Yesterday we talked a bit about Paul in the context of first century culture and mores. What stands in the background of all such discussions is a fundamental difference I have with an awful lot of my contemporaries. In a word, I think an awful lot of them are both stunningly provincial and astonishingly ungrateful.
Again and again, I encounter complaints about past figures that boil down to “Why didn’t they think and act just like me?” It’s like children complaining that the neighbors are backward fools because they don’t open Christmas presents on Christmas morning–or they don’t celebrate Christmas at all because they have some dumb thing called Hanukkah that nobody ever heard of.
So, for instance, one hears everlasting complaints about the tolerance of slavery in Scripture. Why didn’t they just abolish it? it’s like asking why Biden doesn’t just sign an executive order abolishing war or poverty. The apostles didn’t abolish a universal human institution that existed for time immemorial because they were a tiny persecuted sect with zero power. Moses and Israel, being typical denizens of the Bronze Age, both saw slavery as an evil (that is, after all, what they Exodused from), and yet took it for granted like everybody else on planet Earth. Ancients accepted it as a fact of their world and operated within its constraints as best they could, just as we do with death, taxes, and war to this day.
Same with all the other vicissitudes of people down through history. If the Greeks were so great, why were they such flaming racists? Because they were like everybody else in the world at the time and the very idea of human equality and the dignity of the human person would not even begin to be cobbled together as a universally promoted moral doctrine until several centuries into the Christian era. Indeed, the very concept of the “person” was a fruit of Christian theology grappling with the Trinity. And it would take centuries more for that to filter into law and practice.
Why did medieval Christians use torture? Because they believed “error has no rights”. And guess what? So do you, which is why you call out QANON idiocy and don’t urge everybody to hear Marjorie Taylor Green out. They were right as far as they went. What they had not worked out, and would take centuries to work out, was, “Error has no rights, but persons in error do have rights“. They weren’t morons. They were the ones who struggled through to figure that out. We are their beneficiaries.
So rather than spitting on a historical figure who failed in some area, I think asking “How far did he advance the ball down the field?” to be a very good way of looking at figures born in times very different from our own. It is easy to see where our ancestors erred. And the easier it is, the harder it often is to see where we err. The wise thing is to see both where they erred and where they were wise. The biblical tradition does this, both commanding us to “Honor your father and your mother” but also warning Israel of the fact that “we have sinned like our fathers”. Indeed, Old Testament literature is unique in antiquity by the excoriating stance it takes toward the “sins of the fathers” even as it strives to preserve the good those fathers handed down.
The monuments and memorials of the neighbors of Israel are chockablock with the glorification of the king and the nation. Egyptian monuments are gigantic and deify the king. They trumpet, “I AM OZYMANDIAS, KING OF KINGS! LOOK ON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR!” Assyrian literature and art, such as it is, is a catalog of the great victories of the Assyrians: one gigantic brag. Israelite literature stands alone as a gigantic confessional of the sins of the nation, carefully preserved instead of buried under a torrent of state-sponsored Happy Talk. The chronicles of the Davidic dynasty, while certainly praising Davidic kings, are also ruthlessly unsparing of them. There is nothing like the Old Testament in antiquity, just as there is nothing quite like the gospels which look to it for inspiration (literally). What sticks out about the gospels is their frank and open confession of the massive sins and failures of the apostles, down to the careful mention in all four of them of the cowardly betrayal and denial of Jesus by Peter and the rest in the hour of Jesus’ greatest need. There are no feet of clay left to expose in a figure like Peter. He’s already told us what a loser he is.
And this is reflected in the liturgy of the Catholic tradition. Every Mass begins, not with “I’m proud to be a Catholic, where at least I know I’m free” but with “I confess to Almighty God that I have sinned.” Indeed, aside from the words of the Institution of the Eucharist (which take the Church back to the very night Peter denied Christ) the only only Greek words left in the Latin rite are “Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison”: Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy!” That spiritual posture is light years from “PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN! USA! NUMBER ONE!”
This is, in no small part, very close to the roots of the failure of the MAGA antichrist cult, which is built on and compounded of the black satanic pride of the fall of man. Lent is a good time for renouncing such pride and seeking again the humility of Christ who
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself,† taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:6–11)
Thanks, Mark! You’re right. I do like your piece today. I am a history teacher by training and always try to help my students develop an understanding and awareness that humanity is still developing and expanding our understanding of ourselves and the world. We are growing, changing and always evolving.
I often wonder how this generation is going to look to folks a hundred years down the road. I suspect we’ll appear as enlightened and charming to them as the Late Roman Empire does to me.
Karen Armstrong makes exactly the same point in her writings.
Words of wisdom, thank you.
Late last year I began reading through the Bible, trying to imagine the events from the point of view of those who experienced them – rather than looking for spiritual lessons for me. It has been most interesting – especially books like Joshua.
It reminds me of a skit on “In Living Color” thirty years ago. It was a spoof of MTV’s “Rock the Vote” drive. Cast members played teenagers being asked questions about their political opinions. Kelly Coulfield played once such kid being asked what she’d do if she were president.
“Um…If I was the president I’d, like, make it a law that people couldn’t kill each other and take each other’s stuff.”
“And how would you implement this policy?”
[Kid looks at interviewer with a “Duh! What an idiot adult” expression].
“I’d make it a *law*!”
I don’t have that much of an issue with Paul as I do with people taking his word as gospel. Pun intended. But seriously, most Christians want to have it both ways, so their view and treatment of the Bible will shift to whatever is the most convenient at any given moment:
When they want to use the Bible as a tool to exert their dominance, they will cling to its supposed divine origins in order to appeal to an unquestionable authority.
Yet when that claim of divinity and by proxy, its authority is being questioned and evaluated on its merits, then they want the Bible to be judged by normal human standards.
So by admonishing critics of the Bible for failing to evaluate the Bible as a product of its own particular time and cultural context, far from dismantling their arguments, you’re really just proving their point. Also, the idea of working with a progressive level of understanding doesn’t make Christianity special or unique; that’s pretty much how the entirety of human knowledge works, by expanding and building upon what came before.
Thank you for that. That was as cogent an exposition of the issue as I could have hoped for.
That was a very enjoyable read, Mark. One of your best posts, in my humble opnion.
I was going to post a comment here, but then I saw 3vil5triker already made my point.