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Ambassadors for Christ. An Exploration of Ambassadorial Language in the New Testament.
Tübingen: Mohr 1997. XVII, 322 S. gr.8 = Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2. Reihe, 92. Kart. DM 98,-. ISBN 3-16-146718-3.
Margaret M. Mitchell
Several New Testament scholars (D. Georgi, C. Breytenbach, myself) have recently argued that Greco-Roman diplomatic conventions influenced significant facets of early Christian thought and practice, especially in the Pauline churches. Anthony B.s 1995 Cambridge dissertation (advised by Prof. Morna Hooker) seeks to join this field of inquiry by attempting to define precisely what ambassadors (presbeis, presbeutai) in the first century did, and what constraints such actual practices (once carefully delineated) exert on the interpretation of New Testament passages in which they are evoked. The author sees his contribution to lie in the incorporation of epigraphic evidence (not just literary sources) into the reconstruction of Greco-Roman ambassadorial practice, which leads him in particular to doubt that Pauls self-description as an ambassador who attempts an act of reconciliation (2Cor 5:20) reflects actual ambassadorial practice. While the authors insistence that epigraphic evidence needs to be taken into account in these studies is surely (and rather uncontroversially) correct - though its over literary evidence is to be questioned - the scope of the topics which B. wishes to cover in this dissertation is so overwhelming that the analysis throughout consists of confident and frustratingly simplified verdicts on matters which are much more complex, nuanced and fluid than recognized.
The overly ambitious plan of the book is clear from the outset. The author seeks to correct the lack of understanding he perceives in New Testament scholarship of "the practice of sending ambassadors and embassies in the Greek east of the Roman empire in the first century" (1) by devoting a chapter to each of the following tasks:
1) "defin[ing] an embassy and present[ing] a social, cultural and historical analysis of embassies from about 60 BC to AD 150 (accomplished in 15 pages!);
2) giving "an analysis of the epigraphic record of ambassadors and embassies from the Greek east of the Roman empire in the period 27 BC to AD 119" (14 pages);
3) "examin[ing] the literary record of embassies from about 60 BC to AD 150 ... examin[ing] the language which was characteristically used of embassies and determin[ing] whether ambassadorial communication can be inferred in places where explicit ambassadorial language has not been used" (9 pages).
These three chapters depend upon a lengthy Appendix of Greek Inscriptions (167-263; there is no comparable listing of the "literary evidence") to which the reader eagerly turns for the fresh research supporting the sweeping conclusions in the text, but what one finds there is a simple "fact sheet" on each inscription, culled from the standard epigraphic tools, but no analysis of these inscriptions in context, either individually or comparatively. In three subsequent chapters B. applies his generalizations from this sampling to the Pauline Letters, the Deutero-Pauline Letters, and Luke-Acts. B. has articulated a valuable research agenda here (at least a decades worth!), but has not fulfilled his promises, both because the defined task was too vast, and because the methodology and logic employed here are flawed. The governing assumptions of the study largely predict its outcome.
Three major methodological impediments mar this study. First, the author assumes that ambassadorial practice can be understood by a purely lexical approach; that is, by collecting evidence from epigraphic sources solely on the basis of the presence of words from "the presb-word-group" (4). But this means that from the start the author has separated out the persons and practices thus denoted from the larger field of diplomacy and representation, and in the process has compartmentalized different ancient roles of representation and agency for which considerable lexical overlap is attested in both epigraphic and literary sources. Indeed, the "terminological confusion" of which B. accuses contemporary scholars (153) is often an accurate reflection of what we see in the ancient sources. B. wrongly assumes (3-10) that divergent terminology corresponds with easily distinguishable "categories of person" (6, this is also problematic because these roles were often temporary). But even this assumption is unequally applied to the sources, for whereas B. treats only inscriptions which contain a word from the presb-word group, when he turns to the literary and New Testament materials he introduces a distinction between "explicit" and "implicit" cases of ambassadorial activity, thus devising an uneven comparison among the three bodies of evidence.
