Thursday, December 31, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part 4)

Augustine spends very little time in Rome as he is also disheartened by the lackluster dedication of the students he had come to teach. However, his ambition for his career as a teacher of literature and rhetoric and his continued love for his concubine were to be major obstacles to his ultimate conversion to the Christian faith. During his time in Rome he meets Ambrose who was a major Christian player in Milan. It would ultimately be Ambrose who baptizes Augustine in Christ's name. As mentioned in our last segment, Augustine had begun to move away from the Manicheans' philosophy and yet used their connections to better his career. In 384, and entirely due to these very same connections, he won a highly prestigious position in Milan as the professor of rhetoric for the imperial court.

He was joined in Milan by his mother who continued to pressure him into a conversion to the Christian faith. But, unable to release his lustful desires and his need for female companionship, he sends his long-loved concubine back to Carthage (Augustine's son would remain with him) and allows his mother to arrange an appropriate Christian marriage to a girl of thirteen years. He would have to wait two whole years until the marriage could be official so he takes yet another concubine instead during this waiting period. It is interesting to note again that Augustine speaks of very few people with any kind of love outside his mother and his newly growing group of Christian fellows yet he speaks always of his first concubine with respect and sincere devotion. But, she is not important enough to ever be named, perhaps because Augustine feels such intense shame over what he perceives to be only lustful desires.

Augustine's conversion is full of dramatic theatre and overwhelming physical machinations. Book VIII deals solely with his conversion and what Augustine learns about the Great Idea of Will. Separating himself further and further away from Manichees who viewed all soulful creatures as having two conflicting wills, one based in evil and the other based in good, Augustine finds himself staring at the Truth of which he had so long sought.

For there is no means whatsoever by which corruption can injure our God, whether by an act of will, by necessity, or by chance. This is because he is God and what he wills is good and he is himself that same good: whereas to be corrupted is not good. And you are never compelled, my God, to do or suffer anything against your will, because your will is not greater than your own power. It would be greater only if you were greater than yourself, for the will and power of God are God himself. (VII, 4)

Yet still, Augustine suffers immensely within himself because despite this Truth he had finally come to fully believe, he could not will himself to make a final and full conversion as he saw it which was to completely turn away from the seductions of the material world. In many ways, the language Augustine uses about himself tell the story of an addict whose will is perverse and who "was now its reluctant victim rather than its willing tool." Augustine states that, "For the rule of sin is the force of habit, by which the mind is swept along and held fast even against its will, yet deservedly, because it fell in the habit of its own accord." (VIII, 5) Augustine becomes, "a house divided against itself" (VIII, 8) whose wants and desires can no longer be placed before the Truth for which his soul craves.

Augustine and his friend Alypius are visited by an old friend named Ponticianus from Africa whose spiritual father was also the Christian monk Ambrose. Ponticianus was quite surprised to find Paul's Epistles to the Romans sitting atop a table in Augustine's home and begins in earnest to share with Augustine and his friend the story of his own (almost) conversion. He begins to recount the story of the illiterate Egyptian monk Antony who entered into a Christian church, heard a passage of scripture and took it to be words spoken only for him. These words led Antony to lead a strict ascetic life in the deserts of Egypt. But, it was not only the story of Antony that lead to Augustine's final, excruciating dark night of the soul, but the story of Ponticianus' own experience when he had heard the story of this famed monk the first time for himself. Ponticianus was still a member of the Emperor's royal guard and he had witnessed two of his friends readily and instantly giving up their lives in service to the Emperor in order to follow the words of Christ. These men left the material world and ventured into lives dedicated solely to the pursuit of Truth in the name of Christ. Ponticianus himself could not take that leap, despite his joy for his friends and his heart's desire to do so.

Augustine, obviously, felt that this story was meant solely for him when he states, "While he was speaking, O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself." (VIII, 7) Augustine laments that twelve years had passed since reading Cicero's Hortensuis which had lead him to Platonic thought and ultimately to the teachings of Paul. And yet, in all that time, he had been totally unable to accomplish what even unschooled men had the courage to do: to enter willingly into the service of God.

What is the matter with us? Augustine asks Alypius, What is the meaning of this story? These men have not had our schooling, yet they stand up and storm the gates of heaven while we, for all our learning, lie here grovelling in this world of flesh and blood! Is it because they have led the way that we are ashamed to follow? Is it not worse to hold back? (VIII, 8)

At this point, Augustine is set upon by "madness that would bring me sanity." (VIII, 8) He flees to the community garden of his home and throws himself down upon the ground, beating his fists against himself, tearing at his hair, and basically, commences to test his Will against that of God. Augustine finds himself staring at yet another Truth when he realizes that "The mind gives an order to the body and it obeys, but when it gives an order to itself, it is resisted." (VIII, 9) Augustine is confused and aghast at himself for his shame that his will has only the power to control the limbs of his body and nothing more. At last, his dueling wills exhausted, he collapses under a fig tree in tears where he is visited by an image of Continence and many men and woman and children. In this visitation, she extends her arms to him and asks him a simple set of questions:

Can you not do what these men and women do? Do you think they find the strength to do it in themselves and not in the Lord their God? It was the Lord their God who gave me to them. Why do you try to stand in your own strength and fail? Cast yourself upon God and have no fear. He will not shrink away and let you fall. Cast yourself upon him without fear, for he will welcome you and cure you of your ills. (VIII, 11)

Even this visage did little to quell Augustine's tormented soul. Somehow though, through the sounds of his weeping, he did hear a small child's voice telling him to "Take it and read it" in a sing song fashion. At last he remembered the story of Antony and managed to get himself up off the ground and find his way back to Paul's Epistles to the Romans where he read, Not revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites. Rom. 13. 13-14. After reading this passage, Augustine was finally able to conjure the strength and courage to relinquish all his desires for ambition and for the love women (except the love of his mother, of course, since she is still the instrument through which God's love had been shared with Augustine). He tells his friend Alypius of his discoveries and he is also converted on the spot with Augustine. The last lines of Book VIII tell of the joy experienced by his mother upon hearing of her son's conversion. His mother rejoices, "far fuller than her dearest wish, far sweeter and more chaste than any she had hoped to find in children begotten of my flesh." (VIII, 12) Thus, did God also rejoice as his wayward sheep had finally come back to the flock.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Three)

Augustine continues his exploration of the nuances of sin throughout his Confessions, however, as he ventures to Carthage for the continuation of his studies, a tangible shift occurs in his search for Truth. It is a new stage in his life in which he shifts his focus to the Great Ideas of Good and Evil which compel and elude him as he continues his spiritual autobiography. Also in play is Augustine’s themed continuation of his own life as a parable. He becomes the Prodigal Son or the wayward sheep that strays from the herd with God the ever present herdsman. Augustine states that, "Yet all the while, far above, your mercy hovered faithfully about me." (III, 3) Alas, Augustine had no eyes to see that God was with him throughout his life and, due to his own misperceptions, God seemed totally absent during his years as a young adult in Carthage and beyond.

Augustine describes Carthage as an, "hissing cauldron of lust" (III, 1) where he became addicted to the pursuit of love or, as he later came to know it, lust. He fell in love with the theatre, poets, philosophers and astrologers (sensualists) who he credits with leading him further and further away from the Truth of God.

Truth! Truth! How the very marrow of my soul within me yearned for it as they dinned it in my ears over and over again. To them it was no more than a name to be voiced or a word to be read in their libraries of huge books...while my hunger was for you, for Truth itself, they served me up the sun and the moon...not you yourself nor even the greatest of your created things. (III, 6)

Augustine describes himself locked in a world starved of anything real or true and yet he also finds companionship with friends and with a concubine who bore him a son. It is interesting to note that Augustine claims to have been totally faithful to his concubine (for more than ten years) and that he was with her only due to his own lustful nature. Augustine never names this woman and scholars will probably never know more than what Augustine shares about her in his Confessions. Yet, he was faithful to her and to the son she bore him and after he decides to abandon her he speaks of her with words of respect and love.

During his time at Carthage, his father dies (which he barely mentions) and he abandons his study of law, turning instead to the study of literature and public speaking. He finds himself inspired by the words of Cicero. He would eventually also enjoy the works of Plato who would lead him back to Paul of Tarsus. It would be Paul who inspired him to begin studying the scriptures for pure novelty's sake. His mother continued to support him financially after his father's death and she also continued with her prayers that he would find his way back to Christ. As mentioned in our previous segment, Augustine's relationship with his mother begins to mirror that of his relationship with God. Turning his back on his mother and her stalwart prayers for him becomes equivalent to turning his back on God. After completing his studies at Carthage, Augustine journeyed home to Thagaste where he began teaching literature and public speaking. However, he lamented the lack of discipline his students showed in Thagaste and so took a job teaching in Rome. The correlation between the relationships he had with his mother and with God became very apparent in a literal sense when he lies to his mother and leaves her weeping on the banks of Thageste after he sneaks away in the middle of the night for his journey to Rome.

The polarity through which Augustine views himself is absolute and finds its manifestation no place more apparent than during the many years he spent as a part of the Manichean cult. Augustine says, "I was trying to find the origin of evil, but I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research". (VII, 5) The Manicheans believed in the concepts of Good and Evil as separate and disparate entities who lived and clashed with each other within every human soul.

For this same reason, Augustine states, I believed that evil, too, was some similar kind of substance, a shapeless, hideous mass, which might be solid or air..This they imagine as a kind of evil mind filtering through the substance they call earth. And because such little piety as I had compelled me to believe that God, who is good, could not have created an evil nature, I imagined that there were two antagonistic masses, both of which were infinite, yet the evil in a lesser and the good in a greater degree. (V, 10)

The Manicheans claimed to resolve questions of religion with that of science and visa versa. This claim was alluring to Augustine for many reasons as during his studies he had become quite fond of the sciences and, quite apparently, continued to struggle within himself over all things religious. Slowly, however, Augustine began to turn his back upon the Manicheans who he found to make grandiose claims about astrology, God, Christ, Good and Evil that were not backed up by the sciences of the day and they also made claims about theology which had no direct correlation to his studies or his experiences. Yet, he did not break ties with them completely as they were useful to him during his short time in Rome.

Augustine fell ill almost immediately upon reaching Rome coming once again close to death. But, he believed he was saved by God despite their prolonged separation because God was ever watchful of him. It is at this point we begin to see changes in Augustine, his continued struggle with his own ideas of Good and Evil and, most importantly, his relationship with God.

It was made clear to me also that even those things which are subject to decay are good. If they were of the supreme order of goodness, they could not be corrupt; but neither could they become corrupt unless they were in some way good, (VII, 12) Augustine states he did not know that, Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains," (III, 7) and "So, we must conclude that if things are deprived of all good, they cease to be; and this means that as long as they are, they are good. (VII, 12)

This realization helps Augustine to understand that despite his corruptible nature, or actually, because of it, he can be redeemed in the Truth and light of God. Yet, his true conversion to the Christian God would be made manifest through a heavy grief through which Augustine was unsure of his ability to endure.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confessions Books 1-8 (Part Two)

Denied his Baptism in Christ, Augustine began to cope with the polarity between his mother and father, caught between their personal systems of belief. This resulted in a tangle of juicy psychology as Augustine links his feelings about God to his feelings about his mother, Monica. She, as God’s instrument, agreed to deny him his baptism. Yet, as he writes, if it weren’t for:

she (who) did all that she could to see that you, my God, should be a Father to me rather than he. In this you helped her to turn the scales against her husband, whom she always obeyed because by obeying him she obeyed your law, thereby showing greater virtue than he did. (I, 2)

This dichotomous statement is intriguing and sheds light upon Augustine’s view of a virtuous sin committed by his mother, which seems to be in direct conflict with what we have already learned about his views of sin. How can it be that all sins are equal in the eyes of the Lord, even an infant’s cries, but it is somehow virtuous for a woman to “turn the scales against her husband”? He witnessed his mother walking a theologically fine line as she thwarted his paternal father’s influence while somehow still abiding in God’s Law. She never disobeyed her husband except through her enduring piety to the Christian God and her prayers for her son. Augustine credits his mother's piety as the one constant in his life which lead to his ultimate salvation and, in so doing, he estabilshes a repeating pattern in his early life which involved turning his back on his mother and God alike.

Augustine continued his studies, having been sent to Madaura, where he found that he disliked Greek and preferred Latin writers over his other studies. He found himself lost in the stories, another example that he gives of turning away from God and into a world of falsehood and fiction; “a ferment of wickedness.” (II, 2) Coming upon his adolescent years, Augustine began to yearn for the sin of lust which, he claims, would continue to haunt him until his conversion. His studies of literature and public speaking were interrupted when:

my father, a modest citizen of Thagaste whose determination was greater than his means, saved up the money to send me farther afield to Carthage…no one had anything but praise for my father who, despite his slender resources, was ready to provide his son with all that was needed to enable him to travel so far for the purpose of study..Yet this same father of mine took no trouble at all to see how I was growing in your sight or whether I was chaste or not..Both my parents were unduly eager for me to learn…my mother because she thought that the usual course of study certainly would not hinder me. (II,3)

This is how Augustine “construe[d] the character of his parents” and there is conflict in this belief. He describes himself as spoiled and self entitled, both bitter about his parent’s desire for his education and unequal in his forgiveness of one of them despite their equal roles. In a feat of impressive mental contortion, he recognizes his mother’s part in this stage of his development as God’s hand in his life and yet he offers no such accolades to his father because he is pagan and not a believer.

All of this is but a preamble to the parable about sin to come. While waiting for his journey to Carthage, at the age of 16, he had free time to spend with unruly friends. Augustine claimed that he fell prey to peer pressure and gave in to the grievous sin of theft. He and his buddies had a habit of engaging in games out of doors after dark and these games involved committing anything that might be forbidden, such as stealing pears from a tree near a local vineyard. Augustine took these pears not because of need and cannot recall if they ate more than a few. He stole them for the sake of committing a theft and fed most of the pears to the pigs. What some might consider a simple adolescent prank, Augustine elevates to such a degree that it might be better interpreted as a symbol for original sin. For “if any one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor.” (II,6) It can be assumed that there were other pranks committed by these “ruffians” but Augustine chooses specifically to tell us his story of stealing fruit from a forbidden tree.

Augustine’s inner reflections about the reasons he commits his version of original sin are quite innovative and compelling. He attempts to converse with his crime of theft as if it “were a living thing” (II,6) in order to gain a greater understanding of that which he considers to be the plight of all descendents of Adam and Eve. Augustine believes the source of all sin can be boiled down to three states of the human condition: anger, fear and grief and that sin translates or is “hatched” by a “lust for power, gratifications of the eye and gratifications of a corrupt nature.” (III,8) He goes on to converse with this disembodied sinful part of himself in an attempt to reason through the process of sin. This dialogue regarding the nature of sin suggests that he (and all of us who sin) continuously experience all the human corruptions that lead to the first sin in every act of sin committed since our removal from Eden; whether cruelty, lustfulness, inquisitiveness, ignorance and stupidity, sloth, extravagance, and envy, to name but a few.

