Archive for the 'Historical-Critical Biblical Analysis' Category

Hearing the Voice of Jesus

Icon of Jesus Christ

Icon of Jesus Christ

Why is Hearing the Voice of Jesus a Problem in the First Place?

The most obvious reason we find hearing the voice of Jesus so challenging, is that in so far as we know, Jesus never wrote anything.

At the best of times, literacy rates in the ancient world were very low.  Literacy rates of peasants living in the backwoods of Galilee would have been vanishingly low.  It took a great deal of time and money to learn to read and write.  Dirt poor farmers, fishermen, and other peasants simply did not have the luxury of the time or money required to acquire this set of skills.

So speaking from a strictly historical perspective, it is very unlikely Jesus was able to read or write.  Some biblical scholars argue that Jesus was an exception to this rule, however, while one cannot categorically state Jesus was illiterate, we have no objective reason to think otherwise.

And we ought not cite the story of the woman accused of adultery as evidence to the contrary.  This story, which includes the observation that Jesus wrote something in the dirt, does not appear in any manuscripts until the late 4th century, well over 300-years after Jesus’ death.  This story now appears in the Gospel of John, chapter 8, but over the centuries is has appeared elsewhere, including in an entirely different gospel.  It is a lovely, instructive story, but it cannot be properly attributed to the historical Jesus.

In any event, no writings of Jesus survive.  So to discover the voice of Jesus we are unable to appeal to Jesus directly, as we may with Paul, for example.

20-Year Silence

If anything was written about Jesus during his lifetime, it no longer survives.  In fact, we know of no Christian writings during the 20-years following Jesus’ crucifixion.  There are indications of an oral tradition during this period, but it remained an oral tradition for two decades.

The earliest Jewish-Christian writings we have about Jesus come from the pen of Paul, who began writing in the early 50s.  And as surprising as it may seem to us today, Paul wrote very little about Jesus.  This is because Paul wrote what are called occasional letters, meaning he wrote in response to specific occasions, or problems.

Why is it Important that we Hear the Words of Jesus?

To many ears this may sound like a crazy question.  Some answer, who would *not* wish to hear the very words of God!  Others answer that the original words of Jesus are long lost to history, and can never be recovered, so only a fool would propose the question in the first place.

My answer is to be found somewhere between these stark responses.

I start with the recognition that recovering the original words of Jesus is challenging.  We certainly cannot simply read the Red Letter Edition of the Holy Bible and assume that Jesus really spoke all these words.

The evolution of the Christian New Testament ―which is an anthology of 27 books and letters, written in Greek― grew organically, over a period of decades.  These writings were then transmitted to us over the course of several centuries.  And it took nearly 300-years for these books and letters to coalesce into an agreed upon canon of scripture.

Scholarly historical and textual criticism is able to inform our understanding of this organic process.  Through this scholarship we are able to discern layers of redaction (editing) and interpretation laid over one another throughout the New Testament.  And this is equally true for the words put upon the lips of Jesus by the gospel authors.

But those who already “know” Jesus’ voice is forever lost to us, will never hear it;  just as those who already know every word attributed to Jesus “must be” authentic, will be unable to hear the other voices laid over his.  Both arguments have their strengths and weaknesses.  And one must carefully weigh their merits, one saying at a time, teasing apart the accrued layers, when present.

Yet, provided we listen carefully, I do believe we may hear the voice of Jesus through these accrued layers.  But I also acknowledge it takes most of us some time to acquire that ear.
So how might we begin to train our ear to hear Jesus’ voice?  

One approach is to contemplate the various characterizations of Jesus, as represented in the gospels.  If we read these accounts carefully, what might we discern of Jesus?  What might we discern of the author who wrote the text?  Or of the audience to whom it was directed?  What were the completing religious-political concerns of ancient Palestine?

Each of these are useful interrogations of the text.  But in this essay I wish to discuss Jesus.  Some observations about Jesus are almost obvious, while others are quite complex and variously debated even among professionals in the field of biblical and New Testament studies.  So if we become confused at times, at least we are in good company!

Jesus the Jewish Mystic

Jesus was clearly a Jewish mystic.  “Mystics are people who have vivid and typically frequent experiences of God. … As a Jewish mystic, Jesus lived a life radically centered in God; that was its foundation”  (Marcus Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pgs. 89-90).

Jesus spent long hours in private prayer, which I suspect we would today understand as periods of deep contemplation and meditation.  We might even think of his 40-days in the wilderness as a kind of “vision quest.”  God was an experiential presence in Jesus’ life.  He spoke of God as his father, and even more affectionately as his Abba, which we may translate as Daddy or Poppa.

This speaks to a profound closeness Jesus felt with God.  For Jesus, God was not some distant sky god like Zeus or Jupiter, nor even a remote, abstract version of the Jewish God.  For Jesus, God was present in a deeply meaningful way;  God was experienced as present to Jesus, both in time and proximity.

Jesus the Jewish Prophet

Jesus was clearly a Jewish prophet.  Like other Jewish prophets before him, Jesus spoke of the God of Israel, the importance of centering one’s life in God, and specifically that a deep change was required of the people of Israel, because they and their nation had lost their way.

Prophets tell us we each face two paths:  we may estrange ourselves from God, and suffer as a result;  or we may return to the proper observance of what is important to God, and live with God’s blessing.

And as Marcus Borg observes, Jesus was specifically a social prophet, in the likeness of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah, and “as such he was a radical critic of the domination system of his time” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 91).

Jesus the Teacher of Wisdom

Jesus was clearly a profound teacher.  He was a master of the aphorism (a short, memorable, insightful saying) and metaphor, often teaching in parables.  Jesus was a travelling teacher, so most likely he used his most memorable phrases and stories frequently, although finessing them to fit specific occasions, which is typical of oral traditions.

“At the heart of the alternative wisdom of Jesus was the path of death and resurrection understood as metaphor for an internal psychological-spiritual process.  It involved dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus Taught “The Way”

In the book of Acts we are told the earliest name for what evolved into Christianity was simply, the Way (Acts 9:2).  And choosing to participate in the Way does seem to me an accurate characterization of many of Jesus’ sayings.

We may further observe that many of Jesus’ stories and parables fit quite well into a well-established mode of teaching, common to many world religions, frequently called “Two Way” teachings.  As Marcus Borg states in “The Lost Gospel Q” (page 18):  “There is the wise way and the foolish way, the narrow way and the broad way.  One way leads to life, the other to death.”

Jesus the Healer

Jesus was clearly a extraordinary healer and exorcist.  We know of other noted healers and exorcists in the New Testament period, but “more healing stories are told about Jesus that about any other figure in the Jewish tradition” (Borg, “The Heart of Christianity” pg. 90).

Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet

I believe this is one of the hardest choices one must ultimately make about Jesus.  Was he an apocalyptic prophet or not?  It seems pretty clear that John the Baptist was, and many scholars believe Jesus must have been a follower of John.  And the canonical gospels do present Jesus as speaking with an apocalyptic voice (as does Q);  Matthew chapter 24 is a good example;  verse 34 is of particular interest to me:

>  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”  (NRSV).

Which leads me to ask the obvious question of how long does a generation last?  2,000 years or longer?  The old work-around to this troubling question is that it is merely metaphoric language, and generation means humankind.  While I do consider the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament to be highly metaphorical ―in the richest meaning of that term― in this case I’ve never found that argument convincing.

A far better explanation to my mind, is this language is reflective of the apocalyptic voice in the 1st century, which was common roughly 100-years before and after the life of Jesus.  In the Jewish apocalyptic movement, there was widespread belief that God was going to overthrow Rome and put in its place a kingdom ruled by God, through his emissary, the Messiah (the Christ, as it comes to us from the Greek, Χριστός).

So the question we have to answer to our individual satisfaction, is to whom shall we attribute these sayings of Jesus?  Did the historical Jesus really make apocalyptic prophecy?  Or did a later author put these words upon the lips of Jesus when writing his gospel?

I will not presume to answer for you, but I will state that I do not believe one may simultaneously hold Jesus to be an apocalyptic prophet and a divine incarnation of God.  Incarnation, means in the flesh, so if one posits that Jesus became divine after his death, this dilemma may resolve itself.

The Kingdom of God

This is a phrase we hear throughout the canonical gospels with some frequency.  Do these words reach back to Jesus?  If so, what might Jesus have meant?

