John Dickson

Australian writer, speaker, and academic. Public advocate for the Christian Faith

Should Women Preach in our Churches? A response to Kevin DeYoung in The Gospel Coalition

Introduction

I appreciate Kevin DeYoung’s polite entry into the fraught debate over women’s ministry. I am also flattered that he thinks my case for women preaching in Hearing Her Voice is the “strongest argument” he has found. (By the end, he says my views are “overly narrow”, “surprisingly thin”, and even “impoverished”, but I’ll take my compliments wherever I can find them!). 

Kevin works hard to describe my argument fairly, but at key points he makes his task easier than it should be by exaggerating things I say or by elevating the edges of the argument, instead of adequately confronting the main challenge. So I would like to push back a bit, in the hope of shedding more light—without the usual heat—on this important question. 

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1. My argument in my words

My argument is straightforward. In 1 Tim 2:12 Paul restricts “teaching authority” in the church to certain trusted maleelders. To my mind, this is unavoidable (despite decent arguments to the contrary given by my egalitarian friends). But the conversation doesn’t stop there; we can’t simply assume that 1 Tim 2:12 is referring to what we call ‘sermons’. Two other pieces of evidence need to be considered. First, Paul explicitly distinguishes “teaching” from other kinds of speech in church. In Romans 12:4-8, for example, Paul lists “teaching”, “prophesying”, and “exhorting”, and says that each of them is “different” (diaphoros). Secondly, it is clear Paul expected women to “prophesy (and pray)” in church (1 Cor 11:5). The upshot of this is that there are at least three different kinds of speaking ministries in church, and the restriction in 1 Tim 2:12 refers to only one of them. 

The obvious double-barrelled question is: What is “teaching”, and how do we know all of today’s sermons fall into that category, instead of the categories of “prophesying” or “exhorting”? In Hearing Her Voice I lay out the evidence that “teaching” (in Paul’s letters) refers to a specific task that cannot easily be equated with expounding the Scriptures. “Teaching” istransmitting and protecting—I like to use the expression “laying down”—the core body of apostolic doctrines. “Exhorting”, on the other hand (and perhaps “prophesying”) refers to something closer to (many of) our sermons, that is, urging God’s people to trust and obey the teachings of Scripture. If this is right, it would be inappropriate to restrict allSunday sermons to men. “Teaching authority” in the local church may lay with an authorised elder, but that doesn’t mean trusted women shouldn’t also be giving sermons exhorting us in the power of the Spirit to heed the message of Scripture.

But Kevin critiques my view in a series of considered moves. 

2. Teaching in the early church

First, Kevin says “we have to wonder why this highly nuanced reading has been lost on almost every commentator for two millennia.” I’m not sure what to make of this, because virtually every (technical) commentator notes that “teaching” in Paul’s letters, especially the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), refers to the specialised activity of making sure the church learns the core body of apostolic doctrines. If there is anything fresh in my argument, it isn’t the historical-critical account of Pauline “teaching”; it is perhaps the way I ask whether every modern sermon is “teaching” in the same sense. 

Kevin bolsters his point by asking why the early church, after the New Testament, did not continue to use “teaching” in this highly specialised sense. He offers the example of the Didache, written at the end of the first century. He says the word “teaching” in this document is used in a more generalised way. A couple of things are relevant. First, my argument isn’t that “teaching” always and only means the same thing across all Greek literature (or even everywhere in the Bible, let alone later Christian literature). My argument is that Paul uses the word in a specific way, and it is Paul’s usage that we have to probe in order to understand what he meant when he asked women not to “teach”. 

Secondly, I’m not confident Kevin is actually right about the Didache. The very word ‘didache’ is the Greek term for “teaching”, and the Didache document claims to be—it isn’t, but it claims to be—an accurate account of the core doctrines of the apostles. The full title is “The Teaching (Didache) of the Lord for the Nations through the Twelve Apostles”. That’s why Didache 11:1 speaks of welcoming those who “come and teach you all these things that have just been mentioned.” The word “teaching” here has nothing to do with expounding the Bible, or expounding the Didache document itself. “Teaching” in this instance obviously just means repeating and laying down the apostolic doctrines this document claims to preserve. 

It is true, as Kevin notes, that a few paragraphs later (Didache 11:10-11), the text speaks of a “prophet” engaging in “teaching”, but does this help Kevin’s case? It is well known that the word “prophet” came very quickly to refer to what we would call “an itinerant Christian speaker”. But is that how the New Testament, and Paul in particular, uses the term? I don’t think so. We have already seen that Paul carefully distinguishes between “prophesying” and “teaching” (as well as between “prophets” and “teachers”). But the Didache—written a few decades after Paul—implies that prophets do the “teaching”. How would that square with Paul’s view that women may “prophesy” but not “teach” (or with the fact that the evangelist Philip had four “prophesying” daughters: Acts 21:9)? It is surely more reasonable to say that the Didache provides evidence of a loosening, or conflating, of New Testament terms. 

We should also note that the church missed, conflated, and invented loads of things throughout its history. Most of our complementarian churches today are happy to invite women to read the Bible in church, to sing songs, and to lead the prayers. That seems biblical to us today, but these activities were usually forbidden to women throughout church history. Indeed, some fine contemporary evangelicals, like Tim Challies of Grace Fellowship Church, continue to believe that women should not read the Bible in public.

