Mark was the first Gospel, written probably in the 70s CE by a 2nd generation Christian (i.e. someone who had never met Jesus). Mark was written in Greek, not Aramaic (Jesus’ language). In the original form (not that we have the original manuscript), it had no punctuation, no spaces spaces between words, no chapters, no sentences, no verses. That was the thing back then. Punctuation was added hundreds of years later.
With that intro, let’s do a quick comparison between Paul and Mark on the life and death of Jesus. Reminder, Paul’s letters were actually written first. And even though Paul never met Jesus, he did meet Jesus’ brother James. And Peter. They did not like each other very much.
- Jesus’ death. Paul says, “He died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” That’s it. No last supper, no Garden of Gethsemane, no betrayal at midnight, etc. Mark provides all these details. On Jesus’ burial, Paul says, “He was buried.” No tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, etc. Mark adds all these.
- The Resurrection. Here Paul provides a little more substance. We would expect that because the Resurrection is Paul’s primary message. But even with that, Paul’s descriptions are sparse. Paul simply says, “He rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul also talks about how Jesus “appeared” to Cepheus, the twelve (was Judas replaced?), James, and finally to Paul himself (six years later). But the Greek word “appeared” is open to a variety of meanings. Scholars such as Bishop Shelby Spong are not sure if Paul means it physically or spiritually. Nevertheless, there is no empty tomb, no angels, no visit of the women, and no angelic messenger in Paul. Mark adds all these.
- Miracles. Paul says nothing about Jesus being a teacher or about any miracles. Mark starts both of these ideas.
Question of the week: In which of Paul’s letters do we get his real theology?
Paul was not the most like-able guy. Nor was he the most dynamic speaker. There is a story in Acts about a young man falling asleep In the middle of one of Paul’s sermons. He was sitting on a window ledge and fell out. Paul, not to be deterred, healed the man … and carried on.
Likewise, sometimes when Paul tries to offer pastoral counseling to his congregants, he can come across … how should we say … bristly. Take, for instance, his letters to the Corinthians #1stcenturymegachurch.
- The behaviors. The folks at Corinth were taking some of the early Christian ideas a little too far. For example, some were using the Eucharist as an excuse to drink … a lot; some of them were doubling down on their sinful activity, then playing the “salvation” card as a way to atone for these additional sins; finally (and this is where Paul really got his drawers in a knot), the women of Corinth were arguing that they should be equal to men in the church. Their logic: Paul’s own words, “in Christ there is neither male nor female”.
- The reprimand. Paul can’t help himself. There are certain generational and cultural biases that even Paul can’t alter. After addressing some of their other questionable behaviors, he finally says what he really thinks: I forbid a woman to have authority over a man! Yep, that pretty much clears things up. And we can see those male patriarchs up in Corinth waving that letter around town on the day it came in the mail. We’re also pretty sure things at home were a little tense that night.
- Some random other stuff. I Corinthians is probably a single letter. But most scholars think II Corinthians is a composite of maybe four other letters,. Sometimes you can tell because there are verses that do not flow from the text surrounding them. Why would the early Christians not preserve Paul’s letters intact? You gotta appreciate that these were letters, not holy doctrine at the time. So some of them may have been trashed. And copying letters was laborious and expensive at the time. So II Corinthians may have been an expedient way of preserving only Paul’s “most important” paragraphs.
Last week we talked about Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. The folks up there were impatient for the second coming that Paul had promised them. And yet nothing had happened after a couple of years. They were beginning to think they had been sold a bill of goods. In Paul’s first letter up there he had to tell them to ‘buck up, it won’t be long now.’
Things in Galatia was different. In Galatia, Paul’s message about Jesus was being delivered out of the Jewish synagogue. And it was attracting a lot of local gentiles. You gotta think everyone knew that this was not going to end well.
- How was Paul’s message different? Paul had decided his traditional Jewish education was not working for him. His main message was that Christ alone was all you need for salvation. All those rituals required of strict Judaism? No need. Kosher diet? Superfluous. Circumcision? You gotta be kidding. This really pissed off the local Jewish leaders.
- So what do you do if you’ve got an individual causing rifts in your local congregation? You appeal to the big guns in Jerusalem — Peter and James (Jesus’ brother). According to Peter and James, contrary to what Paul said, believers in Jesus were expected to participate in all the traditional Jewish rituals. All of them. Paul fought back, attacking both Peter and James in his letters. And while he was at it, he berated the Galatians for abandoning his message about Jesus and retracting back into the traditional Judaism. Paul was not a patient man.
- How did it end? It’s hard to tell. It is not likely Paul and Peter ever shared a glass of wine together. But it is interesting that Acts (written 20 years later, after Peter was killed by Nero) says that Peter converted to Paul’s way of viewing things. Sure he did.
Let’s take up Paul’s letters, written sometime between 50-60 CE.
