Friday, June 15, 2007

Ephesos-- 2007

Ephesos (also known as Ephesus for the Latin form of the name), was without question one of the crucial cities in Paul's world. It is no accident that Paul, with his urban ministry strategy spent over two years in this city, using it as a place to indiginize the Christian faith into Graeco-Roman culture. The pictures you see above were taken by my friend and colleague Mark Fairchild. We were both at Ephesos in May to give lectures, but as you can see, lightning and rain intervened.

What you are looking at is the famous Celsus library which did not exist in Ephesos during Paul's day, as it was built in the second century A.D. Libraries added to the prestige and intellectual capicity of an ancient city. They were not lending libraries, but rather research libraries full of scrolls, and eventually of codexes, and since only 10% or so of the population was literate, they were basically the provenance of well to do people, who were generally and usually the more well educated persons in the ancient world. We are however told that Paul lectured in the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesos, which indeed shows that he viewed Christianity as an intellectually serious enterprise. No one who has long pondered his letters could doubt he thought this way about the Christian faith.

And this brings me to an important point of this particular post. What does it tell us about early Christians and early Christianity that it had so many documents, and was spread by writers and writings, among other things? For one thing it tells us that Christianity was not a movement led by illiterates. This does not mean the leaders were all lettered or learned persons (Peter and John for example are said not to be such in the early chapters of Acts), but all of the major leaders of the early church were literate-- could read and write. This includes Jesus, Peter, James, Jude, Paul, the Beloved Disciple, Apollos, Silas, Luke, Matthew, Mark, and many more. As E.A. Judge long ago demonstrated Christianity was not led by bucolic charismatics. It was led in the main by the more educationally and socially elite members of its ranks. This is hardly a surprise when we realize that the church met in the homes of their more socially elite members (former synagogue leaders, city treasurers like Erastus, successful business persons like Lydia. The idea that early Christianity was a movement chiefly composed of or even led by peasants, slaves, and in general the ignorant or illiterate is absolutely a myth. This is not to say that it was led by a bunch of scholars either, but for sure it was led by some of the more socially elite and/or well educated persons in antiquity.

This brings me to an important point. There is, and has long been, an anti-intellectual element in low church Protestantism, especially in its more fundamentalist and charismatic branches. This is not always the case of course. Yet even today there is often a suspicion that too much study, intellectual effort, too much schooling can ruin one's faith, as if head and heart, reason and faith were necessarily at odds with one another. Not only is this not necessarily the case, a close study of the leaders of the beginning of the Christian movement gives the lie to such an assumption. It is an irony that Paul, one of the great minds of any age, could have been used to spearhead an anti-intellectual approach to the Christian faith. Paul would not have been pleased with this misuse-- indeed if you read Rom. 12.1-2 closely you will discover that submission to God necessarily leads to the renewal of the mind, a crucial part of any conversion or Christian life. In the 21rst century it is time for Christians to get beyond the faith vs. reason, head vs. heart, dichotomies. We need all our human resources mental and otherwise to save a lost world. Indeed we need all that we are and can be just to adequately worship God-- we must love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strength.

Whenever I see the library in Ephesos I am reminded of the intellectual responsibility of Christians to discourse with our culture at a level that can reach even the brightest of the potential converts. It's time to stop dumbing down the Gospel. It's time to boil up the people, tease their minds into active thought. For the mind is a gift from God, and is not only a terrible thing to waste, its an unethical and unChristian thing to waste.


Unknown said...

YES, YES, YES, This is so true! It is time for the church to embrace this calling to be thinkers.
"Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature." 1 Cor. 14.20
"Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." 2 Tim. 2.7

We have become so complacent in our churches. This is evidenced by the biblical illiteracy that has so infected our churches today. Most of the church knows more about Plato's philosophy than what the bible says (e.g. the preference of the immortal soul over the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead).

But hope is not lost for we have a God who will keep us and never leave us! So may he make our hearts and minds open to his truth!

werestillstanding said...

