Sunday, June 28, 2015

What would Paul of Tarsus have said about gay marriage?

I had a post comparing the ideas of Paul and Jesus almost finished when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized marriage of two partners of the same sex, leading some to believe—erroneously—that this will usher in a wave of church marriages of men with men and women with women.

In a word, no.

The Christian figure most influential in this respect is Paul of Tarsus, whose letters to various Christian communities of the first century are enshrined as holy writ in the New Testament.

Jesus had absolutely nothing to say on the question of the morality of homosexual behavior. Paul did. He was confronted with the gay-positive society of ancient Greece while still rooted in Jewish tradition going back to the unquestionable condemnations in Leviticus.

Here are Paul's two most significant statements on the subject:
For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
The first quote concludes a lengthy discourse concerning the good behavior that Paul sees springing from faith and the wrongdoings of those who turn God into a justification for their own misdeeds. God rids himself of these people, Paul says, leaving them to their misbehavior, partially listed in the quote.

Concerning the second quote, translators render for "immoral" in various ways, although it is usually understood that Paul meant "fornicators," or people not married to each other who engage in sexual intercourse. The "homosexuals" in the second quote is sometimes rendered as "boy prostitutes," "sodomites," or (sexually) "effeminate."

The mainstream historical Christian understanding of these teachings has been until very recently that, while homosexual orientation is not necessarily a moral wrong, sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex is. Departures from this view, which are growing but still represent a very small minority within Christianity, go no further back than the last two decades, predominantly in wealthier societies.

Because the Pauline dicta is found in the NT, please sit down to wait for a very long time before Catholic or Orthodox churches modify their sacramental theology of marriage to include same-sex arrangements. Ditto for Protestant evangelical denominations.

The Anglicans have experienced virulent splits over this issue. Some of the mainline denominations, Lutherans and Presbyterians, have bowed to changing social mores.

But the problem is theological, not social. Christians do not promise to do anything "for the sake of good fellowship," as the film A Man for All Seasons put in the mouth of Thomas More.

My own view parallels that of popes Paul VI and Francis.

The former went as far as Catholic moral theology allows in arguing that since homosexual orientation (which even Paul of Tarsus does not condemn) is involuntary, it may be questionable whether the acts that spring from it are freely willed, thus lacking the essential requisite of serious wrongdoing, or sin.

In 2013 Francis offered an impromptu press gaggle on an airplane his famous five words: who am I to judge. To make things clear, here is the full statement: "Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord? You can't marginalize these people."

Both are very far from saying that the Christian teaching authorizes the sacrament of matrimony for same-sex couples. But they put forth two points very well worth noting.

First, that gay and lesbian activity need not be sinful. Secondly, that sinful or not, homosexual activity does not justify the shunning, public shaming or discrimination against people who are gay and lesbian.

Some Christians—not me—treat lying politicians, thieving corporate executives and murderous racist policemen with respect. If such despoilers can be socially accepted, why can't those Christians accept gays and lesbians?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Second Founder of Christianity

If Jesus founded the Jewish sect that after his demise became known as Christian, Paul of Tarsus was the leader of the sect's embrace of non-Jews, or Gentiles, who overran their Jewish brethren and their religious observances. This is his story.

Paul was born about the year 1 of our era in Tarsus, a 6,000-year-old city about 12 miles from the Mediterranean Sea that still exists in modern Turkey.

Growing up as a Hellenized Jew assimilated into the educated life of a renowned cultural center to whose natives Marc Antony awarded the status of Roman citizenship, Paul acquired there both his writing and rhetorical skills. However, as a youth he was drawn to Jewish religious traditions and left for Jerusalem, where he became a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, a grandson of the great Rabbi Hillel and a leading member of the Sanhedrin, or rabbinical court.

Gamaliel, according to the NT, was concerned and ambivalent concerning what to do with Jesus and his followers. Disputes had arisen between "Jesusites" and the more law-bound rabbis of Jerusalem—almost certainly concerning the claims that Jesus was the Messiah and, ambiguously, "the Son of God."

The conflict played out in Paul's life when he witnessed, around 33 CE, the death by stoning meted out for heresy by rabbinical sentence to Stephen, a deacon thereafter regarded by Christians as a martyred saint. A few years later, already a rabbi and a minor member of the Sanhedrin, yet one with authority to vote on cases and act as an enforcer, Paul was dispatched to Damascus to deal with Jesusites in that city.

During that trip, according to Paul, the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road, asking "Why do you persecute me?" He was thrown off his horse and left blinded. In Damascus, he found his way to Christians who fearfully took in the well-known persecutor, taking his account at face value. The disciple Ananias prayed with him and laying hands on him the scales that blinded his eyes fell off. Paul was converted to the Christian faith.

From then on, Paul began to preach the gospel, or good news, of Jesus the Christ, and notably made converts throughout Asia Minor, Greece and even Rome. His letters to various Christian communities he established were preserved and form a substantial part of the NT.

That would be the end of the story except that Paul was, in effect, the first leading Jesusite with a formal religious education, steeped in philosophy and rabbinical thought.

Paul ushered in changes in thinking and practice that confirmed the worst fears of his rabbinical colleagues in Jerusalem and put in a pickle the Jesusite Jews who although claiming to follow Messiah were otherwise observant of the Law of Moses. Notably, Paul baptized Gentiles into the faith, but released them from the Jewish Law's commands to become circumcised and observe certain dietary rules, such as abstaining from pork.

Predictably, the rabbinical authorities condemned him and plotted to get their hands on the wayward rebbe. No less predictably, the apostle Peter —in an event in Jerusalem often called the first council of the Church, sometime in the late 40s—engaged in what is recorded as a fierce argument against the new convert and his newfangled ideas. Yet Paul prevailed against both.

The distress caused by Paul by what amounted to abandonment of cherished observances rippled across the Roman world.

In Antioch, the Jesusites were first given that pejorative name Kristianoi, intending it to sound something like "Christies" while to the critics' horror the new sect adopted "Christian" as a name of honor. In Rome, meanwhile, street fights between rabbinical and Jesus-following Jews came to the point that in the year 49 the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city.

The third-century Christian historian Eusebius writes in a widely accepted statement that Paul was martyred during Nero's persecution. The story is that, in a version of urban planning suitable only for an insane emperor, the Emperor Nero set fire to Rome in the year 64, casting blame on the Christians, who were, of course, then sought out and fiercely punished.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Kristianoi at Prayer

In accounts of the early followers of Jesus—mockingly called Kristianoi in Greek-speaking Asia Minor—we are told about their daily attendance to the temple, private breaking of bread in their homes, along with much praising, prayers and "gladness and simplicity of heart."

The Temple

When Acts says Christians went to the temple, the book means the one built in Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity on the site of the earlier place of worship built by King Solomon. It was the place in which Jewish priestly practice, from which Christianity drew many essential ideas about worship, was observed—at least until the fateful year 70.

Temple worship included sacrifices of animals, readings from the Torah and sessions of public prayer. Only the latter two were carried forward to the Jewish synagogue in the dispersion, after 70.

Synagogues (or meeting places) are not priestly temples in the Judaic perspective, despite their sometimes flamboyant contemporary names that include the word "temple." Only a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem could fill that role—and Judaic voices differ, naturally, on whether such a project should even be undertaken.

Jews in the diaspora continued public readings and prayer in their synagogues, but over time, these shifted predominantly to private homes—often in secret due to persecution. Today the Friday family meal of Sabbath anticipation, with its many blessings, its breaking of bread and sharing of wine, is the broadest religious practice in Judaism.

Let's recall in this context that the Kristianoi were—until the controversial emergence of the "Gentilizing" apostle Paul and the catastrophe of the year 70—little more than a Jewish sect. Their practice paralleled that of other Jews. Separately and extra-biblically, evidence suggests that at least in some places some Christians continued attending services in Jewish synagogues as late as the 8th century of our era.

Breaking Bread

Similarly, Acts repeatedly mentions gathering to "breaking bread" in the homes of believers, unquestionably a reference to an early form of the Eucharist ritual.

"Eucharist" comes from the Greek ευχαριστία (eukaristia), meaning "thanksgiving." On Sundays, the early Christians gathered in commemoration to give thanks for the rising from the dead of Jesus, whom they acknowledged as their Kyrios (Greek for the Hebrew Adonai, meaning "Lord") and Kristos (Messiah).

Their model was the distinctly Christian variation of rabbinically prescribed rituals for a chaburah meal (or supper among friends; the Hebrew chaber means "friend") that occurred in what we know as the Last Supper. There are various accounts of that event in the gospels, but the earliest version known to us came second hand, from Paul. It is found in I Cor. 11:23-25.

The first century Eucharist lasted no more than 15 minutes and involved only the blessings given by Jesus at the Last Supper—no opening or closing prayers, no processions and no scriptural readings. There was probably little singing, to avoid drawing attention to what were secret gatherings due to persecution.

What today we know as the readings and sermon part of Eucharist services were was carried out separately as the Synaxis (from the Greek synago, meeting), primarily for educational purposes and usually in the middle of the week. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there are various assemblies for liturgical, or worship, purposes called Synaxis today. And, of course, there's the Jewish Synaxis, which takes place in a synagogue, a word from the same Greek root.

Alternative to these bare and quick gatherings, there are reports of something called agapai (or "love gatherings," from the Greek agape, love) starting with the letter of Jude in the New Testament. There is considerable debate as to whether these were lineal ancestors of today's Eucharist or parallel eucharistic rituals.

I will address how this set of practices evolved into the hour-long (or sometimes longer) Sunday ritual churchgoers experience today as I press on with the Story of the Faith series. For those interested in some answers now, I refer you to a discussion paper I wrote some years ago, Liturgy: A User's Guide, which readers may request free as noted below.*


The only prayer distinctly attributed to Jesus, known as the Our Father from its Latin opening words (Pater Noster), or also as The Lord's Prayer, is not distinctly Christian—Jews or Muslims could recite it without doing violence to their teachings of their faiths (see details of the prayer in DJ Jesus teaches prayer, posted earlier in the Story of the Faith series).

Yet of all the utterances put in the mouth of Jesus by the New Testament, it is probably the least edited, to the point that if Jesus said anything at all, he surely said these actual words.

Certainly also, the introduction to the gospel of John (John 1:1-18) is thought to have been an early Christian hymn—presumably composed for one of the festive Agapai. The passage's opening sentence attests to poetic flight, the author placing the story of Jesus as central to the history of the universe itself: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

That is why, perhaps, the Kristianoi spoke of the accounts of Jesus life as what British people of the past rendered in Old English as godspel—the "good message," from which we get the word "gospel." Hence their gladness.

* Email me at
cecilieaux at gmail