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Monday, 14 August 2017

The Apostolicity of the Post-Apostolic Church (Part 2 of 3): Clarifying Catholic teaching on apostolic succession in the early Church

1. Apologetics vs. historiography
2. Addressing some misconceptions about Catholic teaching on apostolic succession
3. What does Catholicism expect from the historical record?

I ended the first article of this series by promising, in the sequel, to provide historical evidence supporting the doctrine of apostolic succession. However, I must beg the reader's patience as I will only get to the evidence in the next article. This article serves as a necessary preamble.

In the previous article we explored the three ways in which the Church is apostolic, from the Catholic point of view: apostolic origins, apostolic teaching and apostolic succession. All Christians today agree that the earliest Church was led and spread by Jesus's apostles. The Catholic Church (along with the Orthodox and Anglicans) affirms that the apostles' teachings were transmitted to posterity in two forms: written scriptures and oral tradition. They likewise affirm that the apostles bequeathed a continuous chain of successors (bishops) to lead the faithful and preserve and interpret their written and oral teachings. These two doctrines enjoyed virtually universal acceptance among Christians for well over a millennium (i.e., c. 300-1500 A.D.) but have remained controversial in the West since their rejection by the Reformers in the 16th century.

1. Apologetics vs. historiography

When an apologist comes to the textual data concerning early church government and authority, his/her aim is to defend a contemporary doctrine of church government that he/she holds (on the assumption that ancient precedents remain normative today). The desire to make one's position as credible as possible may lead an apologist to read the evidence with a theological bias. This could manifest as exaggerated uniformity in the data, tendentious interpretation of problematic texts, etc.

When a contemporary historian comes to the same data, his/her aim is to reconstruct past events and circumstances objectively, without regard to theological convictions. This is good insofar as it mitigates theological bias. However, the desire to be perceived as critical, impartial and/or ecumenical may lead a historian to approach the evidence with a bias against his or her own theological background (or against theology itself). This could manifest as an exaggerated diversity in the data, skepticism of ancient or traditional perspectives (a "hermeneutics of suspicion"), etc.

In this article I am trying to wear both hats in order to achieve a balance of biases. I make no secret of my Catholic theological bias (one I acquired only recently), but I want to be critical and fair in my interpretation of the evidence. The reader may decide how far I have succeeded.

2. Addressing some misconceptions about Catholic teaching on apostolic succession

The Roman Catholic Church of today has a clearly defined hierarchical structure. There are three sacramental ministerial orders—bishops, presbyters (priests) and deacons—each with clearly defined powers. Each local jurisdiction of the Church is ruled by a single monarchical bishop. One of these bishops, the bishop of Rome, also reigns over all the other bishops. The pope, who is regarded as the successor of St. Peter, rules over the other bishops, who are all regarded as successors of the apostles. The pope is the global face of the Catholic Church, a visible marker of its unity.

Some naive Catholics would insist that the above description is exactly what the Catholic Church has always looked like, from the time the apostles died out c. 100 A.D. down through history. However, when many contemporary historians, including Catholic historians, study early Christian texts they paint a very different picture. For instance, they find that monoepiscopacy (monarchical rule by a single bishop over a city or locale) was a gradual development, including in Rome, and not the established norm until the late second century or later. They find that terms like episkopos (bishop/overseer) and presbyteros (presbyter/elder) are used interchangeably in some texts, along with other terms like didaskalos (teacher) and hēgoumenos (leader), and not as the ecclesiastical technical terms they would later become. Most importantly for our purposes here, some historians assert that the doctrine of apostolic succession through bishops developed in the late second century and that the episcopal succession lists published at that time were fabrications.

Ultraconservative Catholic apologists vehemently contest all of the above findings, and sometimes resort to very contrived and far-fetched arguments in the process. Meanwhile, triumphalist Protestant apologists tout the historians' findings as though they have reduced the Catholic faith to an absurd fantasy. They take particular glee in citing Catholic historians as "hostile witnesses" against their own faith.

It turns out that both sets of apologists are misguided. Historical research has shown that the hierarchical structure of the Church underwent development over time. However, what many Protestant apologists have failed to recognise is that Catholic theology allows for such development (within certain parameters). For example, (although the papacy is not our main concern here), one Catholic scholar observes, "It is not prima facie obvious that a high doctrine of the papacy does require that a single bishop exercised magisterial authority in Rome in the immediate post-apostolic age."1

The most famous Catholic proponent of the theory of doctrinal development was, of course, Cardinal Newman in the 19th century. Specifically on the episcopate and the papacy, Newman explained why these structural features of the Church became more visible over time:
While Apostles were on earth, there was the display neither of Bishop nor Pope; their power had no prominence, as being exercised by Apostles. In course of time, first the power of the Bishop displayed itself, and then the power of the Pope...  
When the Church, then, was thrown upon her own resources, first local disturbances gave exercise to Bishops, and next ecumenical disturbances gave exercise to Popes; and whether communion with the Pope was necessary for Catholicity would not and could not be debated till a suspension of that communion had actually occurred. It is not a greater difficulty that St. Ignatius does not write to the Asian Greeks about Popes, than that St. Paul does not write to the Corinthians about Bishops. And it is a less difficulty that the Papal supremacy was not formally acknowledged in the second century, than that there was no formal acknowledgment on the part of the Church of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity till the fourth. No doctrine is defined till it is violated. And, in like manner, it was natural for Christians to direct their course in matters of doctrine by the guidance of mere floating, and, as it were, endemic tradition, while it was fresh and strong; but in proportion as it languished, or was broken in particular places, did it become necessary to fall back upon its special homes, first the Apostolic Sees, and then the See of St. Peter.2
The magisterial document Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council, which formally defines Catholic doctrine about the Church, has the following to say about the origin of apostolic succession:
That divine mission, entrusted by Christ to the apostles, will last until the end of the world, since the Gospel they are to teach is for all time the source of all life for the Church. And for this reason the apostles, appointed as rulers in this society, took care to appoint successors. For they not only had helpers in their ministry, but also, in order that the mission assigned to them might continue after their death, they passed on to their immediate cooperators, as it were, in the form of a testament, the duty of confirming and finishing the work begun by themselves, recommending to them that they attend to the whole flock in which the Holy Spirit placed them to shepherd the Church of God. They therefore appointed such men, and gave them the order that, when they should have died, other approved men would take up their ministry. Among those various ministries which, according to tradition, were exercised in the Church from the earliest times, the chief place belongs to the office of those who, appointed to the episcopate, by a succession running from the beginning, are passers-on of the apostolic seed. Thus, as St. Irenaeus testifies, through those who were appointed bishops by the apostles, and through their successors down in our own time, the apostolic tradition is manifested and preserved.
Notice that Lumen Gentium reaffirms the historical foundations of the doctrine of apostolic succession through episcopacy. However, it does not make any specific claims about when or how monoepiscopacy—open and uncontested rule by one bishop within a region—developed. The Church's dogmatic teaching on apostolic succession is thus at least compatible with a developmental paradigm. Indeed, consider the following excerpts from the post-Vatican II document Catholic Teaching on Apostolic Succession:
The documents of the New Testament show that in the early days of the Church and in the lifetime of the apostles there was diversity in the way communities were organized... Those who directed communities in the lifetime of the apostles or after their death have different names in the New Testament texts: the presbyteroi-episkopoi are described as poimenes, hegoumenoi, proistamenoi, kyberneseis. In comparison with the rest of the Church, the feature of the presbyteroi-episkopoi is their apostolic ministry of teaching and governing. Whatever the method by which they are chosen, whether through the authority of the Twelve or Paul or some link with them, they share in the authority of the apostles who were instituted by Christ and who maintain for all time their unique character. In the course of time this ministry underwent a development... Already in the New Testament texts there are echoes of the transition from the apostolic period to the subapostolic age, and one begins to see signs of the development that in the second century led to the stabilization and general recognition of the episcopal ministry... The absence of documents makes it difficult to say precisely how these transitions came about. By the end of the first century the situation was that the apostles or their closest helpers or eventually their successors directed the local colleges of episkopoi and presbyteroi. By the beginning of the second century the figure of a single bishop who is the head of the communities appears very clearly in the letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who further claims that this institution is established "unto the ends of the earth" (Ad Epk. 3, 2).
Although not a magisterial document, this study was produced by a committee of leading Catholic theologians appointed by the pope. It thus represents a mainstream Catholic perspective on early Church history. It is therefore interesting that the document makes numerous statements in line with the findings of contemporary historians. First, the document acknowledges that there was diversity in the earliest Christian communities both in terms of organizational structure and in the terminology used for community leaders. Second, the document speaks explicitly of "development" and "transitions" in Christian ministry, specifically the "stabilization and general recognition of the episcopal ministry." Third, the document acknowledges that the historical evidence from the late first and early second centuries is too thin to permit dogmatic reconstructions of the development of Christian ministry during this period. These statements might shock some naive Catholics who would like to picture St. Peter's earliest successors making public appearances on the balcony of a basilica. However, they ought also to give pause to Protestant apologists who too easily conclude that the earliest historical evidence concerning Christian ministry is incompatible with Catholic theology.

