Brian J. Tabb. Suffering in Ancient Worldview: Luke, Seneca and 4 Maccabees in Dialogue. LNTS 569. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017.
It’s by my dean, colleague, friend, fellow Themelios editor, and fellow elder of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
It is extremely difficult to successfully submit a book for publication in the prestigious Library of New Testament Studies series. Brian did some first-class scholarship for this book. He updated his PhD thesis, which he completed in 2013 under Steve Walton at the London School of Theology. The examiners for his thesis defense were N. T. Wright and Conrad Gempf, and Brian passed with high marks.
I asked Brian if he’d answer some questions about his book for my readers, and he generously agreed.
1. Your book’s list price is $114. Why is it so expensive?
Suffering in Ancient Worldview is part of a series called Library of New Testament Studies published by Bloomsbury. It’s a series that publishes specialist, technical academic books like revised PhD dissertations. The high price signals that this is an academic monograph, not a popular trade book; most copies will be purchased by university and seminary libraries, biblical scholars, and PhD students. The publisher is not promoting this as the next big thing in church small groups or a top Mother’s Day gift idea (though it’s highly recommended if your mother is a New Testament scholar or a Classicist). Hopefully there will be a more affordable paperback edition available in a year or two (around $40) that will make the book more widely available to others. If you just can’t wait, the good news is that it’s on special for only £76.50 in the UK.
2. Your book’s title mentions Seneca and 4 Maccabees. Why would a New Testament scholar spend time writing about that?
One of the key inspirations for this study was Acts 17:17–18: “[Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him.” In this passage the apostle Paul is dialoguing with Jews and philosophers about the Christian gospel. We have extended examples of what Paul proclaimed to his fellow Jews in the synagogue (see Acts 13:16–41) and what he said to the philosophers (see Acts 17:22–31). I wanted to better understand what these people thought—especially about suffering—to better understand the mission of early Christians like Paul.
I chose to study Seneca because he’s the most important Stoic philosopher of the first century AD—he was an exact contemporary of the apostle Paul. He was also a Roman senator and the tutor of the notorious emperor Nero, and his brother Gallio is mentioned by name in Acts 18:12. Seneca writes quite a lot about suffering and adversity—including a whole essay that deals with the question of why bad things happen to good people if Providence rules over the world (On Providence).
4 Maccabees is an important Jewish writing of the first century that is considered part of the “Apocrypha” (hidden books) and is included in Catholic Bibles as one of the “Deuterocanonical” books. The book’s main point is that reason is dominant over the emotions, and the author proves this philosophical thesis by appealing to the example of nine Jewish martyrs who remained faithful to the Law even in the face of horrific torture and death. I chose to include 4 Maccabees in this study because it talks about suffering and persecution more extensively (and graphically) than any other Jewish book around that time.
3. You write that your book seeks to answer this question: “How does suffering function in the worldviews of Seneca, Auctor, and Luke?” After all your research, what have you concluded?
I concluded that Seneca, Auctor (what I call the Jew who wrote 4 Maccabees), and Luke all thought there was some divine purpose in suffering. It’s fairly common for people today to be surprised by suffering and tragedy and to raise questions about God’s goodness or power, and the ancient authors I studied challenge this popular response. Now these writers have different views of what that divine purpose in suffering is because they don’t agree on the “divine”—who God is. The Stoic Seneca argues that suffering is an opportunity to learn and demonstrate true virtue. Auctor thinks about suffering in terms of God’s covenant with Israel. 4 Maccabees argues that Israel’s suffering under the tyrant Antiochus is divine chastisement for grievous covenant-breaking; at the same time, the suffering and death of the faithful martyrs atones for their sin and reverses these covenant curses. Finally, this study helped me see even more clearly how Luke and Acts stress the saving significance of Jesus’s suffering and the vital role that suffering plays for the early Christian mission.
4. Why did you choose to research this subject?
I was initially inspired to study the theme of suffering while teaching at a conference for church leaders in India. Many of the pastors shared about the threats, rejection, and even violent persecution they experienced from their families or communities as they proclaimed the gospel. I wanted to research the New Testament’s teaching on suffering and its relation to the church’s mission to edify the global church. While this book will be read mainly in Western research libraries, I have by God’s grace been able to teach on suffering in Acts in several contexts and have published an article and a popular-level book chapter that are more accessible.
5. How has your research helped you better understand suffering?
Suffering is painful, personal, and at times perplexing. One of the supreme tests for every religion, philosophy, and worldview is how they explain the reality and purpose of human suffering. Readers of your blog are probably more interested in what the New Testament says about suffering, so I’ll share my five thesis statements about suffering in Luke-Acts (for explanation, see this article):
- Jesus’s suffering and vindication are the surprising means by which God accomplishes his promised plan of salvation.
- Believers’ suffering serves a strategic missional purpose in light of God’s inaugurated-not-yet-consummated kingdom.
- Suffering validates the legitimacy of the church and especially its leaders, who suffer like Jesus in fulfillment of his predictions.
- Suffering fundamentally expresses the world’s brokenness from sin and Satanic oppression.
- Believers should respond to suffering through concerted prayer, bold witness, and joyful, confident hope.
6. What are some of your forthcoming writing projects?
I’m currently working on a biblical-theological treatment of the book of Revelation, which will be a part of the New Studies in Biblical Theology series edited by D. A. Carson (Inter-Varsity Press). I also have a short book on 1–2 Timothy and Titus coming out this summer in Crossway’s Knowing the Bible series.