Easter, the Solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord, commemorates Jesus’ women disciples’ pilgrimage to the tomb to anoint Jesus (belatedly) for burial. Shockingly, frighteningly, Jesus was not there! Truly a more terrible “April Fool’s” joke is difficult to imagine. They arose early on this first day of the new week, hoping to process their grief and perhaps derive some small comfort by offering this last farewell, treating Jesus’ body with the veneration and respect it deserved. (After all, what else does one do when there’s really nothing else one can do?) Instead, all their poignant hopes thwarted; they are confronted with the Divine challenge: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here but is risen” (Luke 24:5–6a).

resurrection

Although the women had arisen early, the rising sun broke more than the day: the bonds of death; the apparent victory of perjury, vice, and misery; the pervasive injustice of unbridled Empire—the rising of the Christ revealed the brokenness of all these as well.

The resurrection proclamation highlights God’s salvific action in Jesus Christ, but that action is not a past event to which Christians return nostalgically once each year. Indeed, if that were the case, we truly would be April fools (cf. 1 Cor 15:12–20). “Resurrection” is the Divine proclamation that the words and deeds of Jesus were true, not false; that Jesus’ testimony for God and about God’s pervasive mercy was true, not false; that Jesus’ witness to an overweening desire for justice for the downtrodden and marginalized truly did lay bare the heart of the G*d of Israel facing down human structures of oppression and exploitation. Proclaiming the Resurrection means making a claim about reality itself, taking a stance in the on-going yet victorious struggle to restore the cosmos to harmonious relationship with Divine justice. Jewish tradition speaks of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) as the vocation of believers. In proclaiming resurrection, Christian tradition focuses on already-but-not-yet reality of Divine fulfillment of this vocation. Both traditions are grounded in the pervasive and irrevocable love of the Holy One for the Creation, in the Easter Proclamation figured as the victory of Life over death.

Easter certainly celebrates the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. At least as importantly, Easter solemnizes the Divine proclamation that Resurrection is the last word in the struggle of the forces of love and life against the forces of death. Resurrection happened, yes, but resurrection happens. Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

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Many people are familiar with one or more settings of the “Seven Last Words of Christ,” a compilation of the final words of Jesus as presented in the four canonical gospels. Such a cross-sectional reading of the gospels is common to the liturgical tradition (e.g., the Roman Catholic lectionary practice of reading all four passion narratives during Holy Week). Sometimes it’s helpful to complement that fusional reading by focusing on the uniqueness of each gospel presentation. Since the Passion according to John is the designated text for Good Friday, and since GJohn provides a dramatically different take on the passion than the three “synoptic” gospels, I’m going to focus this brief reflection on Jesus’ last words in the fourth gospel (GJohn 19:30).

First, a little background. GJohn enumerates seven “sêmeia” throughout Jesus’ public ministry, the last of which is his exaltation-via-the-cross (see 12:32). Usually English texts use “sign” to translate “sêmeia” (sing. “sêmeion” [σημεῖον]), but that’s a pretty anemic and potentially misleading choice of words. “Sêmeion” in GJohn refers to an event that provides an entrée into the fullness of the Divine Reality through encounter with the Logos incarnate. A sêmeion comprises an utterly transfiguring event of divine power bursting forth into human (and cosmic) experience, whether that be relatively mundane and quotidian (as in Cana, ch. 2) or profane and horrific (as on Golgotha, ch. 19). Let me repeat that: for GJohn, the Cross itself manifests an utterly transfiguring event of divine power bursting forth into human (and cosmic) experience. That’s why the church has appointed this passion story for Good Friday: The Cross is the vehicle of Jesus’ exaltation while “drawing all things” to the Divine Self.

Second, another key word has to be unpacked. [Grammar trigger-warning: skip this paragraph if you go cross-eyed, get apoplectic, or experience other risky physical symptoms when listening to people parse verbs.] GJohn is the only NT book that uses the verb tetélestai (τετέλεσται); it appears in GJohn twice, both times in this chapter (19:28, 30). Such repetition of a rare term unmistakably draws attention. So, what does the evangelist mean by this term? Related to the noun télos (reason/purpose, goal, end/ outcome), tetélestai is the third-person singular perfect passive indicative form of the verb teléô (τελέω). Biblical texts use the passive voice to denote “G*d” as the subject without risking abuse of the divine Name; in other words, whatever the action here, G*d has done it. The indicative mood conveys a statement of fact: such-and-such is the case. The perfect tense indicates a completed (past) event that has results in the present. The translation “it is finished” tends to lose sight of the continuing-results-in-the-present aspect of the perfect tense. I prefer the translation “it is accomplished,” since we tend to think of “accomplishments” as having some forward momentum. A freer but still legitimate translation would be “G*d’s purpose is achieved.” And remember, keep looking forward for the results of this accomplishment.

So, finally after all this prelude…

Foot_of_the_CrossPicture yourself as the unnamed “beloved disciple,” near the foot of the Cross with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other women disciples (19:25–26a). Jesus having made one last attempt to assuage his thirst, now speaks one final word: Tetélestai! G*d’s purpose is achieved! With that word, GJohn says, Jesus “having inclined his head, handed over the Spirit” (19:30; Ἰησοῦς … κλίνας τὴν κεφαλὴν παρέδωκεν τὸ πνεῦμα). There you are, at Jesus’ feet, while he gives you the nod and hands over the Spirit who has funded all his words and deeds, leading him to this very moment of exaltation. And as he marks his return to the Holy One of Israel, Jesus commissions you to carry forward the achievement of the Divine purpose that has formed the driving force for Jesus life.

Spirit_DescentOn our own power? No, certainly not. In the power of the Spirit, which is active in the community of disciples, and (looking ahead to the next scene) funded by the sacramental grace of Baptism and Eucharist (19: 34–35). But that’s the story of the Great Vigil. For Good Friday, I invite you sit with that sacred Face inclining toward you. See Jesus bending down and “handing over” the Spirit of justice and truth, the power of holiness, to this small huddled band of disciples. Now what? Where do you “pay it forward”?

Memento Mori…

30 March 2018

On this Good Friday, a reminder that facing death—when the inevitable cacophony of daily demands and details fades into nothingness—marks the final astringent moment of “judgment” of the inner recesses of one’s heart: Am I living for justice? Am I making my essential contribution to the Holy One’s comprehensive salvation of the cosmos?

Here’s how the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., posed the same challenge, in his address “Beyond Vietnam.”

MLKNow let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons (and daughters) of God and our brothers (and sisters) wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard?

Or will there be another message—of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

 

Chagall_WhiteCrucifixion

Marc Chagall, “White Crucifision” (1938)

Marc Chagall’s “White Crucifixion” (1938) includes many vignettes (especially from Kristallnacht) when “NO!” became the resounding answer to this fundamental choice for or against justice, for or against “salvation.” The crucifixion of Jesus—carried by Christians every day (2 Cor 4:10) yet commemorated today above all days—at once symbolizes and participates in all those denials of justice, when few actively did the evil deeds but many stood aside, silently complicit. How many times every day do I do the same? Kryie eleison.

“Then he said to the crowd, ‘Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

Many Americans in the last decade or so have spoken of “Biblical values,” and have encouraged a return to “family values,” but somehow the values they have had in mind focus almost exclusively around sexuality and gender roles. One of the more remarkable aspects of Jesus’ preaching is that, if you read the gospels to try to find where he supports the “family values” promoted by these critics of popular American culture, you will hunt in vain. The “family values” Jesus promotes have nothing to do with specified gender roles, and only rarely does Jesus speak of matters pertaining to sexual morality.

