St. Paul

BBC and Easter: If culture is upstream of politics, might doctrine -- for many -- be upstream of culture?

BBC and Easter: If culture is upstream of politics, might doctrine -- for many -- be upstream of culture?

Ask most Americans to name the most important day on the Christian calendar and I'm afraid (as a guy who took a bunch of church history classes) that the answer you will hear the most is "Christmas."

That is a very, very American answer. As the old saying goes, the two most powerful influences on the U.S. economy are the Pentagon and Christmas. There's no question which holiday puts the most shoppers in malls and ads in newspapers (grabbing the attention of editors).

But, as a matter of liturgical reality, there is no question that the most important holy day for Christians is Easter, called "Pascha" in the churches of the East. I realize that St. Paul is not an authoritative voice, in terms of Associated Press style, but this is how he put it:

... If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Now, I am not here to argue about doctrine. What "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's podcast (click here to check that out) was the fact that what religious believers affirm in terms in doctrine often plays a crucial role in how they live and act. Thus, it is often wise for reporters to ask core doctrinal questions in order to spot fault lines inside Christian communities, especially during times of conflict.

Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly mentioned (some witty readers once proposed a drinking game linked to this) the "tmatt trio" of doctrinal questions that I have used for several decades now. Here is a version taken from some of my conversations with the late George Gallup, Jr.

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?

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Were Paul, and Jesus himself, mistaken about when Second Coming would occur?

Were Paul, and Jesus himself, mistaken about when Second Coming would occur?

NORMAN’S QUESTION (summarized and paraphrased):

The New Testament letter of 1st Thessalonians regards the coming of the Kingdom as imminent. But don’t 2nd Thessalonians and later New Testament letters indicate the church was coming to terms with the fact that Paul (and Jesus himself) were mistaken about this?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Experts say the first of the two letters Paul, Silvanus and Timothy sent to friends in the Greek city of Thessalonika was the earliest New Testament book to be written, dated only a couple decades after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Both that letter and 2nd Thessalonians (which some few think might actually have been written before 1st Thessalonians) demonstrate that from the very beginning Christians looked forward to the return of Jesus as the culmination of history. After 20 centuries, expectation of the “Second Coming” or “Second Advent” or “Parousia” (Greek for “presence”) remains a central belief.

The Religion Guy consulted numerous resources on this complex terrain and relies especially on the late F.F. Bruce of England’s University of Manchester, a clear thinker and writer and, significantly, a major evangelical Protestant scholar. That movement has focused muich attention on the End Times for a century and more. Bruce wrote a commentary on the two Thessalonian letters, and treated related material in the Gospels in his classic “Hard Sayings of Jesus” (1983).

Norman has a point because of one pronoun in 1 Thessalonians 4:15: “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep” (that is, have died).

Though the three letter-writers did not expressly say so, Bruce wrote, their first person plural pronoun “we” indicates that in the first blush of newborn faith -- yes -- they thought they and their contemporaries might well still be alive when Jesus returned.

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Classic M.Z.: When it comes to Christianity 101, The New York Times flunks out -- again

Classic M.Z.: When it comes to Christianity 101, The New York Times flunks out -- again

Attention: Copy desk at The New York Times

Subject: Reading adult books

To whom it may concern:

I have a journalistic question, a question centering on basic facts about religion, that I would like to ask in light of the following statement that ran in a political report in The Times under the headline, "After Orlando, a Political Divide on Gay Rights Still Stands." Context is important, so here is the complete reference:

... The deep divide over gay rights remains one of the most contentious in American politics. And the murder of 49 people in an Orlando gay club has, in many cases, only exacerbated the anger from Democrats and supporters of gay causes, who are insisting that no amount of warm words or reassuring Twitter posts change the fact that Republicans continue to pursue policies that would limit legal protections for gays and lesbians.
In the weeks leading up to the killings, they pointed out, issues involving gays were boiling over in Congress and in Republican-controlled states around the country. More than 150 pieces of legislation were pending in state legislatures that would restrict rights or legal protections for sexual minorities. A Republican congressman read his colleagues a Bible verse from Romans that calls for the execution of gays. Congress was considering a bill that would allow individuals and businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian couples.