Second, B.s argument depends upon the construction of too rigid definitions and dismissal of counter-evidence by categorization, often with hair-splitting, untenable distinctions, such as between "pure" mediatorial embassies and "pseudo-mediatorial embassies" (with two sub-types). For example, B.s critique of C. Breytenbach depends upon this idiosyncratic claim: "there is an important distinction between an intention to mediate and so reconcile and another activity, such as concluding a treaty for peace, which incidentally resulted in the reconciliation of the parties" (44; cf. 32 n. 52: "It is not proper to say that an embassy for peace [as here] is an embassy to reconcile" [no reasons given]). He makes a similarly problematic distinction between meditorial and ambassadorial activity: "These embassies ["mediatorial" embassies] cannot properly be described as being to promote the interests of the Sender either primarily or at all because they involved mediation by the Sender" (43). With such seemingly clear-cut categories B. seeks to impose order on the messy world of ancient politics by separating out actions in terms of whose interests are being served (the senders, ones own, a third partys) but, as all readers of ancient history know, the complicated terrain of ancient social and political relations rarely allowed for or exhibited such purity of motive. Distinctions, such as between ambassadorial and arbitrational activity, may indeed be possible, but not with the broad strokes applied here.
Third, B. never justifies the sample of inscriptions from which he works, so all statistical or other generalizations based on that sample are rendered essentially meaningless. His declaration of honesty on p. 56 n. 3 ("the inscriptions in the Appendix are not selective [in these (sic) sense that I have included only those which support my case]") is no substitute for a list of criteria of selection, by which one could assess the merits of his claims. The reader can only infer that B. has chosen his list by a computer-assisted search of thepresb-word stem, and has chosen to include only inscriptions depicting embassies from the Greek east to Rome (this crucial criterion is omitted in the introduction to these texts on 38, where they are misleadingly termed "Greek inscriptions about ambassadors and embassies"; cf. 1). Given this selection, and the absence of any inscriptions which relate to intercity politics in the east, or to Roman ambassadorial or other representational activity in the provinces, B.s findings that there were very few "mediatorial embassies", and that the characteristic demeanor of the embassies was supplication in favor of the senders own interests are hardly surprising. In particular B.s refusal to include evidence concerning Roman ambassadorial activity rests upon his questionable and insufficiently supported dismissal of the relevance of the legatus for the Greek word group presb- (9-10). His appeal to the fact that the referents of the Latin term legatus were not co-terminous with the Greek presbeutes is immaterial; the point is that was the normal Greek translation for the Roman term (LSJ, 1462), used even by a Jewish writer from the east like Josephus BJ 7.58, 163; AJ 14.229-31, 238; and especially 19.303 (of an imperial legate), so it naturally could bear such associations for early Christian authors or readers. Exclusion of evidence related to legati and other Roman representatives can only be justified by questionable logic such as the following: "it is easy to overestimate the extent to which ordinary people in the Greek east of the empire would have known, come into contact with or used language referring to Roman imperial officials. The Greek-speaking population would, of course, have been aware of such officials and referred to them as presbeutai. Nevertheless, much more important to them would have been their own agents of communication (whether among themselves, or to other provincial communities or to imperial officials) who were described by words from the presb-word-group" (15). But do real people compartmentalize their social and lexical experience in such a way?!
Because of these difficulties, though B. has begun the task of collection of sources, his study cannot be considered reliable. Much more work needs to be done. However, interestingly enough, his major exegetical conclusion, on 2Cor 5:20 (the cursory treatments of other New Testament passages introduce more difficulties than they resolve) can be assessed independently of these methodological concerns, since it rests upon the epigraphic materials only in a negative sense. As such it is worth a hearing in its own right, and may be considered the best contribution of the book. B.s work with diplomatic correspondence led him to conclude that that was not really the major influence on Paul in 2Cor 5:20. B. thinks (pace C. Breytenbach) that Pauls distinct idea of being an ambassador for Christ seeking peace with God does not come directly from ambassadorial practice, for he "adapted, rather than borrowed, the language of diplomacy" (100). In B.s view this adaptation results from Pauls combination of two things which he regards as separate domains: "Hellenistic-Jewish ideas about Moses as mediator and reconciler [and] Graeco-Roman language and thought about embassies"(102). This thesis has the merits of grounding Pauls appeal in ch. 5 with the extended Moses typology in ch. 3, and of being rooted in the concept of Mosaic mediation invoked by Paul elsewhere (Gal 3:20; perhaps Rom 9:3). It would be even more compelling if it were less based upon a presumed isolation of the two complexes (Hellenistic-Jewish and Greco-Roman) before Paul. Also, I would make far less than B. does of the impossibility (as he sees it) of Paul being an ambassador of Christ who bears a message from God, rather than his own sender, Christ (100), for Paul is the envoy of Christ who was himself the envoy of God (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3), which accounts for the consistency of the message in the chain of transmission.
This monograph is by no means the last word on the subject of Greco-Roman ambassadorial language and the New Testament, but perhaps it will foster further research into this important topic.