James Salt’s papier mâché model of the golden calf, designed to resemble the Wall Street Bull, carried in protest by an interfaith group of supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

On the other hand, hardly a page of the gospels goes by without a comment from Jesus having to do with what one might call “financial morality” (or, in more Biblical language, economic justice). Even Jesus’ remarks on what we think of as sexual morality (e.g., divorce, remarriage, adultery) are bound up with questions of the economic status of women and children who, in ancient societies, often had to rely exclusively upon the support of a male householder (a husband or father). For example, a man who divorces his wife “forces her to commit adultery” (Matt 5:32) because, to find a means of support for herself and any children who might remain with her, she would be forced either to remarry or to turn to prostitution. Jesus’ “family values” are those of the prophets: protecting widows and orphans, sustaining those who have no other means of support. Unlike many Americans today, Jesus does not consider greed a virtue.

“One’s life does not consist of possessions.” Watch the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Is it true that such lives do not revolve around possessions? Why are lottery tickets so popular? Do people buy them because they want to support public education (which is the sales pitch that many state politicians have used to get public lotteries accepted by the voters)?
Do they want the funds for some other philanthropic purpose? Or do they buy lottery tickets because they want to enjoy “the good life,” where every amenity is within their grasp and the needs of the world are entirely obscured from view? Some people are forced to work long hours, ignoring the strain on their physical health and the needs of their spirits, simply to make ends meet. Is this because their employers are on guard against greed when they set wages, or because they are concerned only about “the bottom line”? Jesus does not say, “take care to guard against all want.” The poor have no difficulty recognizing their dependence upon God. It is the rich who prefer dependence upon wealth, forgetting Jesus’ “family values” because they do not recognize Jesus’ “family.”

How does one “guard against all greed”? Torah enjoins the tithe, the annual giving of 10% of one’s net worth in support of the poor and dispossessed (e.g., Deut. 14:22–23, 28–29). The tithe, in other words, causes a dramatic redistribution of wealth, not only liquid assets but other material resources as well. Jesus encourages giving one’s life in service with the poor, even “giving all one’s possessions” to do so. The dramatic effects of such a move on the economic system perhaps is less obvious, but it nevertheless remains a potent protest against the culture of greed and acquisitiveness that has strangled every now-dead culture in human history.

Regardless of what pop-economists and politicians may say, greed is not good—nor does true laissez-faire economic policy (as envisioned by the early theorists) give free rein to the kind of greed that has marked the fatal, classist economic policies of the Reagan and Bush eras.

Christians against Greed 30A protest at Forbes Global CEO Conference, 30 August 2005
(Photo by David Macdonald)

Some people appear to have forgotten that the USSR collapsed because of failed economic policies that illustrated the philosophy of Ayn Rand more than that which Karl Marx borrowed from the New Testament and from the example of Jesus. Jesus may not have won the Nobel Prize for economics, but John Nash did, and for proving that Jesus’ focus on the common good, not personal greed, is what makes an economic system strong.

Blaming the Hungry

23 October 2012

“Jesus was going through a field of grain on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.” (Matt. 12:1)

Matthew’s version of this story has one key difference from the other Synoptic Gospels, and that is this remark that the ones picking the grain “were hungry….” Picking grain—harvesting a field—certainly counts as “work,” which is forbidden on the Sabbath. Matthew is playing to a “loophole” in interpreting the Law when he speaks of the disciples’ hunger. As Jesus says elsewhere, the Law is made for human beings, not vice-versa. Preservation of human life is the chief value of the Law so, if the disciples are hungry, they need to eat to preserve their lives.

Are they really dying of starvation, or is Jesus pushing the boundary here? If you follow Mark or Luke, the latter is the case. Matthew “muddies the water” by presenting a legitimate reason for setting aside the prohibition of working on the Sabbath. He then has Jesus cite two precedents for his interpretation of the Law in this case: David and his army eating the offering-bread, and the priests working in the Temple (e.g., slaughtering sacrificial animals). Neither precedent is quite on target, but that is less important than the claim that there can be exceptions to this Sabbath prohibition. In his argument, it is implicit; Jesus makes it explicit in the “punch-line” when he claims that “the human person (or offspring of Adam) is Lord of the Sabbath” (Matt. 12:8). Many Jews would agree with Jesus that it is permissible to pluck the grain if that is the only way one will be able to eat that day, but they would disagree with such a blanket statement that makes it sound like individual humans can decide which Sabbath Laws to observe and which not.

Johannes “Jan” Luyken (1649-1712) etching
from the Bowyer Bible, Bolton, England.
“Works of Mercy: Feeding the Hungry”

Readers tend to overlook the disciples’ hunger or, if they do notice, they “explain” it as I just did. But why are the disciples hungry? The “Pharisees” who object are not said to be hungry. Jesus and the disciples are itinerant; they have no permanent home, so neither do they have any stable means of income. They have been living off the generosity of those who listen to Jesus preach and who are recipients of his healing ministry. If the disciples are hungry, then those who have benefited from Jesus’ ministry are not responding with generosity (cf., Matt. 11:20–24). The well-fed “Pharisees” should be offering to share their tables with the disciples; instead, having no empathy for those are hungry, they castigate them.

How many times have you heard this same attitude toward the poor today? Many people who were born to privilege claim to have “made their own success,” as if none of the advantages of race and economic class play any role in whether one goes to good schools, eats healthy food, or has access to good health care. Those who are receiving unemployment benefits are castigated as “lazy” because they are out of work, when companies actually advertise the fact that they will not consider job applicants who are unemployed. The unemployment rate in NE Ohio has declined by 25% since President Obama took office, but it still hovers around 8%, and for Gulf War veterans the rate is closer to 13% (see http://www.bls.gov/cps/). American companies rarely are criticized for exporting jobs overseas, but the thousands of Americans they lay off work then are blamed as “loafers” because they have to make use of their unemployment benefits. If the hungry were to pick grain from fields today, they’d be arrested for theft.

A homeless family living in their car.

Homeless people are blamed for being drunks or drug addicts who “deserve” to be homeless; they should just get jobs and stop leeching off the public. In fact, most homeless adults actually are employed, but at minimum wage jobs where they earn too little to afford housing, and over a third of the homeless in American are families with children under the age of ten (http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/NEWS/z-pdf-archive/homeless.pdf, 8).*

Some of my own (white, middle-class, suburban) students have shared with me their stories of family homelessness, when a parent lost his/her job and family finances nose-dived such that they lost their home. These kids were working long hours, while trying to go to college, so they could help their families afford an apartment. That is the face of homelessness in America. The fifty-year-old college-educated woman who has to work seventy hours a week just to barely scrape by, for whom a flat tire makes the difference between whether groceries are affordable or not—that’s the specter of near-homelessness in America today. Messrs. Romney and Ryan have never met the homeless or they would choke on the word “entitlement.” If anyone feels “entitled,” it’s the 1% who control the majority of American wealth and are trying to buy this election.

There is not a single county in the United States where someone working for minimum wage can earn enough to pay fair-market rent for a one-room apartment (Ibid., 5), yet we are expected to believe the economy will be utterly destroyed if the minimum wage were raised. CEOs have incomes over 2000 times that of their employees, and their marginal tax rates are less than those of the companies’ low-paid secretaries, yet we are supposed to believe that their taxes should be cut even more. Aside from being economic suicide, the budget plan proposed by Representative Ryan embodies this punitive approach to the poor in a way that would have been inconceivable to anyone, Republican or Democrat, just a generation ago. The dominant discourse in this country has become “me first” instead of “we together.” If Jesus were in his grave, he’d be rolling over in it.

But he is not in his grave. He is living among us today, in the poor, the unemployed, and the homeless. “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'” (Matt 25:40). Poor Americans matter. Which means that housing matters, economic policy matters, and jobs matter. When people need bread, will we give them stones instead?

*For more information on family homelessness, see http://www.familyhomelessness.org/.

Easter Sunday 2010 marked the last Mass at Historic Saint Peter Church in Cleveland, Ohio. After over 150 years of continuous use, the oaken doors of this sacred space on 17th and Superior were closed and locked. In rich irony, the building that once had been the womb of a vibrant inner-city Catholic community closed like a tomb on the very day when the Christian church around the world celebrated the feast of Christ breaking the bonds of death and rising triumphant from the grave. The official ecclesiastical act of “suppression” that closed the church building was intended likewise to roll the stone across the grave of the vibrant parish community that inhabited that domus ecclesiae. But Christians know that Resurrection happens. Easter cannot be stopped, not even by bishops.

The Pascal Candle led the recessional at the end of Easter Sunday Mass 2010,
the last before the suppression of the parish by Bishop Richard Lennon.

Almost before he set foot in the door of the Chancery in Cleveland, Bishop Richard Lennon announced his intention to close one-third of the 180+ parishes in the diocese. Sixty-three parishes were to be selected for elimination based on the criteria of declining membership and financial dependency. Not surprisingly, many of the faithful were quite disturbed at this announcement. The diocesan spokesman sought to reassure them: “We don’t close parishes; we close empty buildings.” “Alright,” I thought, “maybe this won’t be so bad as it sounds.” And at first, that looked to be the case.

As the “clustering” process progressed, however, the bishop’s actions gave the lie to this initial assertion. The case of Historic Saint Peter Church provides perhaps the most striking counterpoint to the claim: the parish was solvent; it was up-to-date on the diocesan assessments that help provide financial support to needy parishes and missions; the physical plant was in top condition due to the recent restoration work in honor of the parish’s 150th anniversary; and the parish was growing, gaining members steadily. Regardless, the bishop made it clear that the church was to be closed. An anonymous donor offered $2.5 million for an endowment fund if the bishop would keep the parish open; the chancery declined. In canonical terms, the parish was to be suppressed and its far-from-empty building closed.

The parish spent months in soul-searching, individually and corporately discerning how to respond to the bishop’s plan. Legally speaking, a bishop owns all the ecclesiastical properties in his diocese. If he wants to close the church building, the building will be closed. However, the bishop does not own the consciences of the faithful. Some parishioners shifted to other churches closer to their domiciles. Many parishioners decided to embody dissent and incarnate resurrection, creating a not-for-profit corporation named “The Community of Saint Peter” (CSP). From a church-law standpoint, the CSP is a schismatic community: it self-identifies as a Catholic community, uses the Catholic liturgy, and is pastored by a Catholic priest, but the community is not supposed to exist and the priest is no longer supposed to minister.

The Community of Saint Peter celebrates the Great Vigil of Easter (7 April 2012)
at their new “storefront” location, 7100 Euclid Avenue.

Although I have spent nearly my entire career studying heretical, schismatic, or otherwise dissenting movements in formative Judaism and early Christianity, it took this event for me to understand—on a personal and experiential level—the human dynamics of “schism.” In my research, I have discussed the significance of various theological debates and explored the various power dynamics involved. In the midst of this “thick description” of social, economic, gender, racial, political, and ideological disputes, still I did not grasp the acute disappointment with established ecclesiastical authority structures, nor the anguish involved in making the decision to dissent and resist cooptation, nor the tenacity of hope required to inaugurate and sustain a “schismatic” movement. Far from being an easy choice, schism is a community’s response to the challenge of annihilation. Like a bear gnawing off its own leg to escape an iron trap, schism arises when the only other available option is to capitulate in one’s own oppression.

My work has been driven by the conviction that contemporary believers can learn a great deal from the “heretics” and “schismatics” of antiquity. The inauguration of the CSP has taught me there is much to learn from contemporary dissenters and schismatics as well. One does not have to enjoy conflict to recognize that significant and widespread dissent arises in an environment of serious power dysfunction. Schism, as one significant form of dissent, clearly points to a non-responsive, autocratic “authority” structure that permits the pervasive abuse of power. The CSP resulted from ecclesiastical minds closing, communications closing, and finally doors closing. Divested of walls, the CSP exemplifies the “Church in the City,” intentionally making its home among the poor of Cleveland. In this season celebrating the “tenting” of God amid the human race (John 1:14), and especially among the poor of this world, this “schismatic” group challenges observers to hold to this hope with just such tenacity.

The “Tenting” God and the Tenacity of Hope, cross-posted from the “Feminism and Religion” blog, 8 January 2012.

“Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.” (Matt 11:20–24)

Thus did Jesus criticize the Israelite towns of Chorazin (Khirbet Kerazeh) and Bethsaida (“House of Fish”) for their lack of response to his appeal to return to God with full hearts and ready hands. Capernaum, too, was included in this threat, even though the evangelists remember this as Jesus’ home town (Matt 4:13; Mark 9:1). Although “where most of [Jesus’] mighty deeds had been done” (Matt 11:20b) in these three towns at the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee, and although they were home to many of Jesus’ earliest disciples, they certainly caught his ire at this point.

A view of the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum

The “mighty deeds” are Jesus’ works demonstrating that the power of God is active through him; usually we call them “miracles.” Chapters 8–9 of Matthew’s Gospel contain a series of healing miracles that are set in the environs of the Sea of Galilee, one of which explicitly is said to have occurred in Capernaum (the cure of the Roman Centurion’s servant, in Matt. 8:5–13). Perhaps we are to take the entire set as taking place in the three towns rebuked in this saying.

In the scene with the Roman Centurion, this Gentile is praised by Jesus while the Jews of Galilee are implicitly reprimanded—“Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matt. 8:10). In this saying in Matt. 11, however, there is nothing implicit about the criticism. Matthew makes the shocking claim that even the infamous Gentile town of Sodom will fare better than these Israelite towns on Judgment Day. You see, the Gentiles are converting,

An artist’s rendering of the “House of the Fisher” in Bethsaida

coming to faith in the true God, because of Jesus and his “mighty deeds.” They recognize that these miraculous works are wrought by the power of God, not Satan, so they accept Jesus as God’s emissary and accept his teaching.

The Jews of Galilee, however, are not so willing as their pagan counterparts to recognize the power of God working through Jesus. Because of this, they end up in a sense changing places with the Gentiles, opposing God rather than turning toward God and welcoming this “new thing” God is doing through Jesus. If the Jewish towns continue in this way, they will end up under the kind of Divine judgment that led to the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16–19:29).

Many people misunderstand the Genesis story about Sodom and Gomorrah, linking it with homosexual practice rather than the death-dealing injustice and lack of hospitality that comprise the key complaints against these Gentile cities. However, in some ways this warning of Jesus does not depend upon a correct understanding of that Genesis story. All that is necessary to get Jesus’ point is to remember that Sodom was destroyed by heavenly fire, and Jesus is threatening that it will be much worse for these Israelite towns who refuse to recognize him as God’s chosen instrument.

Contemporary Christians who tend to point a finger at others, judging them to be less moral and threatening them with God’s wrath might take heed to Jesus’ warning. The “religious” people are not the ones Jesus is commending here, but the people others see as irreligious, idolatrous, “pagan.” A contemporary American “translation” might read, “But I tell you, it will be easier for Al Qaeda (or gays, or those who support the national health care plan, or whatever other group you most love to hate) on the Day of Judgment than for you.”

Hype about a “Wife”

28 September 2012

Professor Karen King thinks she has found an ancient text in which Jesus is presented as speaking of “my wife…,” and the media are having a heyday, ignoring her carefully framed remarks and sensationalizing the claims. Even one of the less sensationalist pieces, in the NY Times, has headlines claiming that the papyrus fragment “refers to Jesus’ wife.” That headline claims historicity for the statement. To be accurate, one must say that the text puts the expression “my wife” in the mouth of Jesus—which is quite a different statement than claiming that Jesus actually had a wife. (If you don’t follow this distinction, keep re-reading those last three sentences until they sink in. The effort will have been worth your while when you shift to parsing the claims in political advertisements.)

