Our last gathering will occur online tomorrow, May 6, at 7:00pm. If you have not received an email invitation to this meeting and wish to attend, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog
Since I'm late with one week's blog post, I may as well be both on time with this week's and early with next week's and just put them all together. First and foremost, however, do not turn our reading of the Book of Revelation into a commentary on our time of pandemic crisis! Do look for how it might support a faith that gets us through this difficult period in our lives and our world. OK, here we go - see you (virtually) on May 6!
With generations of scholars looking over my shoulder, I offer with some trepidation these few thoughts on this strange and wonderful book. Do not be intimidated by its reputation or its strangeness! Jump right in. We've encountered this type of literature before, particularly in Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament, and in portions of the Gospels. It's known as "apocalyptic" literature; the term has come to mean "catastrophe" or "end of the world" in common use, but it literally means "what is uncovered," i.e., a revelation. The veil between our natural world and God's supernatural world is pulled aside in a series of visions that include fantastic imagery, mysterious pronouncements, and a fixation on the significance of numbers. Yet what seems overwrought or simply bizarre actually is rather familiar to us. Much of the imagery, especially in these chapters, has made its way into our worship ("Holy, holy, holy..."), our hymns (in Hymn 657, "Love divine, all loves excelling," we sing "till we cast our crowns before thee," 4:10), and our iconography. The "four living creatures," winged angels with four different faces in 4:6-7, have become ubiquitous symbols of the four gospels: the human face is Matthew, the lion is Mark, the ox is Luke, and the eagle is John.
The stuff with numbers isn't so weird either, once a few basics of the code are grasped. Seven is important in these chapters; it indicates God's creation and thus perfection. Three-and-a-half, then, seen in constructions such as 42 months (3-1/2 years), is its opposite and a symbol of evil, or chaos. Four is the number of levels of creation, and therefore of power; twelve is the number of tribes of Israel and disciples of Jesus, so it points to God's people. The patterns of these numbers orient our grasp of the vision.
The author was long held to be the same as the gospel writer and disciple, but that has been discredited; and whether this John was banished to Patmos or just living there in semi-seclusion is still hotly debated. The most likely date for the book is late first century; some argue for the mid-60s because it is easy to interpret the number of the beast, 666, as Nero, and that was the period of his persecution of Christians – yet the book seems to assume not a present of persecution but rather a present complacency with a time of severe trial to come.
And the book actually has an order and structure to it. There are three stories told in Revelation: Jesus appears to John on Patmos and dictates letters to seven churches along the western end of Asia Minor (chapters 1-3 – don't linger here, as we have no idea about the political situations to which the letters refer); John is taken to heaven to see God's court and how God's reign will come (chapters 4-11); and the cosmic war is waged and the new Jerusalem arrives (chapters 12-22). What is most important is the faith that there is a cosmic realm behind and beyond this earthly realm and our struggles and purpose are not separate from God but part and parcel of God's plan.
The second half of Revelation focuses on the cosmic war envisioned as the end of creation – "end," as in terminal point, and "end," as in purpose and fulfillment. Earthly evil – oppression, idolatry, greed, persecution, suffering – is linked to a cosmic realm of evil and its final defeat at the hands of the risen Christ and the angels of God. Beasts of various hideous types rise and fall and rise and then finally fall for good, as the Messiah who is not a war leader but a sacrificed lamb nonetheless has the power to conquer Satan and Death. The Roman Empire, envisioned as "the great whore" (17:1) and referred to as "Babylon," is but the earthly manifestation of this power of evil and of its ultimate defeat.
Elaine Pagels argues in her book Revelations (2012) that this cosmic war reflects the author's horror as he looks back at the Jewish Wars. These were the uprisings in the 70s against the Roman Empire that resulted in the destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem; John counteracts this historical reality with his vision of God's justice being hammered out once and for all. Work your way through this wild imagery, but don't get hung up on it – the key is the movement to the end, the vision of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, the city where God dwells with humans so that no Temple is needed, no other source of light is required, and all suffering and evil will be over.
What does this vision do for us? Is it just pie in the sky? Or can we find sufficient hope in a picture of God's creation brought to its fulfillment to seek to work toward our own new Jerusalems? I believe that the God of love connects all of us to each other, to every part of the creation, and to the Creator's own self – and such a vision can be sufficient to inspire us to find those connections in our lives, here and now and always.
P.S. Pagels is also the person who introduced me to that crazy image of the Whore of Babylon that I've posted here. I have no idea where she found it!
Tradition held that the Letter of James was written by Jesus' brother, the leader of the church in Jerusalem who had a prominent role in the dispute over the mission to the Gentiles debated in Acts 15. That is highly unlikely, though it is quite plausible that one of his followers or subordinates wrote it. He addresses the global Christian community, and is particularly concerned with spiritual maturity, understood as being "complete." Thus the letter is filled with dualities from which we faithful are meant to choose correctly that we might be "undivided": endurance of trials/succumbing to temptation, faith/doubt, the word from God/our words of wickedness, justice/favoritism, tongue/body, gentleness/envy, spiritual/earthly, doing/judging. But the key duality is one to be resolved rather than chosen between: that of faith and works. We are to be both hearers of the word and doers of the word; our faith should be visible in the ways we live our lives, the choices we make, the spiritual unity we seek and then display. James does not stand in opposition to Paul's emphasis on salvation by faith, but rather is arguing that claiming faith without acting on it, without works also, is incomplete. Hence his wonderful emphasis on justice, on caring for widows and orphans and the poor.
The First Letter of Peter was probably written during the persecution of Christians in Asia Minor during the reign of Trajan at the turn of the second century. This setting – referred to in the opening, when he tells his audience that their faith is "more precious than gold that...is tested by fire" (1:7) – leads the author to exhort his readers regarding how their faith can sustain them in times of difficulty. They are to have a strong sense of duty, and maintain orderly relations in the community and home – don't draw attention! - but they are meanwhile to understand themselves as leading an entirely new life, as having broken with the world, as possessing imperishable honor with God amid the temporary pain and ignominy of persecution. Thus "once you were not a people, but now you are God's people"; while you seem to be powerless before Rome's might, "you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people." (2:9-10) This is encouragement for any of us in this time of crisis.
The Second Letter of Peter is focused on maintaining faith in the second coming of Christ, in God's future completion of his creation. This faith was urgent in Paul's letters, as he admonished his readers to believe as he did that it would happen any day, certainly during their lifetimes – but by the time of this letter the end times have not come and there are those who mock that God is idle or asleep, that the delay is permanent, that such a faith is worthless and you may as well relax and live life easy. Those who mock are berated as "blots and blemishes," as dogs and pigs (unclean animals, to that culture) who return to their vomit and mud – lovely stuff. But the author argues from Old Testament stories that God's promises are valid even if God's time is not like our time, which is a powerful reminder that God's picture is rather larger than our picture – and "therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation." (3:14-15)
The last set of epistles in the New Testament feature three written by an unnamed author whose style and theology are sufficiently related to the author of the Gospel of John that the latter's name has long been associated with them. It is a reasonable assumption – while it is highly unlikely that the disciple himself wrote all of these works, it is perfectly plausible that one of his disciples did, and wanted to indicate on whose teaching the writing was based. All most likely date from around the turn of the first century, and tradition has connected John's followers with the city of Ephesus.
The three brief letters (two of them quite brief!) are all related, and document a division, a schism, in the community. Some have hewed to the teachings of the author; to these he gives encouragement of a pastoral nature regarding the need to love one another. Some, however, have left the community to follow other teachers; these are condemned in harsh and polemical language, including being called antichrists. Two tests are outlined for true believers: those who walk in the light love one another, and believe that the human Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. Those who do not show love are false, and their falsehood is revealed in their denial of Jesus. The second letter is addressed to the church ("the elect lady and her children"), while the third is addressed to an individual, Gaius; both are commended for their hospitality to other true believers, the author's representatives, and are urged to show no such hospitality to the schismatics. There is some confusion in the first letter between understanding that we sinners are forgiven in Christ and the later assertion that true believers do not sin; nonetheless, we are encouraged to "abide" in Jesus and love as we are loved.
The letter of Jude also takes on the issue of false teachers. The author identifies himself as a brother of James, who is the brother of Jesus; it is odd that Jude would not make the latter claim as well. If it was indeed written by a brother of Jesus, it would be the earliest document in the New Testament; few scholars, however, accept that identification and therefore it is usually dated in the early second century. The emphasis in this letter is on the punishment that awaits false teaching – for the false teaching itself seems to be that believers will not be subject to judgment. Jude refutes this with examples of judgment and punishment of the condemned from the Old Testament. The final exhortation to the faithful is to hold themselves upright in faith and save others from error.
It is oddly reassuring, in this era of divisions among and within denominations (including our own), to see that even in the earliest days of the Christian faith it was impossible to keep everyone on the same path. Such difficulties remind us that the heart of our faith, the encounter between us and God in the person of Jesus Christ, is a mystery that cannot be pinned down to the satisfaction of all.
A favorite phrase in the New Testament is "how much more...," using a comparative analogy to describe God: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:11) This comparison lies behind many of the parables as well: if a father would forgive his prodigal son, for example, how much more will God forgive us? The Letter to the Hebrews strikes me as one long argument of "how much more": how much more wonderful is the sacrifice of Christ compared to the sacrifices of the Temple, how much more wonderful is our relationship to God in Christ than it was before Christ came. The unknown author – not Paul, despite the closing greetings – is addressing himself to his Jewish contemporaries, and thus the comparison is explored with great depth. I confess to a good bit of discomfort with this comparative/competitive approach - it seems important, then, to read it in the context of what was then a relatively tiny group of "Christians" trying to convince contemporary Jews of the value of their understanding of what they believed.
I've also never been comfortable with the theology of atonement, of Jesus atoning for the sins of humanity through his death and resurrection, not because I don't agree with it (or at least with my understanding of it!), but because the language and imagery can become confusing and end up sounding quite brutal. If Jesus must die to make up for how awful we are in order to satisfy a God angry at our awfulness, that just sounds appalling to me – because it sounds like one human life being forced to suffer for everyone else. But if we remember that Jesus is God incarnate ("the exact imprint of God's very being," Hebrews 1:3), then we are talking not about needing to have a human die to make God satisfied, but God himself dying in human form to show us the depth of his forgiveness of our sins and thus of his love for us. I think it will help enormously in reading the arguments laid out in the first two thirds of Hebrews to keep this perspective in mind.
For this is another letter that has a great finish, whose arguments lead to powerful messages of hope. The confidence offered us in 10:19-25; the celebration of faith in chapter 11 ("faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen"); the glorious vision of the support of a community of faith in chapter 12 ("Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us") - these are all renowned and moving passages. But the real big finish is the passage we use as the final blessing after communion during the Easter season: "Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight...," (13:20-21, King James Version) to which we then add the Trinitarian blessing. To pray to be perfected, completed, by God in Christ is to seek a blessing indeed.
The first three letters here are collectively known as the Pastoral Epistles for their focus on how Timothy and Titus should order and care for the churches they are charged with pastoring. Scholars today largely agree that they were not written by Paul, but rather use his name and the detailed greetings to attribute his authority to them. They are, in my opinion, among the least interesting writings of the entire Bible - except for some of the really lovely language you'll find, much of which has found its way into our liturgies and prayers - especially because their patriarchal perspective on households and churches does not endear them to contemporary progressive audiences. Second Timothy is the most intriguing because of its deeply personal tone, as of one writing a farewell letter or even a will – especially seen in the famous passage in 4:6-8: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness...."
