The Word is Vulnerable

(This is #7 in a series)

One of the things I have always wanted to ask a biblical literalist is this: How did you decide which translation of the Bible is the right one? 

Even the King James has five versions, spanning 160 years.  If you drop into Biblegateway.com to grab a verse or two, the menu has over 200 translations in many, many languages.

On one hand, all these versions which are mostly alike are proof of the power of the Holy Spirit at work. A few more books on the Catholic side (73), a few less for the Protestants (66), but overall, the—if I may—plot points are the same.

On hand two is this inescapable fact: the work was done by fallible humans. And as Barr says: “Translations matter”. If we think the bibles we have are a “plain reading of Scripture”(130) then we just aren’t paying attention.

To this point: Barr speaks mostly of gender inclusive language within the Bible, citing the 1997 Zondervan New International Version of the Protestant Bible, which caused scandal in evangelical circles: “Zondervan authors were supposed to avoid using masculine pronouns (mankind, man) as ‘generic placemarkers’ and instead use gender-inclusive terms like humanity and people” (130).  

I will shout down the PC cops on this one, especially since many of them are men who have never EVER had to tuck themselves under the umbrella of “womankind”.

The gender inclusive battle is as old as the Reformation, which brought new versions of the Bible, and a dodgy Protestant narrative about medieval Catholics to justify it: the medieval (Catholic) church was a “sit n’ git” proposition in which laypeople understood or had access to very little of Scripture or salvation. Barr points out the Reformation could not have happened if the layperson did not have enough access to their faith and Scripture to demand change . But since the crux of the Reformation was “new and proper understanding” of an existing text, the narrative was necessary:

To this day I grit my teeth over the church history series used by Capitol Hill Baptist Church. It paints a grim picture of a sordid, corrupt medieval church in which few people, except for a remnant of “scattered monks and nuns” found salvation. (I) will point out only this sentence from the online curriculum: medieval Christianity “reminds us what happens when people are illiterate of our Bibles—we drift from knowing what constitutes acceptance with God”. Medieval people did not know their Bible, this Protestant church history curriculum states, and consequently most of them were eternally damned” (138).

Barr lays out the proof that this was simply untrue, from famous medieval preachers who commanded great crowds, to the addition of gender-inclusive language to the Scripture as early as the Middle Ages. Barr writes “These changes were made in late medieval manuscripts for accuracy. The inclusion of “woman” and “every man and woman” had nothing to do with political correctness or a feminist agenda. Preachers were concerned that Scripture readings be taken to heart by all church members”(142). I laughed when I read this, as my cynicism got the best of me. I can just see a fussy monk somewhere in France translating “adam” as “human” (the correct translation) instead of “man” (140) to make sure women knew these rules applied to them as well.

Not so the Reformation Bibles. Barr writes “the early modern English Bible (post-Reformation) was translated in a context that politically, legally, economically and socially obscured women behind the identities of their husbands and fathers. The world of early modern England treated women as dependents on men and this cultural attitude was translated into the English Bible”(144).  

Whew. There it is again.

Barr is not the only scholar doing this kind of close reading of original biblical text, language and translation. I recently attended a virtual seminar as part of the “Women Erased” series through Future Church. It was led by Elizabeth Schrader from Duke University, and focused on very technical study of the earliest surviving transcripts of John’s Gospel and how they have been edited, especially Papyrus 66 (dating back to 200 AD).

In summary: Luke 10:38 is where we meet Martha and Mary of Bethany, in the famous scene where Jesus visits their home. Also, where there is no mention of any brother named Lazarus, in this Gospel.

But in John 11, we meet Lazarus, who is the one who Jesus loved (11:3). He is identified as the brother of Mary of Bethany, and  Martha her sister. As I wrote last week, Martha’s role in this story is one of unquestioning faith; but she also delivers one of the two confessionals in the Gospels—in verse 27 she proclaims Jesus is the Messiah.

You know who delivered the other one? Peter. And in Matthew 16:13-20, Peter’s confession prompts Jesus to name him as the rock upon which he will build his church, which is where the Catholic church finds the authority of the Pope. It’s kind of a big deal that we find this confession in the mouth of a woman. Also–Schrader discovered that Papyrus 66 has been edited. Originally, John 11 only referred to a “Maria” (Mary), sister of Lazarus and the one who perfumed Jesus’ feet; but then, on the original manuscript, it was changed to “Maria and Martha”.

Why is this significant? For one, it confuses the text. Lazarus who Jesus loved comes out of nowhere, especially in light of Luke 10. Also, it’s weird that Mary of Bethany would perfume Jesus’ feet and not the wealthy Mary Magdalene, who traveled with Jesus and would have had a better understanding of what was coming.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Barr’s book, and her idea that Mary Magdalene IS Mary of Bethany. If this is true, a Martha-less John 11 makes sense.  We would expect Jesus to be intimately acquainted with Mary Magdalene’s brother Lazarus and we would expect Mary Magdalene to feel comfortable enough to approach Jesus to anoint him.

Perhaps the Martha and Mary of Luke’s gospel were other women altogether, which would explain the absence of Lazarus. But it doesn’t explain why “Martha” is edited into John.

Schrader hypothesizes that it was because if Mary Magdalene, who was first to receive the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection, is also Mary of Bethany, who perfumed Jesus and confessed him as the Messiah, this would make her a powerful, significant figure. Further—if she is Mary of Bethany, then the name Magdalene doesn’t refer to her home, but her importance—Magdala means “tower”. If Peter became the first leader of the whole church for his confession of Jesus, a strong argument could be made for the authority of Mary Magdalene, requiring a closer look at her work while Jesus lived and after his Resurrection.

Instead—perhaps in a nod to the cultural norms of the time–she is watered down to three women, and the confessional is placed into the mouth of Martha, a minor figure.

We may never know why the text was edited, but the implications are foundational to the role of women in the Christian faith. If Schrader’s theory is correct, then Mary Magdalene was stolen from Christian women.

Schrader calls this an “illness of the text” and connects it to a line from John 11: This sickness will not end in death No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it (4). She says:

This illness is not unto death. Jesus knows…if the text has been changed—of course Jesus knows…Maybe Mary Magdalene was too strong a female figure for her time; and the text knows, and Jesus knows, what has happened, and it’s temporary. The illness is not unto death but is to show the glory of God. My hope is that if this is correct, I think it would in the long run show…that the text is vulnerable. Just as Jesus’ body is vulnerable, the WORD is vulnerable. You can try to erase, you can try to delete, you can try to get rid of the woman. But God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I feel like Schrader and Barr are saying the quiet part out loud, and I can’t help wonder why we don’t say it more often: it is impossible that the biblical texts have not been changed by human hands with human motivations. The truth will out, always but it starts with everyone admitting one thing:

The Word is vulnerable.

It’s What We Need

I don’t know what to say and I am not alone. There are only so many ways to write “Love each other” before we all start sounding like a Beatles songs, after they started doing the hallucinogenics.

So instead, I want to show you something.

In the Catholic church, we use a lectionary for the readings at church. The lectionary is a book that has all the Bible scripture readings laid out for both the weekday masses and Sunday masses. The Sunday masses work on a 3 year cycle, called A, B and C. In year A, our gospel comes mostly from Matthew. Year B we read mostly from Mark and chapter 6 of John. In year C, we read mostly from Luke.

This was all set down long time ago. Like, long, long time ago. In some Christian churches ministers choose their readings based on current events. Not us. Catholics have this thing with tradition.

Maybe you’ve noticed.

Anyway, 2016 is a year C. We’re reading a lot of Luke in Ordinary time, which what we call all the time that is not Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.

Remember, these readings are pre-ordained. Back and back.

These have been the Gospel readings the last three weeks.

Luke 10:1-9Luke 10:25-37Luke 10:38-42.

The first one, two days before the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, is when Jesus sends His disciples out in twos and tells them to be bringers of peace wherever they enter.

The second one—last weekend, after the killing of the police officers in Dallas—was the parable of the Good Samaritan.

This week, after Nice and the killing of the police officers in Baton Rouge, was the story of Martha and Mary.

And next week, the reading is Luke 10:1-13, when Jesus gives his disciples the Lord’s Prayer in response to one of them asking “Lord, teach us how to pray”.

Bring peace. Help, regardless of race or creed. Listen. Pray.

Some will call this coincidence. It’s not, though.

It’s what we need, when we need it, if we have the courage to listen and believe.

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Welcome the Stranger

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I stopped and started this 12 times, trying to find the right words, until I gave up. My words are not called.

We need the words of Jesus.

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ‘Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’”  (Matthew 25)

Those poor people, the mothers and fathers and babies and grandparents fleeing from the very evil that struck Paris?

We have to shelter them. Here or there, no matter. Somewhere. Because those people are Christ walking in the world and if we turn our backs we fail our Christ.

This is our prayer: Open. Soften. Lighten.