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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

BRIAN S. ROSNER, Greed as Idolatry: The Origin and Meaning of a Pauline Metaphor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). Pp. xiv + 214. Paper. $US22.00.

Greed as Idolatry is a study of two Greek words of ethical import from Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, where greed is labelled idolatry. Rosner accepts Pauline authorship of these epistles, though that assumption does not materially affect how the study is conducted. Despite the rampant materialism of contemporary society (that has only too effectively invaded the church), Greed as Idolatry is the only detailed study of this Pauline metaphor to appear for many years.

Rosner, who is senior lecturer in New Testament and ethics at Moore Theological College, shows that equating greed with idolatry is not original to the writer of Ephesians and Colossians. An initial survey of the history of interpretation yields indecisive results, revealing as it does scholarly confusion and imprecision over the meaning of these two texts. This shows the need for the present study.

Saying that ‘greed is idolatry’ is not just an example of hyperbole, asserting that greed is as bad as the heinous sin of idolatry and showing that greed is not a minor fault, something more is intended. Rosner demonstrates the inherent connection between greed and idolatry, so that it is not just that these sins have equal gravity but no intrinsic similarity: he finds seven things that associate greed and idolatry, such that this is no arbitrary association in Ephesians and Colossians.

The author goes on trace the Old Testament and Jewish exegetical origins of the themes of greed and idolatry. Building on the studies of others, Rosner confirms the Jewish frame of Paul’s moral teaching in Ephesians and Colossians. He reviews relevant Old Testament texts, notably Job 31:24–28, a passage that juxtaposes the sins of greed and idolatry and places them under the common category of misplaced trust. The Targumic rendering of the Shema (Deut 6:5) interprets “and with all your strength” as referring to money or wealth. Philo naturally enough makes use of idolatry as a metaphor. The dominical saying about “mammon” in Matthew and Luke comes close in substance (though not in terminology) to the metaphor being studied. Connecting greed and idolatry is not, then, in terms of an idea, a total novelty.

By recourse to the Old Testament background and traditional Jewish moral teaching, Rosner disposes of an alternative view that Paul is combating sexual greed (rather than greed for money or possessions). The only place in the New Testament where “greed” may mean inordinate and misdirected sexual desire is 1 Thess 4:6. Nor is greed condemned because it necessarily involves social injustice or ill-gotten gain. We are shown that greed is not a private vice or only attitudinal in the New Testament. It is a recognisable fault, demonstrated by a failure to show hospitality and a refusal to contribute to the needs of others through almsgiving (these being two fundamental virtues within the ethos of Judaism and early church life).

In biblical and Jewish tradition, there is no more serious sin than idolatry, which at its core challenges the exclusivity of loyalty to God. Greed, as analysed by Rosner, is shown to involve misplaced love, trust and service. It directs to money and possessions what should be given to God. Greed and idolatry (together with sexual immorality) were viewed as classic pagan vices in the social world of ancient Jews and Christians. This explains the affective shock of the stark equation made in these letters. The metaphor of greed as idolatry was intended to have an emotional impact on the readers (or auditors) of the Pauline correspondence. To put it starkly: the greedy person should not be considered a part of the church, for greed is heathen behaviour.

Rosner also analyses what it means to see idolatry as a metaphor, positing four required steps. This methodological refinement is crucial to his study and enables his conclusions concerning the metaphorical relation between greed and idolatry to carry conviction. Rosner is to be commended for his wide-ranging and in-depth study that is interdisciplinary in breadth and marked by scholarly precision of the highest order.

For too long, woolly thinking has blunted Christian analysis and condemnation of materialism. The result has been that worldly attitudes and behaviour have infiltrated the church. A study like this is sorely needed to sharpen the edge of Christian teaching and preaching in the contemporary scene.

Review by
Gregory Goswell
Presbyterian Theological College
684 Elgar Road
Box Hill North VIC 3129