James and the ‘Crown of Life’: the crown in the Ancient World.

Image result for ancient victor's crown

James wrote his New Testament epistle to scattered and persecuted Christians struggling to stand firm in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage and challenge them, offering practical wisdom on the outworking of their faith in their lives, the need to endure, and the reality that God changes the believer.

His short letter opens with a section dedicated to facing trials and temptations in God’s strength. He exhorts his readers to cling to spiritual provision (vs16-18) during times of great spiritual challenge and danger (vs13-15). In verse 12, James encourages his readers by looking forward together.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 (NIV)

Blessed are those, writes James, who stand firm under pressure, who keep on in the trials and temptations of life, because at the end of all that is the crown of life. The prize, the goal, the crown of life. James’ words echo Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, where the Apostle speaks of what lies in store for him, and those who are faithful to Christ.

there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing

2 Timothy 4:8

Both writers use the same Greek word to describe this crown – στέφανος – meaning crown, or wreath. And it was a word with majestic implications. Not as the crown of a king or queen as we might imagine today, but far more accessible, though just as noble.

The στέφανος in the Ancient World

The use of στέφανος in the ancient world is widespread, and by the time the New Testament was written, in the first century AD, the word had been used in the context of this crown/wreath for nearly a millennium. Homer (Il. 18.597) spoke of the crowns worn by girls in group dances and in the sixth century BC the Athenian playwright Euripides spoke of men garlanding their heads with wreaths of roses (Hipp. 73f). In the more immediate Roman context, Pliny (Hist. Nat. 18.2.6) records how certain priests, known as the Arvals, wear crowns at festivals, a tradition he suggests was instituted by Romulus himself.

The word then was well established. Indeed, it had far reaching popular connotations. I’ve long been taught that New Testament uses of this word were connected to the crowns given to victors in ancient sporting contests. Such an idea is often suggested alongside citation of 2 Cor 9:25 or 2 Tim 2:5. There is certainly truth in this, and this was a common use of the στέφανος, but the connotations of this word reach far further than just that. James uses the word because it is one with real weight and meaning behind it.

As suggested by some of the citations above, the ancient world attributed such crowns to religious settings. Wreaths or crowns often played roles in cultic celebrations, they were holy dress, worn by priests and linked in many cases directly to the gods.* Crowns extended beyond the priesthood in many cults of the ancient world through processions and feast celebrations. Again the ancient record is littered with references to specific people wearing wreaths and crowns on certain feast days or at certain festivals, in recognition of the god or goddess they worshipped. Such crowns seemed to carry connotations of salvation and protection in the ancient world as well. the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, in one comedy, describes a slave saved from a beating because he was wearing a crown (Pl. 21f), whilst the emperor Tiberius was known to wear laurel wreaths during thunderstorms because of their association with averting lightning (Plin., Hist. Nat. 15.134f).

Wreaths and crowns then, appeared in a myriad of contexts in the ancient world. But of course we must note their link to sporting contests. Victors were crowned with wreaths of olive, at the Olympic Games in Greece, such wreaths were cut from sacred olive trees with a golden sickle. The victor was crowned, and Xenophon (Mem. III.7.1) tells how after the Delphic Games, the victor was lauded in a procession which ended at his house, which was then also crowned in a wreath as an extra show of honour and victory! These crowns were immense honours, a sign of supreme earthly fortune, and often accompanied by rich prizes of gold or olive oil to represent that. To win such a crown was the greatest prize, a sign of quasi-immortality before all mankind.

There is more we could say on the στέφανος. These crowns played roles in the marriage ceremonies of the ancient Roman world, in the honouring of the dead, and in the oracles and Mystic Cults that abounded. But what is clear to see in all of these settings, the στέφανος was a very special prize. It was reserved for special individuals, on certain days or occasions, and carried with it connotations of salvation, glory, victory and completion.

The Στέφανος for James’ Audience

So what then, would this word have meant to the original readers of this letter? What would James’ readers, scattered former Jewish Christians facing intense persecution for their new faith, have made of this particular sentence?

James was telling battered and bruised believers, that no matter what they faced now, when they crossed that finish line, when they ran or stumbled or crawled over the line into the arms of their Saviour, that this crown awaited them.