3. Teaching in ancient Judaism

Kevin also disputes my account of Jewish practice at the time of Paul. In Hearing Her Voice I make the point that the Mishnah(the second sacred text of Orthodox Judaism) is a fixed collection of oral traditions from the rabbis. As such, it is a close parallel to what Paul called “teaching”. Kevin, however, insists that the Mishnah“explains and applies the Torah”. Thus, if the Mishnah is a good parallel to teaching (as I claim), teaching must be about explaining and applying the Bible. 

I am not sure Kevin is correct, either about what the Mishnah claims for itself, or about how Jews—ancient or modern—understand the Mishnah. There is a whole genre of Bible exposition in ancient Judaism. It isn’t the Mishnah. It’s called Pesher (“interpretation”), and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain some excellent examples. The Mishnahis something very different. There are, of course, citations of Scripture in the Mishnah(just as there are in Pauline “teaching”), but the Mishnah purports to be a separate body of tradition sitting in parallelto the Jewish Scriptures. That is why Jews call it the “second Torah” and the “oral Torah”, as opposed to the first, written Torah. I urge readers to flick through a modern copy of the Mishnah. I am confident they will discover that there is hardly anything in its 1000 pages that looks like an “exposition” of an Old Testament passage. 

Kevin also points to the synagogue service, where he says something approaching exposition of the Bible did take place. Actually, I say the same thing in my book. The difference between us is that Kevin reckons this synagogue practice provides the background for Paul’s concept of “teaching”, whereas I argue that this practice provides the background for Paul’s concept of “exhortation”. Preaching on the basis of a passage is typically called “exhortation” in the New Testament not “teaching” (see Acts 13:15; 15:31-32; Hebrews 13:22). And as I also argue in the book, this is why Paul urges Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading, to the exhortation, and to the teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). These are three separate activities, and notice it is “the exhortation” (not “the teaching”) that follows the Scripture reading. To repeat what I said earlier, “exhortation” is “different” (diaphoros) from “teaching” (as Romans 12:4-8 makes clear), and “exhortation” has a lot in common with what we now call a “sermon”.

Mishnah, Abot

Mishnah, Abot

4. Teaching in the Old Testament

Kevin argues that the Old Testament uses the word “teaching” in a broad sense, and that this raises a question over the “narrow” sense I say is found in Paul. I don’t find this a convincing line of reasoning. We are trying to discover what Paul specifically meant by “teaching” when he forbade women to do it. Looking at a word in the whole corpus of Scripture can be useful, but it is not decisive. Different authors use words in different ways. Just think of the term “prophet” and “prophesying”. Imagine insisting that Paul’s use of these terms in 1 Corinthians 11-14 must be the same as that found in the biblical Prophets! It wouldn’t work, and nor does it work for “teaching”.

5. Teaching in the New Testament

When Kevin turns to the New Testament, several misunderstandings slip in. For example, he sees it as significant that there are references to transmitting the apostolic deposit (what I call “teaching”) that do not use the word “teaching”, but instead use terms like “passing on” (1 Cor 15:3). What Kevin doesn’t tell his readers is that a key part of my argument in Hearing Her Voice is precisely to show that “teaching” is “a perfectly apt alternative term” for “passing on”. And I do the exegetical work to demonstrate the point. In Paul’s earlier letters the words “teaching” and “passing on” appear together in parallel. In the later Pastoral Epistles we don’t find the expression “passing on” at all, even though commentators all agree that ensuring the apostolic doctrines are passed onis one of the central themes of the Pastoral Epistles. The word in the Pastoral Epistles that does all the heavy-lifting for this concept is “teaching” (1 Tim 1:10; 1 Tim 4:6; 1 Tim 6:1, 2, and 3; 2 Tim 2:2; 2 Tim 3:10; Titus 1:9; Titus 2:1; Titus 2:10). Paul’s words in 2 Tim 2:2 capture the thought perfectly: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teachothers”. “Teaching” is the process of faithfully transmitting the apostolic deposit.

Kevin thinks the Sermon on the Mount provides “crucial” evidence against my argument. In Hearing Her Voice I note that the Lord’s Sermon is designated “teaching” (Matt 7:28-29). I add that this isn’t because the Sermon on the Mount is an exposition of Old Testament passages; it’s because it’s a new authoritative body of tradition. But Kevin replies that “The Sermon on the Mount is filled with Old Testament allusions, parallels, and explanations.” As a result, he says, we cannot create a neat distinction between “teaching” and expounding the Bible. On the one hand, I need to say that I do not create such a neat distinction. In Hearing Her Voice I repeatedly say things like (to quote myself): “Teachers used Old Testament passages as background and proof for their new covenant message, but exposition of Scripture was not the defining feature of teaching”; or “the apostolic traditions often explained how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the prophets.” But the more obvious point is that the Sermon on the Mount really isn’t anything like an exposition of Old Testament passages. There are many allusions and a few citations. But I can’t see a single Old Testament passage that Jesus “expounds” in the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine a seminary student today handing in the Sermon on the Mount to her Homiletics class as an example of an exposition of Old Testament passages! 