3. What does Catholicism expect from the historical record?

What sort of evidence would we expect to find in the historical record if the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession were true? Firstly, we would not necessarily expect to find evidence that the apostles left monarchical bishops as their immediate successors. However, we might expect to find evidence that the apostles did leave successors in the form of a divinely ordained office. That is, evidence that they did not merely happen to leave behind some protégés, but created a ministry that they understood to be divinely sanctioned. Secondly, we would not necessarily expect to find evidence that unbroken "succession lists" of bishops going back to the apostles were theologically important immediately after the apostles died. We might, however, expect to find evidence that such succession lists became theologically important within a couple of generations, as living memory of the apostles disappeared and direct links to the apostles could no longer be verified by eyewitness testimony. (As long as there were people around who could recall the apostles' teachings firsthand, their successors would not have the same value as preservers of apostolic teaching as they would acquire thereafter.) Finally, we would not expect to find evidence supporting a Protestant model of Church government and post-apostolic apostolicity over against the Catholic model. For instance, if it could be shown that the apostles provided a fixed, completed canon of Scripture to serve as the sole locus of theological authority after they died (over against any notion of theological authority vesting in ministerial leaders), this would be quite fatal to Catholic ecclesiology.

It must also be emphasised that a relative sparseness of evidence for the idea of apostolic succession within the New Testament is not particularly problematic for Catholic theology. In the apostolic period there was little concern over who would lead the Church after the apostles died, for the simple reason that the earliest Christians anticipated that "Church history" would be more of a sprint than a marathon. The Lord's promised Parousia was believed to be imminent (Phil. 4:5; Jas 5:9; Rev. 22:20; etc.) A community that expects its leadership to become redundant in the very near future does not prioritise long-term succession planning. Thus, that the New Testament leaves us with little information about how the apostles envisioned the Church to be governed in the post-apostolic period is regrettable, but not surprising.

With these preliminaries out of the way, the third part of this study will finally discuss the historical evidence concerning apostolic succession directly. This study is not intended as a comprehensive treatment of the relevant historical evidence, nor is it intended to "prove" the doctrine of apostolic succession. The aim is more modest: to show that the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession is consistent with the historical record. This doctrine cannot, however, be "proven"; it can only be received by faith. The ground for belief in this doctrine is that the Church declares it to be so. Nevertheless, faith and reason are friends and not enemies, which is why a consideration of historical evidence is meaningful.


  • 1 David Albert Jones, "Was there a Bishop of Rome in the First Century?", New Blackfriars 80 (1999): 128.
  • 2 John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed. (London: Piccadilly, 1846), 165-67. The excerpts here do not convey the full power of the argument of the section, which the reader is encouraged to consult.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Why join the Church that produced the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Clerical Sex Abuse Scandal?

Since becoming a Catholic earlier this year, I have had correspondence and conversations with a number of relatives and friends who believe I have made a big error in judgment. They expressed their concerns with care and candour and even a degree of perplexity—joining the Catholic Church is not just inadvisable, it is not worth a moment’s thought. My relatives and friends raised various specific reasons why becoming a Catholic was such a bad idea, such as (what they perceive to be) unbiblical doctrines and a wooden, ritualistic approach to religious life. For most, though, a very clear deal-breaker is the Catholic Church’s shameful history. Questions were posed like, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” A list would then follow with items such as the usurpation of temporal political power, the Crusades, the Inquisition (and many other acts of persecution targeting Jews and nonconformist Christians), the stubborn resistance to non-geocentric models of the universe, the sale of indulgences and other corrupt practices that precipitated the Protestant Reformation, and—in our own time—the still-unfolding clerical sex abuse scandal. Those who really know their history could undoubtedly add many more examples, but these suffice to make the point: the Catholic Church has a very checkered past, to say the least. Is it not obvious that this is not the true Church but a corrupt distortion? Who could be so naïve as to think otherwise?