The στέφανος was holy. It was set apart for specific people and specific contexts. And it was glorious. It embodied hope, victory, status, salvation. James didn’t use the word lightly when describing the prize his readers had in store for them. He knew their earthly experience was tough. Like the athlete sweating it out in the ancient games, or the worker toiling in the sun, longing for the day of rest that came with the next festival. Their στέφανος was a wonderful prize, one that signalled an end to their present suffering, and the awarding of all the good gifts that come with such a prize. But whilst an earthly crown of laurel or olive may fade away, James spoke of the στέφανος of life. Here was a crown that would never perish, spoil or fade. Here was a victory, a celebration, a religious moment that would never end. Here was the ultimate prize. James meant it when he said the one who carries on to that prize is truly blessed!

To a readership struggling under widespread persecution, social ostracism and the everyday sufferings of the ancient world, this crown of life must have leapt off of the page. An unimaginable prize described in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly exhilarating way.

What about Us?

James wrote to encourage suffering believers to keep on, to lean on their Father, to live out their faith practically and well in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage them to press on in the trials of life towards a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade. He wrote to encourage them towards their reward: the crown of life. His message rings true for us today. In a world where life can bear down on us, sufferings closing in from all around, and persecution for our faith can take many forms, James holds out the crown of life.

This στέφανος was a picture of the ultimate prize. A picture of rest from toil and struggle. A picture of a great and glorious reward after a bitter and long contest. A picture of victory. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that that same crown is held out to us today. The Gospel promises eternal life, eternal rest, eternal victory. Christ makes us heirs and coheirs of eternity. In Him, the Christian who endures is given a great and glorious rest, with Him for all eternity. And wonderfully, the Gospel promises (Romans 8:39) that God will keep his saints keeping on. The ultimate prize is there for the believer who perseveres. So lean on your Father, hide yourself in Him, and keep on until we claim the prize: an eternity with the God we love.

*Take for example Dionysus. Ivy was a sign of this god, and Euripides describes how the followers of Dionysus wear crowns of woven ivy in worship of him, signifying a fellowship of life and death (Bacc. 177)

Book review. Dirk Jongkind: An Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge.

An Introduction to the Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale ...

Alongside the release last year of their Greek New Testament, Tyndale House also produced an introduction to their edition, written by one of the editors of this critical approach to constructing a New Testament as close to the Greek original as humanly possible, given the available evidence. Dirk Jongkind and Peter Williams have produced an authentic and complete New Testament edition, which engages with a wide variety of source manuscripts and asks questions of popular understandings of key words, phrases and verses.

It was to Dirk Jongkind that the task of penning the introduction to this edition fell, and his Introduction is a gentle and clear editorial defence of their work.

Jongkind’s Introduction is an engaging read, illustrating the enormity of the task that the editors faced, accepting the challenges with which they engaged, and explaining their methodology and process through simple, short sections and worked examples. Throughout the short book, Jongkind’s scholarly background is of course evident, but this is wonderfully paired with a pastoral sensitivity towards the subject matter.

The Introduction to the THGNT acts as a helpful introduction to the discipline of textual criticism, as well as the challenge of textual transmission through the long manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament. Any translation of an ancient work is in impressive undertaking, but as this Introduction shows, the problems facing the translators of ancient works are multiplied when dealing with Scripture.

This reviewer found several key themes recurring throughout Jongkind’s book, and I’d like to briefly dwell on them now.

Methodological Introduction

As mentioned above, Jongkind’s work engages with scholarly practice in an accessible way. As he explores the manuscript history of the texts of the New Testament, the author illustrates the challenges facing the editors of this new edition. His ready engagement with the key concepts of textual theory and translation rarely strays into an over-complication, and his use of examples allows challenging issues to be understood in just a few lines. Issues such as copying errors, manuscript traditions and the impact of a decentralising Early Church are addressed, and Jongkind presents a considered approach to dealing with them.

Through his sixth chapter ‘How Decisions Were Made’, Jongkind walks the reader through an overview of the editorial approach in this project. From scribal activity, to manuscript groupings and ecclesiastical influences, Jongkind explains the rationale behind decisions made. Again, often complex ideas are simply presented. Considering (67) a “much quoted text-critical rule…[that] ‘the more difficult reading is to be preferred to the easy reading’ (lectio difficilior potior, literally ‘the more difficult reading is the stronger one’),” Jongkind brings up questions behind the phrase, distilling them into one: what is the most difficult reading? This simplification allows Jongkind to explain the role such a rule can play in textual criticism. (68) “Still, the rule points toward the need to weigh possibilities.” This is but one example in how Jongkind navigates the presentation of complex methodology in a helpful, simple and informative way.

