Receptions of Job and Theologies of Suffering

In the midst of crisis, whether personal or cosmic, many have found solidarity in the voice of Job.

For some Job’s voice is one of patient endurance, seen in the profound words of a faithful sufferer, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Others find a radically different kind of comfort, namely, in the “protest tradition” to which the Book of Job bears witness. Here, unlike the stoic sufferer, Job questions and challenges God, though not in an effort to subvert faith, but as an expression of it.[1] Such divergent readings of Job hint at the riches of mystery and ambiguity buried within the text. While “Job the patient” and “Job the protester” are common depictions of the figure in the modern church, I aim to show that the reception history (Wirkungsgeschichte) of Job is far more variegated, especially when we consider portrayals of Job from the early church. A number of early Christian texts esteem the figure of Job, although they often did so for very different reasons. I suggest that in tracing the reception of Job within early Christianity, we open a window onto the various theologies of suffering among Christians of an earlier time. As the world grapples with the unprecedented effects of COVID-19, such an endeavour can serve our own faith communities as we engage in and negotiate our own theologies of suffering. I will be purposefully selective in the themes I present here, so as to allow space to go beyond the descriptive task of reception history to address our contemporary moment.

Job’s Athletic Struggle

One element of Joban tradition strongly attested in both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity is the framing of Job’s plight in terms of a struggle against the forces of evil. This may not come as a surprise, especially given the presence of the adversary (hāsatan) in the prologue of the Book of Job. What is surprising is the way in which Job’s struggle came to be conceived, namely, in terms of war and sport. The Testament of Job, an early text possibly written between 100 BCE and 200 CE and of Christian or Jewish origin, begins with act of violence. Job is set to destroy an idol’s temple after learning by way of divine revelation that the place “really is the place of Satan” (T. Job 3:6).[2] Job is forewarned of the consequences he will face for his monotheistic zeal: “[Satan] will rise up against you with wrath for war (polemon)” (T. Job 4:3). The martial metaphor is mixed with the domain of athletics, as the angel explains how Job “will be like a sparring athlete, enduring (karterōn) pain and receiving the crown (ton stephanon)” (4:10). When Satan finally relents, his defeat is again framed as an athletic contest:

I became like an athlete struggling with another athlete, and one threw down the other … And when he showed endurance and did not give up, in the end the one on top cried out loudly in surrender. So you, Job, were the one beneath and in plague, but you conquered my wrestling moves that I brought upon you (T. Job 27:3–5).[3]

The imagery is also present in Didymus the Blind (fourth century), who, while commenting on Job 1:21, explains that Job tore his garment in grief over the deaths of children “in order to show symbolically that he strips like a contestant in front of his competitor.”[4] Any hint of a tradition of protest is lost as Job is transformed from one who quarrels with God to one who fights for him. This may be viewed by some as a negative development, obscuring the place of protest and lament in Judeo-Christian tradition. Viewed in a different light, there is a sense in which Job’s athletic endurance can be seen as the struggle against the temptation to curse God in the face of tragedy.

The Epistle of James, which speaks of Job only in terms of his endurance (hypomonē) (Jas 5:11), is clear in its warning not to ascribe wrongdoing to God:

Blessed is anyone who endures (hypomonē) temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one (NRSV Jas 1:12–13).

The desire to mitigate the role of divine agency in probation was a common concern in Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity.[5] Perhaps it was this theodic tendency that enabled Job’s plight to be cast as a fight against the demonic temptation to “curse God to his face” (cf. Job 1:11, 2:5). Within this theology of suffering, grief is not silenced, but its expression must come with the realisation that the battle to bless God and flee temptation has only just begun. Perhaps Julian the Arian (fourth century) strikes the balance best:

O the endurance of the invulnerable man! O the courage! O the great love for God! For just as the best athlete in the wrestling pit preparing to compete in wrestling strips his clothes, puts dust on his body and head, even the way did the holy man, rending his garment and heaping dirt on his head, weep for his children (Julian, Commentary on Job 21:7)[6]

Job’s Resurrection

The canonical Book of Job is rather ambivalent in its hope of future resurrection (MT Job 7:9), though this would not remain the case for long. The first clear reference to Job’s resurrection appears in the Septuagint’s appendix to the Book of Job, “And it is written that [Job] will rise again with those the Lord raises up” (LXX Job 42.17aα).[7] Theassociation of Job’s perseverance through suffering and eschatological reward is far more developed in the Testament of Job. While Job is promised the return of his possessions in double (4:7), Job’s ultimate reward is the promise of resurrection (4:9, “and he will be raised up in the resurrection”). After Elihu laments the lost glory of King Job’s earthly throne (32:1–12), Job replies,

Be silent! Now I will show you my throne and glory of its majesty, which is among the holy ones. My throne is the upper world, and its glory and its dignity are at the right hand of the Father in the heavens. The whole world will pass away and its glory will be destroyed, and those who cling to it will share in its demise. But my throne is in the holy land and its glory is in the unchangeable world (33:2–5).

Other voices in the Christian tradition likewise associated Job with resurrection hope. Job 19:25–26 is used as a proof-text for the resurrection in 1 Clement 26:3, and the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons(fourth century) pairs Job with Lazarus (7.1.8).[8] This eschatological orientation provides the hope needed to face the struggle against agents of probation. As Job relays to the apostle Paul in the Apocalypse of Paul (Visio Pauli) (c. 2–5th century):

And on the third day the devil appeared and said to me: Say something against God and die. I said to him: If such be the will of God that I should remain under a plague all the time of my life till I die, I shall not cease from blessing the Lord, and I shall receive more reward. For I know that the labours of that world are nothing to the refreshment which is afterwards (Apoc. Paul 49).

Job’s Hospitality

Typically, one may associate the virtue of hospitality with Abraham (Gen 18; Philo, Abr. 167) rather than the figure of Job. 1 Clement 10:7 recounts how Abraham was promised a son on account of “his faith and hospitality,” and because of Abraham’s “hospitality and godliness Lot was saved from Sodom” (11:1). It is, however, precisely because of a strong association between Abraham and hospitality that the virtue slowly became assimilated into the portrayal of Job. The stories of Job and Abraham were often interwoven in ways that blended the distinctive virtues of one into the presentation of the other.[9] Hence the Testament of Job presents the care for strangers as one of Job’s main engagements:

I had thirty tables covered with food in my house, unmoved at all hours, for strangers only. I had also twelve other tables laid out for widows. And if a stranger approached to ask alms, he was required to be fed at my table before receiving his need. And I was not permitting anyone to go out my door with an empty stomach (T. Job 10:1–4).

In an eschatological frame, the Apocalypse of Paul recounts Job’s reward for his reception of pilgrims:

Again he took me [Paul] up and carried me to the north of the city and led me where there was a river of wine, and there I saw Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, Lot and Job and other saints, and they saluted me: and I asked and said: What is this place, my Lord? The angel answered and said to me: All who are receivers of pilgrims, when they go out of the world, first adore the Lord God, and are delivered to Michael and by this way are led into the city, and all the just salute him as son and brother, and say unto him: Because thou hast observed humanity and the receiving of pilgrims, come, have an inheritance in the city of the Lord our God: every just man shall receive good things of God in the city, according to his own action (Apoc. Paul 27).

Finally, Pseudo-Ignatius(fourth century) encourages Christian masters to “be gentle towards your servants, as holy Job has taught you; for there is one nature, and one family of mankind. For ‘in Christ there is neither slave nor free’” (Philadelphians 4). Before he would be plunged into the depths of his own suffering, tradition valorised Job for his care of others, whether widows, pilgrims, or his own servants. His indiscriminate concern for the “family of humanity” is commended as a model for imitation to all. In fact, Job’s Satan-induced trials were only a distraction from his service. The Testament of Job places this exhortation in Job’s mouth as he addresses his children from his deathbed: “And now, my children, behold, I am dying. Only, do not forget the Lord. Do good to the poor. Do not overlook the powerless” (T. Job 45:1–2). While focus is often placed upon Job’s own undeserved suffering, such traditions help us consider just why Job’s suffering was undeserved in the first place.

COVID-19 and the Reception of Job

In a short amount of time, COVID-19 has exposed many of the deficiencies in our theologies of suffering. Everyone is affected by the pandemic, although in terms of the health, economic, and social effects of COVID-19, the impact is certainly not evenly distributed. More often than not it is society’s most vulnerable that suffer the greater effects of social and economic fallout, while those in places of privilege hoard resources that only extenuate the plight of others.

