logia embarrassing to his later followers, about being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Mt 10:5-6; 15:24). Balch is incorrect that “Jesus’ typical activities of healing and exorcism involved both Judeans and ethnic others” (40, my emphasis). Records of the two engagements with Samaritans (John 4 and Lk 17:16) are surely post-resurrection stories retrojected back into the Jesus’ life. Jesus the temple observant interpreter of Israel’s traditions is striking for a focus on Judeans even if his post-Easter followers moved from his narrower vision to a wider engagement. Even the unredacted Parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:30-36) should not be interpreted as a philo-Samaritan stance but rather as an illustration of how Jesus used a common prejudice against Samaritans to advance his own teaching. The following chapter presents a partial translation of the Epicurean Philodemus of Gadara’s treatises On Wealth and On Household Management, polemics he produced against Cynics. The chapter is connected with work that Balch is best known for from his earlier scholarship on the New Testament Household Codes. He relates the treatises to debates amongst philosophers regarding wealth and poverty and how those debates may inform an understanding of Jesus’ mendicant poverty, in my view a rather far reach.

At the center of the book are three chapters that represent approaches to the New Testament with which Balch is now closely associated, namely his engagement with various forms of Greek and Roman iconography—especially that of Pompeii—in the interpretation and understanding of early Christian literature. The first engages Roman representations of dying Gauls to interpret Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Balch posits but cannot prove his claim that “Greco-Roman imperial mythology and visual representations of ethnic Gauls would have been crucial for ancient readers when they heard Paul address Galatai (Gal 3:1)” (90). As there is nothing to commend this thesis other than Paul’s writing to the Galatians, and certainly nothing in the contents of the letter itself that would make attention to imperial iconography of Gauls an important guide for interpreting the letter, the argument risks becoming circular.

The next chapter engages representations of violence in Pompeian/Roman domestic art as a visual context for interpreting uncontested and contested Pauline letters. As in the preceding chapter, Balch argues that visual culture of the type Pompeian frescoes represent are important for recognizing the kinds of daily images Paul’s audiences saw. He rightly challenges Paul Zanker’s focus on the erotic elements of Pompeian frescoes to point out their violent features and to link that violence with experiences of violence in Roman arenas (Balch argues for widely spread experiences of violent arena spectacles in the Greek east). He investigates ways in which Paul’s Corinthian audience, shaped by their familiarity with violent games, would have resonated with the apostle’s detailed accounts of his hardships (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:8-9; 6:4-10; 11:23-28; 12:10). While Romans viewed the suffering of others as a form of entertainment, Paul, by contrast, encouraged a sense of solidarity with those who suffer and in doing so promoted a Gospel in conflict with imperial ideas. The generation of authors writing in the apostle’s name or in a similar mode after his death (the writers of Colossians and 1 Peter) took a more quietist stance toward the Roman Empire by encouraging Jesus followers to be well thought of by outsiders by conducting themselves according to values enshrined by the New Testament Haustafeln. In this chapter the use of Pompeian art helps to furnish a sense of the ubiquity and celebration of violence amongst the Paul’s Greek-speaking listeners.

The third panel of Balch’s triptych exploration of uses of Greek and Roman iconography to interpret the New Testament focuses on the description in 1 Clem. 6.2 of the martyrdom of female Jesus followers dressed up as Danaids and Dircae playing fatal roles in venationes in the arena. Balch wades into the debate started by Brent Shaw concerning the historicity of Nero’s persecution of Christians (“The Myth of Nero’s Persecution,” JRS 105 [2015]: 73-100) to argue based on ubiquitous imagery of Dirce and references to “fatal charades” of prisoners dressed as characters in Greek and Roman myth in amphitheatre executions, that 1 Clement preserves a memory of their deaths by Nero. The argument, however, could be flipped on its head to argue that such ubiquity makes possible that its description belongs to a retrojection onto the past in the service of contemporary propaganda.

Chapters six to nine turn to explorations of Luke-Acts to argue for connections between the Lukan texts with Greek literature, specifically Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Antiquities. The sixth chapter presents attempts to demonstrate that there are sufficient parallels between Luke’s depiction of Mary and Jesus with that of Veturia and Coriolanus (Dion. Hal., Ant. rom. bk. 8) to hypothesize that the two texts would be in some way associated by ancient audiences. Both Mary and Veturia are suppliant, blessed, rejoice in salvation; experience everlasting fame; celebrate the humbling of the proud and rich and similar reversals. “Some Greek and Roman hearers/readers would have recognized this cluster of terms and associated it with supplication. An author like Luke, concerned with the theological history of Israel and also living in Greco-Roman culture, could have made these associations” (193, my emphasis). Balch fails to move from possibility to probability, but more importantly to identify what kind of reader would have been conversant enough in Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ Roman Antiquities to make these connections. A short chapter thoughtfully reads Mary’s Magnificat (Lk. 1:46b–55) against the backdrop of Roman imperial poverty to draw out its political liberative meanings. Balch assumes that Luke’s depiction is an accurate portrayal of a rural peasant woman eking out a living in a harsh Galilean economy, but it is unclear how rural a text the Gospel of Luke is—its provenance is usually assigned to Ephesus in the late first if not sometime in the second century—.  The degree to which it offers a window onto the agrarian poverty of Roman Palestine is questionable.

Chapter eight again reads Dionysius of Halicarnassus alongside Luke, this time with a view to parallels between Jesus’ Lukan command to renounce all familial ties and pursue his ethical code in single-minded devotion (Lk 14:26) and the pursuit of Rome’s highest ethical values by Augustus, Nero, and Vespasian in imitation of the founder Theseus. Balch identifies some 33 parallels between Luke’s Gospel and Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ foundation story of Rome and argues that this furnishes him with sufficient warrant to see the influence of the latter upon the Gospeller. Many of the parallels seem purely coincidental (divine births; Romulus/Jesus teaching; murders of founders; sun failing at death; bodily epiphanies; wandering colonists/missionaries; and the like). Balch moves on to iconographical parallels between Luke-Acts and representations of Theseus’ abandonment of Ariadne to found Rome to furnish parallels with the Lukan Jesus’ command to leave their family for the Gospel (Lk 14:26) and to argue that through frequent exposure to the story of Theseus, Luke’s audiences would have connected the dots with Jesus’ teaching and would therefore have interpreted Luke’s Gospel as a foundation story. The argument rests to a large degree on the demonstration of literary parallels between Dionysius’ and the Gospeller’s narratives and so suffers from a certain apriorism.

Balch’s next chapter again discovers parallels between the two authors by arguing that both texts frame their histories as biographical foundation stories with a central interest in ethnic groups and their inclusion in the empire/church. Both present biographies of founders and the history of their respective cities and followers’ relationship to it; both quote earlier canonical sources; they write their histories in ways that have direct relevance to contemporary readers; both celebrate expansion through ethnic inclusion. Like Dionysius’ history, Luke-Acts is “political historiography written among ethnic groups (Greeks, Judeans)” (277, Balch’s emphasis), but with the difference that Luke’s historiography is addressed to those conquered by Rome whereas Dionysius’s history is that of the conqueror. Scholars will find here valuable insights for engaging debate concerning Luke-Acts as an apology of the church before Rome or as a polemic against it.

The penultimate tenth chapter focuses on Lutheran debates about the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians and marriage in the 1990s that some will find interesting in charting debates over two decades ago and the importance of ancient ideas about sex and gender in properly understanding Paul’s injunctions against same sex relations. The final chapter engages theories of orality and canonicity through engagement with Werner Kelber’s and Rainer Riesner’s arguments about the same and their debates with each other. The former argued for adaptability in receiving and passing on traditions; the latter that reception and transmission were stable. Following James Sanders, Balch argues that “both adaptability and stability [are] in the canon, that is, in the central life-giving, oral/written stories and traditions repeated and modified by the community both in the crucible of its early formation and also in later crises” (318).

The collection of essays offers a snapshot of the eclectic contribution of David Balch over a long and distinguished career. The heavily footnoted discussions reveal an impressive engagement with New Testament scholars and classicists. Not all will be persuaded of the daring parallels he draws between New Testament texts and classical material, both textual and artistic. Nevertheless, scholars interested in the uses of iconography to interpret biblical texts, alongside those who seek to look beyond Hebrew Bible texts to the Greek and Roman world to understand them, will benefit from this collection. A chief strength of the essays is the way Balch encourages drawing connections between the interpretation of ancient sources and contemporary affairs. Since for Jews and Christians the Bible is both an ancient text and a collection of writings that shape contemporary ethics, Balch’s essays offer incentives to consider how religion and biblical interpretation contributes to reflection on political issues that affect everyone.