To my experience, main stream Christianity predominately teaches the kingdom of God is referring to a heavenly existence to be experienced after our physical death, or a future second coming of Jesus on earth.  I however, disagree with these views.

The kingdom to which the authentic Jesus spoke, I firmly believe is to be found right here on earth, within each of us, and is found in our loving interactions with others, expressed through such actions as shoeing children, helping to feed the hungry, and providing winter clothing to homeless persons.

This is what Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg sometimes call the participatory model of Christianity.  They use this phrase to mean that the kingdom of God is only going to come about through our personal investment and actions to bring it about, directly into the communities in which we live.

I find this to be both an interesting and practical perspective which holds a lot of merit.  It may be that God could “invade” earth and establish his kingdom forcefully;  but I also think that would defeat the entire point of doing so.  What good would it be to artificially force such a kingdom upon persons who were not sufficiently evolved spiritually to sustain it?

The point is this:  our very natures are changed if we invest ourselves in the process of bringing the kingdom of God upon earth during our lifetimes.  And it is that very process of spiritual transformation that I believe may very well be the critical point.

Which is to say, it really does not do us any good to be “given” the kingdom;  we really only undergo personal, internal spiritual transformation if we mature ―evolve― to the point that we *desire* to help bring that kingdom into existence.  And I believe *that* is the point to which Jesus was trying to open our hearts.

Luke 17:20-21  Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed;  nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among-within you” (NRSV).

The Jesus Movement

Jesus was a Jew from rural Galilee.  Jesus’ followers were primarily Jews, and Jesus primarily ministered to his fellow Jews.  This is the Jewish Jesus Movement which predates Christianity.  A few years after Jesus was crucified, Paul began to teach his understanding of Jesus’ ministry to the Greeks.  Used in this way, to be a “Greek” simply means one is a gentile ― a person who is not Jewish.

Thus, we may also speak of a Greek (or Gentile) Jesus Movement.  As greater numbers of gentiles entered the Jesus Movement, it evolved from a Jewish Jesus Movement, into a predominately Gentile Jesus Movement, and later into various forms of early Christianity.

Identifying the Authentic Voice of Jesus is Far from Obvious

I hope the above discussion allows you to see we may find a number of ways of understanding and characterizing Jesus.  And we may do so while remaining rooted within the canonical texts.  This is an important point.  One may arrive at a number of ways of seeing Jesus, while supporting one’s view entirely from a biblical point of view.  One need not introduce non-canonical texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

Now, I happen to like the Gospel of Thomas, and take the late Prof. Ron Miller’s lead, and that of The Jesus Seminar, and suspect that perhaps a third of it may reach back to the authentic voice of Jesus.  And for this reason, I do make use of the Gospel of Thomas;  but thoughtfully, and with deliberation.  After all, if we hold the position that about 1/3 of the Gospel of Thomas may be the echo of Jesus’ voice, we are also observing some 2/3 of it fails to capture the voice of Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar is a fellowship of a biblical scholars who have spent decades attempting to identify the authentic voice of Jesus in the ancient texts available to us.  They do include the Gospel of Thomas as viable source material.  Their work has determined that approximately 20% of the “red letter” words of Jesus may be properly attributed to Jesus.

Q Hypothesis

Q is a hypothetical early text of the sayings of Jesus.  No surviving Q manuscript is known to exist.  This is the weakest link in the Q Hypothesis argument.  Supporters will however, point to the recent (mid-1900’s) discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, which is an authentic sayings gospel.  Where one such gospel was written, so too a second may have been written.

But what is Q?

Q is short for Quelle, from the German, meaning “source.”  It is alternately known as the Q source, the Q document, the Q Gospel, and the Q Sayings Gospel.  But most frequently it is simply called Q.  It is primarily composed of the sayings attributed to Jesus which are found in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.

Scholars who find this hypothesis of value believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote without knowledge of one another, so there must have been a source for the sayings which they share, which are not taken from Mark.  Since both are known to have drawn extensively from the earliest gospel, Mark, it is a natural deduction they may have similarly drawn from another, as yet undiscovered, source document (Q).

Incidentally, the Gospel of John does not enter into such debates because it is clearly, dramatically different than the other canonical gospels.  John was written in the 90’s, after the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) and is often referred to as the Fourth Gospel.  (And the Gospel of Thomas is sometimes referred to as the Fifth Gospel, even though it is non-canonical.)

Detractors of the Q Hypothesis often have great difficulty with the invention of an undiscovered document.  Supporters of Q point out there may have already been such discoveries, but we cannot identify them.  Does this sound like a strange claim?  Their point is that if we discover a small scrap of ancient manuscript that only contains a portion of a saying which is shared between Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark (a partial definition of a Q-saying) we cannot determine whether that scrap originated from Matthew, Luke, or the proposed Q.

Thus, the only way to provide evidence of Q is to find a much larger, much more rare, document fragment which contains at least large portions of two proposed Q-sayings.  Anything less, and detractors simply assume the small fragment originates in either Matthew or Luke.  This logic cannot prove Q ever existed, but it does demonstrate that proving Q will be very difficult.

How Might One Begin to Hear the Voice of Jesus?  

First and foremost, recognize that it is up to each of us to discern our own interpretation.  We may avail ourselves of a great deal of critical scholarship over the last 150-years which may greatly inform our investigation, but ultimately, we each have to come to terms with difficult and sometimes contradictory information.

>  Was Jesus an apocalyptic prophet?

>  Was the historical Jesus divine?  If so, when, and to what extent?

It is up to *us* to answers these and other difficult questions to our own satisfaction.  Through the process of resolving such questions, our apprehension of Jesus, and his role as the Christ, will progressively be revealed to us.

With the goal of informing our search for the voice of Jesus, I highly recommend studying each of the following books, which discuss Q, Jesus, and the Gospel of Thomas.  “The Lost Gospel Q” and “The Gospel of Jesus” may be read quite quickly ―over the course of a quiet afternoon or evening― because the actual text of the ancient documents in each case is quite short;  but do spend time reading their introductions and appendixes.  Ron Miller’s book on the Gospel of Thomas is somewhat longer, but I find it to be superlative (as are all his books and lectures).

>  “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (Marcus Borg)

>  “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar” (Robert Funk & The Jesus Seminar)

>  “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice” (Ron Miller)

I always welcome opportunities to mention the talks the late Ron Miller gave to the Theosophical Society.  And since I suspect many readers will not have these three books immediately at hand, I would like to recommend Ron Miller’s talks, which you may immediately access on-line:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

In reference to this essay, I would begin with his discussion of the Gospel of Thomas:

http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

For those who enjoy trying to discern the voice of Jesus, I would recommend another book published by The Jesus Seminar:

>  “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Guided by these books, authors such as bishop Spong and Marcus Borg, Ron Miller’s wise counsel, and time spent in quiet contemplation, I believe I have heard an echo of Jesus’ voice, reaching to me across 2,000 years.  My hope is that you too encounter the voice of Jesus.  And that through hearing, you are able to discern a variety of layers which have accrued upon Jesus’ words, as they have come to us in the Christian New Testament.

Upon attuning your hearing to Jesus’ voice, I suspect you may very well apprehend the Way of which Jesus spoke.  Once you do, you cannot help but to begin reading the New Testament with a heart born from above.

Erik+

Resources:

Marcus Borg

Book: “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith”

Book: “The Lost Gospel Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus”

The Jesus Seminar

Book: “The Gospel of Jesus: According to the Jesus Seminar”

Book: “The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus”

Ron Miller

Book: “The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice”

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/updates/eight-talks-from-the-theosophical-society/

Video: http://www.ronmillersworld.org/watch/the-gospel-of-thomas/

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Did Paul Say Women are to be Subordinate to Men?

Did Paul Say Women are to be Subordinate to Men?  

Apostle Paul 19th Century Russian Orthodox Icon

Apostle Paul 19th Century Russian Orthodox Icon

In this essay we will explore this question by examining the passage which includes I Corinthians 14:34b-35, which reads,

  …women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Now, one response to this question is to simply say, of course Paul said women are to be subordinate to men;  it is obviously, clearly stated in the New Testament a number of times, including the above.  What more does one need to know?  As it turns out, one may wish to know quite a bit more!  While we will ask if these verses stand or fall on their own merit, I find a more thoughtful response begins by observing that we must first address an unstated question:

          Did Paul write all the letters attributed to Paul?  

