Extra-Biblical Literature in the Orthodox Church

This blog has often, and will continue to, make reference to extra-Biblical literature.  The two most important categories of this literature are Second Temple Jewish literature and early Christian writings such as the Apostolic Fathers.  Second Temple Jewish literature reveals to us the religious world and mindset of the first century AD from which Christianity emerged.  It shows us the theological lens through which the apostles understood the revelation which came in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Apostolic Fathers, and the Fathers of the second and third centuries as well, in particular, show us the continuity with, and transformation of, Second Temple Judaism that came to constitute the Christian religion.  Not only is the New Testament rife with allusions…

4 Maccabees: Martyrdom and Reason

As is the case with 4 Ezra, 4 Maccabees is a Biblical text that lies at the very edges of the Old Testament canon in the Orthodox Church.   In later Greek manuscripts, 4 Maccabees is included in an appendix.  In older Greek manuscripts no such distinction is made, though 4 Maccabees is often found at the end of these manuscripts rather than following 3 Maccabees, along with Psalm 151 and the Prayer of Manasseh, two liturgical fragments.  It is present in Old Georgian Old Testaments and was for a time, though no longer, in the Romanian Old Testament.  Due to their relegation to the ‘apocrypha’ in most English Bibles, 1-3 Maccabees are not well known to most English readers. …

Chosen to Bear Fruit

Though it may at first seem counterintuitive, the most important Biblical text for understanding the Christian Gospel as St. Paul proclaims it is the book of Deuteronomy.  The book of Deuteronomy sums up the Torah, the Pentateuch, in presenting the Prophet Moses’ great final sermon to the people of Israel before his death and their entrance into the land promised to their forefathers.  It is, in condensed and pointed form, the covenant document granted by God to his people Israel.  In the ancient world, the type of covenant document, ‘berith’ in Hebrew, which is represented in the Old Testament is a particular type of ancient suzerainty treaty.  When a king conquered a new city or territory and took possession of…

The Election of Israel

In last week’s post, the story of Jacob and Esau and the histories of Israel and Edom, the nations which took their names from the twins, were seen to lies in the background of St. Paul’s discussion of election in Romans 9-11.  The Jewish people, which had been the primary recipient of God’s promises as a birthright, now found itself estranged, in large part, from those promises in favor of the recently redeemed Gentiles who already were coming to represent the great body of the Church.  St. Paul elaborates on the fact that this pattern has happened before in the scriptures, the disastrous effects of allowing this transition to evolve into enmity, and most importantly the blessings that are promised…

Jacob I Have Loved, Esau I Have Hated

The story of twin brothers Jacob and Esau, or Israel and Edom, represents a major portion of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis.  St. Paul returns to this story in his Epistle to the Romans, chapters 9 through 11 in answering a particular situation in the life of the Roman church.  This major passage, separated from its original context in the Epistle to the Romans, the New Testament, and the scriptures as a whole, as well as from its historical context, has become one of the primary bases for an entire stream of Western thought regarding election and its relationship to the salvation of the human person.  In order to properly understand what St. Paul is teaching in the Epistle to…

Here There Be Giants

In recent times, the rediscovery of the original ancient context of Genesis 6:1-4 has led to a fascination with the subject of the ‘Nephilim’, who are here said to be produced through sexual immorality involving angelic beings and human women.  In some quarters, this has been developed into full-fledged conspiracy theories regarding these ‘Nephilim’ still existing in our world today.  Those fascinated by crypto-archaeology produce doctored photos of what they hold to be gigantic human skeletons, the remains of these people.  This near obsession has exploded as a counter to a re-reading of the Genesis and later texts, begun by St. Augustine, which reads these texts in a de-mythologized way, seeing all involved parties as human.  The interpretation of these…

Genesis and “the Fall”

The first eleven chapters of Genesis have long been seen as a literary unit which serves as a sort of prologue to the rest of the book of Genesis, the Torah or Pentateuch, and the whole of the scriptures.  Within these chapters, we read of the creation of the world and of humanity, the expulsion from paradise, the descent of man, the flood of Noah, the descent of the nations, and the tower of Babel.  Theologically, particularly in the Late Antique West, Genesis 3 and the expulsion from paradise became the site of major focus, defined as “the Fall” of man.  Debate began as to what precisely this fall entailed and what it represented.  It was taken primarily as a…

4 Ezra: A Biblical Book You’ve Probably Never Read

In one of the earliest postings on this blog, the difficulty of defining the exact limits of the Old Testament within the many language traditions of the Orthodox Church was described.  Though there is clear agreement on a certain set of books and their authority across all of Orthodox tradition, the exact list of books found in a published Orthodox Bible will largely be a function of the language tradition from which that Bible comes.  Many of the books of the Old Testament which all of the local churches agree are authoritative are not read from publicly in our present liturgical life, which further complicates the issue of the canonicity of certain of those books.  One such text is 4…

Queen and Mother

Recent posts have discussed the divine council of angelic beings which surround the throne of God, the way in which certain individuals in the Old Testament were exalted to join that council, and the way the saints in Christ become members of the divine council, sharing by grace in Christ’s rule over his whole creation.  Within these themes, and the mediatory role of the saints and their patronage, the Theotokos, Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, has a special role, as has been recognized within the Christian faith from the very beginning.  The veneration of the Theotokos in the West developed in ways which ultimately produced Marian dogmas which the Orthodox Church does not recognize.  In response to these developments,…

The Saints in Glory

The word which we commonly read in English translation as ‘saint’ or ‘saints’, derived from the Latin ‘sanctus’, translates the Greek word ‘agios’ (plural ‘agiois’) which is seen constantly in the inscriptions of iconography.  In the New Testament, this word is used to describe both the worshipping community of the church in its sojourn on earth and the ‘dead in Christ’ (cf. Acts 9:13, 32, 41, Rom 1:7, 12:13, 1 Cor 14:33, 2 Cor 9:12, Eph 2:19).  This Greek term is actually the substantive form of the adjective ‘holy’, and could simply be translated ‘holy one’ or ‘holy ones’.  The reason it has traditionally been translated as ‘saints’ is to indicate that by the time of the New Testament, the…