Saturday, May 31, 2014

I Permit No Woman...

Paul’s conversion story has been and continues to be meaningful for countless Christians. Nobody rides horses today but who would pass up the opportunity to fall out of one’s vehicle of choice and see that blinding light? Maybe like Paul, your life would be forever changed for the better. At one moment persecuting Christians as a violent Pharisees and at the next writing the poem we read at weddings.

One thing remains perplexing and troubling though. If Paul came to love Jesus, the one he says “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human form, he humbled himself and become obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross”(Philippians 2:7-8), why do his views on women seem so self-serving and patriarchal? Would Jesus, who praised Mary for leaving her “many tasks” at home to come be a disciple at his feet, speak of women the way Paul speaks of women(Luke 10:38-42)? Would Paul belittle the women who supported Jesus’ ministry, caring for him at the cross when all the male disciples had fled in fear(Mark 15:40-41)?  Some Pauline texts suggest he would. How then, can a Christian follow the example of Paul who in 1 Timothy 2 argues women should have no authority over men because Eve was the one who sinned? Adam, he assures us, was only deceived.

A common response to Paul’s apparent misogyny is to point out that he did not in fact write many of the letters contained in the New Testament. For instance, very few scholars believe Paul actually wrote 1 Timothy or Titus, though they bear his name. If these two letters do not represent the views of Paul then some of the harshest language against women in the New Testament belongs not to the apostle, but to later writers.

One text that cannot be dealt with this easily is 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36.

As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?

1 Corinthians is considered one of the 7 “undisputed letters” of Paul. Scholars are in agreement that Paul penned it. This text presents what I would consider to be the only evidence that the historical Paul forbid women from speaking in his churches. Some scholars though argue that even this text is on shaky ground. Perhaps the most damaging argument to its authenticity is that the ancient manuscripts are not in agreement as to where it goes in 1 Corinthians. Some have these verses after 14:40. This suggests that the verses were a note at some point placed in the margin that later scribes tried to fit appropriately into the text. These scribes did not agree as to where it went because it was not originally in the letter.

The internal evidence against the verses is also striking. What law forbids women to speak and commands them to be subordinate? There seems to be no such law in the Law of Moses. In addition this is not how Paul argues in his undisputed letters. The Law is neither the model of right living nor the reason for right living. In 2 Corinthians 3, in fact, Paul calls the Law of Moses “the ministry of death” and says the ministry of the Spirit has replaced the Law, setting it aside(3:10-11). Paul’s vision of ethics comes from the story of Jesus not from the Law. For instance, in Romans 8, Paul argues for right living on the basis that the spirit of Jesus lives in those who believe. Or in Philippians 2 where he encourages his readers to love simply because Jesus loved.

Finally, despite what this text teaches, there are places in the undisputed letters where it is clear that Paul has given women positions of authority. He names Phoebe a minister(Romans 16:1),  and calls Junia one prominent among the apostles(Romans 16:7). A woman named Chloe appears to be his messenger for the church in Corinth(1 Corinthians 1:11). Most damning to the text in question comes from 1 Corinthians itself. In 11:5 Paul implies that it is right for women to both pray and prophesy in his church. How then, can he write only three chapters later “women should be silent in the churches”?

If this text is inauthentic, as it appears to be, Paul’s words in Galatians can and should be considered one of the most radical claims ever made in the ancient world. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”(3:28). The experience Paul had of Jesus truly changed his life. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Defilement of the Pharisees 2: A Renewed Israel

The claim of N.T Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, is that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish eschatological prophet. Jesus thus carries on the tradition of the Prophets before him, proclaiming a coming judgment if Israel does not repent. With this established, Wright believes much of the content in the Synoptic Gospels fit well the profile of a Jewish eschatological prophet. For instance, he reads The Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ challenge to Israel to become the nation God always intended her to be. 

Jesus’ call for Israel to be a shining city on a hill then is a call for her to bring her God to all peoples. Through the leadership of Jesus, Israel will finally fulfill God’s promise to Abraham; that through him and his descendants the entire world would be blessed(Genesis 12:3). In receiving a renewed heart, Israel will become a blessing to those who have been for so long estranged from God.