Jongkind also addresses the reasons why the THGNT differs from traditionally favoured Greek texts: the so called Textus Receptus and the Byzantine Text. Devoting a short chapter to each, Jongkind asks questions around the rigidity to which they are clung to, suggesting that the editorial decisions made for this project provide some answers. Again, there is a sensitivity in his approach to these texts, probing questions are definitely asked, but in a helpful manner.

Practical Implications

As the editors approached this work, it was clear that they sought to move away from allowing modern preconceptions to impact their thinking. This is demonstrated in decisions regarding practicalities in presentation and textual selection. The order in which books appear in the THGNT is one such example. Jongkind explains that the order of books conforms with other Greek New Testaments, putting the Catholic Epistles before the Pauline corpus (35). His reasoning for this change is well supported by manuscript evidence. That said, in a somewhat lighthearted manner, Jongkind explains that they made no other such changes, as, for a readership brought up on the order of English Bibles (36), “the repositioning of the Catholic Epistles was already sufficiently disturbing.”

One other such practicality Jongkind addresses is paragraphing. Again a return to the original manuscripts is seen here. The prologue with which John opens his Gospel, traditionally seen as 1:1-18, is not so strictly bound in earlier manuscripts. Indeed (37), “there are virtually no manuscripts that exhibit the modern conclusion that the prologue ends at 1:18.” The ancient paragraphing does not indicate the separation suggested by our modern translations, and asks interesting questions of how we can read the opening of this Gospel account.

Jongkind preempts many of the queries and responses one might have to the THGNT, as well as elaborating on things such as paragraphing, that might pass us by without this helpful guide.

Textual Applications

This Introduction raised two key areas of application for me, and Jongkind was at pains to stress both throughout his book.

The first is perhaps most encouraging to the ears of the believer. We can have supreme confidence in the New Testament texts we possess. (103) “The meaning of each book and chapter of the New Testament is not in doubt or uncertain – and when it is, it is not because of textual variants.” We can have confidence in Scripture. God’s word, revealed to mankind through Scripture, is still God’s word. This project, if anything, affirms that. And Jongkind makes that clear in his closing chapter. (109) “The important thing to take away from this little book is that you have every reason to read the Greek New Testament with confidence and pleasure.” We can read the Greek New Testament, and of them, good translations, with both confidence and pleasure. Enjoy God’s word, knowing that it is His word, and that it has much to teach us.

Secondly, I enjoyed the repeated emphasis on the need for a close reading of Scripture. The editors poured over each one of the 135 000 words to be found in the Greek New Testament. Many of the examples of problems, revisions or variations, that Jongkind provides come from just a word or two. The scrutiny with which the editors approached this text is apparent, but it provides a lesson. The closeness with which we read God’s word can impact what we learn from it. Close, careful study, in the original language or of a good translation, will ultimately be for our edification, and for God’s Glory.

I enjoyed this Introduction immensely. The production of the THGNT is approached with respectful diligence, and clarity is offered around at times controversial decisions. Jongkind has the humility to recognise valid concerns with their editorial decisions (97), and offers helpful responses to such questions. The book acts as a helpful springboard with which to approach this new text of the Greek New Testament, but I found it a joy to read as a personal reflection upon the place of textual transmission, language and revision in the Bibles we use today. God’s word is eternal and unchanging. It was encouraging to find that scholars such as this so clearly demonstrate that to be the case.

A response to the Francis Chan soundbite: The Lord’s Supper in the Early Church

You may have seen a video of the Christian author and preacher, Francis Chan, doing the rounds in recent days. In it, Francis makes the claim that for the first fifteen hundred years of Church History, people literally believed that the body and blood of Christ were being partaken during the Lord’s Supper. I include the video below in case you’ve missed it.

I’d like to briefly say that this post is not a dig against Francis by any means. I appreciate his books and teaching, and would thoroughly recommend books such as Crazy Love as a great read for young and mature Christians alike. This post is aimed at challenging something I believe to be factually wrong.

This claim, aligning Christian belief for the first 1500 years of Church History with elements of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is in fact incorrect. Whilst Francis has much to say that is helpful, this particular claim is wrong.

Below are extracts from key early church thinkers and writings, that refute Francis’ claims. But behind such claims is, I believe, a bigger problem with the current engagement of evangelical Christians with Early Church history. And so at the end of this post is a short addendum and a link to some earlier posts. Evangelical Christians, such as Francis and myself, all too often lump the Early Church in with the Catholic Church, or assume that after the Apostolic era ended, the Catholic Church simply appeared. We’re often too easily afraid of the difference between catholic and Catholic.

