The Teaching of Balaam

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Revelation 2:12-16 is one of those occasions when it is necessary for the Christian reader to be familiar with first-century Jewish interpretation of an Old Testament account.

Revised: 11-April-2007

Each May I lead a student tour to Greece and Turkey. During two weeks of travel and study, we explore the growth of the Early Church as it expanded from its Jewish setting in the Land of Israel and met the challenges of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles in the Hellenistic world. One of the profound realizations we have made is how much of its Jewish character the Hellenistic Church retained. In fact, the term “Hellenistic Church” should better be understood as a geographical description rather than one describing cultural identity.

On a recent trip, I was struck anew by the integration of Jewish methods of interpretation of the Old Testament in the letter to the church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-16). On the one hand, the profoundly Jewish flavor of the Book of Revelation is surprising. It was likely one of the last New Testament books written. By that point in time, most scholars assume that Christianity was well on its way in departing from its Jewish context. On the other hand, scholarship has recognized the significant Hebraic influences on the Greek language of the Book of Revelation. These linguistic undercurrents may reflect the distinctly Jewish milieu of the apocalyptic work, telling us something about both the author and his readers.

And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword: ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is; you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice immorality. So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.’” (Rev. 2:12-16)

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  • R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley

    R. Steven Notley is professor of Biblical Studies at the New York City campus of Nyack College. A member and past director of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, Notley earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Religions at the Hebrew University (1993). He studied in Jerusalem…
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