Now, I doubt that any non-Catholic has converted to Catholicism in recent times without first having seriously wrestled with this issue. And there are various ways one might try to “get around it,” so to speak. One could dig up dirt on other ecclesiastical traditions to show that their track record is not much better. One could argue that once one understands the historical context, various people and events were not as bad as they first appear. One could point to many positive contributions of the Catholic Church in areas of public health, poverty alleviation, social justice, education, human rights, etc. Or one could disown those who commit(ted) such atrocities as not real Catholics, and dissociate oneself from this past. After all, I didn’t go on the Crusades, and I didn’t burn anyone at the stake. Don’t blame me for things that happened long ago.

There are elements of validity in each of the above approaches to the problem of the Catholic Church’s unsightly past, but in my view none of them comes close to a satisfactory answer. The first three approaches risk denying the seriousness of the problem. The fourth approach risks compromising the catholicity of the Church, which would by definition be un-Catholic. It also risks falling prey to the fallacy of "guilt by association" and its obverse, purity by dissociation. The problem of disreputable doings in the Catholic Church’s past (and present) is addressed not by denying, downplaying or disowning this history, but precisely by owning it. Wait—are you saying you approve of filling the streets of the holy land with Muslim blood, devising elaborate torture machines to “encourage” repentance, or sheltering pedophile priests from justice? Absolutely not. So what exactly am I saying?

To take ownership of the past means three things. It means, firstly, to acknowledge the past. “This happened, and it was terrible.” In this we follow the lead of Pope John Paul II, who offered many apologies on behalf of the Church during his reign. Caution is needed, since some accusations raised about Catholic history may be exaggerated, embellished or downright false. Moreover, negativity cannot be allowed to govern the narrative such that the positive aspects of our Church's history—above all, the faithful saints of all ages—are neglected. All the same, one must not make excuses or whitewash the past, but face it head on.

It means, secondly, to resist dissociating oneself from that past. “This was done in our Church, by our brothers and sisters. It is part of our collective story.” That is not to say that all Catholics, either today or at particularly difficult points in history, are individually guilty of these historical sins. (This would be analogous to the crude anti-Semitic claim that all Jews past and present are Christ-killers.) However, the Catholic doctrine of a visible, concrete Church rules out any ecclesiological gerrymandering whereby we redraw the boundaries of the Catholic Church—past or present—to exclude those popes, bishops, priests, nations or eras that don’t correspond to our ideal. The Catholic Church houses all Catholics, warts and all. As Catholics, we recognize Church history as our history, not someone else’s. As Pope John Paul II said:
Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.” (Tertio millennio adveniente 33)
Thirdly, it means learning from past mistakes. As the saying goes, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.” If that is true of human history in general, how much more is it true of our communal history as the One Body? And it is precisely at this point that the Catholic Church’s checkered past becomes an asset rather than a liability. We have far more mistakes to learn from than any other church, denomination or sect! And learn from them we have. The hard lessons of the past have become part of the Church’s communal memory, part of the Church’s small-t tradition. By owning them the Church ensures they will never be forgotten.

If one needs a biblical justification for this approach to Church history, one need not look far. The Israelites provide an excellent parallel. The Old Testament exemplifies the principle of owning the past, warts and all. The Hebrew Bible was written about Israel, for Israel, by Israelites who fervently believed Israel to be the special people of God. Yet the biblical history of Israel is full of shameful episodes and deeply flawed characters! Even among the heroes of the Bible you find incest, deceit, adultery and murder. The historians who chronicled the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel couldn't find a single king whom they could call “good.” It wasn’t just the leaders, either. The privileged people whom Yahweh had delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand murmured against His servant Moses. Through the centuries they repeatedly forsook Yahweh for foreign idols or mingled Yahweh-worship with abominations. Yet, looking back on such history, the biblical writers make no attempt to disguise it or dissociate themselves from it. It is the history of their people and, paradoxical though it may be, God’s people. Thus they preserve this history for posterity so that Israel can remember what Israel has done and learn from it. In the New Testament, perhaps no passage exemplifies the ownership of a troubled past more than the Matthaean genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17). Matthew gratuitously highlights several women of ill repute in the Saviour’s pedigree: Tamar the incestuous seductress; Rahab the scheming prostitute; Ruth the Moabite; Bathsheba the adulteress. The ignominious “deportation to Babylon” forms one of the historical milestones around which the genealogy is structured. Matthew seems at pains to emphasise that Jesus’s family tree is anything but impeccable.

