Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New Take on Mellencamp's "Scarecrow"

Recently, my local rock station has inserted John Mellencamp’s song “Scarecrow” into its daily rotation. This is a song I have long been familiar with, having heard it often growing up in the 1980’s. It is the title track from his 1985 album – a record that my family and I listened to frequently.

If you are familiar with this song and its lyrics, you’ll realize that it doesn’t take a musical or literary genius to figure out what he’s talking about. It’s a song discussing the plight of Indiana farmers in the early 1980’s, when crop failures and rising prices led to the bankruptcy of a number of farms, not just in Indiana but throughout the Midwest.

The song gives a gut-wrenching and intimate look at that agricultural crisis from the perspective of those who were victims of it. The accompanying music video begins with an interview of three real farmers who were suffering through the difficult times.

As I listen to this song now, so many years down the line, it has taken on a profound and provocative new meaning for me. As strange as it will no doubt sound to my readers, I hear the echoes of Jesus’ life in 1st century Galilee reflected in this song about 1980’s American farmers.

If you’re so inclined, I invite you to read the lyrics along with me and consider a few things:

Scarecrow on a wooden cross, blackbird in the barn.
Four-hundred empty acres that used to be my farm.

This opening verse provides a beautifully stark image of what has befallen the narrator’s livelihood. A farm that used to belong to him, now abandoned, owned by someone in a corporate office somewhere a thousand miles away, an old scarecrow still watching over the forlorn and empty fields, a lone blackbird roosting in the vacant barn. If you read with the heart, you can hear the narrator’s resentment echoed in that second line – four hundred acres that used to be my farm.

Similar situations had befallen countless rural Jews in 1st century Galilee. In the previous decades, Roman commercialism had spread across the Jewish homeland like poison ivy. In the first 20 years or so of Jesus’ life, the Roman cities of Sepphoris and Tiberias had been built in Galilee, right in Jesus’ backyard. Historical texts show that these towns spread Roman commercial influence deep into the heart of rural Galilee. Lands that had once been farmed by Jewish peasant landowners were overtaken by wealthy Romans and their urban Jewish accomplices. These Jewish peasants, once landowners, were now dispossessed of their ancestral land. In the best cases, these Jews worked as common laborers on the lands they once owned. In the worst cases, they were forced into beggary and banditry.

One can imagine that their feelings of resentment towards the Roman commercialism that had destroyed their livelihoods would have been every bit as profound as that expressed by Mellencamp as the narrator of this song.

I grew up like my daddy did, my grandpa cleared this land.
When I was five I walked the fence while grandpa held my hand.

In this second half of the first verse, Mellencamp provides a stark glimpse at the reason for the narrator’s deep resentment. This land is not just the narrator’s possession – like a kitchen table bought from the local furniture store – to be bought and sold; this is his ancestral land, land cleared and worked and made into a viable farm by his grandfather and father before him. This land is as much a part of the narrator’s personal identity as his own name. As a child, he even helped pace out the fence line with his grandfather – pacing out, as it were, the borders of this property that was not just fields of corn and wheat, but home and identity.

The connection here to the dispossessed Jews of 1st century Galilee is blatant to any student of Jewish history. To these ancient Jews, land and God were two sides of the same coin. The Jewish homeland, the Promised Land of the Jewish scriptures, was God’s land, entrusted to the Jews as caretakers. They felt a deep and profound and even esoteric connection with this land. Their entire theological worldview was tied up in their rights to the land they inhabited. Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last 50 years would see that this connection to land still pervades even modern Jewish identity. The Jewish people, then and now, were people of the land.

For 1st century Jews, unlike for the narrator of “Scarecrow,” it wasn’t just their father and grandfather who had shared this land, but many countless generations of Jews before them. To see it overrun by Roman commercialism – to see God’s land raped, as it were, by invaders, must have seemed like the worst sort of tragedy.

Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.
This land fed a nation, this land made me proud.
And, son, I’m just sorry there’s no legacy for you now.

This is the chorus of the song, reflecting the narrator’s deeply felt pride in the land he owned and worked. Again, this wasn’t just a possession. Nor was it even just an ancestral holding. It helped feed a nation. Without this farm and others like it, nothing else would much matter, because if you can’t eat, you can’t do much of anything.

The sense of pride felt by the Jews of the 1st century in their land would have been no less – and in fact, probably far more – deeply felt. The land had been entrusted to them by God. They were proud of it. They felt a deep affinity with it. The loss of this legacy – a legacy that defined their entire cultural identity – would have been devastating. And to see other Jews – urban Jews of Jerusalem – collaborating with this systemic evil of commercialism would have created an enormous level of resentment and contempt within the Jews – like Jesus – of 1st century Galilee.

The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans.
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed.
Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land.
He said John it’s just my job and I hope you understand.
Hey, calling it your job, ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right,
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight.
And grandma’s on the front porch swing with a Bible in her hand.
Sometimes I hear her singing “Take me to the Promised Land.”
When you take away a man’s dignity, he can’t work his fields and cows.

There’ll be blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.
Blood on the scarecrow, blood on the plow.

In this second verse and chorus, the anger of the narrator becomes more apparent. The auctioneer attempts to deflect responsibility, but the narrator calls him on it – just because it’s your “job” doesn’t make it right. The whole enterprise, the narrator is saying, is a systemic evil, and you are a part of it.

The reaction Jesus had to the systemic evil he saw around him must have been similar. Like the grandmother who imagines the Promised Land, Jesus began to envision the kingdom of God overcoming the broken world. And he became convinced that if you were not part of the solution – part of God’s kingdom – then you were part of the problem.

The last line of this verse is especially powerful. When you take away a man’s dignity, what can you possibly expect the result to be? The Romans and their urban Jewish collaborators of the 1st century had taken away the dignity of the Jews of Galilee. They had beggared them. They had shed their metaphorical blood, leaving “blood on the scarecrow” and “blood on the plow.

To put it bluntly, the Galilean Jews were justifiably pissed. Jesus came from within that victimized world, voicing the frustrations and resentments of his people, and conceptualizing the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, acceptance, compassion, and radical equality.

It is not hard to understand, within this context, Jesus’ famous actions in the Temple, where he is said to have “overturned the tables of the moneychangers.” The Romans and their urban Jewish collaborators had commercialized God’s land; they had taken this divinely given land away from its rightful owners so that they could turn a buck. Jesus’ actions in the Temple were symbolic to a great degree, but they no doubt also represented the “boiling over point” for Jesus. It was bad enough that they had taken the land; now they were commercializing the Temple – God’s very own house – too.

Well there’s ninety-seven crosses planted in the courthouse yard.
For ninety-seven families who lost ninety-seven farms.
I think about my grandpa, my neighbors and my name,
And some nights I feel like dying, like that scarecrow in the rain.

For me, this is the climax of the song. Mellencamp sings these words in such a way that the narrator’s anger and resentment is truly palpable. You can feel the resentment yourself, and you can understand it. At the risk of sounding like a “bleeding heart,” I’ll admit that this part of the song has, at times, brought tears to my eyes.

For Jesus, it was far more than 97 farms and 97 families. It was thousands upon thousands of Galilean Jews victimized by systemic evils. And when Jesus thought about his ancestors, and his collective Jewish name, he no doubt felt the same helplessness and bitterness that the narrator feels here.

These are the sociopolitical contexts that Jesus of Nazareth came from. Systemic evils. Hard-working people victimized and beggared by the politics and culture of empire.

I hope the irony of the image of a “scarecrow on a wooden cross” dying in the rain is not lost on anyone.

As “Scarecrow” shows us, these systemic evils are still around. Things haven’t changed all that much. I’m particularly reminded of a recent phenomenon: foreclosed homes being auctioned off by the thousands to real estate investors. Earlier this year, I heard of a foreclosed home in my neighborhood being sold “as is” for an especially low price. In anger, the homeowner had apparently spray-painted graffiti all over the walls of the house. In the news and in conversation, I’ve heard plenty of folks defend buying these homes at auction or through real estate agents: “Well, the house has already been foreclosed on. I can’t change that and didn’t have any involvement in that. As a real estate investor, it’s my job to buy and sell houses.”

Calling it your job, ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right.

Systemic evil is still all around us. We can either live as part of the problem or part of the solution. For Christians, that means living reconciled to the world or reconciled to the kingdom of God.

Although written as a secular song discussing sociopolitical issues, “Scarecrow” is, for me, a deeply religious song, connecting me to the context of Jesus’ life and urging me to think deeply on his message and his call to love one another and fight injustice.

Here is the song and video, from youtube. I hope you’ll listen to the lyrics, and consider them through the lens I have just illustrated.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Early Christian Practice

Caught up as we often in are in our daily lives, routines, and little corners of the world, we frequently fail to take the time to reflect much on our own religious practices. This is especially true for those Christians like me who have been associated with one denomination, and therefore one denominational tradition, throughout their lives.

Whatever our personal denominational preference is, we tend to think of those worship traditions as the norm. While many of us realize that these worship traditions had some starting point in the past and haven’t just existed for all time, we tend to go through life as though they did. We may fail to recognize that for the first three or four centuries of Christian history, there was basically no organized and institutionalized form of Christian practice. There were no Protestants at all, and those who would become “Catholics” represented only a small subset of the greater Christian world. Catholicism as we know it today did not come to control Christianity in principle until the mid 300’s C.E. and in practice until the 400’s C.E. That means that for the first 350 years or so of Christian history, Christianity looked remarkably different than any form of Christianity that exists today.

It might be easy to gloss that over, and we frequently do just that. When discussing ancient history, to sum up an entire block of several hundred years with just a word or two is common. Yet 400 years is a very long time. Imagine trying to sum up American history with just a sentence or two - and U.S. history only goes back about 250 years. The period of early Christianity at issue here is nearly twice that long. To those countless generations of Christians who lived during that very long period of time, their lives, beliefs, and practices certainly were not reducible to a footnote of history.

So let’s take a look at what those early forms of Christianity looked like.


Most of our texts in the New Testament come from the 1st century. Assuming Jesus died in roughly 30 C.E., that means the 1st century represents the first 70 years or so of Christian history. How did Christian practice look during that earliest era?

The Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, appears to have been a ritual practiced among Christians from a very early time. It is discussed by the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, written in the 50’s C.E. His words on this are familiar to many Christians, as they are routinely spoken liturgically during Lord’s Supper celebrations.

But while the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist today consists of a simple ritualistic ceremony – performed in some churches each week, in other churches only once per month – for early Christians, it was an entire ritual meal. Paul says:

When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.

While this passage gives an interesting glimpse into a problem at the Corinthian church, in a more general sense it allows us to see what the Lord’s Supper ritual was like. It was a full meal of food and drink that the Church ate together. It was, essentially, a 1st century potluck, only with much more liturgical, ritualistic, and theological purpose.

How often did they eat this ritualistic complete meal? There is no indisputable answer, but it was almost certainly at least once a week. In the book of Acts, from roughly 90 C.E., the writer mentions that he and his companions “broke bread” on the first day of the week (Sunday). Other 1st century texts, such as the teaching text called the Didache, imply that it was a meal eaten at every gathering. The Didache calls it the “Thanksgiving meal,” and provides instructions on prayers that should accompany it. It says that Christians should gather together “every day” and “eat a meal,” giving thanks and confessing sins in the process. This same text asserts that only those who have been “baptized” can take part in this most holy of meals.

Baptism, of course, seems also to have been one of the earliest Christian rituals. The Didache instructs its congregation to baptize in cold, “living” water. “Living” water was a euphemism for running water (such as a stream or river). It conceded, however, that the still waters of a pond or lake would suffice if no living water was available. It even went so far as to permit pouring three jugs of water on a person’s head, if neither living nor still water could be found. It also asserted that both the “overseer” performing the ritual, and the new convert receiving it, should fast for “one or two days” prior to the baptism.

For the community that produced the Gospel of John, baptism was so important that Jesus is found to say: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit.” For those 1st century Christians, baptism was an integral part of receiving the Holy Spirit. Luke makes this explicit when he has Jesus say, in Acts, that John the Baptist baptized with water, but Christians will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” The writer of 1 Peter promises that baptism is a pledge to God and part of the path of salvation.

Another aspect of 1st century Christian practice was communal living. The writer of Acts says explicitly that the earliest communities of Christians “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” The Didache agrees: “Share all things with your brother, and never say that your possessions are exclusively your own, because if you share in eternal things, how much more in things that are temporary?”

For that same Didache community, fasting was an integral part of Christian life. The Didache instructs its listeners to fast on Wednesday and Friday of each week (explicitly saying not to fast on Monday and Thursday, since this is when “hypocrites” fast).

Prophecy and speaking in tongues is yet another early aspect of Christian practice. Paul and other New Testament writers talk about this phenomenon as part of regular worship services, as does the Didache. The Didache even gives explicit instructions about how to know true prophecy from false prophecy.


As we move into the second century, we have more history to work from in terms of understanding what early Christian communities looked like. It was during the second century that Gnostic forms of Christianity began to flourish, and thanks to a number of archaeological discoveries of the last 100 years or so, much of their literature is known to modern scholarship.

First, it is apparent that 2nd century Christian groups propagated a lot of “secret knowledge.” To use a modern euphemism, they were big on divine secrets. These secrets, of course, were frequently attributed to teachings Jesus had given one-on-one to various apostles. In a letter that Clement, bishop of Alexandria, wrote to a man named Theodore in the mid-2nd century, there is a discussion of what has come to be known as the “Secret Gospel of Mark.” Clement says that Mark wrote down his Gospel – presumably an early form of the one we know today – but that after Peter died, Mark came to the church in Alexandria and expanded on his book, adding in secret stories and accounts. This “secret” version of Mark was fiercely protected by the Alexandrian church, its content given only to initiates deemed spiritually worthy of receiving it.