Could I talk to you sometime about women as pastors? I'm having a great deal of trouble with that. ~andy~

Leslie said...

Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement Dr. Witherington.

You are very right about the state of mind in the church today. It seems that many have become intellectually stale with their Christianity. I see this evidenced by the overwhelming emotionalism that runs rampant in the church. Not to say worship and such should be unemotional (indeed, the implications of an all-powerful God dying for us should bring forth emotions), but rather that people do not want to really think - they just want to feel good. It is enough to hear what the preacher/teacher has to say about a passage. We forget so quickly that the Bereans were commended for their intellectual involvement in the gospel.

At the same time, I fully understand why people are so concerned about modern day scholarship. The "publish or perish" mentality that seems to exist has pushed the most ludicrous of thoughts into common acceptance. Scholarship tears apart the letter, examining every technical detail, ultimately ignoring the intended purpose of the letter! I noted this most recently in a book by John P. Burgess, entitled Why Scripture Matters. It seems Burgess wanted to place the Scriptures into the category of Divine while still accepting the attacks of scholarship on the effects of the human element. Scholarship seems to push this point frequently - the human element makes the Bible flawed beyond repair yet we should still accept it as Divine. No wonder the skeptic community points and laughs; "scholarship" has given them the occasion!

I am totally behind working reason and faith together. You are entirely correct in saying such is the right Christian attitude. However, Christian scholarship must never adopt the mentality of conforming to the mindset of the world. I'm no wise man and am far from a scholar, but of this I am sure: some parts of the Bible are going to go beyond what the world will consider reason. Christian scholarship needs to learn to accept that. "For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18).

Carrie Ann said...

Dr. Witherington, I really appreciated this post. I struggled with allowing head and heart go hand in hand before I went to college. I'm so grateful for places like Asbury College and Asbury Theological Seminary for setting the example that the two can and should go together.

Matt said...

What a great post.

There is a real need to hold the "head" and "heart" elements of Christian faith in balance and tension between one another. I have appreciated those such as yourself who have clearly made an effort to maintain a balance between a faith which is as intellectually rigorous as it is attuned to walking in relationship with God in Christ.

I came from a family with a reasonably robust intellectual tradition, but after I came to faith I was confronted over and over by well-meaning people who would warn me that I was using too many "big words" or "asking too many questions". For a number of years I was fearful of pursuing academic studies, because I eventually became convinced it would damage my faith, not least because I had observed a number of people whose faith had seemed to cool after they had entered into higher studies.

For me the turning point was taking a series of Summer Intensives under Dr. Dudley Woodberry of Fuller many years ago. He was, and indeed is, a brilliant man, but as I saw him begin classes with devotionals, and even invite those who were musically gifted to begin the odd class with worship, it became clear that here was a man who was as much a man of God as he was a man of the academy.

I can't imagine his example in this, or yours, is unique, but it is particularly through living examples that such a key principle is best understood.



Ben Witherington said...

Hi Andrew:
Of course we can talk about this sometime. Simply email me at my seminary address--

One thing I did not say in this post is that it is of course true that there are persons, and also times in most persons lives, when they are intellectually vulnerable. It is foolish to think that ideas cannot hurt a person, or that we are always bullet proof intellectually. This is not so. But also a mind that is never stretched or challenged is a mind that never grows. Sometimes people assume that it is necessary to be able to defend one's faith to be intellectually strong. I am not sure this is true either. One needs to be able to articulate and give reasons for one's faith, but defending it with various sorts of arguments is a particular skill set that not all have. What I do think is the case is that Christians need to understand the basic elements of their faith, and need to be able to talk about them. That's very important. It's not adequate to just have strong feelings about something, one must have ideas about them as well and the only alternative to good clear thinking is poor thinking, not no thinking.


Ben W.

Leslie said...

"Sometimes people assume that it is necessary to be able to defend one's faith to be intellectually strong. I am not sure this is true either. One needs to be able to articulate and give reasons for one's faith, but defending it with various sorts of arguments is a particular skill set that not all have."

That makes sense, but I wonder how to teach people to do that. That is, what about when the skeptic comes and attacks a person's faith? It appears in such instances that the alternative to having that skill set is having an ignorant faith where the Christian puts his fingers in his ears and starts saying "I can't hear you!". How do you help prepare people for such a scenario when the person is not perhaps ready for handling specific arguments? As a youth minister, this is a great concern of mine, as it seems today many high school students go off to college and encounter this very same scenario, to their spiritual demise.

Again, thank you for your thoughts and encouragement Dr. Witherington.

Dave Thomas said...

First of all those are fantastic pictures. Secondly I wholeheartedly agree! I work in full time ministry with college students and I need your encouragement to holistic ministry So often I find students with intellectual knowledge but lacking life change. My challenge is to encourage both head and heart knowledge. Thank you. By the way I'm actually taking a group of undergrad students in a few weeks overseas. We will make a day trip to "Ephesos." The fun thing is I will be teaching Ephesians over 2 weeks making the trip at the midway point. If you have any recommendations of resources or even points of interest in the city I would love to hear about them. You can reach me at Thank you!!

Michael Gilley said...


I never really encountered an anti-intellectual mentality growing up and I am greatful for that. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Convention. However, I'm afraid that higher up the mentality is there. Ever since the turn over in the Convention the SBC's seminaries just haven't been the same. My experience with those they turn out have been that they teach conservative, "traditional" Southern Baptist theology (really trendy theology from the generation of those running the Convention) instead of textual, form, and literary criticism to formulate our theology. I was taught by a prof who graduated from a Southern Baptist seminary and he was uncomfortable with any kind of question that dealt with discrepancies in scripture across different authors. Mostly historical accounts, which never line up entirely in works of antiquity. I had to explain this to him! He felt like he had to parallel any account.

However, there is an attitude still in most churches in the Bible belt that will not hire on any minister that has been "trained" (educated) at any seminary/grad-school outside the Southern Baptist schools. I try to discourage this thinking as I am planning on attending Fuller. Could be a throw back to Landmarkism and denominational pride. I'm not sure.


I'm a college minister as well. Check out Clinton E. Arnold's "Power and Magic," his dissertation. He does an amazing job of outlining the historical situation of Ephesians and interpreting the letter of Paul's in light of that background. It's a fresh and solid look at the letter's intent and purpose (sitz en laben) and the situation of the early church of Ephesus.

Ben Witherington said...


I think that deliberate teaching of how to witness to the skeptical is the answer. Not all will do it well, but some answers is better than no answers.

To Michael and Dave I would say, first of all Ephesians is an encyclical homily for a variety of churches. It is not addressing particular issues in Ephesos, so the attempt to correspond it to specific problems in Ephesos does not work, despite Arnold's efforts. Arnold is simply wrong about some of his correspondences in regard to the powers and principalities issue in Ephesians.


Ben W.

Michael Gilley said...


This is very interesting. First off, do you believe that Paul authored Ephesians or do you see it more as a coverletter? I know that most scholars who hold to Ephesians as a coverletter for Paul's corpus of writings see it as a encyclical work. Secondly, do you see any ANE magic being dealt with in the letter? It seemed in reading Arnold's work to fit snuggly? If not, how do you work in the historical background of Ephesos and the Artemisian cult with the letter?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Michael:

I do think Paul wrote Ephesians. I don't think the Artemesion is of much relevance for the interpretation of this discourse. It is a sermon about the church, not a discourse about false gods. All too much has been made of the peroration in Ephes. 6 about putting on the armor of Christ.


Nick Norelli said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thank you so much for this post. As a Charismatic-Pentecostal I can't tell you how many times I've heard preachers downplay the importance of an intellectual approach to the faith.