My question: When it comes to the authoritative interpretation of Christian scripture, who has the highest level of authority for the Times, the leaders of Westboro Baptist Church or legions of Christian saints, hierarchs and theologians (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestants) over 2,000 years of church history? Who do you trust more, Pope Francis or the Rev. Fred Phelps?

The answer, to my shock, appears to be -- Westboro Baptist. When it comes to St. Paul and the interpretation of his Epistle to the Romans, the Times leadership appears to believe that the tiny circle of Westboro activists represent all of Christendom.

How did the Times leadership reach this decision on such an important theological issue?

Sincerely, Terry Mattingly

*****

My question is sincere.

If you have doubts about this, let me point you toward a work of classic M.Z. Hemingway media criticism over at The Federalist that is currently going viral in social media.

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Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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More than an academic question: Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman?

More than an academic question: Was one of the New Testament apostles a woman?

CLAUDE’S QUESTION:

How did you come to the conclusion that Junia / Junias in Romans 16:7 is an apostle?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Paul’s weighty New Testament letter to the Romans concludes with chapter 16’s greetings to various friends. Verse 7 applies the exalted label of “apostle” to Andronicus alongside someone named either “Junias” or “Junia.” Was that name, and thus the apostle, male or female?  What did the “apostle” title mean? And what does this tell us about gender roles in Christianity’s founding years?

Paul commends 8 or 9 women in the chapter, which was notably high regard in ancient patriarchal culture. He even listed the wife Prisca before husband Aquila in verse 3. Then verse 7 states this (in the wording of the Revised Standard Version translation):

“Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners;they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (Most agree “kin” means the two prisoners were fellow Jews, not Paul’s blood relatives.)

Translation teams have reworked the RSV into the “ecumenical” New Revised Standard Version and the “evangelical” English Standard Version, and both changed the masculine name “Junias” to the feminine “Junia” while dropping “men.” The evangelicals’ popular New International Version and U.S. Catholicism’s official New American Bible (which never said “men”) originally used “Junias” but likewise switched to “Junia” in later editions.

What’s going on here?

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Concerning other little-known religious 'genocides' on the edges of the news

Concerning other little-known religious 'genocides' on the edges of the news

Pope Francis infuriated the government of Turkey by using the word “genocide” leading up to April 24, the 100th anniversary of the start of the mass murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenians in what was then the Ottoman Empire. That atrocity, amid the chaos and rivalries of World War One, is often regarded as the forerunner and inspiration for Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

In the April 15 issue of The Christian Century, Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins reports on another 2015 centennial that major media have ignored -- the “Sayfo” (“sword” year) memorialized by Christian Assyrians. Among other events, historians will examine this at the Free University of Berlin June 24-28. During that dying era of the empire with its historic Muslim Caliphate, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks were also killed during the “Pontic” ethnic cleansing.

The hatred toward all three Christian groups a century ago finds unnerving echoes in current attacks by Muslim fanatics in the Mideast and Africa, most recently the video beheadings of Ethiopian Christians in Libya. Assyrians are also  victimized once again, now by ISIS under its purported restoration of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The Assyrians’ story is part of the over-all emptying out of Christianity across the Mideast.

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Did St. Paul write all 13 letters that the Bible credits to him?

Did St. Paul write all 13 letters that the Bible credits to him?

RACHAEL ASKS: What is the debate about the authorship of Paul’s letters to the early church?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The New Testament includes 13 letters (“epistles”) from Christianity’s first decades that name the apostle Paul as the author, or Paul with colleagues Silvanus, Sosthenes, or Timothy. The earliest is 1 Thessalonians, written just a couple decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. In the traditional view, Paul produced the others during the next 15 years or so before his execution.

As early as the 2nd Century, Paul’s 13 letters formed a defined collection that was widely recognized and later incorporated into the New Testament. That’s where matters stood till modern times. Today, scholars say Paul certainly wrote Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. But questions are raised about these six: Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and the “pastoral epistles” of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.

The Religion Guy can only provide glimpses of this intricate discussion. Some of the doubts involve writing style, word choice, and such, lately examined via computer. Others concern whether the contents fit the context of Paul’s lifetime.

Would pseudonyms undercut the Bible’s credibility?

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Media's curiously wrong-headed posession obsession

Last week I made fun of that Associated Press story that claimed Pope Francis was “obsessed” with Satan. In the comment to that piece, reader Martha Keefe remarked:

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