The evangelist who makes this point most strongly is certainly Matthew. Jesus in Matthew has a unique mission to be the good shepherd the Pharisees and the priests have failed to be. His leadership will restore Israel and bring about this blessing. The defining characteristic of Israel will no longer be sacrifices(9:13, 12:7); it will be a heart that loves God and neighbor. For Matthew, once Israel can do this she will then be a blessing to the nations.

With this in mind, we can now begin to deal with the difficult texts; those that suggest that for Matthew, Jesus’ mission was only for the Jews. In chapter 10 Jesus sends out the twelve “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(10:5-6). Wright points out that the twelve he sends are representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. This particular mission then, is symbolic of the restoration of Israel. Through this restoration, God’s promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled. Consequently, this saying does not mean Matthew thought Jesus and his disciples avoided Gentiles throughout the entire ministry. Matthew’s text itself proves this is not the case.

Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus blesses Gentiles, healing a centurion’s servant(8:5-13), and exorcising the Gadarene demoniacs(8:28-34). The scene with the centurion is remarkable because Jesus tells him, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will sit with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”(8:1-12). For Matthew, many Jews and much of their leadership will not make it into the restored Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven. This centurion and many other Gentiles like him will partake in God’s blessings instead.

Matthew also takes from Mark the story of the Syrophoenician woman along with its entire greater context. There is some indication however that Matthew did not perceive how Mark was using the story. Notably, Matthew adds to it an urging on the part of his disciples to send her away and a saying about mission on the lips of Jesus.  

A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment(Matthew 1522-28).

It seems that Matthew has tried to make clearer what he believes to be the plain meaning of the text in Mark. Jesus did not come to bless the Gentiles, only the Jews.

This reading is problematic. How can Jesus say he was only sent to Israel when his actions speak otherwise?  Earlier in the gospel we saw him heal gentiles and proclaim a Kingdom including both Jew and Gentile. Perhaps rather than being a statement to the woman, verse 24 is a question to the disciples. “Was I sent only to the house of Israel?” Having seen the blessings given to Gentiles already, do the disciples really believe that Jesus was sent only for the house of Israel? Matthew then has Jesus ask the woman the same question in the form of a riddle as in Mark. She sees what the disciples do not and is commended for her faith. She understands Jesus’ teachings about defilement. The Israel Jesus comes to call is not concerned with washing or food laws or temple sacrifices or even circumcision. The true Israel is concerned with inner purity, a renewed heart.

Matthew’s Jesus freely heals the Gentiles and states clearly that those who enter the Kingdom will not necessarily be those who were expected to inherit it. If read in light of God’s promises to Abraham, Jesus’ sending of his disciples exclusively into Israel in chapter 10 is not further exclusion of Gentiles but the enacting of their full inclusion by means of restoring Israel. Matthew then, along with Mark and Luke presents a Jesus who invites all who will follow. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Tying up the Strongman

The Beelzebul Controversy of Mark 3 reveals that no one, not even his enemies, denied that Jesus exorcised demons. He was well known, perhaps best known, for being a powerful exorcist. Expectedly then, The Synoptic Gospels, present Jesus performing exorcisms frequently. Instead of turning water into wine, the very first public act of Jesus’ power in Mark and Luke is the cleansing of a man with an evil spirit. From the time he starts his public career, Jesus is engaged in a cosmic battle between good and evil. Jesus enters a world in which Satan has obtained authority over all the kingdoms(Mttw 4:8-10, Lk 4:5-7). He must act to restore God’s creation, freeing it from the control of Satan.

This restoration is the good news Jesus proclaims. However, it is not until after being tempted in the wilderness that Jesus begins to make this proclamation. Jesus must tie up Satan before he can bring the reign of God.
Jesus asserts this during the Beelzebul Controversy.

And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house”(Mark 3:22-27).

The scribes are correct that Jesus has the power to cast out demons but they do not understand where this power comes from. In seeing the kingdom of Satan falling they assume Satan has become divided. Jesus, possessed by a demon, is casting out demons.

