Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Letters of Paul

Reading the Bible for the First Time: Letters of Paul

Rev. Anthony David

April 1, 2012

On April 1, 1957, the respected BBC news show Panorama announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the virtual elimination of the dreaded spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. It accompanied this announcement with footage of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees. Huge numbers of viewers were taken in. Many called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC diplomatically replied, “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

Now THAT’S an awesome April Fool’s joke! Ranks right up there with the April 1, 1992 broadcast of National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation which revealed that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again. His new campaign slogan was, “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again.”

Then there was the April 1, 1996 Taco Bell full-page ad that appeared in six major newspapers, announcing it had bought the Liberty Bell and was renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell.

Happy April Fool’s!

But now, here is a historical event that sounds very April Fool-ish, but it’s not: the triumph of Christianity.

Christianity is the only major world religion in which the founding leaders (in this case Jesus and Paul) were executed. Not a promising beginning. Jesus, an obscure teacher in violence-torn Palestine, was followed by twelve apostles who continually misunderstood him, who were bumpkins and bumblers, and one of them even betrayed him. Jesus, the most righteous man in the Gospels, suffered innocently and horribly, in complete opposition to what a major strand of the Hebrew Bible says about righteousness: that it is always rewarded. So what good is the righteousness of Jesus? Why should anyone follow him? Are we sure that this isn’t just another version of a bumper spaghetti crop?

But Christianity grew anyhow. Thirty years after Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of James and Salome went to the tomb where Jesus’ body was laid and found the stone at the entrance rolled away and no body and they fled in terror and amazement—thirty years after this—the Jesus movement had an estimated 2000 adherents. Forty years beyond this, in year 100 CE, the number had grown to 7500 adherents. Growth that had invaded every level of society, and this in particular made the Roman upper classes anxious, and they used their power to fight it. Pliny the Younger, governor of the Roman province of Bithynia (on the north coast of modern Turkey) wrote to Emperor Trajan about 110 CE, describing the official trials he was conducting to find and execute Christians: “The matter seems to me worthy of your consultation, especially on account of the numbers of defendants. For many of every age, of every social class, even of both sexes, are being called to trial and will be called. Nor cities alone, but villages and even rural areas have been invaded by the infection of this superstition.” And it would be only the beginning.

There was just something about the message of Christianity that made it persist, despite all. People choosing to be eaten by lions in the local amphitheater, rather than give up their so-called “superstition.” People giving it their total loyalty and commitment.

People like Paul, whom we read about in this month’s chapter from Marcus Borg’s book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time. Paul, who was second only to Jesus in importance to the birth of Christianity. Paul, whose importance in spreading the Jesus message into the Gentile world, was indisputably first.

This man gave it his all, over the course of his 25 years of missionary work. He traveled 10,000 miles across Asia Minor and Greece, and this mostly by foot, only occasionally by boat. He endured incredible adversity. “Five times,” he says, “I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”

This is Paul’s story. Total loyalty and commitment, despite everything.

But here’s where things really sound April-foolish: when we consider how Christianity grew to infiltrate all social classes and how people were willing to sacrifice everything for it—and yet the early Christians were all over the map about who Jesus was and what he taught. Scholar Gregory J. Riley makes this fascinating point. He calls it “one of the more astonishing and least well known realities of the Christian movement—the movement centered on the person of Jesus, yet from the beginning Christians could not agree on who he was.” “They disagreed on whether Jesus was a man, or a god, or an angel, or something else. They differed on his manner of birth, whether natural or divine; or perhaps he had not been born at all but descended full grown from above. They disputed whether he had a real human body, or a ghostly spiritual one, or one like that of the gods themselves. The argued, therefore, over what kind of resurrection he had, whether spiritual or fleshly. They could not even agree on whether he had actually died. The Christ was not supposed to die; perhaps he only appeared to do so, or some substitute made to look like him died in his place. And before that, what kind of man was he? A philosopher? A prophet? A teacher?” Gregory Riley goes on to say, “Jesus certainly taught and his message was essential, but many of his words were curiously transformed by his own followers, placed in different contexts and given different meanings, while new sayings were composed and attributed to him. People, apparently did not follow Jesus for his words. For all the attention given to the sayings of the historical Jesus, his precise words seem hardly to have mattered at all.”

