Have You Heard of “Dining with the Dead”?

I stumbled across this passage in Andrew McGowan’s book Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic). I found it fascinating.

“Although “martyrs” soon became a term for those who had died, even feeding the martyrs did not end with their physical extinction. Since communal eating was so important to the early Christians, it may not be surprising to find them dining with the dead as well. In many parts of the ancient Mediterranean it was already customary to celebrate for (or with) the dead annually, in meals termed refrigeria, “refreshments.” The prominence of banqueting imagery in ancient funerary art is striking, not merely decorative but evocative of hopes for what the deceased might enjoy. But where in traditional Greco-Roman belief the departed were sometimes more like clients relying on the living for remembrance and sustenance, and probably respected more than embraced, the martyrs were patrons to cultivate; to dine with them was to eat with the great, and an invitation to their circle was a foretaste of the great banquet of the reign of God.

Strictly speaking, aspirations expressed to the martyrs for their powerful intercession were not “prayer” to them as though to God; it was acknowledgment that faith required a community and that death was not the end of the duties or of possibilities that community gave. This Christian care of the departed martyrs was a sort of familial duty, and all members of the church and of earthly families also required respect. Tertullian sees no hint of paganism in his insistence that a wife’s duty to her deceased husband would involve cemeterial gifts: “Indeed, she prays for his soul, and requests interim refreshment [refrigerium] for him, and for fellowship in the first resurrection, and she offers on the anniversaries of his falling asleep” (On Monogamy 10.4). The refrigerium and “offering” here include some sort of funerary meal celebrated with the grateful dead, whether the cemetery picnic, a more institutional eucharistic celebration, or both.

Through the third and fourth centuries, Christian practice combined these elements of care for and care from the dead. The distinction between this new martyr cult and older forms of dining with the departed was not always obvious, and the combination of the two made the cemetery venues often as important as churches; churches were even built in the cemeteries. The decorations of the Roman catacombs, with prominent banqueting scenes, also link heavenly aspirations with earthly customs performed in front of them; African tombs with hollows for food offerings, and even holes for the direct administration of wine to the occupants of graves, go beyond evocation to enactment.

A description of how Christians at Smyrna took care of the remains of their mid-second-century hero Polycarp exemplifies remembrance of the saints: “Thus we later took up his bones, more valuable than precious stones, and costlier than gold, and put them in a suitable place. There the Lord will allow us to come together as we can in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already competed, and for the training and preparation of those to come” (Mart. Pol. 18.2–3).58 Here are the elements of the cult of the saints known in subsequent centuries: veneration of their relics, places associated with their remains (eventually churches dedicated to them), and feasts commemorating their deaths. The last of these are referred to in the ancient martyr acts, remarkably, as “birthdays”—not the anniversary of mortal life beginning but of its end and the beginning of new, heavenly life.”

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Ancient Christian Worship is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 320 pages and sells for $29.99.

Andrew B. McGowan (PhD, University of Notre Dame), an Anglican priest, is president and dean of the Berkeley Divinity School and J. L. Caldwell McFaddin and Rosine B. McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies and Pastoral Theology at Yale Divinity School. He previously served as warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, and is the author of Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals.

Book Give Away

This week I’m giving away a copy of A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation edited by Craig Bartholomew and Heath Thomas. Here’s the catalog description:

“Recent decades have witnessed a renaissance of theological interpretation. Craig Bartholomew and Heath Thomas bring together a team of specialists to articulate a multifaceted vision for returning rigorous biblical interpretation to the context of the church.

Developed by the internationally recognized Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, this book is designed to bring clarity and unity to the enterprise of theological interpretation. It positively integrates multiple approaches to interpreting the Bible, combining academic rigor with pastoral sensitivity for professors, students, and church leaders.”

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, May 6th 6:00 am EST. I’ll draw the winning name that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

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Were the Gospels Originally Anonymous?

In his most recent book, The Case for Jesus (Image Books), Brant Pitre tackles a long-held staple of New Testament scholarship: the anonymity of the Gospels.