6. Teaching in the Pastoral Epistles

When Kevin turns to the Pastoral Epistles themselves—the immediate context of Paul’s prohibition against women “teaching” in church—he offers some interesting remarks. First, he fully acknowledges that “teaching” is about “passing on the good deposit of the apostolic truth about Jesus” (his words). We agree for a moment. Then he cites two authorities to contradict me. He says that evangelical biblical scholar Bill Mounce “does not reduce the Christian tradition to oral sayings only, to the exclusion of Scripture explication”, and then he cites the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as saying “the historical connexion between Scripture and didaskein [teaching] is still intact”. If I had said that Paul’s concept of “teaching” excluded any explanation of Old Testament passages, Kevin would have a point. But I don’t. I frequently note in Hearing Her Voice that the Old Testament features in Paul’s concept of “teaching”, precisely because the core apostolic doctrines are the fulfillment of the Old Testament (just like in the Sermon on the Mount). But this doesn’t mean “teaching” is defined as “explaining Bible passages.” More to the point, however, both authorities offered by Kevin in fact agree with me that the core idea of “teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles is the authorised transmission of the apostolic doctrine of the Christian gospel. 

This is where I feel Kevin has created a bit of a strawman out of me, making his task of critique easier than it should be. He says things like “on Dickson’s interpretation Timothy was to read the Scriptures, exhort from the Scriptures, and then lay down the apostolic deposit without ever expounding any of the Scriptures just read”; or again (purporting to describe my view), “Paul never meant for teachers to explain Bible verses in reproving, correcting, or training either. The Bible may inform these tasks, but it never involves exposition of any kind. This strains credulity to the breaking point.” Yet, throughout Hearing Her Voice I urge readers not to imagine the very thing Kevin imagines. I tried to make it clear (a) that the Scriptures have a key role in what Paul’s calls “teaching” but (b) that this doesn’t mean “teaching” can be defined as expounding the Scriptures. Consider this key quotation from Hearing Her Voice

The apostolic traditions are full of demonstrations that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Studying the Jewish Scriptures, then, is hugely beneficial for Timothy’s task of laying down for his churches what the apostles have said (i.e., teaching). But this does not mean that teaching is expounding a Bible passage—as vital as exposition is for the health of the church.

Or, as I say later in the book, “As central as Scripture was to the teaching of Paul and Jesus, Scriptural exposition is not the defining or constitutive characteristic of their teaching.” This is the idea that Kevin inflates to the point of incredulity. My claim (a) that “teaching” in Paul is not constituted by exposition is amped up by Kevin to mean (b) that I am saying “Paul never meant for teachers to explain Bible verses in reproving, correcting, or training either” (Kevin’s rendition of my view). 

“Teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles according to the standard scholarly New Testament dictionary,  New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis , vol.1. Zondervan, 2014, 715.

“Teaching” in the Pastoral Epistles according to the standard scholarly New Testament dictionary, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis, vol.1. Zondervan, 2014, 715.

7. Teaching today

Kevin thinks that because I don’t view every sermon as “teaching”, I have too low a view of the modern sermon. He says “In Dickson’s telling, the sermon is essentially a running commentary plus application.” And thus my “understanding of contemporary preaching is too impoverished”. Kevin’s way of putting things is artificial. The truth is, I think the Bible is the Word of God. So explaining the Bible is a holy act, and applying it to people’s hearts in the power of the Spirit is life-changing. Just because I reckon Paul would have called many of our sermons “exhortation” rather than “teaching”—and therefore would have happily invited women to give some sermons—does not mean that I devalue pulpit ministry.

Finally, Kevin offers a series of remarks designed to make my view seem too complicated ever to put into practice. He writes:

Complementarians who try to thread the needle and argue that “this message on Sunday morning is a sharing not a sermon” or “this woman preaching is under the authority of the session” will find that their arguments for not letting women preach all the time and in any way look exceedingly arbitrary.

Or again, “With all these elements of preaching jumbled together, how could Paul have expected Timothy to untangle the ball of yarn and know what he was supposed to not permit women to do?”

It is true that a blanket-ban on women giving any kind of sermon is more straightforward than my proposal. Simpler still would be never allowing women to read the Bible in church, give a testimony, or sing up-front (of course, some churches adopt precisely these policies). But we are not aiming at simplicity. We all want to be biblical. And there are nuances in the Bible that Kevin seems to flatten out. It is the apostle Paul himself who says that “teaching”, “exhorting”, and “prophesying” are all “different”. Kevin may call this “threading the needle” but I insist it is biblical. All sermons today will take the form of citing and explaining Bible passages. But some sermons will principally be designed to lay down for the church the core apostolic doctrines (“teaching”). Other sermons will principally be designed to encourage the church to heed the commands or comforts of Scripture (“exhorting”; or perhaps “prophesying”). Even if it is only two or three times a year, churches will hugely benefit from hearing women’s voices exhort us to trust and obey the Lord.

Conclusion 

Some realities survive Kevin’s polite but forceful critique:

1. Paul himself distinguishes between “exhorting”, “prophesying”, and “teaching”.

2. Paul expected women to “prophesy” in the congregation.

3. Paul never forbade women to “exhort” the congregation.

4. Paul did forbid women to “teach” the congregation.

5. “Teaching” refers to laying down the core apostolic doctrines.