According to Clement’s letter, however, their secret text got stolen by an opposing group of Christians called the Carpocratians. This group, in turn, corrupted the teachings of the secret text and began using it to assert ideas that Clement found highly offensive. One of these ideas was, apparently, that Jesus initiated secret teachings to his male followers in rituals that included homosexual sex.

This same group of Christians, according to a later Christian writer, had a painting of Jesus that they claimed had been made by Pontius Pilate, and which they used as part of their religious rites and celebrations.

Not all Gnostic groups were quite as bizarre as that. In the 2nd century, in fact, many scholars assert that most forms of Christian practice were essentially Gnostic. Catholic or “orthodox” Christianity certainly existed in the 2nd century, but it was not yet institutionalized and it was not the “mainstream” form of Christian practice.

Gnostics believed that the Hebrew god of the Old Testament was actually a lesser, evil god. He had created this world of sin and depravity, and now the one true God of the universe – a being completely unknowable – had sent his light into the world through Jesus so that Christians could figure out the secret, mysterious way of escaping this world of sin and returning to the ground of their perfect being. Gnosticism was an inherently “internal” religion of self-discovery leading to salvation. God is within you. It contrasted the “orthodox” view that salvation was attained through faith. God is outside of you.

Fasting continued to be a common practice among Christians of the 2nd century. The Christian leader Ptolemy, writing in the mid-2nd century, says: “Among us, external fasting is also observed, since it can be advantageous to the soul if it is done reasonably, not for imitating others or from habit or because of a special day appointed for this purpose.” This indicates that while fasting was still a common ritual, the group represented by Ptolemy did not care much for strict rules regulating days of fasting, as we saw in the Didache.

Other Christian groups of the 2nd century followed extreme forms of hedonism. Iranaeus, bishop of Lyons in the late 2nd century, writes of Christian groups that took the issue of faith and works to the extreme. These groups agreed so strongly with the notion that salvation comes solely from faith, apart from works, that they felt no compunction to follow moralistic codes. Of course, these forms of “hedonism” would seem mild to us today: eating food sacrificed to idols (a big no-no for folks like Iranaeus), sex outside of marriage, and groups of women and men living together in the same home (which Iranaeus took to mean they were obviously engaging in orgies).

Other groups took it further, however. The Cainites, who were especially enamored with Adam’s son Cain, believed so strongly that the body was a shell of evil that they pursued worldly pleasures to the full, in order to defile the sinful body and essentially destroy it.

From the Gospel of Phillip in the middle of the 2nd century, we find that the group who produced this text used three “temples” in its ritual practice. The first was called the “baptism,” the second “redemption,” and the third the “bridal chamber.” It is not clear whether the ritual in the bridal chamber included ritual sex, although this was certainly suspected by other Christians of the era. Iranaeus gives us a description of what took place there:

A few of them prepare a bridal chamber and in it go through a form of consecration, employing certain fixed formulae, which are repeated over the person to be initiated, and stating that a spiritual marriage is to be performed after the pattern of the higher [celestial beings].

These higher celestial beings were called “aeons,” and were believed to be emanations of God into the world. The bridal chamber, then, re-enacted the sexual union of these Godly emanations. The community that produced the Gospel of Phillip was probably the Valentinian community. The Valentinians were “mainstream” Gnostics who followed the hierarchies of priest and bishop, and who practiced the doctrines and dogmas of the emerging Church, but who taught a path of spiritual enlightenment beyond those organized structures. Just as Buddhist teachings are frequently likened to a raft that gets the practitioner to the other side and is then abandoned, so the doctrines and dogmas and structures of Christianity were there only for the novice. Once spiritual enlightenment had been attained, those rules and regulations could be left behind because they were no longer valuable or necessary.

During the early part of the 2nd century, we also begin to see descriptions of Christians from outside Christianity. In a series of letters sent between Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia and the emperor Trajan, we get our first “Roman” discussion of Christianity. Pliny has had some run-ins with Christians in his region, and has put them on trial. He gives us a nice glimpse at what Christian practice looked like in his region in the first decade of the 2nd century:

[Christians] were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath…When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food.

Pliny goes on to mention “two female slaves” who he refers to as “deaconesses” among the Christians.

Later in the 2nd century, we have another Roman perspective, this time from the philosopher Fronto: “They know one another by secret marks and insignia, and they love one another almost before they know one another…They call one another…brothers and sisters.” He goes on to accuse these Christians of “loving the head of a donkey” and of being obsessed with the genitalia of their priests and bishops. These are no doubt vicious rumors he has heard, and he concedes this by saying: “I know not whether these things are false.” Whether true or not, he says, suspicion of such things is fairly aroused because of Christianity’s tendency to engage in “secret and nocturnal rites.”

Fronto doesn’t stop there, however. He recounts an initiation rite of novice Christians that he says is “well known.”

An infant covered over with meal, that it may deceive the unwary, is placed before him who is to be stained with their rites: this infant is slain by the young pupil, who has been urged on as if to harmless blows on the surface of the meal, with dark and secret wounds. Thirstily – O horror! – they lick up its blood; eagerly they divide its limbs. By this victim they are pledged together…

Might Christian groups of the 2nd century actually have practiced such things? It is difficult to say with any certainty, but the later Christian writer who quotes these passages from Fronto certainly didn’t think so.

Fronto also speaks of the meal tradition of Christianity. Like the initiation rite of child murder that he says is well known, he says their tradition of meal sharing is spoken of by people “everywhere.”

On a solemn day they assemble at the feast, with all their children, sisters, mothers, people of every sex and of every age. There, after much feasting, when the fellowship has grown warm, and the fervor of incestuous lust has grown hot with drunkenness, a dog that has been tied to the chandelier is provoked to rush and spring, by throwing a small piece of offal beyond the length of a line by which he is bound; and thus the conscious light being overturned and extinguished in the shameless darkness, the connections of abominable lust involve them in the uncertainty of fate.

Again, is it possible that some Christian groups topped off the Lord’s Supper celebration with a good old fashioned orgy? It’s possible, I suppose, but Fronto’s words sound more polemical than historical. In either case, it is clear that Christian rituals, carried on in secret and with esoteric liturgies and mysterious language, aroused suspicion in mainstream culture, and gave rise to all manner of rumor and speculation.

If we can separate polemics from history, these comments from Fronto may allow us to speculate about how some Christian groups practiced their faith in the 2nd century. Take, for instance, Fronto’s comment that Christians “loved the head of a donkey.” One might imagine Christian groups of the 2nd century re-enacting Palm Sunday as part of the Easter celebrations. That re-enactment would no doubt have included ritually riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, as Jesus is said to have done in the Gospels. Perhaps this led Christians to be associated with donkeys – that most Jewish of animals.

