14 May 2013

God’s Christ in Roman Asia: A Review of Richard Oster’s Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Books, Church, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Jesus, Revelation, Richard Oster

A person is often identified as a fool for entering waters he or she knows nothing about. That could very well be the case here.  I am not a scholar by any means, much less a scholar on on the book of Revelation, Roman Asia or the various issues surrounding the hermeneutics of that mysterious book. But N. T. Wright is not Bob Dylan either, yet decides to pick a guitar and sing (I do too) so perhaps I can slide by.

Revelation is one of those books, for better or for worse, that has always been on the select list of favorites in the Bobby V “canon within a canon” (Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Job, Psalms, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes,  Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Habakkuk, Tobit, Sirach, Prayer of Manasseh, Matthew, Romans, Ephesians, 1 Peter, Revelation)  I took an undergrad Revelation course with David Underwood back at Heritage Christian University and later one of my first grad courses with Dr. John Harrison (now at Oklahoma Christian University) while I lived in New Orleans. Recently one of my profs, Dr. Richard Oster (multiple courses), published a commentary on Revelation 1-3.  I will follow the basic IDeA (Identify, Describe, Assess) format that professor Carisse Berryhill encouraged us to use back at Harding School of Theology.

Reading Seven Congregations

Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible: A Commentary on Revelation 1-3 (Wipf and Stock, 2013) is the fruit of Dr. Oster’s mature scholarship.  Oster is widely recognized as an authority on Christianity in Asia Minor, Artemis, numismatic windows on the NT, he often corrects scholars not as grounded in the soil of history and, for former students, he is the master of all footnotes.

Seven Congregations covers the “Seven Churches,” or the first three chapters, of Revelation in  two
hundred and seventy-six pages covering ten chapters and three appendices. The commentary is supplemented with one hundred “figures” most of which are photographs of illustrative coins, monumental architecture and iconography (more on these below).

Chapter one, the Introduction, is the longest being forty-eight pages.  Rather than beginning with the ubiquitous discussions of authorship, date, and genre, Oster begins by noting the cultural influence of Revelation on such diverse people as Columbus, Luther and Newton. Further in the Introduction space is devoted to needed corrections of popular misunderstandings of the book (i.e. Antichrist, 1000 yr reign, rapture).  Believing that these concerns are foisted upon John’s Revelation rather than mined out it. Oster offers his interpretive methodology that follows in large measure the historical-critical method of coming “within earshot” of John’s authorial intent (p.6).  Oster could have quoted Alexander Campbell’s seven rules for coming within “understanding distance” of the biblical author.

Oster is open to seeing a canonical (he does not use that word) coherence between the Revelation and the rest of the Story of God.  As I read through Seven Congregations twice, and parts more, it became obvious that Oster believes that the foundational bedrock for understanding John is the deep inkwell of the Hebrew Scriptures preserved in their Greek translation in the LXX. I appreciate his not merely citing illuminating texts but quoting them in full most of the time.   Second is the wider Second Temple literature of Judaism which would include the rest of the LXX not in the Masoretic Hebrew canon (Apocrypha), the Dead Sea Scrolls and some Pseudepigraphal materials. Finally the wider Greco-Roman culture is significant for understanding the text.  Oster is lavish in his quotations and references to all of these sources. This is one of the great strengths of Seven Congregations.

Probably one of the most interesting parts of the Introduction for the contemporary reader unfamiliar with the Roman world is the discussion of what Dr. Oster calls “fictive globalism.”  The ancients did not think the world was flat and frequently depicted the earth as a sphere in art and monumental architecture. I believe this imagery is part of Roma’s self proclamation and self promotion … a Roman “Gospel” if you will.  Dr. Oster clearly shows that the language is not necessarily literal in intent thus John when he uses it does not necessarily mean the entire planet  (pp. 27-43 and Appendix C). This lengthy discussion highlights the value of the historical background of the book for understanding and points out  what is often simply ignored in many approaches to the book, even by NT scholars.  (The Romans, btw, did not believe they literally ruled the entire globe, though their ideology proclaims that. Nor did the Romans believe the world was flat. And it will probably surprise a good number of people that the Empire had established sea trade routes with the civilizations of Asia).

Chapter two reveals to us that the Seven Congregations is really about God’s Christ in Roman Asia and not simply the churches. While we learn that John is a prophet (he may or may not be the Apostle) in the spirit of the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the focus is upon the Christ of God who has a counter claim to Rome and demands exclusive covenant loyalty. There is a two fold thrust of the sword of Jesus.  The message of Revelation is “insider language,” that is, it is intended for believers or Christians.  Thus the one side of the sword cuts at the claims of the fake Caesar and his idolatrous claims and the other side functions as a frightening warning to believers who have sought some kind of accommodation with the Roman Gospel. The Jesus revealed in Revelation 1 demands discipleship … perhaps he was not kidding about taking up a cross and following him (Oster does not make that comparison but I think it fits with his exposition). The audience or hearers of John’s Revelation are not new converts as may often be assumed.  Rather some of them may be up to third generation members of the Christian movement. Oster makes the fascinating reference to the “grandparents” of the Laodicean disciples reading Paul’s letter to the Colossians (p.185).  Perhaps this helps explain why Jesus does not talk to these believers as if they are mere babes in the faith.

Perhaps one of the most important interpretive contributions Oster makes here is the emphasis on the Christophany, or appearing of Jesus, in 1.12-18 (pp. 72-89).  A basic suggestion (the rule of context) of reading the book from front to back, beginning to end, means that the Churches in chapters 2-3 hear, and see, THAT Jesus speaking to them not the slain Lamb who is not introduced until chapter 5.  This picture of Jesus is woven into all of the Letters except Laodicea, the last, and most condemned, congregation (pp.184-185). The Jesus knocking at the door waiting to have a gracious fellowship dinner (Rev 3.20) is the frightening Christ of God that made John fall down as if he was dead! Maybe that is why they did not open the door.

Perhaps John begins with this frightening, even militaristic, picture of Jesus to the Seven Congregations because judgment begins with the household of God and not the world. And that is what Jesus does with these congregations he demands that they repent from selling out to the Roman Gospel.

Another especially enlightening feature of Seven Congregations is Oster’s discussion of the “synagogue of Satan” and “Jews who are not Jews.”  His exposition, solidly rooted in the earthiness of the late first century and not contemporary political sensitivities, brings to light the complex matrix of Jewish opposition to the nascent Jesus movement and its collusion with pagan power structures of the time. He likewise shows how this language is hardly anti-semitic within its historical setting showing that the question of who was a “real” Jew was a burning question for Jews of all strips after the Fall of Jerusalem and  perhaps even dating from the crises of the Maccabees (see pp. 118-125 and pops up in other places as well).  For more on Jewish “bashing” of Jesus and Christians see the recent study by Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 2009). John’s criticism of the “synagogue of Satan” and “those who claim to be Jews but are not”almost certainly implies that he sees himself and the followers of Jesus as the true synagogue and therefore are the true Jews (the word “Christian” never occurs in Revelation).  Far from being anti-Jewish he is, in his mind (it seems to me), pro-Jewish.  The warfare between ethnic Jews and emerging Rabbinic Judaism and the Jesus Movement that was (again in my view) akin to the Hatfields and McCoys … so deadly precisely because of the family ties. The scars of this battle probably shape Christianity, as we know it, as much as anything in the “New Testament” itself.  Oskar Skarsaune traces both the inter-change and the conflict that shaped Christianity in his rich work, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity pp 209-276. This whole book should be required reading for every serious Bible student and editor(s) of the Gospel Advocate ;-)).

A unique feature of Seven Congregations, at least among the commentaries known to me, is the wealth of photographs and illustrations from the largely unknown wider Greco-Roman world. I love this feature.  It reminds me of Othmar Keel’s groundbreaking work The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms.  This book has not left my desk in probably ten years. The “material culture” of Rome opens up powerful windows of understanding into John’s world and early Christianity (see the use of Pompeii as a historical laboratory for hearing Romans as a mid-first century Roman in Peter Oaks Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level.  Here Oaks reconstructs the people who likely read the epistle from information known from Pompeii). From these kinds of remains we learn that divine rulers (like the fake Caesar) were often presented with rays of light emanating from around their head or body (John’s uses this to communicate a direct challenge to Roma). Or that the number seven was regarded as divine by nearly everyone. And that temples just might have pillars in the shape of human beings. Likewise material remains document the influence of Judaism in Roman Asia to the extent that even some coins were minted with Noah and his wife on them.  Some of the illustrations present information that has never been presented to students of Revelation before and are thus of even more value (Figure 97 for example).

The illustrations are unevenly distributed through Seven Congregations.  The Introduction and chapters 4 & 5 are the most lavishly graced.  Chapters 7-10 have far fewer basically one or two each.  The photographs, most of which are taken by Dr. Oster himself during his travels to the sites, are reproduced well.  The details we need to see are clearly visible (sometimes not the case in books reproducing photos).  All the photographs are in black and white in the Commentary, however, Dr. Oster is making them available in color at this location: Color Photos for Seven Congregations. See this link as well: Color Photos for Seven Congregations in Roman Crucible.

Seven Congregations pulls the reader into hearing Jesus’ call for discipleship.  Some of these calls are quite challenging for the contemporary American church. The Prophet John, after all, was not interested in producing a work of scholarship but in conveying the message of the “one I saw like a Son of Man” to God’s people caught in a dangerous crucible. Assimilation is a constant threat and ever a challenge for American Christianity just as it was in Rome.  In many ways the USA is just as idolatrous as Rome and every bit as enticing to those who live in her and off of her.  It is not referred to as the American Empire for nothing. The Jesus of Revelation is not simply counter cultural  when it comes to Roman culture but he is as radically as counter cultural when it comes to present Evangelical church culture. Thus we read in Oster,

From first to last the Christ of Revelation is an ecclesiastical Jesus, a Jesus for the congregations of God … the Jesus Christ that John knows and proclaims is one for the collective people of God, the congregations of Roman Asia … Christianity outside the 10/40 Window would do well to abandon some of its individualism, perhaps repent, and confess that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” (p. 89).

Other than the fact that some readers will not know what the 10/40 Window refers too, this flies in face of so much that passes for “Christianity” in North America. (The 10/40 Window refers to North Africa through the Middle East and across Asia or between 10 and 40 degrees north of the Equator. Luis Bush coined the term in 1990).

God’s Christ in Roman Asia does not like “cultural Christians.”  One can not be a “Christian” in the privacy of one’s own home but not in the marketplace.  Those who have thus made their peace with Roma are commanded, even demanded, to repent or else (p. 142f).

Finally Oster deals with the issue of crises for John in Appendix A.  Though Leonard Thompson comes in for censure the criticism could be leveled at a number of recent scholars like Adela Yarbro Collins, Crisis & Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (my intro to that line of thinking). The claim is that John’s crises was not rooted in reality for there was no official or sustained Roman persecution of Christians. But Oster demonstrates this is a simplistic reading of the evidence.  While there really was no Empire sanctioned pogrom one is grossly naive to think that no suffering occurred. This is a needed corrective (pp. 199-204).

Reflections and Assessment

I have often called Revelation the Bible’s Disney’s Fantasia on steroids. My view was strengthened years ago after I read the small, but enlightening, book by James Charlesworth called How Barisat Bellowed: Folklore, Humor, and Iconography in the Jewish Apocalypses and the Apocalypse of John (Bibal 1998).  Reading Revelation is a full sensory experience and it was intended (I believe) to be so. Oster notes that Revelation “strongly appeals to the senses” (p. 76).  Thus I would have liked to see some extended discussion, perhaps an appendix, on how the intention of the author to have his message heard (not simply read silently in our minds) and experienced in the context of corporate worship affects the use of symbolism. Is it possible that not every detail of a symbol has a specific meaning but contributes to the “experience” of the vision? Fantasia shows the modern American the emotive power of symbols even without the need of any explanation of them. Do the symbols make fun of (Charlesworth’s humor) of Roman power and thus defang the potency of Roman imperial propaganda? How does that oral environment impact meaning (see Paul Achtemeier’s “OMNE VERBUM SONAT: The  New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity” Journal of Biblical Language 109/1 [1990] 3-27).

Dr. Oster has a very helpful overview of the Seven Letters (pp. 90-93). Here we note recurring elements in the letters and interconnections with the end of the book itself. While he confesses “This commentary assumes a holistic approach to the entire Revelation of John and to the seven letters and their integration with the remainder of the book” (p. 93). To this I am in one accord.  What remains unclear to me, however, is how the letters, and their themes, are in fact integrated into the rest of the book except the final two chapters.  I have in the past simply argued that the “apocalypse” of John does not really start until John is carried in the Spirit to the door of heaven (4.1-2) without necessarily grasping just how these parts of the book are interrelated. Perhaps in volume 2 Dr. Oster plans to provide a structural outline that helps in seeing the flow of the Revelation and the intertextuality of chapters 1-3 and 4-22.