6. Not all contemporary sermons are “teaching” in the Pauline sense.

7. The Bible does not restrict every kind of sermon to men, and so trusted women ought to be giving at least some sermons in our churches.


John Dickson is an author, historian, and ordained Anglican Minister in Sydney. He is Distinguished Fellow at Ridley College, lecturer in Christian origins at the University of Sydney, and a Visiting Academic (2017-2020) in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Oxford. 

Another Conspiratorial Documentary about Jesus

The history of Jesus has once again been disproven (and it’s not even Christmas time)! Amazon Prime is releasing a documentary arguing that the life and deeds of a first-century pagan philosopher-healer named Apollonius of Tyana were suppressed by the early Church, and ‘transferred’ onto the Jewish composite of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. Apollonius lived around the same time, the doco points out; he renounced worldliness, gathered many disciples, and, most tellingly, he performed miracles that read suspiciously like scenes in the Gospels … 

… except that …

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… the little we know of Apollonius places his public work no earlier than the reign of Nero (AD 54-68) through to the time of Domitian (AD 81-96). By the time Apollonius was a public figure, in other words, Jesus had been dead (and raised, if one accepts that) for three decades, and much of the New Testament was already written. By the time Apollonius died (around AD 100 at our best guess), ALL of the New Testament, including the four Gospels, were in public circulation. 

But it's even worse for this new conspiracy theory. We only have one source for Apollonius’ biography. It was written by the philosopher Philostratus around AD 220 at the urging of the famously anti-Christian Empress Julia Domna. This means that the ‘Life of Apollonius’ was composed not only 120 years after Apollonius himself, but 150 years after the first Gospels, and 190 years after Jesus of Nazareth. 

It is true that a few stories in Philostratus’ ‘Life of Apollonius’ read uncannily like stories written in the Gospel of Mark a century-and-a-half earlier. In fact, the scholarly Greek-English edition of the ‘Life of Apollonius’ in the Loeb Classical Library even provides footnotes pointing readers to passages in the Gospel. But thinking people will rightly ask, Which is more likely: (A) The story of Jesus was concocted to sound like a figure who worked three decades after Jesus, who died 70 years after Jesus, and whose sole biographical source was composed nearly 200 years after Jesus, or (B) The memory of poor old Apollonius was 'recast' by the third-century Roman elite (consciously or otherwise) to compete with the rising influence of Jesus and the Gospels?

Jesus as Temple - a forgotten aspect of his own claim to authority

There used to be a large sign on the northern side of the town of Cooma near the Australian snow fields (yes, there is some snow in Australia, sometimes) which read: “Cooma: Gateway to the Snowy Mountains.” I remember the excitement I felt as a child passing through Cooma on the way to our annual holiday in the Snowy Mountains. My entire body would tingle with expectation as I wound down the window and felt the chilled mountain air streaming across my face. It is one of my most potent early childhood memories. And I still do it today.

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Driving throughCooma

With the window down

This childhood sense of anticipation, however, is nothing compared to the excitement of ancient Jews as they streamed toward Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival and arrived at the town of Bethphage—“gateway to the holy city”—just a few kilometres from Jerusalem. Once pilgrims made their way up the road from Bethphage to the top of the Mount of Olives, they would be greeted by a magnificent panoramic view of the holy city, just a kilometre or so away. At the front of their view was the huge Jerusalem temple, a site approximately the size of today’s largest football stadiums.

The temple was the centre of Israel’s national and religious life. This was where God chose to dwell, according to the Hebrew Scriptures; it was where sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins could be made; it was where the country’s leading teachers could be heard in the vast temple courts; it was where pilgrims gathered in tens of thousands, especially at Passover time, to sing and pray to the one true God. For the devout Jew, arriving at the crest of the Mount of Olives and looking down at the temple of God must have stirred up extraordinary feelings of national pride and spiritual awe.

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In the midst of this already heightened sense of occasion, toward the end of his public career as a teacher and healer, Jesus entered the Jerusalem Temple and proceeded to pronounce judgement on it—as if he had authority even over this central symbol of Israel’s faith:

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’.
— Matthew 21:12–13

It is hardly surprising that Jesus would be dead by the end of the week. It is also not surprising that one of the central charges laid against him at his trial was his reported contempt for the temple. Matthew’s Gospel records:

Finally two came forward and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer?’
— Matthew 26:60–62

Jesus did not answer this charge, perhaps because he did actually say something like this, even if he meant it in a symbolic way. Historically revealing is the fact that in the Gospel of John’s account of the clearing of the temple (probably written independently of the other three Gospels) we hear a statement from Jesus that comes very close to the one recalled at his trial:

The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
— John 2:18–22

At first sight, this is a bizarre statement: Jesus’ body, crucified and raised, is the temple! However, this is not the first time Jesus has identified himself with the temple. The theme emerges a number of times in the Gospels. We get hints of it every time Jesus hands out divine forgiveness to people. In first-century Judaism, only the temple priests could pronounce forgiveness, and, even then, only after the appropriate sacrifice had been offered. This is why, after Jesus forgave the prostitute at the home of Simon the Pharisee, as discussed in the previous chapter, the guests murmured, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” (Luke 7:49b). Jesus handed out forgiveness whenever anyone humbly approached him. He acted like a mobile temple.

