Romans 13 – Did Paul really write this?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

I’m going to go right out and offer my inexpert opinion: I don’t think Paul wrote vv. 1-7.  I think they are a later addition.  Remember, the New Testament has has undergone almost 2,000 years of transcriptions and translations.  It is very possible someone slipped a little something extra in there along the way thinking that Paul’s message needed to be clarified, or that it needed to be made more palatable, even.

It interrupts the flow of the letter

It’s placement it weird.  Paul ends the previous section talking about overcoming evil with good, essentially expounding upon the “love thy enemies” idea, and then in the next section, continues the love theme by expounding upon “love thy neighbor.”  So why this unrelated insert about respecting authority and paying taxes between those two sections?

One could argue it’s a continuation of the “love thy enemies” theme, but I think that’s rather weak because the word “love” isn’t used at all, where it is used often in the preceding and following sections.  Also, Paul was never one to shy away from punishment.  He had been whipped, imprisoned, put on trial, stoned, and was on a loose house arrest when writing this letter.  Why would he be concerned about avoiding punishment, as he mentions in verse five, or stress that doing right by the authorities is doing right by God, when he has so clearly angered the authorities himself many times over?

Paul had removed himself from the Roman “Honor System”

I find it particularly suspect that Paul talks about paying “respect” or “honor” to someone or something.  As N.T. Wright, Karen Armstrong, and probably many others have written, Paul removed himself from the honor system of ancient Rome in very deliberate way.  In ancient Rome, there was a strict social hierarchy.  Those lower down strove to pay “honor” to those higher up in an effort to gain recognition and status.  Whole cities vied for Caesar’s honor erecting statues and temples to the empirical court.  In short, this created a culture of boasting and bragging, with people crowing about their faithfulness to the empire, their achievements on Caesar’s behalf, and the achievements of those from which they were trying to gain favor.

Paul turns that tradition on its head, bragging not only of his own ignominies and weaknesses (most famously in 2 Corinthians), but also of Jesus’.  Paul again and again stresses Jesus’ death on the cross.  Death on the cross was not some mere tragedy, it was a fall from social grace, a punishment for the most reviled of society.  In addition, it was also often hard to recover and prepare the body for proper burial.  Scavenging animals often further ravaged those that were executed, soldiers may prohibit collecting the remains, and honestly, it may have been just too risky to even try.  Burial rites were an important ritual in ancient times, not least of all for the Jews, so the fact that Jesus died, defiled on the cross, like a base criminal, would have been proof for many that he was not the Messiah.  Where is his honor, his glory? How can we possibly respect someone with such a base demise?  Paul argues that Jesus power comes from his weakness – by accepting such a fate as the cross Jesus brought about the fullness of God’s kingdom to those who need it most: the weak, the oppressed, those crying out for justice and love.  So I ask again, why would Paul suddenly be urging readers to pay their honor and respect to the civil authorities?

I have seen the case that Paul is possibly referring to synagogue authority, and not Roman authority. Paul did take up a collection from diaspora churches and bring that back to Jerusalem before writing Romans, and perhaps he was hoping to do the same thing in Rome.  This, I suppose, is possible, but I again have my doubts.  I think that Paul would have alluded to the synagogue directly, and probably wouldn’t have referred to his collecting money as “taxes.” Returning to Paul talking about fearing authority, I doubt that Jesus-followers in Rome had much to fear from Jerusalem Jewish retaliation.  There were Jews in the city of Rome, but they had only recently been allowed back to the city after being kicked out, and tensions were high.  A Jew attacking a Gentile for any reason (such as being a Jesus-follower) would have only been detrimental to the Jewish individual.  As for the Jewish Jesus-followers, perhaps there was a bit more to fear from local intra-Jewish retaliation, but again, being a large city with several enclaves of Jesus-followers, I think that they could have found a safe haven with like-minded believers.  So we’re left to conclude that the synagogue is not the fearful authority to which this section refers.