And now, O Lord of my God, now that I ask what pleasure I had in that theft, I find that it had no beauty to attract me. I do not mean beauty of the sort that justice and prudence possess, nor the beauty that is in man’s mind and in his memory and in the life that animates him…It did not even have the shadowy, deceptive beauty which makes vice attractive-pride, for instance, which is a pretense of superiority, imitating yours, for you alone are God, supreme over all; or ambition, which is only a craving for honour or glory, when you alone are to be honoured before all and you alone are glorious for ever.(II, 6)

Ultimately, however, Augustine uses this mental exercise as a means of discovering that the reasons for sin are of no consequence, writing that if “it was not the fruit that gave me pleasure, I must have got it from the crime itself, from the thrill of having partners in sin.” (II,8) He, like Adam, was lured by others to commit his grave act of eating the forbidden fruit and thus “wandered away, too far from your sustaining hand, and created of myself a barren waste.” (II,10)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Great Books: Augustine's Confession Books 1-8 (Part One)

This essay uses the Great Books edition of Augustine's Confessions, translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin. As this translation is still under copyright, a translation by Albert C. Outler can be found here.

Augustine’s Confessions were written in the year 397 CE during his early 40’s and is somewhat inaccurately considered to be one of the West’s first autobiographical accounts despite the fact that there are many other classical writers who worked in the same medium previously. It is not a complete autobiography, obviously, since he would live to the ripe age of seventy-six. However, it does represent the most detailed account of any individual living in the 4th and 5th centuries. Augustine’s life stands upon the precipice between dramatically shifting times in human thought and in many ways both his life and his Confessions can be seen as products of this transition between historical ages. It has been suggested that Augustine is both the last Classical thinker as well as the first Medieval writer.

Undoubtedly, his autobiography was highly influential on writers during the Medieval period. Augustine’s Confessions take the reader on his spiritual journey from a state of sinfulness to his salvation in Jesus Christ. The intentional structure of his autobiography allows for Augustine to pick and chose personal events from his life that illustrate an archetypal spiritual journey.

Augustine utilizes an innovative structure within his Confessions that involves personal and sometimes brutal self-admonition interspersed with direct quotations from the Bible and lyrical passages in praise of God. The personal sins he discusses seem, on the surface, to be of little consequence, in comparison to, for example, murderers, and yet his descriptions of those sins are offered in caricature, as if he had literally sold his soul to the devil. At first reading, it can be interpreted simply that all sins are equal in the eyes of God; however, this juxtaposition also raises questions within the reader’s mind and encourages a deeper reading of the text where we ultimately see his life and his conversion as a teaching story or parable in itself. This metaphorical writing style is used repeatedly throughout the Confessions, revealing Augustine’s background in Platonic thought, the writings of Paul of Tarsus and his own deep studies of scripture.

This analysis will cover only the first eight books of the Confessions which takes us from his infancy to the moment of crisis that pushes Augustine to make a full conversion to the Christian faith. As mentioned in his Author Sketch, Augustine would be profoundly influenced by his mother Monica and his writings illustrate quite clearly his feelings of being torn between the pagan beliefs and morals of his father and the Christian beliefs and actions of his mother. This is, perhaps, the reason he begins his story with a very dualistic worldview that is not reconciled until the moment he finds his peace in Christ. Augustine touches upon many great ideas throughout the Confessions but we will be focusing on his discussions of Sin, Good and Evil, and Will.

Books I and II of the Confessions deal specifically with Augustine’s infancy and his early childhood. He offers an interesting perspective on infants and their capacity for sin as he attempts to recall this distant time in his life. “And if my wishes were not carried out," he writes, "I would get cross with elders, who were not at my beck and call, and with people who were not my servants, simply because they did not attend to my wishes; and I would take my revenge by bursting into tears. By watching babies I have learnt how they behave... and know that I behaved in just the same way myself.” (1:6) This passage illustrates Augustine’s belief that we are all, as descendants of Adam, born of sin and that “if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” (1:6) It is striking that his opinions on the sinful nature of babies are so strong considering that he spends so little time defending his ideas about a period that he admits he cannot truly recall. He does take the time to lament as he contemplates his infancy, “I ask you, Lord, where or when was I, your servant, ever innocent?” (1:7)

His early childhood is dealt with briefly, in much the same way, but with intuitive observations about the hypocrisy of small boys being punished for playing games instead of attending to their studies by the same masters whose livelihood depended upon even more sinful games. He terms this period of his life as one of suffering and humiliation. Yet, he views this natural tendency of young boys to enjoy playing games quite straightforwardly as further indications of inherent sin.

And yet I sinned, O Lord of my God, creator and arbiter of all natural things, but arbiter only, not creator, of sin. I sinned, O Lord, by disobeying my parents and the masters of whom I have spoken…I was disobedient, not because I chose something better than they proposed to me, but simply from the love of games. (1:10)

During this period of Augustine’s life, it is important to note that he was attending Christian schools and was as close to the faith as he would be for many years to come. It was also during this time that he developed a grave stomach illness (the first of many) which left him close to death. There is much consternation in these next passages as he describes his conflicting feelings of being passed over for his baptism when, instead of dying, he quickly recovered.

You, my God, were my guardian even then, and you saw the fervor and strength of my faith as I appealed to the piety of my own mother and to the mother of us all, your Church, to give me the baptism of Christ your Son, who is my God and my Master…So my washing in the waters of baptism was postponed, in the surmise that, if I continued to live, I should defile myself again with sin and, after baptism, the guilt of pollution would be greater and more dangerous. (1:11)

Even when Augustine wrote the Confessions at the age of forty-three, he had yet to reconcile what contour his life might have followed if he had been baptized in his early boyhood. This incident seems to set Augustine upon his spiritual quest and his search for truth. As we will see, Augustine searches for this truth in many ways but, firstly, by engaging in sin for sin’s sake.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Author Sketch: Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo (also known as Saint Augustine, Augustinus, St. Augustine the Blessed)
Born 354 CE in Tageste, Numidia
Died 430 CE as a retired Bishop of Hippo
Works under consideration: The Confessions

Events that occurred during Augustine’s life:

Pics and Scots cross Hadrian’s Wall and attack Britain
Roman Legions begin to evacuate Britain
The Huns invade Europe
Accession of Theodosius the Great – the last Emperor of a united Roman empire
Scrolls begin to be replaced with books
Hymn singing is introduced by St. Ambrose of Milan and “Hallelujah” is born
The first written records of Japanese history
Alchemy begins with the search for the Philosopher’s stone and the Elixir of Life

Saint Augustine was born in the small village of Tageste on November 13, 354. Tageste was located in the North African Roman Provence of Numidia, present day Souk Ahras, on the eastern border of Algeria. Both of his parents were of Roman descent with possible Numidian genetic lines and Augustine is thought to have been a native Punic speaker. His father, Patricius, was a Roman administrator of Tageste but due to the village’s small size was only able to provide modestly for his family. Augustine’s mother, Monica, was a devout Christian and a constant influence on Augustine’s life. He was highly educated in the liberal arts and ultimately became not only a transitional literary and theological figure in his time but was also torn between dueling cultural belief systems caricaturized by his pagan father and his devoutly Catholic mother. Christian schools framed the beginnings of his educational influences; however, Augustine was not baptized during his early childhood. Perhaps it was the stress of living between two ideologies or the fact that, as he later believed, God allowed him to anguish upon a path of sin in order to show him the true faith, the ardent search for truth became Augustine’s life-long pursuit.

