Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Thus far in this series, we’ve looked at what Paul, the earliest Christian writer, knew – or at least cared enough to mention – about the origins of Jesus, and we’ve looked at what Mark, the earliest gospel, says about Jesus’ origins and family background. In short, neither seems to know about a virgin birth, and Mark actually portrays Jesus’ family as if they thought he was crazy, which seems strange.

So now we move to the next two gospels written, Matthew and Luke. Both have birth stories, and we’ve gotten so used to merging them together, it’s probably useful to pull them apart again and look at their individual characteristics.

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Class, Week 11: Did Paul Write These Letters?

You don’t go through seminary long before you hear the phrase “seven genuine letters.” That would be the seven genuine letters of Paul – the ones that have nearly unanimous support as actually being written by the author they claim, the Apostle Paul.

The seven genuine letters in canonical order are:

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Philippians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Philemon

That leaves six disputed letters, of which three are truly in dispute; scholars disagree about their authenticity:

  • Ephesians
  • Colossians
  • 2 Thessalonians

And three that are almost universally considered inauthentic, written by someone else using Paul’s name:

  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

Hebrews once was considered a Pauline epistle, but it’s written anonymously, and no one anymore thinks Paul was the author (I can say that with confidence because even the ultraconservative tradition in which I was raised taught that Paul didn’t write Hebrews).

The nine letters of Paul to the churches (plus Philemon) are arranged by length, which makes it hard to truly see the evolution of Paul’s style and theology over time. I highly recommend reading them chronologically – starting with the Thessalonians, then moving through Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Romans, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, and ending with the Pastorals. It will be much easier to see why the last five are in such dispute.

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My Favorite Disciple

Who’s your fave disciple?

People seem to like having one, though I think “favorite” is shorthand for “relates the most to” or “identifies the most with.” Peter usually wins this particular competition. A lot of folks can relate to his think-before-speaking, half-cocked way of doing things, and I certainly can, as well.

We all like to think we have a lot in common with John, who was bosom buddies with Jesus, preached about him fearlessly in Acts and, tradition has it, was so plugged in to the Holy Spirit that he had the mother of all trippy dreams about how the world was going to end (or maybe not, but that’s another conversation). The truth is, John is probably the disciple most of us are least like.

Judas? Well, not many would admit to having him as our favorite, but I think most of us could relate to making a horrible mistake, immediately regretting it, and feeling at a loss about how to make things right.

I relate best to Thomas. The doubter. The guy who, when the other 10 living disciples told him after the first Easter, “We saw Jesus alive!” responded, “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Thomas doesn’t get a lot of play in the Jesus narratives – just three speaking parts. But they say a lot.

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Mercy for Judas

I’m not going to get all Rob Bell on you, so let’s assume for now the existence of a literal, fiery, Dante-style hell, the presumed destination for Judas Iscariot since, well, people started conceiving of hell as a place of eternal damnation. Because if anyone is in hell, it’s gotta be the guy who betrayed Jesus to the authorities who crucified him.

But Erin James-Brown, a seminary student here in town who spoke to us at Chapel yesterday, provides a different take this Holy Week of the disciple everyone loves to hate:

I am a Judas sympathizer. Perhaps it is my love/fascination with Gaga or my reading of the play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” but I have come witnessed (sic) the cultural message of a negative, demonized Judas. …

Judas’ rejection of the Messiah and submission to corrupt religious leaders played the necessary role in Jesus’ sacrificial forgiveness on the cross. In a sense, we owe Judas a bit of gratitude for making forgiveness possible. What was once deemed purely evil (a Judas kiss), seems almost hopeful in another light.

Indeed, the Apostle Paul never mentions Judas, but he does talk quite a bit about Israel, whose leaders were much more directly involved in crucifying Jesus than Judas was, and whose people mostly rejected the notion that Jesus was the Messiah for whom they’d been yearning.

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Stuff Christians Say

Isaac Choitner of The New Republic flagged this unfortunate quote from a survivor of Monday’s horrific Oakland college shooting:

“I heard a pop, pop, pop sound and then girls screaming.” Ms. Lee said she believed that the shooting had occurred in the same building as her classroom. She was frightened, she said, but added, “I’m a Christian, and I believe God protects me.”

Which is cold comfort, as Isaac notes, for the families of the seven people who weren’t so lucky. Apparently, they just weren’t good enough Christians for God to protect.

I can’t say I blame Deborah Lee for that absurdly insensitive remark. It’s infused deeply within our Christian culture. I think of the Amy Grant song “Angels,” which opens with the story of angels springing Peter from prison and then, in the second stanza, arguing:

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Looking for Summer through the Snow

A book that is now on my ever-expanding “to-read” list is Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting with God. I’ve mentioned Glenn on this blog before; he wrote the incredible psalm of lament for Liam’s memorial service, as well as a moving translation of Psalm 51 for the modern-day psalter Timeless. 

Part of the reason I want to read this book is because I deeply identify with Mike Cope’s autobiographical description of a “winter Christian.”

During my years as a minister, I constantly felt the disappointment of some who wanted more confidence. They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery. They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it. They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus). They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith. They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.

There are plenty of summer Christians on my Facebook feed. Nearly every morning, someone is ringing in the day with some sort of celebratory psalm or phrase of thanksgiving to God for another terrific new day. And on one level, I agree. I am grateful and privileged to be alive this morning; but for many, many others in this world, it’s another day to survive, another day of hunger, thirst, illness, rape, slavery, abuse – another day in which the mercy of death does not come.

Yet many of the same people who endure so much more than I ever have are also followers of Jesus. Their faith remains unshaken by the horrible circumstances of their own lives, even as simply hearing about them makes my own faith quiver to the core.

So, like any good academician, my thought is: If I read books by people of faith who have suffered or are suffering, perhaps I can get a better handle on how I can marry my own faith to the harsh realities of this world. Because, to be honest, most days I find it much easier to be an atheist than to be a Christian.

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