But first, a short reponse to Francis Chan, from the mouths of members of the Early Church themselves.

Early Church understandings of The Bread and The Wine.

Athenagoras (c.133 – 190) says to eat the flesh of man is an abomination:

But if it be unlawful even to speak of this, and if for men to partake of the flesh of men is a thing most hateful and abominable, and more detestable than any other unlawful and unnatural food or act; and if what is against nature can never pass into nourishment for the limbs and parts requiring it, and what does not pass into nourishment can never become united with that which it is not adapted to nourish,–then can the bodies of men never combine with bodies like themselves, to which this nourishment would be against nature, even though it were to pass many times through their stomach, owing to some most bitter mischance”

Athenagoras, On the Resurrection of the Dead, 8

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 211) says Christ called the wine, wine:

In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? As shamelessly as we? Was it not with decorum and propriety? Was it not deliberately? For rest assured, He Himself also partook of wine; for He, too, was man. And He blessed the wine, saying, ‘Take, drink: this is my blood’–the blood of the vine. He figuratively calls the Word ‘shed for many, for the remission of sins’–the holy stream of gladness. And that he who drinks ought to observe moderation, He clearly showed by what He taught at feasts. For He did not teach affected by wine. And that it was wine which was the thing blessed, He showed again, when He said to His disciples, ‘I will not drink of the fruit of this vine, till I drink it with you in the kingdom of my Father.’

Clement of Alexander, Paedagogus, 2.2

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) spoke of the bread and wine being shared out as bread and wine:

There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

Justin Martyr, First Apology, 65.

In the Didache (written c.96), the bread and wine are pictures of unity, and there to stir us to give thanks:

First, concerning the cup: We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.. And concerning the broken bread: We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through.

Didache, 9.

Tertullian (c.155 – 220) reminds us that Christ told us the bread was a representation:

the bread by which he represents his own proper body…

Tertullian, Against Marcion, 1.14

Finally, Origen (c.184 – 253), in his commentary On Matthew, says that bread is bread, and has no higher substance. But that the Lord’s Supper ought to point us to something greater, to the True Living Bread, to the one we are remembering. Christ.

… it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh, who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that ‘every one who eats of this bread shall live for ever.’

Origen, On Matthew, 11.14

Origen points us away from the physical bread and wine, and takes us to the true satisfaction found in Christ. The Early Church clearly taught that the Lord’s Supper was an opportunity to meet as a church family and remember what it was the Lord has done for us. It clearly taught that we meet to give thanks to our God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not eat of Him, nor would they suggest such a thing, but wonderfully, through His death and resurrection, we are now in Him.

Francis Chan has been right on many things, but on this he is wrong. The Early Church drew on truth they gained from Scripture, that the Lord had instituted this meal so that His church would gather and remember what He did for them. I have included the words of Early Church writers here to counter the claims made in the above video, but to see real and lasting truth, simply turn to the Gospel accounts of that Upper Room, and Paul’s thoughts upon what happened there, to read the divinely inspired words of Scripture on this matter. Transubstantiation is not a biblical teaching, and neither is it backed up by the history of the Early Church.

Addendum: why we need to study Church History well.

Francis Chan’s comments show the need to approach Christian history with discernment. He makes two claims in his video that would be refuted by almost every single academic, whether Christian or not. As seen above, the claim that the church believed the bread and wine became the literal body and blood for the first 1500 years is clearly incorrect, but secondly, Francis claimed that for the first 1000 years there was but one church.

This is simply not the case. As I show in my blog on Catholicism, the Catholic Church came to the fore in the sixth century. And both before and after this, Christendom was divided geographically, or by leadership or cannon. Groups such as the Gnostics, Donatists and Arians claimed to be the true church, in the first three centuries of Church History alone!

There has only ever been one true church, God’s elect and redeemed church. But that’s never been shown in one strain, denomination, or label. However hard we might try. Sinful people simply make it too hard to achieve such global unity.

We need a better understanding of Church History, and the Early Church in particular. Find out more below.

Why do we need to bother with the Early Church? Find out here.

What about Catholicism? Check this post out.

Was there one church only? See this post for examples of the heresy and schisms that plagued even the earliest years of Christian history.

The Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.

John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.

These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.

John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?

Local Assurance

In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.

“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”

Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.

Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.

The True Emperor

The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.

With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.

The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.

John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.

As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:9-11.

God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.

What About Us?

We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.

We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.

Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?

They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.

There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.