As for obsessions with the genitals of priests, it is not out of the question to assume that some Christian groups may have fused ancient fertility cults with Christian practice. As outlined above, this was a charge made against some Christian groups by other Christian groups. Fertility cults, of course, typically engaged in various forms of ritual sex. The erect penis is known as a symbol of fertility cults from across antiquity. Fronto, with his “modern” Roman values, was righteously indignant over such superstition and ancient tribalism, much like we would be today if faced with a similar situation. In that sense, he shared the feelings of Christians like Iranaeus and other “heresy hunters” of the early Christian era.

As for the charge of cannibalism, this was, no doubt, related to the ritual of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. Perhaps Fronto’s account of cannibalism, mixed with infanticide, is a polemical fusion of the Eucharist, the virgin birth of Jesus, and the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac in the Old Testament. It’s difficult to imagine a Christian group (or any group, for that matter) enacting such a ritual, but Fronto is not the only one who suggests it. Church fathers writing as late as the 4th century made similar charges against some Christian groups, as we will see below.

Finally, we get an intimate glimpse at the lifestyle of some 2nd century Christians from the Christian writer Justin Martyr. Justin wrote around 150 C.E., and he is the earliest of the “Church fathers” for whom we have a significant amount of existing writings. He said the following:

We, who once took pleasure in fornication, now embrace self-control. We, who valued the acquisition of wealth and possessions above everything else, now put what we have into a common fund, and share with everyone in need. We, who hated and killed one another, and would not share our lives with certain people because of their ethnic differences from us, now live intimately with them.

Clearly as late as the mid-2nd century, many Christian groups were still living in the communal style of the earliest Christians a century earlier.


Christian practice through these centuries seems to have mirrored much of the previous eras, though with an increase in regulation and institutionalism. Fringe groups tended to die out (especially those that condemned procreation) and mainstream groups tended to strengthen in numbers, leading to tighter structure and unity.

Discussion raged during these centuries of the nature of Jesus. While some groups insisted Jesus was equal to God, others claimed Jesus was divine in his own right, but still subject to God. Jesus’ humanity, especially, was at issue during this time. Some said Jesus was both fully human and fully God. Others asserted that Jesus was not human at all, but only appeared to be human, because God can’t suffer and die like Jesus did on the cross. Still others argued that Jesus was only human, with God simply working through him in a unique and mysterious way.

It was during this time in the 3rd and 4th centuries that Christians began using the familiar “sign of the cross” – a hand movement meant to symbolize the cross of Christ. It differed, however, from the familiar four-point movement known to Catholicism today. Tertullian, writing in the early part of the 3rd century, says:

In all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.

This ritual movement crossed only the forehead, not the whole body, and instead of using three fingers, only the thumb was used. Furthermore, the sign consisted of only three points, not four – it mimicked the Greek letter tau, which is known to us as T.

In regards to baptismal rites in the 3rd century, early Christian writers left rather detailed accounts of how this ritual was carried out. Prayer and fasting would precede the day of baptism. The baptism itself would typically take place on Easter, with all new initiates of the previous year being baptized together. The overseer would ask the initiate if he or she renounced the devil and his angels. The initiate would respond three times in the affirmative. After that, the initiates would step naked into the water, up to their necks. The overseer would then ritually call down the spirit of God on those being baptized, and the initiates – having now received the Holy Spirit – would emerge from the water to be clothed in a robe of white linen. They would also be given ritual food – milk and honey – which not only symbolized the food of the Promised Land from Jewish scriptures, but, as scholar Elaine Pagels says, also symbolized “baby food” being given to these newborns in Christ.

During this era, we again see rather outrageous accusations against fringe Christian practice. Epiphanius, writing in the early 300’s, referred to a Christian sect he called the “Borborites” who replaced the bread and wine of the Eucharist with semen and menstrual blood, which they smeared on themselves and then consumed. This practice may have been an extreme form of a God/Wisdom duality, with menstrual blood representing female wisdom, and semen representing male divinity.

Epiphanius also accuses these Christians of infanticide and cannibalism, going so far as to say that they would kill and eat the babies created from their ritual sex acts. This sounds so similar to what we saw above from the pagan Fronto that one wonders if Epiphanius actually got the story from Fronto’s writings. That may be a possibility, but more than likely these sorts of rumors about the more fringe and secretive sects of Christianity were commonplace. It is difficult to know for certain whether they represent true ritual practices or mere rumor and polemics.


When we look at the earliest eras of Christianity – a time period spanning several hundred years – we find that Christian practice was as diverse then as it is now. Furthermore, hardly any of it resembles the rituals and liturgies that we take for granted in the modern church. We still baptize, we still eat the Lord’s Supper, and we still celebrate Easter, but our methods for enacting those ancient rituals share only the barest similarities with the earliest generations of Christians.

When I envision the earliest Christian communities – those communities for whom Jesus was only as “ancient” as Wilbur and Orville Wright are for us – I imagine a group of humble believers, separated from mainstream society, living communally and sharing all their possessions and profits with one another, meeting together at dawn on Sunday – the Lord’s Day – for prayer, prophecy, and teachings from scripture, sharing a ritual Eucharist meal each evening, greeting one another as brother and sister, crossing their foreheads in piety as they go about their daily activities, and viewing their entire existence as part of the in-breaking kingdom of God. For these earliest Christians, Christianity wasn’t just a profession of faith, it was an entire way of life, reconciled not to the world, but to God.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Christianity is a Verb

The title of this essay is a phrase I have been using recently in discussions about religion and the nature of Christianity. I have frequently said that I would like to write a book by that title. More than anything, however, I’d like to live my life in conjunction with it.

Christianity isn’t a title and most certainly isn’t an entitlement. “Christian” isn’t something you are; it’s something you do. Christianity isn’t the group you align yourself with; it’s the lifestyle you lead each and every day. Church isn’t an activity center; it’s a community outreach center.

In our earliest Christian writings, texts found both within the New Testament and outside the New Testament, we find that discussions like this – discussions about the very nature of Christianity and what it means to call one’s self a Christian – go back to the earliest days of Christianity. In New Testament theology, this discussion is one that goes by the more familiar theme of “faith vs. works.”

Faith was an integral part of early church life, much as it is today. For modern Christians, “faith” generally means trusting that God exists, that Jesus was his divine son, that he died for our sins, and that he rose again after three days.

For the earliest generation of Christians, however, “faith” was somewhat different. First, the question of God’s existence wasn’t one that generally concerned people. “Atheist” in the first century typically referred to someone who believed in a different god, not someone who had no faith in any gods. Someone who believed in no gods at all would likely have been called insane, rather than atheist.

Second, the earliest Christians didn’t think of Jesus as “divine,” the way that we do today. The idea that Jesus was literally God in the flesh did not come about in Christian circles until well after the first generations of Christians. The Trinity doctrine, for instance, wasn’t formulated and adopted until the 4th century C.E. For the earliest Christians, faith in Jesus meant faith that Jesus was a uniquely “God-inspired” person; a teacher and prophet through whom God worked directly; a human being through whom one could meet and engage the spirit of God. For a Jewish Christian in the 1st century, the very suggestion that Jesus had been God himself would have been seen as the worst kind of blasphemy. It would never have even crossed their minds. For Jews, God was so completely “other” that they didn’t even write his name. They used code words – abbreviations, essentially – to refer to God.

Third, while the idea of Jesus’ atonement and resurrection was an early development in Christian history, “resurrection” had a different meaning for those earliest Christians than it has for us today. Jewish tradition had conceived of resurrection as a physical event that happens to the body; you die, you are buried, and then your body comes back to life and you rise up out of your tomb. In Jewish theology, this was an event that was expected at the end of time, when God would finally reconcile the broken world to himself.

Jewish Christians, however, came to understand resurrection quite differently. Faced with the stark reality that their teacher had been brutally and unceremoniously executed by the Romans, they came to understand that, in death, Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God. He had died for their sins, like the Passover lamb, and had been raised up to the heavenly realms. For these earliest Christians, Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension happened simultaneously. It wasn’t until later that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension was separated from his death. So when those early Christian texts talk about resurrection, they are talking about spiritual resurrection, not bodily resurrection. When they talk about the risen Jesus appearing to people, they are talking about spiritual apparitions and religious ecstasy, not a literally dead person literally coming back to life and re-entering society. That sort of literalistic understanding of early Jewish Christian scripture is a product of later centuries and later Christians unfamiliar with the unique religious worldview of 1st century Jewish Christians.

Some of my readers may find this last point particularly difficult to accept. I recognize that and am sensitive to it. My opinion is that it doesn’t matter whether one conceives of resurrection as spiritual or physical – it might have been either one. Ultimately, it is a faith proclamation in either case, because it’s also possible that it didn’t happen at all, that Jesus just died and was dead. What is far more important is what that faith proclamation means for us as Christians.

And that ultimate meaning brings us back to faith vs. works. The apostle Paul, in his many writings now extant in the New Testament, talks a lot about faith. In a cursory examination of the NIV translation, I counted exactly 100 repetitions of some form of the word “faith” within Paul’s letters. And that was only counting the 7 letters scholars widely agree came from Paul. There are 6 or 7 others that have traditionally been attributed to him as well. Clearly faith was important for Paul.

Paul’s words about faith – particularly in Romans – have led to what I see as a major problem in modern Christianity. This is the idea that we are saved by “faith alone.” Paul argues, throughout Romans and elsewhere, that Christians are saved by faith, and not “works of the law.” This has been misunderstood in mainstream Christianity to mean that the “profession of faith” in God and Jesus is all that really matters. If you profess your faith and mean it, and if you “ask Jesus into your heart,” then you have attained salvation. Of course, there is plenty of lip service given to leading a good life, being kind to others, “living like Jesus,” and so on. But all of that is just icing on the cake. Salvation is actually attained by the profession of faith. It’s good to do the other stuff too, but it’s not required.

For me, this is a quite depressing misunderstanding of Paul, and it’s one that is unfortunately extremely common among Christians. When Paul spoke about “works of the law,” he wasn’t talking about “good deeds.” He was talking about Mosaic Law – Old Testament commandments about how Jews should live their lives. He was talking about things like dietary restrictions, lifestyle codes, circumcision, honoring the Sabbath, appropriately celebrating the various Jewish holy days, and so on. He was saying that these things don’t provide salvation because they are ultimately impossible to follow perfectly. Instead, salvation comes from God’s grace, through faith. And that isn’t just plain old faith. Paul makes it clear that the kind of faith he is talking about is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). In other words, faith is an action, not a mere profession.

That this was misunderstood even in the earliest generations of Christianity is apparent within the New Testament itself. People came to understand that all they had to do was profess faith in Jesus, and they were set. They had their “get out of death free” card. Much of the book of James is a response to misunderstandings Christians had over Paul’s direction about faith. James attacks those who think that mere professions of faith are good enough for salvation. What good is it, James asks, if you wish someone well, but don’t actually do anything to help them? In 2:17, he says: “Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The word “works” in that passage is not referring to Mosaic Law. It is referring to good deeds. James is attacking the platitudes and religious stagnation he saw around him. People had their profession of faith, their conversion to Christianity, and they were content to sit on it, offering lip service at best. James says no. James says that’s wrong. James says you have misunderstood Paul. Paul was talking about Mosaic Law as it related to faith, not good deeds or lovingkindness in relation to faith. James makes clear what Paul frequently left ambiguous – that faith without good deeds and loving actions was a dead faith. It was meaningless. It served no purpose. It was, as I have said elsewhere, a windmill with no wind.

Unfortunately, not a lot has changed since the time of James. Many Christians still think a profession of faith is all they need to attain salvation. Like the Christians of James’ era, they have their “get out of death free” card, and they are content to sit on it. It’s too challenging to actually follow Jesus in the lifestyle he taught. It’s too challenging to actually give ourselves away to others. And more than that, it’s not at all convenient to our modern way of life in this materialistic, individualistic western society.

Jesus showed his followers how to live for others. He showed his followers how to love one another and work together for the common good. He demonstrated how the kingdom of God is a present reality that we all can take part in. He taught that the kingdom of God is our responsibility, not some future event that we have no control over. Early Christians textualized this teaching and asserted the importance of faith working through acts of love and compassion. For Jesus and the earliest Christians, salvation was never about the future. It was about the here and now, and it was attained through acts of love.

As a Christian, I don’t engage much in absolutes. I recognize that what we know about Jesus comes from ancient texts that are wide open to interpretation. I recognize that we can’t know anything about God other than what we discern from those texts that we consider authoritative, and from our own personal religious practice – prayer, meditation, etc. I believe that God can be approached from many different religious traditions and I do not believe in claims of theological exclusivity. I feel a high level of contempt for those religious persons who claim to have the exclusive pathway to heaven, and anyone who doesn’t follow them has an exclusive pathway to hell.

For me, salvation is about life in the here and now. I have hope for an afterlife, but religion, for me, is about how we act and live together here on earth, in the present. So when I talk of “being saved” or “not being saved,” I am not talking about eschatology – that is, ideas about the ultimate destiny of humanity and the world. I am not talking about the end of the world and what will happen to humans after they die. I don’t know what happens to people after they die. Instead, I am talking about life in the present. Salvation for me, then, is expressing love for God through acts of love for others. Those two things cannot be separated. I cannot express love for God unless I am living for others, and I cannot live for others without expressing love for God. I approach this salvation through the teachings of Jesus and the earliest Christians who taught in his name. If someone approaches God from a different religious tradition, but one with ultimately the same ends, then I consider them a brother or sister in God.

For me, if a Christian is not expressing love for God through acts of love for others – that is, if they are not living for others rather than for themselves – then they are not taking part in the kingdom of God promised by Jesus. They are Christians in name only – which means they aren’t Christians at all. As James said, their faith is as good as a corpse.

Even though those words come without any underlying threat of eternal damnation and ultimate eschatological absolutes, I realize they may seem harsh. And lest I appear as a monstrous hypocrite, I will be the first to admit that I frequently fall short.

There is nothing more difficult in modern western society than to actually live like Jesus taught us to live. Our culture teaches us to pursue wealth, pursue material and personal gain, pursue power and influence and authority and status, and live for ourselves even at the expense of others. It teaches us that individualism is the ultimate expression of humanity, and reinforces the idea that if someone fails or falls on hard times, they probably have only themselves to blame. We promote charity, but we expect to get a tax write-off for doing it. We promote living Godly lives, but we expect divine blessings in the form of material gain for doing it – the age old Gospel of Prosperity. We toss a few bucks in the offering plate, give some money to the Santa Claus at the Salvation Army bucket every Christmas, and give our old, worn-out clothes to Goodwill – and we think it’s enough. We’re nice to people, we try not to be hateful, and we generally attempt to be contributing members of society – and we think it’s enough. We say our prayers, we attend worship services, and we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain – and we think it’s enough.

My argument is that it’s not enough. My argument is that the life of Christ is a life of service to others. Not service just when it’s convenient. Not service in the form of platitudes. But a real, living, active lifestyle of service for others. Living for others and not for ourselves. Putting the needs of others ahead of the needs of ourselves.

That’s salvation. That’s living as part of the kingdom of God. That’s true faith. And even if we frequently fail to live to those standards, the least we can do is try. Make the attempt. When we fail, try again. And never stop trying.

If we do that, we are following the life of Christ. We are living Christianity as a verb. If not, we are just silent windmills in a vacuum.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Weekend With the Family

I spent last weekend in Louisville with my parents and sister. Although none of us live there now, we all converged there from our various locations in order to attend the St. James Art Festival. It was also a nice time for reminiscing, as Louisville was where our family lived when I was growing up - from 1978 to 1988.

The River City

I remember going to the St. James Art Festival as a kid and really hating it. Having been back now as an adult, I see what a sharp and perceptive child I must have been.

It was like this, only 10 times more crowded

Honestly, it wasn't that bad, but the part I enjoyed most was looking at all the old Victorian houses that line the streets in that area of town. It takes place in the St. James neighborhood - hence the name - and it really is a beautiful part of Old Louisville.

We stayed downtown in the Marriott, which is a nice high-rise hotel in the heart of the city. My father got abnormally interested in an abandoned parking garage next door, and subsequently insisted that I research it and write a book about it. Apparently books about abandoned parking garages make for best sellers; I hear publishers are dying for them.

The subject of my next bestseller

We did quite a bit of driving on Saturday, going around Louisville and looking at a lot of old places, talking, laughing, reminiscing, and generally having a good time. We walked around our old church for a while, which brought back a lot of old memories.

Walnut Street Baptist Church, which is next door to a lovely eating establishment called Dizzy Whizz

We also drove out to see the increasingly famous Waverly Hills Sanitorium, which is an old TB hospital that now plays host to a Haunted House tour at Halloween, as well as tours throughout the year.

The biggest thing to scare you here are the lingering bacteria

We attempted to find the house that my father was born in, but his salmon-like sense of direction failed him and we weren't able to locate it.

On Saturday evening we went over to the Galt House hotel. We used to have Sunday brunch there after church in the 25th floor revolving room restaurant overlooking the Ohio River.

As though illustrating the changes in our family outlook since those days, on Saturday evening we had drinks in the bar. The bar is suspended over a street that runs between the two main buildings of the hotel. It was very swank. In my jeans and short-sleeve shirt, I felt uncomfortably under-dressed. The bar itself was about 30 feet long and curvilinear, shaped like an uncoiling snake, and the entire bar-top was an aquarium. So as you sit there with your drink, there are fish swimming beneath your elbows and above your knees.

While there, we discussed an enormous clock that sits across the river in Indiana.

My father always told us it was the second largest clock in the world, after Big Ben in London. We argued whether or not this was still true, and got conflicting answers on cell phone Internet searches.

If Wikipedia can be trusted, it turns out that this clock (which is at the Colgate-Palmolive plant) is the 7th largest in the world. It was built in 1906 in New Jersey and moved to the Indiana side of Louisville in 1924. At that time, it was actually the largest clock in the world. It was very quickly eclipsed by another Colgate clock, built in New Jersey in 1924 to replace the one that had just left. It fell to third place in 1933 after a Pittsburgh company built a clock that surpassed both the Colgate clocks.

As for Big Ben, it's only about half the size of the Colgate clock in Louisville. Go figure.

There was also a film festival of some type going on that night at the Galt House. The film they were showing was a recently released film called Another Harvest Moon, staring Ernest Borgnine (who we agreed must be about 132 [actually, he's 92]). Anyway, while we were sitting there, Doris Roberts - who is also in the movie - walked in and sat down at the bar with a small entourage.

For some reason, I am reminded of my mother-in-law

She is a character actress who won Emmys for playing the crazy mother on Everybody Loves Raymond. She also played the mother of Ellen Griswold in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation - one of our family favorites.

All in all, it was a nice weekend of reminiscence with my family in the city of my childhood.

"Now inside that Torino is my cousin, Jackie."

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Role of Women in the Resurrection

Carracci's Holy Women at the Tomb of Christ

It is frequently asserted by theologians and scholars from across the spectrum that women played a prominent role in the resurrection of Jesus. Whether one understands the resurrection as a metaphor for newness of life, a spiritual resurrection of Jesus’ soul, or a physical resuscitation of Jesus’ body, many agree that women played a central role in that original understanding.

I understand this position well because I have often made the argument myself. Our earliest Christian texts, both within the Bible and outside the Bible, depict women as having a central place in Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. Women are said to have been close followers of Jesus and to have helped finance his ministry; women are said to have been the only ones who stayed with Jesus at his execution; women are said to have been the first people to find the empty tomb and to see the resurrected Christ; and women held positions of authority and influence in the churches of Paul.

Taken together, these things indicate strongly that women played unusually significant roles in the birth of Christianity – unusual because of its placement in an era and region that was strongly patriarchal and in which women were second-class citizens not even considered reliable enough to testify in a trial.

This history, of course, has important and vital ramifications to theology. Even in the 21st century, there are still Christian churches, denominations, and institutions that do not permit women in ministry roles. The Southern Baptist Convention, for instance, does not ordain women to be ministers or even deacons. The Roman Catholic Church does not allow women to be priests, bishops, or popes, and doesn’t even allow its male leaders to get married (perhaps women would distract them from their heavenly duties?). Many folks from among these denominations and churches regard women in ministry roles with derision. One website I found stated that “women preachers are all false prophets.”

So recognizing the important role women played, both during Jesus’ ministry, at his resurrection, and even into the early Christian era in the Pauline churches, is vitally important to modern theology. Paul couldn’t be more explicit when he refers to Phoebe, the carrier of his letter to Rome, as a “deacon” of the church. He couldn’t be more explicit when he calls Priscilla of Rome his “fellow worker” in Christ Jesus (implying that she is in an authoritative teaching role like he is). He couldn’t be more explicit when he says that the Roman church meets in her house, implying she is the leader of that church. He couldn’t be more explicit when he calls a woman named Junia an “apostle” – that is, a preacher or missionary. He couldn’t be more explicit when he refers to women prophesying – that is, providing theological guidance to congregations.

While none of that is invalidated by the discussion that follows, I want to look more closely at the common idea that women were centrally involved in the resurrection. Biblically-speaking, the Gospel writers all agree that women, and specifically Mary Magdalene, were the first to find the empty tomb. Furthermore, Matthew and John assert that Mary herself was the first person to see the risen Jesus.

This, as mentioned above, has led to common assertions that whatever the resurrection was – metaphorical, spiritual, physical – women played a central role. The argument suggests that it is inconceivable that male scribes in patriarchal 1st century Palestine would have written women into a story where they didn’t originally exist – especially one as theologically important as the resurrection – so their presence in these accounts must point to early and reliable tradition.

While I have frequently made this point myself, I recently read an argument suggesting that perhaps the story of the women at the tomb was, in fact, a literary embellishment. This came from scholar J.D. Crossan in his book, “The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately after the Execution of Jesus.” Crossan, by no means, suggests a diminished role of women in modern churches based on this historical reconstruction, but simply argues that the textual evidence lends credence to literary embellishment rather than “history remembered.”

First, it is important to recognize that while a person might commonly argue that “all four Gospels agree that women were involved in the resurrection,” in reality this is only a single source, and not four sources. It is an issue of confusing texts with sources. We have four texts agreeing that women were at the tomb (actually, we have five, if you count the Gospel of Peter). But only one source. That single source is Mark. Matthew and Luke both used Mark’s account as a primary source in creating their own accounts. And while John has traditionally been considered an “independent” source from the other three, scholarly trends of the last 20 or 30 years have started moving toward the conclusion that the author of John, in fact, used one or more of the other three. Having read the various arguments, I am fairly convinced that John is not independent of the other canonical Gospels.

So while all of the Gospels agree that women found the tomb, there is only a single source at play there – the Gospel of Mark.

So the obvious question is this: Did Mark base his story on some earlier tradition, either oral or written, or did he just make it up off the top of his head?

The first option would seem to be the self-evident answer. Mark must have gotten his general information on Jesus from somewhere, and it is reasonable to assume that the story of the women at the tomb was included in that earlier source.

Crossan argues, however, for the second option – that the “women at the tomb” story was a creation of Mark. More specifically, he argues that it was a theological creation of Mark. In other words, it wasn’t just willy-nilly; Mark wasn’t making stuff up for fun. He was making a theological point.

The first bit of evidence comes from our pre-Markan accounts of Christianity. Many scholars, for instance, date the non-Biblical texts known as the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas to the middle of the 1st century, several decades before Mark. Neither of those documents, however, describes the resurrection at all, with women or without. We do, however, have one, and possibly two, resurrection accounts that predate Mark – the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Peter.

As to the Gospel of Peter, while most agree that it was written down in the 2nd century, a number of scholars argue that it contains early, pre-Biblical accounts of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Some (namely Crossan) even go so far as to suggest that an early resurrection text – dubbed the Cross Gospel – is imbedded in the Gospel of Peter, and Crossan dates that hypothetical text to about 40 C.E., thirty years before Mark. Whether you agree with that hypothesis or not, the Cross Gospel does not include any women at the tomb. Instead, it is the Romans and the Jewish authorities – the enemies of Jesus – who find the empty tomb and who see the first vision of the risen Jesus.

As to the letters of Paul, there can be little doubt that they predate Mark or any of the other texts of the New Testament. Paul has very little to say about Jesus’ resurrection, but he does give a brief description of it in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15. He doesn’t mention anything about a tomb, but he provides a list of people the risen Christ appeared to. There is no mention of any women.

So our pre-Markan sources unilaterally fail to mention anything about women and the resurrection. If women played a prominent role in the resurrection, as is often asserted, and the Gospels of the New Testament reflect that tradition, shouldn’t we find the same tradition in our earlier sources? One would think yes, but the answer is no.

The second bit of evidence comes from a look at Mark’s overall theology. For years, theologians and scholars have pointed out that Mark tends to depict the disciples in a very negative light. In Mark, the disciples are bumbling and inept, never understanding despite continual clear instructions by Jesus. They don’t seem to get it when he tells them he will be executed and resurrected. When he enters the Garden of Gethsemane to pray before his arrest, Peter, James, and John – his “inner three” – fall asleep on him. Later, Peter denies knowing him, and all the disciples flee and abandon Jesus, never to be heard from in Mark’s text again.

Mark contrasts the lack of faith and general incompetence of the disciples – and specifically of Peter, James, and John – with a story of an unnamed Roman centurion who, at the foot of the cross, proclaims that Jesus is the son of God. The disciples never got it, but a pagan Gentile did.

Mark paints an equally negative portrait of Jesus’ female followers. He makes clear that Jesus had prominent female disciples, but those women are also depicted as not understanding and having a basic lack of faith. In his story of the women at the tomb, they go there not to look for the resurrected Jesus, but to anoint his body in a burial custom. Crossan points out that this may have demonstrated great love, but it did not demonstrate great faith. Clearly the women didn’t believe Jesus when he told them repeatedly that he would be resurrected after three days.

Furthermore, when the women are instructed by the heavenly messenger at the tomb to tell the disciples to meet the risen Jesus in Galilee, the women fail to do it, and instead flee in terror.

Like the story of the Roman centurion, the unbelief and disobedience of the women in Jesus’ inner circle is contrasted by the great faith of an unnamed woman at the house of a leper who, prior to Jesus’ arrest, anoints his body with expensive unguents. Jesus heaps praise upon her for her great faith, and predicts that her story will be remembered for all time. Why did this demonstrate great faith? Because she believed Jesus when he said he would rise after three days, so she anointed his body before his burial, knowing she wouldn’t have a chance to do so afterward because he would rise again.

Mark’s literary technique is clear: the male disciples, personified by the trio of Peter, James, and John, are inept and disbelieving. They are contrasted with an unnamed male pagan who asserts that Jesus is the son of God. The female disciples, personified by the trio of Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joses, and Salome, are disbelieving and disobedient. They are contrasted with an unnamed female at the home of a leper who has great faith that Jesus will rise again.

In that literary technique of Mark, a threefold theological implication to his readers is also clear. First, just because you come from a community claiming authority of one of Jesus’ inner circle, that doesn’t mean you have superiority or authority over others – after all, even Jesus’ own inner circle were inept, disobedient, and disbelieving. Second, even if you feel inept and undeserving of God’s grace, be comforted because even Jesus’ own companions were like you. Third, don’t feel unworthy if you were never a part of Jesus’ inner circle; after all, those outside of the inner circle, like pagans and humble, anonymous women, were exalted above and beyond even the inner circle.