There are two perspectives I find helpful in reading these letters. First, remember that there were many "alternative" understandings of the Christian message being offered in the latter part of the first century and beginning of the second – hence the emphasis in these letters on the true gospel and eschewing false teachings. Second, there is to me a note of accommodation to the surrounding culture – a narrowing of gender roles, an acceptance of social class and status, a focus on behaving in seemly ways – that contrasts with reports about how the early Christians scandalized Roman society by crossing such boundaries. I wonder if these letters aren't urging Christian communities to create less controversy by conforming to some of the standards of the society around them. This would particularly seem true regarding the role of women suggested here, which is in direct contradiction to Paul's own acceptance of specific women having leadership positions (I Tim 2:11-12 echoes Paul in I Cor 14:34-35, but the latter is a passage now generally accepted as not belonging to the original letter and not from Paul's hand).
The Letter to Philemon is authentically Paul – the only example we have of a letter from him addressed to an individual. It is a delicately worded negotiation on behalf of Philemon's slave, Onesimus, who has been converted by Paul to the faith. It is unclear whether Onesimus has run away, or been egregiously delayed in completing a task set for him by Philemon, but Paul is calling upon the master to forgive the unspecified wrong, welcome Onesimus home, and then return him to Paul to assist him while he is in prison. Is there a hope that Onesimus, now a fellow Christian, might be freed by Philemon? Or does Paul just want to use his influence to smooth the slave's return to his owner's good graces? It is hard to tell – but this brief and enigmatic letter opens a lovely window into the complications of a first-century community of faith.
See you on Zoom on Wednesday!
Hi everyone - As the coronavirus pandemic takes over life's routines, we've all developed new ones. So let's not let it get in the way of the Book of Books Book Club! I invite you all to join me next Wednesday, April 1, at our regularly scheduled meeting time - 7:00-8:30pm - via Zoom for a discussion of our reading from Ephesians through Philemon. I will email you the link to the online gathering - which means that if you want to join me, you must email me by next Wednesday morning at email@example.com to let me know and I will add you to the list. See you soon!
We've taken on Paul's most important letters in some detail over the past few weeks; now it's time for a bit of a sprint. Each of these letters rewards at least a cursory reading, some deserve much more than that – but all touch on familiar themes even if in somewhat different ways and with different tones. Ephesians was probably not written by Paul, though some continue to debate that judgment; Colossians and II Thessalonians were almost certainly written by someone else. All three claim his authorship, though, indicating that whoever wrote them believed he or she was furthering Paul's agenda and teachings. Philippians and I Thessalonians, on the other hand, are most certainly from Paul's hand and are among his earliest letters, written to the first congregations he had established in Greece.
All five are marked by some lyrical and famous passages; you should hear familiar words from our worship services echoing in your head as you read (Eph 4:5, for example, provides the opening acclamation from the baptism liturgy: "...one Lord, one faith, one baptism..."), along with some of the lines most closely associated with Paul (i.e., Phil 2:12, "...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling"; I Thess 5:17, "Pray without ceasing."). Ephesians – whoever wrote it – is a work of sustained beauty and power both celebrating God's grace and love and calling its readers to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called," (4:1) in the unity of Christ. Philippians is marked by unremitting affection for its recipients and joy in the message of hope he has to offer them and in which he believes himself and them to live ("Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you." [4:9]). Colossians is an odd letter that echoes much of Ephesians and references contemporary cultural influences to be resisted that are nearly impossible to decipher ("worship of angels," etc., in 2:16-18), yet also has some lovely passages of encouragement ("Clothe yourselves with love," 3:14). The First Letter to the Thessalonians reprises the tone of affectionate friendship seen in Philippians; unlike Ephesians or Colossians, here we see Paul's emphasis on maintaining faith in the hope of an imminent return of Christ to bring the world to its consummation. II Thessalonians, on the other hand, seems to simply repeat much of the first letter without the same personal tone, and to suggest that the second coming is not quite as much at hand as I Thessalonians thinks, which are the primary reasons scholars believe someone else wrote it.
We are about to bid Paul farewell; only Philemon remains as an authentic letter of his (the three before that, I & II Timothy, and Titus, are certainly not by Paul). Do not miss this chance to mine these works for more nuggets of eloquent faith.
The overall theme of Paul's Letter to the Galatians is covered extensively in the Letter to the Romans – but I must confess that I find it in some ways easier to follow here. Paul is intensely angry at those he perceives as offering "false" and "perverted" teachings to the congregations he himself founded, and that anger seems to sharpen his thinking as well as his tongue.
At issue is whether followers of Jesus must be Jews – i.e., must non-Jewish converts, Gentiles who are being baptized, be circumcised as well? Circumcision is the mark of identity as a Jew, and some teachers appear to have come into the congregations in Galatia (which seem to be four churches in central Asia Minor, though there is some dispute about this) arguing that Gentiles must first be circumcised as well as baptized. Two perspectives on this issue are important, ours and Paul's. From our perspective, we can see that circumcising Gentile converts would mean that "Christianity" was to remain a movement within Judaism; Paul and others are arguing that belief in Christ constitutes a new relationship with the same God, and therefore new beliefs and new practices. This amounts to a new religion, though Paul himself does not ever put it in quite those terms. This dispute, then, is an extremely important historical insight into the birth of the Christian Church.
Paul's perspective on this issue is both profoundly theological and deeply pastoral. He argues that Abraham believed in God's promise; we are children of Abraham, then, through believing that same promise of God to be fulfilled in Christ. The law – the Ten Commandments, and the other 603 found in the Old Testament – was given when the people of God needed behavioral guides, but now the law serves to point up our shortcomings, our inability to keep all of the commandments all of the time. Under the covenant of the law, then, we are subject to rejection by God, and thus (in Paul's view) death. The law cannot save us. Instead, we are freed from the law by the death of Christ, by God taking on the shortcomings – sinfulness – of human nature himself in Jesus, and thus we are promised in his resurrection the same eternal life he himself enjoys. Our freedom in Christ, Paul believes, is so great, and is so important to making our life in the community of the faithful even possible, that we must not allow ourselves to fall back into an economic (you-do-this-and-I'll-do-that) relationship with God that we cannot possibly maintain. Instead, we respond to the freedom given in Christ by attempting to lead lives based on love, knowing that even when we fail we are welcomed back into the love of the community because of the love of God.
My explanation may be muddling things even more – perhaps I'm not angry enough to be as sharp as Paul! Galatians repays a more than cursory reading – I recommend the commentaries of the Oxford Annotated Bible or Oxford's Access Bible as easy guides to Paul's argument.
Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians is a strange and wonderful piece of Biblical literature. A significant aspect of its strangeness is explained by the scholarly consensus that the letter is composed of selections from at least three separate letters sent by Paul. Thus the abrupt changes in tone and content arise not from Paul's moodiness or inability to stay on topic, but from the differing circumstances of the different sections. The other factor in the epistle's strangeness is the deeply personal nature of these fragments – they reveal less about what the controversies are in Corinth than about how those controversies have pained Paul personally.
Though the exact circumstances of the separate letters, especially their chronology, cannot be established with any certainty – nor is there even complete agreement about how many fragments there are – a couple of assumptions that have general agreement make this work easier to read. First, let's call it three fragments: chapters 1-7, chapters 8-9, and chapters 10-13. Second, let's say that the Corinthians received the letter containing chapters 10-13 first, reacted badly to it but then became reconciled to Paul's position, and then after hearing that report, Paul sent the letter that contained chapters 1-7 – while chapters 8 and 9 belong to a completely separate appeal. With this possibility in mind, the harshly critical tone of 10-13 makes sense as a response to what Paul is hearing other missionaries ("super-apostles," in his sarcastic designation) say about him and about his Christian message; he repudiates their criticisms and asserts that they are false apostles. When he receives a report that the congregation has struggled over this controversy but returned to Paul's perspective, he then writes chapters 1-7 to express his joy at their "repentance" and his concern that they understand why he needed to reprove them. At some other point he sends them a letter that amounts to a capital campaign solicitation (chapters 8-9), reminding them that they had promised a collection of funds to add to what he has already received to support the Christian community in Jerusalem.
