On Parables

Defining Parable

A parable is a form of teaching that eludes easy definition. In fact, its intention is to be elusive. Due to its very nature, it is easier to describe what a parable is not than what it is.

A parable is not a pronouncement. It does not claim that the world should be one way rather than another. It is not a moral lesson. It is not a description of a second or supernatural world. A parable is built on the images of the everyday world but reconfigures the everyday world. It opens a seam or a glimpse to an alternative world and an alternative way of reasoning in the world. In this sense only does it describe a different world or the world seen differently. However, it never leaves this world. It simply re-orients this world through its description of a happening that never really happens.

The Parables of Jesus

The parables of Jesus are rooted in the everyday world. Someone loses a coin. A truant child returns home. A gardener sows mustard seeds. A group of day laborers are waiting for a call. A man travels alone down the dangerous road from Jerusalem to the wealthy villa of Jericho. A woman conceals leaven in flour.

In each story the expected happens, but at the same time the unexpected happens. An altered version of reality arises from the usual to make us laugh or scratch our heads as if impacted by comic relief—which is sometimes no relief at all. It can also be very acute, making a strong political or social comment by way of a sharp contrast. A woman searches all day and finds a coin. That’s common enough. We have all searched diligently for something of value to us. Then, she throws a party to celebrate her luck. The cost of the party is far in excess of the value of the coin. What she has found is more than lost again. In fact, in the practice of ancient hospitality, the result of the party is likely debt—which will either earn her friends or deliver her to destitution. We might ask, is she crazy or brave? The unexpected ending is a plays on the comic-tragic hope that to lose what is found is to find even more.

It is rather expected that if you are silly enough to travel unaccompanied down a dangerous road, you’ll likely fall among thieves. The unexpected is that the hero in this story turns out to be a Samaritan. A Samaritan is the enemy. Yet in this story our enemy practices loving kindness better than we do. Our enemy teaches what it means to love our enemies. Think. The Samaritans have a Torah, a mountain, and a God different from our Torah, mountain, and God. They are not supposed to get it right because they got it wrong! But this story shatters our prejudices directly. Then there is the comedy of the aftermath that we can only imagine. Once again, given ancient customs of hospitality, imagine the Judean in this story who will return home to announce, “Guess who is coming for dinner?”

The Garden of Forking Paths, Jorge Luis Borges. Image Credit: Southern Cross Review

Kafka and Borges

Franz Kafka and Jorge Borges are two 20th-century writers who used the art of parable. They told stories that on the surface are plausible but that, in the course of their telling, point toward the unexpected, inexplicable, and unimagined. Yet, the unimagined part of the story causes the re-evaluation of the world order and meaning in life.

Kafka has a story about an estate holder who takes a trip on a horse out to the countryside. At the gate, the manager of the estate wants to know where the master is going. These are common images on an estate in or around early 20th-century Prague, where Kafka lived. The response to the query is “out of here” or “away from here.” The estate holder says that he is going “out,” plain and simple. He has no explicit destination.

The response of the estate holder converts the common scene to a parable. We suddenly see that if we are to understand the story we have to change the initial impression of what is happening. We have to change the world we reside in. We have to notice that the servant does not understand the master, that the trip in question is not about arriving somewhere, and that the draw to go away from here does not rest on a reason. It’s not about getting somewhere; it’s about becoming in the process of going. That’s an entirely different scene.

Jorge Borges tells the story of a spy in World War I who is hunted down by an English assassin. In the course of evading his pursuer, the spy hides in a noble’s house. Curiously, the noble householder has a copy of the spy’s grandfather’s novel, which is widely considered unintelligible. It turns out the noble has an interpretation: the novel is a labyrinth; it is not about interpretation but about the intersection of choices. Borges’ reader shares the desire to know the interpretation of the unintelligible novel, but “parable” happens when the situation turns on itself. The novel is the endless intersection of unending choice. The right interpretation is that interpretation is not the point.

Parable is a fascinating form of teaching. It takes the student on a journey of transition, yet once (and if) the student makes the transition there is no longer a point or aim or purpose to the parable or even to life. Life is converted to dance or to metaphor or even to fiction. It is light. It is joyful. It is gift. Describing this transition is extremely difficult since the very act of description introduces purpose or aim back into the parable. The un-parabolic question is to ask why then tell a parable? The parabolic answer is that everything is parable, and the only way to convey this is to tell a parable.

David Galston

David Galston is a University Chaplain, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Academic Director at Westar Institute, and academic adviser to the SnowStar Institute in Canada. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus: A Wisdom Path for Contemporary Christianity (2012).

Okay, Google, How Was the Bible Written?

Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?

You were curious, so you asked. You opened your web browser and recited, “Okay, Google, how was the Bible written?” And here were your first-page results:

  1. Truthnet.org, “How Was the Bible Written? How did the prophets write the Bible?”
  2. Everystudent.com, “History of the Bible – Who Wrote the Bible – Why It’s Reliable”
  3. Biblica.com, “When was the Bible written?”
  4. Biblica.com, “In what language was the Bible first written?”
  5. BibleOdyssey.org, “How Was the Bible Written and Transmitted?”
  6. Wikipedia.org, “Bible”
  7. Bible.org, “2. How the Bible was Written”
  8. PBS.org, “NOVA | Origins of the Written Bible”
  9. Carm.org, “When was the Bible written and who wrote it? | List of dates”
  10. Newsweek.com, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin”
  11. PBS.org, “From Hebrew Bible to Christian Bible | From Jesus to Christ”
  12. NewRepublic.com, “A Newly Deciphered Babylonian Tablet Details Blueprints for ‘Noah’s Ark’”

Google helpfully recites the opening paragraph of the article from Bible.org (result #7). Thanks, Google. While we could immediately start reading the sites offered up to us, it would be smart to get an idea of how reliable and helpful they actually will be. The common-sense question we might ask, then, is, “Who are the people who run these sites?” (In case you were wondering, I didn’t ask Google this one; I looked up the sites myself.)

Google's Top Results for "How was the Bible Written"

Faith-based sites, with a strong trend toward biblical literalism

  • Truthnet.org “is a group of people who are involved in letting the world know about the exclusive truth found and expressed in the teachings of the Bible.”
  • Everystudent.com “is a safe place to explore questions about who God is and what it might be like to know God.”
  • Biblica.com is “passionate about reading the Bible well so we can live it well. For over 200 years, we’ve helped millions of people access and experience God’s Word, so it can transform their lives.”
  • Bible.org—Google’s favorite to read aloud—exists “to freely share the good news from God to the entire world so you can KNOW the Truth about life and eternity.”
  • CARM stands for “Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry.” Enough said?

Public media, crowd-sourced data, journalism

  • Wikipedia.org—do I even need to tell you?—is “a multilingual, web-based, free-content encyclopedia project supported by the Wikimedia Foundation and based on a model of openly editable content.”
  • PBS.org is “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.”
  • Newsweek “is a premier news magazine and website, bringing high-quality journalism to readers around the globe for over 80 years. Newsweek provides the latest news, in-depth analysis and ideas about international issues, technology, business, culture and politics.”
  • “Tailored for smart, curious, socially aware readers, The New Republic covers politics, culture and big ideas from an unbiased and thought-provoking perspective.” (Could possibly be placed with Bible Odyssey below?)

Academic and nonpartisan sites

  • BibleOdyssey.org is a project of the Society of Biblical Literature, “the oldest and largest learned society devoted to the critical investigation of the Bible based on the Humanities’ core disciplines.”

How do these sites fare in answering the actual question we posed?

For the sake of time and space, I’ll stick to one example from each of the groups above.

Truth.net. This turns out to be an apologetic defense of the inerrancy of scripture, specifically the Old Testament, based on the fact that people in ancient times did write stuff down (i.e., it’s not all oral tradition). It speaks generically of “critics who attack the Bible,” and names only one ostensible critic, Julius Wellhausen, who died in 1918. It never actually quotes or adequately summarizes Wellhausen about his Documentary Hypothesis but instead quotes a critic of Wellhausen. It’s possible to be a biblical literalist without being so generic in one’s criticism of alternative views.

What’s going for it:

  • It acknowledges that people might “agree on the inspiration of the Bible” even if they don’t agree on how it was written. Perhaps this allows for variety of opinion at least within circles that embrace biblical literalism?
  • It challenges oversimplified claims that “nobody could write” in the ancient world. One wonders if any credible scholar actually holds quite this simplistic a view, but I can at least imagine a conversation taking this turn in the local pub.

What it needs:

  • up-to-date information (a lot has changed since 1918!)
  • a more charitable treatment of opposing views instead of putting up an oversimplified version of Wellhausen’s argument as a “straw man” that presents no real challenge
  • awareness that the existence of writing in ancient times has little bearing on the documentary hypothesis, which could just as easily describe the blending of multiple written as multiple oral traditions (indeed, it was likely a mix of both!) into the Bible

PBS.org. This is a nice follow-up on the article above because it also begins with oral transmission and the written word, but it tells a more complex story of the transition from mostly oral to mostly written culture while observing that even into the Second Temple period (530 B.C.–A.D. 130) and beyond, “a fierce ideology of orality would persist in rabbinic Judaism.” It also includes information about the Christian New Testament as a natural outgrowth of the same forces that shaped rabbinic Judaism.

What’s going for it:

  • It tells a complex story about oral and written tradition rather than an oversimplified claim.
  • It includes the Christian New Testament without treating Christianity as a wholly separate phenomenon from Judaism.
  • It shows awareness that modern readers may not share the worldview of ancient readers.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • acknowledgement of a wider conversation and diversity of views about this subject, without necessarily having to go in depth about those views
  • better coverage of how both Judaism and Christianity came to “close” their canons

BibleOdyssey.org. This article begins in what strikes me at least as a more natural starting point: that “Bible” means “library.” Oral versus written transmission is covered, but is not the primary thrust of the article. Rather, this article explains a bit about canonization, including taking the time to define it as the “process of including certain books as Scripture and rejecting others.” This article also describes how scribes physically copied texts and why not all manuscripts of the Bible are exactly the same.

What’s going for it:

  • It does not overemphasize oral versus written tradition, which was only one factor among many in the development of the Bible.
  • It defines terms and doesn’t overwhelm the reader with details.
  • It makes very clear that there is no one Bible or biblical text. Variety exists across canons based on the concerns of particular communities.
  • The name and credentials of the author are included.

What it needs:

  • frankly, even though this article offers a more well-rounded response to our actual question, it doesn’t have much “curb appeal” compared to most of the other sites on Google’s top list
  • links to more information (although the “ask a scholar” option helps), especially given how much competing responses to this question offer by comparison
  • like the article above, it does not really imply wider conversations about this subject or alert the reader to interesting points of dispute

You Got Me, Google

From cringe-worthy statements like this opening line from EveryStudent.org—“unlike other religious writings, the Bible reads as a factual news account of real events, places, people, and dialogue”—to perhaps overly harsh accusations against biblical literalism like this one on an otherwise interesting NewsWeek article—“they are God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch”—it is clear that asking Google about how the Bible was written opens a raw spot in the Western psyche. Is Google, like a good psychiatrist, probing our reasons for asking the question? Have we revealed our cards unexpectedly to the algorithms that impassively map the emotional turmoil spurred by our favorite text to love and hate? This is one historical question for which a straightforward historical answer may never be good enough.

Shameless plug: we’ll be talking about this pain point at the next national meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, with Harvey Cox, author of the brand new book How to Read the Bible. Why not join us?

[divider style="hr-dotted"]

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

8 Tips for Dating Early Christian Texts

Before I say anything else, I want to extend a heartfelt THANK YOU to the 7,000+ people who visited the blog last week to read the Spring 2015 Meeting reports. Who knew so many people could get excited about Paul?

This new post comes from a place of frustration. I came up with these 8 tips for dating early Christian texts after I tried searching online for advice on how to figure out when early biblical and other Christian texts were written. Guess what all the top results were? Sites that shall go unnamed because they jumped straight from a few surface-level observations to “let me tell you about our Lord and Savior.”

I’m as willing as the next person to entertain spiritual conversations, but the need for a neutral, informational article about this struck me as obvious and important. If you know of another good resource, by all means, share it in the comments below. You can also jump to the end of this post for some more in-depth resources.

1. Does the writer refer to any historical figures and events?

If somebody talks about the Jerusalem Temple being torn down stone by stone, odds are they are writing during or after but certainly not before the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce. If they make a big fuss about a group of people called “Pharisees,” they’re writing during or after but certainly not before the emergence of the Pharisee movement (by which I mean the precursors to rabbinic Judaism, not just a bunch of hypocrites).

The catch here is not to blindly trust the context in which the historical reference occurs. Read it critically. Why might the author be vested in mentioning a historical person or event in just this way? Although the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple is “predicted” in Matthew 24:1–2, it is more likely that the writer of this text already knew about the destruction of the Temple.

Jesus was leaving the temple area on his way out, when his disciples came to him and called his attention to the sacred buildings. In response he said to them, “Yes, take a good look at all this! Let me tell you, not one single stone will be left on top of another! Every last one will be knocked down!”

The writer of Matthew chose to tuck his reference to the destruction of the Temple in a prophecy. That doesn’t mean the writer first learned of it that way. Perhaps his community lived through the destruction of the Temple and/or the painful aftermath. What we do know is that the writer found it helpful to refer to the destruction of the Temple as a way to explain who Jesus was and why he was significant, because the passage that immediately follows this one is a long, detailed description of what the writer expected to happen next.

2. What other texts does the writer know and refer to?

If somebody quotes or alludes to Shakespeare, they’re writing after Shakespeare. Likewise, if somebody is quoting the apostle Paul, they are writing after Paul. Sometimes writers quote an important and respected text in order to borrow from the original text’s prestige or influence, or to solve a problem related to the original. This happens frequently in the New Testament: the writers regularly quote Hebrew scriptures to back their claims about Jesus. Westar Fellow Dennis MacDonald, among others, has pointed out the influence on Christian writings of such Greco-Roman writings as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Euripides’ Bacchae, and even popular novels.

What counts as a quote or an allusion? I remember sitting in a seminar once where Dennis MacDonald reminded everybody that an allusion really only works if you can recognize the source. An author who quotes the Hebrew scriptures or Greco-Roman literature is counting on listeners to notice so that he or she can borrow from the rich influence of that other text. Even though we may have forgotten what we learned about classical literature in our high school English classes, that literature was more immediate and familiar to people who lived in the Roman Empire a couple thousand years ago.

3. What is the earliest known reference to this text in other sources?

If tips #1 & #2 help you narrow down the earliest date when a text could have been written, this strategy helps you close off the latest possible date. We know Mark comes before Matthew and Luke because those gospels quote Mark, often word-for-word. The later you push back Mark’s date, the later you have to also push back Matthew and Luke. No way around it.

This can create some real conundrums for scholars and force them to rethink their whole timeline of early Christian history. For instance, when Westar’s Acts Seminar determined that Acts was written in the early second century instead of the late first, they were left with a real problem: if the same person wrote Luke and Acts, does that mean Luke is an early second-century text, too? A year later, when Westar Fellow Jason BeDuhn published his reconstruction of the earliest known New Testament, he found that the original version of the Gospel of Luke was significantly shorter than the one we have today. Maybe a second-century writer picked up that shorter version and converted it into the two-part Luke-Acts volume that made it into modern Bibles. Maybe the same writer went back and crafted a much longer version later to serve a new purpose. These are new questions without definitive answers yet.

When an enormous collection of early Christian texts was found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, many scholars’ first instinct was to date the texts after all the biblical ones. They assumed that the texts came later simply because they were so different from the ones that made it into Bible. Yet that assumption has since been called into question thanks to the work of Karen King, Michael Williams, David Brakke, and others. Who knows? Maybe some biblical texts actually quote these non-biblical ones and we just haven’t noticed it yet!

Codex IV found at Nag Hammadi. Photo credit: History of Information

4. Does the text contain special terms or words that changed in meaning from one era to another?

I’m not an expert at Greek linguistics so I won’t pretend to be, but I can give you a modern example: what does the word “gay” mean? If you go back sixty, seventy years, “gay” means happy, but today it can also mean homosexual (often but not always homosexual male). You can probably think of other examples where the meaning of a word changed from one historical era to another. In the same way, we can trace the development of certain words and phrases in the history of Christianity to begin to place texts.

A fairly straightforward biblical example I can give of this comes from comparing Paul’s authentic letters to the book of Acts and the Pastoral Letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus). One of the reasons we can suggest Acts was written much later than Paul’s letters and that Paul didn’t write the Pastorals is because these non-Pauline texts use a lot of formal church language that wasn’t in place during Paul’s lifetime. This language only developed as the Jesus movement became more established.

5. Does the text copy the mistakes or variations of other, earlier texts?

Have you ever tried finding “the original Bible”? If such a Bible existed, you can be sure the library, museum, or church that owned it would be a major pilgrimage site. No such luck. Bits and pieces of biblical texts are scattered quite literally across the whole world. Modern Bibles are composed and translated based on whichever bits and pieces are judged to be the oldest and/or most reliable. Interestingly, it’s possible to trace back these individual bits and pieces to manuscript “families” based on mistakes and variations in the text that persist as scribes copied one another’s work over the years.

Suppose Scribe A1 started out with a shorter version of the ending of the Gospel of Mark. Then Scribe B1 copies his version, then Scribe C1, Scribe D1, and so on and so forth over the years. Meanwhile Scribe A2 copies the longer version, followed by Scribes B2, C2, D2, and so on. Maybe we only have a handful of manuscripts left over from these two different “families” or “traditions,” but we know they belong together because they all end Mark the same way. The more examples we have of a particular family, the easier it becomes to identify the way a given manuscript was shared, copied, and sent to new locations. Knowing this can help us trace the history of a particular manuscript tradition and discover tantalizing clues about when and where the original was written.

This is another topic that, if you try to research it online, is mostly dominated by faith-based explanations (mostly defenses of the inerrancy of the Bible). If you’ve found a neutral explanation somewhere online, please share!

6. Is the text concerned with questions or themes that were also popular in other texts of a certain historical period?

The sayings and writings associated with the earliest generations of the Jesus movement share common themes with other Greco-Roman movements and associations. They weren’t plagiarizing or poaching from these other movements so much as simply sharing an environment that led naturally to shared concerns. David Galston in Embracing the Human Jesus draws on the research of Burton Mack to observe that the Jesus movement could share similarities with the Cynics, for instance, without at the same time concluding that Jesus was a Cynic or that he deliberately copied a teaching style from Greek cynicism. "We need only imagine the common setting of the ancient imperial culture" (94). Among the concerns shared by Jesus-followers and Cynics are their preference for poverty over wealth, the natural world over urban life, and simplicity over the artificial constraints of social convention (94–96).

7. What genre is this text? Is it a letter, a gospel, an apocalypse? In what sorts of wider contexts was this style of writing useful and popular?

I’m sometimes caught off-guard by the passion with which biblical scholars will debate the genre (category) of a text. Try explaining the difference between a gospel and an epic, an apocalypse and a prophecy, a gnostic text and an orthodox one. Genre is really useful for patrons of modern bookstores who are looking for the sorts of books they enjoy reading, but genre is also useful to scholars who are looking for patterns or trends in historical eras. As long as we remember that we’re coming up with these loose categories to answer our own questions, it can be helpful to ask, “What other kinds of writing follow the same patterns as this one?”

Today the word “gospel” almost immediately makes people think of Jesus even though the direct translation of that word isn’t connected to him at all: it simply means “good news.” Westar Fellow Brandon Scott reminds readers in The Real Paul that this was actually imperial language before it was Jesus language. We know Paul and other early followers of Jesus were steeped in the world of the Roman Empire because they borrowed the Empire’s own language and style to make a subversive statement about a man crucified by that very Empire.

8. Is there any archaeological, socio-cultural, or paleographic research to back up your best guess?

We can make a lot of claims about a text based on internal evidence alone, but when it comes down to it, where does this text fit in the bigger picture? The work of Westar Fellow and archaeologist Jodi Magness offers a great example of checking the claims made by texts over against the material evidence of a given region through her ongoing excavation of a synagogue in Huqoq. Writers of these texts (and the scholars who study them) may claim certain things are true, but it doesn’t mean those facts line up with the physical artifacts left behind!

Looking for a more in-depth understanding of dating methods used by biblical studies scholars? Some good keywords to start your resource hunt are form criticism, textual criticism, source criticism, and paleography. For more general information on historical research methods, try historiography. I’ll also offer a shameless plug for a couple recent Polebridge books that in my opinion model this kind of detective work very well: Jason BeDuhn’s The First New Testament and Acts and Christian Beginnings edited by Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson. A good book for actually breaking down and practicing historical-critical methods for beginners is The New Testament: An Analytical Approach.

[divider style="hr-dotted"]

Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

5 Quick & Dirty Rules for Interpreting Paul

The Real PaulBernard Brandon Scott, author of The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Voice, kicked off a daylong series of lectures at the Westar Spring 2015 national meeting with a story about two women missing from the cover of his book—a reworking of an image of Paul from a 4th-century grotto outside Ephesus (pictured below). “The book cover becomes a larger parable of the whole problem of studying Paul,” Scott explains. “We tend to focus in on this one thing, and forget the whole context that’s there.” He goes on:

If you’re going to interpret Paul’s words, you’ve got to put them in a context. This is the problem with literalism. People say, “I want to interpret the Bible literally.” That’s nonsense. That means they want to put it in their context. … Words mean what they say in the context you put them in. You’ve got to step back and put the words in a larger frame.

As a corrective to this problem, Scott proposed these 5 “quick & dirty rules” for interpreting Paul—a discipline of sorts to check ourselves before leaping to conclusions about who the apostle Paul was and what he was trying to say.

A couple notes before we get underway:

  • A FREE podcast with Brandon Scott about The Real Paul is now available from AuthorTalk radio. Have a listen!
  • Brandon Scott frequently refers to the Scholars Version (SV) translation of Paul found in The Authentic Letters of Paul (Polebridge, 2011). Find it here.

Thekla listens to Paul from inside her home (left), while Thekla’s mother Theokleia (right) teaches alongside Paul (center). Is Theokleia Paul’s opponent in this image, as she is in the written version of the story, or does this image stand for a different story in which Theokleia is an apostle with Paul? Photo Credit: Oliver’s Site

#1. Set Acts of the Apostles aside.

The Westar Acts Seminar reached consensus (even against their own initial assumptions!) that the Acts of the Apostles is not a first-century historical document but rather an early second-century “founding myth” of orthodox Christianity. It paints an idyllic picture of the early church led by apostles who always cooperated with one another. But should good historians—or, let’s face it, good theologians—treat Acts as the definitive story of Christian origins? What would happen if we let other voices from the earliest generations of the Jesus movement put the experience in their own words?

As it turns out, one of the earliest voices to be systematically ignored by Acts is Paul himself! There are major differences between Acts and the undisputed letters of Paul, the letters considered by most biblical studies scholars to be written by Paul (1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon) rather than by others in his name (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians).

Unlike Acts, Paul in his authentic letters never calls himself a Roman citizen, never expresses regret or apologizes for persecuting followers of Jesus, and never claims to have left his ancestral religion. We should prioritize the very best evidence, and that means putting what Paul says about himself in his letters ahead of what Acts claims about him.

#2. Paul was not a Christian.

Paul was not a Christian. This point is indebted to the work of Pamela Eisenbaum, author of the book by the same title. Traditionally, Paul is understood as a Jew who converted to Christianity, from one religion to the other. In his own letters Paul describes himself as “called” in the same way all Jewish prophets are called by God. He lived in the era before the Temple was destroyed. Temple Judaism still had a place—the place?—in the spiritual, religious, and public life of the people of Israel and the Jewish community scattered across the empire. When traumatic events pushed Paul to think about things in a new light, he found himself embracing not a new religion but a new vision, one that brought the non-Jewish nations into God’s covenant. This strongly suggests he understood himself not as leaving his tradition but as fulfilling an important role within it.

Scott recommended that we follow the rule-of-thumb offered by John Gager in Reinventing Paul:

Any statement that begins with the words, “How could a Jew like Paul say X, Y, Z about the law…” must be regarded as misguided.

Paul was a Jew, so sometimes we need to stop and rethink (or rediscover) the wider context of Paul’s words. One test case here is Paul’s confrontation with fellow leaders in the Jesus movement, Cephas and James, which Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians 2:12–14.

Before representatives of James came to Antioch, Cephas would eat with those from the nations. But when they arrived, he avoided and kept his distance from those people because he feared those who were advocating circumcision. In turn, the rest of the Jewish followers also began to waffle, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their duplicity. But when I saw they were behaving in a way that was inconsistent with the meaning of God’s world-transforming message, I challenged Cephas in front of the whole group. (SV)

Jews had a legal exemption from participating in imperial libations, but members of “the nations” (more on this term below) did not. In a place like Jerusalem, where the majority population was Jewish, this was perhaps less of a risk than in a predominantly Roman city like Antioch. Traditionally, this story is described as a debate between Christians and Jews, but it makes more sense to view it as intra-Jewish. In an unsafe environment like Antioch, what conditions should be placed on members of the nations and/or the Jews who wish to share meals with them? Their options appear to be as follows:

  • All participants or at least members of the nations cave to imperial demands and make libations to the emperor
  • Members of the nations become fully Jewish by accepting circumcision
  • Jews withdraw from fellowship (the choice ultimately made by Cephas and James)

While the choice of Cephas and James is clearly a prudent one in terms of risk management, Paul has a real problem with it largely because it returns the nations to a state of idolatry. For more on this issue and its residual problems, see chapter 7 of The Real Paul, “Showdown in Antioch.”

#3. Paul was addressing the nations.

In Christian and Western culture the standard view of Paul is of a theologian speaking universally about all humanity where in reality when he says “we,” he means Jews. “You” refers to the nations. English translations unfortunately often obscure this point, especially translations in the era following the highly influential work of theologian Karl Barth (see rule #5 below). In most English dictionaries, the word “gentile” is associated with “Christian,” so the use of the term “gentiles” instead of “nations” for ta ethnē (Hebrew gôyîm) is problematic and reveals itself to be a fallout effect of thinking of Paul as Christian for so long. As Scott writes in The Real Paul, “The singular does not refer to a gentile, that is, a non-Jewish individual, but to a nation” (58). Importantly, “nation” is not a religious term.

This leads to another problem. Borders are artificial, and land can be claimed by a nation even without a shared border. A nation is formed around a mythos, a shared story. When Paul sets out as a prophet to the nations, which nations are they? These nations, of course, belong to Rome, and Paul is claiming them for God. Paul’s opponent is not the Jews but the Roman Empire. The figure who stands opposite the crucified Christ is another “son of God”—the emperor. Hence, Paul confronted the Pax Romana, the Roman “peace,” for the sake of God’s empire and God’s peace.

Jump ahead to the 4th century, to the Emperor Constantine, and you find that the God’s Empire now is Rome’s Empire. Clearly, Paul’s voice got lost somewhere in the intervening years.

#4. An apocalyptic scenario underlies Paul’s understanding.

In Paul’s eyes Rome committed the ultimate blasphemy when it crucified God’s son Jesus. Like a good rabbi, Paul interprets this through the lens of his Jewish scriptures. He draws a parallel between the birth of Israel (through Isaac) from Abraham and Sarah, both devastatingly old-aged and barren up until that point, with the birth of the nations through Jesus on the cross. Life out of death.

Interestingly, Paul’s apocalyptic scenario may not be violent. God is life-giving and faithful in his promises, as Paul’s reliance on the story of Abraham reveals. Jesus, the Abraham of the nations, demonstrates his faithfulness to God by dying on the cross. As God’s son, he could have come down and gotten even, but there was no need for revenge. Instead a new age is ushered in, an age in which the nations are grafted onto the people of God.

#5. Read Paul’s letters in the Greek.

Asking us all to learn Greek may be too much to expect, but the problems with Paul often boil down to translation. Which translators do the best job of staying true to Paul’s own words, even where Paul doesn’t make good sense? Translation can deeply affect meaning. Most popular modern translations inherit even the logic behind their chapter divisions from Augustine and Luther. Sometimes this has the unfortunate effect of creating a visual break between two connected themes or arguments.

Another facet of the translation issue has to do with a sea change in theology between 1950 and the late 1970s—the rise of Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy. This becomes visible when you compare the red phrases in the translations below of Romans 3:25–26:

King James Version (1611): Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

Revised Standard Version (1952): … whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

New International Version (1980): God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

New Revised Standard Version (1989): … whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Scholars Version/Authentic Paul (2011): … whom God presented publicly as the one who conciliates through his unconditional confidence in God at the cost of his life, in order to show God’s reliability by overlooking, by divine restraint, how we messed up. This shows God’s reliability at this decisive time, namely, that God is reliable and approves the one who lives on the basis of Jesus’ unconditional confidence in God.

The NIV and NRSV reflect the influence of the Barthian movement. The Scholars Version in The Authentic Letters of Paul avoids that and returns to a translation that is more similar to the years prior, including the well-loved KJV translation. The exact meaning implied by each translation is up for debate and goes beyond the scope of this report, so I won’t get into that here, but the side-by-side comparison at least shows how cultural and theological movements can leave their stamp on translations.

Let us then all take care in our reading to second-guess ourselves and our received knowledge, and move forward with a very different—dare I call him exciting?—Paul.

Featured on AuthorTalkWant to know more? Listen to the AuthorTalk interview with Bernard Brandon Scott and read ongoing reports from Westar's Christianity Seminar, of which Brandon is the chair. You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

[divider style="hr-dotted"]

Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history. 

Historical Reasons Not to Limit the Contents of Your Bible

Whether you’re Christian or not, it’s tempting to assume that the Bible is the Bible is the Bible. Modern versions have a set number of books that only slightly differ depending on whether you picked up a Catholic or Protestant version, but otherwise it is what it is. But how settled, really, are the contents of your Bible?

The story is complicated, even without referring to translation issues. I’m referring to the actual big-picture decisions about what books should be considered of topmost value to Christians. In my previous post I gave an overview of Westar’s Christianity Seminar discussions on martyr stories and the emergence of Christianity. Here, I offer a report on Jennifer Wright Knust’s specific presentation on how early Christians were actually using the martyr stories, and what this can teach us not only about the first few centuries of Christianity but also, by implication, about modern biblical literalism.

Biblical literalism generally refers to reading a text for the plain or apparent meaning conveyed by the grammar and (limited) context. Setting aside the problem of how you literally read a translated text, were early Christians even reading the text “literally”?

As it turns out, that is practically a non-question. Early Christians were reading all sorts of texts they considered sacred and of doctrinal significance, many of which you won’t find in a modern Bible at all. This isn’t even a matter of individual Christians who defied the “official” version. Competing lists of biblical or “canonical” books appear even after the famous letter of Athanasius in 367 CE. Texts like the Letters of Clement, 1–4 Maccabees, the Odes of Solomon, Acts of Paul and Thecla, and so on, could be bound up in the same books as the biblical texts we know and love (or love to hate, as the case may be).

These mixed books come without explanations or excuses. A book’s canonical status had no bearing on its popularity. The collectors behind a given library of Christian texts had wide-ranging spiritual interests and actively put resources toward preserving texts they felt addressed both rituals/practices that mattered to them and important doctrinal issues. Even as late as the sixth and seventh centuries, Christian collections continued to vary in their content. “Christians in late-antique Egypt did not limit themselves to Saint Athanasius’ famous canonical list, … even in monasteries, where he was regarded as a hero of the faith,” Knust observed.

Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century) attests not so much to the achievement of universal status for these [the books of the Maccabees] and other books as to the endurance of local Christian canon lists, even in contexts where considerable thought and planning, not to mention expense, must have gone into a manuscript’s production. As an illustrated pandect, complete with decorative coronis and a now-lost set of canon tables, Alexandrinus was a luxury item wherever it was copied. … And yet it’s collection of sacred texts is unique and different from both Sinaiticus (mid-4th century) and Vaticanus (4th century).

Knust offered up three principles to guide our thinking about how texts were used by early Christians:

  • Religion and civic identity were, above all, public affairs.
  • Late medieval Christians did not limit themselves to the New Testament or Septuagint (Greek version of the Bible), so why should we, whether we’re studying the history or trying to define what it means to be Christian?
  • Christian manuscripts were part of a wider world of books and book-making.

Ironically, the torture of Jews in hell depicted in this Christian art mimics the tortures suffered by the Jewish Maccabean martyrs, whom the Christians venerated. (“Hell,” miniature from Hortus deliciarum, Herrad of Landsberg, c. 1185, reproduced in Heinz Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History [New York: Continuum, 1996], plate 13. Photo Credit: Shira Lander)

Knust focused on the Maccabees as an especially interesting and telling case study. (If you aren’t familiar with the stories, you can read them here.) The Maccabees are Jewish stories that pre-date Jesus, yet they were wildly popular and were even celebrated by Christians at annual events. Over time, fully Christian locations including basilicas developed to venerate the Maccabees. One story in particular drew special attention and consideration by Christians: the gruesome martyrdom of a Jewish mother and her seven sons at the hands of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV (2 Macc 7) in the 2nd century BCE. As each son one by one refused to violate their religious commitments by eating pork, the King and his soldiers subjected them to torture and death, yet one by one each son faces his fate bravely. The first is scalped, has his hands and feet cut off, and then is fried alive in a pan while his brothers and mother look on. The equally terrible punishments that follow are described in vivid detail, and in the end the mother, too, is killed.

"These martyrs were upheld as models of the noble death by Jews and Christians, but were particularly important to late antique Christians," Knust said. In a detailed handout she listed the many "sightings and citings" of the Maccabean martyr story (see pp 6 & 7), which give a feel for the many ways it was used by Christian writers, such as this one from a commentary on Daniel by Hippolytus of Rome:

For we find also the seven martyrs who, under Anthochus, endured terrible punishments and were taken from the world. And so what of it? Was God not able to smite king Antiochus and to rescue the seven brothers? He was able, but he did not will to do this so that this example may become ours. For if he rescued everyone, who would he destin to testify? But if all were testifying and were killed, he would be reckoned by some of the faithless as being this: a powerless God.

What the various references reveal is a distinct shift in emphasis from the context of 2 Maccabees (the Maccabean revolt) to an interest in identifying model martyrs around whom a worship life could be constructed. "To Christians the Maccabeans were principally important for their precendent as proto-martyrs who suffered under a gentile tyrant, not for their role in the Maccabean revolt," Knust explained. By the fourth century, veneration of these martyrs only intensified, and even led to an official feast day (August 1). They were held up by Gregory of Nyssa, for instance, not in association with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah but for their "Christ-inspired fortitude given to all those who possess a pure mind both before and after the incarnation." Gregory claims the Maccabean martyrs for the specific work of establishing holidays and liturgy (worship & ritual practices), not just as an obscure exercise in rewriting history or stirring up doctrinal debates. This sort of work doesn't end with re-appropriating Jewish martyrs for Christian ends. Knust goes on to give examples from the apocryphal acts of the apostles, such as the Acts of Peter, and other texts that enchanted early Christians and played a meaningful role in their religious practices.

The point here for anybody interested in Christianity today is, I hope, clear: if what was meant by "the Bible" was so incredibly diverse even into the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries CE, it's difficult to see why we should limit our definitions of "Christian" to a smaller circle of texts. For Christians, this could mean a dramatic opening of the gates for self-definition, community practice, ethics, and even the understanding of Jesus' role in Christianity. For non-Christians, it means, at minimum, being cautious when making blanket statements about the history of "Christianity" as though there was only one definition of it in antiquity. But I think the more important lesson for Christians and non-Christians alike is to give the voices in these other texts a fighting chance. Read them. You might be surprised and delighted by what you find.

Want to know more? If you found this report interesting, you might like to learn more about Westar's Christianity Seminar. The report on the Spring 2015 session of the Christianity Seminar can be found here: "Christian Martyrs: Neither Uniform Nor Legion." You can also browse all the Spring 2015 Meeting reports.

[divider style="hr-dotted"]

Cassandra Farrin Dec 2014 smCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.