With gratitude to Lifetime and Roma Downey for offering Women of the Bible as an introduction to The Red Tent and as Kate Shellnut observes, also the new reality series about nuns, it is good to pause and consider why the Christian women’s market is such a viable niche.
When we consider that the study of women in the bible is no easy task, that it requires much textual and contextual work to glean from a patriarchal narrative a counter narrative that names otherwise scandalous women as part of the in-breaking of liberation in and through the liberator, Jesus. What is true is, they are there and the contributions of these women are manifold, what’s more, it is clear that God worked in and through these women to accomplish the plan of salvation for the world.
This message, however, becomes complicated and convoluted when we consider that these stories do not come to us from the perspective of the women themselves. Rather, what we have are stories about men, recorded by men, handed down by men and admitted into the canon by men. What is more, we have for the better part of human history, had these stories told to us by men and in contemporary contexts they are dressed with sports analogies and offered up with illustrations that hail from a male sense of knowing and being in the world. Thus, we have never heard, the quiet, revolutionary non dominant stories that are there, buried under Abraham and Isaac, knit beneath the surface of Jacob and Joseph but they are there for those who wish to dig deep and to flesh these texts out with careful study and preparation.
This is why I’m grateful to Lifetime for the introduction of Women of the Bible to the main stream market and for the inclusion of a scholar in the all-female commentator line up. Though there were a couple of foibles--words of Paul attributed to Jesus and the perpetuation of the notion that the second temple period was 400 years when God was silent--for the most part it was accessible and a good many people posted on social media they learned something new. In my view this is what good scholarship and effective sermons should do, invite folks to sit with you, pour a cup of coffee, reflect and discuss, share and exchange insights and then move us all forward to share what we’ve learned with others.
The Red Tent received mixed reviews on social media ranging from people who were thrilled to see Anita Diamant’s stellar work come to life and others who were disgusted that the story was not biblical and therefore of no good use. I am a fan of Diamant’s book and have recommended it widely across the years. For her part, Diamant does an expert job of relaying the bloody, sexual and earthy cultic practices and religious ritual for ancient nomadic people. And yes, the biblical account follows Jacob and his sons and we do not hear from Dinah, here Diamant fills in the gaps and shows us the contours of a young woman in love and the system in which she is forced to live and find her way. The series seems well done with an impressive cast though most of them are several shades too pale to be historically accurate. Overall it seems important that we have conversations about the women in the story of God.
The reason Lifetime and others will benefit from reaching out to this niche market is because most women religious are starved for stories of our mothers. We have grown up with the hero, adulterer King David and the venomous temptress Bathsheba. For Protestants we have been locked away and cheated the texts Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon where the Wisdom of God is most certainly female and leads God’s children through the land. We are only allowed to talk about Mary at Christmas, otherwise, we’ll be suspected of turning Catholic and forget any discussions of Sophia or we’d be accused of worshiping someone other than the one true God. We are empty when it comes to knowing how God has worked in and through women throughout history and we are searching for anyone anywhere who will dare to tell us the old, old story.
The reason why The Red Tent received mixed reviews is because we have domesticated and tamed down wild texts about humans and stories of violence and bloodshed, rape and incest, love and rage until the persons in the pages of our sacred book are one dimensional, idealistic and nothing like you and me in our fallen skin. We need stories like The Red Tent to remind us that our fore parents were, like we are, blood and flesh, impetuous and envious, at times vile and self-serving, flawed and imperfect, yet, so loved.
I say kudos to Lifetime and keep ‘em coming and maybe we will know ourselves better because we remember who they were.
For all our brokenness their is redemption, for all our hurt there is healing; may you know the comfort of Christ with you and for you wherever you are in your story. All is grace and we give thanks. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Looking forward to Fortress Press Round Table with general editors Gale Yee, Matthew Coomber, and David Sánchez (3 of the 6 editors of the Fortress Commentary on the Bible) along with Fortress Editors Neil Elliott and Scott Tunseth at the Fortress suite for an informal blogger roundtable at SBL on Monday (11/24) from 10:00-11:30am.
More info on the newly released Fortress Commentary on the Bible is at the link above and numerous others on that page, such as an interview with the editors, what contributors have to say, and an online sample. If there is something you're interested in finding out about the process, the scholars involved, or the work of the contributors, feel free to join us.
I will be reviewing this commentary on my blog following SBL, excited to see my former professor from Notre Dame, Hugh Page and talk with Gale Yee. If you have questions about the event, contact Emily Varner
Last week I wrote a post regarding the most recent “Jesus baby-daddy” scandal to hit cyberspace. In my article I suggested that every now and again, media sensations like this one can be beneficial if they help us re-examine Jesus, take him for who he is according to the sacred writ.
In preparation for Advent, it seems important to discuss the world into which Jesus was born so that we might better understand the expectations that loomed and the liturgy upon which his life was read. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll feature a series of posts to aid pastors and seekers in their understanding of This Jesus who lived and breathed in human form and walked in the dust of Ancient Palestine.
We believe Jesus was born between 6-4 BCE. BCE, of course, means Before Common Era and bears witness to what we now know, Jesus was not born in 0 such that the definition of “Before Christ” is a historical.
If we take the evangelist Matthew’s account to be credible, then the child Jesus was born within two years of Herod’s death. Since according to Matthew, Jesus is in danger of being one of the Hebrew boys under two who are murdered under Herod’s reign, and since the Roman record confirms the death of Herod in 4 BCE, or according to Josephus 37 years after the beginning of his reign.
At the death of Herod, there is an enormous uproar in Palestine. Octavian and Marc Antony had placed Herod in his position over the Judean kingdom so that he functioned much like a puppet king. Upon Herod’s death, the Jewish people who had never wanted Herod for a king, revolted under the new reign of his son’s. There were uprisings in Judea, Perea and in Galilee where fighting was centered in Sepphoris and the leaders of the revolt were Judas and Zadok, who are the origin of the faction known as the "Zealots."
Since the Roman garrison at Cesarea could not contain the multiple revolts, the Syrian governor then responded with some 18,000 Roman troops and put down the rebellion, crucifying some 2,000 rebels outside the walls of Jerusalem.
It is into this world Jesus is born, where oppression and apocalyptic hopes burn fierce fires in the hearts of the Jewish purists who await a Messianic king who will reign as Simon Maccabeus who liberated the Jews from the tyranny of foreign kings or his brother Judas took back the Temple from the Gentile oppressors. In fact, it is Judas' act that is celebrated at Chanukah, when the Jews rededicated the Temple to God after it had been under the rule of Selucid kings and used as a pagan site of worship.
Jesus’ entry into the world during a volatile political and socio economic climate changes everything about how we read his words and understand his mission. Jesus comes into the world to inaugurate the Kingdom of God which will challenge the rulership of the day and call his followers to live radically counter to culture to embrace a revolution of love and the reign of a spiritual world.
Stay with us here as we prepare for Advent and get to know This Jesus...
It’s Monday and as I scan my Twitter feed and engage in some research before my baby wakes up again, I am alerted that there is now another “Jesus was married and had a couple of kids” scandal about the web. Once again, Simcha Jacobovici who is neither a Biblical Scholar nor Archaeologist, not a Theologian or Ancient Languages specialist-- but plays one on tv-- has set out to prove that an ancient manuscript is proof of Jesus’ other life and a fifth gospel.
The manuscript Jacobovici is drawing from is an ancient papyrus of the apocryphal book of Joseph and Asenath, Jacobovici posits that Joseph and Asenath acts as an allegory for the relationship between Jesus and Mary of Migdol and that this is how it has always been understood in the Syriac. The authors of the “Lost Gospel” intend to hold a press conference later this week and unveil the names of Jesus’ and Mary’s children which is sure to stir controversy and hike book sales.
While I am grateful to colleagues like Dr. Marc Goodacre who take to the airwaves to debunk flawed research, I am also, always grateful for any new conversation about Jesus. My challenge to the church is, rather than bashing this book from the pulpit and forbidding churchgoers to read it, let’s help congregations develop some much needed critical thinking skills and analyses tools to approach the question broached by the “Lost Gospel.”
What if we used this Advent to talk about who Jesus really was and the world he was born into? What if we could give some time and space to Palestine under Herod, and thus, under Rome. What if we spoke of the uprising that occurred at Herod’s death and the rape, pillage and mass crucifixions with which Rome answered. What if our sermons helped people imagine the socio political landscape into which Jesus came so that his words and actions made sense in his own context such that, in turn, we could apply those meanings to our lives today? What if we could really understand the wonder of the illogical God who as an act of divine love chose to come to the world as a poor babe to an unwed teen in a small no consequence village during a time of political oppression?