What makes this letter wonderful to me is that in all of this, what stands out – if we do not get too caught up in his defensiveness – is the roller-coaster of Paul's personal feelings. He is hurt, he is insulted, he is outraged, he is contrite, he is affectionate, he is joyful, he is gracious, and throughout he is both proud of and humbled by the role of missionary of the faith to which Christ has called him. Second Corinthians offers, then, a rather intimate portrait of a man of faith feeling deeply the joys and difficulties of both being a man of faith and being part of a faith community.
We conclude the First Letter to the Corinthians this week by working our way finally to the two great climaxes I mentioned last week: the hymn to love in chapter 13 and the ode to the resurrection of all in chapter 15. But as in any good journey, getting there is half the fun! Recall that in the first half Paul has taken on controversies in this congregation over factions, sexual immorality, lawsuits, and marriage (good? or bad? in light of the impending end of the world). The first issue allowed Paul to establish his larger theme: the community should not be dividing itself into factions based on who baptized them or who taught them the faith (remember hearing Apollos mentioned in Acts 18 and 19?), for we are all one in Christ. It's important to note here that, as we saw repeatedly in Romans, this unity with each other in Christ is not earned by any process of our own, but rather recognized through faith. The freedom brought about by our belonging to Christ – freedom from having to earn God's love through keeping commandments that are both beyond our ultimate ability and do not bring about salvation, freedom given us by God's grace in the resurrection – this freedom, says Hans Conzelmann (20th-century New Testament scholar) in his commentary on this letter, is "for the renewal of conduct." And Conzelmann continues, "the Christian factor does not lie in a new moral conceptualism, but in the relating of morals to faith." How we treat ourselves and each other, for Paul, comes from our unity with and in Christ – and one response to the freedom such unity brings is to look outside our own needs to focus on the needs of others.
Which brings us to the problem of meat. Chapters 8-10 wobble through a discussion about the propriety of eating meat that was previously sacrificed to the gods of other temples – to idols, in other words. These cults are understood by sophisticated Christians to be worshipping gods that are not real, not God – so meat sacrificed to them has no actual religious connotation. But, Paul says, other Christians do not yet grasp this perspective – so don't eat such meat in front of them and cause them to question their faith, think of them and their need of support rather than yourself and your enjoyment of freedom. This practical matter leads Paul into a discourse on the diversity of the members of the congregation, as diverse and necessary to each other as the parts of the human body, further clarifying our unity in Christ – which unity, he outlines in chapter 13, is based on love. This is not our love, it is God's love, the cosmic love that unites all things, in which our love participates and from which our love derives. The poetry here bears a closer look; we've all heard this too many times, yet it is not really as familiar as we think. And the result of this focus on the wonder of God's love finally leads Paul to the extraordinary exhortation on the resurrection in chapter 15: our understanding of God's love comes from the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in whom we too will live, and die, and rise again. This progression of points about the working of faith, from concrete issues in our daily lives to the most sweeping claims about God and life, is truly a joy to follow.
You'll note that I've skipped over chapter 11, the odd discussion about what is and is not appropriate on the heads of men and women. Scholars are truly at a loss to explain both what this discussion is doing here (why is Paul talking about this? what led him to this? is it a later addition by someone else?) and what Paul is really trying to say, since he appears to contradict himself. Whatever is actually going on, I say don't worry about it – maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Almost Cut My Hair" is the last word on this for those of us of a certain age…!