That’s Gregory Riley. The precise words indeed seem hardly to have mattered at all. Precision, clarity, unanimity about Jesus seem hardly to have mattered. Christianity just kept on growing, even as its pagan critics clearly saw the self-contradictions and the confusions and very loudly pronounced the whole thing nothing but a bumper spaghetti crop….

Our question today is, what explains this? Remember, we Unitarian Universalists are talking about the early, formative years of our spiritual parent. Unitarianism and Universalism are originally ideas about who Jesus was. Christianity is our parent. We are opening our family picture album and turning to the pages carrying the oldest photos there are. And we do this not just because the question is intrinsically interesting but also because we share DNA with Christianity. We’re wanting to learn something about ourselves and our own potential, as a religion that was born anew in 1961 with the coming together of Universalism and Unitarianism. There are times when Unitarian Universalism feels just as “all over the map” as early Christianity, and we can wonder if we are really going somewhere… But as we open the family picture album and look at the baby pictures of Christianity our parent, let’s see what lessons we might learn for our own situation, in our own day…

So: what explains Christianity’s improbable triumph? Let’s begin by looking at the work of the earliest writer of the New Testament. Pop quiz: true or false: that writer’s name is Matthew, because he is the writer of the book that appears first in the Christian Bible. Answer: false, and for two reasons. One reason is that we don’t know the actual name of the writer of the Gospel of Matthew. Names weren’t assigned to the gospel writings until sometime in the second century. “Matthew” is just a creative way of saying “anonymous.” As for the second reason why the pop quiz question is false: because the writings of the Christian Bible are not arranged in chronological order. If they were, this is what you would see when opening the pages of the Christian Bible: I Thessalonians, then Galatians, then I and II Corinthians, then Philemon, then Philippians, and then Romans. All were indisputably written by Paul in the decade of the 50s (unlike some others, attributed to Paul but definitely NOT by him). Paul is the earliest writer of the New Testament.

So let’s go to Paul for an answer, specifically to something he says to the church community in Corinth: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” This is what Paul says is of first importance. Not anything that Jesus actually said—not the Lord’s Prayer, not the Beatitudes, none of his amazing parables. But that Jesus had an early and tragic end, and that he rose from the dead. That is what’s of first importance, above anything else….

To understand why, we need to get inside the minds of people who lived in the decade of the 50s, when Paul wrote his letters. Gregory Riley can help us. He reminds us that in the first century, it was understood that “Jesus’ kind of life required his early and tragic death. If he had not been killed like one of the heroes, it would have meant that he was not worthy of that status, that he was not a son of God, that he was not valuable enough to draw down on himself the jealousies of the gods or fate or the wrath of the powers and their religious authorities.” As for the issue of resurrection, again, listen to Gregory Riley: “Many uninformed Christian teachers today have claimed that the resurrection of Jesus was the one most unique feature of the gospel, that of all the other gods and heroes of antiquity Jesus alone rose from the dead. That … is not even close to true. All the heroes, or nearly all, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. But this was an impossibility for a mere human and a shocking claim for any real and historical man who lived in recent times. It meant that in our times one like the heroes of old had appeared among us and taught and suffered and died; because he rose from the dead, this was certain, and he had to be taken seriously. […] That is what the stories taught: if you rise from the dead, you had a divinity as one of your parents.”

What is of first importance, in other words—what gave the Jesus story intelligibility and credibility—is that it conformed in key ways to how the ancient world understood what it meant to be a hero. In this world, the story of the hero is bound up with tragedy: the hero has remarkable talents, dies early with honor, is raised up into immortality, and then, after this, serves to protect the living, serves as an example to follow—this basic story pattern was everywhere known, this basic pattern was everywhere recognized by Jew and Gentile alike as what it meant to be a hero, this is the story that people wanted and hungered for. Hercules, the most widely worshipped hero in antiquity, had this kind of story, and so did the “most reknowned” savior of healing, Asclepius. In the early years of the Christian movement, both were serious rivals for people’s loyalty and commitment. But the very fact of the rivalry suggests that above all what people were looking for was a hero to worship, and they sensed this bare possibility equally among all three figures.

It’s exactly why Christian apologists like Justin Martyr and Tertullian and others would, in spreading the faith, or defending it, openly compare Jesus to Greek and Roman heroes. For example, in the second century CE, the Christian apologist Justin Martyr would defend the faith to the Roman Emperor in this way: “In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union as Jesus Christ our teacher, and that he was crucified and died, and after rising again, ascended into heaven, we introduce nothing new beyond those whom you call sons of God.” Note the echoes here in what Paul said to the Corinthians, in his letter from 100 years earlier: the items of first importance remain, and some are added, like that of the virgin birth. The virgin birth motif was added, in fact, to strengthen the case that Jesus is just like one of the heros of old, but one who has appeared to us in current times like a new revelation, and we need to listen…

This is why it was not a problem to the growth of Christianity—early Christians being all over the map about who Jesus was and what he taught. This conceptual confusion did not trouble the burning steady essence of what Jesus was, the burning essence that was changing lives left, right, and center: Jesus was a hero, a son of God, the Christ; and being “in Christ” meant becoming a hero in your own right. Conceptual clarity about fine points was just beside the point. Christianity gave people an adventure. It gave them a way of life. “I have been crucified with Christ,” says Paul to the Galatian church. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” “There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” The gift of Jesus to the ancients was the gift of being elevated above the mundane and living a hero story in their own right.

It was Epictetus, Stoic philosopher of the early second century, who said that two types of people were in the habit of having no fear of death and “considered material things as nothing”: insane people and Christians. This was just one of ways in which people experienced the new freedom of living “in Christ”—a phrase Paul uses in the New Testament 165 times. It’s one of his key ideas. Life in Christ—“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”—gave people, among other things, a peace that passes understanding in the face of death. One way to really grasp this is to compare the situation with one of Jesus’ rivals, Asclepius. “Asclepius,” says Gregory Riley, “was the healing savior, but he could not overcome death: he himself was killed for raising a dead man. Death was a defilement to him: no one was allowed to die in a healing center of Asclepius. He forced those who were not healed but dying to go outside the walls of his precincts, to face their last and greatest trial alone.” But the case with Jesus—with life “in Christ”—was altogether different. “In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ The gates of Hades’ house were locked and permitted no release from the dead. Only a handful of heroes had ever entered and escaped alive,” like Dionysius, and Orpheus, and Heracles—and even though they are gods or sons of god, the task was hard, it was perilous…. But not for Jesus. “Jesus promises that Hades’ gates will not be able to hold the Church; that is, when members of the Church die, they will be released from the kingdom of death and gain immortality. Their hero had himself died, gone into Hades’ realm, and returned by resurrection and ascension. This same promise is held out to his followers. He had made a way through the wall, opening the gates. His disciples were but to follow him, through death into life. This,” says Gregory Riley, “is the message composed in and for the Greco-Roman world.”

And now, 2000 years later, the world is completely different, requiring a different message. Our understandings and assumptions are all changed; physical resurrections, we know, are impossible. Yet the basic hero story still finds an eager audience, is still compelling beyond anything. Hero stories die in one form only to be reborn into another. We still hope for spiritual resurrections and new beginnings. At one point in the classic Bill Moyers interview with Joseph Campbell, entitled The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers asks, “Why are there so many stories of the hero in mythology?” And Joseph Campbell replies, “Because that’s what’s worth writing about. Even in popular novels, the main character is a hero or a heroine who has found or done something beyond the normal range of achievement or experience. A hero has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

My message today is that Unitarian Universalism, this child of Christianity which has opened its doors to universes beyond Christianity, has nothing to fear about being (how shall I say this) conceptually messy. It has nothing to fear about this, if it can help you and I enter into a pattern of life that is hero-like in a way that people today understand and value. We want to give ourselves to something bigger. We want to experience what it’s like to be truly alive. We want renewal and rebirth—a Phoenix-like experience—when we’re feeling all burned up, burned to ashes. That’s what we want. There’s nothing of the April Fool’s bumper spaghetti crop about this. “No one ever told us we had to study our lives,” said poet Adrienne Rich,

But there come a time – perhaps this is one of them-

when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die,

when we have to pull back from the incantations,

rhythms we move to thoughtlessly,

and disenthrall ourselves, bestow

ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed

of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static

crowding the wires. We cut the wires,

find ourselves in free fall, as if

our true home were the undimensional


2000 years ago, Jesus cut the wires, Paul cut the wires, and people found themselves in free fall, and they fell into a way of life that became to them their true home. And we must do the same, in our time. It might not look like life “in Christ.” But then what does it look like? Our purpose as a faith community is to answer that question for the brave new world we find ourselves in today.