I can hear it now:
“It’s the year 80, and here we are in Thessalonica. Forty years ago, Paul said the end of the world was coming. Yes, he did. He wrote us a letter saying that the Lord would descend from heaven with a shout, with the Archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them…” (1Thes.4:16)
“It never happened. Forty years have passed, hundreds of our people have died, Paul has died, and many more hundreds have been born. The Romans have destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, but the end of the world never happened.”
“Paul was wrong. When he wrote, "then we who are still alive," he was referring to himself and to those who were living then. He believed he would see this apocalyptic event unfold before his very eyes. He told us this was the word of the Lord, not just something he was dreaming. Paul was wrong about this; what else was he wrong about?”
Paul reminds me of all the great leaders I’ve known in my lifetime. All of them have been wrong from time to time; none of them were infallible; all of them were human. So was Paul. The fact that his letters were declared to be “scripture” about 350 years later, doesn’t make each one of his sentences divine or incapable of error. He was just as human as the rest of us.
But he was a leader. Leaders have to do a lot of talking and when you talk a lot, you can’t be right all the time. So Paul was wrong when he wrote this letter to the Thessalonians – so what? Paul had three other basic characteristics of leadership:
Paul had Vision. It took him 14 years to figure it out, but he finally saw it. Like every great leader, Paul imagined the future. He pictured this little Jewish cult that might easily fade away in Jerusalem, transforming itself into a vibrant new religion capable of capturing the imaginations of Greeks who had been raised on the myths of Thor and Zeus. Paul figured they would love the idea of a new Messiah who resembled many of their own gods like Achilles who was burned alive but then snatched from his funeral pyre and resurrected. And Paul was right. They accepted Paul’s leadership and they embraced his new religion which he named: Christianity. Paul had vision.
What’s our vision?
Paul generated Trust. Greeks were not Jews. It was one thing for a Greek to accept the idea of a resurrected Jesus, it was quite another to submit to circumcision. Paul would never be trusted if he tried to force his men to undergo circumcision and to obey all those kosher dietary restrictions that had no meaning for them whatsoever. So Paul promised to rescind all these laws.
The leaders of the Jesus-cult in Jerusalem didn’t agree with this at all, and they were outraged that Paul would even suggest it. Besides Peter, it was James the brother of Jesus himself, who tried to get Paul back in line. But for Paul, this was all about trust; he had promised his Greek converts and he couldn’t go back on his word. So Paul made “no circumcision” a rule for his new Greek-Christians, and it stuck. Paul knew how to generate trust.
Who trusts us?
Paul had integrity. He didn’t back down and change his message when people attacked him, and he didn’t let them ride over him either. When Paul learned that others were destroying the message he had preached by preaching “another gospel” (Gal.1:6) he fought back. “Damn them,” he wrote, when he heard that the leaders from Jerusalem were pushing circumcision again, “Damn them: I wish they’d just castrate themselves.” (Gal.5:12)
Pretty strong stuff, especially when he was cursing out the brother of Jesus himself. But Paul had integrity; he believed in his Vision, he had generated the trust of his own team, and now it was time to stick by his word. That’s what leaders do.
Are we leaders too?
The Hebrews had several names for their god: Elohim, Yahweh, Adonai, El, etc. But one of them was simply “Ab,” which was their word for Father.
But if a young Galilean peasant back in the 1st century wanted to talk to, or about, his own daddy, he’d use the word: “Abba.” Not Ab. Now the question is: would this same Galilean peasant use “Abba” when talking to or about his God? Could he be this familiar with the Father of the Hebrew Nation, the Father of Judaism, the Father-Creator of the world? Would he try to humanize this non-human entity as much as possible?
The famous German Scripture Scholar, Dr. Joachim Jeramiah, thought Jesus did just that. And even though Professor James Barr of Oxford fame, (Journal of Theological Studies, 39.) and Dr. Mary Rose D’Angelo, Professor of Scripture at St. Thomas Seminary in Denver (Journal of Biblical Literature, No. 4) both disagree with Joachim, I still find my German professor’s research compelling.
I really think that Jesus—sometime in his preaching and teaching—called Yahweh, "Daddy." Why is this so important? Two reasons:
Those of you who read my articles on a regular basis know that I really long to get behind the Gospels to the Historical Jesus himself. The Gospels are beautifully written stories, but it is my opinion that none of them were written by eyewitnesses. None of the four Evangelists seem to be interested in what we call the historical truth; they wrote “faith documents” intended to inspire and motivate people whose faith did not need history. These early Christians never knew Jesus, and, like Paul, they didn’t feel the need to know him or his brother or his close friends. (Gal. 2:6)
But every once in a while, in a rare moment, one of the Evangelists seems to pick up a scroll or hear a story or just find a word that has not been altered or changed over the past 50 or 60 years—and it rings “historical.” I think Mark found one. He writes in 14:36 that Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane waiting for Judas to come with the soldiers and he prayed to Yahweh, saying: “Abba, (Daddy) all things are possible for you …remove this cup from me.”
This word “Abba” appears only this one time in all four Gospels. All the early Christians knew how to say Father in both Hebrew and Greek, and they used both “Ab” and “ho Pater” for their Father-God—until somebody remembered: “Hey! Didn’t Jesus call Yahweh, “Daddy?”—and Mark worked it into his story in the garden of Gethsemane.
We don’t know where Mark found it and it really doesn’t matter. The question is: why did he put it in? Mark wasn’t there in the garden, and those who were there were sound asleep. Mark could have told this story with just the Greek word for father: “ho pater” (like the other 3 Evangelists), but he chose to have Jesus call God, "Daddy."
My theory is this: Mark is writing his gospel in the year 70 as the walls of Jerusalem are crumbling and the sacred Temple is falling stone by stone, and both the Jews and the Jesus-Jews are huddling close to each other, wondering if this is the end of the world. Mark doesn’t end his gospel with a glorious resurrection like the other three (the Markan verses 16:9-20 were added later). Instead, he ends it with everyone running from the tomb, trembling and afraid. (16:8)
It's pretty clear that the first readers of Mark’s gospel needed reassurance. They needed a God who was real and intimately close to them. They needed a God they could depend on. They needed a Daddy.
Mark gives them one.
The Harvard Divinity School professor, Dr. Harvey Cox, wrote a marvelous book called: How to Read the Bible, in which he differentiates between those who read it for spiritual edification and those who study it academically. I do both.
We have a few readers who wish I’d just forget the academics. But I can’t do that. I have spent my life as a Bible-loving Christian scholar, and I want to be able to discuss this book with Muslims as well as with other Christians, and that means I’ve got to be honest. I can’t gloss over mistakes and errors, and pretend that mythological stories are historical. That would not be honest. And speaking of honesty: my columns are not about spiritual edification. You can find that in the letters to the Editor of the Macon Telegraph.
Ahmed Shendy Yousef, a member of our Macon Mosque, wrote a fascinating book last year, Islam within Judaism and Christianity, in which he claims the Quran was the last book inspired by God. That would make a total of three. (or four, if you include the Book of Mormon.)
2 Tim. 3:16 says: “All Scripture (pasa graphe) is inspired (breathed out) by God, and profitable…” And 2Pet. 1:20 seems to back that up: “no prophesy (of Scripture) ever came by the will of man; instead, borne along by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.”
So how do we read these Holy Books? The writers of 2Timothy and 2 Peter (not Peter and Paul, it seems) were doing two things:
When the followers of Judaism and Christianity and Islam talk about their “Holy Book” they talk about it being inspired somehow by their God. What does this mean? For many, it means God leaned over his heavens and whispered into the ears of the writers. For others, it means that God simply prevented the writers from jotting down “un-God-like” words.
But neither one of these two explanations solve the “Jihad texts” (Holy Quran. 2:190-191) and the “Samuel Murdering Texts” (1Sam. 15:3) and the “Pauline anti-feminine texts.” (1Cor. 14:34) and the Johanine exclusion texts (Jn. 14:6). In my opinion, none of these words are “God-like” words. Therefore, this kind of “inspiration” does not tell me how to read the Holy Books.
Harvey Cox ends his book by saying: “When we consider the question: ‘How should we read the Bible?’ there is no single answer.” But I think Harvey gives us a clue.
He says: “Even though the Bible is a witness to the unvarnished violence of which we have been capable as a species, it is also a chronicle of sporadic and usually unsuccessful attempts to limit that brutality.” In other words, it has both the “sins” of mankind (as Bishop Spong pointed out in his book, The Sins of Scripture) and the virtues we need for forgiveness and rehabilitation. There’s no need to try to change the sins into virtues and call them “God-like.” No matter how we want to define “inspiration” the fact remains: all these words were written by men – not God.
I think we can still believe in “God-inspired” Scriptures, in the same way we believe that God allows bad things to happen to good people. It’s not a big jump to believe that this same God allows errors and mistakes to seep into the Book we all believe is holy.
Harvey concludes by saying: “Plumbing into the Bible may be a bit like psychoanalysis. One begins with what is on the surface of the mind but then peels back layer after layer to expose what lurks beneath.”
70 years ago I started learning how to “peel this biblical onion;” but let me be honest—like every onion, this one can bring lots of frustrating tears.