Modern Scripture Scholarship and Its Search for the Jesus of History

What I call “modern scripture scholarship” refers to the essentially inter-disciplinary approach to the Bible that has developed over the last 400 years. To me it seems nearly criminal that the nature and results of this intense and fruitful study has been kept secret and not shared with the “faithful in the pews” who are perfectly capable of understanding its processes and conclusions.

In fact, not sharing this secret has driven many thinking people away from the church as they reject as fantastic and unbelievable the understandings of faith they accepted as children, but which seem incompatible with what they know about science and the world in general.

As our inroad to understanding this topic, let’s examine the distinction it makes between the Jesus of history and Jesus the Christ. “Jesus of history” refers to the prophet who was directly experienced by his community in Palestine for a short period around 30 C.E. (Common Era). “Jesus the Christ” refers to the identity Jesus assumed in the faith of the early Christian community, especially between the time of Jesus’ death (between 31 and 33) and the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), when Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God was defined. As we will see, the Jesus of history is quite different from the Jesus of faith. (By the way, there is a wonderful PBS film series on this topic that I highly recommend, “From Jesus to Christ:” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/)

For starters, let’s try to understand how modern scholars got to the distinction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. It all began with the 17th century’s initiation of the Scientific Revolution. Galileo Galilei’s “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” set the tone. The letter responded to criticisms from the Vatican’s Holy Office of the Inquisition advanced in 1616 charging that Galileo’s theory of a heliocentric universe was “absurd in philosophy, formally heretical, and expressly contrary to scripture.”

In his response, the great astronomer argued that God is revealed in two ways, in Sacred Scripture and in nature. Sacred Scripture was written for simple folk, he said. Its statements are often ambiguous and metaphorical. They cannot be taken literally in every case. Even St. Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, and other master theologians, Galileo said, had recognized such truisms centuries earlier; they were not literalists. Galileo further reasoned that since it is frequently so difficult to ascertain the exact meaning of biblical passages, one must often resort to God’s revelation in nature to determine the truth. When God’s written word conflicts with natural revelation, the latter is to prevail, because it is clearer and less ambiguous.

Key milestones in subsequent biblical studies include the following (If some of the historical references are unclear, don’t worry, it’s not necessary to “get” them all; they are included here only for the sake of completeness):

–          17th century: Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Richard Simon question the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Jewish Testament).

–          18th century: The “higher criticism” movement emerges. “Higher” biblical criticism dealt with issues of authorship and original intent, and with literary forms and their meaning. It is contrasted with “lower criticism” which confined itself to close examination and comparison of texts.

–          18th century: Herman Samuel Reimarus applies critical methodology to the Christian Testament. He concludes that very little is incontrovertibly factual.

–          1870s: Julius Wellhausen examines the Bible as a human document.

–          19th century: Albert Schweitzer, David Strauss, Ernest Renan, Johannes Weiss and others embark on the “Quest of the Historical Jesus.”

–          1893: Pope Leo XIII condemns higher criticism in “Providentissimus Deus.” He establishes the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

–          1940s: Joachim Jeremias and C.H. Dodd identify layers in the Christian Testament attributable to (1) Jesus, (2) the gospel authors, and (3) the early church.

–          1943: Pope Pius XII endorses the new biblical scholarship (“textual criticism”) in “Divino Afflante Spiritu.”

–          1st half of 20th Century: Protestant theological giants, Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann conclude that the quest of the historical Jesus had reached a dead end. Almost nothing can be known of the historical Jesus, they claimed. They and their followers concentrate their analysis and theology on 1st century post-resurrection proclamations about Jesus (kerygma).

–           1945: Apocryphal gospels (i.e. gospels other than Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) are discovered at Nag Hammadi (Upper Egypt).

–          1948-1956: Discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls in Palestine.

–          1970s: Discovery of Gnostic Gospels in a cave in Egypt. The texts date from the 2nd century.

–          1965: Second Vatican Council publishes its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (“Dei Verbum”) embracing interpretations of Scripture that centralize the original author’s context and intent.

–          1968: The Latin American Bishops’ Conference meeting in Medellin, Colombia adopts liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” as a central tool for interpreting Sacred Scripture and as a guiding commitment for church practice.

–          1990s: Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and other members of “The Jesus Seminar” develop criteria for identifying the actual words of Jesus as opposed to the inventions of the gospel authors and/or the early church including: (1) multiple attestation from independent sources;  (2) dissimilarity i.e. words or deeds attributed to Jesus that would be embarrassing to the early church [e.g. Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John and (especially) the crucifixion]; (3) coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus; (4) Semitisms; (5) sitz im leben (context) reflecting the circumstances of Jesus rather than of the early church, and (6) vividness of description.

Next Week: the significance of the events in the above timeline (P.S. I would love it if readers would submit questions concerning any of this. It would give me direction for future posts on this topic.)

Jesus Was against Machismo Not Divorce

Today’s readings: Gn. 2:18-24; Ps. 128:1-6; Heb. 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-16 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/100712.cfm

I shared Tammy Wynette’s award-winning song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” because it captures the pain that more than half of married people go through when they decide to divorce. Tammy’s opening words, “I want to sing you a song that I didn’t write, but I should have,” as well as the way she sings capture the very sad experience that divorce is for couples who all started out so full of love and hope. As all of us know, divorce is often characterized by regret and feelings of failure especially relative to the children involved. The irony is that many divorced people will come to church this morning and find their pain compounded by today’s readings and no doubt by sermons they will hear.

However today’s liturgy of the word is surprising for what it says about Jesus and his teachings about divorce. The readings tell us that Jesus wasn’t really against divorce as we know it. Instead as the embodiment of compassion, he must have been sympathetic to the pain and abuse that often precede divorce. As a champion of women, he must have been especially sensitive to the abandonment of divorced women in his highly patriarchal culture.

What I’m suggesting is that a sensitive reading shows that what Jesus stands against in today’s Gospel is machismo not divorce as such. Relative to failed marriages, he implicitly invites us to follow his compassionate example in putting the welfare of people – in his day women specifically – ahead of abstract principles or laws. Doing so will make us more understanding and supportive of couples who decide to divorce in the best interests of all.

By the way, the gospel reading also tells us something important about scripture scholarship and its contributions towards understanding the kind of person Jesus was and what he taught on this topic.

First of all consider that scholarship and its importance relative to the topic at hand.

To begin with, it would have been very unlikely that Jesus actually said “let no one” or (as our translation went this morning) “let no human being” put asunder what God has joined together. That’s because in Jesus’ Palestine, only men had the right to initiate a divorce. So in prohibiting divorce, Jesus was addressing men.  The “no one” or “no human being” attribution comes from Mark who wanted Jesus’ pronouncement on divorce to address situations outside of Palestine more than 40 years after Jesus’ death. By the time Mark wrote his Gospel, the church had spread outside of Palestine to Rome and the Hellenistic world.  In some of those communities, women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men.

Similarly, Jesus probably did not say, “and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Such a statement would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ immediate audience. Once again, in Palestine no woman could divorce her husband. Divorce was strictly a male right. Women could only be divorced; they couldn’t divorce their husbands.

So what did Jesus say? He probably said (as today’s first reading from Genesis puts it) “What God has joined together let no man put asunder. “ His was a statement against the anti-woman, male-centered practice of divorce that characterized the Judaism of his time.

And what was that practice?

In a word, it was highly patriarchal. Until they entered puberty, female children were “owned” by their father. From then on the father’s ownership could be transferred to another male generally chosen by the father as the daughter’s husband. The marriage ceremony made the ownership-transfer legal. After marriage, the husband was bound to support his wife. For her part however the wife’s obedience to her husband became her religious duty.

Meanwhile, even after marriage, the husband could retain as many lovers as he wanted provided he also able to support them. Additionally the husband enjoyed the unilateral right to demand divorce not only for adultery (as some rabbis held), but also according to the majority of rabbinical scholars for reasons that included burning his food, or spending too much talking with the neighbors. Even after divorce, a man’s former wife needed his permission to remarry. As a result of all this, divorced women were often left totally abandoned. Their only way out was to become once again dependent on another man.

In their book Another God Is Possible, Maria and Ignacio Lopes Vigil put it this way: “Jesus’ saying, ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ is not the expression of an abstract principle about the indissolubility of marriage. Instead, Jesus’ words were directed against the highly patriarchal marriage practices of his time. ‘Men,’ he said, should not divide what God has joined together. This meant that the family should not be at the mercy of the whimsies of its male head, nor should the woman be left defenseless before her husband’s inflexibility. Jesus cut straight through the tangle of legal interpretations that existed in Israel about divorce, all of which favored the man, and returned to the origins: he reminded his listeners that in the beginning God made man and woman in his own image, equal in dignity, rights, and opportunities. Jesus was not pronouncing against divorce, but against machismo.”

Here it should be noted that Mark’s alteration of Jesus’ words is far less radical than what Jesus said. Mark makes the point of the Master’s utterance divorce rather than machismo. Ironically, in doing so and by treating women the same as men, Mark’s words also offer a scriptural basis for legalists who place the “bond of marriage” ahead of the happiness (and even safety) of those who find themselves in relationships which have become destructive to partners and to children.

Traditionally that emphasis on the inviolability of the marriage bond has represented the position of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is very unlikely that the historical Jesus with his extremely liberal attitude towards law and his concern for women would have endorsed it.

Instead however, it never was Jesus position that any law should take precedence over the welfare of people. In fact, his refusal to endorse that precedence – his breaking of religious laws (even the Sabbath law) in favor of human welfare – was the main reason for his excommunication by the religious leaders of his own day. In other words, Jesus was the one who kept God’s law by breaking human law.

So instead of “Anti-Divorce Sunday,” this should be “Anti-Machismo Sunday.” It should remind us all of what a champion women have in Jesus.

Sometimes feminists complain that Christian faith finds its “fullness of revelation” in a man. But as one Latin American feminist theologian put it recently, the point of complaint shouldn’t be that Jesus was a man, but that most of us men are not like Jesus. Today’s Gospel calls us men to take steps towards nullifying that particular objection.

Don’t miss tomorrow’s posting about modern scripture scholarship and the historical Jesus.

Who Was the Historical Jesus? Introduction

Let’s face it: there is no God “up there.” “Up there” is simply a metaphor for the transcendence of the divine, which is found within, around, above and below all of us. What St. Paul said is true:  God the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Moreover, that God did not “send” some pre-existing Second Person of the Blessed Trinity to die on our behalf. Like all of us, Jesus was not anxious to die; nor did the God of life want him sacrificed. Rather, the Romans killed Jesus because as colonial occupiers of his homeland, Palestine, they (correctly) perceived his words and deeds as a political threat. Those words and deeds centered neither on himself, nor on life after death but on the Kingdom of God – a very this worldly reality, that would change the condition of the poor, who are God’s chosen people.

The point of Jesus’ “miracles” was to demonstrate that choice; they were basically either faith-healings or entirely symbolic creations of the early church.

In fact symbolism and metaphor are so central to the fundamental message of the Bible and to human thought itself that it would be more accurate to treat most of Sacred Scripture metaphorically rather than as factual. This includes any references to hell, angels, and devils, which turn out to be poetic inventions. Over the history of the church those inventions have been cynically manipulated as tools of “conscience control” (especially of women) by a basically Caucasian, rich and patriarchal religious establishment that in practice has come to regard Jesus’ actual teaching (about the kingdom, poverty and wealth) as “heretical.”

To get back to the authentic teaching of the historical Jesus, believers need to acquaint themselves not only with another Jesus. They need another God to replace the one before whom they are called to be atheists. Despite formidable obstacles placed in our way by our pastors and others, meeting and embracing that other God is entirely possible. It is indispensable to save our species, our world and ourselves.

These are basically the findings of modern scripture scholarship and the theologies based on that research. And, of course, they can be shocking to conservative Christians encountering it for the first time. However, for those truly interested in developing an adult faith, the shock must somehow be absorbed.

In an attempt to assist in that process of absorption, the Monday series to be posted here will attempt to organize and unify the disparate concepts in question and to re-present them as an aid to understanding and disciplined discussion. Next week’s posting will review key events in the history of biblical interpretation.

Plucking Out Eyes and Cutting off Hands and Feet

Today’s Readings: Nm 11:25-29; Ps 19:8, 10, 12-14; Jas. 5:1-6; Mk. 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48

This, of course, is the “political season,” and debate is heating up. All the candidates claim to be followers of Jesus. Governor Romney is a Mormon. Paul Ryan is Catholic. President Obama’s affiliation is with the United Church of Christ. Like his Republican counterpart, Joe Biden is Catholic.

And that’s confusing, because often it’s precisely as “religious,” and specifically as being Christian that the candidates explain their policies.  In the name of Jesus, Republicans speak of individual independence, personal responsibility, “tough love” and of riches as God’s blessing as though such orientations represented the attitude of Jesus.  On the other hand, Democrats talk about compassion, community identity and “we’re all in this together” solidarity in the same way. In the end, however, both parties explain their policies in terms of their impact on the “one percent” and on the “middle class.” Virtually no one utters a word about “the poor.”

Today’s liturgy of the word calls into question such silence about the real People of God. Using the images of Moses and Jesus, this Sunday’s readings remind us that both the Jewish and the Christian Testaments describe a God whose people are the Poor. Moreover, the readings supply us with criteria that turn out to be useful for critiquing candidates’ discourse during this political season. In the first reading from the Book of Numbers, Moses declares that whoever speaks and acts like him has the right to prophesy (i.e. speak in God’s name) even if he or she hasn’t been officially approved. In the Gospel, Jesus says something similar. He says “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is, no one should be silenced whose message is in line with Jesus’ own. Then today’s second reading, the author of the Letter of James specifically identifies the policies that are in line with the teachings of Moses and Jesus. We do well to take all three readings very seriously.

As for the reading from Numbers, it helps to remember who Moses was.  Though born a slave, Moses was raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. However as a young adult, when he saw an Egyptian overlord mistreating a slave, he recognized himself in the abused slave, and experienced a kind of personal conversion. So Moses fled his comfortable palace home and took off for the desert. There he discovered a Nameless God whose single desire was that Egypt’s slaves be freed. That God persuaded Moses to overcome his fear and self-doubt to confront the Pharaoh himself and demand the freedom of Egypt’s slaves. “Let my people go,” was the message of the God on whose behalf Moses prophesied.

Today’s first reading says wherever Moses’ spirit of identification with the poor and oppressed appears, it represents the Spirit of God. Would that all people of faith, Moses says in the reading, would share his spirit and speak out on behalf of the poor (i.e. prophetically). No one needs special appointment to do that, Moses says. To qualify as prophet, it’s enough to be a human being who recognizes solidarity with the least.

Jesus echoes Moses in today’s Gospel selection. It helps to recall who he was too. Jesus was a Galilean peasant from an extremely poor background.  He was born in Nazareth of Galilee, a community of about 24 families. Jesus was originally a follower of the great prophet, John the Baptist. He actually took over the Baptist’s movement after John was executed by King Herod of Galilee.

Jesus’ prophetic message was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God which was good news for the poor (“anawim” in the Jewish Testament). That news said that God was on their side.  (It was in no way about the rich who are “poor in spirit.”) In fact, according to Jesus, the only way for the rich to enter the kingdom was for them to adopt the perspective of the poor, support them in their struggle against oppression, and to share their own wealth with the indigent.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says that anyone with a message not contrary to his proclamation of a kingdom belonging to the poor, the prostitutes and tax collectors is on his side. Standing with Jesus doesn’t depend on official approval Jesus’ disciples were so concerned about. We’d say, it doesn’t depend on religious affiliation – whether one is a Mormon, a Catholic, or a member of the United Church of Christ. Jesus’ own words say it best: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

However, the reverse is also true. That is, whoever’s message is against Jesus’ message of identification and solidarity with the poor cannot claim to stand with him. Here’s where the words of James come through so strongly.  They represent harsh criticism of the rich and of those who, like both Republicans and Democrats, implement policies that favor the rich while imposing austerity measures on the poor.

Have you been listening to the readings from James over the past number of weeks? They are so harsh in their criticism of the rich. In fact, their harshness rivals Jesus’ own words about the wealthy – “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Elsewhere Jesus reveals a clear class-consciousness. In Luke he says, “Blessed are you poor,” and “Woe to you rich! You have received your reward.” Erich Fromm has referred to the Letter from James – so faithful to the spirit of Jesus himself – as the clearest expression in the ancient world of the disdain of the poor for their overlords – the rich, the learned and the powerful.

The disdain continues in today’s excerpt from James. Be aware that he is addressing rich Christians – people of faith who thought of themselves as their community’s most respectable members. He mentions specifically employers who pay slave wages to their workers and as a result amass great fortunes. Does that sound like the globalized order that both Republicans and Democrats support? The fact is that the huge fortunes that allow 225 people to own as much as nearly half the world (nearly 3 billion people) are made from exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable.

However, in God’s eyes, James warns, such accumulation is for naught. In the Great Reversal represented by the Kingdom of God, the silver and gold of the wealthy will have corroded. Their fine clothes will have turned to moth-eaten rags. It will become evident that they were not God’s people at all. In Jesus’ fearfully poetic words, they will be cut off from the Body of the Faithful like unwanted hands or feet; they will be cast out onto Jerusalem’s garbage heap everyone knew as “Gehenna.”

Those words about cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes are written for us too – even for us who are not in the 1% that controls more than 40% of the world’s resources and wealth. The words of course are hyperbolic. They’re about the harsh choices we all have to make in following Jesus. If the food we take with our hands is produced by those underpaid workers James talks about, we have to stop eating it. “Cut off your hands” is the way Jesus puts it. If our eyes make us envious of others possessions produced by the same processes of exploitation, we have to “pluck them out.” Stop looking! Stop consuming! And if our feet need to travel despite the impact of modern motorized journeys on the environment, we told to “cut them off” and throw them on the garbage heap. These are hard, challenging words that call us all to self-examination and repentance.

“Make the hard radical choices necessary to follow me” is what Jesus commands. What radical choices do you think today’s readings are calling you to make personally?

Discussion follows

Don’t miss Monday’s posting on the historical Jesus.

Conclusions about “The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess”

To say the least, Lynn Picknett’s The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess makes a distinct contribution towards a fuller understanding of the “woman called Magdalene.”  Picknett helps us see beyond the prostitute stereotype to a financial supporter of Jesus’ ministry;  the African priestess (from Egypt or Ethiopia) who anointed Jesus as Christos; his lover and perhaps his wife;  the holy one who prepared him for crossing over to the other side; the disciple who first perceived that Jesus had risen from the dead;  first among the women who stood by Jesus in his darkest hour;  the “Apostle of Apostles” enjoying primacy among those within the Master’s inner circle; the mystic whom Jesus called by names originally belonging to the goddess, Isis; the real founder of the church, and an object of jealousy, hatred, and threat by the patriarchal Twelve. Picknett indeed helps us see how we know those things.

In addition, the book’s clear exposition of the identity of Mary Magdalene and her primacy among Jesus’ followers is invaluable for a more complete understanding of the earliest traditions within the Jesus Movement where women were not only prominent but preeminent.  Those traditions, it turns out, prove extremely meaningful for contemporary women. For they highlight the way female disciples of extraordinary talent and charisma were not only marginalized but denigrated in the church right from the beginning. They were the victims of an extreme misogyny that continues in church circles to our very day. Put otherwise, besides shedding light on the distant past, Picknett’s “secret history” exposes the extreme weakness of contemporary ecclesiastical patriarchs in their exclusion of women from the priesthood and from other forms of church leadership. It also uncovers the perversity of their other anti-woman pronouncements regarding topics such as contraception, abortion, and women’s rights in general.

As noted previously, Picknett is especially strong in her willingness to effectively question and turn upside-down long-accepted “truths” about the focus of her study. To reiterate, “Magdalene the whore” is the prime example. Examination of extra-biblical and especially historical sources revealed the sixth century origin of that smear. That revelation evidently led Picknett to better understand the smear’s source in the biblical texts themselves. As she indicates, those texts lose no opportunity to denigrate the woman from Bethany. In other words, regarding the Magdalene, Picknett’s methodology is that of scripture scholars over the last hundred years and more: she distinguishes the historical Magdalene from what biblical traditions on the one hand and patristic glosses on the other made of her. Like the good scholar she is, she peals back layer after layer till she gets to the historical woman.

It is here, however, that a curious inconsistency surfaces in the final third of Picknett’s work. There she deconstructs the person of Jesus of Nazareth, finding him, as noted earlier, to be self-promoting, petulant, irrational, vindictive, and generally unpleasant. She is able to do so only because she ignores the findings of scripture scholarship over the last one hundred years – especially the findings of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism. Form Criticism is the branch of biblical study which has pointed out that not everything in the Bible, not even most of its contents, is history. Instead, there are many literary forms there including myth, legend, debate, fiction, poetry, genealogies, parables, allegories, law, letters – and Gospel. If one mistakes the literary form and reads legend, for instance, as history, the reader will miss the intended meaning of the text. And yes, Gospel is its own literary form distinct from history. And so the work of the evangelists cannot be treated as “lives” or biographies of Jesus. Instead (and Picknett is correct here) they are religious propaganda. This however does not mean, as Picknett often implies and even states, that they are lies, deliberately disguised half-truths, or outright deceptions. They are “Gospel” and as such express not what happened, but the meaning of what happened for those who already recognize Jesus as the Christ. Picknett however often crossly dismisses the gospel authors as charlatans and deceivers. And she reads their portrayals of Jesus as though they were falsified histories. And so she reports that believers have been deceived into believing in a virgin birth, that Jesus walked on water, fed the 5000, and that his corpse was resuscitated three days after his death (which, she points out may have been only apparent). At the same time, however, Picknett takes the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels as though they were his very words. Thus she finds him bad tempered when he curses a barren fig tree, a braggart, when he calls attention to his union with God, and in general a human failure when he fails to live up to the traditional image of “Jesus meek and mild” (186, 208).

It is here that Picknett overlooks the insights of “redaction criticism.” Redaction critics are the scholars who have helped us realize that the gospels are thickly “layered,” and as such rather far removed from what Jesus actually said and did. That is, the words and deeds of Jesus were one thing; how they were remembered in oral tradition was another, how they were written down another still, and how they were interpreted by later generations something else again.  To sharpen the point, the works of the evangelists are post-resurrection compositions (whatever the resurrection might have been).  As such, they reveal an understanding of Jesus that was not apparent, and therefore impossible before the resurrection event. Accordingly, one must distinguish between the pre and post-resurrection Jesus; one must separate the pre-resurrection Gospel of Jesus from the post-resurrection Gospel about Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus was not about himself, but about the Kingdom of God – what the world would be like if God, not Caesar were king. The Gospel about Jesus (the product of the emerging church) was indeed about Jesus. So according to that latter gospel, Jesus is made to say what would have been both impossible and highly improbable for him to utter before his death. Consequently when Jesus apparently says, “I and the Father are one,” that is not Jesus boasting about himself, but the early church “boasting” about Jesus, i.e. expressing its post-resurrection faith.

Similarly, the Gospel about Jesus is full of symbol, which as Picknett well knows, is the normal language of faith. It is not denial or misrepresentation of fact; it is more than fact. So when Jesus is presented as cursing a barren fig tree, it is not a sign of his irritability, as Picknett would have it, but probably has something to do with “fig tree” as a traditional symbol for Israel itself. Yet, despite an entire book devoted to identifying layer upon layer of tradition and unpacking symbols (relative to Mary Magdalene) Picknett finds such unpacking and layer-identification as “unconvincing” when it comes to any positive view of Jesus’ words (193) . And while she had no trouble demythologizing the Magdalene’s traditional identity as a prostitute, Picknett scandalized by any gospel departure from the “Jesus meek and mild” image that has prevailed in understandings of the central figure in mainstream Christianity (186, 208). Any departure from that milk-sop image to show him politically engaged or prophetically outspoken is interpreted as somehow reprehensible. This is a shortcoming of her book and misleads her audience.

The misdirection would have been avoided had Picknett muted her book’s sensationalist tone to explain that under the leadership of Mary called the Magdalene (possibly Jesus’ spouse) the discouraged male apostles did not give up as they would have without her encouragement. Instead they pondered and discussed the words and deeds of Jesus. They realized that inspired by his mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus had continued the latter’s ministry. Unexpectedly and scandalously however, Jesus too been executed – by Rome (rather than by its puppet, Herod as was the case with John). Meditation, discussion, and (as they claimed) the inspiration of the Holy Spirit led that first community of the Jesus Movement to realize that their martyred master had not really joined the ranks of the hundreds of failed Messiahs who regularly surfaced in Palestine during the first century of the Common Era. Instead, he was somehow more present among them than he was before his death.

But how were they to explain this to their contemporaries – to Jews first of all, and later to those outside the Jewish community? Their answer was to use one language set for Jews and one for Greco-Romans. The language set for Jews presented him in terms of a new Adam, or in reference to Abraham, David, or as fulfillment of inferences derived from the prophets. By modern standards, their connections seem forced, stretched and artificial. And no doubt, they invented some of the words and deeds they attributed to Jesus to make the point about his continuity with Jewish tradition. In other words, for the evangelists, the Jesus of faith sometimes took precedence over the Jesus of history.

In the same way, the Jesus story was reshaped for those outside the Jewish community for whom things like circumcision, the prophets, Abraham and David meant nothing at all. For these, Jesus had to be re-presented in religious terms understandable to Hellenistic culture. “Pagans” knew about Isis and the “dying and rising” gods. They knew about hieros gamos or sacred marriage with its priestesses and anointing. So Jesus was presented in those terms. We find them buried in stories like the anointing at Bethany.

Such retelling and refashioning of the Jesus story went on orally for many years. Then (beginning around 70 C.E.) the oral traditions were given written form. By then one could hardly distinguish what the historical Jesus had said and done from what was part of the retelling of his story specifically tailored for Jews on the one hand and for Greco- Romans on the other. Additionally each evangelist further reformulated the received traditions to address problems unique to his own community and its problems that Jesus could never have anticipated. This called for additional retailoring of Jesus’ words and deeds to fit the even newer circumstances further removed from the original consciousness of the historical Jesus.

Subsequently, church fathers and popes like Gregory I added their own layers of interpretation for their own communities now centuries removed from Jesus and his original intentions, words,  and deeds. In the process the Jesus of history was nearly swallowed by the Jesus of faith. However, that Jesus of history has to comprise the standard for soberly determining the essential elements of the Christian faith.

That’s what modern scripture scholarship has determined. Uncovering the Jesus of history is the work of the Jesus Seminar, whose members, it seems, would be open to most of the conclusions Picknett draws about Mary Magdalene. They would not however agree with conclusions based upon uncritical attribution of deeds and words to Jesus that fails to distinguish between layers of gospel texts.

Nothing said immediately above should detract from the fact  that Lynn Picknett is a wonderful reader, a diligent energetic researcher. She knows how to make the ever-present connections that in fact link everything that exists. Picknett is expert in applying the principle of analogy in both its negative and positive meanings. Negatively, that principle holds that we cannot expect to have happened in the past what is presumed or proven to be impossible in the present. According to that principle, she helps the non-academic community understand what scholars have been up to over the last hundred years and more. Positively, the principle of analogy says that the same natural and human forces and dynamics that are operative in the world today (especially in the realm of historiography) were also operative in the past. Those forces and dynamics indeed include lies, cover-ups, propaganda, and self-interest.  Applying that version of the analogy principle, Picknett’s Hidden History helps readers see beyond the “official story” to discern the fact that female leadership in the Christian community is nothing new. It’s the males who are the interlopers and charlatans.

I’m going to recommend this book to that friend of mine with all that rage to know “how do they know all of that?”

Next week: What Jesus Scholarship Tells Us about the Historical Jesus

Oh No: Not another Sermon on Abortion!

Today’s Readings: Wis. 2:12, 17-20; Ps. 54:3-4, 5, 6 &8; Jas. 3:16-4:3; Mk. 9:30-37

When I read today’s gospel selection, I knew it would inspire preachers everywhere in this country to sermonize about abortion. After all, the reading has Jesus embracing a child and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

That scene will lead preachers to say that Jesus loved children. We all love them, they’ll add, and go on to argue that the children most in danger today are the unborn. So homilists will conclude or imply, we should vote for pro-lifers who claim to care about the unborn, and will pass laws to eliminate abortion. It follows then that we should not support those who identify themselves as “pro-choice,” since they care less about the children so close to Jesus’ heart.

Of course, the preachers in question have the best of intentions. And concern for the unborn is well and good. No doubt abortion represents a horrendous choice. It’s painful for everyone.  Virtually no one favors abortion.

However in today’s gospel, Jesus wasn’t embracing a fetus, but a real child of the kind our culture shows little concern about once they’re outside the womb. Even pro-life politicians want to cut back on programs that would help such children. That, I think, is the issue today’s gospel should be made to address. But before getting to that, and since our preachers will inevitably bring it up, let’s talk about abortion like adults.

As adults we have to admit two facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves. No, the question is not about eliminating abortion, but of reducing the number of abortions – of lessening the perceived “need” for abortion.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened 80 days after the mother’s egg was fertilized. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. But even within the Catholic community, prominent moral theologians beg to differ. Some, for instance, would argue their case by directing attention to the way the medical profession determines the moment of death. When the brain stops emitting brain waves, “brain death” occurs. Personal life has stopped though bodily life may continue. Plugs may then be pulled even if the patient continues to breathe with artificial assistance.  If that is so, these moralists reason, no personal life exists before a fetus’ brain begins sending off detectable brain waves. That occurs only several weeks into the pregnancy.

Other people of faith have traditionally identified the beginning of specifically personal life with the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

[By the way, no Protestant churches took an official position on the abortion question before the 1979. It was then that the Moral Majority decided to adopt abortion as the trump issue of the Republican Party. The idea was to gain partisan allegiance by tapping into racial resentment among whites, especially in the South who saw “big government” as unfairly favoring African-Americans. Accordingly, the issue of abortion was presented as another example of “big government” in a political climate where overt racism was no longer socially or politically acceptable. “Pro-life” became an acceptable substitute for anti-Black.]

Given those differences among people whose religious traditions will not be going away any time soon, the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 probably goes about as far in restricting abortions as any law in a pluralistic U.S. can go. (Yes, Roe v. Wade does not simply legalize abortions; it restricts them significantly.) The controversial Supreme Court decision specifies that during the first trimester the mother may decide about the termination of her pregnancy without consultation. During the second trimester, she must confer with her physician. And during the final three months of pregnancy, the state recognizes its need to protect the unborn; it can accordingly forbid or otherwise condition pregnancy termination.

But aside from all that, it still must be admitted that the numbers of abortions in the United States and in the world remain unacceptably high. The question remains how to reduce those levels. Ironically, passing laws does not seem to help. For instance, abortion has been completely outlawed in many Latin American countries.  Yet those very countries lead the world in numbers of abortions performed each year. But where abortion has been legalized, as in the Netherlands and Belgium, abortion levels are the lowest in the world.

Government-sponsored social programs explain the difference. These involve provision of thorough sex education in public schools, free contraceptives, pre and post-natal care for expectant mothers, family leave arrangements and affordable child care for working parents, subsidized food grants, and a host of other child-centered programs of the very type “pro-life” politicians would like to abolish.  However, all of the programs just mentioned provide a welcoming atmosphere for children and reduce the perceived “need” for abortion.

Where would Jesus stand on all of this? We don’t know. He said not a word about abortion. But in today’s gospel he says more than a word about children. He embraces a child and says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Once again, in doing that Jesus is not embracing a fetus, but an actual living child about whose human status there can be no debate. Moreover, the child in question was probably of the type many opponents of abortion have little use for or sympathy with. After all today’s gospel scene takes place in Capernaum, the urban center that Jesus adopted as his home town after he was thrown out of Nazareth.

Remember that Jesus spent his time among the poor who represented his own origins.  So the child Jesus embraces was probably a smelly street kid with matted hair and a dirty face. He or she was probably not unlike the street kids found in any city today – the ones hooked on sniffing glue and who have learned to sell their bodies to dirty old men from way across town, and often from across the world.

I make all this supposition because the reason Jesus embraces the child in today’s gospel is to present his disciples with a living example of “the lowest of the low” – God’s chosen people.  In Jesus’ world, all children were at the bottom of the pecking order whose rabbinical description ended with “idiots, deaf-mutes and the young.” And among the young, street children without father or mother would indeed represent scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Embracing children like the one Jesus held doesn’t mean legally restricting abortions beyond Roe v. Wade. Neither does it mean “tough love,” nor forcing impoverished mothers to bring their children to term and then telling them “You’re on your own.” Rather, embracing poor children – truly being pro-life – means creating a welcoming atmosphere that receives children as we would receive the Jesus who identifies with them in today’s gospel. Yes, it suggests supporting those “Big Government” programs that work so well elsewhere.

Remember all of that when you hear your pastor’s sermon on abortion this Sunday.

Magdalene: Egyptian Priestess and Consort of Jesus (Fourth Posting in a Series on MM)

Last week we saw that the Jesus of Mark 14:4 saw Mary Magdalene’s anointing as somehow central to his mission and to preaching the gospel. But what could that mean especially about Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus?

For Lynn Picknett (author of The Secret History of Mary Magdalene: Christianity’s Hidden Goddess), it points to a pre-anointing intimacy between Mary of Bethany and Jesus. Were they husband and wife? Lovers?  Even more importantly however, Mary’s act has the character of a sacred ritual pre-arranged by Mary and Jesus – an extremely important one, far surpassing the spontaneous act of repentance and pre-burial ritual that ordinarily explains it.

The act says something important both about Mary of Bethany, and was intended to say something even more important about Jesus himself. It shows Mary to be the bearer of a type of priestly power. After all, there is only one anointing of Jesus (the Christos, i.e. anointed one) recounted in the Gospels. And the anointer is this woman who is acting like a priestess. Just before his death, her act finally designates Jesus as the One – the expected Messiah.  It’s like Nathan’s identification of David as king a thousand years earlier. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. The priestess has spoken. That’s what it says about Jesus.