The real author of this section

So who did write it?  My guess is an early Gentile contributor, maybe about the time the Deutro-Pauline letters (letters attributed to Paul but probably not written by him: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, possibly 2 Thessalonians, Colossians and Ephesians) a few decades after Paul’s death.  Early church leaders, when they weren’t ignoring Paul’s dense rhetorical letters, often down-played his Jewishness, focusing on the creation of a new religion in a way Paul had not.  An addition about paying “honor” and “respect” to the civil authorities can be seen as an attempt to assimilate Jesus-following practices into the wider Roman culture, distancing themselves from the Jews. Jews had special dispensation to not worship Caesar (aka not participate in the honor culture), and it often deepened Greco-Roman suspicion of the Jews.  If these new Jesus-followers paid honor as the rest of society did, then they might have been viewed with less suspicion than the abstaining Jews.  Of course, as Christianity gained first acceptance and then power in the centuries to come, early Christian rulers would look approvingly upon this passage condoning God’s support of earthly rulers, and thus it’s canonical status would not be often or seriously challenged.

How we should view this addition

Let’s say I’ve convinced you that Paul didn’t write this little blurb.  What does that mean in the grand scheme of things?  Honestly, nothing revolutionary.  It’s just a little historical Easter egg that hints to the long and storied history of the Good Book.  It’s a perfect example of just how the Bible isn’t separate and apart from history, but very much effected by history and affecting history.

Even with “inauthentic” additions, if you want to call it that, I still think reading the Bible is important. I still think we can gain deep insight to ourselves and God through it.  I still think we can turn to the Bible for guidance.  But it once again highlights the fact that we need to understand the Bible in context of when it was written and why it was written, and remember that even if it was divinely inspired, fallible people were the ones doing the writing (and later interpreting).  The important thing is not to get too bogged down in the details, or limit your understanding of the Bible to just a few verses, because then you’ll miss the broader themes.  And here, the broader theme is love.  I’ll remind you once again: The previous section was Paul expounding upon “love they enemies.” The following section is Paul expounding upon “love thy neighbors.”  This little hiccup in between doesn’t change that message.  And it certainly doesn’t negate our responsibility to be caring of our neighbors, our community, and the world.

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Romans 10 – Why we should read the WHOLE Bible

The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim (Read the rest of the chapter, here!)

Jesus quotes the Old Testament about forty-five times, depending upon who you ask and what you’re counting as a quote.  Other New Testament writers also use the Old Testament.  Paul quotes the Old Testament eleven times in this chapter alone. (The segment of the chapter I’ve included above is a quote from Deuteronomy.)  The previous chapter quotes the old testament ten times.  I think this should be reason enough for us to read the Old Testament: if it was important enough for Jesus, then it should be important enough for me.  But lots of Christians (I’m looking at you especially, Red Letter followers) decide not to read most of the Bible.

The Bible is dense and esoteric in many places, especially in the Old Testament.  It’s gruesome and cruel in many places, too. That can take a lot of mental energy.  So while I’m a proponent of all Christians reading the Bible, I also don’t think we need to rush through reading the whole Bible. Those read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans have their place, but I think they hurry you through some things that probably deserve more than a day’s thought.  Just look at this blog – at the risk of scaring you off, it’s going to take me about seven years to get through this whole thing, chapter by chapter.

The cultural influence of the Bible cannot be overstated.

If nothing else, we owe it to ourselves to read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, in order to understand the profound, ongoing influence it has on our culture.  In fact, the best secular argument I’ve seen for reading the Old Testament comes from (in his own words) a “lax, non-Hebrew speaking  Jew,” a “hopeless and angry agnostic,” Slate contributor and author of Good Book, David Plotz.  Plotz gives us an example (from this Slate Article) of just how influential even the seemingly un-important books can be:

“I thought for a few minutes about the cultural markers in Daniel, a late, short, and not hugely important book. What footprints has it left on our world? First, Daniel is thrown in the “lions’ den” and King Belshazzar sees “the writing on the wall.” These are two metaphors we can’t live without. The “fiery furnace” that Daniel’s friends are tossed into is the inspiration for the Fiery Furnaces, a band I listen to. The king rolls a stone in front of the lions’ den, sealing in a holy man who won’t stay sealed—foreshadowing the stone rolled in front of the tomb of Jesus. Daniel inspired the novel The Book of Daniel and the TV show The Book of Daniel. It’s even a touchstone for one of my favorite good-bad movies, A Knight’s Tale. That movie’s villain belittles hero Heath Ledger by declaring, “You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting”—which is what the writing on the wall told Belshazzar.”

At the least, it’s an intellectual pleasure to connect these dots.  More importantly, it helps us understand the cultural assumptions and historic pressures that may be exerting invisible influence in our lives.  Which segues me from my secular reason to my religious reason for reading the Old Testament:

If we don’t read the Bible, someone else will do it for us and tell us what to believe.

Let me give you an example from my own life, one that I think many around my age can probably identify with:  As a teenager and young adult, I believed that homosexuality was sinful.  I mean, it tells us so right there in the Bible, in black and white, right? And honestly I didn’t think much about it until college, when I had my first gay friends.  When I started questioning whether or not these people whom I had come to know and love were doomed to hell, I got an answer that, I think, was supposed to be comforting, but instead was vague and unsatisfying: “we are all sinners, so it is not for us to cast the first stone upon their sin, but yes, they are indeed sinning.”

That answer felt like it was side-stepping the issue: weakly admitting that we’re all sinners so that church authority wouldn’t have to outright condemn gay people (and maybe scare a few out of their pews, taking their money with them) yet still letting those in power (self-admitted sinners, as you’ll remember) bar people from full fellowship with God. So I started reading the Bible.  I didn’t know what the clobber passages were, and I definitely found a lot of nasty stuff in there, but more than anything I saw a God of love.  Even in the Old Testament, I saw a God of love.  So, how could a God of love condemn people acting out of love?  The readings I hadn’t been pointed to before, the readings I found myself, pointed to the idea that God would not do such a thing.

Then, fast-forward to this blog, and I now have a chance to refute the clobber passages point by point.  I’ve done the two of the seven or so (you can read here and here) and I’m excited to debunk the rest of them as they come up organically.  I no longer believe homosexuality is sinful. I know there are others struggling with the same ideas that my younger self held – blindly following the conclusions of others even though something is unsettled in their heart.  My hope is that they will pick up their Bible and study it for themselves.

Of course, it is important to find good teachers.  I will totally admit I didn’t get half of my material for this blog from just reading the Bible.  I’ve relied on everything from news outlets like HuffPost to scholarly journals like Vetus Testamentum and books from a range of authors (see my 2020 and beyond reading list of non-straight, non-white faith writers here) to help further reveal the depths of the Bible.

The Bible as a constantly evolving source.

I want to end by reminding you that the Bible is not static, to see it as such does it a real disservice.  I can come back to the Bible again and again and learn something new from even the same readings, noticing something I’d never noticed before.  I like to compare it to The Princess Bride – it was my favorite movie to watch with my father as a kid.  (Actually, I think it was his favorite movie to watch with me, and I’m sure he was subtly steering me towards making the decision to watch that movie instead of having to sit through, say, Rainbow Brite or Cinderella, but I digress.)  As a five year old heavily into Princess Culture, The Princess Bride was a princess movie, and I enjoyed it as such.  As I got older, I started getting some of the jokes that went over my head as a kid.  Now that I have kids of my own, the movie is steeped in nostalgia that didn’t exist in years past.  Are any of these enjoyments of the movie “wrong” or “better?”  No, they are all perfectly valid, and ones I wouldn’t have reached if I didn’t come back to the movie again and again.  The same basic principle is true of the Bible as well.

Many have used the Bible to uphold colonialist, racist, and sexist social structures that benefit only a privileged few.  Which is why it is even more important that we read it. “No,” we can say, “you are interpreting that verse wrong, and here’s why.  And while we’re at it, here’s some more verses to further prove our point.”  But that only happens when we read the Bible, become familiar with it, and allow it to guide us, to comfort us, and to challenge us.  Let me reference Isaiah 2:4 to close out this post: If others have used the Bible as a sword, wielding it for evil, let us beat it into a plowshare, turning it into a tool for good. Get reading, folks.

 

2 John – The Importance of Context, Again

Hello again dear friends, it’s been a minute…long story short, we jumped into full-time farming much sooner and with less money than expected. Due to the generosity of friends, family, customers, and even complete strangers we successfully raised funds through our Kickstarter campaign (it’s not accepting funding anymore, but you can read to whole story at the link) that will allow us to make our next transition.  We’ve been working hard, and still have a long way to go til the season is over in November, but I’m gaining a little more breathing room every week.  For now, I’m going to stick with one post a week, published on Sunday, and build back up to three posts when I’m done processing broilers.  As of this writing, I only have 1,000 more (about eight weeks) to go! I’m excited to get back to reading the Bible with you all.

The elder,

To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever:

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love.

It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. 11 Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.

12 I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

13 The children of your sister, who is chosen by God, send their greetings.

I picked this chapter to jump back into writing because it’s short.  This is the whole book of 2 John right here.  I’ll read 3 John next and knock out another whole book in one blog post, too, and feel super good about myself.  Also, if we’re using the Bible as a general tool of reflection and meditation, we should be able to find pertinent information in almost any part of it, so why not re-start here?

A little background on all the Johns (ha, ha) running around the New Testament.  There’s the Gospel of John, then three shorter Johns (seriously, I’m cracking myself up over here) later in the NT, of which this is the second.  All are attributed to the Apostle John, so I guess the NT really only has one John.  (Alright, I’ll stop now.)

In all seriousness, John was very concerned with two heresies cropping up in the early church: Gnosticism and Cerinthianism.  Gnostics believed that only the spirit was divine, and that everything worldly was profane.  The divine spirit of a person could only be released through some sort of special, mystic knowledge of which Jesus Christ was an emissary.  Gnosticism lead to two extremes: punishment of the flesh and hatred of the world, but also extreme licentiousness because since the body was of the profane world, anything done with it or to it wouldn’t impact your spirit’s divinity.  Cerinthianism, so-named for it’s major promoter, Cerinthus, believed that Jesus was just a man to whom the Spirit of Christ joined after his birth and left before his death on the cross.  This would mean Jesus was not divinely conceived and not wholly human and wholly divine.

The church was very young when this letter was written, like maybe eighty years old.  As in many of these early letters (we’ll see a lot of them when we get to Paul’s writings), the authors are trying desperately hard to keep their young organization together, establish some Standard Operating Procedures, if you will, and make sure that the mission remains coherent, relevant, and appealing.  If this sounds rather calculating – it was.  I’m not knocking the faith of these early church leaders. In fact, I admire them for being able to shepherd Christianity through such a trying time, but it is important to remember that history is written by the victors.  Should Cerinthus or the Gnostics gained more followers, Christianity might be completely different than it is today.

Human influences directing the course of religious thought? Gasp!  That can only mean one thing: while Christ may not be fallible, Christianity most certainly is.

A fallible Christianity may sound scary, but I think it’s liberating.  Remember, Christianity used to promote the Crusades and slavery.  There were some Christians who praised Hitler.  Those were human influences on a religion that changed (or thankfully disappeared) over time.  A fluid Christianity means we are allowed to explore our faith, our relationship with God, and know that if we mess up – or if our religion messes up – we get to try again.  Think of it like a marriage:  I love my husband, but I know he’s not perfect, and as much as it pains me to admit it, neither am I.  That doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up on our marriage.  We’ll talk through our differences, make adjustments to our relationship, and hopefully we both grow together. Faith can be like that, too.  Isn’t that so much better than a rigid set of rules we’re never allowed to question, one that stunts our thinking and never allows growth?

As we read more of John’s letters, I want you to keep context in mind.  Because having read through all the Johns (sorry, couldn’t help one last John reference), I found a lot of loving and relevant information.  But John’s fear for the early church is visible, too, and I worry that some people, throughout history, have used that fear to justify xenophobia, intolerance, and a rejection of the world – which, let me remind you, is also God’s glorious creation.

I’ll leave you with an example. In v. 9 John says “anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teachings of Christ does not have God,” and then in v. 10 warns “do not take him into your house or welcome him.” Oftentimes, churches would receive itinerant teachers, listen to their lessons, and then send them off with provisions for the next leg of their journey.  In these verses, really verses 7-11, John is warning his followers specifically about Gnostics, Cerinthians, and other “heretics.”  If you didn’t know that (or were willfully blind to it), it could be taken as a warning to never help any non-Christians, ever.  This clearly goes against Jesus’ own teaching of being kind to the stranger.  While it would certainly be easier to turn a blind eye to the sufferings of those not like us – and justify it with a Bible verse, to boot! – we would be guilty of willfully misinterpreting Jesus’ teachings.  Long story short, context is important for everyone, not just biblical scholars!  We’ll see more of that as we continue reading these letters.