Tag Archives: Apostle Paul

on the road

Email sent to my followers

The following is the text of an email sent today to a couple thousand friends and followers.

Whew!

It’s time to catch my breath. Since the release of Queer Clergy in February, I’ve been on the road … Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and California. I have been the guest of book clubs, adult forums, LGBT reconciling groups, the Pacific School of Religion, and I’ve been a guest preacher (always a treat for an old lawyer). I’ve made the rounds of Lutheran, Methodist, and UCC church conventions and a book fair.

To be sure, there have been disappointments, starting with the three month delay in the book release that caused the book to miss Christmas sales. I had to cancel a speaking engagement in Chicago because of Minnesota weather. As my plane approached San Francisco, we turned back to LA because of malfunctioning de-icing equipment on the wings! Thanks to my Bay Area host, Pam Byers, who did yeoman’s duty by whisking me from the airport to a scheduled speaking engagement when the replacement plane finally landed.

Through it all, we’ve managed to sell a few books, and Pilgrim Press tells me that the book is in its second printing (probably due to a small first print run). But, the biggest treat is the chance to visit old friends and make new ones. The conversations are always the best.

Thank you for supporting my ministry of writing and speaking. Thanks for purchasing one of my books–or maybe two or three! Please share your feedback–directly by email to me or by posting a review on Amazon.

Remember, I love to talk! Please consider an invitation to speak to your group–book club, adult forum, or even to your whole congregation during worship. Contact me by phone or email, and we’ll arrange something that will work for you.

James and Jesus icon

James: the dangerous brother of Jesus

James and Jesus iconMany scholars suggest that the brother of Jesus known as James the Just is the most forgotten man in Christian history. “I didn’t know Jesus had a brother,” is often the first response when his name is mentioned. The evidence is compelling; according to numerous references in the canonical gospels of the New Testament, the book of Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s authentic letters, contemporary historian Josephus, the non-canonical gospel of Thomas, and early histories of the church, Jesus not only had a brother, but a very important brother, the primary leader of the Jesus movement in the decades following the crucifixion.

What? The leader of the early church? Why don’t the folks in the pews know about this? How could such an influential person in the early history of Christianity be forgotten? Ironic. Or is it? Could it be that the church has largely ignored James precisely because of his relationship to Jesus? Could it be that he was not forgotten but intentionally erased from the story?

It is axiomatic that the victors write the history, and James was the leader of the losing side in the first great conflict in church history. After the crucifixion, the original followers of the slain messiah regrouped in Jerusalem, including Peter and the other disciples, and it was here that James soon ascended to leadership. This core group of proto-Christians (it is anachronistic to apply “Christian” to this early movement) was Jewish.

Enter an outsider. A Greek-educated Diaspora Jew who insisted that he had been called to be an apostle to the Gentiles, who argued that traditional rules of Israelite religion didn’t apply to his Gentile converts, who became an independent missionary in defiance of James’ authority, and who established his own power base in regions far beyond the influence of Jerusalem. Paul of Tarsus was the thorn in the side of James.

Although James and the Jerusalem establishment may have won the early skirmishes, the emerging Christian church would soon be Pauline and Gentile, due in no small part to the vagaries of history and the Jewish civil war. With Jerusalem destroyed, just a few years after the deaths of Paul and James, Jewish Christians could not contend with the Paulines who were better suited for survival in the Greco-Roman world. Although vestiges of this internecine conflict persisted and may be traced through the compilation of the gospels and into the second century, the developing Christian orthodoxy was decidedly Pauline and the legacy of James diminished.

To 21st century sensibilities, the ancient controversies over circumcision, dietary rules, and Sabbath and festival observances seem unimportant.  Why should old conflicts be dredged up? Why is the current scholarly rediscovery of James important or even relevant?

In a word, Christology. Nothing has so divided Christians from the earliest days to the present–scholars, clergy and laity–than the conflicting answers to Jesus’ nagging question, “Who do you say that I am?” For some, it is a test, and the correct dogmatic response assures one’s salvation; for others, however, the question is a call to wonder.