Fourth century papyrus fragment of a Coptic manuscript, made public
by Harvard Prof. Karen L. King, in which Jesus refers to “my wife”

What has been obscured by the sensationalist press coverage:

  1. Prof. King never claims this fragment proves anything about Jesus’ marital status.
  2. We do not know the date of the text. We simply know King’s view that the fragment reflects a later second-century text (CE 150-200).
  3. King admits that the papyrus itself has been dated to the fourth century. Her positing of a prior text is an hypothesis, not a proven fact.
  4. A truism of historical method holds that sources tend to be less reliable the further they get from the actual historical persons or events to which they attest. Hence, a fourth-century text is less likely to be reliable than first-century ones (such as the canonical gospels).
  5. We know that the provenance and pedigree of this fragment have been lost.
  6. Given #5, the question of a forgery is acute.
  7. King is persuaded the fragment is authentic. Maybe she’s right; maybe she’s not. Right now we do not have enough data to answer that question definitively—and the loss of provenance means that we likely never will. I have not seen the fragment up close, so I cannot comment on the text. From this distance, I am suspicious of the too-neat shape of the fragment. It’s not impossible, but I’ve never seen another fragment with such regular, square edges.

Who cares whether Jesus “had a wife”?

Notice how that question is framed: Did Jesus possess a woman? The hype about this possible ancient text is tedious because hype always is. However, this particular spin is disturbing because of the way it assumes and feeds the strictly gendered thought-patterns that scholars work to overcome, since those attitudes pre-determine the “answers” to any questions one might ask.

Whether or not Jesus was married, frankly, I don’t really care too much. I occasionally raise the question simply because setting someone on the quest for data one way or another poses an interesting and modestly sophisticated exercise for historical-Jesus students.

However, I DO care very much that every time this idea hits the press the speculation turns to Mary of Magdala, an historical figure who is grossly misunderstood by most people. The talk makes Magdalene important *because* she may have been Jesus’ wife. Saints preserve us, as my grandmother would have said.

No; Magdalene is important in her own right as a leader among Jesus’ disciples. Without her, the other guys would never have known about the resurrection. Her significance is eroded—even eliminated—by the way popular opinion jumps to put her into a neat little “wife” box. The poor woman is rolling over in her grave!

So, are we to “recover” the women of the early Jesus movement precisely so we can control their image and make them safe, rather than letting them rattle the cages of those who still, after fifty years of feminism, cannot imagine a woman without a man? Oh no, I don’t think so!

[Editor’s note: Much of the foregoing is cross-posted with the Feminism & Religion blog article at http://feminismandreligion.com/2012/09/26/in-the-news-wives-silent-hidden-and-unnamed/#more-6268.]

Jesus’ “Family Values”

8 September 2012

Mark 3:31-38 is the startling account of Jesus’ mother and brothers made to cool their heels outside “the house” where Jesus was teaching to a crowd inside “seated around him.” In his apparent put-down of his family, Jesus, “looking around at those seated in the circle he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”

But which family is “one’s own”? That is precisely Jesus’ point. If Jesus were a paterfamilias, the patriarch of a family, this statement essentially would disinherit all his natural heirs. He is not a patriarch, but Jesus’ statement still clearly disowns his family of origin in favor of his “fictive kinship” group. (Remember that Mark’s Jesus has no particular reason to trust his blood relatives, since just ten verses earlier they tried to lock him up for lunacy or demonic possession.) Jesus’ “true family” comprises all women and men who hear the word of Godand do it.

Notice that Jesus’ family is not all-inclusive. Jesus is not concerned with “political correctness”; he challenges the status quoin favor of obedience to the divine will.

Stained glass window, from St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland, depicting a queen (possibly Margaret of Scotland) feeding the poor.

Those who hear God’s word but do not live it are not family: hypocrites, those who “talk the talk but do not walk the walk,” who offer Temple worship but do not care for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” are excluded from Jesus’ family. Notice also that Jesus is not concerned with whether or not these least “deserve” help; he doesn’t do background checks or make them fill out any application forms to receive aid. Jesus’ sole concern is that his disciples do in fact meet the needs of those who have “fallen through the cracks” of society’s support structures.

Nor are those who live without even attending to God’s word (e.g., pagans, atheists) part of Jesus’ family. Ayn Rand types who assert “No God; only man” are not included. The attitude is so inimical to Jesus’ worldview that it would be pointless even to attempt a conversation. Call it intolerant if you like, or just call it prioritizing: Jesus learned his economic policy from the Hebrew Bible.

