Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities in the New Testament (Part 2)

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Tim Widowfield

(This post is a follow-on to Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts.)

In the comments section of the previous post, Squirrelloid asked, “I’m curious, have you also compared to the Pauline corpus as reconstructed for Marcion to see if the affinities you find are not present using his presumably less redacted versions?

With respect to the Lukan Prologue, one difficulty in finding statistically meaningful affinities outside of Luke/Acts is the rarity of many of the words. The author used a good many (NT) hapax legomena, no doubt because he was trying to sound more like Polybius than the LXX. And those words that aren’t unique are often found only in Acts (or perhaps Luke). We’re going to have to go farther afield than the prologue to find anything convincing regarding the Pauline epistles.

Servants of God

At least one curious exception to the above disclaimer is the word for “servant” in Luke 1:2.

A nineteenth century picture of Paul of Tarsus
A nineteenth-century picture of Paul of Tarsus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ὑπηρέται (hypēretai) – “servants, officers, attendants” — As we pointed out before, the author of the prologue uses this term when speaking about “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” The gospels generally use this word to denote an officer under the charge of a hostile group.  Hence, we have “officers of the Jews” seizing Jesus and binding him in John 18:12. I think many times you could translate it as “henchmen.”

Paul, of course, when he talks about servants of Christ, prefers the word for slave — δοῦλος (doulos). The one exception to the rule is in 1 Corinthians 4:1.

First the Greek (SBLGNT):

Οὕτως ἡμᾶς λογιζέσθω ἄνθρωπος ὡς ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ καὶ οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ.

And then the English (NASB):

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Here Paul (or whoever wrote the passage) is using officer/servant instead of slave/servant for the first and only time in the entire corpus.  Interestingly, he’s using it in a sentence with a formulaic designation for the followers of Jesus. They are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Yet, if it is a formula, it is the only time we find it in the NT; nor do we find its constituent parts.  In other words, the exact phrases “ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ (servants of Christ) and “οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ (stewards of the mysteries of God)” never occur anywhere in the Bible except for 1 Corinthians 4:1.

Stewards of the Mysteries of God

Let us consider the word for steward.

οἰκονόμος (oikonomos) — “steward, manager” — This word appears in the Pauline corpus (including the pastorals, namely Titus) and in the first epistle of Peter.  However, among the evangelists only the author (or redactor) of Luke uses this word. In fact, Luke likes the word so much, he sometimes changes slave (δοῦλος) to steward.  For example, when Matthew recounts the parable of the faithful and wise servant, he calls him a slave, while Luke calls him a steward.  This change clearly reflects an editorial preference by the later author who is almost certainly Luke (unless one wants to argue that Matthew edited Q, while Luke left it intact).

The verses start out almost exactly the same.

Matthew 24:45

Τίς ἄρα ἐστὶν ὁ πιστὸς δοῦλος καὶ φρόνιμος ὃν κατέστησεν ὁ κύριος . . .?

Who then is the faithful and wise slave whom the lord has set . . .?

Luke 12:42

. . . Τίς ἄρα ἐστὶν ὁ πιστὸς οἰκονόμος, ὁ φρόνιμος, ὃν καταστήσει ὁ κύριος . . .?

. . . Who then is the faithful and wise steward whom the lord will set . . .?

It would appear that Paul and Luke approve of the term steward, and differentiate between servants who merely perform work and those who are entrusted to act as caretakers.

Stewards of the Mysteries of Serapis?

Finally, some of you may own the “other” Did Jesus Exist? book — the one by G. A. Wells. You may recall that he wrote this provocative line without a clear citation:  “Witt observes that the importance of Hellenistic mystery religions for Christianity appears from such passages, and from Paul’s designation of himself and his fellows as ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’ (1 Cor 4:1) — the technical name for the stewards of the temples of Serapis.” (p. 41, emphasis mine)

I had a great deal of trouble finding a reference that corroborates this quote. In fact, I thought it may have been a mistake, a confusion of terms. In a paper published in the Dec. 1958 Journal of Biblical Literature, John Reumann writes, “Texts from the Eleusis and Delphi do talk about ‘chosen stewards of the mysteries,’ but the term is always ἐπιλεμηταί, not oikonomoi. Although many titles are vouched for in Greek temple administration, okonomos does not seem to be among them, let alone the specific phrase, ‘steward of the mysteries of God.’” (“Stewards of God”: Pre-Christian Religious Oikonomos in Greek” –JBL, Vol. 77, No. 4, pp. 340)

So the actual source of the term “stewards of the mysteries of God” remains somewhat unclear, although Reumann points out that Oscar Cullmann’s approach was to define oikonomia as a “plan” of salvation based on Christ.  The author then cites an interesting decree from Magnesia dated to the early second century CE, in which sacrificial chores of okonomoi of the Sarapis [sic] cult are enumerated (see p. 343). So it’s possible that this is where Wells got the idea.

What’s confusing is that Wells appears to be specifically linking the mystery cult of Serapis to Paul’s conception of Christianity by focusing on the term “steward.”  However, the stewards of Serapis appear to be no different from the other stewards of pagan cults — protecting and tending the place of worship, overseeing sacrifices, performing other duties as needed, etc. Further, an oikonomos could be either a governmental or a religious official. It just referred to “a guy who takes care of stuff.”

If somebody out there reading this knows the actual quote from Dr. R. E. Witt to which Wells is referring, please let us know.

The following two tabs change content below.

Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

10 thoughts on “Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities in the New Testament (Part 2)”

  1. I think Wells may be referring to p. 256 of Witt’s Isis in the Ancient World (some pages of which can viewed on Amazon):

    p. 256: “Like the founder of the religion he proclaims, Paul uses mystery both singular and plural whenever it suits his purpose: in connection with knowledge (gnosis) and wisdom (sophia) with the Christian revelation and resurrection and once along with the technical name for stewards at the Sarapeum.”

    A footnote on p. 321 has this: “The oikonomoi resemble in name those officers who kept bread bills at the Sarapeum (UPZ 56.7)”. UPZ is the abbreviation for urkunden der Ptolemaerzeit (ed. Wilcken), 1922.

    1. Thanks. This must be the source of the quote.

      If you Google for “stewards of the mysteries” and Serapis, you’ll come up with loads of hits with people claiming that Paul’s designation is just like the term used for the priests of Serapis. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on Gnosticism and the New Testament contains the assertion that “Paul considers himself as ‘servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God’ which some [who?] suggest was also the technical term for a priest in Egyptian mystery religions [citation needed] where the central figure was the god Serapis.”

      So we went from a word that resembles the name given “officers who kept bread bills at the Sarapeum” (Witt) to a “technical name for stewards of the temple of Serapis” (Wells) to “the technical term for a priest in Egyptian mystery religions” (earnest people on the Internet).

  2. It’d be interesting if you had a similar discussion concerning the use of δοῦλος and the problems it historically posed to translators (in Latin and English)

  3. I fail to recogize the relevance any such discussion, however erudite, might have beyond the posssibility of adding but one more grist to the mythicist’s mill, having accepted Ogden’s “sufficient evidence”.

  4. As flattered as i am that you referenced my earlier comment, I can’t help but feel that you never actually address my question (which leaves me confused as to why you preface the post with it).

    You seem to be quoting the orthodox Paul when you quote from his epistles (though for all I know that passage also appears in Marcion’s version). Nor do you go back to the other affinities you mentioned in the previous post to tell us they are or aren’t present if we just consider Marcion’s version (as best as we can reconstruct them), which would be interesting data.

    So… am i just confused? Did I miss something? Because the post feels like a non-sequitur relative to its intro.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading