Tag Archives: Paul

When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.

Pauline Resurrection

271px-Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_ProjectPaul is dead. Has been since the first century. In biblical studies, however, he is undergoing a kind of resurrection. Studies of Paul are coming thick and fast, with many claiming, with some justification, that Christianity was his invention. Biblical scholars have long realized, however, that many New Testament letters do not come from Paul. Some never made that claim (Hebrews), while others seemed to have played on the popularity of the epistle genre and added Paul’s name to gain authority. Or maybe they were written by somebody else called Paul. Far more intriguing to me is the fact that in the authentic Pauline letters, the apostle from Tarsus mentions other letters he wrote that were not preserved. This should strike no one as unusual; would Luke’s grocery list have been preserved as scripture if it had been found? Probably not. Still, these missing letters do raise an issue that might crinkle brows with thought. What have we been missing?

Paul, like other scripture writers, had no idea he was writing “the Bible.” In fact, the Bible is one of the most obviously cobbled together holy books in world history. It is inspiration by committee. We have known for many many decades that there were other Gospels, for example. Some scholars treat the Gospel of Thomas as canonical, while others have reconstructed Q down to chapter and verse. The Hebrew Bible cites some of its sources that have gone missing. Some of the existent biblical books in their current state are obviously somewhat garbled. An imperfect scripture. And I’m wondering what Paul might have written in those missing letters.

The process of constructing a Bible has been examined time and again by scholars. Mostly they accept the material we have to work out some scheme of how Christianity decided “thus far and no further” and these books only will be Bible. Isn’t there, however, a problem when we know that other bits of parchment were floating around out there with the apostolic stamp of approval? What if Paul changed his mind over time? His current letters, the ones that survive, aren’t always consistent. It’s the job of exegetes to try to tell us what Paul really meant, but the fact is we know that this founder of Christianity sent more advice to more people and nobody bothered to keep a copy. Those bits that were preserved are not systematic or comprehensive, making me wonder just how solid a foundation a theology built on such small bits might have. Nobody, it seems, wrote a life of Jesus in real time. It took a couple decades at least before people started to sketch out his life’s story and teachings. By then Paul had already been killed. His letters, slowly gathered over time, formed a nucleus of a faith that grew to be the world’s largest. And, despite all that, we don’t know what he fully said. And we never will.

Esau and Jacob

“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” at least according to the recollection of Paul in Romans. One of the most poignant scenes in the Hebrew Bible is the story of Esau. Born as the elder brother, in ancient times one could expect certain privileges. Yes, Esau sold his birthright to his brother over a rumbling stomach, but he still knew that the blessing—the true gift—was still his. That, however, Jacob took from him by deception. Isaac, their aged father, was blind but wanted to bless his firstborn before he died. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob slipped in, in disguise, and stole the blessing before fleeing to Iraq. In Genesis 27, Esau came in as instructed only to find the blessing gone. His weeping has never ceased through the ages as his father blessed him with a sword. Years later, Jacob returned to find his brother a wealthy and powerful man. A man who forgave and forgot. But Paul remembered.

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Hate is a strong word. As a child the worst punishment I can recall came from saying that I hated someone. That word was worse than a swear. Hatred was not worthy of a loving god. Like Esau, however, we don’t stay young forever. By our sword we make our living. For some of us that sword was the written word that we were told was sacred. The image of big, hairy Esau weeping before his blind father disturbed me. He’d done nothing wrong. In fact, he was simply doing what his father asked him to do when his brother snuck in and took something that my young mind couldn’t even parse out from the birthright earlier bargained. Clearly, however, it was important.

Upon returning home six chapters later, Jacob fears Esau’s righteous wrath. He knows his brother has legitimate cause to hate him. Esau, however, aware that he has enough, welcomes the prodigal home with open arms. There is enough to go around. Even today, with the will to do so, the hatred could be removed. This is a metaphor, not literalism. Genesis is, after all, not history. Stories, however, can convey what facts cannot. Millennia have passed and myths have come and gone. In the simple, if primitive justice of my childhood, you dare not say you hate your brother. Having grown up with brothers I learned that despite conflicts that inevitably arise, hatred is never the answer. Esau forgave, according to Genesis 33. And the land was wide enough for all.