What if we, dare I say it, read from the Apocrypha, from Joseph and Asenath and talked about how communities might have understood this text to have been code for Jesus and Mary and asked, why or why not? What if we just allowed ourselves to look at Jesus with fresh eyes, to survey literature from his time period and tried to understand who he was in flesh and blood terms so that the gift of his flesh and blood could astonish us again?
What if, a generation of Christians who believe they know everything about Jesus learned they know nothing about Jesus; what if we were confronted by the man who preached against wealth and modeled the radical love of the poor and needy? What if thousands of women and men who have vowed to follow Jesus bumped into him, into love incarnate, and learned he was leading us in an entirely different way; what if we were converted to the following of this one who never owned a home and never rushed anywhere and gave over his life for the good of others? Well, then this Advent we’d welcome Jesus with bruised and humble open arms and the media circus of the “Lost Gospel” would have been well worth the trouble.
I was six years old, all I was young, somewhere close to six all pop knots and missing teeth when I would climb into the old wooden pulpit in the sanctuary and snag the pasty little squares I called “manna” that were served during Holy Communion.
As small and mischievous as I was, that old pulpit felt like home, it was big and tall and strong and even though those tiny flat squares didn’t have my name on them, I knew they were mine for the taking. So, I dined, often as I liked, as long as the grown-ups lingered downstairs eating pie and drinking black coffee, on the manna of heaven, God’s gift for God’s people.
I’m not sure I had ever heard anyone refer to the bread of Communion as manna, but somehow in my young mind, I was making a connection between the feast of Jesus and the provision of God. From that day until this, I have always understood the Table of Jesus to be a mystical and physical reality of sustenance, a sacrament when we take in the nourishment God has provided.
Consider my elation then, when I learned of a new discovery at the John Ryland’s Research Institute at Manchester; an early Christian inscription concerning the Eucharist as “manna from heaven.” The papyrus first discovered by Dr. Roberta Mazza, a research fellow at the institute, dates to 600 CE and the era of late antiquity, some 300 years after Constantine. They papyrus was a charm written to be worn in an Egyptian style amulet, the holy inscription meant to protect its owner from evil.
Along with the words describing the Eucharist as manna, the papyrus also contains bible passages including Psalm 78:23-24, Matthew 26:28-30, and others. Dr. Mazza notes that several of the words are misspelled and written out of order which seems to suggest these words were written from memory rather than being copied. This is striking because it is an instance of Scripture being used by common folk not just priests or religious elite. Mazza also finds the papyrus for the amulet to be an indication of how Christianity was understood as magic to ward off evil.
The full text of the papyrus:
“Fear you all who rule over the earth.
Know you nations and peoples that Christ is our God.
For he spoke and they came to being, he commanded and they were created; he put everything under our feet and delivered us from the wish of our enemies.
Our God prepared a sacred table in the desert for the people and gave manna of the new covenant to eat, the Lord’s immortal body and the blood of Christ poured for us in remission of sins.”
The papyrus is a confirmation that some early Christians in Egypt had access to or at least took to heart the sacred words of Scripture, long before they had hand held copies translated to their own language and offered in their own vernacular. Again it affirms the centrality of the Table for early believers and the body and blood of Jesus as a continuation of the covenantal and sacrificial work of God in the history of the world.
May the words of our story and God’s presence with us reach across the ages and give us strength and may the power of the Table unite us with those who have gone before, those who walk with us now and to the one who will come again.
It is hard to find books to read while you are grieving, difficult to find books whose words reach out and take your hand and help you walk through the mine fields of honest lament. I have been exceedingly grateful for the stories put to pen and paper that have helped walk me home each time my life has exploded. Acutely aware of the gift of an author's raw words that scratched out in manuscript serve as testimonies of grace and hope, the affirmation of real fear and anger, have been shapes and syllables that found me when I have been left disoriented and ragged stumbling along. While many different works have spoken to me across different seasons of loss, the books named below have been special solace for these most recent miles along my path.
So we might know the stories of our mothers; hear my CBH Viewpoint interview with Jim Lyon on early church holy women. Drawn from my research, this week we discuss Prisca, wife to Aquila, ministry companion of Paul and some early material suggests, Bishop of Kolophon just outside of Ephesus!