Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Apostles by Tom Bissell

The scholar  John Painter proposes a complicated, nuanced view of the likely scenario faced by Paul and the Jerusalem church. He identifies no fewer than six factions within the Jerusalem church and Gentile Christian movement.

The first faction, comprising men like the Christian Pharisees mentioned in Acts and referred to by Paul in Galatians as "false brothers", were Law absolutists fiercely opposed  to Paul's missions to the Gentiles.

 The second faction was made up of those  who "recognized the validity of the two missions but were themselves committed to the mission of and to the circumcision"; the leader of this faction, Painter proposes, was James the brother of Jesus.

 The third faction, led by Peter, also accepted the two missions  but with a greater conceptual openness to Gentiles; from Paul's letter to the Galatians, it seems clear Peter accepted that the two missions  had different ground rules, even if the lines between them sometimes blurred and that Gentiles were theoretically free from aspects of Judaic ritual but Jews were not.

 The fourth faction, which counted among its leaders Paul's friend Barnabas, had a more open-minded philosophy on the Law; "Their policy  was that home rules applied when missions intersected."

 The fifth faction, led by Paul, believed in a gospel that obliterated the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

The sixth faction, which comes glimpsingly into view within some of  Paul's letters, "advocated and absolutely law-free mission recognizing no constraints whatsoever, ritual or moral"; Paul's problems with the first three factions might have stemmed from his being unfairly linked to this last and most radical Gentile Christian faction.

 Painter's vision of early Christianity coheres not only with internal New Testament evidence but with the laws of human nature. In any elaborate human undertaking- and here  the  early Christian mission qualifies marvelously -factionalism of this kind is the rule. There is an argument to be made that the gospels themselves are products of similar factionalism.

.  .  .

Throughout Jewish religious history - throughout the history of all religions - there is an abiding tension between traditionalists and modernizers. Modernizers were probably the first monotheists, because the earliest forms of Jewish worship were demonstrably polytheistic, strains of which remain embedded in the Hebrew Bible. Traditionalists such as the Macabees overthrew the Seleucid modernizers seeking to bring Judaism into a place of accommodation with Hellenism, and traditionalists like the Zealots drove a dagger into the corrupted heart of a collaborationist and thus modernizing Temple aristocracy. When Christianity began to win more pagan converts in the second century, staunch traditionalists such as Tacitus and Celsus were horrified [Tacitus believed the Roman Empire had become too inclusive for its own moral good, a place where "all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular"]. The argument between  traditionalism and modernization lives on today within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is and will always been argument about the past and the future, about the pressures of inheritance and the desire for constancy. Although this ageless argument might twist and turn to unlikely effect (with great modernizers such as Paul being adored by the traditionalists of today),the argument itself will never resolve. It will never fade away. It will emerge over and over again, with different parties wearing similar masks,  for every spiritually engaged community is forced to confront the inevitability of newly arisen beliefs and the drifting tectonic plates of assumed morality.  .  .

I do not regard the stories about James son of Zebedee, or any stories about any apostle, as merely stories. All beliefs have moral insinuation, and all representations have political repercussions. James the infidel slayer was adapted for propagandistic by the Franco regime, after all. I do not believe a discernable form of "good" or acceptable or authentic Christianity stands behind these stories. Christianity, like Judaism before it and Islam after it, has always been and will always  be a less than ideal way to understand the world and our place within it.  At the same time, I know there is no purely rational way of understanding the world. A thousand irrational spasms daily derange us all. God is part of the same formless reality as thought, as real as all bits of data that float invisibly through this world. In this sense, all that moves through us is real. To explain the realness of that which we cannot see, we turn to stories left behind by evangelist writers, working behind their complicated veils of anonymity. The footprints they left behind lead us to places we long to be led.  .  .

High above me, on  the colonnaded veranda on the right side of the Santiago de Compostela, a police officer slowly stalks, carrying what appears to be a sniper rifle. I move closer to the church, ant-like in its presence, moving towards it in an ant time. The closer I get, the more majestically eroded it seems. The overgrown yellow moss allover its facade feels cool and lush and soft. I place my hand flush against the marble.

Nothing in this world suggests our overtures toward God are either wanted or needed. Someday this building will fall and the civilization around t. It is our stories that lay balms across out impermanence. I have long story to tell about Gideon's and my walk and suddenly wonder what would happen if I chose not to tell it, to transform it. What if a story was  enough for a thing to be?

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* The Catholic position on biblical inerrancy is particularly refreshing. According to the Biblical Commission Instruction of1964, readers are not to understand that the gospels report everything literally or that the events described in them necessarily took place in the manner depicted.

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