The truth of the matter though is that one greater than Satan has come. Jesus tied up the strongman in the wilderness and is now freely plundering his kingdom with the exorcism of demons. Those in Satan’s grips are being freed because Satan cannot stand.

Matthew and Luke include in their version of the controversy, “But if it by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom has come to you”(Mttw 12:28, Lk 11:20). Exorcisms are the manifestation of one kingdom replacing another.

The definitive blow to the kingdom of Satan comes when Satan is dethroned. In the request of James and John for thrones of power(Mark 10), Jesus reveals his means of dethroning Satan. Jesus himself will be seated in a throne but it will be a throne of weakness rather than power. The cross is his throne. In taking it up he will overthrow Satan.

Many of the elements of a royal coronation and enthronement are present in Mark’s passion narrative. Jesus is robed in purple, crowned with thorns, and mockingly paid homage. Though those witnessing his crucifixion are blind to the truth, the true messiah, the ruler of the whole world, is being made king before their eyes. Satan falls like lightning as Jesus is lifted up. In secret, like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of God has entered the world.

Temptation in Mark

Mark is sometimes thought of as the bare-bones gospel. Matthew and Luke had to fill out his story to give the complete picture of Jesus. This may be true but it is important to take Mark on his own terms. In the case of the temptation in the wilderness Mark predictably lacks most of the familiar details. However, this does not mean he lacks a full understanding of Jesus’ temptations.

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him(Mark 1:12-13).

Here we find no mention of being taken atop the Temple and offered all the kingdoms of the world. Neither is there mention of the offer to turn stones into bread. Mark leaves his readers to wonder what happened those forty days in the wilderness.

Mark does not leave us entirely clueless though. There are other scenes of temptation which need to be examined. In the middle of the gospel, chapter 8, after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah he rebukes Jesus for predicting his death and resurrection. Peter tempts Jesus to forgo the cross. In his mind the cross is for criminals, not the Messiah. Jesus famously responds to Peter’s attempts “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”(Mark 8:33). Here Mark suggests that the temptation of Satan, is to refuse the cross and cling to one’s life.

In another, final scene of temptation, Jesus is mocked by the chief priests and scribes passing him on the cross. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now so that we may see and believe”(Mark 15:31-32). Again he is tempted to leave the cross and live. It is this temptation that Jesus was first offered in the wilderness by Satan. Thrice he is tempted and thrice he remains faithful to God. He could have left the wilderness and never proclaimed the good news. He could have become the warrior Messiah Peter dreamed of. He even could have stepped down from the cross.  

This temptation to forgo the cross is exactly the temptation his disciples faced as well. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”(Mark 8:34). Instead of following their teacher, fear of the cross seizes them and they flee. Instead of denying himself Peter denies his Lord so that he too can avoid the cross.  

Jesus was tempted with the most natural of inclinations. Just like us, he was tempted with the words, “save yourself”. 

The Defilement of the Pharisees: Mark 7-8

Did Jesus preach a message only relevant to Jews? Was Paul’s extension of Christianity to the gentiles never intended by Jesus?

The New Testament appears to not always be clear on the issue. Paul, of course, believed Jesus had finally made accessible the God of Israel to gentiles. His letters were written almost exclusively to gentiles. In Jesus the wedding feast for all peoples prophesied in Isaiah 25 was beginning in his midst. As the earliest Christian writer, it seems likely Paul was just reiterating the welcome of gentiles Jesus preached. This has always been the belief of the Church. But can Paul be trusted as a source for the views of the historical Jesus? There seem to be early opposing voices.

For instance, Paul mentions in Galatians 2 that when he came to Jerusalem, he found Peter welcoming only other Jews to his table. Peter seems to have believed, at least before being confronted, that gentiles were not fit for the Jesus movement.

In addition, the gospels of Mark and Matthew seem to present Jesus as much more concerned with Israel than with the gentiles. Both make use of the rather embarrassing story of the Syrophoenician woman who comes to Jesus begging him to heal her daughter of a demon. Jesus, surprisingly, compares her and all gentiles to dogs begging under the children’s table – the table of the Jews. Matthew augments this ethno-centrism by including two sayings concerning the exclusively Jewish nature of Jesus’s ministry (10:6, 15:24). If Paul is adamant there is one table for all people, why does Jesus call this woman a dog and claim to have “only for the house of Israel”?

Luke, writing his gospel using Mark and possibly Matthew, may give us a hint as to what is happening. Certainly Luke includes material that goes back to Jesus, but his Jesus is noticeably kinder to gentiles. Being a keen writer, he does not simply regurgitate Mark. Luke excludes the Syrophoenician woman presumably because it would have startled his gentile audience. Similarly, no sayings about the house of Israel appear in Luke either. Is this an attempt to cover up the hard reality about Jesus?

Though it would be easy to conclude that the earliest Christians along with Jesus were anti-gentile, I think a closer look reveals that all our sources present Jesus as welcoming to gentiles and Jews alike.We will examine Mark 7, the text most devastating to the image of a hospitable Jesus.

The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.
“First let the children eat all they want,” he told her, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Lord,” she replied, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Then he told her, “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter”(Mark 7:26-29).

It appears Jesus adopted the prevailing Jewish view that gentiles were like dogs, low and unclean. For those awaiting the grafting of the gentiles into the family of the God of Israel, the wait would continue. The gentiles, it seems, will forever be cursed, receiving only the crumbs of God’s blessings.

There are problems with this line of thought though. If Jesus is only giving the crumbs fit for the gentiles, why does the he accomplish the healing of the daughter? Why is he so impressed by her response?

Daniel Kirk offers a way forward by reminding readers to notice Mark’s arrangement of his pericopes.  He argues that the miraculous feedings on either side of the exorcism are the key. The first feeding, one performed in Jewish territory, produced baskets of leftovers. The subsequent feeding, this time in the gentile region of Sidon, also produces a surplus. Jesus builds for the gentiles their own table and again the crumbs amount to baskets and baskets of food. 

Despite this the disciples remain ignorant of Jesus’ ability to produce an excess out of the seemingly insufficient.

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”(Mark 8:17-21)

Having witnessed Jesus break bread twice the disciples are afraid they will be in trouble for forgetting to bring bread. They cannot see the fullness of the blessings Jesus brings. The woman, however, knows the crumbs will satisfy for the crumbs are more than enough. If there were baskets of leftovers at the table of Israel and baskets of leftovers at the table of the gentiles, Jesus satisfies all people.

There is further evidence to support this interpretation. To start, the theme of Mark 7 is the distinction between clean and unclean. The Pharisees teach that a clean outside makes a clean inside. The Pharisees are indignant because Jesus’ disciples do not wash before they eat and so confront their teacher. Jesus responds to them “it is not what goes in that defiles a person but what comes out of the heart”(Mark 7:15). Along with this, he makes the radical claim that all foods are clean. A significant portion of the Jew’s identity is here trivialized by Jesus. The Pharisees are wrong to assume the gentiles are unclean simply because they do not wash or eat as the Jews. These have nothing to do with defilement. It is the strictly washed and dietary observant Pharisees who are unclean, for out of their hearts comes slander, arrogance and folly(Mark 7:22). Again, Mark’s placement of texts has suggested something unconventional is going on with the story of the gentile woman.

Lastly, the placement of the healing of a deaf mute immediately after the story points toward this reading. In this gospel, proper hearing and sight are required to understand Jesus. Mark uses particular healing stories to represent the process of the reader coming to understand the gospel of Jesus. Having finished the story of the faithful gentile woman, will the reader too have ears to hear the message about clean and unclean? Will the reader “be opened” just as the deaf man? Or, will he remain blinded like the Pharisees and the disciples?  

Unlike the disciples, the Syrophoenician woman has ears to hear what Jesus is preaching. She has eyes to see that Jesus is not limited in the blessings he brings. Unexpectedly, Mark has used this story to subvert the Jewish attitude toward gentiles inviting all to come and experience Jesus.

Next time I will examine a much more problematic text, Matthew.