If the Catholic Church must take ownership of shameful episodes in her past and preserve their memory in order to learn their lessons, this is a feature she shares with her forebear biblical Israel. One must add that this is not simply an unending circle of mistakes. When one studies the Book of Judges, one becomes acquainted with the cycle of blessing, followed by complacency and sin, followed by punishment and suffering, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance and blessing again. However, the full history of Israel is not one of going in circles, of futility. In the post-exilic period, for example, Israel definitively overcame the vice of cultic idolatry that had plagued her for centuries. The Jewish people survived a harrowing test of their religious loyalty in the Maccabean period and Jewish identity became synonymous with monolatry thereafter. Observant Jewry has never since been ensnared in cultic idolatry.

In similar fashion, many values embedded in the Catholic Church’s DNA have been refined through the hard lessons of history. Peace activism, opposition to capital punishment, the Just War doctrine (which makes vanishingly small the circumstances under which war is permissible and then restricts almost to impracticability the means by which such a war can be waged), advocacy for religious freedom, an intense ecumenical programme with non-Catholic Christians and conciliatory dialogue with Jews and Muslims—all of this has emerged from the shadow of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

Catholicism is a truly historical religion. It engages thoroughly with its own history, celebrating the good and lamenting the bad and the ugly. As Catholics, we cannot whitewash our past, because it is part of us. We do not smugly denounce bad people and events from our Catholic past at arm’s length as though they are the Other, something remote and strange. They too belong to us; they are part of our family tree, just as Judah and Tamar and Rehoboam and Ahaz and Manasseh and Jehoiachin were part of Jesus’s family tree. When we denounce their actions it is with a posture of humility, knowing that if they fell, so could we. Therefore we are—paradoxical though it may be—thankful to God for all of our Catholic history. Not thankful that bad things were done, but thankful that we have such a vast communal experience from which to learn.

So, to the question, “Why in the world would you want to associate yourself with a church that has committed so many atrocities?” my answer is, “So that I can take my place in the Church's long and checkered history, take ownership of it and learn from it.”

Further Reading: International Theological Commission (1999). Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Review of "Paul's Triumph" by Christoph Heilig

Christoph Heilig, Paul's Triumph: Reassessing 2 Corinthians 2:14 in its literary and historical context (Biblical Tools and Studies 27; Leuven: Peeters, 2017), 335 pp.

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to win a copy of this book from the author through a draw undertaken on the Zürich New Testament Blog Facebook page. I am writing this review partly as a token of appreciation to Christoph. It cannot be construed as an expert or peer review as I am not an expert or Christoph's peer either in the specific subject matter (exegesis of 2 Cor. 2:14 and the concept of the Roman triumph), the sub-discipline (Pauline studies) or the discipline (biblical studies), though I have an undergraduate qualification relevant to the last.1 My review is more of a reader-response exercise, one that I hope will provide some meaningful insights.

1. Overall impressions and theological contextualisation

The book is a fascinating window into the complexity and richness of contemporary scholarly biblical exegesis. I suspect that many non-scholars, encountering 2 Cor. 2:14ab during public worship or personal Bible study in a modern translation (e.g., NRSV: "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession"), instantaneously form a mental picture of Paul's meaning and move on, confident that this picture accurately represents the apostle's thought. From this perspective, it is remarkable that a 300+ page monograph could be written about the meaning of these few words—the latest contribution to an ongoing academic conversation. It is equally remarkable that a 300+ page monograph could be written on these words and arrive only at probabilities, not certainties, about their meaning. This, however, is the nature of academic biblical studies today: the excesses of modernist hubris have taught us post-moderns that attaining the factually, objectively "correct" interpretation may simply be impossible.

Does this mean the discipline of biblical studies is both esoteric and futile? Mē genoito! Fresh exegetical insights like Christoph's will undoubtedly influence future translators, commentators and preachers and thence lay readers. My point is the opposite: we lay readers should be grateful for the enormous amount of work that scholars put into reconstructing—as far as possible—the authorial intent behind a biblical passage. We should also be aware of the limitations of the exegete. To express it with a qal wachomer, if even a 300-page monograph by an expert cannot uncover the meaning of a passage with certainty, how much less can five minutes of reflection by a lay reader do so?  Recovering authorial intent definitively is often simply impossible; we may have to be content with a set of options to which approximate relative probabilities may be assigned. Christoph appropriately defines exegesis as "the Evaluation of Hypotheses of Meaning" (p. 6). His monograph is a nice illustration of some points I made previously about the complexity of biblical interpretation in a blog post entitled The problem of understanding the Bible: reflections after four years of theological study. To wax theological, it is only faith nurtured by the Spirit and the Bride (Rev. 22:17), and not exegetical acumen, that can move us from hypotheses and probabilities to knowledge of God.


