I regularly run into bits and pieces of insight or information that fascinate me but that seem too small to turn them into a full issue of Create a Learning Site. This month, I present three such pieces: codex, kingdom of heaven, and (the true meaning of) the rapture.
Breakthrough of the Codex
Books in the Greek and Roman world were normally written on scrolls. Next to wood or wax tablets, which could only be used for short texts, there was an alternative form available: the codex. Initially, the codex consisted of two or more tablets fixed together (see illustration). Starting in the second century BC, wood began to be replaced by parchment and later also by papyrus. This allowed for codices with a larger number of pages.
Still, the codex was not commonly used for literary texts. Most often, it was used as a notebook.
This changed with the emergence of Christianity. From very early on, it seems, Christians realised the numerous advantages of the codex and capitalised on them:
- The codex is smaller and easier to transport – or hide! – than the equivalent text on a scroll.
- It is more efficient: it needs less material.
- It can be larger and contain a longer text or collection of texts than a scroll.
- It allows for faster searches and cross-references (no need to roll the scroll back and forth; imagine the pain of comparing Isaiah 2 and 40 on a scroll).
- It does not need two hands to hold it in place.
Remarkably, scrolls continued to be the main form for book publication in the Roman Empire for another 300 years, until the fourth century. But not among Christians:
Almost without exception, the earliest Christian books known have the form not of the papyrus roll but of the papyrus codex, or leaf book, which is the model of the modern book … The comparative evidence is instructive. Of the remains of Greek books that can be dated before the third century C.E., more than 98 percent are roles, whereas in the same period the surviving Christian books are almost all codices. Among the Greek books the codex does not show up significantly until the third century (when less than 20 percent are codices), and only near the beginning of the fourth century does the codex come to be used almost as often (48 percent) as the roll. Christian texts from the earliest examples of the second century, however, occur almost always as codices. Together the relevant evidence indicates that early Christianity had an almost exclusive preference for the codex as the medium of its own writings and thus departed early and widely from the established bibliographic conventions of its environment. (Gamble 1995:49)
Gamble (ibid.:61-63) surmises that this may have to do with the fact that the earliest collection of Christian writings was a collection of Paul’s letters (already in circulation as a unit before the end of the first century). Taken together, these are too long to be written on a single scroll, but they do fit in a codex. Although it is speculative, this may have led early Christians to discover the advantages of the codex form very early on.
Matthew’s Kingdom of Heaven
It is a well-known fact that Matthew shows a strong preference for the phrase “kingdom of heaven,” whereas the other gospels consistently speak of the kingdom of God. Matthew is the only one in the New Testament to use the alternative expression. Why?
I have frequently heard the explanation (and I am afraid I have given it myself) that this is because Matthew is a more Jewish gospel than the other three, in the sense that its intended audience lived in an area with a large Jewish population and may have included more believers of Jewish descent than those targeted by the other gospels. This much is probably true. The explanation continues that Jewish people avoided speaking the name of God and instead pronounced the equivalent of “Lord” wherever the personal name of God appeared. This part is certainly true. Because of this Jewish sensitivity and to avoid offence, the explanation concludes, Matthew replaced “God” with “heaven”.
And this does not make sense. For one, five times in the gospel it does use “kingdom of God” (Mt. 6:33, 12:28, 19:24, 21:31, 21:43). Besides, this does not explain why Matthew speaks of “heaven” in other contexts, where it does not replace “God,” more often than the other gospels as well. And perhaps most importantly, Jews avoided speaking the name of God. They were not quite so apprehensive about using the word God; it is all over their writings. Since no one was speaking of the kingdom of YHWH, respect for the divine name does not explain Matthew’s use of “kingdom of heaven” at all.
More likely, Matthew draws attention to different aspects of this kingdom than do the other gospels. “Kingdom of God” points to God being the originator and the sovereign of this kingdom. “Kingdom of heaven” reminds us that it belongs to a different realm than other kingdoms we know and that it is characterized by an entirely different quality – heavenly quality! Matthew draws a contrast between (the ways of) heaven and (the ways of) earth.
Matthew probably also wants us to think of the book of Daniel, where the point is strongly made that heaven holds dominion, not earthly kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. Like Matthew, Daniel has a decidedly heavenly perspective. God is the God of heaven, not because he is not also God of the earth, but because he is high above the earth and earthly power. This is what Matthew reminds us of as he uses slightly different terminology than his co-evangelists.
[I owe this change of mind to Jonathan Pennington’s work on Matthew (2007).]
The True Meaning of the Rapture
One of the questions I get asked most often has to do with the rapture: Will it be before, during, or at the end of the great tribulation? In fact, I was asked this question this week as I was getting ready to write this issue.
First, notice that this presupposes that the rapture does not coincide with the second coming, but is a separate event. For most of its history, no one in the church believed such a thing. It wasn’t until 1830 that John Nelson Darby, the father of dispensationalism, discovered or invented it and wrote it into his dispensational scenario of end time events. Not a step forward, in my opinion.
Second, the word rapture does not occur in the Bible; only the related verb, normally translated to catch up, to snatch, to take, or to seize, does. In only one place is it used with any connection to the second coming:
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:15-17 ESV)
This does not sound like something that precedes the visible coming of Christ by any significant length of time. Besides, we misunderstand the passage if we take it to mean that this is our departure from earth to heaven for all eternity or at least for the duration of a period of great tribulation on earth (something not mentioned in this passage). In the wider context of 1 Thessalonians, the readers are not waiting for a departure but for an arrival: they “wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:10 ESV). Instead of leaving for good, those alive at the time go up to meet Christ coming down and accompany him upon his arrival on earth. After all, this is his coming (verse 15), not his passing by.
Here is the image that Paul has in mind. The Greek word translated coming, parousia, can also mean presence or visit or even arrival. One of its uses is for an official visit of the emperor or another person with a high position. In order to honour the approaching high guest, leading citizens would go out to meet him some distance from the city in order to accompany him upon his arrival. Since Christ is coming down, it won’t do to go out, it requires going up, but otherwise, it is the exact same idea. In the words of the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, the image is that
… of a delegation sent forth from a city to greet a visiting dignitary and formally escort him into the city. Here a scene of “horizontal” earthly diplomacy is recast on a vertical plane. Believers are pictured as meeting the descending Lord “from heaven.” The end of the story is sketched by the words “so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:17 NRSV), but the direction of this mininarrative suggests that the Lord’s people meet him to accompany him as he lays claim to his earthly city. (Ryken et al. 2000:860)
The rapture is part of the second coming, not something that precedes it by any number of years.
Donna con tavolette cerate e stilo (cosiddetta “Saffo”), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sappho_fresco.jpg (Public Domain)
Harry Y. Gamble (1995), Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press)
Jonathan T. Pennington (2007), Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew: Supplements to Novum Testamentum 126 (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers)
L. Ryken, J. Wilhoit, T. Longman et al. (2000), Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (electronic ed.) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press)
Standard Bible Society (2001), The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Standard Bible Society)