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Reading John in Ephesus.

Reading John in Ephesus. By Sjef Van Tilborg. Pp. vii + 232. (Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 83.) Leiden: Brill, 1996. ISBN 90 04 10530 1. Gld. 132/$85.25.

Even ten years ago it could not have been asserted that Ephesos was attracting due attention from students of early Christian history who wish to place the primitive Church in its social and archaeological context. Now it is thoroughly de mode. One recent example of cross-fertilization is to be seen in H. Koester (ed.), Ephesos, Metropolis of Asia (HTS, 41; Valley Forge, 1995). In other contexts, the different contributions of S. Friesen and of R. A. Kearsley on the Imperial cult at the city, the provincial highpriesthood, and the Asiarchy strike a chord of interest for New Testament researchers no less than for ancient historians and epigraphers. A major catalyst for this gathering momentum has been the appearance of the eight-volume Inschriften von Ephesos (Bonn, 1979-84), edited by H. Wankel, R. Merkelbach, et al.

In the book presently under review we have an opportunity to assess the flow-on of this work to those in the New Testament field who are concerned with literary theory. Tilborg's approach is to take texts originating at or dealing with Ephesos--this means inscriptions, in the main--and to compare them with the Fourth Gospel. The aim is not to `prove' that John's Gospel belongs to Ephesos; it is rather to investigate the `interference' which the Ephesian `Umwelt' may have exercized on local readers of that work. By this term, `interference', the author means (pp. 2-3, 101, etc.) the impact--perhaps only subliminal--which awareness of a certain societal context may exercize on a reader of a specific text. We are dealing with the resonances that are created for a work in readers who know the city where they live, and who apply the knowledge they have of their own context to create a mental image of the city or situation about which they are reading. After a brief introduction, Tilborg assesses these resonances in five chapters, dealing with onomastics (pp. 5-23), titulature of rulers (pp. 25-57), social context: urban/rural, differing status (pp. 59-109), social context: teaching, itinerancy, meals, women (pp. 111-64), and the implicit `presence' of the Emperor at Ephesos (via the Imperial cult) and in the Passion narrative of the Fourth Gospel at the trial of Jesus (pp. 1165-219). It is a misfortune that the book lacks a conclusion, which might have drawn together the various strands of these chapters. There is a select bibliography, and an index of that kind which is especially common in books on the New Testament: modern authors.

Reader response theory, of which `interference' is an aspect, has been a useful stimulus in literary studies generally, and has opened up new avenues of thinking for those who work on texts from antiquity. But the freshness of this research flower, clarifying some obvious truths about how an ancient text may have been read, has lost some of its bloom. There is some risk that continued intensive research in this area on ancient texts may either become cliched, or over-ingenious and unconvincing. For in the focus on how readers respond to their text other factors may be overlooked. So it is with the volume under review.

For example, it appears to be assumed throughout Tilborg's book that reading was a widespread skill in antiquity, and that all readers would have reacted to a text in the same way. This is the implication of comments like `The readers of John in Ephesus will have seen the indications of place in this way: ...' (p. 16); or `... the readers in Ephesus will have seen the connection with the archontes in John' (p. 20); or, again, `When Jesus is called "king" in the Johannine Gospel, the readers in the city will link that to other kings who played a role in the city' (p. 52); etc. An identical educational level and experiential background is being presupposed. This is not credible. Moreover, only a very tiny percentage of people in antiquity were readers with any fluency; most were hearers. This is surely an entirely practical reason why there was an anagnostes at early Christian worship meetings: there needed to be at least one person with this facility for any assembly to operate, but there may well not have been many more than that. Third, copies of the texts which were special for the Christian groups were not so easy and cheap to produce that everyone could have a copy at home for `private' reading. This would be to misconstruct the history of the book in antiquity. Next, if we return to the anagnostes, are we to imagine that these texts like John's Gospel, read out in the meeting and forming part of the liturgy, were not also discussed and commented upon? If that is so, then we must accept that some uniformity of reaction cannot but have been imposed in each congregation. It would be misguided to presume there was no oral correction of misunderstandings of situations about which a text speaks. A fifth point to make here is that we may accept as obvious that a reader/hearer in one location would be able to attach meaning of some kind to what is read on the basis of his own cultural circumstances in a large city in the Greek East. Whether John rewrote his memory to fit in with the Ephesian context is a more nuanced problem not concertedly addressed by Tilborg. While acknowledging the possibility of something like this occurring--e.g., glossing explanations which replace the original comment in a later draft--we should not expect there to have been a great deal, both because the Gospel is not striving to be fiction in its genre, and because of the context for which it was originally written down: a community in which the writer was perhaps the preeminent member. Finally, Tilborg notes (p. 142) that the large public and civic cults at Ephesos would have created no relevant resonances for Christian readers in the city with the group around Jesus as presented in the Fourth Gospel. Yet by late antiquity, and certainly by the Byzantine period, this situation may have changed. Thus, when the role of Mary alters and her profile increases markedly within the Church, and especially at Ephesos, may not the interference with Isis have been perceived differently from what obtained in the late first century? That is, the interference between a specific society and a written text may be expected to change over time. The author does recognize this possibility of changing perceptions for another matter (pp. 196-97).

It is observed by Tilborg that readers of John's Gospel at Ephesos `will have tried to place Jesus as teacher' into their own known framework (p. 131). Yet this might be expected to have happened only after the disappearance from the Christian groups of the generation which knew the Evangelist directly, or perhaps the generation after that: oral correction must have had a part to play in clearing away misconceptions. It follows that we should then be considering mid to later second-century readers of the Gospel, not those of the later first/early second century, and that therefore Tilborg's choice of date parameters for his database of inscriptions and other evidence (pp. 1-2; approximately Augustus to Hadrian) is flawed.

The method adopted for investigating certain questions in this book is sometimes problematic. For example, in ch. 1 (on names) it is nowhere indicated which edition of the Greek text of John is being used as the basis for the name count (pp. 5-7). The <> bracketing of two of these references is not explained. Several observations are made (pp. 8-111) about the thirty-three different individuals named in the Gospel, but this tally is not analyzed as fully as it could. It is striking, for instance, that Jesus' mother is never named in this Gospel, a fortiori in view of John 19:26-27. This emerges as even more curious given the special connection which both Mary and the author of this Gospel have been held to have with Ephesos. Is it a mark of her eminence within the early Christian circle which formed around John at the city that she was called `the mother of Jesus'--her fame being bound up entirely in her child, and causing her own separate identity to be overlaid? The Byzantine title for her, Theotokos, encourages us to draw the same inference. That there are only thirty-three different named individuals is surprising; thirty-two occur in total 194 times, in contrast with Jesus who is named on 237 occasions. These thirty-two people may be divided into six groups:

1. Those from the past (patriarchs, prophets, kings; seven individuals mentioned on a total of thirty occasions);

2. Disciples of Jesus (including Judas; six individuals, total of sixty-two times);

3. Other supporters (eight individuals, total of forty-five times);

4. Opponents (including Pilate here; three individuals, total of twenty-six times);

5. Patronymics (five individuals, total of eleven times);

6. Miscellaneous (John the Baptist, Malchos, Barabbas; three individuals, total of twenty times).

It is not simply that the name Jesus completely overwhelms all the others put together: there is such a focus on him that almost everyone else lacks separate identity. Indeed, some of those named appear to have been accorded this identification solely to distinguish them from homonymous contemporaries; thus, the various Marys, Johns, Judases, Josephs, Simons. The designation of the writer (or perhaps of the leader of the community) as `the beloved disciple' fits well with this, in addition to providing a sphragis for members of his community. It is a matter for speculation whether one or two are passingly named because they were known to the Johannine circle (Nikodemos, perhaps?). This may go some way towards accounting, conversely, for the considerable attention paid to some individuals who nevertheless remain anonymous to us, like the woman of Samaria in ch. 4, or the blind man of ch. 9. In his tables on pp. 15-16 concerning the proportion of Greek: Latin names in the first and second halves of the first century AD, Tilborg. argues that within a century this ratio changes from 3:5 to 1:4. This would be striking, if correct; but is it? His statistics are too loose for analysis by others, for the specifics of the texts which form his database are not provided. In the table on p. 15 the one significant feature is the total of Greek names, which drops by more than half (155 to 61) in half a century. This calls for explanation; but none is offered by the author, nor can it be discussed by others without knowing whether his tallies are reliable.

The claim advanced at pp. 15-16, that urban readers in a place like Ephesos would misunderstand allusions to villages, is surely not right. There was undoubtedly a chasm in attitudes between city dwellers and the rural population, as S. Mitchell brings out well in Anatolia (2 vols.; Oxford, 1993) 1.165-97 (ch. 11). But the two groups were not hermetically sealed off from one another. Further, it is precisely those with more likelihood of literacy skills who belonged to families with sufficient means to own rural estates as well as live in a city.

It is a frequent assumption in the book that a word in one context will colour the understanding of its occurrence in another context. A case in point is provided by the discussion of archiereis at Ephesos (pp. 20-22; Cf. pp. 106-07): it is suggested that when readers of John encounter `high priests' in that text, their understanding will be informed by the interference from the epigraphic mentions of those Ephesians who held a post with this title. It is not clear how this could ever be demonstrated; but if it could it must lead to the inexorable conclusion that readers of John decisively misunderstood their text at various points--after all, the high priests in John are `bad' people, hostile to Jesus, whereas the Ephesian inscriptions mentioning archiereis are virtually always honorific.

The second chapter contains a number of interesting observations (e.g., the difference that may exist between [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], pp. 26-27; the impression that Jesus is God's Son comes primarily from his many allusions to `the/my father', p. 27). Yet the chapter is weakened considerably by doubtful claims, and forced associations. For the second p. 52 may be instanced, where it is straining things to assert that `readers in the city will link' Jesus the basileus in John with other basileis influential in Ephesos' past; and for the first the overconfident suggestion that John 20:28 is a `more than probable' challenge to Domitian (p. 56) constitutes an example. Although the author mentions it hesitantly, his suggested comparison of Germanicus with Jesus (p. 55) exemplifies an ahistorical perception of analogies that were never visible to the ancients. Those who knew much about Germanicus knew and cared little about Jesus, and vice versa. At the conclusion of this chapter, the title soter in Samaria is discussed oddly and unconvincingly (pp. 56-57).

In ch. 3 the idea that readers of the Gospel at Ephesos would have to conjure up their own `imaginary map' of Palestine (pp. 61-63) is appealing, but only to a degree. We may grant that a lack of knowledge of the distances between places must have had an effect, and also that Jerusalem figuring so large in the narrative may have been thought to be similar to Ephesos in very general terms (cf. p. 66, fin.). But is this really the point? `Imaginary' maps of other times and other places may be an important device in literature--in the case of Shakespeare, for example, see the stimulating contribution by J. G. Gillies, Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, 1994)--but John is not trying to write `literature'. These topographical aspects are relatively inconsequential to his main focus on the words and acts of the charismatic Jesus. He is intent neither upon producing a Baedeker, nor a Livian or a Thucydidean history.

In the penultimate chapter Tilborg is interested to see whether Jesus as didaskalos (and his associations with others in this) is a form of behaviour which would have resonances at Ephesos (cf. p. 117). The distinction he makes between two models of the didaskalos which are drawn on to depict Jesus in the Fourth Gospel--the Rabbi who gathers disciples, and the `hellenistically oriented image of a teacher who forms an "oikos of friends" through his teaching activities' (p. 120)--is a false one, given the profound penetration of Judaism by Greek ideas and mores in the Hellenistic period. A propos the discussion of didaskalos, it may be mentioned that a new definition of didaskalos, with evidence from non-literary sources and some discussion of its implications for the New Testament, is suggested in an article by John A. L. Lee and the undersigned, to appear in Filologia Neotestamentaria.

In this chapter it is also asserted that `Ephesus is a "study" City' (p. 125); but is this any more true of Ephesos than of other great metropoleis? It is important for the book's argument that Ephesos is somehow special in a number of matters where it is in fact perfectly typical; but for entirely normal features the author rarely marshalls evidence from elsewhere to illuminate the appropriate resonance. At one level, this strictness of approach is laudable; but it has the consequence of missed opportunities. Thus, in discussing various contexts in which meals occurred (pp. 1136-41; it is hard to see how meals at tombs (pp. 140-41) creates a resonance with John's Gospel) one relevant one is omitted: invitations to dinner (cf. New Documents illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 1, pp. 5-9). It is true that there is no such evidence from Ephesos, but that is due to the non-survival of papyri in Asia Minor, not to the non-occurrence of this type of ephemeral text at the city. It is relevant to mention an obviously ubiquitous practice.

It is suggested (pp. 132-33) that some people at Ephesos may have connected Jesus' teaching style with that of the Platonists or Sokrates. The former is most unlikely, the latter possible simply because Sokrates was the archetypal philosopher teacher whose mythology was alive at Ephesos at least in some quarters: in Selcuk Museum a fragment of a wall painting from a house depicts and names Sokrates. (We may compare the widely recognized photos of Einstein, who has become for the twentieth century the archetypal scientist.) Yet the analogy would be only a very general one, such as might be made for any other teacher. When the author states (p. 135) that Jesus' miracles would be understood at Ephesos against the background of wonder-working teachers, we must pause to consider whether this claim is back to front. Philostratos, Vita Ap. 4.10 (cf. 7.21, 8-7)--not mentioned by Tilborg, at p. 134, surprisingly--shows Apollonios of Tyana ridding the city of plague by miraculous means. In writing the Vita, Philostratos has as part of his aim the presentation of a `pagan Jesus'; he is responding in the third century to the alarming spread of Christianity and the consequent impact on pagan intellectuals. This may seem a reason to reverse Tilborg's claim; yet Apollonios was put on trial under Domitian, and was a charismatic teacher and wonder-worker who resided at Ephesos for a time. It is at least possible that the Fourth Gospel implicitly sought to counter the impact of Apollonios among the Ephesian Christian community at the very time when its elderly leader was committing to writing his long-considered views about Jesus. But if this was a factor, it was not a major one, and we cannot advance this possibility beyond a plausible guess. The writer maintains his gaze steadfastly on events two generations earlier in Palestine, and resolutely excludes any explicit anachronism--though contemporary glosses on those events might be expected in discussion within the group.

I. Eph. 3.951 has long been misunderstood as referring to 40,000 citizens, and this book perpetuates that misapprehension (p. 138). In fact, the inscription speaks unequivocally of a banquet for 1,040 citizens. See P. D. Warden/R. S. Bagnall, CPh 83 (1988), 220-23. Again, I. Eph. 3.713 is not well understood (p. 146). A Roman colony in Samaria (not Samaritans generally) honours its soter Falco, currently the proconsul of Asia. This inscription certainly does not mean that at Ephesos there was concern for Samaritan interests, and is not likely to have illuminated for readers the story in John ch. 4. It cannot be extrapolated from this text that Falco was `an expert in "judaica'" (p. 148). The comment about Justin Martyr (p. 147) providing an analogical nexus between Samaria and Ephesos is not persuasive.

The last two sections of ch. 4 need to be treated with considerable reserve. The relevance of the material quoted from the Anthologia Graeca, from the Ephesiaka, from Artemidoros, etc., in order to contextualize the `beloved disciple' (pp. 149-54) is extremely questionable. As for pp. 1154-64, on women at Ephesos, it may be agreed that they did have high profiles in certain contexts, but only very few of them, relatively speaking, and these from elite families. It is incorrect to say, however, that they were members of the gerousia or of the Roman Senate (pp. 162, 163); they could be of senatorial rank by virtue of birth or marriage. To speak of there being `a form of equal opportunity' (p. 164) because there were statues of them no less than there were ones erected of deities, emperors, and high profile male citizens, is entirely misleading. A recent contribution which might be considered is R. van Bremen, The Limits of Participation. Women and the Civic Life in the Greek East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Dutch Monographs on Ancient History and Archaeology 15; Amsterdam, 1996).

The final chapter is devoted to the trial narrative in John, and the development of the Imperial cult at Ephesos. For this purpose, the books by Price and Friesen are employed usefully. Reference might also have been made to Mitchell's Anatolia, both in general as well as on this specific topic at 1.100-17 (= ch. 8). There is no doubt that by the time the Fourth Gospel was written the urban shape of Ephesos was undergoing rapid and profound change to reflect the impact of the Imperial family in the city. In this, Ephesos was no different from other large cities such as Smyrna and Pergamon. Like modern-day bids to host the Olympic Games, competition between these three cities was intense in order to win the Emperor's nod for a further imperial temple. The political prestige and economic benefits were considerable. The book's final paragraph makes the useful point for interference between the resurrection appearances and current activity in the city: that the former is subversive of Roman authority if the latter is intent on promoting the divine status of the Imperial house.

The bibliography includes material down to 1994. While a reasonable range of works is included, it is disconcerting that a book which gives attention to the epigraphy of Ephesos has made use of only one volume (that by Knibbe: 9.1.1 (1981) in the fundamental series Forschungen in Ephesos, and no use at all, apparently, of the Vienna journal JOAI in which the regular reports and articles on the excavations appear. There is reference to only one article by the great epigrapher of the site from an earlier period, Josef Keil. The author has not availed himself of the Bibliography of ancient Ephesos by R. E. Oster (Metuchen, 1987); and it is surprising that Meeks' First Urban Christians is not included. A few items mentioned in the notes are not included in the bibliography (e.g., Daltrop-Hausmann-Wegner 1966, at p. 194 n. 44), or are not easy to find there (e.g., p. 203 n. 66: Kearsley 1992 appears in the bibliography, s.v. Horsley 1981-1992; cf. 160 n. 40). Not in every respect can the pagination in the index be trusted: s.v. Knibbe, for example, where five of the fourteen page references are out by one page. This suggests that the index was based on a penultimate set of galleys. If the publisher let down its author slightly in this respect, it did him a considerable disservice in not providing sub-editorial help to ensure a clean text. There are far too many typographical and stylistic errors. English expression is frequently not quite right; and p. 91 n. 38 provides the explanation, where the Dutch Vorlage to the present book is still partly in evidence. Greek accents are frequently either omitted or wrong. In several places it becomes clear that the author is not at home with Roman naming patterns: e.g., G. J. Neikoforos (pp. 89, 90 n. 37) for C. Julius Neikophoros.

This book is rare among contributions to New Testament scholarship for its serious endeavour to make use of the epigraphy of an ancient site in order to illuminate the world of the early Christians. It is also pleasing to see that it is not only Church historians but also those with an interest in literary theory who are doing this. The author may well be a trailblazer in his undertaking here. For he has taken up an interesting problem, sought to develop a method in order to address that question, and faced the need to immerse himself in material which has not yielded easily to him. If this present book is not altogether satisfying, let that be a spur to others in the New Testament field to make further attempts. For it is only as more work is attempted that the gains from such cross-fertilization will become apparent on a wider scale.
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Author:Horsley, G.H.R.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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