At the age of 11 or 12, Augustine journeyed 20 miles south from his birth place to Madaura where he began his study of grammar and literature. He excelled in his studies, especially Latin, and his father was so inspired by his son’s aptitude and his own hopes that Augustine would become a lawyer that he endeavored to gather the necessary funds for Augustine to continue his education. Ultimately, a local benefactor named Romanianus sponsored Augustine to study rhetoric at Carthage. During this time, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius which he described as the foundation upon which he built his life-long interest in philosophy. At Carthage, he became a member of the Manichean cult whose claim to “reconcile religion with philosophy” must have been very appealing to a young man of 17, caught between a mother who despaired for the salvation of his soul and his own youthful appetites, both of the body and the mind. He shared a relationship with a concubine for ten years who bore him a son named Adeodatus. By all accounts, he loved this woman deeply though they would never marry. During and after his studies at Carthage he lived his life as an “intellectual pagan” and a teacher of rhetoric.

Lamenting the lack of discipline of his students in Tageste, Augustine spent a year in Rome where he began to formally break from the Manicheans and embrace neo-Platonist concepts. He was also introduced to St. Ambrose who later performed Augustine's long awaited baptism into the Christian faith. His full conversion occurred in 386 and, after the death of his mother, he journeyed back to Africa with Adeodatus and other pupils to lead a monastic life. However, a skilled orator and prolific writer would not long live an isolated life. Also, around 391, he assumed what he called the “burden of the episcopate” when he was made a priest of Hippo. He would later hold the title of Bishop for thirty five years. He died of natural causes at Hippo in 430, in the midst of a Vandal invasion.

It is speculated that Augustine wrote over 232 separate titles not including personal letters and sermons. The Confessions and The City of God are two of his most known works but the totality of his written contribution to the western canon is quite impressive. He would later inspire such scholars as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Calvin among others.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Three)

The first two portions of this essay can be found in the archive to the right under October 2009.

Intertwined into Paul’s discourse on the nature of sin and the judgment that must accompany it is the difficult question of how redemption under the Law (for Jews) and redemption through Faith (for non-Jews) can be reconciled. The early Christian congregations were largely composed of what Luke repeatedly refers to as God-fearing pagans. As Jews, and thus the worship of the One God, spread throughout the Mediterranean, peoples who prided themselves on being universally religious (and universally tolerant) saw little reason to exclude the Jewish God from the potential options of gods to be acknowledged and, under certain circumstances, worshipped.

The unique covenant between the Jews and their God, however, made it impossible for non-Jews to fully participate in worship and the process of going from Gentile to Jew was a perilous journey, especially for adult men. What Paul was providing, through his Gospel, was an opportunity for those God-fearers not only to participate fully and more easily in the worship of the Jewish God but also to do so in a manner that he puts forward as inherently superior to the original model. None may hope to fully obey the law but all who would believe can receive baptism and salvation in the name of Jesus Christ.

Still, it would be both impolitic and a little ridiculous for him to assert that the Law was always an inadequate tool for salvation. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew who observed the Law as were all of Paul’s ancestors. Consequently, he must create a model that both embraces and repudiates the Law. He begins, writing that:

All who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. [Acts 2:12,13]

Despite his assertion here that there is an equal dispensation of grace for those who follow the law as those who might, instead, become righteous through a belief in Jesus, he continues later to suggest that the law was only given by God so that humanity might understand that it was sinful. It did not free anyone from their sinful nature as Paul laments that though “I delight in God’s law…I see another law at work…waging war against the law of the mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work in my members” [7:22,33]. As long as the mind remains trapped in the body of sin, it, at best, remains in a constant stalemate with impure urges. Righteousness achieved through belief in Jesus, however, yields something different and, by Paul’s reckoning, better.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. [8:1-4]

The last of Paul’s central themes in his Epistle to the Romans is Love. Paul’s first examination of love focuses God’s love for humanity. God’s wrath is directed at the sin, though his judgment upon it is meted out upon the sinner. His love, however, is saved for his obedient creations and, Paul writes, that God “has poured out his love into our hearts” [5:5] and that He “demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” [5:8]. It is because we are beloved by God that He has slowly unfolded a plan for our redemption, despite Adam’s disobedience that allowed sin and death to reign in His stead.

Paul’s primary concerns about love, however, reside in his assertion that believers should espouse and manifest it as evidence of their transformation through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. “Love,” he insists, “must be sincere” [12:9] and the believer should:

…let no debt remain standing, except for the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law…whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. [13:8-10]

Love, for Paul then, is not only an expression of the Holy Spirit at work inside of an otherwise turbulent human nature but is a pathway to peace. This stands in ideological opposition to the prevailing Roman ideology that Peace might only be obtained through Victory. As such, Christianity is offered not only as an alternative to a half-righteousness through a half-observance of the law but also to a world seemingly consumed by never-ending war in search of a peace that never comes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Two)

The first part of this essay can be accessed in the archives under October 2009.

Having defined sin as turning away from God, Paul creates a causal relationship between sin and death by offering Adam’s mortality as precedent and every death since as proof of sin’s universality. The “wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity” [1:29] that one normally associates with sinful behavior is presented more as a symptom of death than sins in and of themselves. By the reasoning, Paul writes, that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command” [5:14].

It is during this first period that Paul finds the inspiration for his own gospel of salvation for the Gentiles. Though no Law yet existed, Abraham was able to attain righteousness (or cleansing of sin) through his faith in the existence and omnipotence of God. This justification (literally, to be made just) through faith serves as Paul’s model for non-Jewish salvation as he notes that “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” [4:9] As Abraham exhibited that faith before he entered into the covenant with God, outwardly manifested through circumcision, “he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” [4:11].

As for the Law, Paul argues that it serves only to make one aware of sin, while doing nothing to compensate for humanity’s inherently sinful nature. In fact, The Law made being human (or at least being Jewish) more intolerable as it defined precisely what actions were sinful so that those who broke it (ie everyone) could understand why they were being punished with death. For Paul, that is what law does. It defines negative behavior and then assigns the appropriate punishment for it. Deprived of the option of being truly cleansed of sin, humanity is/was lost to a spiral of unmet expectations.

We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living with me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my spiritual nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. [7:14-18]

The only solution, by this arrangement is in becoming a slave to something other than sin; a new possibility created by God in the resurrection of Jesus. Just as Abraham’s righteousness was “credited to him” by virtue of his faith in God and exhibited outwardly through circumcision, so may the believer, then, have righteousness credited to them by virtue of their faith in Jesus the Christ, as exhibited through a baptism in his name. Now while we can easily understand while the ritual pruning of a man’s foreskin might impress the sincerity of his faith upon an otherwise skeptical God, what is it about baptism specifically that conveys righteousness upon its recipients?

The key, for Paul, is remarkably simple in its construction. Death is the sentence for sin which itself is universal to the human condition. In dying, Jesus paid the literal price for his own sins (death) but, in resurrection, is now free from humanity’s sinful nature. Baptism in his name, then, is a baptism “into his death” [6:3], creating a new state of righteousness wherein one’s “old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—as anyone who has died has been freed from sin” [6:6,7].

