Was Jesus married? Does it matter?

It looks like there’s some skepticism among scholars about the authenticity of the already much-discussed “Jesus’ wife” papyrus–said to be a fragment from a non-canonical Coptic gospel that has Jesus referring to “my wife” and saying that she will be a “disciple.” Much of yesterday’s breathless reporting on the papyrus centered around its potential to “shake up” debates about women’s role in the church. So if the fragment is spurious, does that mean no such re-thinking is necessary?

To start with, we should be clear that, even if it’s authentic, all the papyrus would seem to show–at most–is that there was an early tradition that Jesus was married. (Curiously, few people seem to have considered the possibility that the wife “Jesus” refers to might be the church–an image that goes back to the NT itself.) It wouldn’t, as even the professor who discovered it acknowledges, show that Jesus was in fact married.

Second, even though Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried and celibate, it’s not clear to me that anything of theological significance stands or falls on this. How would the central Christological doctrines–the Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.–be affected by the discovery that Jesus was married? It’s true, as one Twitter-friend pointed out, that it may call into question the reliability of the gospels since you’d think they might mention such a significant fact about Jesus. But against this we should remember (1) the gospels don’t provide “biography” in our modern sense; they are theological-confessional documents intended to witness to faith in Christ, and (2) historical criticism has already called the reliability of the gospels into question in many respects, and yet they still function as the Word of God for people in the church.

All of this aside, I think it’s wrong to suggest that we need certain facts about the historical Jesus to be true in order to authorize things like the full equality of women in the church. As theologian Clark Williamson has written,

The problem with feminist theology is that in its constitutive assertions it is right. Women are fully human, clearly the equal of men, and need liberation from sexist oppression. But if the only way to warrant being a Christian feminist is by appeal to the empirical-historical Jesus as a norm, then Jesus will turn out to have been a feminist. . . . [But i]f Jesus was not a feminist, am I still not free to be one? Is it the role of Jesus . . . to authorize our conformity to him or to author our freedom and creativity, our right to reform the church? Dare we allow the historical Jesus to be himself, a first-century Jew, different from us, or must he reflect our concerns and ideals back to us? If so, how can he ever correct us? (Williamson, A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 190).

Williamson is concerned to correct the tendency in some feminist theology to portray Jesus as the egalitarian, feminist liberator from an oppressive, patriarchal Judaism, an opposition that in effect “de-Judaizes” Jesus and reinforces the long history of Christian anti-Judaism. But his point has broader application, I think. If modern Christians want to be feminists (and they should!), they don’t need to justify it by appealing to a shaky historical reconstruction of a “feminist Jesus.” Many churches, drawing on the resources of the canonical scriptures and Christian tradition, have come to see sexual equality as a gospel issue–and that provides a much stronger foundation. Christians shouldn’t be threatened by historical research, but neither should they build their faith on it.

Is belief in a historical Adam a “gospel issue”?

I came across this post by James McGrath–“Ten Really Bad Reasons to Believe in a Historical Adam“–which was a response to a post by Reformed blogger Kevin DeYoung arguing for the necessity of belief in a historical Adam.

One reason DeYoung offers that I’ve seen emphasized elsewhere is that without belief in a historical Adam and a historical “Fall,” there is no need for the gospel.

Here’s DeYoung:

9. Without a historical Adam, Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt does not hold together.

As James McGrath points out, there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on here when DeYoung refers to “Paul’s doctrine of original sin and guilt.” The traditional Reformed doctrine of original sin and guilt is one–and certainly not the only–interpretation of what Paul thought.

That traditional Reformed view holds that from Adam’s original sin of disobedience the rest of humanity has inherited both a propensity toward sin and the guilt of that sin, which merits eternal damnation. Only, the story continues, by pleading the Atonement of Christ can we be delivered from that guilt and its attendant punishment.

But if you don’t think this is an appropriate interpretation of the biblical teaching, then the alleged necessity of positing a historical Adam disappears. For example, the Eastern Orthodox churches don’t teach the doctrine of “orignial guilt” as formulated by, say, Augustine and the Reformers. They acknowledge that humanity has an innate tendency toward sin, but this isn’t the same thing as saying that we’re guilty for something Adam did.

In fact, even leaving aside historical or biological considerations, the idea that God “imputes” Adam’s guilt to the rest of humanity is objectionable on moral grounds. How can it possibly be just for God to hold people accountable for–to the extent of condemning them to eternal hellfire–something over which they had no control and in fact happened before they were even born? You can avoid this problem by embraciing a voluntarist conception of divine goodness, but that’s a price many people aren’t willing to pay.

What’s really puzzling to me about a view like DeYoung’s, though, is that it seems to imply that we need a historical Adam in order to recognize our need for salvation. But people don’t respond to the gospel because they’ve already accepted some theory about original sin; they respond to it because it addresses our experience of evil, suffering, and guilt. In other words, if someone asks “How do you know we need saved?”, the answer is “Look around!”

You don’t need to believe in a historical Adam to see that the human situation is in need of healing. The human predicament is one of subjection to suffering and evil, and complicity in the ongoing cycle of victimization and violence. And the Christian gospel is that, in Jesus, God has done something about this situation: specifically, God has revealed and enacted the divine love and forgiveness, has come to share our life and our sufferings, has reconciled humanity to the divine nature, and has raised human nature to eternal life. As far as I can see, the truth of this doesn’t depend on accepting a particular theory about the historical existence of Adam or the origin of sin.

John Wesley on slavery and human rights

I’ve been reading Theodore Runyon’s The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today, which aims to offer a synoptic account of Wesley’s thought and its relevance for the contemporary church. As the title suggests, Runyon argues that the notion of the renewal of creation is key to understanding Wesley’s theology. Specifically, it refers to the renewal of the image of God in humanity through the power of divine grace. Runyon offers the analogy of a mirror to help understand Wesley’s account of the “image of God.” It doesn’t refer to some inherent capacity of human nature, such as reason or freedom, but is a relational notion: we receive the love of God and we reflect it back to the world around us. Wesley was a genuine “evangelical catholic” who combined the Reformation emphasis on justification by faith with an equally strong belief that God’s grace would transform human life and, ultimately, the entire creation.

In the final chapter, “Wesley for Today,” Runyon discusses how Wesley’s theology might be applicable to some current pressing social and political issues. And in articulating Wesley’s approach to what we would now call human rights, Runyon draws extensively on Wesley’s ardent opposition to slavery, which I admit I wasn’t really aware of.

Here’s a pamphlet Wesley published on the question of slavery. An excerpt with Wesley’s response to certain pro-slavery arguments:

“But the furnishing us with slaves is necessary for the trade, and wealth, and glory of our nation” [says the defender of slavery]. Here are several mistakes. For, First, wealth is not necessary to the glory of any nation; but wisdom, virtue, justice, mercy, generosity, public spirit, love of our country. These are necessary to the real glory of a nation; but abundance of wealth is not. Men of understanding allow that the glory of England was full as high in Queen Elizabeth’s time as it is now; although our riches and trade were then as much smaller, as our virtue was greater. But, Secondly, it is not clear that we should have either less money or trade, (only less of that detestable trade of man-stealing,) if there was not a Negro in all our islands, or in all English America. It is demonstrable, white men, inured to it by degrees, can work as well as them; and they would do it, were Negroes out of the way, and proper encouragement given them. However, Thirdly, I come back to the same point: Better no trade, than trade procured by villany. It is far better to have no wealth, than to gain wealth at the expense of virtue. Better is honest poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and blood, of our fellow-creatures.

And here’s a letter–one of his last, written on his deathbed–to William Wilberforce, then a member of parliament:

Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God before you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.

Wesley, Runyon notes, is sometimes caricatured as a conservative, or even reactionary, “high-church Tory,” but according to Runyon this misunderstands his reasons for, e.g., supporting the monarchy. Wesley distrusted democracy precisely because he feard that it would ride roughshod over the liberty of the individual, particularly religious liberty. He had first-hand experience to draw on, as early Methodists were often attacked by angry mobs, sometimes whipped up by local authorities. Wesley saw “liberty under law” in the form of a constitutional monarchy as the best defense against mob rule. He also observed the hypocrisy of American colonists complaining about the “tyranny” of the crown while at the same time maintaining the institution of chattle-slavery. Had Wesley lived to see the establishment of genuine liberal democracy he might have changed his mind, but his opposition at the time was rooted in a concern for what we would today call human rights. And for Wesley, this inherent dignity was in turn based on the creative love of God.

The miracle of King James’ Bible

Here is the miracle of the King James Bible in action. Words from a doubly alien culture, not an original text but a translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, made centuries ago and thousands of miles away, arrive in a dusty corner of the New World and sound as they were meant to—majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.

You don’t have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

Read the rest here.

I don’t think Christians should rely on the KJV as their primary translation, but there’s no denying its beauty and its importance, both religiously and as a shaper of the English language.

MLK, nonviolence, and the fusion of ends and means

My recent visit to the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. memorial here in D.C. prompted me to pick up Harvard Sitkoff’s 2008 biography, King: Pilgrimage to the Mountaintop. To my embarrassment, I actually don’t know a lot about the details of the Civil Rights movement or King’s life in particular. Sitkoff’s relatively brief (under 300 pages) and very readable book is helping fill in some of those gaps. In contrast to the dominant picture of King as a rather unthreatening and universally beloved American icon, he emphasizes both King’s political radicalism and his rootedness in a profoundly Christian religious vision that sustained him in the struggle for justice and equality.

I’ve just finished the chapter on the astonishingly successful boycott of the segregated buses in Montgomery in 1955-56. This, at least in Sitkoff’s telling, was the time during which King went from being a somewhat reluctant leader of the boycott to the head of a new kind of social movement and a convinced principled exponent of Gandhian-Christian nonviolence. One thing that strikes me is how the nonviolent means King adopted were intended to effect change in both the oppressor and the oppressed. King was a canny political strategist who recognized that nonviolence had great potential to win allies to the anti-segregationist cause. But at the same time, it was a way for African-Americans suffering under the yoke of Jim Crow to assert their own inherent dignity as persons created in the image of God. King’s advocacy of nonviolence was neither pure pragmatism nor pure principle indifferent to consequences, but a stance that grew, in part, from the “personalist” philosophy he imbibed as a graduate student at Boston University. The ends and the means were fused in an inseparable unity. By refusing to treat their oppressors as less than fully personal beings, the participants in the movement were simultaneously demonstrating and affirming their own personhood.

Friday Links

–With the death of bin Laden, the U.S. has accomplished the aims that justified the war in Afghanistan. Time to leave.

–An interview with “eco-economist” Herman Daly: Rethinking growth.

–A primer on Christian nonviolence.

–The collapse of the “progressive Christian” big tent?

–The Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow non-celibate gay and lesbians to serve as clergy. Support for the change came from some surprising places. And see this article from theologian Eugene Robinson on how same-sex couples can image the faithfulness of God.

–Catholic theologians and other teachers take Speaker of the House John Boehner to task on the GOP’s budget priorities. More here.

–Theologian Roger Olson on how “inerrancy” became a litmus test for evangelicalism.

–The Obama administration is trying to figure out how to continue the war in Libya without congressional authorization.

–An interview with historian Adam Hoschchild on the World War I pacifist movement.

–Lord Vader announces the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Friday Links

–A challenge to libertarians on the coecivene power of private entities.

–A.O. Scott on superhero movies as a Ponzi scheme.

–Richard Beck of Experimental Theology on why he blogs.

–A political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. (I scored as a “solid libera.l” Although I’d take issue with the way some of the choices were presented.)

–An end to “bad guys.”

–Def Leppard’s Hysteria and the changing meaning of having a “number 1″ album.

–The folks at the Moral Mindfield have been blogging on the ethical implications of killing bin Laden, from a variety of perspectives.

–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Abraham Lincoln and slavery.

–Marvin had a good post earlier this week on the death of bin Laden and Christian pacifism.

–Christopher has a post on problems with the language of “inclusion” and “exclusion” in the church.

–I don’t always agree with Glenn Greenwald, but I’m glad he’s out there asking the questions he asks. He’s been blogging up a storm this week on the circumstances surrounding bin Laden’s death.

–Brandon has a concise summary of the history behind Cinco de Mayo.

ADDED LATER: How do you feed 10 billion people? By eating less meat for starters.

Friday links

–On Christianity, the Holocaust, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

–Recent posts on what’s apparently now being referred to as the “new universalism” from James K.A. Smith, Halden Doerge, and David Congdon.

–Does having a monarchy lead to greater equality?

–Redeeming the “L word.”

–Appreciating both N.T. Wright’s and Marcus Borg’s views of the Resurrection.

–Why liberals should embrace classical (small-r) republicanism.

–Love and service are more fundamental than “rigorous theology.”

–Was the Civil War a “tragedy“? (More here and here.)

–Hiding the truth about factory farms.

–Kate Middleton for the win.

ADDED LATER: What’s going on with the Canadian election?

Friday Links

I spent the day hanging out with my family, so these are coming a little late…

–Why Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal is neither brave nor serious.

–Free-range meat isn’t necessarily “natural.”

–A case for universalism from the Scottish evangelical preacher and biblical scholar William Barclay.

–A review of a recent book called What’s the Least I can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

–The WaPo reviews a local prog-metal band called Iris Divine (here’s their MySpace page).

–Do Americans love war?

–Speaking of war, April 12 marks the 150th anniversary of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter and the onset of the Civil War. I’m thinking of marking the anniversary by finally tackling James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom this spring.

–As I write this, it looks like the two parties are getting close to a budget agreement that will avert a government shutdown. But I still wanted to note that a shutdown would have a major impact on the District itself, shutting down a number of basic city services. This is something that hasn’t gotten much attention.

–The AV Club continues its feature “Loud”–a monthly review of the latest in punk, hardcore, metal, and noise.

Friday Links

–John Cohn at The New Republic on the end of “compassionate conservatism.”

–Should life be more like a game?

– The rise of white identity politics in DC?

–From Book Forum, a collection of links on how we treat animals. (I guess that makes this a meta-link?)

–How Pearl Jam went from being the biggest rock band in the world to a niche act.

–The Thomas Paine-John Adams debate about economic equality in the early American republic.

–I’m not sure the Ramones were the best candidate for an AV Club “Gateways to Geekery” feature. What band could be easier to get into? Just start listening with the first album–it pretty much establishes the template for everything else.

–Joe Klein is shrill.

–More on the flap over Elizabeth Johnson’s book from Daniel Horan, OFM, here and here.