In light of this time of uncertainty, I would like to offer a pastoral reflection on the receptions of Job in early Christianity. While such reflections usually focus on scripture rather than its reception, there is a sense in which reception history is itself an intimately pastoral endeavour. Gerhard von Rad has described how the “process of adapting older traditions to suit the new situation was the most legitimate way by which Israel was able to preserve the continuity of history with God.”[10] Reflecting on von Rad’s words, Eugene Peterson understands there to be a sense “in which all pastoral work is redactional, a reworking of scriptural preaching and teaching for the sake of the present community,” and that the “recycling of scripture is itself a biblical process.”[11]

In the midst of the present global pandemic, then, how does the reception history of Job help guide our own faith communities as we negotiate our various theologies of suffering? I offer three reflections:

A Job-like Struggle

The temptation to blame God for suffering is perennial. At the time of writing, two books have already been published on God and the COVID-19.[12] As the death toll continues to rise, and national health systems are pushed beyond their limits, questions turn to God’s goodness amid the chaos of coronavirus.

“Job the wrestler” presents the existential challenge we all must enter into when we worship a providential God in a broken world. This picture of Job reminds us that the fight to bless the Creator in the midst of such disorder is in fact to enter a battle against demonic forces, which, for whatever else that terminology might entail, encompasses the moral and cosmic realities that alienate us from God and each other.[13] And in a world overrun by COVID-19, the feeling of alienation will no doubt be palpable for many. Churches around the world have shut their doors for Sunday services in an effort to mitigate community transmission. This is the right thing to do, yet there will be individuals within our faith communities for whom these measures will present new challenges to faith in a time of self-isolation. Are our communities ready to meet the challenge? Or will there be brothers and sisters that slip through the cracks in the system, left to face that existential challenge alone?

No one in the Old Testament grappled with the realities of alienation more than Job. Torn from his children, his financial security, and his health, Job appeared very much alone, unable to enter the heavenly courtroom which had decided his fate. In this moment of alienation Job faced the greatest of trials that befall the faithful—to bless God in the midst of suffering. For us to bless God in such moments is not to forgo grief or act indifferently to those cosmic forces of alienation. Rather, as Julian the Arian perceived, to see Job’s rent garments as both an expression of grief and preparation for combat is one way to faithfully negotiate the tensions of blessing the good Creator while living within a fallen creation.

A Job-like Hope

“Job the wrestler” also reminds us that there is a sense of proactiveness to this kind of theology of suffering. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to passively carry on as if time will solve all is to fail to confront those cosmic forces that stand in rebellion to the life and peace of the domain of Christ. Yet while our energies and service should be directed at the problems in this world, our hope should not. For many early Christian readers, Job’s ultimate hope was not in the alleviation of present suffering, but the future assurance of resurrection. Job did not lament the lost glory of his earthly throne (T. Job 33). Just as the apostle could write of “this light momentary affliction” preparing for us “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17), Joban tradition would also come to embody this Pauline thought, “I know that the labours of that world are nothing to the refreshment which is afterwards” (Apoc. Paul 49). Reception history does not simply recount quaint stories or deviant traditions; it is the application of a theology deeply rooted in the hopes and beliefs of the New Testament.

And New Testament hope looks very different from the hopes of the world. The temptation to place our confidence in our health or economic standing is subtle, and it is often the case that only when these fail that we are able to see the extent of our misplaced dependencies. This again falls into the realm of the demonic, as Tillich wrote, “the demonic is the elevation of something conditional to unconditional significance.”[14] Of course, it is not the case that health and financial security are themselves evil,

the demonic is what happens when what is in itself good is corrupted into its opposite … if the created order, or part of it, is treated as god, then it behaves like god for those who so treat it, but for destructive rather than creative ends.[15]

COVID-19 has no regard for the gods of our society. Like Elihu in the Testament of Job, we may be tempted to mourn for the faded glory of these earthly thrones. Yet the early church reminds us that Job’s hope did not rest in the re-establishment of earthly thrones, but the inauguration of a heavenly one. Job’s hope in the resurrection reminds us that the true God has called us in Christ out of destruction to re-creation.

Job-like Hospitality

The hospitality of Job grounds this transcendent hope in the practical realities of the mundane. In times of looming uncertainty, it is not unsurprising that supermarkets shelves are quick to empty, straining supply chains while creating a visceral fear of scarcity. Panic buying reveals the unconditional value we place on security, luxury, and cleanliness as a society.[16] Yet it is precisely at such times of heightened vulnerability, austerity, and messiness that the church is called to be salt and light. There is a danger for suffering (or even just the possibility of suffering) to make us turn inward, switching to a survival mode that places us and our felt needs at the centre of the universe.

