Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Flash! Jesus Has A Wife!

The latest “big news” in the world of religion is a fragment of papyrus that contains the phrase said to be uttered by Jesus: “my wife.” Another sentence mentions of Mary Magdalene that “she will be able to be my disciple.” There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of the historicity of these statements and I’ll name a few in a minute. But first, let me introduce you to some of the on line reader comments of the NY Times article making the announcement. Each tends to show some important gaps in logic. Each is followed by my comment.

The first mistake is that Jesus wrote and spoke Aramaic, not Coptic. Jesus did not write this.”

It is very likely that Jesus spoke Aramaic. We don’t know if he knew how to write anything. More important for this debate, nobody claims Jesus wrote the words on this fragment.

“It sounds as if Jesus accepted a female as a disciple, therefore equal to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.”

“Disciple” means “learner” or “follower.” Jesus had lots of women in this category. “Apostle” is the term referring to the inner circle of twelve. So no big deal. Oh, Luke isn’t an Apostle. He was apparently a traveling companion of Paul, makes no claim to have known Jesus, and is instead one of the four Evangelists.

“This is old news…when they cleaned Da Vinci’s last supper it became clear that sitting at the right hand of Jesus…was not a man but a very beautiful woman.”

“It became clear” to Dan Brown and others, but is not even close to being agreed upon by art or historical scholars. Even if it was so, think: when did Leonardo paint this and what “secret” reference material did he have?

“Of course he was married. Everyone was back then; it was not optional.”

This is a statement with not a shred of historical fact. Not everyone was married, in fact, though marriage was an expectation of a Jewish male, there were exceptions.

“[Jesus] was a rabbi and they were expected to be married.”

Because Jesus was called Rabbi by a follower did not make him an “official” rabbi. He never claims to be one and doesn’t seem to function as one.

Having read dozens and dozens of comments to the article, it seemed clear that many of those commenting had not read the article very well. Even those who may have read it, seemed to have suspended a good portion of their critical thinking ability—perhaps because they don’t understand historical skeptic. Incidentally, Dr. King, who announced the existence of the fragment never said it was proof Jesus was married. In fact, according to the Times, “She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.”

When it was written is an open question. The papyrus is too small to be carbon dated without destroying a big piece and too much ink would need to be scraped off to date it. However, she intends to have it dated using spectroscopy. Another problem is the provenance of the fragment. The owner is unknown, how it was obtained is unknown, and from where and under what circumstances is unknown. All these are issues to be resolved. What they won’t tell us is whether or not Jesus was married—only that some believes, sometime long after he died, where thinking about it.

Be careful when reading novels and new accounts about such things.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Good Enough

In a novel I’m writing, one of the characters describes herself by saying, “I’m a good enough Christian.” I know why I wrote it; over the years I’ve heard people say it. But, after I wrote it, I started thinking about what it actually means. If I say, “I’m a good enough tennis player,” what does that mean? Does it mean I’m good enough to play with players who are just learning the game or does it mean I wouldn’t embarrass myself in the club tournament? If I say, “I’m a good enough golfer,” does it mean I’m good enough to play with any amateur player or that I could hold my own with any of the tour’s top ten?

What if I say, “I’m a good enough spouse.” Does that mean since my spouse is not very demanding and pretty much has his/her own life anyway, I’ll be kept around? Or does it mean, if you’re looking for someone who is willing to listen and care about what’s going on in your life, and who’s willing to share in our parenting and other responsibilities, I’m good enough for that?

Which brings me to what does “good enough” Christian mean? Could it mean:
·      I pledge but I don’t tithe,
·      I go to worship most Sundays, unless something comes up,
·      I don’t volunteer for committees because I assume if they want me they’ll ask, plus, I’m pretty busy,
·      I don’t cheat on my taxes, (well no more than most people)
·      I rarely really curse and never take the Lord’s name in vain
·      I don’t go out of my way to hurt someone and I’d never murder anybody

I could go on, but you get my point. Or, does it mean something else? I’m opting for, “it means something else.” But, who knows? It’d just be my opinion.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” [James 2: 14-17]

Verses such as these in the Epistle of James (the Epistle for Sunday) nearly kept James from making the canon of Scripture in the early days of Christianity.  During the Reformation, Martin Luther called James “a right strawy epistle,” that is, a nearly useless book, and wanted to ban it from the canon. Luther believed it taught what is called “works righteousness,” that is, that one can “work” oneself into God’s grace or heaven. He rejected that idea, but not initially.

Luther said of himself, “I was a good monk, and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading and other work.” 

His religious ethic was driven by his awareness of his own imperfections in being the pure person he thought God required and the need to continuously work on that. He was known to rise from receiving absolution after confessing his sins, and immediately return to the confessional to begin again, so profound was his sense of sinfulness and unworthiness. He hoped if he kept each “jot and tiddle” he could find salvation and a sense of peace. But not until his study of other work, such as Paul’s letter to the Galatians introduced him to the idea of salvation by grace alone, did he realize he had been on the wrong path. He read there, “But no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, the just shall live by faith.” Consequently, Luther became opposed to anything he interrupted as teaching that the doing the proper works could produce salvation.

Luther struggled with the paradox he found between verses such as those in James and Romans which says, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Even today, it is difficult to explain these apparently very different ideas. As a pastor, I encountered any number of parishioners who would state emphatically they believed in salvation by grace. But almost in the next breath, they would be telling me they didn’t take Communion because they didn’t feel worthy, that is, “not good enough.” Sorry, Charlie, that idea is clearly one that yells “works righteousness.” Such thinking is a good example of the disconnect between what is sometimes described as the “theology of the pulpit” and the “theology of the pew,” where the first is well developed and orthodox (generally speaking!) and the second is sometimes something of a mishmash of ideas garnered here and there.

The usual “final solution” for works/grace paradox is that grace through faith saves us, but being saved, we would naturally act rightly. “By their fruits you will know them,” in other words. It’s workable, but it is also a little too facile. We might do better to just admit that everything religious, spiritual and/or Christian is not as clear as we might wish it to be.

Peace, Jerry

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Being A Hypocrite

In Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus is taken to task by some religious leaders who have gone to some trouble to find him. They don’t like it one little bit that Jesus’ band of disciples don’t follow the traditional purity regulations that require washing one’s hands before eating. Mark provides a short list for his readers of some of the rules related to food, including washing food purchased at the market and cleaning pots and pans. [BTW: this is some evidence that Mark wasn’t writing to a Jewish congregation, but a Gentile one who didn’t know the customs.]

We normally think of Jesus as pretty laid back when criticized, but I think this isn’t one of those times. He calls his critics hypocrites and cites Isaiah as prophesying about such behavior. “The people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” The he adds, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions.” Ouch.

We do love rules, don’t we. The Church has been creating them since the earliest days of Christianity. One of the characteristics of the Roman Empire was the breadth and detail of its legal system. The men who led the Church were Romanized, no matter what part of the world they called home. It was only natural that the Church leadership would adopt Roman practices of spelling out everything. Just one tiny illustration: the vestments clergy wear when leading worship are based on early Roman garb, the garb of civil servants. Soon the Church began to focus more on order and having rights beliefs and standards and doing things the right way so they could be the same throughout the Empire. 
There’s nothing wrong with standards and order per se. I think even Jesus would agree with that. The problem arises, Jesus pointed out, when these rule take on the power of doctrine--or even dogma. Soon it’s easy to focus on keeping the rules rather than applying the Gospel. In Jesus’ commentary on Isaiah he says, “You abandon the commandment” singular “of God...” What did he mean; what commandment?

In another place, Jesus is asked what is the most important of the 615 Jewish laws and he says to love God and to love neighbor. While that sounds like two commandments, the way he puts it is “...and the second is like the first...” The sense of this is that the two are inseparable. You can’t do one without also doing the other. I think this is what he’s reminding the “hypocrites” about.

I’m not an anarchist. I don’t want to abandon rules and order or tradition. I would like it very much if we could see beyond rules to focus on love and grace more. Especially as we try to be the Church and try to follow Jesus.

Just sayin’