Read any standard New Testament introduction and one of the first things it will tell you is that the Gospels are “technically” anonymous. We don’t really know who wrote them. Pitre says this conclusion is “so widespread that it was rarely discussed, much less questioned” when he was a student. The theory can be broken down into four basic claims:

  1. The four Gospels were originally published without any titles are headings identifying the authors.
  2. All four Gospels were circulated without any titles for almost a century before any attributed them to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
  3. Long after the disciples of Jesus were dead were the titles finally added to the manuscripts.
  4. Since the originals Gospels were anonymous it is reasonable to conclude that none of them were actually eyewitnesses.

Pitre responds with a number of points. I’ll only list three here:

  1. “No anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have.” (p. 15) All of the extant manuscripts we have include some kind of author. While some variation may exist (e.g., “Gospel according to Matthew,” “According to Matthew”) or the title may appear at the end of the document there is “absolute uniformity” in the authors to whom each book is attributed. (p. 17)
  2. The anonymous scenario is incredible. As the theory goes the gospels circulated anonymously for almost a hundred years but then somehow at some point they are “attributed to exactly the same author by scribes throughout the world and yet leave no trace of disagreement in any manuscripts.” (p. 19) Pitre asks “How did these unknown scribes who added the titles know whom to ascribe the books to? How did they communicate with one another so that all the copies ended up with the same titles?” (p. 19) Why weren’t some of the gospels attributed to someone else like Andrew or Peter? This is, in fact, what you see with manuscripts that are actually anonymous (i.e., the book of Hebrews which is attributed to all sorts of authors). (p. 20)
  3. Why attribute Mark and Luke to non-eyewitnesses? “If you wanted to give authority to your anonymous book, would you pick Luke, who was neither an eyewitness himself nor a follower of an eyewitness, but a companion of Paul, who never met Jesus during his earthly life?” (pp. 22-23) Notice that “none of the later apocryphal gospels are attributed to non-eyewitnesses like Mark or Luke. The later false gospels are attributed to people with firsthand access to Jesus: people like Peter, or the apostle Thomas, or Mary Magdalen, or Judas, or even Jesus himself. They are never attributed to mere followers or companions of the apostles. Why? Because it is the authors of the apocryphal gospels who wanted to give much-needed authority to their writings by falsely ascribing them to people with the closest possible connections to Jesus.” (p. 23)

Pitre spends the next chapter exploring each Gospel and its title. He examines the internal evidence to show it does not support an anonymous theory. In chapter four he looks at the early church fathers and demonstrates that “the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament are completely unambiguous and totally unanimous about who wrote the four Gospels.” (p. 39)

Pitre’s case is a strong one and worthy of attention. He points to an important article by Simon Gathercole titled “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts.” Pitre interacts considerably with the work of Barth Ehrman. Ehrman’s most recent work, Jesus Before the Gospels (2106, HarperOne), was obviously too new to be included. It would have been nice to know how Pitre would have responded to this statement by Ehrman regarding the church fathers:

“In the various Apostolic Fathers there are numerous quotations of the Gospels of the New Testament, especially Matthew and Luke. What is striking about these quotations is that in none of them does any of the authors ascribe a name to the books they are quoting. Isn’t that a bit odd? If they wanted to assign ‘authority’ to the quotation, why wouldn’t they indicate who wrote it.” (Jesus Before the Gospels, p. 109)

The Case for Jesus is a hardback with 256 pages and sells for $23.00.

BRANT PITRE is a professor of sacred Scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of the bestselling book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (2011). Dr. Pitre is an extremely enthusiastic and highly sought-after speaker who lectures regularly across the United States. He has produced dozens of Bible studies on both CD and DVD, in which he explores the biblical roots of the Catholic faith. He has also appeared on a number of Catholic radio and television shows, such as Catholic Answers Live and EWTN. He currently lives in Louisiana with his wife, Elizabeth, and their five young children.

The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre


Book Give Away

This week I’m offering The Fourfold Gospel by Francis Watson. Here’s the catalog description:

“This groundbreaking approach to the study of the fourfold gospel offers a challenging alternative to prevailing assumptions about the creation of the gospels and their portraits of Jesus. How and why does it matter that we have these four gospels? Why were they placed alongside one another as four parallel yet diverse retellings of the same story?