God and King

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The King James Version of the Bible is in the public domain. (Except in Britain, where it is still royal prerogative to print the King James, and it has be licensed to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.) In any case, that means that just about anywhere in the world, anyone can take the text of the King James, reproduce it, and sell it. In this day of electronic books, that means many King James Bibles are available online, as well as in print. Just look on Amazon. The other day, I was looking for King James editions when I noted a dilemma. When you’re listing your Bible on Amazon, who do you cite as the author? Seems pretty bold to list yourself as the either author or editor of the KJV, so there have appeared a number of improbable authors of late. The first one I noticed listed the author as El Shaddai. Either an Amy Grant fan or an educated reader, this editor chose the phrase generally translated as “God Almighty” as the author. A good, strong name. It may derive from the phrase “god of the mountains,” or a bit more racily, “god of the breasts.” El Shaddai was likely a pre-biblical god that eventually got merged with Yahweh.

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The second version (which looks the same to my untrained eye) lists a trinity of authors: Holy God, King James, and Joy Mayers. What a triumvirate! I’m not sure who Joy Mayers is, but I would certainly blush in the presence of gods and kings. Particularly Holy God. Interestingly, this is not exactly a biblical title for the deity. We do get the encomium “holy” applied to God, but I’m not sure that it ever appears as a name. Well, at least we can look up King James and Joy Mayers. The next edition I found listed the author as the safely hedged “God-inspired” (hyphen and all). The problem is that God-inspired might be taken a couple of ways. One, and likely the intended way, is to see the author, whomever it may have been, as divinely inspired. Another option, and one which sounds more exciting to me, is to think of a coffee-fueled deity scribbling away under the heat of inspiration. The inspired god, writing under a nom de plume, gave us the King James (if that was his real name).

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The last one I found was the most parsimonious. The author was listed as Anonymous. This comes the closest to the historical truth of the matter. We know very little about the writers of the Bible. Probably the best attested is Paul, along with his companion Pseudo-Paul. We know this historical person wrote a number of letters. There’s little reason to doubt that people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote some gospels. Who these people are, we don’t rightly know. Once we get back to the Hebrew Bible we find authors writing about their own deaths, and events that take place thereafter with embarrassing frequency. It could be that people saw further back then, not having to strain their eyes at a computer daily. Of course, if it weren’t for computers, we couldn’t sell our own Bibles on Amazon. I’m just waiting until I learn the actual author’s name before I post mine for sale.

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Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Sleepy Jean

Last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article by Cristina Richie entitled “The Scandal of the (Female) Evangelical Mind” appeared. Richie points out that despite great strides being made in employing women in religious studies positions, Evangelical institutions still fall behind. This dynamic is not unexpected, however. Those of us who grew up evangelical know that no matter how much it may talk the talk of equality, evangelicalism walks the masculine walk of deeply seated patriarchalism. For those who literally “believe the Bible” there is simply no way around a male Jesus. Even if you go that dangerously risqué step and suggest that the Holy Spirit is somehow feminine, when the divine couple gets together (and Father is always in charge), the offspring must be either male or female. In any literal reading, women cannot possibly claim equality. For their very salvation they are dependent on a male. A god with testosterone. As in heaven, so on earth.

Evangelical institutions have a difficult time with women leading men. They’re not alone. As early as the first century of the Common Era, Paul had the same issues. Literal religion in a biologically dimorphic world will always be problematic. Either there is one god, or there are three. In either scenario the males outnumber the females. Should we posit a divine couple (as some in ancient Israel appear to have done—please wave “hi” to Asherah for me) we still have a culture that is dominated by men. The divine couple will always have the goddess deferring to the will of the god. And you can be sure that he will never pull over and ask for directions. We already know which way this chariot is going.

Every once in a while, the Chronicle likes to sit back and take stock of the religious landscape. Religious studies is, despite the bad press, a thriving area of academic interest. Surely to those in more quantifiable fields, our little squabbles over whether god is a man or a woman must seem pedantic and a little pathetic. And yet, the evangelical institution has an instruction book. That book, if followed word-for-word, leads to eternal rewards for those who are willing to foot the hardships. And for at least half of those (and likely much more than half) that will mean living on an earth that mirrors that realm beyond the sky. Although you can’t see it with any telescope, if you believe hard enough, it is there. And in that ideal place, the god in charge is a man’s god.

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Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”