In the early centuries, there were two great centers of Christian scholarship located in Alexandria of Egypt (the 2nd largest city of the Roman empire after Rome itself) and Antioch of Syria (the third largest city). Christian scholars from Antioch argued for the humanity of Jesus while competing scholars across the Mediterranean in Alexandria stressed his divinity. A scholar named Arius, who may have studied in each city, proposed a middle ground–that Jesus was somewhere between divine and human. Emperor Constantine convened the Council at Nicaea to settle the dispute, and a political compromise ensued. Was Jesus human? Yes. Was Jesus divine? Yes. Instead of either/or, the assembled bishops declared both/and. Truly human and truly divine was the political compromise, hammered out first at Nicaea and then at Chalcedon, that may have settled the debate de jure but not de facto.

Was the issue resolved? If so, why do modern-day evangelicals accuse the rest of Christendom of being soft on the divinity of Jesus? Why do liberal scholars, including many in the Jesus seminar, stress the humanity of the man from Nazareth?

Enter James. James is relevant to the ongoing Christological controversies.  James scholar Robert Eisenman ends his tome (James the Brother of Jesus) with this challenging statement, “Who and whatever James was, so was Jesus.” Many would disagree, but Eisenman’s statement frames the debate and defines the importance of James scholarship. This also brings us back to the original premise that James is not merely forgotten but has been intentionally written out of church history.

Ireneaus, the second-century heresy hunter, saw the problem, and he declared the views of the Jewish-Christian Ebionites (heirs of the James legacy?) to be heretical with a deficient Christology: “their opinions … represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation.”

St. Jerome saw the problem. Around 400 CE, Jerome suggested that James and the other siblings of Jesus mentioned in Scripture were really cousins. At the heart of Jerome’s rejection of a human brother for Jesus is the high Christology of the church. There was no room on the divine family tree for mere human branches.

For many, the divinity of Jesus is the hallmark of Christianity, the sine qua non, and thus James is dangerous. Do we dare to ask the lesser-known man from Nazareth–James, the brother–“Who do you say that Jesus is?”

 

 

A Wretched Man Movie?

About six weeks ago, I was contacted by a Hollywood screenwriter who expressed interest in adapting A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle into a screenplayFollowing discussions and negotiations, we have today reached agreement.  The screenwriter, who has been in the movie industry for nearly a decade, shares my vision and passion.  In his first email to me, the screenwriter commented:

I am fascinated by the story and believe that it could make a really intriguing film—something independent, honest, touching … a film that takes these Biblical giants and makes them accessible, human, and endearing.  What I like about your take on the story is that when Paul is wounded—it actually seemed to hurt.  I think a movie like that would speak to many.

Whether A Wretched Man reaches the silver screen or not remains a long shot.  After a screenplay is completed, the screenwriter must then persuade a producer or other monied interests to invest in a film, but I am convinced that the screenwriter has the appropriate experience, expertise, and contacts to give it a good shot.

Indulge me in a bit of fantasy.  For those of you who have read the book, what actor should play the role of Paulos?  Shall I, a la Hitchcock, play a cameo role?  Perhaps the character of Eli the sage?  Or Jubilees, the phantom seer?

Dom Crossan and Paul the apostle

John Dominic CrossanFormer Catholic priest John Dominic Crossan is a co-founder and highly visible spokesman for the Jesus Seminar, a progressive group of New Testament scholars active in the last twenty years seeking to identify “the historical Jesus”.

Recently, he has turned his attention to Paul the apostle.  A few years ago, he co-authored, with Marcus Borg, an excellent book entitled The First Paul (2009), which I reviewed in three separate posts.  Here’s a link to the three posts in reverse order.  The central thesis of the book is that the thirteen New Testament books traditionally ascribed to the pen of Paul the apostle may be broken into three groupings: a) the radical and authentic Paul who was a social visionary vis a vis the existing culture—an opponent of slavery and proponent of a strong role for women, b) the conservative Paul, three books that may have been written by Paul but probably weren’t and which evinced a retreat from his radical social views, and c) the reactionary Paul, the so-called pastoral epistles consisting of 1st & 2nd Timothy and Titus, which were definitely not written by Paul and indeed were written to correct Paul’s radicalism, to re-establish the Roman social order of slavery and patriarchy.

Crossan is again writing about these themes in a highly public forum, the Huffington Post.  His article is not only on the religious section of the Huffpost, but appears on the main page under the banner The Search for the Historical Paul: Which Letters Did He Really Write?  As I write this,  there are over 200 comments to Crossan’s Huffpost article, and like many public cyberspace forums, the “trolls” dominate.  Many are anti-Christian, and a few are conservative Christians who insist, even if the human authorship is not Paul, that the subsequent letters were “spirit-breathed” and thus all letters are consistent and true (the holy trinity of inerrant, infallible, and inspired).

Crossan’s article is brief and seems not to plough new ground but merely restates the conclusions voiced earlier in the collaboration with Borg.  Here is the central thesis of the Huffpost article:

The problem is that those post-Pauline or Pseudo-Pauline letters are primarily counter-Pauline and anti-Pauline. What happens across those three sets of letters is that the radical Paul of the authentic seven letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) is slowly but steadily morphed into the conservative Paul of the probably inauthentic threesome (Ephesians Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and finally into the reactionary Paul of those certainly inauthentic ones (1-2 Timothy, Titus).

Crossan’s article includes this recently rediscovered and cleaned up fresco of Paul dating to the 13th century. Paul and ten scrollsNote that Paul holds not one scroll and not thirteen scrolls but ten, signifying that the dubious authenticity of the pastoral epistles is not merely a recent understanding. Indeed, in 2nd century lists of authoritative books that served as precursors to the formalized New Testament canon, the pastoral epistles are generally not included.

By the time The First Paul was published in 2009, my own manuscript for A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle was already completed and in the hands of the publisher.  Thus, my research did not include The First Paul, but my conclusions were similar–but I had a special authorial problem.  In a novel about the life of Paul, how could I suggest that six books traditionally attributed to him were not actually his?  Written after his death, such books were not part of his story in a strict sense.  Additionally, how could I make the point that he held radical views regarding slavery and women to rebut the traditional stereotype of Paul derived from the NT letters to Timothy and Titus?

My solution was two-fold.  First, the novel included the circumstances and the writing and the delivery of the seven “authentic” letters.  The six “inauthentic” letters were not mentioned at all, an implicit but indirect statement that they were not part of Paul’s story.  Second, Timothy and Titus were important characters in the novel, protégés of Paul.  In a purely fictional device, I placed offensive words about women quoted from the NT book of Timothy in the mouth of Timothy the character and offensive words about slavery from the NT book of Titus in the mouth of Titus the character.  In both instances, the novel offers a strong rebuke from the lips of Paul.

A book review from New Zealand

It’s a small world we live in.  The latest scholarly review of A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, comes from the opposite side of the globe—Dunedin, New Zealand.  Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dr. Jason Goroncy, offers his review which praises the attempt to reimagine theology through art.  The following is an excerpt, but you can read the entire review at Dr. Goroncy’s blog, Per Crucem ad Lucem.

[T]he communication of divine truth demands the work of the very imagination it is determined to sanctify. So Jonathan Edwards: ‘Unless you use imagination, unless you take a truth and you image it – which of course is art – you don’t know what it means’. Or, citing John Henry Newman:

The ways in which we ‘see’ the world, its story and its destiny; the ways in which we ‘see’ what human beings are, and what they’re for, and how they are related to each other and the world around them; these things are shaped and structured by the stories that we tell, the cities we inhabit, the buildings in which we live, and work, and play; by how we handle – through drama, art and song – the things that give us pain and bring us joy. What does the world look like? What do we look like? What does God look like?

This is precisely why I welcomed reading Obie Holmen’s A Wretched Man: A Novel of Paul the Apostle. Holmen seeks to … situate Paul in his geographical, social, historical and psychological landscape, and gift us with a creative way of hearing afresh the letters that make up the bulk of the New Testament.

According to Holmen, prior to his fire-side conversion-encounter with Yeshua (Jesus), ‘Paulos (Paul), the defender of orthodoxy, had acquired a proud identity and a status; self-righteousness became the dressing for his wounds, masking his inner torment’ (p. 75). Indeed, ‘the wretched man wandered the streets of Tarsos, lost and alone, accursed and condemned’ (p. 54). Thereafter, Holmen paints Paulos as one who is seeking to carve out the implications – for Torah, for Jewish privilege, for our understanding of God, etc. – of this radical encounter with Yeshua. The entire story takes place, markedly, against Paul’s own conflict – the ‘inner torment’ – between his inherited (and then reconstituted) theology and his homosexuality, the latter manifest in his relationship with Gentile friend Arsenios. Augustine once suggested, to the shock of some of his fellow bishops, that St Paul may have been ‘greatly tainted by sexual desires’. In his portrait of the gay Apostle Paul, Holmen exploits this suggestion beyond what the old bishop of Hippo may have had in mind, and some readers may well lay the book down because of such. But such action would, in my view, represent a premature judgement.

… Holmen is a gifted writer, and his well-researched yarn is certain to encourage readers to read the Bible in a new light, with a deepened awareness of the groundedness of its message, with a new appreciation of the real humanity of its figures, and – I suspect most importantly for the author – a renewed wonderment of the magic of divine grace.

Was Paul the apostle gay?

A week ago, I spent the weekend in Milwaukee promoting my novel to the 2,000 participants of the Roman Catholic Call to Action Conference.  One of the keynote speakers was retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong.  The Bishop is an outspoken proponent of progressive Christian causes, and he has published a dozen or so books in the last several decades that have attracted a huge liberal readership.

I was greatly pleased to have the opportunity to visit with the Bishop for a short time.  For those unfamiliar with my novel, A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle, the characterization of the man from Tarsus suggests he struggled with homosexual urges, which he characterized as his “thorn in his flesh”.  Bishop Spong shares this view, and we briefly discussed our common impression.  Bishop Spong said he first read of this idea in a 1930’s treatise by the British theologian Arthur Darby Nock.  I offered the bishop a copy of my book as a gift, which he graciously accepted and asked me to sign it for him.

A video of the bishop explaining his rationale has appeared on You Tube.  Watch and enjoy:

The bones of James the Just on trial

James, the brother of Jesus, sometimes known as James the Just, is in the news.  A dealer in antiquities, Oded Golan,  is on trial in Israel.  It is alleged that he fabricated the evidence of the authenticity of an artifact possibly connected to James.

A bit of background is in order. 

Many are surprised that Jesus had siblings, and some would deny it altogether, but the Bible contains several clear references.  Here’s a partial list, which includes references in each of the four gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

  • Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Mt 13:55-56
  • Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? Mk 6:3
  • Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd Lk 8:19
  • After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples Jn 2:12
  • All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers Acts 1:14
  • but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. Gal 1:19  

Acts and Paul’s letters make it quite clear that James became leader of the Jerusalem based, Jewish followers of Jesus after the crucifixion, and he remained in charge until his unlawful death over thirty years after the crucifixion, an event recorded by the contemporary historian, Josephus.

Finally, Acts and Paul’s letters also report the ongoing disagreement between James and the apostle Paul over the question of Gentile inclusion into the movement.  James was reluctant to allow Gentiles unless they agreed to follow Torah, including circumcision, dietary rules, and calendar observances.  This ongoing conflict between these two leaders forms the plotline of A Wretched Man novel.

Now to the current news of James.

Defendant and the ossuaryIt was the Jewish custom during the 1st century (among the Pharisees and others who believed in the resurrection of the dead) to rebury the bones of deceased family members a year or more after death.  The bones would be carefully placed in a stone box, called an ossuary, and placed in the family tomb.  Nearly a decade ago, an Israeli antiquities dealer claimed to possess an ossuary with the inscription, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”.  No one questions that the ossuary and the bones date from the correct time period, and it also appears that the first part of the inscription is authentic.  But, prosecutors claim that the defendant skillfully added the words, “brother of Jesus”.

It appears that the academic community is split over the authenticity issue.  The judge in the case is now considering his verdict, but the scientific controversy will hardly be settled by his decision in the criminal trial of Oded Golan.  In a later post, I will offer a book review of The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor which considers the James ossuary controversy in depth.

 

A Wretched Man Website tweaks

Recently, the novel’s website, www.awretchedman.com, received a couple of adjustments.  The two obvious changes were the addition of a product purchase page which enables direct purchases of the novel in either paperback or eBook format, and the second was a revamping of the “reviews” page.  Actually, the reviews page has been broken down into four sub-pages: Scholarly Reviews, Blog Reviews, Reader Comments, and Online Comments (from either Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble).

Late last night, I received another comment from a reader via email that will soon be added to the website but which warrants special mention here.

Last Saturday, I was the guest of the Gustavus Adolphus College bookstore prior to the Gusties homecoming football game with St. Olaf.  A man named Jim stopped by and browsed a bit before moving on, but he took a book flyer with him.  Ten or fifteen minutes later, he returned and purchased a copy of the book.  Another ten or fifteen minutes passed, and he returned again to report that he had read the prologue and first chapter, and he was hooked.  Yesterday, three days after he bought the book, Jim sent me an email, and he said the following:

I just finished the book and congratulate you! Like all good books, it entertained. Like all really good books, it taught and expanded viewpoints. Like the few downright excellent books I have read in the past several years, it challenges me to think and motivates further study.

As you can imagine and have probably heard from others, your thoughts have created some discomfort that I now feel compelled to address. This, to me, is the mark of a truly significant work. This splash will produce ripples to keep me busy for a while and I thank you for what you put into it.

I suppose I’m like most authors—I thought my book was pretty good, or at least hoped, but I also wrestled with doubt.  So, when I receive comments like these, I am more than gratified, I am flattered and more than a little surprised.

A Wretched Man graphic

Wretched Man emblemI happened upon an old  piece of art based upon Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 7, the same  passages that serve as the epigraph to my novel and the inspiration for the title.  The drawing belongs to Hermannus Hugo’s Pia Desideria (1624).

Here is the epigraph to my novel:

I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Paul the apostle, the man from Tarsus

Tarsus map Although Paul never mentioned his city of origin, the Book of Acts reports that Tarsus, in modern day Turkey, was the home of the diaspora Jew.  In the first century, Tarsus was a major city, home to a Greek University of the Stoic school of philosophy, and the capitol of the coastland and plains province of Cilicia.  Churning out of the rugged mountain pass known as the Cilician Gates (Alexander’s army passed this way), the Cydnus River rushed toward Tarsus before slowing and ribboning the last ten miles to the sea.

In A Wretched Man novel, this city and the river provided the setting for many scenes (the names are in the Greek language of the times).

A caterpillar rafted down the river aboard a silvery olive leaf. The larvae had not yet become a moth, a butterfly, or whatever it was destined to be. Speeding through the ripples, slowing in a pool, and spinning in an eddy, the hairy pilgrim drifted with the current.

Perched on a rocky outcropping along the River Kydnos, the teen-aged boy named Paulos dangled his feet in the cool alpine waters, coursing toward the sea from the nearby mountains. Snow-capped peaks loomed over the Cilician plain and the city of Tarsos like white-haired eminences in vigil over their domain. Here was the young man’s sanctuary: a maze of rocks, pools, and small waterfalls just upriver from Tarsos, his home.

Cydnus river Much changes in two millennia.  Tarsus is now a small city wedged between the greater burgs of Mersin to the west and Adana to the east.  Rivers silt in, dams and levies altar God’s creation.  Do modern day pictures of Cydnus river rapids depict the spot where Alexander bathed and nearly caught his death of a chill?  Does the slow river beneath Tarsus where Cleopatra’s barge entertained Marc Anthony now follow a different course?

And the centuries spawn myths and legends—here is Cleopatra’s bridge and there is the church of St Paul, the site of his childhood home according to local tradition.  Turkey is now Islamic, and St Paul’s church is merely a museum, but that may change if the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate gets his way:St Paul church garden

Bardakoğlu called for the reopening of the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus, a district of the southern province of Mersin, comments he reiterated at the iftar. “I find it more correct if the Saint Paul Church in Tarsus serves as a church than in its current role as a museum,” he said.

Go there as a pilgrim and ponder; or join me in my wonderings as I imagined my way onto the shores of first century riverbanks, pricked my ears at hawkers in boisterous marketplaces, and meandered through back alleys as Roman legionaries lurked in the shadows.  One reviewer said it this way:

a stupendous novel about Paul … the book is beautifully written full of descriptions of the Holy Land’s landscape and Agriculture … made me read further, stop reading, begin reading and so on throughout the book … I questioned, I discovered, I began to see with a better lighting … birthed in me a desire to know more.