Somewhat surprisingly to us, Jesus’ family includes mothers and siblings, but no fathers. The patriarch’s power and authority interferes with hearing and doing God’s word. No one can serve two masters; no one can be bound to obey both God and a paterfamilias, for the human patermight command what God forbids, or vice-versa. Yet the traditional paterfamilias does demand this kind of authority over “his” offspring, wife, extended family members, servants, slaves, and other clients for whom he is patron. Hence, to become part of Jesus’ family, the paterfamilias must relinquish patriarchal authority, humbling himself to the level of a brother.

Promise-keepers” in Jesus’ eyes are not those who take control of “their” families, demanding subordination and obedience, but those who recognize their wives, children, clients, and slaves as siblings, equal in dignity and respect, owing obedience to God alone—and responsible for their own decisions about precisely how they will live that obedience.

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

The first chapter of the Gospel According to John narrates the enlistment of several of Jesus’ early disciples from the town of Bethsaida. Andrew and Philip, disciples of John the Baptist, joined Jesus’ group by means of the ancient version of LinkedIn: they were referred by John. Jesus’ networking system continued rolling and resulted in Andrew and Philip recruiting their brothers, Peter and Nathanael (respectively). In response to Philip’s urgent and credulous invitation to come and meet the messiah promised by Moses and the prophets, Nathaniel shows himself a true skeptic. His initial reaction, according to John, was to inquire “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” As a rhetorical question, the unspoken but nevertheless predictable answer to this query should be “certainly not!” “Come and see,” his brother urges. So Nathaniel the skeptic, whether out of curiosity or a sense of fraternal duty, comes to meet Jesus and see for himself whether Philip’s enthusiasm is well-founded.

An artist’s sketch of Philip talking to his brother, Nathanael, urging him to come with him to meet Jesus.

“When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47; NRSV)

But would honesty be a main virtue of a “true child of Israel”? For Jesus, yes. For his contemporaries, not really. And for us? How many lies have you heard so far in this presidential campaign, or from church officialsa concerned in the pedophilia and parish-closing scandals, or from rich corporate executives of the me-first-and-last-and-who-cares-about-anyone-else mindset? Thank God for groups like the Nuns-on-a-Bus, or one may have been inclined simply to crawl into a hole and hibernate until Christmas.

Nathanael (whose name means “gift of God”) is the kind of person who says exactly what he thinks, without hedging. His rhetorical question in response to Philip’s invitation (v. 46) makes clear his skepticism from the start: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Nathanael were an American, he would be from Missouri, the “Show Me” State. Not so credulous to accept Philip’s testimony without evidence, yet he is willing to “come and see.”

Once Nathanael meets Jesus face-to-face, he does “see” and, totally contrary to cultural norms, changes his mind publicly. In Middle-Eastern culture, especially for men, “saving face” is paramount, and “scoring points” or gaining leverage over another man runs a close second. Men are expected to lie and dissemble to gain social advantage. (Have politicians like Messrs. Aikin and Ryan mentally moved to the Mediterranean Basin? Have some of our prelates done the same?)

If Nathanael had been wise in the ways of the world, he would have remained stubbornly skeptical, “hedged his bets” by attributing his assertion to others (cf. Matt 16:14), or at least waited until a private moment to declare his change of mind. Instead, he clearly and simply said what he meant, without duplicity or self-interest, testifying to the Truth he now recognized: that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Israel. An Israelite without guile? From the perspective of Jesus’ contemporaries, this would have been an insult, or at best a self-contradiction. From John’s perspective, however, it is high praise indeed.

Nathanael’s encounter with Jesus is epigrammatic of John’s model of true discipleship: hearing the gospel inspires Nathanael’s search; meeting Jesus reveals the identity both of the seeker and of Jesus himself; revelation gives rise to conversion and further testimony. Note that evangelist makes Nathanael, not Peter, the first one to witness to Jesus’ true identity. Even the guileless can be used to score points.

The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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