Pauline Authorship

I addressed the question of Pauline authorship as part of my January 2014 essay (“Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle”).  In this essay I will simply say that for a variety of reasons, I am convinced there were at least four different categories of author writing in Paul’s name.  Most New Testament scholars identify these categories as:

Authentic Paul
Disputed Paul
Forgeries written in Paul’s name
Paul as described in the book of Acts

The authentic Paul was of course, only one human being.  But when we speak of the other categories of author writing in Paul’s name, we do not know for certain if these were individuals or groups of people representing a given school of thought.  I suspect reasonable cases made be made for both types of authorship.

I should note that some scholars who argue that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him, qualify that assertion by stating the authentic Paul wrote by committee, and that accounts for the variation in vocabulary and grammar when comparing these categories of Pauline authorship.  But within the scope of this essay whether or not any of these letters was written by committee is not an important question.

For the sake of completeness, the following are the letters most commonly associated with each of the categories of author writing in Paul’s name:

Authentic Paul

1st Thessalonians
Philippians
Philemon
1st Corinthians
Galatians
2nd Corinthians
Romans

SIDEBAR:  The above letters are presented in chronological order.  It has been suggested that studying their content carefully allows one to track Paul’s developing theology over time.  One should bear in mind however, that if Paul ever wrote a systematic theology, it has not survived;  there are almost certainly beliefs he held for which we have no record.  With the exception of his letter to the Romans, his writings are occasional letters (meaning they were written to address specific problems/occasions;  typically addressing difficulties people were experiencing in churches Paul had previously established).  Romans is somewhat different in several ways.  Paul had never been to Rome, and this letter was written primarily as a letter of introduction, to dispel concerns over his teachings, and to raise funds for a new ministry reaching into the west (Gaul/Spain).

Disputed Paul

Colossians
2nd Thessalonians
Ephesians (a “circular” letter, either considered disputed or a forgery)

Forgeries in Paul’s name

1st Timothy
2nd Timothy
Titus
Ephesians (unless one considers it as disputed)

Acts is not included in the above list, because no thinks Paul wrote Acts.  The author of Acts is also the author of the Gospel of Luke, and these are part one and part two of a two-volume work, Luke/Acts.  Where Paul is described or made to speak in Acts, it is the author of Luke/Acts describing the action or speaking for Paul;  it is not Paul.  I have included Acts in this list, as the fourth category of authorship, because many people rely upon it for biographical information relating to Paul.  However, this must be done critically.  The author of Acts and Paul at numerous points disagree about Paul’s history and movements;  who are we to believe when the same story is told differently?

Was Paul a Misogynist?

One of the stronger arguments for a misogynistic Paul is found in 1st Corinthians, chapter 14.  Because 1st Corinthians numbers among the undisputedly authentic letters of Paul -therefore, the argument goes- if Paul therein states that women are to be subordinate to men, Paul is in fact a misogynist (one who hates or denigrates women).  On the surface, I would agree that assertion seems logical, however, as is often the case in biblical studies, many important variables are not that simple and clear cut.

In much the same way that Paul did not write all the letters to which his name is attributed, the authentic Paul did not write every sentence passed down to us through history, even in those letters which we otherwise consider to be undisputedly written by Paul.

     I disagree that Paul wrote the misogynistic passages attributed to him. 

     Even those found in the undisputedly authentic letters of Paul.  

This may be where some cry “Foul!”  Am I not saying that I simply refuse to allow Paul to have said things with which I personally disagree?  Is this not simply, and only, a matter of personal opinion?  These are valid questions and concerns.  I am going to try to illustrate there is more to this assertion than personal opinion.  There is logical reasoning behind such a claim, and in this case, we can each read the text and see it for ourselves.

Such a strong degree of “obviousness” is not always the case.  Sometimes the reasons scholars cite for their positions requires that one is able to read the text in the original language.  The passage we are looking at is not one of these more complex cases.

While I will introduce a view which is based upon translation issues, that is not the argument I personally find to be the most important, nor most convincing.  However, for a number of reasons, I think understanding the logic behind the construction of the translation argument may be instructive;  not only as it pertains to getting at the “real” Paul, but as a broader example of the process of applying critical biblical analysis.

The critical verses we are examining are found within the longer passage of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40…

1 Corinthians 14:26-40 (NRSV)

Orderly Worship

26 What should be done then, my friends?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up.
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn; and let one interpret.
28 But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
30 If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.
32 And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets,
33 for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.

   (As in all the churches of the saints, 34 women should be silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.
   35 If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.  For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church [some ancient authorities put verses 34–35 after verse 40].
   36 Or did the word of God originate with you?  Or are you the only ones it has reached?)

37 Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.
38 Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.
39 So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues;
40 but all things should be done decently and in order.

A Different Author Inserted the Text into Paul’s Original Material

This is a well known conjecture.  Some study bibles note there is scholarly debate as to whether or not verses 33b-36 were written by Paul, or were later additions created by a redactor (editor) of the text;  the Harper-Collins Study Bible is one such example.

The primary argument seems obvious to my eye.  Simply read the above passage, but skip verses 33b-36 which appear as a parenthetical statement.  Is it not abundantly clear the flow of the writing is better without including verses 33b-36?

We may also ask ourselves if the key ideas expressed in verses 33b-36 follow the logic of the rest of the passage.  Where else does Paul say that women are to remain silent in church, and are to be subordinate to men (or in some manuscripts to their husbands)?

The answer is, Paul does not say women are to remain silent in church, nor does Paul say women are to be subordinate to men (husbands or otherwise).  The ideas about women remaining silent and obedient are *only* found in the text which I am arguing has been inserted at a later date.

Remaining silent is mentioned in the original text, but it is not associated with women remaining silent.  There are two reasons given to remain silent, regardless of one’s gender:  (1) there is to be no speaking in tongues unless an interpreter is present;  and (2) in order to control the number or persons responding to revelations that have been given.  Both are efforts to reduce chaos in worship, which is the primary message Paul is trying to convey in this passage.

As to women being subordinate to men, this idea appears no where else in this passage.  It is just thrown in, completely out of the blue.  We may also observe, it bears no relation to the orderly conduct of the worship.

Participation of All is Welcomed  

Read this passage again, skipping verses 33b-36, and note how many times Paul speaks to participation in worship by everyone present.  Compare this with the number of times Paul says women are forbidden participation.  The count is overwhelming, because Paul never says that women are forbidden participation in worship, yet he exhorts participation, without regard to gender, numerous times.

The strongest argument against such inclusive language turns on the word translated as “friends.”  The Greek word used here is adelphos which can simply mean brothers or men;  but it can also mean persons of the same nationality, or a fellow believer in Christ, as we can infer from the definition given below:

G#0080 ἀδελφός adelphos {ad-el-fos’} (http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/0080.html)

1) a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the
same father or mother
2) having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same
people, or countryman
3) any fellow or man
4) a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection
5) an associate in employment or office
6) brethren in Christ
6a) his brothers by blood
6b) all men
6c) apostles
6d) Christians, as those who are exalted to the same heavenly place

In the translation I quote, adelphos is rendered as “friends.”  I think this is reasonable.  But is “brothers” more accurate, and if so, would that imply Paul is not addressing women?  I find this a very weak argument.  As a modern example, consider the phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. Declaration of Independence:  “All men are created equal.”  Does this include women?  If you agree it does -as do I- then you cannot argue friends (adelphos) does not.  In both cases the language is being used inclusive of gender.

What If the Offensive Verses are Just Out of Order?  

Some ancient manuscripts place verses 33b-36 at the end of this passage, following verse 40.  The disruption of the train of thought is less obvious in such cases.  But their content still bears no relation to the topics being addressed in the rest of the passage.

Furthermore, when we find various manuscripts locating a set of verses in different locations within the text, that itself is often taken as evidence those verses may not be original to the text.  One of the reasons for this is because margin notes were sometimes added to manuscripts.  (This is another way the offensive verses 33b-36 may have found their way into I Corinthians chapter 14.)

Later scribes are then left to interpret why the margin note was made.  Is it a clarifying remark?  Is it the addition of a similar thought existing in the oral tradition at the time the note was made?  Is the scribe simply expressing an opinion?  Is the earlier scribe adding words that he thought the original author ought to have written, but did not?  Is it a correction to the text?  If it is an attempted correction to the text, is the correction itself correct, or does it introduce an error?  All of these reasons are possible, and all are known to have taken place in surviving manuscripts.