The first half of that argument is so easily answered by common sense that it is hardly an argument at all for no reasonable person, whatever their belief, could argue that the dead might be capable of continuing to sin past the end of their life. This argument only remains ironclad, however, if one does not suppose that a person might be raised from the dead because, as far as anyone could really tell, it had never happened. That is what makes the belief in Christ’s resurrection so critical to the foundation of Christian belief. If one can believe that God made a special exception in raising Jesus from the dead and allowed him to ascend into heaven with his now-sinless nature intact, then it is just as reasonable to assume that He did so in order that humanity might be baptized into that death that they might escape their hitherto inescapable sinful nature as well. In that belief, the believer dies to their old self and is reborn, with Jesus’s sinless nature indwelt within them, into a new condition by which they are no longer a slave to sin but a slave to righteousness.

In one sense, sin carries out its own form of Judgment in that it is the root cause of death. Salvation from sin, according to Paul, goes beyond merely freeing the believer from their naturally sinful state. If justice can be said to exist, then it must exist in its highest form within any God responsible for creating all things. This means that in addition to death, which is caused by sin, sinners must also undergo a separate judgment by God whereby they are again punished for their sins. Those with clearly formed pictures of fiery lakes and eternal damnation may be surprised to find how vague Paul is, at least in his Epistle to the Romans, about when that judgment will take place and what form it will take.

In the opening chapter, Paul underscores the urgency of his gospel by proclaiming that the “wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” [1:18]. Initially, it appears that this wrath is the catalyst for all the forms of evil and depravity that humans naturally embrace, with the final judgment being death itself, the “wages” of all sin. Later, though, Paul adds on a second component when he speaks of “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” [2:5]. He reveals no details about when this day of judgment is due to occur, only saying that there “will be great trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” [2:9] on this day when “’God will give to each person according to what he has done’” [2:6].

The foundation of Paul’s theology is that everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, has committed sin and, because of that sin, is condemned to die. Paul believes that Jesus will return to usher in a new era of divine peace on Earth and that, in so doing, would reunite the living and the dead for judgment under God’s authority. While evidence outside of the Epistle to the Romans also suggests that Paul believed this would happen within his lifetime, he is vague about that aspect of Jesus’s return saying only that it would “take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares” [2:16].

Thus when Paul declares the necessity of salvation, he is essentially arguing on two different fronts simultaneously. Humanity must be saved from its own sinful nature because the effect of sin is death and death, as we all know, is bad. Humanity must also be saved from God’s judgment by being justified into righteousness through baptism into Jesus’s death. As Jesus became sinless and righteous in transcending death, so must each believer embrace the atonement that his death represents in order to shield them from God’s holy judgment. Without the resurrection, none may hope to become righteous enough in God’s eyes to avoid punishment but, in seeking righteousness through Christ, all may hope to receive “glory, honor and peace” [2:10].

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part One)

Epistle to the Romans by Paul of Tarsus
Time: Written in the middle of the first century of the Common Era.
Location: Most probably Corinth.
Great Ideas: Sin, Judgment, and Love

This essay will quote from the New International Version of Romans which can be found in its entirety online here.

Paul’s contributions to the New Testament are so tantalizing because he represents the first time that a shaper of the gospel of Christ is allowed to speak to us directly. This is not to say that no one had written on or about Christ before Paul fired up his amanuensis and became, in the literary sense, himself immortal. There is evidence that a variety of documents (a “Sayings” Gospel, a “Miracles” gospel, a “Cross” gospel) were produced by the early fold of believers who emerged on the other side of Jesus’s crucifixion and proclaimed his resurrection. Those writings, however, were eventually synthesized, redacted, and expanded upon by writers who were approaching the topic decades after the fact; each with their own brand of theology to promote and set of narratives to which they attended. The Gospels, in this sense, represent work by committee even if the final product was penned and shaped by one man or woman’s hand.

More treacherously, from a critical analysis standpoint, not every Epistle attributed to Paul is inarguably his own work. An examination of the merits of the various sides of that particular argument is in order if one seeks to fully appreciate who Paul was and what his message means. That discussion is only necessary, however, if one is writing on the whole of Paul’s work or writing about an Epistle whose authorship might be worthy of some scrutiny. Gratefully, no doubt for writer and reader alike, we are not.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans must be appreciated as one of the cornerstones of Christian theology, if not the document that defines what Christianity is and how it differs from the Jewish and Hellenic traditions that Paul synthesizes even while repudiating them. It captures a tectonic moment in the development of human thought in a manner that is passionate and unimpeachably sincere; sometimes breathtaking in its concise but elegantly structured arguments. It bears the voice of a mind possessed by genius which, if Romans' historical bonafides weren’t already impeccable, might be the most compelling argument for its attribution to as an actual work of Paul’s.

It is a work that serves many functions. It is a declaration of Paul’s intention to assert his theological influence on the congregation of believers who lived in Rome. It is an introduction to the basic principles of his unique gospel (or “good news”) for those who would hear it. It includes pragmatic advice on how to deal with different tensions that might arise within the church. It deals directly with the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Paul draws heavily from the Torah to legitimize his claim that Judaism should cede to The Way described in his gospel of baptism in the death of the resurrected Jesus Christ. While all of these goals shape and contribute to the Epistle to the Romans, three Great Ideas adequately house most of Paul’s themes and provide us with adequate structure to examine the work thematically rather than in a more limited linear fashion. To this end, we’ll examine Paul’s writings in Romans on the topics of Sin, Judgment, and Love.

The first task that a writer (whether physicist, theologian, or philosopher) must face in dealing in abstractions is to define, with as much precision as language might allow, the parameters of their interpretation of a given term. Paul’s gospel hinges its urgency upon the idea that every human being is sinful and is in need of redemption through Jesus in order to escape God’s judgment. To accept even the premise of the argument, the onus is on Paul to first explain what sin is and why salvation from might be necessary before we might consider the efficacy of the solution that he provides to its inexhaustible influence.

Though his descriptions of behaviors that arise from sin are more eye-popping on the page (and thus more likely to distract the reader from the simplicity of his message), Paul lays a definition on the line in the very first chapter, writing that:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men were without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…{1:20-25]

Those hoping for an Aristotelian clarity that might read like, “Sin is the product of X,Y, and Z” will, of course, be disappointed by the layers that must be parsed in order to get at Paul’s meaning. Recall, however, that he is a Hellenic Jew writing to an audience of Greek, Jewish and Roman Christians. Not all of them accept as fact, as Paul certainly did, the indisputable literality of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, yet all must be able to accept the salvation equation as applicable to their own worldview.

To a converted Jew, like Paul, the equation is most simple. Though Adam had “clearly seen” God’s “eternal power and divine nature,” he chose to exchange “the truth of God for a lie” by eating from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” [Genesis 2:17] from which God had forbidden him. Paul reinforces this idea of sin entering the world through Adam’s disobedience later when he remarks that it “entered the world through one man” [5;12]. Interpreted more radically, Adam did not sin against God in his act of disobedience for sin did not yet exist and, by Paul’s reckoning, only God may create something from nothing. In committing an act from which he was forbidden, Adam placed his own interest above that of God’s, serving at the behest of “created things rather than the Creator” with the “created things” in question being himself. In so doing, he exchanged “the truth of God for a lie” and thus, sin was born in the fundament of human nature.