In that literary and theological context, it makes perfect sense why Mark – despite the patriarchal society in which he lived – might have written women into a resurrection scene without any pre-existing tradition to support it.

The third and final bit of evidence is the way Mark’s account was used by later writers. It is clear from Matthew, Luke, and John, that they were basing their story of the women at the tomb solely on Mark – and not on some other oral or textual tradition.

Matthew’s account follows Mark’s almost word for word. He does, however, clearly see a problem with Mark’s negative portrayal of the women, and with the fact that there are no resurrection scenes in Mark’s account. So where Mark’s women flee from the tomb in “terror and amazement” and don’t tell anyone, Matthew’s women go with “fear and great joy” and immediately tell the other disciples – exactly as they were instructed to do. Where Mark’s women are disobedient, Matthew’s are obedient right to the letter, even going so far as to “run quickly” after being told to “quickly” go tell the disciples. Also, where there is never any resurrection appearance in Mark, Matthew has the women meet Jesus on the road, and later has the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee. Finally, where Mark’s women are demonstrating unfaithfulness by going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, Matthew’s women are simply going there to “look at the tomb,” as though to check to see if he’s risen yet. Throughout the entire scene, it is clear that Matthew is “fixing” Mark’s account – changing disobedience into obedience, unfaithfulness into faithfulness, and adding in resurrection appearances.

Luke’s changes mirror Matthew’s. The women find the tomb, but instead of disobeying, they go to tell the disciples. There are also extensive scenes in which the risen Jesus appears to the disciples (though never to the women, as in Matthew).

John’s account diverges the most from Mark, but it is clear that John was using the accounts of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Mary Magdalene is again the central character, and although no other women are mentioned by name, Mary does use the word “we” when discussing the discovery of the empty tomb, implying other women were there with her. John borrows Luke’s story about Peter running to the tomb and looking inside to see the “strips of linen” discarded there. The general negativity of Mark is retained by John when Mary Magdalene doesn’t understand that the empty tomb means Jesus has risen – she believes his body has been stolen. When she finally sees Jesus, she still doesn’t get it, mistaking him for the gardener. Finally, John refers to Matthew’s account when he has Jesus instruct Mary not to “hold on” to him. In Matthew, when Mary and the other women met the risen Jesus, they “grasped his feet” and worshipped him. Since John doesn’t say anything about Mary attempting to touch Jesus, Jesus’ words only make sense in the context of Matthew’s story.

Taking these three accounts together, there is no textual evidence suggesting that a different oral or textual tradition was used by Matthew, Luke, or John in forming their “women at the tomb” stories. Luke and Matthew relied exclusively on Mark, and John relied on all three.

Thus, the three lines of evidence – the internal literary and theological clues from Mark, the total lack of any suggestion about women at the tomb in any existing pre-Markan sources, and the exclusive reliance of the later Gospel writers on Mark’s account – all suggest that Mark developed the story on his own.

Having said all that, and having presented the argument, I am still not sure where I stand. On a personal level, I very much like the idea of women having a central role in the resurrection. It helps negate a lot of stereotypes so common in Christian churches. But as a historian and essayist, I have to make sure that my personal biases don’t interfere with any neutral historical conclusions that I embrace. I may like the idea of women being involved intimately in the resurrection, and of that historical fact being imbedded in our existing accounts, but just because I want it to be true doesn’t mean that it is.

Crossan makes a powerful argument that strikes deep at the notion that there must have been an earlier source for the “women at the tomb” tradition. His argument digs at the foundational assumption that says that no 1st century male writer would have added women into an important story when there was otherwise no historical basis for doing so. In fact, one of the hallmark arguments among Christian apologists for the reliability of the Gospel stories is that they depict women in prominent resurrection roles. Since it seems self-evident that no male in the 1st century would have added such a story where none existed, the argument says that the stories must reflect a level of historical truth. I have long generally agreed with this assertion.

Yet Crossan has adequately shown how and why such a male writer might have done just that. He illustrates persuasively the literary and theological aspects of Mark’s Gospel. By writing women into the resurrection scene, Mark was not elevating women into a position of prominence; instead, he was using that scene to demonstrate that Jesus’ inner circle of both men and women were generally inept, unfaithful, and disobedient, as this served his greater theological theme.

I do have some reservations, however. First, while the argument about Mark’s literary techniques is a persuasive one, I don’t think I can call it “final.” Crossan demonstrates how negativity can be read into the scene of the women at the tomb (unfaithfulness and disobedience), but I am not sure I am convinced that this negativity was Mark’s primary goal in that scene. Other scholars have argued that this scene was liturgical in nature, based on oral tradition of women mourners at the tomb, and of the belief that Jesus had been resurrected in accordance with the Jewish scriptures. While it’s true that the women are technically being unfaithful by coming to anoint his body in a burial ritual despite his promise to rise again, and while it is true that the women are technically being disobedient by not immediately going and telling the disciples what they have seen, I am not sure that Crossan has convinced me that this was legitimately the intention of the writer of Mark. Although I count Crossan among my favorite New Testament experts, I have frequently felt that he sometimes reads between the lines a bit too much, looking for evidence that doesn’t really seem to be there. I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another example of that.

As a rebuttal to that, however, it seems undeniable that Matthew saw the same negativity in Mark that Crossan has seen, because Matthew clearly “fixes” those negative portrayals.

Second, Crossan makes a good point that there is no evidence of any “women at the tomb” stories prior to Mark, but it’s also true that we have extremely few sources of any resurrection stories at all prior to Mark. Paul gives very few biographical details about Jesus or the circumstances of his resurrection. He does give us a list of those Jesus was said to have appeared to, and he does say that this was the tradition given to him in Jerusalem very early on, but it’s certainly possible that Paul simply left out any reference to women out of misogyny or perhaps because he was having trouble with female prophets in Corinth (as deduced from the content of other parts of the letter). As for the Cross Gospel, that is an extremely contentious hypothesis, as I indicated above, and the majority of scholars reject it. If the Cross Gospel did exist, then Crossan’s point is bolstered, because women don’t figure in the resurrection. But if it did not exist, then Crossan’s point is weakened, because it leaves us with only one pre-Markan source for the resurrection, namely the letters of Paul. That’s not much to go on considering that we are talking about 40 years of tradition prior to Mark. There were most certainly a lot of texts and oral traditions going around during those years that we no longer have access to. So just because there is no longer any existing evidence for pre-Markan stories of the women at the tomb doesn’t mean those stories didn’t exist in the first century.

In the end, whether Crossan’s argument about the “women at the tomb” story is correct or not, there can be no question that women were central figures in early Christianity, both during Jesus’ life and during the rise of Christianity after his death. Thus, whether their role in the resurrection itself was historical or legendary, that does not change the fact that women’s diminished role in Christianity, beginning in the late 1st century, was a product of male-dominated human institutions, and not any divinely-mandated secondary status of women.