How Has Ancient Scripture Reached Us?  

To put it crassly, when Jesus floated up into the sky at his ascension, the completed King James Version of the Holy Bible did not fall out of his back pocket!  No, these texts were written over a period of many hundreds of years (perhaps a little over 100 years for the New Testament books) and were then copied, the copies copied, and recopied many times, over many generations.  And none of the original texts survive;  nor do any of the earliest copies survive.

Additionally, there are issues of translation to be considered.  The vast majority of the original Hebrew bible was written in Hebrew.  Some 200 years before the time of Jesus the Hebrew bible was translated into Greek.  All of the original New Testament was written in Greek.  Centuries later, both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament were translated into Latin.  Many centuries later it was translated into European languages, including the King James Version in 1611.

Today we have many modern translations available from which to choose.  Generally speaking, most translations of the last 50 to 100 years are going to be pretty good.  These typically reflect modern scholarship, in footnotes if not in the body of the text itself.  But the early hand-written manuscripts are rife with errors and omissions;  most are easily detected;  some are still debated.

One of the more important points to take from this, is there is no single irrefutable, inerrant source for either the Hebrew bible or New Testament.  All that we have inherited has been culled first from oral traditions, then written down, copied, edited, recopied, reedited, and translated, many times over, in its transmission to us today.

Modern scholars have done a good job of getting us close to what is thought to be the original text;  but they cannot do so perfectly, nor with complete certainty.  A degree of interpretation is always required.  And we too, must read the bible with a degree of interpretation.  If we are to best understand what may have been the original intention and meaning of those who wrote these texts, we have to approach the text openly, mindfully, and critically.

Ron Miller’s Interpretation

In his book, “The Sacred Writings of Paul” on page 128, Ron Miller offers the following annotation to I Corinthians 14:34-35…

   “Here we have yet another interpolation, a passage that clearly interrupts the flow of the text.  Paul was certainly no feminist by today’s standards, nor did he demonstrate much insight into the complementary role of the sexes in marriage.  But in the context of his time, he clearly supported an active role for women in his communities.  In this same letter (16:19), he wrote: ‘…Aquila and Prisca, together with the community that meets in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord.’
   “In Acts 18:2, we read about Paul meeting this couple, and in Romans 16:3, they are discussed in the most laudatory terms.  When the community met in their house, are we to imagine that, even though Paul called both his coworkers, only the husband Aquila spoke while Prisca was silent?  This contradicts all the evidence for the house churches Paul established, assemblies where Jewish and Gentile Christians, male and female Christians, slave and free Christians, were all called to share their gifts in a spirit of fellowship and peace.”  

Cultural Nuances

The world of the 1st century was very different from our world of the 21st century.  Scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures help us better understand the context in which biblical authors were writing.  In the 1st century women were typically not educated and many were kept isolated within their homes.  So while Paul was telling his communities to no longer see social and cultural divisions between persons, many such divisions did in fact exist in his world.

Another point to understand about Paul, is that while he was accepting of persons across social barriers -women, slaves, etc.- he expressed little desire to change social roles.  Compare the following:

Galatians 3

27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female;  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I Corinthians 7

8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am.
9 But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

I Corinthians 7

21 Were you a slave when called?  Do not be concerned about it.  Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.

25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.
26 I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.
27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.

What is going on?  Taken out of the context of Paul’s broader understanding and teaching these can be confusing passages.  Are we all the same in Christ, or not?  Should a slave remain a slave, or not?  Should we marry, or not?

   Apocalypticism (Merriam-Webster):
         a doctrine concerning an imminent end of the world and an ensuing general resurrection and final judgement

One key to properly interpreting these kinds of passages in Paul is to remember he was part of the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, and carried these eschatological (ending of the world) views into his interpretation of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.

Paul experienced Jesus as having been raised after his crucifixion.  Thus, Jesus was for Paul the “first fruits” of the general resurrection, which was to take place at the end of the world.  Paul speaks of this throughout the 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians.  And it is critical to understand that since Jesus was seen by Paul as the first fruits of the general resurrection, therefore, the end of the world and the general resurrection, were to happen very soon.  And by “very soon” I mean that Paul fully expected both to occur while he was alive.  Note the use of “we”:

   I Cor. 15:51, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!  We will not all die, but we will all be changed…”  

This is why Paul is not concerned with the long-term social status of people.  In Paul’s view, there simply was not going to be a long-term existence with which to be concerned!  If the end of the world is coming any day, it doesn’t really matter if you remain a slave, or whether you get married, or whether you have children.

In light of his expectation of the impending end of the world, I find it very interesting that Paul does expand the roles of women in his communities.  This would seem to indicate that even in the face of the immanent end of the temporal world, elevating women to equal status with men was important to Paul.

It may simply be that because many of Paul’s communities began as house churches, and some women did have some authority within their own home, that women were important to the founding of Paul’s communities.  I am not certain we are able to read into Paul’s writings clearly enough to discover why women were considered so important to Paul;  but we are able to see that women are important to Paul, and to his ministry.

Translation Difficulties

I wish to close this essay by taking a brief look at some difficulties and challenges that face us when dealing with translated texts.  Paul, I would hope it is obvious, did not write in English.  Paul wrote in Greek.  And Greek can be a very subtle language, offering many shades of meaning.

In some cases, Greek is much more subtle and nuanced than is English.  For example, there are at least eight different words for “love” in Greek:

mania:  lustful, obsessive love
eros:  sexual, emotional passion
ludus:  playful love, affection
philia:  deep friendship, kinship for fellow humans, brothers-in-arms (combat)
philautia:  love of the self (both healthy and unhealthy varieties)
storgy:  family, motherly love
pragma:  longstanding love, as between aged spouses
agape:  unconditional, universal love

In his book “What Paul Really Said About Women” John Temple Bristow states there are 30 Greek words which may be translated as “say,” “speak,” or “teach.”  He addresses some of these in his discussion surrounding 1st Corinthians 15:34-35, on pages 60-64.

In approaching this passage, Bristow asks that we consider the context.  Paul is speaking to concerns regarding public worship;  specifically, how to conduct orderly public worship.  At this point, Bristow begins to discuss the specific Greek words from which our translations derive.

I Cor. 14:33a, “…for God is a God not of disorder but of peace.”  (NRSV)  

Akatastasia is the Greek word translated above as “disorder,” and it is sometimes translated as “confusion” in this passage.  Elsewhere, when Paul is being confronted by angry mobs, enduring beatings, and other hardships, the same Greek word is translated as “tumult.”

Thus, should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself faced by an “unruly mob,” you may describe the chaos much as did Paul, who “described their noisy confusion and disorder as akatastasia” (Bristow, page 61).  And we can well imagine this is decidedly *not* what one would wish to be taking place during worship!  Yet, this is the impression Paul offers us of the chaos that had befallen the Corinthians.

And this is the context in which Paul offers advice as to how their worship services ought to be managed.  In I Corinthians, chapter 14, we find:

Verses 27-28:  No more than three persons are to speak in tongues;  and only then if interpreters are present.

Verses 29-32:  No more than three persons may prophecy;  they must take turns and consider the message of those who have spoken before them.

Verse 34:  Women are to remain silent during the service.

Verse 34 creates a difficulty.  In chapter 11, Paul states that women are permitted to pray and prophecy during worship.  Now the same Paul says women must remain silent?

Somehow, one must reconcile these apparently opposing statements.  I have already indicated, I find the best answer is that Paul never said that women should remain silent.  And I do not find Bristow’s argument changes my opinion.  But it is instructive to follow his argument for at least two reasons:

First, for those who cannot accept that some of Paul’s letters were forgeries, this offers a means of mitigating the foulness of Paul’s speech, while retaining Paul as the sole author of all the letters written in his name.  For some, retaining Paul as sole author is vital, and Bristow’s approach at least allows one to soften the mistreatment of women.

I wish to be perfectly clear:  the proper course, is to eliminate the misunderstanding.  It is far better to see that Paul never said this of women, and that women are to be treated as wholly equal human beings, than to begin treating women with a lesser degree of hostility.

Second, Bristow’s analysis allows us to peer into the subtle nature of the Greek language.  This offers us insights which we may apply to a great many difficult passages in the bible.  It is important for us to remember we are reading a translation.  And there are occasions when words and meanings do not translate exactly from one language to another.  And those making the translation must choose between offering a literal translation of the words, or the best translation of the meaning expressed in the original text.  The two are not always the same.

With these cautions, I’ll offer a sample of what Bristow has to say about I Cor. 14:34-35.

Silence in the Greek (Bristow, pg. 62-63)

Phimoo means “‘tie shut'” or to “‘muzzle.'”  This is the word that might best be translated from our English phrase “shut up.”  “Phimoo means forcing someone to be silent.”

Hesuchia is used to denote “quietness and stillness.”  Bristow observes that this is the Greek word used in 1st Timothy, but in that context it was not discussing worship, but while one is studying.  And one could make the argument that hesuchia (quietness and stillness) is a very practical attitude for all of us to adopt when studying.

Sigao is a voluntary silence.”  And this is the Greek word Paul used when he (or the person writing in his name) wrote, “‘Let the women in the churches be silent.'”  Furthermore, sigao can also be a request that one remain silent.  And, “[s]igao is the kind of silence asked for in the midst of disorder and clamor.  And Paul asked women of the Church to keep that kind of silence.”

This is a very different shade of meaning than telling someone to sit down and shut up!  We may now appreciate that the English translation misses a lot of the subtlety in the original Greek.  Where it is rude and offensive to demand that someone sit down and shut up, it is perfectly understandable that one may request that persons engaging in a worship service conduct themselves orderly, and without creating chaos.

Bristow makes another interesting point with regard to words which may be translated as “say,” “speak,” or “teach.”  In this case the Greek word chosen by Paul is laleo which of all the 30 options in Greek, is the only one which may simply mean to “‘talk'” or engage in frivolous conversation.

To illustrate the importance Bristow reads into this use of laleo in the Greek, he offers a story related by Kari Torjesen Malcolm, in her 1982 book “Women at the Crossroads”:

    “‘My mother used to compare the situation in Corinth to the one she and my father faced in northern China.  Back in the 1920s when they were first to bring God’s message to that forgotten area, they found women with bound feet who seldom left their homes and who, unlike the men, had never in their whole lives attended a public meeting or a class.  They had never been told as little girls, ‘Now you must sit still and listen to the teacher.’  Their only concept of an assembly was a family feast where everyone talked at once.
    ‘When these women came to my parents’ church and gathered on the women’s side of the sanctuary, they thought this was a chance to catch up on the news with their neighbors and to ask questions about the story of Jesus they were hearing.  Needless to say, along with babies crying and toddlers running about, the women’s section got rather noisy!  Add to that the temptation for the women to shout questions to their husbands across the aisle, and you can imagine the chaos.  As my mother patiently tried to tell the women that they should listen first and chitchat or ask questions later, she would mutter under her breath, ‘Just like Corinth;  it just couldn’t be more like Corinth.'”

Please note, this is not to imply the above is characteristic behavior of all women.  It really has nothing to do with women at all, other than it was women who were deliberately kept isolated and uneducated.  I submit that anyone who was treated as were these women, would behave in much the same manner.  By extension, we may imagine that similar behavior may have been engaged in by the women in Corinth, some 2,000 years ago, and perhaps for very similar reasons, given there may have been similar cultural influence;  both were situated in male dominated cultures.

Thus, Paul was not telling women to sit down and shut up, and he was not saying that women were prohibited from taking an active role in worship.  He was saying that the worship ought to be conducted in an orderly manner.  And that is all he was trying to convey in I Cor. 14:34-35.

I Find This is a Very Clear Passage to Interpret  

First, verses 34-35 read as if they have been inserted into the original text by a later editor.

Second, elsewhere in authentic Paul material, we read where Paul supports women taking leading roles in the communities Paul has founded.  (Romans 16:1, serves as one example:  “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon [or minister] of the church at Cenchreae.”)

Third, for those of us who read the Pauline letters as having multiple authors, it is easy to see that those writing after Paul’s death (circa 67 ce) modified some of his views:  forcing male dominance over women;  harsh curtailing of women’s roles (1 Timothy 2:11-15, serves as an example).

Peeling Back the Layers of Paul

I hope this essay offers several insights into how we might read Paul, and better understand some of his more difficult -offensive!- passages.  Paul is an important figure in the history of the Christian church;  he wrote one third of the New Testament, and he wrote first;  his writing must have influenced many of the remaining authors of the New Testament.

Paul was well educated and wrote well in Greek.  We may assume he chose the specific words he did, with reason.  While I do not agree with a number of Bristow’s presuppositions, I very much enjoy his treatment of the Greek language, and do recommend his short book, “What Paul Really Said About Women.”

Ron Miller not only annotated his book, “The Sacred Writings of Paul” he also translated Paul’s writings from the original Greek.  The phrasing he chose in his translation is at times very interesting.  His annotations offer great insight to Paul’s writings, showing that Paul was a complex and multi-layered person, caught in a changing world.  I highly recommend reading Miller’s book.  He brings a great depth of understanding to Paul, as he does any subject he addressed.

I hope this brief examination of just one short passage, sheds a little light on how we might go about organizing our thoughts when getting ready to interpret scripture, and when trying to separate one layer of the text from another;  often, within the very same passage.

Erik+

Resources:

Bristow, John Temple:  “What Paul Really Said About Women:  An Apostle’s Liberating Views on Equality in Marriage, Leadership, and Love.”

Greece Index:  http://www.greeceindex.com/various/greek_love_words.html

Harper-Collins Study Bible

Krznaric, Roman:  Yes Magazine, “The Ancient Greeks’ 6 words for Love” http://www.yesmagazine.org/happiness/the-ancient-greeks-6-words-for-love-and-why-knowing-them-can-change-your-life

Legg, Chris:  “5 Greek Words for Love” http://chrismlegg.com/2009/10/01/5-greek-words-for-love-agape/

Lexicon-Concordance:  http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/0080.html

Miller, Ron:  “The Sacred Writings of Paul:  Selections Annotated & Explained.”

Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

La_conversion_de_Saint_Paul_Giordano_Nancy_640px
O God, who taught the whole world
through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,
draw us, we pray, nearer to you
through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,
and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.
    (Roman Missal)

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.  It is also the first anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  So I thought it appropriate to say a few words about Paul.  I find Paul to be a very complex and interesting person.  His writings are sometimes confusing, sometimes polemic, sometimes mystical.  Paul can both challenge one’s mind and inspire one’s heart.

By happen stance, in recent months I have revisited my studies of Paul, and found a deeper appreciation for his writings than I had previous felt.  If one accepts that Paul wrote all of the books and letters of the bible once attributed to him, he wrote half the New Testament.  If one accepts only those letters which the vast majority of biblical scholars consider Paul to have written (the “authentic” or “uncontested” letters of Paul), then he still authored about one quarter of the New Testament!  So whether we believe Paul wrote 7, 13, or 14 books of the New Testament, we can certainly agree his influence upon the early development of what was to become the Christian Church was quite large.

A rather indirect way of reading Paul, is as a means of better understanding some of the changes that took place within the early church.  Although, calling this the early “church” is somewhat problematic, as this presumes a Christian perspective was in place at that early date.  (This is doubtful at best, and it certainly would not be anything we would recognize as today’s orthodox Christianity.)  Jesus, was of course Jewish, as was Paul.  In fact, it seems safe to say that the vast majority of persons following Jesus would have been Jewish.  In this sense, it is very correct to observe that this “Jesus Movement” took place within Judaism, and was another means of understanding and expressing Judaism.  I am reasonably convinced that Paul must have died thinking of himself as Jewish.  And more specifically as a Jewish Christ Mystic (more about that shortly).

I do not wish to become bogged down in details, but a few chronological markers may be useful.  Jesus was executed by the Romans circa 30 ce.  Paul’s earliest surviving letters were written between 50-67 ce.  Paul was martyred circa 67 ce.  The first gospel (Mark) was written circa 60-75 ce;  Matthew and Luke/Acts circa 75-85 ce;  and John circa 90-95 ce, about the same time frame as Revelation (although written by a different John).  The late letters in the New Testament are usually dated by biblical scholars to between 75-125 ce.

A closer examination of the questions of dating the texts of the New Testament, and proposing a chronological ordering of them, took place in a pair of my previous posts:

There are a few primary touch points to pull out of that string of dates:

  •   Paul is our earliest author of the New Testament.
  •   Paul’s authentic letters pre-date the four gospels.
  •   Among the last texts of the New Testament to be written are the Gospel of John and Revelation.
  •   Also among the last texts to be written are many of the letters found in the New Testament.

We may also observe there is an apparent difference of character of texts written in the 50’s vs those written in the 90’s.  This allow us to read parts of the New Testament against others, to obtain a sense of how the early church was changing, and how its understanding of itself evolved during the first 100 years following the execution of Jesus.  We may most clearly see this in the various letters of the Pauline school.  We may see some of this influence in the Johannine school as well, although they are all later understandings of the church, by which time I believe we may properly speak of a Christian Church.

Which underscores another set of touch stones for better understanding the organization of the New Testament:

  •   The “proto-church” prior to the 50’s is best understood as a Jesus Movement, taking place within Judaism.
  •   The “proto-church” of the 50’s and 60’s may be understood as developing into a schism between the Jewish and Gentile Movements.
  •   Both of the above are best understood as separate movements, stemming from a common Jewish Jesus Movement.
  •   The church of the 90’s is best understood as having by that date developed a distinctive Christian Church self-identity.
  •   It is often useful to think of the proto-church of the 50’s and Christian Church of the 90’s as distinctly different from one another.  To use round numbers, I sometimes speak of these as the proto-church of the 50’s and the early Christian Church of the 100’s.

So what has this to do with Paul?

The collection of Pauline writings are understood by the vast majority of biblical scholars and historians as ranging chronologically from the early 50’s to the 90’s, and in some cases even later.  Clearly, if this is true and Paul died in about 67 ce, he cannot be the author of all the letters written in his name.

It is fair to point out this is hotly debated in some circles.  One may find opinions ranging from Paul wrote all of Paul’s letters, to Paul only wrote the seven uncontested/authentic letters.  I number among the second group.  Therefore, I see several “Paul’s” as contributing to the collection of Pauline texts.  In fact, there are at least three or four different Paul’s.  And given Paul’s character plays such a large role in Acts, I think it is appropriate to count that as the fourth Paul.

The first is the “authentic” Paul who wrote in the 50’s and 60’s.

  •   First Thessalonians     (c. 51 ce/AD)
  •   Philippians                   (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   Philemon                      (c. 52-54 ce)
  •   First Corinthians         (c. 53-54 ce)
  •   Galatians                      (c. 55 ce)
  •   Second Corinthians     (c. 55-56 ce)
  •   Romans                        (c. 55-58 ce)

The second Paul is the author (or authors) of the “disputed” or “contested” letters of Paul.  Scholarship is roughly evenly divided on these letter, as to who wrote them.  It is possible that by this time there was a “school of Paul” which produced these texts, either with the authentic Paul as a contributor, or after his death, but still close enough to feel a close kinship with most of Paul’s central teachings.

  •   Colossians
  •   Second Thessalonians
  •   (Ephesians, which is a “circular” letter, is sometimes placed here.)

The third and last group is the Pseudepigraphic (forgeries) Paul.  Almost no one thinks Paul wrote these letters.

  •   Pastoral epistles (letters) of 1st & 2nd Timothy, and Titus
  •   Ephesians (unless one places it in the second grouping)

The fourth Paul is the character represented in Acts.  This is clearly not actually Paul, in the sense that when “Paul” is speaking in Acts, the author is writing as all ancient historians did, placing on Paul’s lips those words which the author thought Paul would have spoken in those or similar circumstances.  Acts is a secondary source, and we should bear this in mind when Acts is at odds with Paul’s own letters.

These are the various Paul’s.  I find this to be highly instructive as Paul is a complex figure, and often misunderstood and even, I feel, sometimes misrepresented.  This is one of the reasons “Paul” presents such a divisive bone of contention among some Christians.  How are we to read Paul?  Did Paul teach we are all one in Christ, or was Paul a misogynist?  Are we to seek freedom in this life, or remain slaves?  Engage in an active sexual life (within marriage) or should we remain celibate?  Do we love Paul or revile him?

Each of these competing views of Paul have an answer.

In some cases the apparent dichotomy is illuminated by understanding Paul better.  Paul was an apocalyptic Jew.  Among other things, this means he believed in a future bodily resurrection.  Not only this, he believed Jesus’ resurrection was best understood as the First Fruits of the wider general resurrection, and that the general resurrection was soon to come.  Therefore, it is best to remain celibate and concentrate upon the dawning Kingdom.  And for those unable to remain celibate, to marry.  Therefore, if a slave it is best to remain a slave.  If already married, remain married.  What these views have in common is that the end is soon to come (Paul fully expected to be alive for the general resurrection), so there is no point in changing your mundane life;  one should instead focus upon the sacred.

I believe we can be certain had Paul known that “soon” meant 2,000-years or more, in some ways his teaching would have been quite different.  This is a valid point to my mind, and one of which we should be cognisant.

But all of the above, as interesting and instructional as I personally find it, is not really the most vital and important aspects of what I feel Paul was trying to teach us.  I feel the most vibrant and deeply meaningful way of reading Paul is as a Jewish Christ Mystic.

Jewish. Christ. Mystic.

Each of these words is important, and draws us into a closer understanding of Paul.  He was Jewish.  In fact, he was a pharisee.  Pharisee’s have gotten a bad reputation over the centuries.  But most basically they were extremely concerned with keeping the laws of the Torah.  So much so, for fear of breaking these laws, they developed an even more strict interpretation!  But Paul was also an apocalyptic Jew.  This meant the end of the present era was to come to an end, and God would bring about a new world.

And what of Christ?  Paul himself states he initially prosecuted Christians!  (Although that specific term may be anachronistic.)  Why?  I think the most reasonable explanation is the claim that Jesus had been resurrected, and was therefore the Jewish messiah.  This would have been categorically unbelievable to Paul, a skilled Jewish pharisee.  Jesus was crucified, and that alone would preclude him from ever being any kind of Jewish messiah.  Jesus would have been cursed by God, not raised into glory by God!

But then Paul had his conversion experience on the road from Damascus.

Paul either saw and/or heard the raised Jesus, and this experience totally and completely changed him for the rest of his life!  This is when Paul came to understand that Jesus *had* been raised, and this understanding was framed by his apocalyptic world view.  Thus, Jesus becomes the risen Christ and is the First Fruits of the impending general resurrection.

And this is where Paul begins to develop his mystical understanding of what role the Christ plays in our lives.  I would say this is one of the central tenets of Paul’s mission, as he saw it.  This is also my favorite aspect of Paul’s teachings.  Central to Paul’s teaching is experiencing the risen Christ in our lives.  This may happen in a variety of ways, some identified by Paul and some not.

As a mystic Paul was all about the *experience* of being in the Presence of the Divine.  Paul himself had a number of such experiences.  This is what I find so appealing about Paul.  Whatever we may make of his letters, we can appreciate that he had a number of experiences of Divine Communion.  And this is something to which we may all aspire!

Within Paul’s mystical teachings there are two themes which run hand in hand.

The first is of personal transformation.  We must put on the mind of Christ, and allow the Christ to live in us, through us, for us to become one in the same with the Christ.  The second point is in having this experience of personal connection to the Divine, and experiencing the personal transformation that comes from such an experience, to effect transformation of the world!

*Both* points are very critical to Paul.  And I think it is fair to read Paul as saying that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, yet it is each of *us* who must do what we are able to bring this Kingdom into our world.  It is a participatory event, in which we are integral members, not inactive hanger-ons!

Faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love”  (1 Cor. 13:13).

This is the light by which I read Paul.  When I find a passage which conflicts with these aspirations, and which conflict with his two central teachings of personal transformation and transformation of the world, then I feel confident either Paul did not write that, or we misunderstand Paul’s meaning.

Recommendations for further study of Paul.

I wish to leave this feast day message with two recommendations for the further study of Paul.  One is a lecture series about the apostle Paul given by Prof. Luke Timothy Johnson, a former Benedictine monk, and offered through The Great Courses web site.  The second is a book written by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, entitled “The First Paul.”