To a converted Greek, the task was more complex. For in the ascent and decline of classical Greek culture, a god’s position in the grand scheme of things was subject to constant revision. Though Zeus was acknowledged as the king of the gods, he was eclipsed in public acclaim by many others, including Athena, Apollo, and later Dionysus. Many philosophers questioned openly the existence of the gods and, while their worship remained an important part of Greek culture, reason became a god of its own, producing irrefutable knowledge that, in many cases, supplanted what could only before be believed. As Greek political influence waned, however, so went the assuredness that knowledge was a better ally than gods, imaginary or otherwise, whose power could not be resisted. Luke puts this very idea into Paul’s mouth in the Acts of the Apostles as he visits Athens and entreats its philosophers and believers alike to join him in worshiping the Unknown God who:

…made the world and everything in it [and who] is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. [Acts 17:24]

By the same logic, Paul suggests that since the creation of humanity, all nations have been able to see “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” but have allowed that vision to become distorted into images derived from nature, from animals and from humanity itself. Without the Law, given solely to the Hebrews as part of their unique covenant with God, Greeks were left to do the best they could with the information they had and things didn’t turn out too well. Now, their gods had been subsumed into Roman ones along with the rest of their once-dominant culture. Turning away from a supposed innate human understanding of God’s eternal qualities in favor of the gods’ more mercurial ones would, by this interpretation, be the source of sin.

It bears mentioning that something fundamentally new had been emerging in the Mediterranean culture in the century surrounding the time in which Jesus and Paul both lived, taught, and died. While the Persian and Egyptian cultures, long before the time of Alexander, had embraced the idea of mortals actually achieving godhood while they yet lived, the Mediterranean culture (excluding Egypt) had shown great resilience to the idea. Greek and Roman culture alike preferred elevating only the rarest of mortals to the status of divinity and usually conferred upon their death, rather than as justification for the authority of their reign. Every would-be conqueror from Thrace to Rome might claim divine parentage but men were men and gods, for the most part, remained gods.

In the span of one long lifetime (or two average ones), the lure of divine authority as a tool of governance had proven too tempting to endure and the Romans began incrementally importing these ideas into the Roman culture and all the places that it touched. Moreover, even as their claim to living divinity became more strident, the Julio-Claudian Caesars became more depraved in their abuse of common decency in the governance of their people. How difficult an argument was it for Paul to make to Greek or Roman alike that if this was their people’s conception of a god, then it was tragically deviant from the “eternal power and divine nature” that were inherent in “God’s invisible qualities?”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Author Sketch: Paul of Tarsus

Paul (the Apostle, also known as Saint Paul)
Born in Tarsus sometime shortly before or after the beginning of the Common Era
Died between 62-65 CE in Rome
Work under Consideration: Epistle to the Romans.

Other things that happened in Paul’s lifetime:

Herod Archelaus is deposed as ethnarch of Judaea and the territory, annexed by Rome.
London is founded.
Caesar Augustus dies and is succeeded by Tiberius, Caligula and Nero.
Buddhism introduced to China by the Emperor, Ming-Ti.

The writer known as Paul is one of the more elusive figures of history. Unlike our two previous New Testament writers (Matthew and Luke), there is absolutely no doubt that a man named Paul once existed and was responsible for at least some of the works credited to him as an author. Though he never met Jesus, the man who walked the Earth, Paul was instrumental in moving the gospel of his resurrection beyond its Jewish sectarian roots and into the free market of ideas wherein it eventually spread like wildfire from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.

Also unlike Jesus, Paul, as a writer, operated on the periphery of history—our image of him a composite formed from autobiography, demi-hagiography, anthropology, and good old fashioned guessing. He was born in Tarsus sometime just before or after the beginning of the Common Era. It was already an ancient city when Saul (or Paul as he would later be known) was born, with roots stretching back at least seven hundred years that had been molded by nearly every ascendant empire along the way, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman alike. It was known, in Paul’s time, as a center of learning, attracting philosophers and rhetoricians to schools that flourished against its metropolitan backdrop.

Of the many disharmonious “facts” assumed about Paul by various writers, there is little dissent on the fact that he was, indeed, Jewish, probably born into the tribe of Benjamin. Assuming that his father was a practicing Jew, we can also assume that Paul was educated in written Hebrew and, quite possibly, spoken Aramaic. He describes himself in the Epistle to the Galatians as “advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age” and “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” [Gal. 1:14, NIV]. At some point fairly early in his life, Paul left Tarsus and came to Jerusalem, presumably to be closer to the temple to further his studies. By all accounts, including his own, he became involved in the persecution of the Nazarene sect, also referred to as The Way, which proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through the resurrection and name of Jesus the Christ. Luke suggests in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul had authority given to him by the temple to imprison followers of the Way and, is shown, at one point to be part of a mob that stoned the believer, Stephen, to death.

On a journey to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way, Paul claimed to have had an auditory hallucination wherein Jesus commanded him to go and preach his gospel to non-Jews. Paul preached the gospel of the resurrection in Christ’s name, by his own account, for three years, before returning to Jerusalem and meeting with the heads of the church there. Eventually, Paul entered into a missionary partnership with Barnabas, an elder from the Judean church, to begin spreading the gospel outside of the Jewish homeland. They found their greatest success together in Antioch where, in time, a church of sufficient size and influence to rival the original movement was founded and cultivated. Using Antioch as a base of operations, Barnabas and Paul spread the gospel through Syria and Asia Minor, creating seed churches wherever they could convert believers.

Later, Paul headed a mission of his own that spread the gospel further into Greece until he was able to establish a strong church at Ephesus. The exact details of how Paul wound up in Rome, only to be made into a scapegoat by Nero for the great fire in 64 CE and executed, are unclear. While Luke claimed that Paul was a Roman citizen, little extracanonical evidence has surfaced to support this claim. By whatever means, it is widely accepted that Paul was a part of the Roman church if not its sole and proprietary founder.

Though some of his writings are still with us today, Paul is something of a cipher onto which the reader is able to project his or her own ideas about Christianity. Some read in his writing an obviously rabbinical understanding of the Torah and cite his teachings as the clear link of continuity between Judaism and Christianity. Others, perhaps less invested in his identity as a Jew, see his mission to preach among the Gentiles as a rejection of Judaism, both as a religion and as a culture. Classicists find in his work writings an obvious synthesis of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy. It is perhaps this stereoscopic quality to his writing that has contributed to its endurance among the canon of Western thought for nearly two thousand years since his passing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Twelve)

The first nine sections of this essay can be found in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009. Parts Ten and Eleven can be found in October 2009.

Eventually, Felix was replaced by a new governor, Festus whom Luke initially portrays as especially sympathetic to the Jewish interests coming out of Jerusalem. By his account, the first matter of business that the temple brought up with Festus was that of Paul and gave the new governor an opportunity to passively allow them to kill him without bloodying his own hands. If, they suggested, Festus could convince Paul to have his trial moved to Jerusalem then they would finally be able to kill him either on route or on site, thus reinforcing yet again the idea that it was Roman authority that was keeping Paul alive. When Festus presented this option to Paul, our intrepid hero was, of course, too clever by half to fall for such chicanery, insisting that:

“I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have no done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But, if these charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” [25:10].

Once Festus recognized Paul’s right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome under Roman law, there was no more talk about the angry Jerusalem faction trying to murder him. Instead, we are treated to a curious interlude in which Paul was brought before Festus and two of his guests, King Agrippa and his sister Bernice to again state his case and, in the process, re-tell the story of his conversion and mission. Agrippa was the king of Chalcis and the last of the rulers spawned from Herod the Great to preside over any portion of Judea. Though his kingdom was small, he had also received from Nero the right to administer the temple and appoint its high priests, including Ananias who had been trying to have Paul killed since his arrival in Jerusalem.

Though Luke invests considerable detail into his description of the meeting between Paul, Agrippa, and Festus, the text here does little to advance what Paul has already told other, perhaps less sympathetic audiences. The purpose of this section appears to be giving Paul the opportunity to convince the man responsible for administrating the temple of the unblemished Jewish-ness of his mission. Though Festus cut Paul’s testimony off, proclaiming that his “great learning is driving you insane” [26:24], Agrippa later comments that “’this man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment” [26:31] before grimly remarking that “this man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.’” [26:32].

As we noted before entering into this last seven-chapter section of the Acts of the Apostles, how the text is interpreted rests almost solely on the historicity of Paul’s supposed Roman citizenship. Nowhere in the text is this schism illustrated more clearly than in this passage. Beginning from the position that the claim was and is true, Paul played an elaborate game of legal chess in order to ensure that his mission and his message will eventually reach Rome. The reality that he was eventually executed by the state in 64 AD (though inarguably for reasons that had nothing to do with the nature of his teachings or beliefs) is secondary to the fact that, along the journey, he is brought before great men of ascending importance and was able proclaim the gospel of Jesus the Christ to them without being disproven or recanting his belief.

From the other side, one can argue that the final portion of the Acts is a fiction designed to create the impression that Paul’s inevitable march towards his own death in Rome at Nero’s hands was one of God’s own design and Paul’s own choosing. Just as Jesus refused to call down a legion of angels to lift him from the cross and spare him the suffering required of the final sacrifice, so did Paul refuse to capitulate, bribe, or otherwise wrangle his way out of the sequence of events that eventually led to his martyrdom. Those searching for clear evidence for Luke’s tampering with the narrative to bolster his own themes need only recognize that he includes many details to which none inside the order, including Paul himself, would have been privy. In the passage that closes out chapter twenty-six, Luke writes:

The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.” [26:30].

While it is, of course, imminently convenient for King Agrippa to have made this observation out loud, this passage shows a clearly omnipresent narrator that does not harmonize well with the third-person narration that most of this section otherwise assumes. One could argue that if God is omniscient, then He would have been able to tell future believers of this exchange. The New Testament is, however, not typically shy about telling us when the heavens speak to humanity, not to mention which element of the Trinity was cited for authority and to whom precisely it was spoken. So, either God/Jesus/Holy Spirit eavesdropped in on this conversation, delivered it, verbatim to Luke (or some tradition from which he derived his history) and then was not credited later on for this miracle or this section, if not the entire story (if not the entire final seven chapters of the Acts) rests on remarkably shaky historical ground, undermined by literary license being exercised by its mortal author.

Once Paul finally left Caesarea for Rome, the Acts of the Apostles makes its last, and perhaps strangest, tonal shift. Dropping deeply back into his “we” voice, Luke details the journey from Judea to Rome with a nearly compulsive attention to detail—including the names of every city that Paul visited as a prisoner along the way. From the outset, the voyage by sea is fraught with difficulty, as if to show that though God intends to allow Paul to complete his destiny, He must still show that the ship which bears him towards it is under His authority. Paul managed to survive numerous storms, a shipwreck and a lethal snake bite while cheerfully making his way towards his own doom. By the time he arrived, it is difficult to tell that he is under arrest at all as Luke informs us that at Puteoli (the last stop before Rome), “we found some brothers who invited us to spend a week with them” [28:14]. In fact, though no mention of a mission to Rome had been previously mentioned, Luke notes that “the brothers there [Rome] had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appias and the Three Taverns to meet us” [28:15].

Upon his arrival, Paul called together “the leaders of the Jews” [28:17] and, again, defended the legality (from a Jewish perspective of his teachings). Surprisingly, the elders of the Jewish church expressed surprise at his treatment at the hands of the temple in Jerusalem, telling him that “’we have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who has come from there has reported or said anything bad about you” [28:21]. While some are shown to accept his message, others, as their Judean brethren before him, rejected it when Paul proclaimed that “’I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!’” [28:28]

By Luke’s account, Paul spent two years in Rome, preaching to open-minded Jews and Gentiles alike while living under house arrest. Though Luke spends enormous amounts of time in the Acts of the Apostles pointing to the inevitability of Paul’s eventual execution, no mention of it is made within the book itself—closing only with the statement that “boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” [28:31].

Monday, October 5, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Eleven)

Parts One through Nine of this essay can be found to the right of the screen in the archive under September 2009 and Part Ten in October 2009.

The last seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles are the most difficult to analyze from a truly objective standpoint. Much like the cornerstone of the Christian faith, the subject of Jesus’s resurrection, there’s no good middle ground to occupy as one reads it because the answer to the question of whether or not Paul was actually a Roman citizen is ultimately an unknowable one. Entire books, in fact, have been written, both for and against, on this very topic and yet, slightly less than two thousand years later, there is no incontrovertible proof for either case. Many, however, on both sides of the argument, take what evidence they have, add a smidgen of belief or disbelief and come away with the sense that they do, in fact, have incontrovertible proof. If, for example, one believes that every word in the Bible, by virtue of its inclusion in the Bible, is absolute truth, then there is only one interpretation available. In contrast, if one believes that every word in any book must be examined from a number of perspectives (historical, contextual, literary, etc) to determine its meaning, as opposed to its literal veracity, then the question becomes more difficult (as in, nigh impossible) to resolve.

In recounting the details of Paul’s journey from Miletus to Jerusalem and all that happened after, Luke reverts back to the “we” voice in describing the ordeal, often including almost insignificant details that give it that “You were there” quality. Luke includes the name of every city that Paul visited on the journey, like mini-shout outs to the Christian communities along the way, until, in the eighth verse of chapter twenty-one, Paul finally arrived in Caesarea. All along the way, believers begged Paul not continue on to Jerusalem, increasing that sense that something bad awaited him at the end of the road. Just in case this theme might be lost on less diligent readers, Luke recounts a meeting with the prophet Agabus that spells it right out.

Coming to us he [Agabus] took Paul’s girdle and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” [21:11]

When Paul eventually arrived at Jerusalem, we are told that he was “received warmly by the brethren” but, curiously, only James is mentioned by name among them. Paul shared with them, first hand, stories of his ministerial success and, by Luke’s account, they “glorified God” [21:20]. This celebration was short-lived, however, as, they responded to Paul with a dire warning about his reputation among the Jews of Jerusalem.

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.” [21:21, 22].

While the prophesy from Agabus might lead the reader to believe that it is the unconverted Jews who pose Paul the greatest threat, a careful reading of that passage suggests that it is the converted who, in fact, are the danger. They suggested to Paul that he, along with four of the brethren, should engage in a week-long ritual of purification, including sacrifice at the temple, in order to exhibit his deference to the Law in a public way. Though Paul followed through on their suggestion, it was to no avail as “Jews from Asia” incited the crowd against him and, as it had so many times before, a riot broke out and Paul was nearly killed. In line with Luke’s thematic development for the second half of Acts, it was Roman authority that stepped in and prevented Paul from being murdered by the mob. Not able to make any sense of why the mob was trying to kill Paul, the tribune removed him from the temple and tried to get a sense of what was going on from him. Paul replied only that he was “a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” [21:39] before asking that he be allowed to address the crowd that had just tried to murder him moments earlier.

We have already analyzed the largest portion of Paul’s defense before the people in an earlier section of this essay, as it recounts the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. The people took little interest in Paul’s story, insisting that he be killed until their ruckus compelled the tribune to again remove Paul and, this time, to be “examined by scourging, to find out why they shouted thus against him” [22:24]. Just as the soldiers were about to torture the “truth” out of Paul, he, once again, dropped the bomb upon which the plausibility of much of the rest of the book rests.

“Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen, and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him instantly; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. [22:25-29].

Believing, at least according to Luke’s account, that he had inadvertently imprisoned and nearly beaten a Roman citizen without due process, the tribune called together “the chief priests and all the council” to meet with Paul and, one presumes, bring this tumultuous disagreement to an end. This meeting, while hardly bringing the controversy to a close, does reveal some interesting things not only about Paul (or what Luke wishes us to believe about Paul) but also the fault lines along which the factions of the temple were arrayed. Paul astutely observed that as some of those who stood in judgment over him were Pharisees while others were Sadducees and exploited the differences between them to break up the united front that they all once represented against him. With the council unable to reach a decision in concord in regards to Paul’s claims, the tribune again orders Paul back to the barracks where he could be protected by Roman authority. Luke also writes that Paul received a message from the Lord, saying “’Take courage for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome’” [23:11]. Though Luke (and presumably Paul before him) attributes this message to the Lord, it is not included among those words of Christ printed in red to indicate the divinity of their source.

With the religious authority at Jerusalem effectively deadlocked, a plot arose among the Jews to kill Paul. Paul’s nephew caught wind of this plot and, once again, Roman authority intervenes to remove Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea, the Roman seat of governance, in order to protect his life. With this move, Paul’s fate passes from the hands of the unnamed tribune into those of the governor, Felix who, in turn, summoned those who would accuse Paul to a special session at Caesarea to determine his guilt or innocence. This time, Paul’s accusers are named as Ananias, the high priest, along with “some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus” [24:1]. After having dispensed with the formal niceties of sucking up to Roman law, they laid out an arguably weak case against Paul, accusing him of being “an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” [24:5] and of having profaned the temple. Rather than offering evidence of these claims, they insisted that “by examining him yourself you will be able to learn from him about everything of which we accuse him” [24:8].

Though it is clear from Luke’s writing that Paul considered himself and other Christians to be believers in something distinct from traditional Judaism, he played the part of the innocent shrewdly in his own defense.

This I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing in everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets, having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust…Now after some years, I came to bring to my nation alms and offerings. As I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult. But some Jews from Asia—they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, if they have anything against me. Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, except this one thing which I cried out while standing among them, ‘With respect to the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you this day.’” [24:14-21]

Felix, unlike the tribune before him, is said to have “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” [24:22] and, rather than settling the matter at once, had Paul put under what might be called loose arrest. While waiting for a tribune named Lysias to arrive, Felix is said to have summoned Paul a second time to plead his case in private. Luke also suggests that this was Felix’s not-so-subtle way of letting Paul know that if he would but bribe him adequately, that this whole matter might disappear overnight. In the course of just a few verses, two years pass and Felix was replaced by another governor, Festus, while Paul languished in legal limbo.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Ten)

Parts 1-9 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

In some ways, Paul’s ministry at Ephesus followed the all-too familiar contour of beginning in the synagogue where he angered the devout Jews and peeled off followers from among the God-fearing Gentiles until he (symbolically or not) abandoned the Jewish audiences and taught only among the Gentiles. However, Luke also offers stark contrasts between Paul’s mission and that he shared before with Barnabas. First, as he had before at Corinth, Paul spends a good deal of time (over two years) in Ephesus. The early strategy of raising a ruckus, establishing a seedling church, and then get beat up or run out of town is replaced by another; namely, preaching in the synagogues until resistance reaches a certain level and then moving the ministry in the home of well-placed citizens in the city that can provide legal and social protection while deeply planting the teaching of the church into those followers over a longer period of time.

Luke emphasizes a more supernatural side of Paul’s ministry during his time in Ephesus. While this trend continues to surface as Paul’s ministry moves on from Ephesus, Luke’s description of some of his time there offers a tantalizing glimpse at the effect of Paul’s residence there over a longer period of time.

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon possessed…The evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. [19:11-13,15-17]

Neither of these stories highlight Paul’s own supernatural agency but more how people’s impression of him opened up the possibility of miracles through faith. The simplest explanation for this is that Paul’s reputation, in some cases, may have exceeded the reach of his own teachings and encouraged people on the outer ring of the circle of believers to project their own ideas and beliefs on to him. This could be and was only possible because Paul spent a considerable amount of time among the people of Ephesus and built up a certain cult of personality that had been lacking in his early missionary efforts.

After his successes at Ephesus, Paul decided that it was time to head back to Jerusalem, by way of Macedonia and Achaia. Before his departure, the obligatory riot against the believers there had to erupt but this time, the disturbance was instigated not by unconverted Jews but by the idols makers of the city who saw Paul’s teachings as dangerous to the future durability of the vocation. The details that Luke includes in the story are notable in their departure from nearly every other act of mob violence that had occurred up to that point. Paul’s disciples are dragged into the public theater and threatened. But, as Luke writes:

Paul wanted to appear before the crowd but his disciples would not let him. Even some of officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. [19:30,31]

Most notably, Paul is increasingly shown as having friends in high places who can protect him from these mobs. In the end, it was not Paul but “the city clerk” [19:35] who calmed the Ephesians and not by the authority of God, but by the authority of Law, specifically Roman law.

"If then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls…As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events, In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it." [19:38,40]

Thus, indirectly, Paul is shown to be under the protection of Roman law and, more importantly, the Gentiles are portrayed as being intrinsically more reasonable than the “Jews” who mobbed up on Paul every chance they got.

After leaving Ephesus, Paul returned to Macedonia (Philippi) and, after spending some time “speaking many words of encouragement to the people” [20:2], he then moved on to Greece. His plans to sail to Syria were stifled “because the Jews made a plot against him” and so he returned to Macedonia again, this time collecting disciples to join him in his journey and, in time, they all met in Troas.

It is at this point that Luke resurrects the “we” voice in discussing their travels and, as before, the story of Paul’s journey makes an uncharacteristic shift towards the supernatural with Paul as the agent rather than merely the inspiration. Luke tells the story of Eutychus, a young believer in Troas, who, while listening to Paul’s teaching, fell asleep and, inconveniently, out of a third story window to the ground below. Though Eutychus “was picked up dead,” Paul rushed to him and, embracing the young man, cried out, “’Don’t be alarmed…he’s alive!’” [20:10]. While less dramatic than Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead after having been buried for some period of time, this is the first time that Paul is shown to raise the dead and, factual or not, strengthens the narrative ties that link Paul’s march toward Jerusalem with that of Jesus before him.

When Paul left Troas, he made a meandering journey from there to Miletus and then summoned the elders of the church at Ephesus to join him for a final meeting before he left for Jerusalem. This meeting is momentous in the Acts of the Apostles as it draws the book’s second act, as it were, to a close. Pragmatically, it is notable that Paul called for the elders of Ephesus as it shows that this was the congregation he considered to be his own or, more generously, the congregation of which he thought of himself most a member. His message to them can, itself, be broken into three parts: a declaration of his works among them, a prophecy of his impending arrest and eventual execution, and a moving recognition that this would likely be the last time they were see one another. The details of these speeches reveal not only a great deal about Paul’s ministry but also what elements of it Luke wants us to remember as the book moves into its final section.

I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews...I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. [20:19,21]

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. [20:22,23]

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will ever see me again…Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. [20:25,34]

These passages bear all the hallmarks of a transition from one period into the next, careful recapitulating the important themes of Paul’s second mission while heightening the reader’s anticipation of what comes next. It should come as little surprise that the chapters following exhibit a marked shift in tone with the establishment of new formulas and altered perspectives and voices from which the story is narrated.