Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Primer on Paul's Writings

Next to Jesus, an argument can be made that Paul was the most important individual in the birth of what came to be Christianity. He wrote more of the New Testament than any other person (although scholars think that he likely only wrote 7, 8 or 9 of the 13 letters attributed to him), and was responsible for the spread of the Jesus movement into the Gentile world. While both liked and hated, there is not much debate that Paul was seen as an intellectual. He was also clearly Jewish and a Pharisee.

As a missionary, Paul would typically arrive in a new city and begin his missionary work by going to the Jewish synagogue where he would address Jews, but also Gentiles who were loosely associated with the synagogue. Paul's converts would begin a community life of their own, gathering regularly for worship and instruction and life "house churches". These communities were likely small...well under 100 and more than likely between 10-30. Paul's missionary strategy also had him moving on after a local community had been established.

Paul's letters were the way he kept in touch with his communities after he had moved on. They would be read aloud at a gathering of the community. As such, Paul's letters are "conversations in context" - often his response to a letter he would have received from the community. Thus, it is important to recognize that the letters were not intended to be a summary of his message, but more specifically dealing with issues arising in his communities. In fact, the agenda for Paul's letters was set more by the communities than by Paul...he deals with specific issues raised by them.

For example, Paul writes in I Corinthians "Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband." An interesting question raised about passages such as this is how much of the passage is Paul's point of view, versus how much is he noting what was written to him by the community. For instance, in this passage, try putting quotation marks around the second sentence (i.e. as if it was what the community had follow the "concerning matters about which you wrote" opening) and then re-read the'll get a very different perspective. But since there are no quotation marks in ancient Greek, we don't really know...although many modern scholars think that the second sentence is Paul quoting from the letter he received from his community in Corinth.

Some of the key themes in Paul's writings are:
  • "Jesus is Lord" - Paul refers to Jesus as Lord frequently. This had both religious and sociopolitical meanings. He was affirming that the "risen Christ" participated in the power and authority of God. He was also affirming that since "Jesus is Lord", "Caesar is not Lord".
  • "In Christ" - Paul uses this phrase (or "in the Lord") 165 times. He uses it to refer to being free, no longer enslaved to the dominion of sin and death...characterized by things like freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control. Life "in Christ" also has a social dimension in that it negates the social boundaries that mark conventional human existence.
  • "Justification by Grace" - Paul contrasts justification by works of the law with justification by grace through faith. Justification is a free gift, not a reward for achievement. In Galatians, for example, justification by grace through faith is the basis for Gentiles becoming part of the community without becoming Jewish through circumcision. Similarly, he makes this point in Romans. For Paul, justification by grace is the basis for our relationship to is a gift of God, not a human accomplishment.
  • "Christ Crucified" - Paul attaches various meanings to this including that Christ was crucified; an indictment of the rulers of the age who crucified Christ; a revelation of God's love for us; and a symbol of the path of transformation.

The New Testament doesn't tell us about Paul's death, but according to early Church tradition, he was believed to have been executed in the 60s. If so, it is interesting that Christianity's two most formative figures were executed by established authority.

Note: most of the above was taken from Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pay Dirt: Christpower


Look at him!

Look not at his divinity,
but look, rather, at his freedom.

Look not at the exaggerated tales of his power,
but look, rather, at his infinite capacity to give himself away.

Look not at the first-century mythology that surrounds him,
but look, rather, at his courage to be,
his ability to live, and
the contagious quality of his love.

Stop your frantic search!

Be still and know that this is God:
this love,
this freedom,
this life,
this being;

when you are accepted, accept yourself;
when you are forgiven, forgive yourself;
when you are loved, love yourself.

Grasp that Christpower
and dare to be

John Shelby Spong. Christpower (arranged by Lucy Newton Boswell Negus). Richmond, VA: Thomas Hale Co., 1975. Reprinted in 2007 by St. Johann's Press, Haworth, New Jersey.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Evolving Stories of the Gospels

First, a little historical context:
  • In 63 BCE, the Jewish homeland was incorporated into the Roman Empire (and administered through "client kings" appointed by Rome)
  • Herod the Great was client king in 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE. At the time of this death, the kingdom was divided into 3 parts.
  • Jesus was born around 4 BCE.
  • In 6 BCE, one of those parts - Judea - came under the direct Roman rule through governors - the most famous of whom was Pontius Pilate, from 26 to 36 BCE.
  • Jesus was executed around 30 CE.
  • Jewish revolutionary violence simmered throughout the first century, culminating in the catastrophic war of revolt against Rome in 66 CE. During this war, the Romans brutally reconquered the Jewish homeland and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70.
  • The gospels were written between approximately 65 and 100 CE.
The gospels tell the story of Jesus. The earliest is almost certainly Mark and the latest is John. The gospels are the product of a developing Christian tradition during the decades following Jesus' death...containing history remembered and history metaphorized.

Mark was written around 70 CE. It is thought that Mark was a follower of Peter and that much of Mark is based on Peter's teaching. It was written around the time that Jerusalem and the temple were reconquered and destroyed. That event casts a shadow on this gospel...Mark was a wartime gospel. To strengthen those being persecuted in this wartime, Mark emphasizes things like Jesus' suffering, warnings that followers of Jesus would suffer, and the promise og rewards to those who endured without losing their faith. In that context, Mark's theme seems to be focused around the "way"...that is, a way of return from exile (where the community found itself at that point in time)...the path of death and resurrection. When Mark uses the word "repent", he isn't referring to contrition for sin, but returning from exile...that is, dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being. Some interesting tidbits about Mark:
  • He refers to Jesus' mother ("son of Mary") but doesn't mention Jesus' presumed father, Joseph
  • There is no virgin birth story in Mark
  • There is no resurrection appearance...just some startled women who "said nothing to any one"

Matthew was written about 10-20 years after Mark. Matthew uses 90% of Mark and adds some material from Q as well as some "original" material to evolve the story of Jesus. Matthew's content points to a late first-century community of Christian Jews in conflict with other Jews. After the Roman conquest of the Jewish homeland, the survivors sought to consolidate and preserve Jewish identity in spite of the loss of the temple. Soon after the temple's destruction, the Jewish community began to ostracize Jews who followed Jesus as the messiah, claiming they were no longer true Jews. Matthew tries to assert that Christian Jews are faithful to the traditions of Israel...he does this by quoting the Hebrew Bible more than any other gospel ("It is written" is used 40 times). He also parallels the Hebrew Bible's stories and quotes Hebrew scripture many, many times in telling the story of Jesus. He traces Jesus' genealogy back to Abraham, restricts Jesus mission during his lifetime to the Jews, echoes the story of Moses in Jesus (e.g. Herod, like Pharaoh, was claimed to command all male babies to be killed, structured Jesus' teaching in 5 blocks like the five books of Moses, etc.). Matthew also introduces some new concepts that differ from other gospels:

  • He introduces the virgin birth idea. He suggests Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem and then move to Nazareth after spending time in Egypt following a plot by Herod to kill infants (Luke has them live in Nazareth but travel to Bethlehem for a census and then return to Nazareth Egypt trip and no Herod plot)
  • He has wise men visit Jesus by following a star (Luke has neither wise men nor a star, but instead has angels singing in the night sky to shepherds who come to visit)
  • He traces Jesus' genealogy back to Abraham (Luke traces it back to Adam)
  • He makes the "son of man" or Christ claim stronger and more overt than Mark did
  • He seems to have heightened the miraculous in his stories as compared to Mark
  • He emphasized hell more than other Christian writings
Luke was also written about 10-20 years after Mark and uses a lot of Mark and Q. But to evolve the story, he also adds a lot of "original" content as well. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Christianity had become a much more Gentile movement. As such, he wanted to show Christianity projected to the whole world; to show how its center had shifted from Jerusalem to Rome; and to show how gentiles like himself had come to be included in this Jewish religion. He does this by evolving the story of Jesus through various and sometimes subtle means (for example, he traces Jesus back to Adam (father of all men) as opposed to Abraham; he has Roman Pontius Pilate pronounce Jesus innocent; etc. Luke's thematic construction involves a repeated emphasis on the Spirit of God (Jesus' conception by Spirit, Spirit descending on Jesus at his baptism, Jesus promising to send the Spirit to his followers, and in Acts - the companion book to Luke - the Spirit descending on the community through speaking in other languages...thereby breaking barriers of Christianity beyond language, nationality, economics, etc.). In the power of the Christ-spirit, all separations were overcome...including between Jews and Gentiles.

John is very different from the other 3 gospels, again showing the evolution of the gospels. John includes differences such as the length of Jesus' public activity (1 year in the others; 3-4 in John), geography (Jesus' public activity occurs in Judea and Jerusalem more than in Galilee), and message (Jesus message is about himself as opposed to the kingdom of God). John was written about 60-70 years after Jesus's death. John is the most symbolic of the gospels...Jesus inaugural scene is the "water into wine" story...symbolizing that Jesus message is about a wedding banquet at which the wine never runs out and the best is saved for last. John is also famous for the "I am" sayings...describing Jesus as Lord, Messiah, King and Son of God (those sayings are part of John's evolution of the gospels). For these sayings, the context of the time is important to note...there was a growing divide between some Jews and Christians, with a push by some Jews to argue that it was heritical to attribute to a human being too close a connection with the Holy God (like was being claimed about Jesus). John wrote to encourage and bolster those being banished because of their openness about following Jesus...and he did so through things like the "I am" sayings. The other gospels didn't say these fact, it wouldn't have made sense, for instance, in Mark where the concept was that Jesus' divine identity was a secret only to be revealed through the cross and resurrection. If one doesn't force oneself to read John literally, it is a remarkable book at summarizing how the Christian movement came to understand Jesus...that is, through Jesus you can know what God is like. That is the message of John.

In summary, Mark started the gospel writings. Matthew and Luke took Mark's writings and morphed them to meet their needs (i.e. Matthew's need to justify his belief in Jesus as being in line with Judaism; Luke's desire to move Christianity to a movement for Gentile and Jew and to emphasize the spirit). John takes the gospels to their next evolution...making a more direct link between Jesus and God. And while there are glaring inconsistencies throughout the gospels, (which illustrates the evolving nature of the gospels), this is not a problem for those who don't see the gospels as having to be interpreted literally and as inerrant words of God. For others, this realization is startling and my experience, they either embrace it or refuse to even consider it.

Note: lots of credit for the content of this blog entry to Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and to Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.