An explicit comparison between Jesus and the temple is found in Matthew 12 in a scene set long before Jesus took on the temple priests. The Pharisees had criticised Jesus’ disciples for doing what looked like work on the Sabbath day. Jesus responded:

Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath day [i.e., do work on the Sabbath] and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.
— Matthew 12:3–6

The logic goes like this: priests are exempt from the Sabbath law when working within the precinct of the temple; how much more then are the disciples exempt when working in the vicinity of the Messiah. Jesus, according to these words, is more than the temple. This is an extraordinary statement in its first-century context. 

When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, entered the temple and declared its ministry bankrupt, he was not acting as a mere religious radical. According to the witness of the Gospel writers, he was acting as God’s replacement temple, or, perhaps more accurately, as the reality to which the temple pointed all along. All that the temple had meant for Israel for almost one thousand years was now to be found in Israel’s Messiah. The presence of God which human beings so longed for was to be found through a personal connection with Christ, not in a building in East Jerusalem. The hunger for divine teaching could be satisfied, not in the courts of a glorious sanctuary, but by feeding on the words of Jesus. True “pilgrims” could henceforth declare their praises, not within the walls of one sacred building, but wherever people gathered in honour of the Messiah. And forgiveness of sins could be enjoyed through the one priestly sacrifice of Jesus, not through priest and sacrifice.

The Jerusalem temple was eventually destroyed some forty years after Jesus’ death, when in August AD 70 Roman troops stormed Jerusalem to end a bitter five-year rebellion. Of the few remains of the temple is a 50 or so metre long section of the western wall, called the Wailing Wall. Modern Jews congregate there to this day to cry out to God for the promised messiah and for the restoration of God’s holy sanctuary. Unfortunately (from the Jewish point of view), standing where the temple once stood is the Dome of the Rock, the oldest existing Islamic monument in the world, built around AD 690. This spot is the world’s most hotly disputed piece of real estate.

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And, yet, Orthodox Jews maintain their doctrines and hopes about the spot. A sign remains there to this day alerting passersby to the significance of the site. It reads:

The temple mount is the focal point of Creation. In the center of the mountain lies the “Foundation Stone” of the world. Jews have prayed in its shadow for hundreds of years, an expression of their faith in the rebuilding of the Temple. The Sages said about it: ‘The Divine Presence never moves from the Western Wall’.
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Temple sign

 

Jerusalem

From the point of view of the first followers of Jesus, the temple was really overthrown and replaced around AD 30. From the time of Christ’s death and resurrection, said the early Christians, a new temple was established for all nations. All who want to locate the Creator’s presence, learn his teaching, and enjoy his forgiveness can do so simply by embracing the Messiah, the new temple.

This is an excerpt from chapter 9 of A Doubter's Guide to Jesus - out now.

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Jesus Versus the Bullies

Christians cannot possibly hope to convince Westerners that Jesus Christ came to serve, suffer, and save them, if they are thought of as bullying, grumbling, and grasping for cultural ground? Understanding Jesus’ claim—and denial—that he was the Messiah changes everything.

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In the first century, worldwide devotion to a Jewish teacher was not what the Jews hoped for when they looked at their ancient prophecies. Many (not all) longed for a military messiah, one who would crush Israel’s enemies by divine force. Evidence of this expectation is found not only in the numerous anti-Roman Jewish movements we know of from the period but also in some of the pious texts composed around the time of Jesus.

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Synagogue of Gamla

site of a famous Roman battle against its Jewish residents 

Around 50 BC, just a decade or so after Pompey’s Roman armies marched onto Israel’s sacred soil, a Jewish leader in Jerusalem wrote a prayer pleading God to send a particular kind of messiah. In short, he wanted a military commander descended from David who would smash the foreigners to pieces:

See, O Lord, and raise up for them [the Jewish people] their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers [the Romans], to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar. There will be no unrighteousness among them in his days, for all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah.
— Psalms of Solomon 17.21–32

Clearly, the “Lord Messiah” described in this text is different from the figure we find in the pages of the Gospels. This messiah would “smash” the sinners; Jesus offered sinners forgiveness and transformation (as we will see in Chapter 7). This messiah would lead a successful rebellion against the foreign invaders; Jesus said “love your enemies, do good to them” (Luke 6:35). Jesus did not fit any messianic job description we know of from the period, and some of his teachings ran counter to the little we do know about first-century aspirations.

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Book Note

For a brief and reliable account of the concept of “Messiah/Christ” in Jewish expectation, see Joel B. Green, “Christ, Messiah.” Pages 101–07 in Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. Edited by Craig A. Evans. London: Routledge, 2008.

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In the central passage of Mark’s Gospel, taken up by Luke and Matthew as well, Jesus describes what embracing his version of the messiah will involve. The episode is both a climax and an anti-climax:

But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
— Mark 8:29–38

With almost two thousand years of Christianisation, it is difficult for modern readers to appreciate just how shocking this notion of a suffering messiah would have been. We catch a glimpse of it in the response of the chief apostle, Peter, who took his master aside and “rebuked” him. Jesus responds with his own stinging rebuke contrasting human ambitions for the messiah with those of God: “You do not have in mind the concerns of God,” he says to Peter, “but merely human concerns.”