The shouts of "I don't need to know no stinking Greek or Hebrew" yet the constant emphasis on speaking in tongues has bothered me to no end. Why not do both?

And the mocking of theologians and scholars(as if those words meant something bad) has always left a sour taste in my mouth. As I see it Jesus left the Church with teachers.

The reliance upon feelings over and above devoted study and exegesis of the Biblical text has also caused me much sorrow.

I agree that there is a false dichotomy set up in pitting faith against reason and head against heart. These things can and do exist side by side and need to be balanced in order to produce a balance in the life of believers.

I can't agree more with you when you say:

For the mind is a gift from God, and is not only a terrible thing to waste, its an unethical and unChristian thing to waste.

Matt said...

Beautiful pictures! Also a good post. Dr. Witherington, do you have any suggestions for how to confront anti-intellectualism in a loving way that does not come off seeming arrogant? I worship in a small pentecostal church with a lot of great pietistic Christians. Sometimes I want to say something about the need for intellectual integrity but I'm afraid of how it will be received.

Ben Witherington said...

Matthew I think this sort of thing has to be modeled, in this case by you. Usually the least offensive way to do it is to share how being prepared to give a reason for the hope within you is a Biblical thing to do. This means that one has to be reflective about one's faith and be able to articulate it. This in turn requires serious thought.


Ben W.

Chip Burkitt said...

I have found that personal experience of the truth of the gospels is far and away the best defense against the arguments of skeptics. Arguments attack the reasonableness of the Christian faith, but anyone who has experienced the presence of the living God cannot be argued out of their faith.

No one could have convinced Paul that he was delusional after his encounter on the road to Damascus, despite the fact that to modern ears the whole story sounds mad. Bright lights? Disembodied voices? Sudden blindness? Sounds like emotional trauma to me. Yet Paul was able to authenticate his experience from his own knowledge of the Scripture. Clearly he was not mad.

The reason so many young people lose their faith at college is that they have no personal experience of the truth. One could say that they have no faith but rather a set of untested assumptions about the world. Faith in the gospels is always personal. It is never merely acceptance of the truth value of some set of propositions. It is trust and relationship with a real Person.

I heartily agree that Christians need to engage in intellectually rigorous studies that challenge their faith. But let that be a deeply personal faith in God, not in a set of abstract propositions about God. Knowing God is life; knowing about God is still death. Jesus told the Pharisees, You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. It's a mistake to think Jesus criticizes their study; he criticizes their refusal to come to him.

One of the reasons I enjoy your blog, Dr. Witherington, is that we disagree on a few things. Yet it's quite clear to me that you know and serve the same Lord. May his name be forever praised. Keep up the good work!

Unknown said...

Dr. Witherington,

Since some have posed Ephesians questions, I want to throw mine at you as well.

Is there any merit in investigating Paul's use of "construction language" found in Ephesians, with the backdrop of the temple of Artemis, to see a thematic element? A couple of my seminary profs (Midwestern Baptist) used to push the idea that Paul's use of local color often determined the theme of each letter, i.e. construction in Ephesians, "building God's church", or military language in Philippians for advancing the Gospel, and so on.

I know your work focuses on socio-rhetorical devices and literary technicalities, so I figured you would be able to shed some light on this. I apologize, I haven't read your commentary on Ephesians though, where you may already deal with this. Thanks!

Michael Gilley said...

I'd be careful with that reasoning Chip. It's personal existentialism that gives anyone the gateway to define what "truth" is. For example, Mormons say the exact same thing you just posted to defend their beliefs despite all the mounds of facts that deny their validity. Anyone following a faith can say their "personal relationship" with their god or religious group makes it real.

I agree with you that it's experience that makes faith valid other than dry history with a little routine sprinkled on the top. However, without the study, background, and facts supporting it, it's nothing more than hearsay and a person's own biases or opinions based souly on their supposed experiences. For example, if we were to find the body of Jesus, what would this conclude? However, Jesus' body has not been found. One step closer.

