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.

The Lost Women of the Middle Ages

(#5 in a series)

*In this chapter, Barr asserts that Mary Magdalen is the same as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. The medieval church believed this as well, thanks to a sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century. Since then, Catholic biblical scholars have found more evidence to support that they were not the same woman and in the Catholic church, we tend to draw a line between the Marys (Mama Mary, Mary Mag, Mary of Bethany) as a way of making the point that Jesus purposefully included women in his ministry*

Mary Mag was a prominent figure in all four Gospels. She does not fear the Romans. She is present at the foot of the Cross. She is the first to see the risen Lord. She is the first one to whom he speaks. Barr calls her “the apostle of the apostles”(82) since it was she who carried the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to them.

There is precedent in the Old Testament for the role she plays in the life of Christ: loyal like Ruth, strong like Esther, patient like Hannah. These are the women God consistently puts in front of us in the Bible. They are Proverbs 31 women—grounded, faithful, taking care of business, helping others.

The Medieval church revered these biblical matriarchs. Barr writes the church “was simply too close in time to forget the significant roles women played in establishing the Christian faith throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire” (88). While patriarchal and classist, the medieval world was still an “all hands on deck” existence and the role of women was clear: CEO of the castle, with the keys to fit every lock hanging down her skirt; midwife; healer; weaver; grower; alewife, abbess. We think of sending widows or spinsters to the “nunnery” as a medieval banishment, but convents were safe havens for widows, the abused and young girls who would otherwise be used as pawns in war and politics. Women in convents learned to read and write, and from this tradition we have four of the Doctors of the Catholic Church, among whom we count St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas: St Hildegard de Bingen (b. 1098), St Catherine of Siena (b. 1347), St Teresa of Avila (b. 1515) and later, St Therese of Lisieux (b. 1873). Their works were and are widely read and taught within the Catholic Church.

And then there’s the Golden Legend, a 13th century book about saints by Jacobus De Voraigne.

If you’re familiar with the lives of Catholic saints, then you know they can be a bit…fantastical.  Especially the early church through the medieval period. Take for instance the story about St Martha—in the medieval version, she accompanied her sister Mary Mag/Mary of Bethany to France where, as Mary was preaching to the people, Martha encountered a dragon eating a man on the beach. She “sprinkled  holy water on the beast, confronted the demoniac creature with the cross and calmly tied it up”(83). Then she took it into town where the folks stabbed it to death and declared her their heroine.

This sounds like the Martha of the Bible—practical, capable, focused. Martha was a Proverbs 31 woman who handled her business. Look closely at the words she speaks to Jesus when he arrives too late to save her brother in John: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. A statement of fact. Then she says [But] even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you (21-22). Martha is not suggesting. She is telling. She doesn’t think Jesus can raise her brother. She expects he will.

This is not the Martha that evangelical women know today. Barr references Sara Mae’s 2016 book Having a Martha Home the Mary Way: 31 Days to a Clean Home and a Satisfied Soul: “Mae includes ‘Mary challenges’ to encourage the spiritual development of women and ‘Martha Challenges’ to inspire women to clean different parts of their home” (81-82).

Martha and Mary Magdalen are not the only women honored in the medieval church who have been de-emphasized in the evangelical church today.

St Paula (b.347), who left her children to answer God’s calling and helped translate the Vulgate.

St Lucy (b.283) who dedicated her virginity to God and stood firm, refusing to marry; as punishment, her eyes were removed, and she is often pictured carrying them on a plate.

St Margaret of Antioch (d.304) who dedicated herself to God, and was imprisoned for refusing to marry a Roman governor. She was attacked by a dragon in her cell, who ate her. Margaret stayed calm in the mouth of the dragon, prayed for God to save her, and the dragon exploded, setting her free (79-80).

St Genevieve of Paris (b.422), who through a “prayer marathon” is credited with saving Paris from the Huns and converting the city to Christianity.

St Brigid of Kildare (b. 451) famous for the miracle of the never-ending butter and her great spreading cloak, and a foundress of multiple abbeys in Ireland.

All of these women—and this is just a small sampling of the lives of women saints—stood in defiance of the rule of men for the love of God and triumphed. Every single one. They walked in the world as role models of faith and light, and they often laid down their lives in exchange. These are the women who gave life to Hildegard, Catherine, Theresa and more.

In the Catholic church, we know them still. We honor them as men and women of tremendous faith on feast days and invoke them as intercessors in our prayers. Not in the same way we did in the medieval period, but they are there just the same.

This is not the case with Protestants. The Saints were an explicit target of the Reformation, rejected as idolatry (this is a corruption of the doctrine of Sainthood in the Catholic Church; we do not worship them. We recognize them as paragons of faith and obedience to God, and as such ask them to intercede on our behalf). They disappeared from Protestantism, and with them, a history that included women as heroes of the Christian faith.

A final point: It is worth noting that during the medieval period, the Catholic church evolved the idea of priesthood to include celibacy, and then used this to effectively exclude women from ordination, thanks to St Augustine who equated sex and child-bearing with Original Sin. The four women recognized as doctors of the church were nuns. My church was not a paragon of equality by any stretch of the imagination, just as guilty as Protestants of pushing women from leadership.

On the road to emmaus

Remember Easter Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene met Jesus at the tomb and didn’t recognize him?
Today’s gospel also happens on Easter Sunday, just later in the day. Many scholars agree that the travelers were Cleopas (named in the Gospel) and his wife, Mary, who was noted to be at the foot of the Cross with the other Marys in John 19.
Perhaps they were traveling home, steeped in pain. Jesus has been killed and now his body is gone. They’re scared, exhausted, angry, and sorrowful. Cleopas says that Jesus’ death has robbed them of hope: We were hoping he was the one and now he is dead.
A traveler joins them–it’s Jesus, but the gospel says “their eyes were prevented from seeing him”
That got me researching. Was this lack of sight divine intervention or the limitations of grieving human minds? And if it was divine intervention–both Mary Mag and the disciples on the road to Emmaus were purposefully prevented from recognizing Jesus at first–what purpose does it serve?
Turns out, most folks who know think their eyes were purposefully veiled. St Augustine acknowledges that grief may have played a role, but that ultimately it doesn’t matter why they didn’t see him. 
The lesson is in the NOT seeing.
Mary Mag doesn’t “see” him until he calls her name. Cleopas and Mary don’t “see” him until he breaks the bread.  But he was there all the same. 
That is the gift of this Gospel, and what a gift it is–Jesus himself teaching the lesson that He is always here.  He calls us by name to know him. He is present in the breaking of the bread and therefore present in us. He is the kindness of a stranger and the safety of a meal with those we love. 
Grief, fear, anger, pain–these can all veil our eyes and make us feel abandoned and alone. Today’s Gospel teaches us to trust in the Resurrection and the promises of Christ.