So great is Peter’s misunderstanding of the messiah’s mission that Jesus calls the crowd together in the second paragraph just quoted and makes clear that following him will not involve gaining the world; instead, it means taking up a cross. The contrast here is between two ways of being the people of the messiah. The first tries to protect its interests and “gain the whole world.” In historical context, this is not a reference to materialism but to messianic imperialism—the attempt to dominate the nations. Such a path, says Jesus, will result in the loss of one’s soul before God. The climactic words about being “ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation” in the original setting must have meant that following a crucified messiah in a conquest-culture would bring public shame. Disciples must be willing to bear this.

REFLECTIONS

For the first few hundred years of Christian history, bearing the name of “Christ”—as the word “Christian” entailed—was a risky business. A year or so after Jesus’ death, a leader of the Greek-speaking disciples in Jerusalem, named Stephen, was put to death by stoning (Acts 7:54–60, AD 31/32). In AD 42 the first of the twelve apostles, James son of Zebedee, was likewise martyred, this time by beheading (Acts 12:1–2). After a period of relative calm, the AD 60s saw the killing of James the brother of Jesus (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200; AD 62), the apostles Peter and Paul (1 Clement 5:1–7; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.5–6; AD 64/65), and scores of unnamed disciples whose dreadful fate under Nero’s reign (AD 54–68) even made the Roman official Tacitus (AD 56–120) wince:

The confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted. . . . And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man [Nero].
— Tacitus, Annals 15.44
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The site of Nero's Circus

Now within Vatican City

The words of Mark 8:34, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” must have had special resonance for the first followers of Jesus. They had watched their “king” suffer and die, and now they were required to walk the same path.

It is tragically ironic that the church of the West has come to be seen by many as an institution that misuses power. This is partly the world’s bias. The church is a big organization, with a long history, out of step with society at some points. It’s an easy target. But Christians don’t help themselves when they speak in public with an air of entitlement, allowing boldness to morph into simple arrogance.

How can Christians possibly hope to convince Westerners that Jesus Christ came to serve, suffer, and save them, if they are thought of as bullying, grumbling, and grasping for cultural ground? Only when the followers of Christ are known for denying themselves and taking up their public “crosses” will they begin to look like the One they claim to represent.

This is an excerpt from chapter 6 of A Doubter's Guide to Jesus, out February 2018

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Do the Healings of Jesus Provide a Program for Today? Yes and No.

The historical evidence for Jesus’ healings (already examined) is clear, and most experts today, whether religious or not, agree that he must have performed deeds which others deemed ‘miracles’. But what was the meaning of the healings, in the mind of Jesus himself? For this, we have good evidence. 

Jesus’ deeds are portrayed in our texts as a sign within history of the restoration of all things at the end of history. Jesus’ power over sickness, evil, and nature are a preview, you might say, of God’s coming kingdom. This is a point Jesus himself makes at the end of a dispute with the Pharisees (a strict sect of first-century Jews) in the Gospel of Matthew: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:22–28) The same statement is found in Luke 11:20, meaning it derives from the early source (shared by Matthew and Luke) known to scholars as Q, from the German word Quelle or 'source'.

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Healing the Blind

(Duccio, 13th century)

Usually, the “kingdom of God” mentioned in this source is a future reality. It refers to the moment when all creation will be brought into conformity with the wise and loving purposes of the Creator. The technical word for this is eschatology. Justice will reign, peace will ensue, and all nature will thrive and flourish. In the well-known Lord’s Prayer (or “Our Father”), for instance, Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Your kingdom come,” a plea for God’s dominion over the world to come soon.

In the passage just quoted, however, Jesus describes that kingdom as present in some way in his ministry of healing and exorcism: “the kingdom of God has come upon you,” he says. What was usually described by Jesus (and other biblical writers) as an ultimate future reality is glimpsed, he reckoned, in his startling deeds. The renowned classicist and historian of religion David Flusser (a Jew not a Christian) puts the point well in his study of Jesus’ life:

[Jesus] established his claim to the eschatological office by pointing to his preaching of salvation and to his supernatural works of healing. Jesus saw these things as an unmistakable sign that the era of salvation had already dawned.
— (Flusser, The Sage of Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, 28)

According to Christian Scripture, only in the final kingdom of God will there be no more pain, death, and discord. As the second-to-last chapter of the New Testament envisions: "He [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4)

What is promised in prophecy and vision here in the book of Revelation (and elsewhere) was, the Gospels say, temporarily experienced within history in the ministry of Jesus: evil was overthrown, frail bodies were restored, and nature itself was put right. The “kingdom of God” had in miniature come upon them. And, as we have seen, it left its mark throughout the ancient sources. As much as the miracles point to Jesus’ compassion and authority, more fundamentally they preview the renewal of all things in the kingdom to which Jesus invited his hearers.

Miracles Today?

For Christian believers in my readership I should probably add that I do believe that God in his mercy chooses to heal people today—sometimes through prayers, sometimes without them. He did this in Old Testament times; he will do it in contemporary times, the New Testament assures us (e.g., James 5:14–16). In my view, the many fully verified unexplained medical recoveries are the “miraculous” work of the Creator, whether or not the people involved are Christians, or prayed.

But I want to stress this is not what the Gospels are trying to teach us in their accounts of Jesus’ miracles (nor is it a point I wish to stress in a book like this). What Jesus did within history was not a program that is meant to be enacted in the ongoing life of the church; it is rather a window into a future kingdom that is hoped for and proclaimed by the church.

The purpose of Jesus’ startling deeds was not to evoke a belief in miracles today but rather to inspire a longing for the day when God’s kingdom comes fully upon the world. That’s the perspective of the Gospels. Throughout history, Christian faith has always involved a restless hope—a hope captured perfectly in the prayer “Your kingdom come!” The previews of the kingdom glimpsed in Jesus’ miracles has typically made Christ’s followers dissatisfied with the way things are and desperate for the way things Christ said they would one day be. Christian hope is thus confident but restless: it praises God for the preview (in Jesus’ life) and pleads him for the finale (in the “kingdom come”), when evil will be overthrown, humanity healed, and creation itself renewed.

Throughout the ages this restless hope has also inspired diligent work while waiting. Christians pray not only “Your kingdom come,” but also “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In theory—and others can judge if this is worked out in practice—people who have glimpsed the future in the healing deeds of Jesus commit themselves to serving the world, just as he did, in whatever way they can this side of the kingdom. They relieve suffering at every opportunity and resist evil wherever they see it. The creation of Christian hospitals and hospices in fourth-century AD Rome and the (largely Christian) movement to abolish slavery in eighteenth-century England were, in part, motivated by this ancient (theo)logic.

Recently I was in Rome shooting scenes for a documentary (on this mixed history of the church) about a remarkable woman who, while virtually unknown today, was amongst the most notable women of the fourth century. Fabiolo was born into one of the founding families of Rome and was one of the capital’s wealthiest people. She suffered greatly in an abusive marriage, before gaining rare permission to divorce her husband and begin again. At some point she met Christians, who by this period could be found in all ranks of imperial society. She heard the news about Christ, and devoted herself to the powerful, tender Master we read about in the Gospels. What Fabiola did next was extraordinary.

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Fabiola of Rome

(died AD 399)

 Fabiola sold her entire holdings, turned it into cash, and devoted herself, and all her resources, to assisting the poor and sick of Rome. She established what may well have been the first public hospital in history. Hospitals were part of the military apparatus of the empire, of course, but the idea of throwing open the doors of medical care to the whole population was novel. Remarkably, she tended to people not just with her money but with her own hands. “How often she carried on her own shoulders poor filthy wretches tortured by epilepsy!” wrote an eyewitness and friend. “How often did she wash away the purulent [pussy] matter from wounds which others could not even endure to look at! She gave food with her own hand, and even when a man was but a breathing corpse, she would moisten his lips with drops of water.” She expanded her operation. “Rome was not large enough for her kindness. She went from island to island, and travelled round the Etruscan Sea, bestowing her bounty” (Jerome, Letters. Translated by F. A. Wright. Loeb Classical Library 262. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933, 77.6).

In this sense Jesus’ healing ministry recorded in the Gospels did provide a program for the church in society—not in the ministry of “faith healers” but in practical attempts to repair what is broken in the world. The logic is simple: we might not yet possess all the resources of the “kingdom come” but we do know its aims—to renew human life and put an end to evil—and these aims shape what we strive for here and now. That is the theory. I am painfully aware the church hasn’t always lived up to its confession of Jesus the Healer.

This is an excerpt from A Doubter's Guide to Jesus, out February 2018 

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                                    www.doubtersguidetojesus.com 

 

 

 

Equal and Opposite Errors about Jesus

It is hard to imagine a more obvious statement about Jesus than that he was a teacher. Many of his sayings have become proverbial in English, used regularly without any remembrance of where they come from: “salt of the earth,” “love thy neighbour,” “do unto others,” “the good Samaritan,” “prodigal son,” “blind leading the blind,” “judge not, lest you be judged,” “the one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “cast the first stone,” “eat, drink, and be merry,” “sign of the times,” “go the extra mile,” and so on. Recently, I met with an Australian politician who explained how he has “always tried to live by the famous John F. Kennedy quotation, ‘To the one who has been given much, much is required.’” He was surprised—and delighted—to learn that JFK got it from Jesus!

But there are two equal and opposite mistakes people make when thinking about the man Jesus. The first is made by the general public, the second by Christians.

Probably the most enduring image of Jesus in contemporary society is that of a teacher. If he is thought of at all, he is viewed as the archetypal wise man, someone who left behind great words to follow, a kind of Gandhi-figure. This was brought home to me powerfully when I took part in a discussion about Jesus some years ago on Triple J radio, the young and hip station of Australia’s national broadcaster. The last twenty minutes of the show was talkback. Callers were invited to ring in and tell us what they thought of Jesus, or ask me any questions. I braced myself for the worst. To my delight, every caller—and there must have been ten—liked Jesus. What the callers especially appreciated were his teachings, the way he critiqued religious authority, demanded peace, and preached love and tolerance toward all classes of people. We could, in fact, have been talking about Gandhi!

None of the callers mentioned Jesus’ healings or his claim to be the Messiah, God’s Son. There was nothing about his death on the cross or reported resurrection to life. Jesus the teacher was the only thing on the table.