Prof. Johnson holds a very different view of Paul than do I, as he reads all of the Pauline material as being directly or indirectly authored by the apostle Paul.  He offers a wonderful and stimulating lecture series which I highly recommend.  One of the points I find most interesting turns on a widespread misinterpretation of the original Greek in one of Paul’s letters.  He explains this much more fully in his lecture, but the issue concerns faith *in* Jesus or the faith *of* Jesus.  As many Christians will recognize, one of these views forms a cornerstone of Christian Faith for a great many Christians!  Yet it is based in a misinterpretation of the original Greek.

This is a subtle and to my way of thinking very important distinction.  Having faith *in* Jesus really removes us from the process.  We cast our “faith” upon Jesus, and therefore we are saved.  Simple to understand.  But for many, not such an easy thing to accomplish!  I think it is fair to say Martin Luther struggled with this greatly in his life!  Marcus Borg says he did too.  And so have I.  (I’m in good company at least!)

Having faith *of* Jesus may be read a number of different ways.  In part I believe this is because it is born of a mystic interpretation, and such interpretations are always at least a little misty, if not down right foggy!  First, we recognize that Jesus had a tremendous and deep faith in God.  In this light, the path to God is not through faith *in* Jesus, but in having the same quality of faith *of* Jesus *in* God!  See the difference?  *We* are active participants in this process.  As I think we must be, if personal transformation is one of the vital keys (as I do).

I relate this to the theme of theosis which is so important to the Eastern Orthodox Church, but which has been largely lost here in the West since the Great Schism in the 11th century.  And I also relate this to putting on the mind of Christ, as Paul spoke of so often.

The book authored by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan offers a wonderful collection of insights to Paul!  I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it both refreshing and instructive.  One of the main themes they paint is that of Paul the Jewish Christ Mystic.  I really do think this grabs a hold of something vital in Paul.  And I do not think we can really understand Paul without seeing him in this light.

This book is a mixture of solid scholarly historical research, and of developing a sincere appreciation for the Mystical Paul.  And we need both.  We need to understand as well as we may the world of the 1st century, and we need to read Paul as a mystic, trying to reveal to us what he may of his experience of the Divine, and how we might take part in the spiritual transformation of the world.

“The greatest of these is love.”

If we don’t get that -until that hits us on a gut level- we are missing the whole point of the New Testament!

Offered with blessings,
On my first anniversary as priest,
Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle 2014

May the Lord Bless you and Keep you,
Father Erik

Dating the Oldest New Testament Manuscripts

This is a follow-up to an earlier blog, “Chronological View of the New Testament.”  Once I begin thinking about the New Testament chronologically, one of the next questions which comes to my mind, is what are the dates of the surviving New Testament manuscripts?

NT-Frag-1
NT-Frag-2

Download PDF,  Table & Chart:  Earliest Fragments of the New Testament

 

We may think of this in the form of a two-part question:

  1.   When were the books and letters of the New Testament originally written?
  2.   What are the dates of the surviving documents?

As it turns out, these are in fact two very different questions.  The first question I dealt with in the earlier blog, along with the question of *who* wrote these books and letters (in most cases we simply do not know).  I also presented a chart of this information, which I suggest may be useful in one’s study.

This blog will open the examination of the second question, that of dating what early Christian texts survive.  To begin with, there are no known surviving *original* texts (or even fragments) of the books and letters of the New Testament.  Those long ago wore out, were destroyed, lost, or turned to dust.

In fact, even the first several generations of copies are thought by most scholars to be lost to us.  These were “working” documents, by which I mean they were used as communication devices.  As such they would have been read out loud to gatherings of people on an on-going basis.  They were *not* holy books and letters carefully hidden away and cared for;  they were hand-written documents used to conduct the “normal business” of worship, liturgy, and instruction.

This means the first copies, and copies of those copies, and likely copies of those copies, simply wore out from use.  As a copy became too worn to be used, it was copied again.  When another group wished to have a copy of one of your letters, or you of theirs, a copy was written out by hand.

I think it is useful for us to understand this point.  These books and letters only became “holy scripture” at a later date.  At first, they were just normal tools of communication.

How do we date the early Christian texts which do survive?

Answering the questions surrounding the dating of these texts quickly becomes quite complex.  Scholars differ in their opinions.  Prof. Bart Ehrman and Dr. Daniel Wallace have had a number of debates on this topics.  I find their discussion quite interesting, and perhaps you may as well.  If you are not familiar with Dr. Wallace I would suggest first watching his solo presentation, and then the debate between Ehrman and Wallace (both were offered on YouTube when I published this blog):

  •   Wallace, 45-min. presentation http://youtu.be/b-RMdX0zi-Q
  •   Ehrman-Wallace Debate, 2-hours http://youtu.be/kg-dJA3SnTA
  •   (In the event these links are no longer valid, I suggest simply doing an Internet search of their names, Ehrman Wallace, and and you should find links to their debates as well as supporting information for both their positions.)

In discussing this information, a few points should be made.  The obvious point is this subject is still debated by recognized scholars who are expects in this field.  We must expect differences in opinion.

Another point is there are several ways of categorizing these documents and fragments.  We should begin by understanding that when the word papyrus is used, so far as I have been able to determine, this always means a relatively small piece of ancient “paper” (made from reeds).  Often these are only small fragments the size of a postage stamp, credit card, or index card.  When we speak of manuscripts these are larger documents, the average length of which is 450-pages according to Dr. Wallace.  (There are several subcategories of these, but we need not address such points in this blog.)

Scholars seem to be in wide agreement that a small credit card sized fragment, called P52 (P for papyrus;  52 for the 52nd officially catalogued papyri), is the earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament and dates to 100-150 ce.  The earliest complete copies of individual books and letters of the New Testament date to about 200 ce.  And the earliest complete New Testament bible, the Codex Sinaiticus (a codex is a “book” as we understand it, leaves of paper sewn together on one edge) dates to circa 350 ce.

  •   (In the debate, Dr. Wallace states new discoveries will advance the earliest fragments into the 1st century ce, but until the evidence survives peer review, it seems too early to speak to this question.)

Thus, our earliest surviving fragment of the New Testament dates to about 100-years after the death of Jesus, and our earliest surviving complete edition of the New Testament dates to about 300-years after the death of Jesus.

It is also worth recalling the canon was not yet agreed upon even in 350 ce.  In 367 ce Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, authoritatively published the first known list of the same 27 books found in our modern canon.  However, we should recognize he published his list specifically so that churches under his control would cease using other books and letters in their liturgy.  It stands to reason he felt he had to do so exactly because other books and letters were being so used.

Authorities differ in their opinions, as they always do, but it may have taken another 50 or 100 years for a wider consensus to be reached.  Even so, debate among the church leadership regarding the proper canon continued into the 1500’s, and even into the 1600’s.

  •   Canon of Trent (1546, Roman Catholicism)
  •   Gallic Confession of Faith (1559, Calvinism)
  •   Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, Church of England)
  •   Synod of Jerusalem (1672, Greek Orthodox)

New Manuscripts Are Still Being Discovered

Dr. Wallace offers an interesting slide during his solo presentation.  He shows us how many manuscripts were available to those who compiled the King James Version of the bible (1611 ce), and how many are now available (as of 2012, the year of his presentation).  The change is very large!  Also note the year of the earliest available manuscript.  This too is interesting.

YEAR      Number of MSS      EARLIEST MSS
1611                    7                       11th Century
2012             5,800+                      2nd Century

As one can see, we are approaching 6,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament.  (Dr. Wallace’s count is about 5,900 and slowly increasing as new discoveries are catalogued.)  And some of the earliest are dating to within 100-200 years of the death of Jesus.

While there are differences between each one of them, even those most closely related to one another, the vast majority of these differences make no difference at all.  Some are spelling errors, some use an unnecessary word (such as “the Mary and the Joseph”);  other differences are so small as to only be apparent in the original Greek, and are not even translatable into English.

Dr. Wallace offers the opinion that less than 1% of the differences are significant, and may also alter the reading of the verse in which they take place.  On the other hand, he is of the opinion none of these alterations are significant enough to be considered primary challenges to core theological concepts.  Interestingly, Prof. Ehrman agreed.

I find this interesting because elsewhere I have understood Ehrman to hold the opinion some of these alterations could be considered significant to one’s theology.  However, I will have to do more research investigating this question before writing about it.