Which letter was the first one? You might think that Romans was first because it appears first in the New Testament. Nope. Back in the day, the church authorities decided to arrange the epistles according to … length. Romans is the longest of Paul’s letters. Philemon is the shortest. And yes, there are New Testament books after Philemon, but they were not written by Paul. Thessalonians was chronologically the first, written around 52 CE.
What was happening in Thessalonica to cause Paul to write a letter? Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia (just north of Greece). The people there had become disenchanted with the whole Roman gods system and were looking for something else just as Paul came along on one of his early missionary trips. They kinda liked this new offshoot of Judaism (not called Christianity yet). But they were growing a little impatient waiting for the return of the kingdom of God that Paul had promised was imminent.
So what do you do if you hear about this unrest in 52 CE? You write them an inspirational letter. You encourage them to “stay the course … it won’t be long now.“ How inspiring was it? Ummmm, maybe something got lost in all the translations between then and now. Or maybe you just had to be there to get the full Paul effect in I Thessalonians.
Question of the week: Chronologically, which was Paul’s second letter?
Let’s get to it: Was Paul gay?
- Paul says he is single. This in itself is very unusual for a Jewish male, and especially a Jewish religious leader, at the time. And Paul encourages his followers to remain single … if at all possible. But Paul admits that most people cannot control their sexual desires; they can get married.
- Then there’s some of the other things Paul says. He talks about not being able to control his ‘member.’ OK, we’ll admit this is the English translation of the Greek. But it seems unlikely that it is a reference to having sin in his other appendages, such as arms and legs. And then:
- “I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate”. (Romans 7)
- “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”. (Romans 7)
- “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (II Corinthians)
- What if this is true? We acknowledge that there are multiple interpretations of Paul’s reference to his “thorn.” Some of the more traditional interpretations list an eye infection or some other non-controversial malady. But we can only imagine, if this interpretation is true, how much internal angst Paul must have gone through feeling his own natural inclinations were not in line with his religious beliefs.
This week let’s talk about what Paul said (and didn’t say) about himself and about Jesus.
- Paul was not short on ego. He calls himself “blameless under the law.” He claims he was the best student in his class in rabbinical school. And that he had advanced far beyond his peers in pursuit of holiness. We know he liked to talk … a lot. There’s a story in Acts about Paul talking for so long, he put a boy to sleep and he fell out of a window. Paul healed him, then continued speaking.
- Road to Damascus thing? Many of us have heard about Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus. But that story was written in Acts, by the same author who wrote Luke. And it was written 30 years or so after Paul’s death. Paul himself never mentions a conversion experience on the Road to Damascus.
- So what did Paul say about Jesus? Paul is steeped in Jewish tradition (just ask him). So it was natural for him to draw parallels between Jewish traditions and Jesus.
- The lamb that was sacrificed during certain Yom Kippur became a parallel for Jesus being sacrificed. So when Christians take up the wine and the bread on Sunday morning (it was Welch’s grape juice and wafers in my church) and say “Jesus died for my sins,” they are re-enacting a Jewish ceremony that Paul likely started.
- Paul even says that Jesus died “in accordance with the scriptures.” What was he referring to there? It’s a reference way back to II Isaiah, which talked a lot about an archetype called the “Servant.” The “Servant” was supposed to find meaning in absorbing the world’s pain, bearing hostility, and even enduring death. The Gospel writers (writing 20 years after Paul’s letters) took this idea and ran with it … with their own embellishments.
There are a lot of long gaps in the early history of the New Testament. Jesus died in 30 CE. Paul doesn’t start writing until 50 CE. And the first gospel (Mark) is not written until 70. What happened to continue the story of Jesus, especially in that period 30-50 CE before anything was written down?
This week we ran across some thoughts on this very thing from Bishop Shelby Spong. We’ve mentioned Spong several times in this newsletter. You’ve got to listen to his YouTube lectures to get a real appreciation of this iconoclast and how he unapologetically deals with the traditional Christian literal approach to the Bible.
- Part of the Jewish community. Spong points out that the early followers of Jesus were part of the regular Jewish community, attending the synagogue gatherings just like everyone. Here’s how one of those services might have gone:
- First you get a long reading from the Torah (first five books of Old Testament).
- Next you get some more reading from Joshua through Kings.
- After that you get even more reading from Isaiah through Malachi. Did they stand or sit through all this? How did they stay awake?
- Finally … someone else gets to stand up and talk about recent events. That’s when the followers of Jesus started relaying their stories around the life of Jesus. They also took that opportunity to point out how Jesus could be connected with many of these endless Old Testament readings everyone just sat through. This happened every week, year after year, until someone (I.e. Mark) finally put quill to parchment to create a combined story we call the first gospel.
- Old Testament stories redesigned. This also explains why the gospels have so many parallels to stories and prophecies written in the Old Testament. For example, the feeding of the 5,000, flight to Egypt, and healing of lepers were all stories that were written in slightly different form in the Old Testament (think Moses and Egypt compared to Jesus and flight to Egypt). Mark even starts his gospel by saying “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ; as it is written in the prophets.”
- Paul was part of the Jewish leadership. This also helps explain why Paul (at first a strict traditional Jew) persecuted these “followers of the way,” as the Christians were then called. After his conversion (circa 50 CE), these early Christians were still a part of the Jewish participants in the synagogue. But by about 90 CE, the Jewish traditionalists had had enough of this faction, and expelled them from from the synagogue (John even refers to it).
Question of the week: Was Jesus married?
- It would have been very unusual in those days for a Jewish man not to be married.The New Testament is actually silent on the matter of whether Jesus was married or not. But that does not mean we should assume the latter. The New Testament is silent on a lot of historical facets of the life of Jesus. In two interesting examples, the gospel of Mark never mentions Jesus’ father, and the gospel of John never mentions his mother by name. The New Testament does not say anything directly about wives for any of the 12 disciples either. Although there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed in Mark 1:30. And Paul acknowledges that wives (all nameless) accompanied the disciples on their missions.
- Paul’s silence may be proof. Interestingly, Paul may have come the closest to confirming that Jesus was married. Paul was all about celibacy, because he thought the end of times was near and it was better to be prepared for tough times ahead by being celibate (we thought Paul was a good marketer when he abolished the circumcision requirement, but this one baffles). You’d think that if Jesus himself were celibate, Paul would have used Jesus as his prime argument for why celibacy was a good thing. But he doesn’t. He actually admits in 1 Corinthians 7:25 that “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.”
- Why do we assume Jesus was unmarried? The reason most Christians in 2020 think of Jesus as being celibate largely comes from the negative attitudes against women and sex that were developed by the early Christian church leaders. Some of the writings from Augustine, Jerome, and other Christian leaders are almost scary in how they address women. For example, how about this from Tertullian, the “father of Latin Christianity” in talking about Eve (and by inference all women in the human race):
- You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.
Last week we talked about the rift between Paul and the ‘pillars’ back in Jerusalem — James and Peter. This week we are going to talk a little more about James, especially how James is framed up in the book of Acts.
Both Luke and Acts were written by the same author, somewhere near the end of the first century.
- Why is that important? Because taken together, these two books appear to be historical narratives of Jesus and the early Christian movement after Jesus’ death. But if you look at these a little more closely, you can see the author had an agenda. And that agenda was to promote Paul as the true leader of the post-Jesus movement and downplay the importance of any other associates of Jesus, including Jesus’ own family.
- Say what? Acts acknowledges that James was the head of things early on. But you have to look for it. If you’re skimming along you’d barely recognize it, because there’s just one line saying that James was the head of the church in Jerusalem when Paul came to visit (probably around 55 CE). That’s it. James had been in charge of the early Christian movement (not called Christian at the time) for 25 years, and he barely gets a verse in chapter 9 of Acts. After that all references to James stop. And once Paul is introduced in chapter 9, the rest of the 24 chapters is all about Paul. Even Peter is somewhat marginalized, largely dropping out after chapter 12.
- Want more proof that James was supposed to be the head? We have mentioned the Gospel of Thomas in prior posts. It was one of those lost works that were found in a dig at Nag Hammadi back in the 1940s. Here is an interesting excerpt from this book: The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?” Jesus said to them, “No matter where you go you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”
We have to stop here. But we’ve got a few more interesting things from Luke/Acts to talk about next week. Thanks for reading.
Question of the week: Who was in charge of the Christian movement before Paul?
The short answer: James (Jesus’ brother) and Peter. But there’s a little more to it than that.
- First, some important dates. Paul had his conversion experience around 35 CE. He was likely in his late 20s at that time. But he did not officially meet the boys in Jerusalem for 15 years after that, around 50 CE. That’s a pretty long time to go before meeting your boss.
- Why so long and why the meeting? Let’s just say Paul was going a little rogue on things. The conservative group in Jerusalem (led by James and Peter) followed Jesus’ teachings, but remained within the Jewish tradition. But Paul had his own version of the gospel that did not require strict adherence to Jewish laws. And he preached to those ne’er-do-wells — the Gentiles. Paul’s message is focused on the resurrection. He says nothing in any of his writings about the birth, life, or general teachings of Jesus.
- So Paul was essentially called on the carpet? Pretty much. And things did not go well. The book of Acts makes it seem like they all had a meeting of the minds in 50 CE. But Acts was written almost 50 years after those events took place. Plus, in Paul’s letters he repeatedly says things about ‘the pillars’ in Jerusalem that indicate there was a major rift between the two.
Next week: Why did the Christian movement essentially embrace Paul and not James and Peter?