Enough abstracting—let me get to what I liked about the book. Reading the book was a great experience, if tedious at certain points, and what I liked best was the fine methodology and the meticulous way it was executed. Rarely have I seen an exegetical methodology that was nearly so, well, methodical! As a statistician with a still-latent interest in synergies between statistics and biblical studies, I was fascinated by Christoph's invocation of Bayesian theory (founded by a clergyman, appropriately enough) as the logical foundation of his exegetical task. The fundamental idea of Bayesian statistics (and here I am going a little beyond what Christoph explicitly discusses) is that, for a particular unknown quantity (expressed formally as a mathematical parameter),
Posterior probability ∝ (is proportional to) Prior probability × Likelihood
The posterior probability is what we are after. It is expressed as a conditional probability: the probability that the parameter (in our case, the meaning of the text) takes on a certain realisation or option, given the data (in our case, the text itself, as we have it).2 So the aim is to assign probabilities to different hypothetical options of meaning. If we can assign a probability near 100% to a particular option, or at least a relative probability far greater than any other option, we can propose this option as worthy of acceptance.

The posterior probability, as we can see, is (proportional to) the product of two other quantities: the prior probability and the likelihood. The prior probability captures information about the parameter (meaning of text) external to the data (text itself). The prior information includes the set of hypothetical options itself (perhaps generated by a literature review and lexicographical study, in our case), and antecedent probabilities assigned to these options. Christoph paraphrases "prior probability" for his exegetical purposes as "background plausibility," i.e. "which of the suggested meanings of 14b we would expect from Paul both generally and more specifically from the flow of thought in the passage—irrespective of the concrete wording of 14b" (p. 8). Included in the relevant background (prior) information are "external evidence" (e.g., semantic range of the key verb thriambeuō in texts proximate to Paul) and "internal evidence" (consisting of the "Larger Pauline context," the "Transition from 13 to 14a" and the "Relationship between 14b and 14c-15a").

The likelihood is, like the posterior, formally a conditional, but the direction of conditioning is reversed: it is the likelihood of the data (the text as we have it) given the parameter (the meaning the author wished to express). Hence, instead of asking, "Given that Paul wrote X, how probable is it that he meant Y?" (the form of the posterior), here we are asking, "Given that Paul meant Y, how likely is it that he would have written X?" Christoph paraphrases "likelihood" for his exegetical purposes as "explanatory potential," which answers the question, "If the hypothesis were true, would we expect this formulation (that is: the verb, its object and the adjuncts) or is it surprising?" (p. 9).

Christoph's Bayesian exegetical methodology has two great features. First, he correctly construes the objective as an estimated probability distribution assigned to hypothetical meanings rather than "Paul's intended meaning" itself, which is properly unknowable. Second, he rightly gives due attention to all three ingredients necessary to arrive at a sound posterior probability distribution: (1) a full (as far as possible) set of hypothetical options; (2) an evaluation of the prior probability (background plausibility) of the various options; (3) an evaluation of the likelihood (explanatory potential) of the various options. This last is a particular strength of Christoph's study, because my own reading experience suggests that explanatory potential is often neglected in exegetical studies relative to background plausibility. This is a major issue because, according to Bayesian theory, explanatory potential and background plausibility are equally important! For instance, consider a text with two competing interpretative options, A and B. Scholars conduct exegesis of the text focusing exclusively on background plausibility and determine that the background plausibility of A is five times that of B. They conclude, accordingly, that the text is five times as likely to mean A as B. Along comes a new scholar who supplements the previous research with an "explanatory potential analysis" and finds that the explanatory potential of B is five times that of A. The new conclusion (posterior), following the Bayesian multiplicative law above, is that meanings A and B are equally probable! I wonder how many exegetical communes opiniones might be overturned if scholars were to consider explanatory potential as important as background plausibility.

Second only to his Bayesian methodology in my list of "likes" about Christoph's book was his lively and helpful discussion of lexical semantics. His treatment of this subject, and how it applies to his Bayesian methodology, was so useful to me that I would be tempted to cite it as a source on lexical semantics (of course only as a supplement to standard works such as Silva's Biblical Words and their Meaning and Nida and Louw's Lexical Semantics of the Greek New Testament). He offers some amusing comments about the English word nonplussed, which—when used at all—is often used with the exact opposite of its intended meaning.3 This called to my mind an analogous case where the meaning of an expression is held constant but its form is reversed. The English phrase "I couldn't care less" expresses that one's level of interest is minimal. However, one often hears the phrase "I could care less" used with the same intended meaning, even though it literally only that one's level of interest is not maximal. Probably the double negation ("couldn't...less") in the original phrase has tripped up some people whose level of care about aligning semantics with syntax is not maximal. Anyway, I digress.

2.1. Description of argument

Everything I have said so far pertains only to Christoph's introductory chapter, which was the most captivating part of the book to me only because I am more interested in the broad problem of biblical exegesis than the specific problem of what 2 Cor. 2:14b means. Still, the rest of the book is an impressive instantiation of the proposed methodology. Christoph devotes 91 pages to identifying the hypothetical options—what 2 Cor. 2:14b could possibly mean. This is partly because he identifies a need for a fresh lexicographical study of thriambeuō, which he undertakes with the aid of Thesaurus Linguae Graeca (Oh, how I wish to live to see the day when it enters the public domain!) Besides pointing out some shortcomings in previous lexicographical research on thriambeuō, Christoph discusses specific lexical problems such as the semantic range of the verb (particularly when transitive as in 2 Cor. 2:14b) and whether the verb necessarily stresses the direct object's movement in the procession and the object's exhibition. He finds that 
one could define the (or a) meaning of transitive θριαμβεύειν in a way that includes the following components: 
1. the context of the act: a triumphal procession
2. the act itself: causation of [somebody] or [something] to move
3. the accompanying act: a movement of the agent (behind the object)
4. the result of the act: the display of the object to those watching the procession (p. 101)
He thus proposes the definition, "to cause [somebody or something] to move (before oneself) in a triumphal procession in order to display [somebody or something] to the watching crowd" (p. 101).

Now "equipped with several options for interpreting the use of θριαμβεύειν in 2 Cor 2:14b" (p. 116), Christoph proceeds to Part 2, "Evaluating Background Plausibilities." Here, under "external evidence" he discusses issues such as what Paul and his readers might plausibly have known about Roman triumph processions, whether the source of Paul's allusion is a general Roman practice or a specific occurrence of this practice (e.g., Claudius's triumph in 44 C.E.), and whether pagan processions other than the triumph may have influenced Paul's thought. He then proceeds to "internal evidence," offering a detailed discussion of the flow of argument in the immediate context of 2 Cor. 2:14b.

Next comes Part 3, where Christoph evaluates the explanatory potential of competing interpretative options. This entails again coming up with other hypothetical options, this time other ways Paul might have expressed a meaning equivalent to a hypothetical meaning of the text of 2 Cor. 2:14b. Considering first the verb itself, Christoph is able to virtually rule out that Paul used thriambeuein as a "dead metaphor" that no longer evoked the original context of a Roman triumph (p. 206). Other issues he considers are whether transitive thriambeuein is a likely way for Paul to have expressed the idea of exposure to social shame (p. 208), the idea of Paul "as a victorious general who celebrates together with God" (p. 211), the idea of Paul as an incense bearer within the victorious party (p. 212), the idea of Paul as a defeated foe over whom God is celebrating victory (pp. 216-17) and the idea of Paul as a captive "led by God in his triumphal procession" (p. 217). He concludes that the latter meaning is the most probable for 2 Cor. 2:14b in view of its background plausibility and explanatory potential.

Christoph next turns to the explanatory potential of various interpretations of the direct object (hēmas, "us") and the adjuncts (pantote, "always" and en tō Christō, "in Christ"). He finds that "us" "refers specifically to the team that works towards the realisation of Paul's commission" (p. 223), that "always" emphasises that "God is triumphing continuously" (p. 225), and that "in Christ" locates the procession itself, "strengthening the message of the divine agency behind the activity of Paul and his co-workers at the level of the subject matter" (p. 237). Christoph offers a valuable insight on the contribution of "always" to the explanatory potential of certain interpretations: it "automatically implies that what comes after the procession (imprisonment, execution, Roman citizenship, etc.) is not in view" (p. 225).