“Differences that make a difference” (Ehrman)

So what then, are the “differences that make a difference” which these two experts discussed?  And how is it that a difference may make a difference, but not a theologically significant difference?  Especially when, according to Ehrman, such differences include questioning the nature of the the following theological points:

  •   Trinity
  •   Full divinity of Jesus
  •   Full humanity of Jesus
  •   Atoning sacrifice of Jesus’ death

Ehrman and Wallace did not answer these questions in their debate.  I will point out for whomever may be interested, that one may wish to examine the Nicene Creed.  By carefully examining this Creed one is able to determine that various church leaders were in heated debate with one another over the proper interpretation of scripture and church tradition.

However, close examination of the Creed is not the purpose of this blog.  One may conduct an Internet search on this topic, should one find it of interest.  The history of its formation is quite involved, and it ultimately forced the split of the Eastern and Western Church – called the Great Schism.  (Ultimately, the Great Schism took place over the splitting of a single letter, in a single word of the Creed.  But many decades of argument led up to this final straw of dispute.)

Read from a certain point of view, the Creed is an exclusionary vehicle.  The words were chosen with great care both to affirm a certain understanding of Christianity, but arguably even more importantly, to specifically exclude other understandings of Christianity.

I am one who reads the Creed as an exclusionary vehicle.  I am also personally much more motivated by a unifying form of Christianity, than by a divisive form.  This is why I prefer the inclusionary Act of Faith.  Jesus is reported to have considered all of the Law and Prophets to have stood on Love:  Love of God, and Love of all others.  With this thought in mind, I offer for your consideration, the text of the Nicene Creed and the Act of Faith:

The 1979 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

Act of Faith

We believe that God, is Love, the Power, the Truth, and the Light.
That all, shall one day become, One with the Divine.
We hold, the Grace of God, is the Unity of humanity.
We know, we do serve the Lord best, as we best serve, our brothers and sisters.
So shall Christ’s blessing rest upon us, and peace for evermore. Amen.

Sweating Blood

Ehrman cites Luke chapter 22 as an example of differences which make a difference.  He refers to the story of Jesus sweating blood prior to his being betrayed and turned over to the Romans for execution on the cross.

Ehrman makes the point this sweating blood is *not* found in the earliest and best manuscripts of Luke.  So we know there has been a change made by the scribes who copied this text.  The question is in which direction:  was the sweating blood added or removed?  when?  why?

The argument which Ehrman offers (and to which I agree) is that the Gospel of Luke was seen as being too passionless.  It is sometimes called the “passionless Passion of Christ.”  It is also sometimes pointed to in order to argue that Jesus was so fully Divine as not to be human (and thus had no fear of his “Passion”).  This idea did not sit well with later scribes, so they changed the text so that it included Jesus’ sweating blood, demonstrating both a human condition and a man very much concerned with his coming Passion.

This is a difference that makes a difference, to be sure.  But how theologically significant is it, really?  I’d suggest this depends if one reads Luke to be portraying a non-human Jesus or not.  If one reads Luke’s Jesus as already being human and Divine, it is not a theologically significant difference.  However, if this scene is the pivotal scene which changes one’s understanding of Jesus to include being very much human, and of suffering his Passion, it makes a very, very significant theological difference.

How might these insights change how one reads the New Testament?  

It is not my place to try to tell you how to interpret this scene, or any other, in the New Testament.  But I would ask you to consider the ramifications of scribes altering the text of the New Testament, and doing so intentionally.  Erroneous mistakes are a given, easily forgiven and usually quite easy to detect:  no harm, no foul.  But making intentional changes are of an entirely different category.

What I take from this line of enquiry is that the New Testament is a very human work, and demonstrates a series of attempts to understand the life of Jesus, and what he reveals to us of the Divine.  Something profound took place 2,000-years ago, and it took persons decades, hundreds of years, to work through what happened.  And 2,000-years later you and I are still working through what that life of Jesus means to us.

No doubt, the initial stories of Jesus were carried forth in an oral tradition.  As time passed, these stories began to be written down.  But first, a mystic experienced a life-changing conversion, in which he was confronted by the risen Christ.  He began travelling city to city, forming small house churches where he could.  When these churches experienced internal difficulties, he preferred to re-visit them personally to clarify their understanding of what it meant to be in Christ.  When he was unable to re-visit them personally, he sent his representative to sort out these difficulties.  And when this was not possible, he wrote letters addressing the specific concerns of churches he formed.  That person was Paul, and a number of his letters survive.

As these various texts were held in increasing regard, they were copied and spread from one group of Christians to another.  And the only way to copy a text in the ancient world was for someone to sit down and copy the book or letter one single character at a time, word by word, line by line;  hopefully making as few errors as possible.  And as these cherished texts were worn out they were copied;  and copied again;  and again.

This is how the early manuscripts, which were ultimately to become scripture, came to us.  They were deemed to be important documents, to be sure.  But initially they were not understood to be “scripture,” although in time they were seen in this light.  So am I certain many scribes took great care in copying the texts which they encountered.  And I am equally certain some scribes were some combination of tired, careless, or less skilled, and as a result, errors creep into the texts.  (And, sadly, some just did not like what had been written before them, and changed the text to better fit their own theological understanding.)

Making errors in this environment is unavoidable.  Anyone who doubts this can test it for themselves.  Open you bible to the Gospel of Mark and copy it out in its entirely onto sheets of paper.  If you can find a willing partner, have them produce their own copy from your copy.  If you want a more accurate test, you need to find five or ten willing partners, and each copy a letter or book of the bible and re-copy them amongst yourselves.  Then compare these copies one to the other, and then to the bibles from which each of you started.  I fully expect you will find errors.  And the odds are you are better educated than most scribes were 2,000-years ago.

I for one, do not see an obvious answer.  

Errors did take place.  We have the ancient manuscripts which document this took place.  Some scholars claim the differences are really more or less insignificant.  Other scholars think there are at least some significant differences.

By and large, I suspect we do have something pretty close to the “original” texts (although, we can never be certain this is true).  On the other hand, I also know no two ancient texts were identical, and I know in some cases intentional changes were made.  Therefore, I know I am dealing with altered documents.

I also know that I do not fluently read Greek, therefore I am likely to miss shades of meaning at times.  And most of us cannot read any Greek, so we are at the mercy of those who interpret from Greek into English.  There must be times meaning is lost or changed, because that is the nature of translating across languages.  Some words and ideas do not translate perfectly.  And is the translator to make his translation as literal as possible, or to fit the meaning of the source text as closely as possible?  (Frequently, it is impossible to do both;  all translations are a series of such compromises.)

So I know I am not dealing with a pristine text, and I know I am dealing with a human text.  I am not reading the Hand of God.  I am reading copied and translated thoughts another human being had of their impression of the Divine;  or farther removed from the source, of an impression of another person’s experience of the Divine.

This is far from simple to sort out.  It requires subtlety.  It certainly requires subtlety if one is inclined to mine into the space between the written words.  But I also believe there is an underlying Truth which is still conveyed to us through the text, despite all the difficulties.

There are levels of understanding and personal revelation at work.  

There is the initial revelation which one might be struck by as a new Christian.  I view these as more basic and broadly stated concerns which impact our lives.  But by “basic” I do not lacking vitality, these often strike a person with profound life-changing strength.  By “basic” I mean one may be able to organize one thoughts around them sufficiently to write them down on a piece of paper.

Other apprehensions are more subtle, more abstract, and frankly, more confusing insights that one must puzzle through to one’s own spiritual satisfaction.  Some of these are even paradoxical, and we cannot presume to ever discover an answer.

But perhaps we are not supposed to feel *that* certain in our understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ?  perhaps we are supposed to leave an opening for Divine Mystery in our lives, and in our interactions with others?

My heart-felt suggestions for you are:

  •   Do not simply believe everything you are told.
  •   Read the New Testament prayerfully, mindfully, with discernment.
  •   Read the New Testament with both an open mind and open spirit.
  •   Embrace holding your mind open, and strive to see from alternate points of view.
  •   Open your spirit to intuition.
  •   Truth speaks to those with ears to hear.

Offered with blessings, on Christmas Eve 2013, when our thoughts turn to the meaning of Jesus, the Christ, and how our lives are impacted by his life, some 2,000-years later.

Erik+

The following are a collection of additional links of interest for those who enjoy getting lost in library stacks!

General:

Papyri:

Codex Sinaiticus:

Codex Vaticanus:

Codex Alexandrinus: