Jesus the Radical

Were Jesus and his apostles anti-woman, anti-science, pro-slavery and pro-establishment? No, but reading some of the later epistles of Paul, you might think so. These scriptures in the later epistles (as well as the famous Romans 13) Tell the reader to tow-the-line, obey the law, pay taxes, slaves to obey their masters, women their husbands, etc. Paul in partular has been regarded as a woman-hater and a social conformist. But this needs some deeper investigation.

Taking the most common of the “tow-the-line” scriptures, we have selections from 1 Timothy, Titus, 1 Peter, Ephesians and Colossians (I’ll save the scripture in Romans for last)

These epistles all have something in common. Most scholars agree that they were written later than the earlier Pauline epistles, and that they were NOT written by Paul (or by Peter) but by other authors writing in the name of the apostles. Nearly all scholars agree that Paul actually wrote Romans, Philippians, Galatians, Philemon, 1st and 2nd Corinthians, and 1st Thessalonians. Nearly all scholars agree that 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus were NOT written by Paul. And MOST scholars believe that Ephesians, Colossians and 2nd Thessalonians were also NOT written by Paul, although the debate is more lively about them. The epistles of Peter are also the subject of some debate, but the majority come down against their being written by Peter himself.

What evidence do scholars rely on to come to these conclusions? Linguistic analysis, stylistic considerations, anachronisms of various sorts. I’d be happy to go into detail about any book in particular if anyone is really interested.

If we assume the majority of scholarship is correct, why did several authors in the established church feel the need to co-opt the authority of Paul and Peter to write so many scriptures telling Christians to tow-the-line, submit to authority, and follow the social norms? Because, contrary to what you suggest, the earliest Christianity, as taught by Jesus and Paul, shows signs of being uniquely egalitarian, unconventional, and challenging to the social order.

Jesus was totally unconventional in having women among his closest disciples. In some of the non-canonical gospels, Mary Magdalene in particular plays a pivotal role. The early communities were communal. Social norms of status were ignored. Paul is describing it well in Galatians (one of the genuine epistles you note) when he says “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” In early Pauline Churches, there were women prophets, women deacons, and at least one woman apostle that we know of. Women supervised schools of theology. Some of these women, taking their cue from Paul, opted not to marry, so that they could devote themselves to work in the Church.

At some point, after the deaths of the first apostles – as Christianity began to “settle down” into an established church, certain factions felt that things had gone much too far. Christians were being talked about scandalously. Christian women were behaving like men, and ignoring their “proper” social roles. Women were dressing unconventionally, women were giving instructions to MEN for heaven’s sake. Christians were ignoring issues of property and taxation, and were attracting unwelcome notice from the local magistrates. Slaves were claiming to be equal to their masters.

Some of the more important Christians decided that, since Jesus apparently wasn’t coming back any minute, it was time to stop the foolishness and settle down as good citizens. These people began to work their way into positions of power and wrote the pseudo-epistles that we have discussed, basically making Paul say “forget all those things I told you before about liberty – BEHAVE yourselves. Have decorum and act like good citizens”.

Not being content with simply inventing new epistles, this faction also made some additions to earlier epistles, such as Corinthians and possible Romans (as I shall discuss in a moment). These are usually recognizable as some injunction to conform to social norms – dropped into the middle of a chapter where it has nothing to do with the material either before or after it.

Now it may well be that some of this concern about the behavior of Christians was warranted. All things considered, there are advantages to fitting in the social norms, especially if you’re trying to attract converts. The problem is that social norms (including ours) usually involve some amount of injustice and inequity. Some of the general injunctions you quoted from the pseudo-epistles, “obey the law”, “children obey your parents” seem like reasonable generalizations. “Wives be in subjection to your husbands” and “servants be obedient to your masters…with fear and trembling” seem a bit dated. But remember that these are NOT the teachings of Jesus, or even of Paul or Peter – but the teachings of those who came later.

Ok, returning to the issue of the quote from Romans. This one is a difficulty, because Romans is almost universally regarded as genuine, but with perhaps a few later additions. The question is, is Romans 13: 1–7 one of those additions? There are several reasons to think that it is. One of them is an abrupt change of topic from what was discussed before and what comes after. There are minor stylistic differences (although hard to evaluate with certainty in so short a snippet). But the major problem is that Romans 13:1–7 makes absolutely NO sense coming from the mouth of Paul. For example, verse 3:

“For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:”

Paul knows very well from personal experience that rulers are quite capable of persecuting the good and praising the evil. Paul rarely entered a city without eventually ending up in trouble with the authorities. He was in jail several times and suffered various other punishments. Even on the rare occasion when a ruler took a liking to him (such as Agrippa) they felt compelled by the uproar he had caused to take measures.

It gets even more absurd in the following verses:

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil… For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.”

So all the authorities who persecuted Paul, crucified Jesus and beheaded James were God’s ministers, and were SO diligent in constantly rooting out evil that they well deserved the taxes they imposed?!? If this is actually Paul talking, he’s been smoking something.

To me, it seems overwhelmingly obvious that this is NOT Paul writing but a later interpolation from the “tow-the-line” era of Church development, unless…

I read an interesting paper online which makes an interesting argument. This IS Paul writing, but he is using irony to disguise his criticism of rulers. In other words, if he were to actually criticize leaders and rulers in his letter, he could be punished for writing it, and his Roman readers for reading it. Instead, he damns them with false praise, so OBVOUSLY false that everyone reading it at the time will recognize it as irony. For example, if I wanted to criticize the current administration in the United States, I might write something like:

“Don’t worry at all about giving away your freedoms in the Patriot Act. Our law enforcement officials are guided by God. They never arrest or detain anyone who isn’t guilty, and they never snoop on anyone who isn’t a great danger to our country. After all, this is the same government which protected us from the terrible danger of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which I am SURE they will find any minute now…”

In other words, it doesn’t actually say anything negative. 2000 years from now, someone might read it and think I was being perfectly serious. But anyone reading it today with any amount of wit would understand it was a scathing criticism disguised as irony.

Anyhow… to summarize, Jesus and his apostles were not anti-woman, pro-slavery, or pro-establishment. They were, for the time, remarkably progressive – but many of these advances were partially lost in a reactionary movement that set in shortly after the death of the apostles.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *