Paul versus Jesus on family

November 9, 2010

For the last few posts, I’ve been arguing that folks who want to use the Bible as a guide to marriage and family life find that biblical testimony in this area has evolved a great deal over the millennia. As a result, they must pick and choose which book of the Bible, which story, which form of marriage they want to rely on as testimony to God’s will.

As we have seen, even Jesus’ teachings on family and his actions regarding his own family leave a confusing sense of conflict. As with a lot of other areas of Christian theology, however, it’s not to Jesus that many people turn for biblical rules about family, but to Paul. And as in many other areas, Paul either ignores Jesus’ teachings and practice or directly contradicts them. This is most certainly true with marriage. To confuse matters more, Paul does not even remain consistent with himself, though here the matter really rests on a higher order question of who actually wrote some of the letters ascribed to Paul. The most jarring shift in his teachings occurs in letters many scholars believe to have been written by a ‘disciple’—Colossians and Ephesians.

Paul’s contradictions, with Jesus and with his earlier writings (Galatians, in particular), have to do with the relationships between women and men, between the husband and the wife. For a full and groundbreaking treatment of these matters, I highly recommend In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, by Elisabeth Fiorenza, though I should warn you that this is a pretty dense read. Fiorenza’s book could hardly be more valuable and important to an understanding of women in the Bible, but it could easily be more reader-friendly. If you’re interested but don’t want to slog through the jargon, check out this website’s more user-friendly presentation of her work, using excerpts.

First, we’ll look at Jesus and Paul. In the next post, we’ll look at how Paul (or his eponymous disciple) contradicts himself.

Several women traveled with the itinerant prophet Jesus and supported his ministry financially (Luke 8:1-3). Mary Magdalene and some other women (accounts vary) were the first to receive the revelation of Jesus’ rising from the dead. Women recognize Jesus for who he is consistently throughout the gospels, anointing him, washing his feet with their hair, sitting at his feet to be taught. Men consistently resist or resent this; Jesus repeatedly rebukes them for it. Jesus seems to have radically reordered the gender relations in his community, giving to women status far beyond that allowed in the wider culture or even by his own male followers.

In the end, though, the men won out. They have Paul to thank for their dominion over women. Paul tells the Corinthians that “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife” (I Cor 11:3); that “a man … is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man” (I Cor 11:8-9). Paul is obviously looking to Genesis here, just as Jesus had done regarding divorce. So maybe Jesus actually agreed with Paul; we don’t really know.

About speaking in worship, however, I think we can be more certain. Paul demands that “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for women to speak in church” (I Cor 14:34-35).

This is a far cry from the way Jesus seems to have treated the testimony of the women in his own community. It doesn’t even jive with Paul’s own belief about discipline in the faith of Christ, as he expressed it in Galatians (3:23-4:7): “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. . . There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”

So. Is it shameful for women to speak in church? Are women one with men in Christ? Are women substantially and spiritually inferior to men, by virtue of their apparent derivative creation according to Genesis 2? Must they be subordinate to their husbands?

If you turn to the Bible to answer these questions, which passages do you choose and which do you ignore? Do you follow the Teacher or a self-proclaimed apostle who never even heard him teach?


Jesus and family

November 1, 2010

Jesus gives us the next significant change in the sanctions governing marriage. Roughly five hundred years have passed since Ezra made it illegal to marry non-Jews. For close to two thousand years, since the matriarchs and patriarchs, a man could divorce his wife, though no provision was made for a woman divorcing her husband. Now Jesus changes that—but how? The two accounts, in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, differ in some important details, though the underlying arguments are the same. Jesus tells some questioning Pharisees that God had allowed divorce under Moses’ law …

“because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.  (Mark 10:5-12)

In Matthew’s account, Jesus is less rigorous: he allows divorce in the case of unfaithfulness (Mt 19:9). But even this stand is more rigorous than was the custom at the time, in which a man could sue for divorce for many more reasons than infidelity. Also, mysteriously, in Mark Jesus explicitly accepts the case of a woman divorcing her husband, for which Jewish law made no provision. Nevertheless, Mark’s Jesus still prohibits it.

Finally, in Matthew, Jesus seems to go even further and imply that it would be better not to marry at all, when the disciples say, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry”:

Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.  (Matthew 19:10-12)

Usually, “made themselves eunuchs” is not interpreted literally, but as a euphemism for celibacy.

This is similar to the argument used by the Essenes to discourage marriage: marriage (that is, sex) inevitably left you ritually unclean for periods of time, and, should the time of God’s judgment begin while you were in such a state, you would be disbarred from entering heaven. Jesus consistently and vehemently rejects this kind of discrimination based on uncleanness, so it’s not clear to me why he says this. Nor is it clear why the disciples jump to the conclusion that strict divorce law would make it not worth it to get married, in the first place, as though they expected to get divorced.

They may have been thinking of their own situation as itinerants who had given up everything, including family, to join Jesus’ inner circle. We know that Peter was married because Jesus healed his mother in law (Mark 1:30-31), but we never hear anything about his wife and presumably, Peter abandoned her to follow Jesus. In fact, Peter brings this up at one point:

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.  (Mark 10:28-31)

Significantly, Jesus does not mention wives or husbands. Or fathers. Why?

His relationship with his own family is rather ‘complicated’, if not actually dysfunctional. Joseph begrudgingly goes through with his marriage to Mary because the child is not his only after an angel tells him to and then Jesus formally denies that Joseph is his father in the temple anyway. Rumors that he was illegitimate are so persistent that Matthew fills his genealogy with women whose relations with their husbands, like Mary’s, were all irregular in some way. His family thinks he’s nuts, perhaps possessed and he publicly renounces his family and declares his followers to be his family instead. He won’t even let a follower bury his father (Matthew 8:22).

There is an awful lot going on here under the surface. Jesus’ radical actions toward his own family seem to conflict with his strict conservatism regarding divorce law and with the central role—I would say fundamental role—that family played, not just in Torah but in the very fabric of Jewish society, in its social, economic and religious life.

I suggest that Joseph may have divorced Mary after all, once it became clear that this son who was no son, apparently, was also a nut-job, a deep embarrassment, a dishonor to his family and Joseph’s standing in the community. This meant instant impoverishment for Mary, and the only person in a position to help her out was a son who was a beggar himself, an itinerant prophet surrounded by men who had abandoned their families and women with questionable backgrounds. Even when she went to plead with him to come home along with her other children, he rejected her. The evangelist John patches things up by placing Mary at the crucifixion (none of the other gospels do) and having Jesus say to her, “Woman, here is your son” and to ‘the disciple whom he loved’, “Here is your mother.” And Jesus is much closer to his mother throughout the gospel of John.

That Joseph divorced Mary is, of course, pure conjecture. But mysteries abound here, and the disconnect between Jesus’ actions regarding his own family and his strict application of the law in the case of divorce is, to my mind, one of the least important. At virtually every turn, Jesus seems to have a very difficult and hard to understand relationship to family. All this puts conservative Christian focus on ‘family values’ in a very weird light.