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.
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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.”

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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?
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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?

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I apologize if this is a little inchoate in parts – I tried to clean it up a little, after my first draft.

Not too long ago, I was talking with a friend, and they said something along the lines of that the doctrine of inerrancy wasn’t really a thing before the New Testament, at the earliest. I kind of contested this; and, for reasons I’ll get in a bit, I actually first thought about the tabernacle “blueprints” given in Exodus 25 (and the temple blueprints shown to David in 1 Chronicles 28). Today, my thoughts turned to that conversation again, at the mention of 2 Timothy 3.15 – probably the locus classicus for inerrancy. In 2 Tim. 3.15, all “Scripture” (γραφή) is called θεόπνευστος, literally “God-breathed.” γραφὴ is, of course, a common designation in the New Testament (and elsewhere) for authoritative Jewish literature.

In addition to the 2 Timothy passage, one of the other most-discussed New Testament passages relevant to inerrancy is Matthew 5.18: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (NRSV). Although it’s certainly possible that we have, here, a stock rhetorical exaggeration, I think we can also detect the idea of the perfection of Scripture.

The Matthean passage (and its parallel in Luke 16) seems to be hinting at traditions that can plausibly be traced back to the Deuteronomistc laws themselves – cf. Deuteronomy 4.2 and 13.1 (=12.32 in other numbering systems): “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it” (Deut. 13.1). Further confirmation that this idea was on the radar of NT authors is found in Rev 22.19, “if anyone takes away from the words of the book…” (καὶ ἐάν τις ἀφέλῃ ἀπὸ τῶν λόγων τοῦ βιβλίου…), using the same word for “take (away),” ἀφαιρέω, as LXX Deut. 13.1 (=12.32) does.

Interestingly, however, Deut. 13.1 has clear parallels in ancient Near Eastern (and even Greek) literature. This is explored perhaps most fully in English language scholarship in a recent paper by Bernard Levinson (“The Neo-Assyrian Origins of the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” in Scriptural Exegesis: The Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane [Oxford University Press, 2009]: 25-45). He connects the Deuteronomy text to, among other things, a vassal treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE § 4):

šumma abutu ša Aššur-aḫu-iddina šar māt Aššur tennâni tušannâni šumma Aššur-bāni-apli mar’a šarri rabi’u ša bēt ridūti

      . . .

You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, but heed this very Assurbanipal, the great crown prince designate . . .

Levinson writes “The injunction [also] takes the form of a double prohibition against any change, using two synonyms in the Akkadian: enû, ‘to revoke or change’, and the D-stem of šanû, ‘to change’ (transitive), ‘to alter’” (bracketed word mine – SF).

It’ss this that’ll bring me back around to the “blueprints” of the tabernacle and temple.

The first part of Deut. 13.1 reads, in the Hebrew, אֵת כָּל־הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם אֹתֹו תִשְׁמְרוּ לַעֲשֹׂות (again, for clarity: “Everything I am commanding you, you must be careful לַעֲשֹׂות; you must not add to it nor should you subtract from it…”). This might be connected in a way with Exodus 25.9, which gives instructions for the construction of the tabernacle: כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מַרְאֶה אֹותְךָ אֵת…וְכֵן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ (“In accordance with all that I show you…just in this way תַּעֲשֽׂוּ”).

There are, of course, formulations similar to the first part of Deut. 13.1, throughout the Hebrew Bible (which, further, are clearly suggesting behaviors/actions). However, I wonder if, in conjunction with the second part of the verse, לֹא־תֹסֵף עָלָיו וְלֹא תִגְרַע מִמֶּֽנּוּ (“do not add to it or take anything from it”), and its parallels with ancient Near Eastern treaty formulas and other things, this might lead us to interpret 13.1 as a whole as calling for the “drafting/construction” of God’s “treaty” with his people – a treaty that must be as precise and, we might say, perfect, as the construction of the tabernacle and temple (a precision demanded especially by the latter being an earthly reflection of the heavens, the domain of the deity) (although cf. Exodus 31, for the former).

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In light of the proposed connection here, is it possible that עָשָׂה in Deut. 13.1 is to be understood not as a call for the observance of the laws, as traditionally interpreted, but the actual process of recording/writing them? The main objection to this would be that similar language to 13.1a is found in Deut 16.12; 28.15; 30.8; Nu 15.39, in contexts where this must refer to the actual observance. Yet this still does not change the fact that there are also intriguing connections in vocabulary with Ex 25.9.

Taking this in an even more interesting direction, BDB cites several instances of the conjunction of עָשָׂה with שֵׁם, ‘name’: 2 Samuel 7.9, 8.13, and 1 Chron. 17.8 (cf. now Wright, ‘Human, All Too Human’ – Royal Name-Making in Wartime”). To this, I would add another especially relevant instance: Genesis 11.4. This is relevant in light of the provocative thesis of John T. Strong (and others), that the call of Babel’s workers to “make a name for themselves” (וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּנוּ שֵׁם) – as well as other motifs in the the Babel narrative – builds on imagery of the construction/drafting of victory steles (cf. Strong’s “Shattering the Image of God: A Response to Theodore Hiebert’s Interpretation of the Story of the Tower of Babel,” in JBL 127 [2008]: 625-634).

I note that steles, first and foremost, display the name of their “founder”; and thus the use of עָשָׂה might be even more plausibly understood, in certain rare contexts, as playing on the meaning of something like “make (an inscription).” Wright writes

[quote]In hundreds of building inscriptions throughout the ANE, a figure commemorates and perpetuates his own name by commissioning (or donating funds for) the construction of a temple to honor the name of his divine patron. See also the admonition in the Egyptian Instructions of Merikare (Papyrus St. Petersburg 1116A): “Construct [fine] monuments for the god, for it means the perpetuation of the name of whoever does it” (108–109).[/quote]

As a final thought, it’s interesting that מַעֲשֶׂה in Ps 45.1 is used in conjunction with סֹופֵר and עֵט – and in various translations is given as “verse(s)” (a nearly identical semantic analogue can be found with Greek ποίημα).

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Regardless of whether there’s a literal intention of “recording/writing” here or not (despite what I’ve said, I’d definitely lean towards not), this is surely still the traditio-historical background of the motif here…only that the actual observance of the law is cast in similar language as stock conventions of inerrancy in writing.