I know I just made a post saying that most stuff on Christianity was going to be on my new blog – but this touches on Hebrew Bible (and to some degree other ancient Near Eastern stuff) enough to where it’s probably at home here, too.
In Colossians 1.18 and Revelation 1.5, Christ is referred to as “the firstborn of the dead” (ὁ πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν). This is interesting for a multitude of reasons – as evidence of a common formula circulating around the communities in which Colossians and Revelation were written, etc. – but most of all, because it’s one of the loci classici that best embodies what is perhaps Christianity’s major religious innovation: that the resurrection of a single human presages the general resurrection.
As such, this idea is seen as wholly unparalleled in the history of religions. Yet at every turn, early Christianity was informed by early Jewish beliefs – even its innovations seen through their lens. I wonder if it’s not possible to see hints of this in the phrase πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν (and a variant of it in 1 Corinthians).
First, it’s surprising how infrequently scholars note how similar this phrase is to one appearing in the Book of Job: בְּכֹור מָֽוֶת, “the firstborn of Death” (Job 18.13). πρωτότοκος is the normal Septuagint translation of בְּכֹור (according to Aune 2003, used for it 131 times). Although τῶν νεκρῶν is different than מָֽוֶת (not to mention LXX has θάνατος here [though LXX Jb. 18.13 is otherwise corrupt]), perhaps the main impediment to scholars reading the passages together is that, in Job 18, the “firstborn of mwṭ” is clearly a demonic, anthropophagous figure: “the firstborn of death devours his limbs.”
Shifting gears ever so slightly, I mentioned that there’s a variant of ὁ πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν in 1 Corinthians.
1 Cor. 15.20 reads “…Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων). Although first fruits are, of course, a sacrificial offering – and elsewhere, Paul clearly understands Jesus’s death as a sacrifice (most explicitly in Rom. 3.25) – here, as in the aforementioned texts, “first fruits” in conjunction with κεκοιμημένων (=those who have died) still seems to refer simply to the newness, the novelty of Jesus’s resurrection, before the general resurrection. While Aune notes that ἀπαρχὴ is never used to translate בְּכֹור in LXX, it is used in conjunction with “firstborn” (πρωτότοκα) at LXX Ex. 22.29, and is clearly an analogous idea.
As Paul continues his discussion of death and resurrection throughout 1 Cor. 15, he personifies Death several times. The first instance of this is just a few verses later from 15.20, where he writes that the “last enemy to be destroyed is Death” (15.26). Finally, in 15.54, he quotes Isa. 25.8, “Death will be devoured” (κατεπόθη). It has often been noted that the Isaiah passage that Paul quotes may be building on ancient personifications of Death – though with an element of ironic reversal, as it usually Death (in the guise of the Semitic deity Mot and others) who does the devouring in ancient Near Eastern traditions.
Considering that Paul plays with this ironic reversal (as he does elsewhere), is it possible that he similarly appropriated the language of Job 18.13 – though not the LXX as we have it – in his utilization of the phrase ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων, but giving it an “opposite” twist (or even a polemical twist: that Jesus is the true firstborn/first fruits of Death)? The quotation of the Isaian “devoured” passage might give this additional credence.
This may help us view 1 Cor. 15.20, 26, and 54 more closely together, as expressive of Paul’s knowledge of traditions of Death’s personification. But how far does this principle extend?
Healey, in a paper called “‘Death is Swallowed up in Victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54): Canaanite Mot in Prophecy and Apocalypse,” notes that
the old mythology of the Ancient Near East and Greece was not dead in the first century C.E. The victory of Bel and Nabu over Tiamat was still celebrated at Palmyra, and at least some of the Jews of Palestine made use of old mythological ideas, as is clear from Jewish apocryphal works and some of the Dead Sea documents… (Healey in Harland/Hayward 1999: 212)
While echoing Bauckham in his view that the Ugaritic material is far too distant to have directly influenced Paul, he reiterates that “the image of Death the Devourer was maintained in popular culture through the intervening centuries, surfacing from time to time in poetic and less rigorously orthodox works” (213).
Job, it might be noted, has a large concentration of instances of personification of Death – and hints of revival/resurrection. Could Paul’s remembrance of Job (esp. 18.13) have brought to mind his “inventory” of knowledge of personified Death, in all its Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern guises – and even prompted him to think of the various things he did when composing 1 Cor. 15, a text full of death and decay of the body? Or is it the other way around?
What, then, is the relationship between the 1 Corinthians passage and the Colossians and Revelation phrase quoted earlier? Are there implications for the (contested) Pauline authorship of Colossians?