Your quoting about the Pharisees is right on. Paul talks a bit about this in Romans. A Jew trully following the law will find and follow the Messiah, Jesus. However, the Pharisees were blind to this. This wasn't a lack of response on their part to "go forward" during the invitation call, it was a lack of site in studying the law. They should have been better schooled....

I am a minister to college students and have been one for the past four years. I can tell you that they main reason why college students (80% of them) drop out of the local church is because they are failed to be stretched and held accountable. Mostly, their parents aren't around to make them attend anymore. Most of the students that I know who stopped attending church still believe in Jesus as Lord and call on his name. They still believe very strongly that they have at least some relationship with him. They drop out of church because they feel like they don't learn anything there and/or they can't be used. What's the point in going if you're just stuck in a back corner? A few others that were involved in Biblical studies in school stopped attending church becuase they never saw the tough issues brought up in church like they are in their studies. To them, it appears as though the issues are avoided, or masked, by people who want to ignore the intellectualism of the gospel and focus on the "getting caught up in the Spirit." Hopefully this sheds some light.

I agree with you that personal experience is important in remembering God's faithfulness in the past, but in taking the gospel to other people, it takes real substance pushed with the passion of experience.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Chip:

I am afraid that it is not true that knowledge about God is death whole knowing God is life. Indeed, knowing about God is essential to knowing or experiencing God at all.

And while of course experience of God is essential, this experience involves always the intellect! The brain is the faculty through which all human experiences are processed. We have no other faculty for such processing. You can have a heart transplant and still be in tact as a Christian person, but if you lose your mind, or have a lobotomy that's a whole different matter.

Furthermore religious experiences can be real or genuine without being 'true' in the Biblical sense of the term. You can have a real experience of false spiritual beings and realities. One such experience leads to possession and requires exorcism. And furthermore it is not the case that a powerful experience is not something that you could later come to doubt or have questions about. I have had many Christians come to me asking "was my conversion even real or of God" many years later when they were going through bad times.

So we need to take a holistic approach to these matters. All experiences have an intellectual dimension and require mental reflection.


Ben W.

preacherman said...

Great post.
The question is do we dumb down the gospel to reach out to a dumbed society? Or Do we use our minds to glorify God and those who get the message, get it? Or Do we use our minds to become all things to all men to win some as Paul stated and thus glorify God?

José Solano said...

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

“If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not 
love, I am nothing.”

“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

It is of course here where the great theologians and scholars have zero advantage over the illiterate peasant. This is not to say that we should not study the Bible and a great many other things as we have the ability and circumstances.

Unknown said...

Thanks Ben. Is there a Jewish tradition that an hr of study is the same as an hr of prayer?

I think as you rightly say we need to practice faith thinking as well as faith experiencing... and the two to inform each other.

jon.deb said...

You have addressed an area that has been a soapbox of mine (one of many; so my wife tells me) for a while. I have often pondered why many Christians are anti-intellectual. Even well "educated professionals" adopt this position.
Could it be that some are simply lazy?
Could it be that some base their faith on their own understanding? They fear the possibility of coming across something that shakes their understanding; once the foundation goes...
Could it be that those who have no interest in learning, zealously defend this lack of interest by denouncing knowledge, questions, etc. as the road to apostasy?
Do many see questions as evidence of a lack of faith?
Perhaps some feel that those who do know a bit have an elitist attitude? After all, knowledge can puffeth up.
It is a shame, as you have mentioned.

Incidentally, I'm a great fan of your commentaries and recommend them to my students. I teach in a school (Pupils aged between 11-18 yrs) in Belfast, Northern Ireland (Religious Studies and Philosophy), and teach a night class at Belfast Bible College (an A-Level module that covers Acts, I Corinthians and Galatians).


Have the books come to the end of a print run? They are scarce.

seethroughfaith said...

hear hear :) and thanks!