Dr. Oster references two important artifacts from the wider culture, the bilingual inscription at the Temple of (Roma) Augusta in Ankyra Turkey and the Oracle of the Potter.  You can’t have everything want the Rolling Stones sang, but it might be helpful to readers to have some insight into the content of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti.As I see it, this large inscription is the essential Gospel of Roma.  It is the public persona that Rome wanted the world to believe about itself. Rome is the very image of Virtue, Clemency, Justice, and Piety.  The text reads

When in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and P. Quintilius I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul after settling the affairs of those provinces with success, the senate, to commemorate my return, ordered an altar to Pax Augusta to be consecrated in the Campus Martius, at which it decreed that the magistrates, priests, and Vestal Virgins should celebrate an anniversary sacrifice.

Whereas our ancestors have willed that the gateway of Janus Quininus should be shut, whenever victorious peace is secured by sea and by land throughout the empire of the Roman people, and whereas before my birth twice only in all is it on record that the gateway has been shut, three times under my principate has the Senate decreed that it should be shut.

After my victory I replaced in the temples of all the communities of the province of Asia the ornaments which my adversary [i.e. Mark Antony] in the war had, after despoiling the temples, taken into his own possession.

The whole of Italy of its own free will took the oath of fidelity to me, and demanded me as its leader in the war of which Actium was the crowning victory. An oath was also taken to the same effect by the provinces of Gaul, Spain, Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia.

I extended the frontiers of all the provinces of the Roman people, which had as neighbors races not obedient to our empire. I restored peace to all the provinces of Gaul and Spain and to Germany, to all that region washed by the Ocean from Gades to the mouth of the Elbe.

Peace too I caused to be established in the Alps from the region nearest to the Hadriatic as far as the Tuscan sea, while no tribe was wantonly attacked by war.”

In my sixth and seventh consulships, after I had extinguished the civil wars, having been put in supreme possession of the whole empire by the universal consent of all, I transferred the republic from my own power into the free control of the Senate and Roman people.” 

For the which service I received the appellation of Augustus by decree of the Senate, and the door-posts of my house were publicly decked with laurel leaves; the civic crown was fixed up above my gate, and a golden shield set up in the Julian senate-house, which, as its inscription testifies, was granted to me by the Senate and Roman people to commemorate my virtue, clemency, justice, and piety.

The Roman Gospel … Virtue, Clemency, Justice, and Piety.  Roma did not have a self image problem.  Now contrast that with Revelation 17’s “unveiling” of the true Rome.  Here is a direct challenge to the Roman Gospel from the Christian Gospel.

I have some lingering questions that may be helpfully answered in the next volume of Dr. Oster’s commentary.  I agree that the Christophany is the controlling image of Jesus for the churches.  I also agree that this image is one that might even justly called frightening  (it did John). But this frightening Jesus tells John “do not be afraid” (1.17).  Some how the awe inspiring (indeed frightening) Christophany (like the theophanies in the Hebrew Scriptures, cf. Hab 3) are intertwined with the assurance that Jesus is still on our side.  Perhaps in a future volume Dr Oster can add some material on this point.  Related to this is the emphasis on Royal-Davidic Christology and its relation to the Lamb Christology.  What is it? There is, in my view, no doubt that the Lamb is very much woven into the structure of the Rev 5-22.  How can we affirm both? How are they interrelated? Does one interpret the other? The next volume will likely address this issue.

One last Reflection, and none of these are real criticisms but more like my wishes, has a missional thrust.  Much of the book of Revelation is anti-assimilationist and Dr. Oster brings this out forcefully at times. What might resisting the intoxicating culture look like today? John himself uses cultural idioms to convey his message of resisting the culture.  Is resistance limited to morality and meat sacrificed to idols? Probably not.  Is resistance based upon the pagan nature of the culture? Daniel is a very anti-assimilationist document as well yet the hero and his compatriots “seek the welfare of the city” to use Jeremiah’s words.  So I would have really profited from a mini-theology of cultural resistance from Revelation (another Appendix!!). We are culturally enmeshed and sometimes it may be difficult for American Christians to know when their Americanism ends and their Christianity begins and sometimes we baptize the former and forget the latter.  So some guidance from a genuine NT scholar could prove helpful.  Books like Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder offer some challenging guidance but Horsley does not interact with Revelation even once.
Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible should be required reading for anyone studying that book and even late first century Christianity in general.  You will have a much firmer grasp on the realities of early Christianity and its struggles and thus also on our own. Dr. Oster succeeds in bringing us within “understanding distance” of John’s audible vision.
Well I think I have probably worn out my welcome so I will bring these Stoned-Campbell musings to an end.
Tolle Lege & Shalom.

One Response to “God’s Christ in Roman Asia: A Review of Richard Oster’s Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible”

  1. Michael Summers Says:

    Thank you for an insightful review.

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