The example of Job in the history of his reception helps us to construct a theology of suffering that is eminently other-focused. Instead of accumulating resources beyond our need, Job-like hospitality fosters generosity towards the stranger and pilgrim alike. This will, of course, look different to our usual conceptions of hospitality. Following the rules surrounding social distancing is integral to reducing the chances of transmission and is therefore an important way to care for our neighbours. We should be thankful for the technology available to us by which we can continue to communicate and foster a sense of community. While technology can be a blessing, we must be judicious in the ways in which we interact with social media. The spreading of misinformation not only distorts reality but can weaken public resolve to take seriously the measures put in place by the government. Practicing good hospitality in a coronavirus world will exercise discernment as we explore new ways to care for those around us. Just as Pseudo-Ignatius highlights Job’s concern for the “one family of mankind,” a theology of suffering that is eminently other-focused encourages the kind of solidarity and hospitality we so desperately need in the struggle to quell the virus.


C. S. Lewis once wrote that it is the study of the past the liberates us from the present.[17] The voices of Job I have presented here have intended to do just that. The ambiguities and complexities of the Book of Job have led to a number of divergent readings among contemporary Christian audiences, yet for all their merit, something is lost in the neglect of interpretations from previous eras. My hope is that by reflecting on the pastoral applications and innovations of Job in the early church, we are better placed to reread scripture ourselves, continuing the deeply biblical practice of meeting the pressing issues of the present with insight from the past.

Nicholas List is a pastoral intern at Grace Bible Church, Dunedin, and a Masters student in Linguistics at the University of Otago. He holds degrees in both Theology and Linguistics, and has forthcoming articles in The Expository Times and New Testament

[1] Robert Davidson, The Courage to Doubt (London: SCM Press, 1983).

[2] The date and provenance of the Testament of Job are unknown, and most assign a date between 100 BCE and 200 CE. It is difficult to substantiate whether the Testament is a Christian or Jewish work, though it is certainly received by a later Christian audience, with copies surviving in Old Church Slavonic. David Davila thinks that “no positive evidence compels us to move beyond a Greek work written in Christian, perhaps Egyptian, circles by the early fifth century C.E” (The Provenance of the Pseudepigrapha: Jewish, Christian, or Other?, JSJSup 105 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2005), 199), and I thus tentatively include it here in this survey of early Christian receptions of Job.

[3] Translation from Craig A. Evans and H. Daniel Zacharias, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Greek and English (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

[4] Clare Poliakoff, “Jacob, Job, and Other Wrestlers: Reception of Greek Athletics by Jews and Christians in Antiquity,” Journal of Sport History 11.2 (1984): 50.

[5] Nicholas J. Ellis, The Hermeneutics of Divine Testing, WUNT 396 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).

[6] Cited in Poliakoff, “Jacob, Job, and Other Wrestlers,” 50–1.

[7] Annette Yoshiko Reed, “Job as Jobab: The Interpretation of Job in LXX Job 42:17b-e,” JBL 120 (2001): 40, dates this tradition between 150 and 60 BCE.

[8] See also Ap. Const. 5.1.7; Hesychius, Homilies on Job 17.14.12; Didymus, Comm. Job 14.15B; Augustine, Annotations on Job 7.4, 14.13, 21.32, 38.1–13, 39.21.

[9] For example, see the Testament of Abraham (A) 4:6, 15:15 and the later Targum of Job 30:19. See also Nicholas J. Ellis, “The Reception of the Jobraham Narratives in Jewish Thought,” in Authoritative Texts and Reception History, ed. Dan Batovici and Kristin de Troyer (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 124–40.

[10] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology: The Theology of Israel’s Prophetic Traditions, trans. D. M. G. Stalker(New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 2:328.

[11] Eugene H. Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1980), 23 and 22.

[12] John C. Lennox, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? (Epsom: The Good Book Company, 2020); John Piper, Christ and Coronavirus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[13] See Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 53–82.

[14] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (London: Nisbet, 1968), 1:155. Cited in Gunton, Actuality, 70.

[15] Gunton, Actuality, 72.

[16] B. J. Oropenza, “A Theology about Toilet Paper during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” In Christ Patheos Blog 7 April 2020,

[17] C. S. Lewis, “De Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 12.