Francis Watson, widely regarded as one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time, explains that the four gospels were chosen to give a portrait of Jesus. He explores the significance of the fourfold gospel’s plural form for those who constructed it and for later Christian communities, showing that in its plurality it bears definitive witness to what God has done in Jesus Christ. Watson focuses on reading the gospels as a group rather than in isolation and explains that the fourfold gospel is greater than, and other than, the sum of its individual parts. Interweaving historical, exegetical, and theological perspectives, this book is accessibly written for students and pastors but is also of interest to professors and scholars.”

Francis Watson (PhD, University of Oxford) is Research Chair in Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He previously held the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen and taught at King’s College London. Among his numerous works are the critically acclaimed Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith; Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective; and Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. He is also coauthor of Reading Scripture with the Church.

Leave your name in the comments section by NLT Friday, May April 29 6:00 am EST. I’ll announce the winner that day. If I don’t hear back from the winner within seven days the book will go to another entry.

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What a Difference the Gospel of John Makes

I’m currently reading The Fourfold Gospel by Francis Watson. What an amazing book. Here’s a small excerpt which I hope will whet your appetite.

“In John, the “cleansing of the temple” takes place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and follows an incident—water turned to wine at Cana of Galilee—that is not recorded elsewhere. In the synoptics, the temple incident takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry and is a link in the chain of events that leads to his death.

In John, most of Jesus’ activity takes place in or around Jerusalem, which he visits for feasts such as Passover or Tabernacles on four occasions before the final Passover when he meets his death. References to Jesus in Galilee are limited to three passages. In the synoptics, Jesus’ main activity takes place in or around Galilee, and he visits Jerusalem only once.

In John, Jesus’ debates with opponents in Jerusalem focus mainly on the issue of who he claims to be. Even when he heals on the Sabbath, it is his identity that becomes the primary issue rather than Sabbath healing as such; the Jerusalem authorities seek to kill him because “he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.” In the synoptics, Jesus’ debates occur in Galilee as well as Jerusalem, and they are mainly concerned with the observance and interpretation of the law.

In John, the event that leads to Jesus’ death is the raising of Lazarus. In the opinion of Caiaphas the high priest, this miracle poses a threat to public order with potentially disastrous consequences; the only responsible course is to put Jesus to death. In the synoptics, Jesus performs no miracles in Jerusalem or its vicinity (apart from blighting a fig tree and restoring a severed ear). His death is unrelated to his activities as a miracle worker.

In John, Jesus speaks at length with his disciples about a future in which he will be absent and yet present to them in a new way, through the Paraclete, or Holy Spirit. In the synoptics, this period of absence is viewed as a time of tribulation for the world that will culminate in the coming of the Son of man on the clouds of heaven.

In John, Jesus prays for himself, his disciples, and future believers while still in the upper room following the Last Supper. Confident of his own destiny, he asks to be restored to the glory that he shared with his Father “before the foundation of the world.” In the synoptics, he is distressed at his forthcoming suffering and prays in Gethsemane that the cup of suffering be removed, while subjecting himself to his Father’s will.

In John, Jesus’ “glory” is manifested not only in his miracles but also and above all in his death. In death he is “exalted” or “glorified.” The cross is his throne, and the crucifixion is his enthronement. In the synoptics, the revelation of Jesus’ glory takes place not on Good Friday but on Easter Day.

While it is modern scholarship that has labeled Matthew, Mark, and Luke as the “synoptic gospels,” the distance that separates them from John is not a modern discovery. Its recognition is as old as the four-gospel collection itself; the very fact of John’s inclusion shows that the distance was felt to be a positive rather than a negative factor. The question is how and why that distance enhances the canonical collection rather than undermining it and making it incoherent.

The differences illustrated here may not all be of the same kind. It is unlikely that Jesus performed similar demonstrations in the temple at both the beginning and the end of his ministry. It is not unlikely that Jesus visited Jerusalem more than once in the course of his ministry. All the same, these differences show why it has proved so difficult—indeed, impossible—to construct out of the four gospels a credible account of Jesus’ ministry in its actual historical sequence.” (The Fourfold Gospel, Baker Academic pp. 86-88)

The Fourfold Gospel is available in hardcover with 224 pages and sells for $24.99.

Francis Watson (PhD, University of Oxford) is Research Chair in Biblical Interpretation at Durham University. He previously held the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen and taught at King’s College London. Among his numerous works are the critically acclaimed Paul and the Hermeneutics of Faith; Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective; and Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective. He is also coauthor of Reading Scripture with the Church.

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