Commencing his concluding section, Christoph summarises his findings thus far by pointing out that several exegetical options that had performed well in terms of background plausibility "broke down completely" with respect to explanatory potential (which reinforces the methodological importance of the latter). The only options that perform well under both criteria are "Hafemann's suggestion that 14b expresses Paul's apostolic suffering in terms of the triumphal procession" and "Breytenbach's (and Schröter's) interpretation of the triumph as referring to Paul's ministry since his conversion" without necessarily evoking the "captive" aspect (p. 241). He then argues that Paul's metaphor more likely pertains to spatial movement (i.e. the itinerant nature of his ministry) than suffering: Paul wants to offer "the correct understanding of what might not look like a spirit-driven ministry" (p. 243). Christoph then teases out the finer aspects of the metaphor, such as which negative (captivity, shame, death) and positive (under God's control, bringing glory to God) connotations of the triumph imagery are intended. He is particularly interested in whether Paul "wants to transform the perception of his readers [about his mission or]... simply to reaffirm it" (p. 254); he leans toward the former.

In his final chapter, Christoph considers the implications of his interpretation of 2 Cor. 2:14 for Paul's engagement with Roman imperial ideology. His key finding here is that "Paul's use of the triumph imagery demonstrates that he was actively observing and engaging with his Roman environment" (p. 276). While this part of my review has been more descriptive than evaluative, I have made it a subsection within "Likes" simply because the content is so thoroughly researched, well argued and well written.

3. Dislikes

It should be evident that I enjoyed this book thoroughly. The couple of dislikes I am about to mention are of trifling importance compared with the likes mentioned above. My biggest complaint would be that the book ends too abruptly. The section called "Conclusion," and the chapter within it called "Summary of Exegesis," actually still introduce and discuss new ideas throughout, and do not recapitulate the argument and findings to the extent that one would expect. Thus, if one were to return to the book after some time, wanting to quickly summarise the argument and points within a literature survey for instance, one would find it an arduous task—if one had not made careful notes on the first reading, one would probably have to reread the entire book. Furthermore, what is arguably the climax of the book's exegesis is expressed in a somewhat puzzling way:
Thus, the complex move to encourage the Corinthians to identify themselves with the watching crowd only to find themselves challenged in their simplistic perception of Paul's ministry is not as far-fetched as one might think at first. (p. 259, emphasis original)
By stating only that this reading of Paul's intent is less far-fetched than one might think, Christoph leaves open the implication that it is still somewhat far-fetched. Yet by italicizing the sentence and ending a pivotal chapter with it, he signals that he considers it very important. While one appreciates Christoph's care not to overstate his case, it seems he may have undersold the idea. Perhaps this sentence should have been followed with a more positive, though still not dogmatic, expression of the merits of this interpretation.

Finally, there are a few linguistic and stylistic errors, though not enough to be a significant problem. I did not note down all that I noticed (which I think were fewer than ten), but "vine" on p. 16 should be "wine" (the oversight may, ironically, be related to semantic interplay between languages—the very topic Christoph is discussing at this point). There are also some instances where a period (full stop) is used within quotation marks and the sentence continues outside the quotation marks (e.g., p. 18).4 I have not seen this before, and am not sure it is grammatically correct—I think the period should have been omitted.

Now let me arrive at a closing remark: Christoph's monograph is undoubtedly at the vanguard of biblical scholarship. It is a suitable subject for the verb thriambeuō, though it would be more diplomatic to read it intransitively in this case.


  • 1 I do have some publications in biblical studies journals, with hopefully more on the way. See Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, "Diabolical Data: A critical inventory of New Testament Satanology," JSNT 39 (2016): 40-71; Thomas J. Farrar and Guy J. Williams, "Talk of the Devil: Unpacking the language of New Testament Satanology," JSNT 39 (2016): 72-96; Thomas J. Farrar, "New Testament Satanology and leading suprahuman opponents in Second Temple Jewish literature: A religion-historical analysis," JTS (forthcoming). I aspire to do an interdisciplinary doctorate in statistics and biblical studies, which is one reason why Christoph's application of Bayesian probability theory to biblical exegesis is of great interest to me.
  • 2 In the case of biblical exegesis, of course, the data itself may be uncertain, and since the "internal" aspect of textual criticism has interdependence with the prior and the posterior, the logic becomes much more complicated. Fortunately, the text seems secure in 2 Cor. 2:14.
  • 3 Actually, this comes later in the book on p. 196, but it is in keeping with his earlier discussion of lexical semantics.
  • 4 'The statement "The cat is black." uses the same concept of 'blackness' as the sentence "The car is black."'