Tag Archives: historical criticism

Is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible a Good Thing, … or a Bad Thing?

In this series of blog posts, we have examined the “historical criticism” of the Bible. At this point, it might be worth offering a brief summary of where we are at.

Historical criticism of the Bible: Friend or foe?

First, we considered the question as to what “historical criticism” of the Bible is. Briefly put, historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” With respect to the Bible, this means trying to place our understanding of the Bible within the historical context of the ancient world of Israel, and first-century Palestine and the Greco-Roman world, where both the Old and New Testaments, respectively, were written.

Secondly, we looked how historical criticism developed over time. The standard story is that “historical criticism” of the Bible arose during the period of the Enlightenment, following the Protestant Reformation. But if we place the rise of historical criticism itself within its own historical context, we see that multiple stories emerge. For historically-orthodox minded Christians, historical criticism is a continuation of an attempt to better understand the Bible as the very Word of God, something that thoughtful believers have been trying to do since the reception of the canon of Scripture. However, for others, historical criticism has been an attempt to take the task of Biblical interpretation out of the hands of spiritual leaders in the churches, and place it in the hands of a different authority, whether that authority be the academic university or even the state. During the Enlightenment the idea was to appeal to the principles of science to resolve Bible interpretation issues, instead of relying on conflicting dogmatic traditions of various church bodies.

Thirdly, we have looked at how the practice of historical criticism in our churches has led to a split, dividing historically-orthodox believers from progressive Christians. On the one hand, the rejection of what is perceived to be “historical criticism,” found in various forms of “fundamentalism,” has led to a concern of an anti-intellectual spirit that marginalizes historical Christianity. On the other hand, the enthusiastic embrace of historical criticism in “progressive Christianity” circles has threatened to empty Christian teaching of any real content, that would distinguish the church from the secularization of the culture growing around the church. In other words, while “progressive Christianity” seeks to rescue Christianity from rigid dogmatism, it often ends up looking no different from the agnostic/atheist assumptions of the secular world.

Fourthly, we have examined a shift over the previous century with respect to the concerns brought to bear on the text of Scripture by historical criticism. Way back in the 19th and 20th centuries, advocates of historical criticism were primarily concerned with superstitious assumptions about the world made by more traditional forms of Christianity. Such superstitions tended to elevate the supernatural over and against the natural, thus sidelining the advance of science in the modern world. Now, in the 21st century, those concerns have dramatically shifted towards more social justice oriented questions, ranging from racism, to the treatment of women, and most recently, to various LGBTQ concerns. While people still wonder about truth claim of a Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and its miraculous character, Western culture has become more focused on how the Bible is sometimes used as a weapon to hurt people. In other words, when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible, in the 21st century, social justice concerns have superseded concerns about science, which were more of the primary concerns of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Along the way in this series, we have examined a few case studies that illustrate the themes described above. An historically-orthodox believer who values the benefit of historical criticism will find a harmony within the text where certain tensions exist. However, if an advocate for historical criticism seeks to set aside the divine inspiration in their analysis of the Bible, those same tensions will appear to them as contradictions. For example, if we see the Bible as a cohesive whole, as inspired by God, we can see how God seeks to honor the beauty of the relationship between male and female, whereas a more skeptical critic will see tensions as contradictions, where such teachings can be easily misused to denigrate and oppress women.

We also considered the question of when we should look to harmonize various discrepancies that we find in the Bible, versus looking for more creative ways of thinking, in order to help resolve those tensions we find within Scripture. We then looked at some principles for considering the evidence for a traditional way of reading a passage of the Bible, versus potentially embracing a different interpretation of that passage, that makes better sense of the text overall.

Leading up prior to this blog post, we examined a very helpful scholarly attempt to provide some authoritative answers for believers, when their friends, neighbors, and relatives ask questions about some of the insights gained from the historical criticism of the Bible.

So, back to the question in the title of this blog post: Is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible a good thing?

A reasonable answer is this: YES, it is a good thing for the most part, but it really depends on the assumptions and attitudes one has when doing “historical criticism” of the Bible. For if we come to the text of Scripture in an attempt to knock down its authority, or otherwise distort its message, then it can indeed be a bad thing. On the other hand, coming to the Bible, with a spirit of openness to the Holy Spirit, and a sense of humility, can be a very, very good thing. In some cases, our traditional ways of thinking about the message of Bible will be challenged and transformed, while in other ways, the traditional teachings that have been handed down throughout the ages, will be reaffirmed and treasured more deeply.

This blog post pretty much closes out this series on “historical criticism” for now, though from time to time I will add more articles, indexed from the introductory post in this series.


Why I Trust the Bible: Bible Translator Bill Mounce Answers Real Questions and Doubts

Were the Gospels written by anonymous people who had no direct contact with early eyewitnesses to Jesus of Nazareth?

.… Part of an on-going series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

How Do You Answer Critics, Who Try to Use “Historical Criticism,” to Attack the Message of the Bible? 

Dr. Bill Mounce, who has served on the translation committee for the New International Version of the Bible, and as the New Testament Chairperson for the English Standard Version of the Bible, has heard of claims like these before. Critical scholars, most notably represented by those like University of North Carolina professor, Bart Ehrman, argue that the writers of the four Gospels were written by sophisticated Greek-speakers, who lived in a very different world from Jesus’ original followers, made up of mostly illiterate persons, like Peter the fisherman, who primarily spoke Aramaic, and only very little Greek. We have no real idea who exactly wrote the Gospels, though they were probably composed as completed works as late as the 2nd century, and therefore, the historical information presented in them can not be entirely trusted as being accurate about Jesus.

As with any scholarly claim like this, there are elements of truth here. Yes, the four Gospels we have probably did not originally have the names of their authors embedded in the text. Titles like, “the Gospel according to Mark,” were added to the text by the late 2nd century. Yes, Jesus’ original hearers primarily spoke and understood Aramaic, while all four Gospels are written in elegant Greek.

But as Dr. Mounce writes in his Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, the idea that it was really Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote their respective Gospels, was the unanimous consensus by the mid-2nd century. If the Gospels were truly anonymous, we would have heard of other possible author names being put forward as alternatives. But we do not see any contested argument regarding the names of authors in the historical record. In the ancient world, where we had no mass communication systems, made available by today’s technologies like the Internet, the traditional names of the Gospel writers consistently flourished throughout the geographically vast area of the Roman empire.

Contrast this with the disputes over who wrote the Book of Hebrews, the only New Testament book that lacks a particular claim to a particular author. Tertullian argued that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Other early church fathers suggest Clement of Rome, or Luke. Eusebius believed it was Paul. Some even say Priscilla wrote it. Origen concluded, “In truth only God knows.”

In the case of Mark’s Gospel, we do have good evidence that Mark was indeed the author. Though the writings have not directly survived, Eusebius tells us of the church father and writer Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, until about 130 CE, who was a disciple of John. Papias in these lost writings had written that Mark had become Peter’s interpreter. Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria attests to Peter being in Rome, preaching in perhaps the 60s, of the first century. This would indicate that Mark probably wrote his Gospel, based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, as derived from sermons that Peter gave in Rome, prior to Peter’s martyrdom.

When Doubts Arise: Having a Reliable Guide to Answer Informed Critics

Bill Mounce givens seasoned, evidence-grounded answers, like the one above, to the type of doubts and questions raised by critics of the Bible today, in Why I Trust the Bible. Dr. Mounce makes judicious use of the insights gained by the “historical criticism” of the Bible, that enhance our understanding of the Scriptural text, rather than undermining it. Mounce’s audience is directed at ordinary Christian believers, who find themselves overwhelmed by the popular claims of skeptics, who are looking for reasoned explanations, that are readily accessible, and that do not descend into the overly technical. For those looking for more academic treatments of these topics, Mounce footnotes his references for those who want to dive deeper into these type of discussions.

I was particularly impressed with Dr. Mounce’s chapters on textual criticism, answering both the criticisms against New Testament itself popularly expressed by the famous atheist/agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, as well as the King James Only-movement on the other side of the debate. Those few chapters alone are worth the price of the book, written at a level that most people should be able to understand, that covers all of the important questions that are typically raised on this topic.

I can quibble with Dr. Mounce on a few points here and there throughout the book. For example, Dr. Mounce’s claim that the “had formed” for the animals’ creation in Genesis 2:19, as found in the ESV and NIV translations, does not carry a sense of temporal sequence, has been criticized by other scholars as a form of cheating when it comes to certain Bible translations (see page 257). But such complaints are minor, as set within the context of the whole of Dr. Mounce’s excellent work.

All in all, Why I Trust the Bible is probably one of the best resources available, that critique some of the more extreme conclusions made within the “historical criticism” movement, regarding the Bible. From questions about the canon of Scripture to the latest intellectual fad of “Jesus Mythicism,” Bill Mounce hits nearly every major topic that skeptics will bring up about the Bible. That being said, this may not be the right book to give to a knowledgeable non-believer, who devours every book that Bart Ehrman publishes. Dr. Mounce pretty much assumes that his audience are either Christians, or those who are genuinely seeking information about the Bible. There are lots of great books now about the existence of God, how science and faith relate to one another, and social justice issues concerning Christianity, but if I had to pick just one book that specifically looks at the trustworthiness of the Bible, Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible stands near the top of the list.

One Serious Gripe

If I had one serious complaint to make about Why I Trust the Bible it would be that the book is too short. Why I Trust the Bible could have explored certain issues at a greater length and depth, but the author chose not to. Dr. Mounce’s book clocks in at around 280 pages, whereas British Anglican liberal scholar John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, ( reviewed earlier in this blog post series on Veracity ), and endorsed by Bart Ehrman, clocks in at a hefty and whopping 635 pages. Both books are written for a popular audience, and easily digestible. Both books address overlapping material. Both Dr. Mounce and Dr. Barton are world-class scholars. But in spite of the length of Barton’s A History of the Bible, that might easily scare off some readers, Barton’s book outsells Dr. Mounce’s shorter Why I Trust the Bible, and most likely, will continue to outsell it.

I wonder if the topic of “historical criticism” of the Bible is avoided by church-going believers, because they are afraid with what they might find there. Thankfully, Bill Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible does not exploit such fears, as it actually does the exact opposite. But perhaps the popularity of John Barton’s A History of the Bible exploits the growing skeptical reading audience’s desire for more material to challenge historic, orthodox Christianity.

While conservative evangelical book publishing has continued to improve tremendously over the past few decades, substantial volumes geared towards the general public have languished when compared to similar texts produced by progressive Christian and non-believing scholars. Back when I was in seminary in the 1990s, I remember being mesmerized by books written by the progressive Bible scholar, Elaine Pagels, available at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, while being frustrated by the lack of alternative volumes written by otherwise equally competent conservative evangelical scholars, on similar topics, altogether absent from those Barnes and Noble bookshelves. Elaine Pagels was introducing me to a whole new world of “historical criticism,” but the evangelical churches I knew of in those days, addressed such topics with crickets!!

Is this the fault of evangelical book publishers, or the book reading market that tends to shy away from lengthy books of this type? I do not know that answer here. But what I do know is that we need more substantial books, along the lines of Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, that help to counter a growing skepticism in an increasingly secularized world.

 

In closing out this book review, I am leaving a whole list of teasers that might inspire you to go out and buy the book. Thankfully, Dr. Mounce has released a set of short videos, most of them clocking in at well under 5-minutes, that give you a summary of each chapter, plus a few extra videos that dive a little deeper into more complex topics. Here is the link to the entire YouTube playlist, but right below is the first video in the list, and I have hyperlinked to the other videos in the playlist, just below that. This is great stuff for your own personal discipleship journey, and might even be useful in a small group setting. Enjoy!! 

 

Chapter 1: Did Jesus really exist? Who was the Jesus of history?

Chapter 2: Who wrote the Gospels?

Chapter 3: Are there really contradictions in the Bible?

Chapter 4: What about “discrepancies” in the Bible that really, really look like contradictions?

Chapter 5: Why do we have 27 books in the New Testament?

Chapter 6: When was the New Testament canon closed? What was the role of the church?

Chapter 7: Are the original Greek texts for the New Testament hopelessly corrupt?

Chapter 8: How were the ancient New Testament manuscripts copied down through the generations?

Chapter 9: How does Dr. Bill Mounce interact with the claims of Dr. Bart Ehrman?

Chapter 10: There are so many Bible translations! Which ones can you trust?

Chapter 11: What are different philosophies behind Bible translations?

Chapter 12: Can I trust the character of God given to us in the Old Testament?

Chapter 13: Can we trust the historicity of the Old Testament?

Conclusion: Why does Dr. Mounce trust the Bible, and why should I?

What is “Jesus Mythicism?”

Does the Bible adequately show that Jesus really existed?

How accurate are the Gospels, if they were written down at least 20-25 years after Jesus lived on earth?

How good were the memories of the Gospel writers?

A tough apparent contradiction: Staff, or no staff?

Staff, or no staff? A shorter summary.

How many times did Peter deny Jesus?

Does the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew contradict the genealogy in Luke?


Zombie Apocalypse on Good Friday?

Here is one of those Bible passages you probably never hear a sermon about:

50 But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.51 Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53, Christian Standard Bible)

It is Good Friday. Jesus had just died, after being crucified on the cross. Verse 51 is loaded with interesting details, but the really weird part starts in verse 52. At first glance, it seems like something out of the 1968 movie, The Night of the Living Dead. Does this mean we really have “zombies” in our Bible?

... Another post in a series on “historical criticism” of the Bible. Go ahead and skip the video clip linked here, for The Night of the Living Dead, if you do not want to get freaked out….

A “Zombie” Apocalypse on Good Friday?

What makes this text all the more strange is the fact that only in the Gospel of Matthew do we have this story about the “zombies.” None of the other three Gospels even hint at this. You would think that the Resurrection of Jesus is a big enough event, but to have a whole group of raised saints wandering around Jerusalem would have really caused a stir. Where did they all go? What is going on here?

There are two basic ways of interpreting this passage: The traditional view suggests that this is an historical event that Matthew uniquely records. Yet trying to grapple with who these “saints” are, and what this all means, are both provocative questions.

The most common explanation is that these raised “saints” are Old Testament believers, such as some heroes of the faith, like the great prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, perhaps.  Some tie this story of these raised “saints” with the Harrowing of Hell, commonly associated with the phrase, “He descended into hell/hades,” found in the classic early creed of the church, the Apostle Creed, which some suggest teaches that between his death on Good Friday, and his Resurrection on Sunday, Jesus is preaching the Gospel to those who have died, raising those who believe to new life.

The apocalyptic/metaphorical view suggests that this story in Matthew is not an historical event, but rather a type of prophetic vision of what will happen in the End Times, which is the reason why it is called “apocalyptic.” The appearance of raised saints points forward to the future, whereby all true believers in Jesus will be raised permanently to eternal life. While the apocalyptic/metaphorical view does not insist that this actually happened historically on Good Friday, it is nevertheless still true, since it is anticipating the reality of the future Resurrection.

Dr. Michael Licona, a New Testament scholar, and probably one of the most able defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, against the skeptics who deny Jesus’ Resurrection, takes this metaphorical view.  Dr. Licona came under severe criticism about ten years ago, or so, by suggesting that this story is an example of “special effects” added in by Matthew, to better explain the meaning of Christ’s death. Defenders of the traditional view say that inserting a fictionalized literary device smack dab in the middle of an historical narrative like this interrupts the flow of the story. But even more serious, Licona’s critics accused him of denying biblical inerrancy by “de-historicizing” this element of Matthew’s narrative.

So, which view is right? The traditional, historical view or the apocalyptic/metaphorical view?

A still frame from George Romero’s 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Matthew the Evangelist did not have this in mind regarding the risen dead that walked the streets of Jerusalem, following Christ’s Resurrection. But this peculiar incident in Matthew’s Gospel raises some interesting questions: Did Matthew mean this to be part of his historical narrative, or was this an apocalyptic metaphor, looking to the future?

Examining the Evidence

In classical debates about how best to interpret difficult passages like this, it is always the prudent idea to place the burden of proof on the non-traditional view. The traditional view, by the very fact that it has been embraced by Christians for a long period of time, even back to the period of the early church, should enjoy the favor of place in these type of discussions. It is up to defenders of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view to see if they can meet the burden of proof, in order to overturn the tradition.

Furthermore, defenders of the traditional view are concerned that the metaphorical view might call other miraculous events in Scripture into question. This is a very reasonable concern: Where do you draw the line here, and on what grounds do you make a distinction between an historical narrative account versus a prophetic, metaphorical vision of some sort?  Jesus spoke in parables, which are fictional teaching devices, but the Gospels also claim that the Resurrection of Jesus is a real historical event, in space and time. The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus has the unanimous consensus from our New Testament sources, including all four Gospels. For if Jesus is risen from the dead, then this opens up the historical possibility of other miraculous Bible events having happened in history as well. But does this necessarily mean that the best explanation for another difficult passage requires a “miraculous” explanation? Another “non-miraculous” explanation, that fits the data better, might actually make better sense of the text. But does the evidence really support this? Traditionalists have a right to be worried, as some Christians, who find no difficulty in accepting the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, will go to great lengths to dismiss other miracles, such as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, as a pious fiction, a view which causes all sorts of mischief.

From the perspective of an historian, one could argue that both the traditional and apocalyptic/metaphorical views are historical possibilities.  Only those skeptics who reject the supernatural would rule out the traditional view as a possibility, because the idea of people walking around after being dead is most definitely a supernatural event. For some who employ the historical critical method, the impossibility of the miraculous is the starting point, and the divine inspiration of the text is an assumption that can be safely set aside, for the sake of getting at the “real” history. In other words, if you treat the miraculous with utter disdain, or you reject the concept of God-breathed inspired Scripture, then the whole business about Matthew’s Gospel “zombies” as historical event will probably just come across to you as completely silly. For historically orthodox Christians, the use of historical critical method does not require one to take those kind of skeptical steps.

However, it is not enough to determine an event’s possibility. What is more difficult is to try to determine how plausible an event might be, considering the evidence, and then try to weigh that evidence to figure out what view is more probable, compared to the other alternatives.

The sheer weight of tradition is not something to dismiss lightly. However, there are a number of factors to consider, that are frankly ignored or otherwise distorted by some commentators who defend the traditional view.

The first thing to consider is what did it mean for these saints to be “raised?” After all, Jesus himself had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). But was the raising of Lazarus the same as the raising of these saints on Good Friday?

Most scholars would agree that Lazarus was risen from the dead, but that he eventually died at some later time. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that a 2,000 year old Lazarus is still living in some New York City high-rise apartment, collecting social security. Likewise, there are some who believe that these raised saints on Good Friday eventually died again, just as Lazarus did. Unfortunately, the text in Matthew does not tell us anything about the eventual fate of these raised saints.

If these saints who were raised died again, it does make you wonder what the point of the whole story was about.  For if these raised saints were Old Testament believers, what would the point be for them to be raised, and then die a second time?

The other alternative would be that these raised saints remained alive after this event. Does this mean that a whole group of “zombies” are living in New York City apartments, collecting more social security, and making our taxes so high? Well, most probably not. Unfortunately, if these saints did remain alive, we have no record of an ascension of these saints (Though some do suggest that this is implied by another weird and difficult passage, Ephesians 4:7-10, and/or that these saints quietly ascended to heaven along with Jesus at Jesus’ ascension).

The real tricky part is trying to make this historical reconstruction of events fit with other parts of Scripture. Here is the Apostle Paul:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23-24 ESV)

Some commentators say that the raised saints on Good Friday are some of the “firstfruits” of the resurrection promised to all believers. Some suggest that verse 23 above should have a comma after “Christ” but before “the firstfruits“, to therefore read: “But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  In other words, first Jesus is raised, then the “zombie” saints in Jerusalem, and then finally associated with the event of the Second Coming, everyone else is raised. 

There are several problems here. To take verse 23, and divide it up into three separate events does not mesh well with verse 20, where the Resurrection of Christ, by itself, is equated with the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection. The answer to this objection is that “firstfruits” is plural, which would suggest that multiple events can be associated with these “firstfruits.” In other words, both the Resurrection of Christ AND the raising of these saints together are the “firstfruits.”

True, firstfruits is plural here, but this is a grammatical construction that can have a singular referent. A good example in English is the word mathematics. I majored in mathematics in college, but it does not mean that I double-majored, or triple-majored in multiple mathematic subjects. To say that I majored in mathematics is the same as saying that I majored in math, which is singular. I majored in one subject, mathematics. Likewise, it is perfectly consistent with the biblical text here to say that the (singular) Resurrection of Christ is equivalent to the (plural) firstfruits of the Resurrection. Furthermore, we can find another example of this singular referent to the plural firstfruits in a passage like Romans 16:5, where Epaenetus is described as the “first convert” (firstfruits) to Christ in Asia.

However, the most serious difficulty is that the order of events described by Paul here in 1 Corinthians does not mesh well with the traditional historical interpretation associated with Matthew. A number of commentators will say that in Matthew’s narrative that Jesus was Resurrected on Sunday morning, and then followed by the raising of the saints, who made their way about Jerusalem. This reconstruction might fit 1 Corinthians, if it was possible to interpret the firstfruits of 1 Corinthians 15 with multiple events.

However, a careful reading of the text shows that this simply is not true. In the Matthew passage quoted above, in the Christian Standard Bible translation, Jesus dies upon the cross on Good Friday (v. 50), then followed by the phrase, “Suddenly….” in verse 51, describing all of the events associated with the death of Jesus, which includes the opening of the tombs and the raising of the saints, all happening there on Good Friday (see verses 51 and 52). It is not until Sunday, after Jesus’ Resurrection do these saints leave their tombs and appear about the city, as we find in verse 53.

What the raised saints were doing in their tombs over the weekend is anyone’s guess…. perhaps they were waking up from their long sleep?? But the point here is to say that the raising of these saints preceded Christ’s Resurrection, which if understood in a non-metaphorical manner, would contradict with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. That is a serious problem.

The “Suddenly…” of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) in verse 51 is obscured in the otherwise excellent English Standard Version (ESV), which has the more archaic “Behold...” The New International Version (NIV) renders this as “At that moment…” There really is no way that you can delay the raising of the saints, in their tombs, until two days later, if the traditional historical interpretation is to be adopted.

However, the most pressing concern is the theological meaning behind the whole “zombie” episode. For if the point of the episode is to tell us that a number of saints were resurrected before Jesus’ Resurrection, it really messes with the whole theology of Resurrection that Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15.

Unlike the “resurrection” of Lazarus, who eventually did die sometime in the 1st century timeframe, the Resurrection of Jesus is quite different. When Jesus died on the cross, and then was Resurrected, this Resurrection was (and “is”) permanent. In other words, Jesus will never die again. Likewise, the hope that Paul is trying to give to the Corinthian church is that Resurrection for us as believers, is unlike the story of Lazarus. Instead, our Resurrection will be like that of Christ’s Resurrection. For those believers who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming, they will be raised to eternal life, and they will never die again, following the example, the firstfruits, set by Jesus himself.

If this is indeed the point of the Matthew story, then we really are not dealing with something out of a “zombie” horror movie. Rather, the raising of the saints is a look into the future, whereby Matthew wants to reassure the reader that the coming Resurrection of Jesus two days later, after the Crucifixion, is the same hope that we can have as believers, that in the “End Times,” all who have died in Christ will be raised in Christ…. permanently!!

For the Christian, Jesus has conquered death, permanently. That is Good News!!

This is why the “special effects” apolocalyptic literary device mentioned by Michael Licona makes sense with the metaphorical interpretation, in contrast with the traditional, historical interpretation of this passage in Matthew’s Gospel.  Historical critical analysis of this particular text chimes in well with the generally accepted view today that the Gospels fit within the literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. For example, Virgil describes the death of Julius Caesar with all sorts of reports of various apocalyptic phenomena, such as cattle speaking, streams standing still, pale phantoms being spotted at dusk, the opening up of the earth, and a comet being seen. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Matthew to use a similar literary device to make a theological point about the believer’s hope in a future Resurrection.

Where Do You Land on Understanding the “Zombie” Passage in Matthew’s Gospel?

So, which is the better interpretation of this passage? Is it the traditional, historical view, or the metaphorical, future-looking ahead view? Scholars will weigh the evidence differently, in order to make a judgment on the probability of an event. This is not a hill that I am willing to die on, but in my mind, the evidence favors the metaphorical view as the better interpretation, when examining all of the evidence. Has the burden of proof been met, to overturn the traditional view? I would say, yes, but many other devoted Christians would probably disagree with me here.

What does bother me is when some advocates of the traditional, historical view regard advocates of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view as somehow having a lower view of the Bible. With all due respect to such critics, the idea of promoting a particular “miraculous” interpretation of a difficult passage that results in postulating a contradiction in the Bible is not a good way of trying to supposedly “defend the Bible.”

Nevertheless, what both the traditional, historical view and the apocalyptic/metaphorical view have in common is the affirmation that God has the power to conquer death, and that God has done this through the Resurrection of Jesus. That message should give us hope that death does not have the final word. When all seems bleak, and at its darkest, we can trust in the reality that “Sunday is a’coming.”

In these early years of the third decade of the 21st century, we have endured the stench of death from the loss of friends and family who have suffered from Covid-19, and now more recently, we recoil from the horror of bodies left piled up on the streets of the cities of Ukraine. Thankfully, the story of the Christian faith gives us a sense of hope that a Resurrection awaits those who put their trust in Jesus, no matter how dark our world seems today. That is a message worth pondering on Good Friday.

 

In the next post of this series on “historical criticism,” I will review a book written by one of the finest conservative Bible scholars alive today, that uses the tools of “historical criticism” in a very responsible manner, without falling off any theological cliffs, as so many other advocates of “historical criticism” have repeatedly done. Look for it in a week or so.


Was Jesus Mistaken About Abiathar? : Why Thoughtful Study is Better Than Ad-Hoc Harmonizations

In his 2005 New York Times best seller, Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman told the story of how he discovered that there were mistakes in the Bible. Despite having attended stalwart evangelical institutions, like Moody Bible College and Wheaton College, in Illinois, Ehrman arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary, having serious questions about the Bible’s reliability.

….. in a series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

Did Jesus mess up when He referenced the Old Testament, or did He say what He did on purpose? (Credit: Christianity Today magazine.)

When Harmonization is Helpful … and When the Search for Ad-Hoc Harmonizations Can Lead Someone Away from Faith

Bart Ehrman decided to write a hefty paper about a famous Bible discrepancy in Mark  2, where critics have claimed that Jesus mistakenly named “Abiathar” as a high priest in days of King David, when he should have used the name “Ahimelich.” Ehrman used the tools of “historical criticism” he had learned, trying to harmonize the details to somehow make the Bible “fit.” After pages and pages of analysis, a professor suggested to him that perhaps Mark or Jesus simply got that particular detail wrong.

At that moment, years of effort to “defend the Bible” came crashing down around Dr. Erhman. He remained a Christian after that for a few years, albeit a rather liberal or progressive one. But he gave up his faith altogether soon thereafter, the process of deconstruction having run its course to a full-blown agnosticism, if not downright atheism.

This story helped to catapult book sales of Misquoting Jesus, and later titles, thus giving Dr. Erhman the privilege of selling millions of books, for over the past 17 years. Every year or so, I have run into someone I know, or someone close to them, who has looked to Dr. Ehrman’s books as part of their deconstruction movement out of Christianity. Anytime Dr. Ehrman shows up on YouTube, he gets thousands of views.

Now, I am not saying that Dr. Erhman has been in it for the money. He is not. Nor is he purposefully attempting to destroy the faith of other believers in telling his story. He is not doing that either. Some Christians take a cheap shot at Ehrman and make wild accusations like these. Not only are such accusations unfair, they fail to adequately address some valid questions about what the Bible is actually teaching, concerns raised by Dr. Ehrman.

Other Christians have taken a more measured approach, but still find themselves nervous when they hear such claims, suggesting that Jesus, or someone else in the Bible, was wrong. The natural tendency is then to gravitate towards some relatively quick, ad hoc explanation of the discrepancy. You then latch onto some “possible” way of interpreting a passage differently, breathe a sigh of relief, and then move onto the next difficulty.

Now, such harmonization is not without merit. One of my favorite YouTube apologists, Inspiring Philosophy, somewhat leans towards this very approach with that passage. However, caution is in order, as such harmonization efforts can easily come across as either self-serving or overly complex, thereby encouraging skeptical critics to remain hardened in their skepticism.

A Quick Sidebar: One or Two Temple Cleansings?

A quick example here can suffice: All four Gospels each record one instance of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem. However, while Matthew, Mark and Luke place this event around the week prior to Jesus’ Crucifixion, John places the event at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Some Christians, with godly scholarly support, contend for a harmonization approach, whereby we are to conclude that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice during his public ministry, first at the beginning of His public ministry, and second towards the end of His public ministry (One gracious, friendly commentator on a previous blog post even gave me a theological reason why there must have been two cleansings…. though well intended, I was not convinced).

While there is nothing technically wrong with this harmonization, it can come across as sounding rather ad hoc, or forced, as it fails to answer the question as to why no one single Gospel records the two Temple cleansings. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Jesus could have gotten away with the first Temple cleansing in John, without getting arrested, but the second Temple cleansing chimes in well with his arrest later in the Passion Week.

Rather, a much better solution is to say that John was not trying to give a chronological account of the one Temple cleansing. Instead, John put the (single) Temple cleansing first in his narrative, to theologically highlight the fact that Jesus came to take down the Old Covenant, as represented by the Temple, and install a New Covenant, centered around faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

In other words, Temple worship does not save us. But faith in Jesus does. And that is Good News!! There is no real concern about possibly “de-historicizing” or “demythologizing” the Bible, as Rudolf Bultmann tried to do. It just makes better sense to read the text this way. No ad hoc harmonization required.

The main problem with a rather ad hoc harmonization approach to the Scriptures is that it tends to reduce Bible study to working a puzzle, merely trying to find solutions to a problem to be solved, instead of seeing Bible discrepancies as a window into exploring a mystery that sets a truly Christian imagination on fire. While sometimes solving a puzzle in the Bible is a worthwhile endeavor, as is the case with syncing up Paul’s description of his missionary journeys, when compared to potential discrepancies we find in the Book of Acts, the rich 2,000 year history of Christian reading and study of the Scriptures suggests meditating on the intricacies of Bible discrepancies actually helps the reader enter into the theological depths of God’s Word, at a whole new level. When the juices begin to flow to help the believer to expand their imagination, to think God’s thoughts after Him, to see that there are mysteries unfolding in the text, then that is a wonderful sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

Connecting the dots associated with what at first appears to be conflicting data points in the Bible have led to some of the most remarkable conversions in the history of the church. It is that type of fired up Christian imagination that helped to turn former skeptics, like the 5th century Augustine of Hippo, to the 20th century Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, to having faith in Jesus. Bishop Ambrose in Rome helped Augustine see the Bible in a whole new way. J.R.R. Tolkien did this for his Oxford scholar/friend C.S. Lewis.

A Case Study on Doing Bible Study Without Excessive Harmonization

British pastor/teacher Andrew Wilson takes the difficult Mark 2 passage regarding Jesus’ supposed “mistake” about Abiathar as an illustration to make this very point, and he makes the illustration a lot better than I can. I took part of Wilson’s essay from behind the paywall at Christianity Today magazine to post the best part here, so I hope Christianity Today will not mind (it may just inspire someone to subscribe to CT, which would be for their benefit).  Enjoy and be edified:

One of my favorite discrepancies is Jesus’ “mistake” in Mark 2. In this passage, the Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus explains that he and his friends are doing what David and his men did when they ate the holy bread in the time of Abiathar the high priest (Mark 2:25–26). The problem is, 1 Samuel 21 tells us that Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was the high priest at the time that David and his men ate the holy bread. Either Jesus made a mistake or Mark did. In either case, evangelicals get nervous.

Scholar Bart Ehrman said that when he discovered this discrepancy in seminary, it kick-started his departure from Christianity. Progressive UK pastor Steve Chalke made it his opening salvo in a debate with me about the truthfulness of the Bible. Countless Christians, on the other hand, upon seeing the problem, have rushed to their study Bibles or other resources where they discover, in relief, that the Greek phrase epi Abiathar could mean “in the passage about Abiathar” rather than “in the time of Abiathar.” “That must be it,” they exclaim. “Problem solved. On to Mark 3.”

Yet there is far more going on in Mark 2. Jesus’ argument is not that he has found an obscure guy in the Old Testament who once ate bread on a Saturday. His point is that David, Israel’s true king-in-waiting, and his consecrated friends were allowed the holy bread that day. Jesus is interpreting his actions through the story of Israel’s greatest king. He is saying, in that cryptic way he often does, “I am David. These guys are my men. So they can eat what they want.”

So Jesus is David, the true king of Israel, and the disciples are his allies. But they aren’t the only characters in the story. Herod is Saul, the current king who has drifted from God and now wants to kill the pretender to the throne. John the Baptist is Samuel, the fiery prophet who prepares the way for the new king and confronts the old one. Judas is Doeg the Edomite, the betrayer. And Abiathar? He is Eli’s great-great-grandson, the last surviving member of the old priestly line, whose eventual removal from the priesthood would prove true God’s word through Samuel (1 Kings 2:27).

All of this means that Jesus mentions Abiathar rather than Ahimelech for good reason. He is saying, “I am David, these are my men, and the current priests are Abiathar. They are in charge now, but in just a few years their priesthood will end, just like Abiathar’s. And my kingdom will be established, just like David’s.”

I think that’s wonderful. The Holy Spirit didn’t put discrepancies in Scripture to provide fuel for skeptics, employment for commentators, or annoyance for evangelical Christians. He did it to make us think, search, meditate, read, learn—and be ever filled with awe.

Andrew Wilson’s treatment of this difficult passage is a good example of a better way we should deal with certain Bible discrepancies.  In the next post in this series, just in time for end of Holy Week, we will examine one of the most puzzling passages in the Gospels. To give you a hint, we will be talking about “Zombies” in the Bible. Look for it on Good Friday!

In the meantime, please keep Michael Licona in your prayers for his big 7-hour debate with Bart Ehrman, to be recorded tomorrow, on the question, “Did the Resurrection of Jesus Really Happen?” It happens tomorrow, April 9th, starting at 9:30am, EDT!!


Did Paul Really Write Ephesians and Colossians?…. (and Why Women Should Care)

Should women care about who wrote Ephesians and Colossians?

The question in the title of this blog might strike some as a bit puzzling. After all, Ephesians starts off with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus,” and the beginning of Colossians is not that much different (Colossians 1:1-2).

Sounds like a silly “no brainer,” right? Paul wrote these two letters. It’s obvious!

Well, anyone who has studied the development of “historical criticism” over the past several hundred years might tell you differently. While some think this topic is too heady or nerdy for them, it turns out that if you are married, as a husband or a wife, or a woman of any kind, or the concept of misogyny bothers you, this just might be important to you….

…. in a series of blog articles on “historical criticism”.…This is probably the longest post in this series, and while I thought about breaking it up into separate parts, maintaining the flow of the argument convinced me not to do so….

Of the “disputed” letters of Paul, 2 Thessalonians and 2 Timothy makes no significant contribution to a theology of male/female relations, but 1 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, and Colossians do. This blog post focuses on this issue as it pertains to Ephesians and Colossians.

 

Why Do So Many Scholars Not Believe that Paul Wrote Ephesians Nor Colossians? Is this REALLY True?

In this blog series on “historical criticism,” we have been looking at how historical critical method has had an impact for the past several hundred years, in how people read the Bible. In some cases, the historical critical method has been helpful, in giving us more solid confidence in the Bible as the very Word of God. But in other ways, the historical critical method has led to more doubts about the Bible. This current blog post is a deep dive into one of these issues.

A general consensus among many (though not all !) biblical scholars trained in historical criticism today suggests that of the thirteen letters that are attributed to Paul in the New Testament, only seven of them were actually written by the Apostle Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. That leaves perhaps as many as six of them were not written by the great apostle: 2 Thessalonians, 1st Timothy, 2nd Timothy, Titus, and the two to be examined in this blog post, Ephesians and Colossians. Furthermore, some of the issues surrounding the Pauline authorship question have a direct impact upon concerns many women have today in a postmodern age, as I will explain further below.

The question of Pauline authorship for the letters associated with his name is an acute difficulty in biblical scholarship. For example, the Gospels do not explicitly tell us who wrote them; that is, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. We get those attributions of authorship from the unified, consensus tradition of the early church. According to most scholars, titles like “the Gospel according to Matthew,” etc. were attached to these Gospels after they were originally written. The letters of Paul are different. In the letters of Paul, each letter explicitly tells you that Paul, along with perhaps a co-author, like Timothy, for Colossians, wrote the letter.

The reasons why Ephesians and Colossians are considered to be “disputed” among the letters of Paul are not too much different from the most controversial letter of the New Testament, that attributed to Peter, regarding its authorship, namely 2 Peter. The typical reasons such scholars question Pauline authorship include variances in literary style and vocabulary, as compared to the “undisputed” letters of Paul, like Romans and the Corinthian letters.1

A prime example of this type of difference can be found in terms of grammar used in Ephesians and Colossians: like the use of run-on sentences.  In much of Paul’s “undisputed” correspondence, the sentences are fairly compact (for the most part). But not in Ephesians 1:3-14. Many scholars contend that this particular passage is one monster, run-on sentence, one of the longest sentences in the entire Bible (though some translations do break up this passage into shorter sentences, to make it easier to read). That’s twelve verses folks, all in a single sentence!

My high school English teacher would probably not have approved of this. She likely would have made Paul stay after class and work on his writing skills.

However, the problems with this type of argument are two-fold. First, Paul does use rather long, run-on sentences in some of his “undisputed” letters, as well. Check out the eight total verses, all in one sentence, in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10 sometime. Sure, there are style and vocabulary differences between the so-called “disputed” and “undisputed” Paul, but these differences are often exaggerated.

Second, such style and vocabulary differences can readily be explained by the use of a secretary, whether named or unnamed, which was actually a familiar practice in the ancient world. Back then, letter writing was more of a professional activity, due to the expense of working with papyrus, and not as commonplace as in modern times, where literacy rates are higher and writing material is much cheaper.

Ever tried buying a pack of papyrus today down at OfficeMax? That is a special order, I am afraid. Paul even tells us that Timothy helped out in the writing of Colossians, so the Bible is far from silent regarding the evidence for Paul getting help from others in producing his letters.

It is also very possible that such secretaries operated like ghostwriters, as we have with many popular authors today, or with political speech writers. Do you really think that the President of the United States writes out every speech he gives? No. Chances are more likely that certain writers are paid to write on behalf of such authors, political figures, etc., as long as they are trying to communicate the same content and message being intended. So, we should not be surprised if style and vocabulary vary between Paul and his use of secretaries.2

UK New Testament scholar Paul Foster took an informal survey at the “British New Testament Conference on Pauline Authorship” in 2011, of roughly 100 scholars, regarding which letters of the New Testament were written by the Apostle Paul. Hebrews is the “loner” here, as there is no claim in it that Paul wrote it. 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus have the least amount of confidence, but Ephesians and Colossians are next in terms of low confidence that Paul wrote them. This survey excludes American and other non-U.K. scholars, where some say the bias against Ephesians and Colossians as being truly Pauline is higher. Reference.

 

Does the Teaching in Ephesians and Colossians, These “Disputed” Letters of Paul, Contradict the Teaching of  the “Undisputed” Paul?

The more challenging case to authentic Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians comes down to differences in theological and ethical content. In other words, the claim is that what the author of Ephesians and/or Colossians is teaching is sufficiently different enough from, or even contradictory with, what is found in the undisputed letters of Paul, such that it would rule out the possibility of the Apostle Paul being the legitimate author. This claim suggests that someone, other than Paul, was writing in the name of Paul in order to push their own theological and/or ethical agenda on their readers.3

What type of evidence do scholars cite, when making such claims? Two particular theological differences stand out as examples:

  1. In Paul’s “undisputed” letters, Paul talks about sin in terms of a hostile power, in the singular sense, and that the Gospel gives us a means of deliverance from that power (see Romans 5:6-11; 7:8, 11). However, in the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians, “sins” is referenced in the plural, where deliverance is spoken of as “the forgiveness of sins” (see Ephesians 1:7; 2:1, 4:32 and Colossians 1:14; 2:13; 3:13).
  2. In Paul’s “undisputed” letters, Paul talks about the resurrection as primarily a future event for believers (Romans 6:5). However, in the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians we read that believers already experience Christ’s resurrection (Ephesians 2:4-8 and Colossians 2:12-13; 3:1).4

But even many scholars, who are otherwise not so sure of Pauline authorship, will admit that such differences are not necessarily contradictions. It could easily be understood that such differences result from differences in emphasis, and not some theological conflict.

For example, to speak of “sin” as a power, in one letter, and the forgiveness of “sins” in another letter does not imply a contradiction, but rather can be understood as complementary teachings. Likewise, the idea that the resurrection is a future event, regarding the future bodily resurrection of the saints, as well as it being a current event, in that we as believers share in the resurrection life of Jesus, who is already risen from the dead, are complementary theological themes. They do stand in tension with one another, but they do not conflict with each other.

Furthermore, it could be easily argued that the supposed tension between the “undisputed” and “disputed” Paul is overdrawn by critics who see a contradiction here. For example, Romans 4:24-25 argues that Jesus was “raised [from the dead] for our justification.” Then in Galatians 2:20, Paul teaches that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Both Romans and Galatians are regarded as “undisputed” letters of Paul. This suggests that the Christian life is lived, in the here and now, as a result of Jesus’ resurrection, a past event. Therefore, the “undisputed” Paul is not simply relegating the resurrected life for the Christian believer as some purely far off event, way off into the future. The theology of Romans and Galatians need not be pitted against the theology of Ephesians and Colossians, as certain scholars have argued.

Paul could have easily tailored his message in different ways to different audiences, to meet different needs. Even in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22, Paul admits that to the Jews he became as a Jew, in order to win Jews, and to the Gentiles he became a Gentile, in order to win them to the Gospel.

In the 19th. century, a number of German scholars, who originally developed the historical critical method, believed that the undisputed letters have a more democratic, Protestant feel to them, as opposed to a more hierarchal, “early Catholic” feel to what is supposedly found in Ephesians and Colossians. For example, the undisputed letters of Paul have a sense of the church (Greek, ekklesia) as an egalitarian gathering of believers. The term ekklesia was originally a political term, that talked about a group of people assembled in a local community to make decisions together, on an essentially democratic basis. However, in Ephesians and Colossians, the writer talks about the church in a more highly structured, universal, even cosmic sense. Furthermore, Ephesians and Colossians appears to be more concerned about structured social arrangements within a Christian household, all within the larger Christian community, as in the relationship between parents and children, and slaves and masters (Ephesians 6:1-9; Colossians 3:20-4:1).

More can be said about that, but suffice to say, the particular issue about the Protestant “undisputed” Paul versus the more Roman Catholic “disputed” Paul is less of an issue these days. Both the “undisputed” and “disputed” Paul use the language of church as “ekklesia,” just with different emphases. However, the big differentiator, in the minds of many scholars today, concerns how the “undisputed” Paul versus the “disputed” Paul thinks about women. The pronounced concerns about Paul’s treatment of women, in his New Testament letters, more than anything else, overshadows the arguments made to deny that Paul wrote Ephesians and/or Colossians. 5

 

Does the “Paul” of Ephesians and Colossians wish to silence and subjugate women? Veracity examines the case made by critics.

 

How Does the Paul (or “Paul”) of Ephesians and Colossians Treat Women?

In our postmodern age, many are concerned about misogyny, the wrongful treatment of women. Sadly, Christians have at times been guilty, and such wrongful treatment has been rightfully exposed. Furthermore, in a day and age where “diversity”, “equity”, and “inclusion” are the watchwords, anything that even hints of misogyny is held suspect. Therefore, many skeptical scholars today suggest that the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians has a rather ethically challenged view of women, when compared to what we find in the “undisputed” letters of Paul. 

Is this really true? Let us take a look at the case being made.

For example, some argue that the “undisputed” Paul of Galatians 3:28 envisions an egalitarian relationship between men and women, by saying that “there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So far, so good. However, this is in contrast with the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians 5:21-24:

…..submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

The “Wives, submit to your own husbands ” part sticks out like a sore thumb, for many 21st century readers.

A generation ago, you might have heard this Ephesians 5 passage read at a Christian wedding, and very few would have raised an eyebrow over it. But in the third decade of the 21st century, this Bible passage would undoubtedly trigger someone, and perhaps spoil the whole wedding day. You are more likely to instead hear the famous “love chapter”, 1 Corinthians 13, taken from one of the “undisputed” letters of Paul, thus avoiding any controversy.

Here in this Ephesians 5 passage, along with a parallel passage in Colossians 3:18-19, the “disputed” Paul is describing the relationship between husbands and wives, along the lines of the Roman “household codes.” In the era of the Apostle Paul, Roman society adopted the idea of “pater familias” (related to the Roman legal code of patria potestas,”power of a father”), where the oldest living male in a household had complete, absolute and unquestioned rule over everyone in the household, including wives, children, slaves, and other servants. The male head of the house had life and death power over everyone in the home. He even had unrestricted sexual access to slaves, without fear of censure by the surrounding society.

Advocates for rejecting Paul as the rightful author of Ephesians and Colossians will contend that the patriarchal, “chain-of-command” approach towards the treatment of women in these “disputed” letters is in contradiction with the egalitarian, “real” Paul of the “undisputed” letters. 

Admittedly, at first glance, it does not look good for the Paul, or “Paul,” of Ephesians (and Colossians), as being a paragon supporter of women. But there is more to the argument. See if you can follow where this is all going.

The rejection of pater familias for sexual relations between husbands and wives is clear in the “undisputed” Paul of 1 Corinthians 7:2-4, where the conjugal rights are equally and reciprocally shared between the husband and wife, as opposed to the unilateral arrangement of husbands having complete sexual control over their wives, associated with the pater familias. It is claimed that the “undisputed” Paul of 1 Corinthians, emphasizing this pure egalitarianism, has no room for the contrary message found in Ephesians and Colossians. Many today see that the notion of “male headship” in marriage is actually not a Christian concept, but rather, something smuggled into the New Testament, via Ephesians and Colossians, by someone with an agenda alien to the “real” Paul of 1 Corinthians. 6

If Paul did not write Ephesians/Colossians, why would someone use the name of Paul to promote a teaching that some see as endorsing misogyny? The standard answer has been that Ephesians/Colossians were probably written decades after Paul’s death in the 60’s, between the years of 70 and 100 C.E. Some even date these letters perhaps up to 70 years later, well into the 2nd century C.E., in a time when church officials sought to domesticate the radically egalitarian teachings of the “undisputed” Apostle Paul. According to this view, late 1st century or 2nd century church officials had come to believe that the Apostle Paul’s teachings were too radical for Roman society, and needed to be amended to make Christianity more compatible with the pagan society. 7

This is a serious argument raised by a growing number of scholars (including a few Christian ones). For those who have grown up looking at the “Leave it to Beaver” days of the 1950s, as a hopelessly dark relic of a misogynistic past, this argument gives plenty of fodder for those who would rather leave Paul alone, and reject a good portion of the New Testament (if not all of it).

Women in the Greco-Roman world of the New Testament era were thought of as socially inferior to men. Did the Apostle Paul share that view? Do Ephesians and Colossians specifically endorse misogyny?

 

How to Respond to the Supposedly Misogynistic Views of the “Disputed” Paul?

The reactions drawn from this contrast of the “undisputed” Paul with the “disputed” Paul of Ephesians and Colossians, particularly with respect to the Bible’s treatment of women, vary greatly.

In our contemporary age, where feminism has an enormous impact on both society and the church, some would say that out of respect for women, we should reject Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Christian canon, in order to show Christian solidarity in opposing misogyny. When “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” are the watchwords of the day, at least in certain quarters, a push for Christians to marginalize Ephesians and Colossians is ideologically strong. This position is radical, but at least it is honest and not half-hearted.

Other ways of thinking about this in progressive Christian circles are a bit more complicated. Some might say that it really does not matter what Paul says, whether it be the “undisputed” or “disputed” Paul, and that we should only focus on what Jesus’ says in the Gospels.

Others are more nuanced, and say that we can still embrace Ephesians and Colossians as part of the New Testament, even if Paul never wrote those letters. British Anglican priest and Oxford scholar John Barton is pretty typical of this perspective, as he writes in his A History of the Bible:

‘A lot depends on how we define the authority of biblical books. Are Paul’s letters authoritative because they are by Paul? If so, then establishing that one of them is in fact pseudonymous presumably reduces or even annuls its authority. Or are they authoritative because they are in the Bible? If so, the question of who wrote them might be regarded as irrelevant.’ (p.187)

Such progressive Christians conclude that Ephesians and Colossians were probably written by some avid disciple (or disciples) of Paul’s, decades after his death, with the understanding that these writers could tweak the Apostle’s Paul message in a new way that tried to meet the needs of a new generation. The progressive Christians holding such a view would suggest that we can still accept Ephesians and Colossians as part of the Christian New Testament canon, embracing those elements that are in sync with the “undisputed” Paul, while rejecting those elements that are seen to be in contradiction with the “real” Paul, found elsewhere in the New Testament. This is sort of like the analogy of eating a piece of fish: eat the meaty part, but spit out the bones, as an approach to suspect parts of the Bible.

The problem with this “spit out the bones” approach to Ephesians and Colossians is that it assumes that the practice of writing something in someone else’s name, and changing what is taught, was somehow benign in the ancient world. However, a number of scholars today are challenging that view, that it was “okay” to use the name of a famous person to promote even a slightly different agenda.  For if someone in the ancient world was writing in the name of the Apostle Paul, for the purpose of changing the teachings of Paul, then such a literary work should be rejected as a forgery. In other words, writing something with the intent to deceive was considered lying (just as it is now). A forgery is a forgery.

So, is the judgment of “forgery” laid against Ephesians and Colossians a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily. In fact, we have good evidence to indicate even Ephesians and Colossians were authentically Pauline. The process by which certain writings were accepted into the New Testament canon was actually quite rigorous in the early church. Numerous other writings, ranging from the Epistle to the Laodiceans, Third Corinthians, to the Apocalypse of Paul were all rejected from the New Testament canon as being not authentically Pauline, though they all claimed to be. Therefore, to think that Ephesians and Colossians, if judged to be forgeries, simply slipped into the canon unnoticed is quite a remarkable claim indeed. Furthermore, there are good reasons to suggest that Ephesians and Colossians are not as misogynistic as some think.8

 

 

A More Faithful Response?: Evangelical Cases for Paul as the Legitimate Author of Ephesians and Colossians

Most evangelical scholars today do uphold the traditional position, that Paul was the real author of Ephesians and Colossians, but when intertwined with the issue of women, and their relationships to men, there are two primary camps within the evangelical fold: the egalitarian and the complementarian. Both the egalitarian and the complementarian camps affirm the equality as well as the non-interchangeability between male and female, yet broadly speaking, the egalitarian camp emphasizes the equality aspect, while the complementarian camp emphasizes the non-interchangeability aspect. Egalitarians tend to emphasize mutuality between male and female. Complementarians tend to emphasize the complementary roles that male and female perform, with respect to the other. Before outlining the distinctives of each position, it is important to highlight where both positions agree. 9

Egalitarian and complementarian evangelical Christians both agree that Paul wrote Ephesians and Colossians, citing the points above that the style and vocabulary differences between the “disputed” and “undisputed” Pauline letters are often over-exaggerated, and can be reconciled when considering Paul’s use of secretaries in writing his letters.  When it comes to the theological content argument, where critics say that the “disputed” Paul contradicts the “undisputed” Paul, with what is being taught, evangelical scholars will also argue that such supposed “contradictions” are highly exaggerated, or else not properly understood. Part of the supposed “contradictions” could simply be a result of Paul’s growing understanding of the Gospel truth, as he advanced in his own spiritual maturity, filling out areas of theological and ethical concern that were not wholly addressed in other letters.

Evangelical scholars will also say that when wives are called to “submit to their husbands,” they are to do so “as to the Lord,” or “unto the Lord” (Ephesians 5:21-14). Submission is grounded in the concept that submission is to be understood, first and foremost, to God Himself, and secondarily, that submission more broadly speaking is mutual in human interpersonal relationships (see verse 21, especially, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.“). Wives are not to submit to their husbands, as though the rule of the husband is absolute. Rather, they are to submit to God, as their husbands should as well. In other words, husbands and wives are to submit to one another, in mutual, yet different kinds of ways, within the context of giving honor and glory to God.10

Many scholars will say that while Paul in Ephesians and Colossians is using the “household codes” framework for stating his teachings, he is actually calling into question some key components of the Roman pater familias social arrangements. First, it is noted that the Ephesians 5 passage begins with a directive to wives first, and then to husbands, which flips the order of how the pater familias was typically expressed in the Roman era, where husbands/fathers always came first. Changing the order of presentation is important, as it would indicate that Paul is reversing the position of both the stronger and weaker parties in typical Roman thinking. In other words, far from rubber-stamping the pater familias Roman tradition, Paul is subverting it. Here is what follows the directive to wives (the corresponding Colossians 3:18-19 passage is more succinct):

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. (Ephesians 5:25-30 ESV)

Secondly, this section regarding how husbands are to treat their wives does not in anyway indicate a type of dominating, overbearing relationship that a husband is supposed to have with his wife. Instead, the ethic of love, particularly as following the ethic of how Christ loves His church, is expressed. The husband is required to give self-sacrificially for the wife, just as Christ has done for the whole church. This overarching element of love is missing from the Roman pater familias, which makes explicit reference to the husband’s absolute control over his household, and is therefore in contrast with Paul’s teachings. 11

An Evangelical Egalitarian Approach to Ephesians & Colossians…

Nevertheless, egalitarian and complementarian evangelicals do differ beyond what is argued above. An evangelical egalitarian view will contend that the “disputed” Paul and “undisputed” Paul are one in the same, in that they are both egalitarian. The argument usually centers around the claim that the word “head” in Ephesians 5:21-24 has been mistranslated and misinterpreted. They would argue that “head”, in this context, actually means “source,” as opposed to something more traditional, like “authority,” or “leader.” In other words, to say that the “the husband is the head of the wife” is to say that the husband is the “source” of the wife, and not the “authority” or “leader.” For example, in an analogy of English usage, we could speak about the “head” of a river” as also being the “source” of a river, where the concept of authority is absent. 12

This egalitarian evangelical approach suggests that the claim made by critics, in denying Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians, are doing so on the basis of reading a tradition into the text of Scripture, that simply is not there. At the same time, egalitarian evangelicals argue that the traditional-leaning complementarians are actually encouraging the critics in their resolve to undermine Ephesians and Colossians, by tacitly supporting a more misogynistic reading of these letters. In other words, when complementarians look the other way when some complementarians use their theology to hide the abuse the women, it brings the gospel into disrepute.

An Evangelical Complementarian Approach to Ephesians & Colossians…

A complementarian view will push back on an egalitarian view at this point. First,  a complementarian view would call into the question the more “pro-women” perspective articulated by egalitarians, as misrepresenting complementarianism, as complementarianism is actually more “pro-women” than what egalitarians typically think. After all, even in some egalitarian churches, women still find themselves on the receiving end of abuse.

Secondly, a complementarian view may readily concede that there is a real difference between the ethical emphases in the “undisputed” letters versus what we find in Ephesians and Colossians, as more skeptical critics do argue. However, this is not a cause for embarrassment. Rather, this is what we would expect as Paul is tailoring his unified message in different contexts, with different needs, through his different letters. What might have been a concern at Ephesus or Colossae might not have been a concern in Corinth or Rome.

However, a complementarian view also pushes back against those critics who deny Pauline authorship of those latter two letters, in saying that such critics make too much of such a contrast between the “disputed” and “undisputed” Paul. In particular, the “undisputed” letters make no substantial reference to how husbands and wives are to have structure and order, with respect to decision-making, particularly when consensus between marriage partners is not easily reached, etc., whereas Ephesians and Colossians do specifically address such questions of structure and order. For example, Paul’s desire that husbands and wives have mutual conjugal rights in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 need not conflict with the idea that the husband and wife relationship should parallel the Christ and church relationship.13

While many “broad” complementarians might emphasize the more traditional notion of “authority” and/or “leader“, with respect to interpreting the meaning of “head” in Ephesians 5:21-24 , there is also a “narrow” (or “moderate”) complementarian view that sees a mediating position between the “‘head’ means ‘source’” and the “‘head’ means ‘authority’” camps. This mediating position follows the most current research that argues that “head” in the Ephesians and Colossians context simply means “to occupy the position at the top or front.14

Towards a Meeting Place Between Complementarian and Egalitarian Christians?

Many in our postmodern culture today, and even in the church, view any form of complementarianism as an affront to contemporary sensibilities. But complementarians do not necessarily see it that way, as the tendency towards authoritarianism was never in Paul’s view. At least, those who hold a more moderate complementarian view reject a more rigid, authoritarian perspective, though admittedly, more extreme complementarians do go down the more authoritarian route.

Rather, the notion of the man occupying “the position at the top or front” with respect to the woman is simply meant to be understood in a more sacramental, mysterious way. It is part of what makes Christianity weird and unique, not yet just another voice echoing what we hear all of the time in the surrounding culture. In other words, the notion of “male headship” is not any more weird, than say, the Incarnation, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the idea that we can “feast on Christ” through our participation in the Lord’s Supper, the doctrine of the Trinity, or even a belief in Christ’s resurrection.

Sadly, the sacramental character of a robust complementarian theology gets overshadowed by concerns over the mistreatment, exclusion, and denigration of women.The complementarian side of this debate finds themselves in the awkward position of dealing with extreme traditionalists who misuse passages like Ephesians 5:21-24 and Colossians 3:18-19 to gloss over all kinds of abuse of women, which only reinforces skepticism, not only of the complementarian position, but of the Bible in general. The silencing of women, by extreme traditionalists, has only added fuel to the skeptic’s fire, particularly as 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 often gets weaponized against women, in ways completely unwarranted by what is actually in the text.. 15

But the egalitarian view is not in any better position. In fact, it might be more precarious. For while evangelical egalitarians and skeptical critics of Ephesians and Colossians might find mutual agreement about relations between husbands and wives in marriage, along with the notion of having women serve as elders/presbyters in a local church, the skeptical critics of Ephesians and Colossians will most probably give evangelical egalitarians a silent pass, while dismissing their exegesis of at least some disputed texts as being a case of perhaps well-intentioned, but nevertheless, hopelessly wishful thinking. Perhaps it might be better for complementarians and egalitarians to learn to listen to one another better, and find common ground.16

Holding Onto Ephesians and Colossians as Pauline, Versus Losing Them

Many evangelical Christians look upon the complementarian/egalitarian debate as primarily a matter of how one should interpret particular controversial verses found in the New Testament. While this is still a valid concern for believers, far more is at stake. It should be evident that the current cultural and church debate, concerning how men and women are to relate to one another, has an apologetic component to it. In other words, how do we defend an historically orthodox approach to the Bible, without allowing current cultural concerns to completely alter how we view the nature of the New Testament?

This may sound like a “devil’s advocate” type of response, but this is worth exploring, for those who tend to doubt. After all, Christians are called to be truth seekers, above all else: So, what if the critics are correct, and a final conclusion is reached, that someone used Paul’s name to write Ephesians and Colossians? At one level, losing Ephesians and Colossians is not the end of the Christian faith. For if Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, then Christianity is true….period!  If Paul never actually wrote Ephesians or Colossians, this would not destroy the reality of the resurrection of Jesus, which is the foundation of our faith. Christianity would still be true, but our Bibles would be a bit smaller.

However, at another level, ditching Ephesians and Colossians as not being truly Pauline may still cause problems for some doubters. For if the early church did not get the New Testament right, in terms of accurately identifying the letters that bear Paul’s name, then some might wonder, “What else did the early church get wrong?

Furthermore, losing Ephesians and Colossians throws the debate between egalitarians and complementarians, by default, in the favor of the egalitarians. Some may celebrate this, but it does so at a high cost. Rejecting Ephesians and Colossians as being non-Pauline (and while you at it, toss in 1 Timothy and Titus as well), might provide great comfort to those who find any hint of misogyny in our New Testament objectionable. But what else would you lose?

If Ephesians and/or Colossians are shown to be non-Pauline in origin, we lose certain unique dimensions of Christian teaching that have given strength and comfort to Christians for generations. While other texts in the remainder of the New Testament do speak of the “forgiveness of sins,” without Ephesians and Colossians we lose Paul’s unique contribution to that doctrine. We lose a more robust and enriching Pauline teaching that not only do we await the coming resurrection, we also experience the reality of resurrection presently in our lives, as an established fact. Without Ephesians and Colossians, we lose Paul’s grand vision of the cosmic and universal nature of the church. We could go on citing other unique Pauline contributions to Christian faith, found in Ephesians and Colossians. In other words, we lose a lot without an authentically Pauline Ephesians and Colossians.

Attempts to “eat the meat” and “spit out the bones” of Ephesians and Colossians will not do. For this places the authority of the message, not in the text of Scripture itself, but rather in the hands of the interpreter. The interpreter becomes the one to try to separate the “meat” from the “bones,” as opposed to allowing the Scripture itself to speak authoritatively. Attempts to say that someone else could have written Ephesians and Colossians in the name of Paul, while drastically changing certain elements of his teaching, and still claim that Ephesians and Colossians should be accepted as authoritative Scripture, simply are not convincing. If Ephesians and Colossians are judged to be forgeries, then they are forgeries. Therefore, it is exceedingly more difficult to trust the Bible, if we somehow concede that certain writings in the canon were written with an intent to deceive us as readers.

On the other hand, a closer examination of the evidence indicates that there still is a solid case to be made that Paul is the real author of Ephesians and Colossians. If I have been successful in my argument from this blog post, there are good reasons to continue to affirm Ephesians and Colossians as truly Pauline, though different evangelicals might still differ on some of the details. Rumors of a misogynistic “Paul” obliquely lurking in the pages of the New Testament have been greatly exaggerated. Ephesians and Colossians can be confidently regarded as truly coming from the mind and teaching of Paul. Therefore, we can still enjoy the theological riches that Ephesians and Colossians give us as the very Word of God.

 

Why This All Matters for Believing Christians… Both Women AND Men (or It Should)

It has become quite common in recent years for some Christians to claim that the denigration of women was a prominent feature in the earliest, historically orthodox Christian communities. Strenuous efforts have been made to separate that ugly history from the Bible itself, in an effort to salvage confidence in the Christian faith as being “on the side” of women. Have these efforts worked?

This blog post documents a view, commonly held by many scholars today, that the Christian Bible we have now is hopelessly filled with misogynistic themes, that place women in a subjugated status. Some progressive Christians therefore conclude that the only way to rescue the Bible from those who wish to completely undermine its relevance to postmodern life is to clip out significantly large chunks of the New Testament, namely certain letters, or certain portions of letters, attributed to Paul, and dismiss such material as having no authority for believers today.

But is that claim true? Was the denigration of women really part of the story of the earliest Christian communities? Furthermore, was it really rooted in the very pages of the New Testament itself?

Or when we read certain difficult passages that we find in either Ephesians and Colossians, do we instead discover that Paul has something utterly different than propagating misogynistic tropes? Rather, is Paul speaking something about the beauty and difference between male and female that is to celebrated, instead of something to be embarrassed about and ignored?

Christian readers should consider these things, particularly when we discuss our faith with our neighbors. It is something to think about.

A few days before I eventually published this post, Erik Manning, an apologist aligned with William Lane Craig, put out the following videos that address some of the arguments made against Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Colossians:

 

 

Notes:

1. This is a pretty technical blog post, but the issue is very important. The notion of “disputed” letters of Paul in the New Testament, in contrast to the “undisputed” letters of Paul,  means that scholars across the theological and ideological spectrum dispute about the authorship status of the former letters. Comparatively few Christians are aware of the debate, despite the fact that many scholars in the field doubt the authenticity of the “disputed” letters of Paul. The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton, has an article on Ephesians by J.D.G. Dunn that best summarizes the matter: “Was the Letter Written by Paul? The traditional view, from the second century onwards, is certainly in the affirmative… But for the past 200 years the issue has been disputed, and though several prominent contemporary scholars still hold to Pauline authorship…, the majority have concluded that it was most probably written by someone else” (p.1166). A number of “progressive Christians” have been swayed by the debate, in favor of rejecting the six “disputed” letters of Paul as not being genuine; i.e. “fake”, while still coming up with a variety of fairly creative, yet ultimately convoluted ways of still keeping these books within the New Testament canon of Scripture, while selectively dismissing certain elements of teaching found in those “fake” letters (see this typical blog post by Keith Giles, a “progressive Christian.”)  As I hope to show in this blog post, the ramifications of this debate are quite substantial, and impact how we view Christian discipleship. Plus, there is good scholarship done by a variety of scholars that suggests that the traditional view, that Paul really authored all 13 letters attributed to him, still has a good case to make….. A note should be added about the missing titles from the original copies of the Gospels: some scholars, like Brant Pitre, argue that the titles of the Gospels were likely included in the texts originally. While this is a possibility, the problem with this view is that it is not necessary to make a defense of the Gospels with that argument. It is sufficient to say that church tradition was unified in saying the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote their respective Gospels. We have no record of any early church leader suggesting that the authorial designations that we possess now are incorrect. In fact, we have other evidence that indicates that Justin Martyr, an early 2nd. century Christian apologist, simply referred to the Gospels as “the memoirs of the apostles,” without naming the authors. But these need not force the conclusion that the Gospels were purely anonymous, for other church fathers, particularly Irenaeus, explicitly named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the respective authors.    

2. The classic case illustrating Paul’s use of secretaries can be found in Paul’s most important letter, Romans. In Romans 6:22 we read that Tertius wrote the letter to the Romans. This would suggest that Paul dictated the letter to Tertius, who served as Paul’s amanuensis. It is quite possible that Paul gave his secretaries different degrees of latitude with respect to style and vocabulary. How much latitude would have been granted is greatly debated among scholars. Some find the ghostwriter or speech writer analogy to be too broad, but we simply have no evidence to discount the possibility, in the case of the 13 letters attributed to Paul.

3. There is a special condition, cited by certain scholars, that suggests instances where someone was writing in someone else’s name, but doing so in a non-deceitful manner. Such scholars make a distinction between pseudepigraphical (writing under someone else’s name falsely) and allonymity (writing under another name, but doing so out of indebtedness to that famous person, by summarizing or faithfully restating the famous person’s teachings, intentionally for the benefit of future generations). Evidence in support of allonymity is based on the fact that the ancient world did not have copyright law, and so there was no legal conception of authorial ownership for written materials. The allonymity proposal was suggested by I. H. Marshall, as a middle-alternative between the designation of an ancient letter/document as being written authentically by the named author, and the pseudepigraphical designation, associated with deceit; i.e. forgery. Philip Towner, in his New International Commentary to the Letters of Timothy and Titus, summarizes Marshall’s approach, with explicit reference to Colossians and Ephesians (Kindle location 1525):

To navigate this treacherous middle-ground, Marshall suggests the term “allonymity” to define an authorial process that might close the gap between the apostle and the author who co-opts his name, in a way that allows escape from the allegations of deception and falsehood in the process. He explains that either the student or follower of Paul edits the notes of the deceased apostle, or he steps into the shoes of the dead apostle and carries the master’s teaching forward for future generations in a manner that is faithful to earlier apostolic intentions, even if the key of theological score has been transposed. Examples of this might be found in the philosophical schools, and some aver that Colossians and Ephesians represent letters of the same type. The view allows that the letters to Timothy and Titus, and 2 Timothy especially, may well contain authentic Pauline fragments that a follower worked into the three letters after Paul’s death. At some point between the time of their writing and early circulation and the time of the fathers who first mention them, the “allonymous” authorship of the letters was forgotten and the earliest witnesses attribute them to the apostle.

My New Testament instructor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Donald Hagner, followed this solution, championed by Marshall as well.  Some scholars in support of this add that this would explain how the Book of Hebrews was admitted into the New Testament canon, on the basis of its apostolic teaching, despite the fact that there is no name attached to Hebrews anywhere in the text. However, the case of Hebrews differs in that the other letters traditionally associated with Paul all have Paul’s name attached to them, whereas Hebrews as no name attached to it, thereby making it an anonymous writing, in a different class of its own. Perhaps a better candidate might be 2 Peter, which some say was put together by a devoted disciple of Peter, based on sermon notes, etc. made from Peter’s teachings. Nevertheless, other scholars are not convinced that such a fine middle-ground solution can be found. But considering the current state of the evidence, it remains a plausible solution.   

4. The Harper Collins Study Bible introductory notes for Ephesians and Colossians do a good job of summarizing the case, arguing that the teachings found in Ephesians and Colossians diverge from the teachings found in the “undisputed” letters of Paul. It should be noted that the degree of suspicion regarding Ephesians is higher than for Colossians. For example, Werner Georg Kümmel, in his classic 20th century Introduction to the New Testament (pp. 340-346, 357-366), makes the case that Colossians is authentically Pauline, while Ephesians is not. Some readers might object that I should not even be entertaining any “historical critical” perspective that would jeopardize the traditional understanding of the New Testament canon. But as I have argued elsewhere, we need not fear the insights that “historical criticism” can give us. Once we understand the assumptions being made by an historical critic, we can then properly appreciate the evidence being presented without necessarily being driven to the same conclusions made by that historical critic, that are often subject to cognitive bias.   

5. Readers unfamiliar with the debate regarding “women in ministry” might consider where I try to make a case for a “gentle complementarianism,” a middle way between a more hard-core traditionalism/complementarianism on the one side, and egalitarianism on the other side. A good summary of my position is articulated by Gavin Ortlund, in this YouTube clip, where he coins the term “gentle complementarian”. For more detail, please see this multi-part blog series from a few years ago on Veracity. I find that the distinction between male and female is mainly of a sacramental character, as set forth in the Bible, as opposed to some oppressive hierarchy, on one hand, or some “gender is a social construct” idea, on the other.  

6. (See footnote #14 below regarding the special case of 1 Corinthians 11:3, and footnote #15 below regarding the special case of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35)…. Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr, in her The Making of Biblical Womanhood, makes the argument that the concept of “male headship” was invented by the church, and not Scripture. Barr is correct to observe that at least certain expressions “male headship” have distorted the application of Scriptural principles, all throughout church history. There is no argument against Barr here. However, it is difficult to see how she can call out “male headship” as an invented doctrine, without implicating the Bible itself in the process. The language of “head” with respect to male/female relations, particularly in marriage, is difficult to divorce from Scripture. See my review of Barr’s book here.  

7. The case is more pronounced with the Pastoral letters (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus), where many scholars are more skeptical about Pauline authorship, as compared to Ephesians and Colossians. But a similar logic applies: someone other than Paul wrote these letters, using Paul’s name, in order to domesticate the more radical message of the Apostle Paul, and make it sound more palatable to the social standards of the wider pagan culture, and less offensive. According to Lilian Portefaix:

“…. with the suspicions that Christianity was a revolutionary sect in mind, it was important for the author to convince the authorities that Christian leaders were no revolutionaries. It has been noticed that the catalogue of virtues demand of the office-bearers (bishops, deacons, and elders) in the church (1 Tim 3:1-7; 8-12; Tit. 1:5-9) corresponds to the fixed pattern of traditional qualities appropriate to a military command… which are listed in the Strategikos by the tactic Onosander…. The catalogue of virtues attributable to an army leader embodies the Roman ideal of a paterfamilias who keeps a tight hand over his family; this idea is prescribed for bishops and deacons… who besides their own families, are set to govern the household of God… Presumably the ‘one in Christ’ formula (Gal. 3:28), concealing social and political implications, had tended to place master and slave on a equal footing outside the community and had attracted the attention of non-Christians.” (Feminist Companion to Paul: Deutero-Pauline Writings, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. “‘Good Citizenship’ in the Household of God: Women’s Position in the Pastorals Reconsidered in the Light of Roman Rule,” p. 151).

The problem with this thesis is that it still assumes that the pseudepigraphical author of “Paul’s” letters deemed Paul’s writings to be insufficient, and thus felt the need to change Paul’s teachings; effectively, contradicting the authentic Paul. Jouette M. Bassler is even more condescending in her assessment of the Pastoral Letters, a judgment that can be easily extended to Ephesians and Colossians, for the same reasons. In her discussion about the pseudepigraphical Paul’s treatment of widows in 1 Timothy,  Bassler is not simply saying that misogyny crept into the early church. Rather, she is saying misogyny is rooted in the very New Testament itself. Bassler states:

“… the very persistence of the concern to control widows suggests that the church hierarchy continued to feel threatened by their (latent or active?) spiritual power… The Pastoral Letters were accepted into the canon and their pronouncements on widows in particular, and women in general, attained the normative status of inspired authority. Fortunately, the author left enough cracks in the letters’ rhetorical facade that we can get glimpses of the early struggle and expose his words for what they are — a calculus of suppression.” (Feminist Companion to Paul: Deutero-Pauline Writings, ed. Amy-Jill Levine. “Limits and Differentiation: The Calculus of Widows in 1 Timothy 5:3-16”, p. 146).

If Jouette M. Bassler is correct, then you have to wonder why anyone would want to keep these “disputed” letters in the New Testament canon today. But if Bassler is wrong, and the teachings about women in the “disputed” letters can be coherently read together with the content in the “undisputed” letters, thereby viewing the tension as indicative of complementary differences, as opposed to contradictions, then a more vibrant, positive and edifying view of Paul’s teaching can be gained.  

8. University of North Carolina bible scholar, Bart Ehrman, who is no ally to historically orthodox Christianity, and who considers Ephesians and Colossians to be forgeries, rejects the notion popular in some “Progressive Christian” circles that is was somehow “okay” in the ancient world to use the name of a famous person to write material that altered the message of that famous person. In Ehrman’s book Forged, he makes a persuasive case that forgery was considered forgery then, just as much as forgery is considered to be forgery now. The difficulty with Ehrman’s thesis is that he does not sufficiently value the evidence in favor of authenticity for the writings associated with the Apostle Paul, as well was seeing contradictions in the New Testament that need not be interpreted as contradictions.   In a previous blog post, contrary to Ehrman, I elaborate on the rigorous process at work in the early church to adequately vet the legitimacy of New Testament documents to be admitted into the canon of the New Testament.

9. The Veracity blog series on “women in ministry” goes into the complementarian/egalitarian debate in more detail.

10. Some argue that mutual submission here is more of an egalitarian perspective, specifically. However, mutual submission can also carry the sense of a reciprocative relationship, whereby the movement of one towards another calls for a corresponding movement from the other back towards the initiator, but in a different manner. The analogy of ballroom dancing might be applicable here, as one partner is the leader, and the other follows, but both parties must mutually submit to one another in order for the dance to be a success. Mutual submission, understood this way, has more of a complementarian perspective. One can easily identify extremes on both the complementarian and egalitarian sides of the debate, where on the one side, men are too often given a pass in abusing women, and on the other side, where gender becomes merely a social construct, where “man” and “woman” become purely subjective identifiers.  

11. Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People offers a refreshingly different view of Paul, that sees him more at odds with the Roman pater familias traditions of his day. Ruden’s perspective is all the more remarkable considering that she is a classicist, with a more progressive theological leaning. Her view on Paul’s understanding of slavery forced me to conclude two things about Paul: First, Paul was not a social revolutionary who sought to overthrow the established slavery system. Secondly, Paul did undercut the whole rationale for how people become slaves in the first place, mainly through what Paul wrote to Philemon about Onesimus. In other words, Paul does not upset the apple cart of slavery as an institution, but by subtly attacking the basis for how people can be regarded as slaves in the first place, Paul renders the slavery system as being mute. For without slaves, you can have no slavery system to uphold. Similar insights in Ruden’s book are applicable to the complementarian/egalitarian discussion.  See my review of her book on Veracity.  

12. Andrew Perriman, author of Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul, and a committed egalitarian, does not find such arguments by his fellow egalitarians convincing. He makes a different point that will be brought out below in another footnote.   

13. If there is one pet peeve I have about an egalitarian view of marriage is that it is hopelessly unrealistic, for the vast majority of people. I know of several egalitarian Christians with marriages, where they contend that the spouses have been married for decades without any substantial disagreements that could not be resolved by seeking after consensus. Even the prominent New Testament scholar Gordon Fee makes the same claim. Well, great for them. But unfortunately, for the rest of us, the effort to try to arrive at consensus in marital decisions at all costs is really a setup for failure. Yes, we should try to reach consensus when making decisions. But what happens when a consensus can not be reached? Does that mean that the marriage is a failure, or the marriage partners are a failure? Sometimes, someone has to step up to the plate and make a decision. Unfortunately, egalitarian marriage principles do not help you in those circumstances. They just leave you with a sense of failure, with unrealistic expectations prodding you along the whole way. 

14. The “to occupy the position at the top or front” understanding of “head” seems to be gaining the consensus in the research today regarding the meaning of “kephale” in Ephesians 5:22-24. I would liken it to standing at the “head” of a line to board a plane or a bus….  A “broad” complementarian view tends to see the authority/lead understanding of male “headship” as having a wide range of applications, not just in marriage or in the church, but in society as well.  A more “narrow” (or moderate) complementarian view tends to see male “headship” more in terms of the husband as the gentle leader of the family, and that the office of elder in the church is restricted to qualified men, but allowing women to serve in other church leadership capacities without restriction (like deacon, bible study teacher, worship leader, seminary teacher, etc.). Some see an even more “narrow” view where only the senior pastor needs to be qualified male. Nevertheless, all flavors of “narrow” complementarians do not see any particular application outside of the home or the church (See footnote #5 above about “gentle complementarians”)… Regarding the meaning of “head” in Paul’s writings, see 1 Corinthians 11:3 also. The whole topic of 1 Corinthians probably deserves another blog post focused on that text. But a short response by some critical leaning scholars is to say that the whole of 1 Corinthians 11, regarding male headship, is actually a position that Paul himself does not hold, and that we know this from 1 Corinthians 11:16, which in the Christian Standard Bible reads, “If anyone want to argue about this, we have no other custom, neither the churches of God.” Most Christians traditionally understand Paul to say that the principle of male headship, however it is interpreted, is an inherent belief to be affirmed in the church, and that having such arguments to dispute against it is not a custom that he tolerates. However, these critical scholars will contend that it is the custom of male headship itself which not a custom he tolerates, and that therefore Christians should not bother with the concept of male headship. In this perspective, it is argued that the concept of headship in Ephesians has been horribly misconfigured to mean something opposite to what Paul originally intended.

Anyway, back to “kephale” or “head”:   Andrew Wilson has a great summary of where the current scholarship stands regarding the understanding of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 and Ephesians 5, suggesting a middle pathway between complementarian and egalitarian positions.  Ian Paul offers an egalitarian view of “head” that is typical in such circles. As foreshadowed in a previous footnote, Andrew Perriman contends for a middle-ground reading for “head.” Interestingly, Andrew Perriman argues as an egalitarian, but dismisses the “‘head’ means ‘source‘” school of thought as wishful thinking speculation, that can not be defended exegetically. Instead, he simply believes that Paul’s teaching regarding wifely submission in Ephesians and Colossians were temporary, an accommodation to the Roman culture of the day. Times have changed now. However, he provides no convincing exegetical basis to support this argument. All Perriman can muster is that we do not live under the Roman system anymore, which does not tell us whether or not Paul’s teaching is prescriptive across all time and places, versus only limited to that particular 1st/2nd century situation. Well, at least Perriman is being honest about it. Here is a review of Perriman’s book Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul.   

15. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is one of the most puzzling passages in the Bible, as this passage has encouraged some to conclude that women should remain completely silent in church. This is difficult, not only for egalitarians, but complementarians as well. The most obvious difficulty in this interpretation is that just three chapters prior, in the same letter, in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, Paul is encouraging women to pray and prophesy in church, which entails speech. For a full exposition of this passage, see the previous Veracity posting, on “Women Should Keep Silent in Church? : A Corinthian Conundrum Considered.”  In summary, the three main views are (a) women are to remain silent in the church, but only when it comes to judging prophecy, which the preceding passage in 1 Corinthians 14 addresses, (b) this passage is an interpolation; that is, something added later to the text by a copyist scribe, and not part of the original New Testament,  and (c) that Paul is actually quoting a view held by the Corinthian community, of which he is strenuously refuting, as being contrary to the Gospel message. Since the earliest New Testament documents lacked quotation marks in the original Greek, it is quite easy to understand how many Christians could have misinterpreted this passage. In that previous blog post, I make the case that the third view (c) makes the most sense of the text. This third view completely removes any hint of misogyny in Paul’s thinking here in this undisputed letter written by the Apostle. 

16. Andrew Wilson’s post on “Twenty Myths of the Gender Debate” is exceedingly helpful for both sides in the complementarian and egalitarian debate.


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