But how could a woman perform such an act? Why would Jesus allow it? After all, according to Jewish law, women were not even permitted to say ritual prayers at home, much less perform religious rites of such central import as identification and anointment of the Christ. That is, not according to Jewish law. However, according to “pagan” law such election by a priestess was not only permitted but essential for any sacred king. There according to the rite of hieros gamos or sacred marriage, the priestess would anoint the priest-king and by virtue of her act (often consummated by ritual sex), the anointed would be flooded with power of the god. Conversely, without the power conferred by the woman, the king would remain powerless and have no knowledge of himself or of the gods (58). This concept of sacred marriage, Picknett notes, would have been familiar to the pagans of Jesus’ day whose “dying and rising gods” were typically anointed by priestesses and assisted by them across the threshold of death while remaining conscious of the entire process (59).  Pagans would have recognized in Mary of Bethany such a priestess who in the Gospels anoints Jesus as “Christos,” especially if she were also involved in the burial of the anointed one.

It’s that association with the burial of Jesus that suggests a syndrome of connections between Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene. According to Picknett, the two women are identical. To see the author’s point, remember Magdalene’s importance. Luke listed her prominently among the financial supporters of Jesus’ ministry. More significantly, she is the one who took charge of Jesus burial following his crucifixion. This suggests continuity with the priestess functions belonging to the agent of the Bethany anointing.  More importantly still, Magdalene was remembered as the first disciple to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection.  That appearance alone conferred on Magdalene incomparable dignity and implies the type of special relationship the anointing story establishes between Jesus and Mary of Bethany.  Additionally, John the Evangelist outright identifies Magdalene as a woman especially beloved by Jesus. Finally, there exists a long church tradition consistently identifying Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. On Picknett’s analysis, those characteristics taken together more than justify the conclusion that Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person.

Why then the confusion? Why did the evangelists apparently split a single person into three: Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the unnamed penitent woman? Here the plot thickens. It was because, Picknett says, the patriarchal evangelists wished to obscure the primacy of this woman whom Jesus loved more than them, and who, precisely as woman could not possibly be accepted as superior to men. The trouble was, the events at Bethany were so central and well known that none of the evangelists could omit the story altogether. So they transformed it from a messianic anointing into an act of repentance. Simultaneously, they converted the presiding priestess/paramour into an anonymous sinful woman “from whom Jesus had cast out seven evil spirits.”

And where is the proof for that? Here Picknett refers her readers to the Gnostic Gospels. In The Gospel of Thomas, for example, the tension between Magdalene and the male apostles and with Peter in particular is palpable.

. . . the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved here more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Saviour answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as I love her?’

As Picknett notes, the word for “companion” here is koinonos which refers to a consort of a sexual nature. That description alone could easily explain the alienation of the disciples from Jesus’ companion as well as the desire of the evangelists and church fathers to demote her to an anonymous, penitent and distinctly fallen woman.  More reason for antipathy on the part of Jesus’ apostles emerges from the Pistis Sophia (Faithful Wisdom), a Gnostic source discovered before the unearthing of the 1945 cache of Gospels. There Magdalene emerges as Jesus’ star pupil and the center of attention (85). He praises her as “one whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.” He predicts that she “will tower over all my disciples and over all men who shall receive the mysteries” (89). Most gratingly of all, Jesus calls her the “apostle of apostles” (157). Jealousies arising from such preferences on the part of the Master are entirely understandable.  Moreover following Jesus’ ascension, it is Magdalene who comes to the fore to encourage the disheartened apostles to man-up and get on with the business of understanding and living out the teachings of Jesus (215). In view of all this, it is not surprising that again in the Pistis Sophia, Magdalene accuses Peter of threatening her because, she says, of his own hatred of women (86).

Additionally, in the light of Jesus’ praise of the “apostle of apostles,” it is not surprising that Mary of Bethany should be called “the Tower,” “The Great,” “The Magnificent” – possibly in itself another cause of jealousy vis-à-vis the apostles.  As Picknett argues, the real meaning of “Magdalene” might well refer to rank of this sort rather than to place of origin (82). For if this Mary came from Bethany, “Magdalene” would not refer to her supposed hometown in Galilee. In fact, no town with any name resembling “Magdalene” is to be found in first century Galilee. (There was, however, a place in Egypt by the name of Magdolum and also a Magdala in Ethiopia. So the term might have referred to either of those locations as Mary’s place of origin – adding additional credence to the theory that she was an Egyptian priestess and perhaps even black).  Picknett concludes however that the term “Magdalene” most likely refers to Mary’s preeminence among Jesus’ disciples. In any case, it has some connection with terms for “Tower” and greatness. Jesus’ own reference to her in the Gnostic sources as “the All” and the “One who know all” seems to support this.

Next week: Pulling It All Together