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Jesus Teaches

14th-century Fresco

This is the first mistake people make in assessing Jesus: They so magnify his role as teacher that they end up diminishing, or ignoring altogether, some of the most striking and indispensable features of the Jesus of history. The result is a truncated Jesus; a Jesus of my preference and imagination.

This singular emphasis in our culture on Jesus as a teacher can be traced to a French philosopher and historian Joseph Ernest Renan (1823–92) who published his Life of Jesus in 1863 to much acclaim. Renan stripped Jesus of theological grandeur and cast him as a charming moral teacher whose morality was so strict he lost popularity and was eventually rejected. You have probably never heard of Renan but his idea entered our world as a cultural “meme” that is now very popular. Experts today, however, think of Renan’s portrait of Jesus as one-dimensional. It is a classic example of projecting our own values onto a historical figure. As a philosopher of the Enlightenment, Renan fashioned his “preferred” Jesus: a teacher of humanist values.

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Joseph Ernest Renan

 

    (1823 - 1892)

Equally flawed is the Christian (especially Protestant) overreaction to the general public’s teacher-Jesus. In seeking to affirm his climactic role as the Saviour who died and Lord who rose again, some in the modern church so downplay his role as teacher that he becomes almost unrecognisable as the Jesus of the Gospels, the Jesus of history. The conviction that he is more than a teacher can lead to the practical conclusion that he is hardly a teacher at all. The teachings recorded throughout the middle chapters of the Gospels come to be thought of as a mere precursor to the real ministry of Christ recorded in the final chapters.

Even at theological college we were frequently told that almost a quarter of each of the four Gospels is given over to describing Jesus’ death and resurrection. Mark’s Gospel, in particular, was described to us as a “Passion narrative with extended introduction.” It was not until years later that it dawned on me: If 25 percent of each Gospel is concerned with Jesus’ death and resurrection, this means 75 percent is concerned with his life and teaching!

I certainly want to affirm that Jesus’ death and resurrection are presented in the earliest Christian sources as his crowning achievements, and I will have a lot more to say about these in the rest of the book. All I am saying at this point is that, although Jesus was more than a teacher, he nevertheless was a teacher. Historically speaking, Jesus’ fame as a teacher is one of the most prevalent themes of the ancient sources.

This is an excerpt from A Doubter's Guide to Jesus - released Feb 2018

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Is History Real?

For the last decade or so I have worn a silver denarius around my neck. This Roman coin was roughly equivalent to a “day’s wages” in the first-century—and a bit more today. Mine has the image of Emperor Tiberius on the front (the obverse) and his mother Livia on the back (the reverse). That tells us it was struck sometime between AD 14-37 (in the mint of Lyon, it turns out), because the dates of Tiberius’ reign are precise and certain. I wear this little piece of Roman history partly for sentimental reasons. It’s the coin Jesus of Nazareth held up—I mean the denomination not the very coin—when he was cornered over whether Jews in Judaea and Galilee should pay taxes to Rome. “Who’s image and inscription is this?,” he asked as he held up a denarius. “Caesar’s”, they answered. “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he famously replied, “and to God what is God’s!” It is a very clever reply, with all sorts of fascinating implications about the separation of church and state. And my ancient pendant has led to some fun conversations over the years, usually after someone asks, “What’s that around your neck, a Saint Christopher or something?”

                                                                                                 Denarius of Tiberus (AD 14-37)

                                                                                                 Denarius of Tiberus (AD 14-37)

I also wear this artefact for more intellectual reasons. It is a powerful reminder to me that the ancient past is as real and solid—or was as real and solid—as this lump of metal around my neck. I often take it in my fingers and let my imagination run wild: Perhaps a worker was handed this after a brutal twelve-hour shift in the ash mines of Naples. Maybe a Senator tossed it to his musicians after a particularly pleasing performance of the ‘Song of Sicilus’ (a hit in the day, whose key line was “Enjoy life while you’ve got it”). What groceries did my coin buy? How many goblets of wine were drunk at its expense, in how many different cities? What sordid dealings did it pay for? Was it ever stolen? And who was the poor mug that eventually lost it in the dirt, to be recovered almost twenty centuries later? 

Our speculations could abound, of course. But my point is more substantial: the work, lives, loves, music, food, scandals, and accidents of the first century were once just as real as the coin around my neck, and just as tangible as anything we smell, taste, touch, hear, and see today. 

My coin is a kind of bridge back in time. Its inscriptions reveal how the Romans viewed their emperors: divi Augusti filius, son of the god Augustus (Tiberius’ adoptive father). The portraiture is semi-realistic: each emperor looks completely different, and they are mostly pretty ugly (Google: ‘Emperor Nero denarius’). It probably seems sweet that Tiberius put his mum on the back of his coins, idealized as the goddess Pax (‘Peace’). But it’s complicated. He might have owed her, since rumours abounded that she had got rid of a couple of potential rivals. More concretely, her presence on such a widely used coinage underlines what ancient written sources all affirm: this woman was a serious player in the politics of Rome, from the time she divorced her first husband to marry Augustus in 39 BC through to her death in AD 29. All of this stuff we can say we ‘know’ beyond doubting. 

History is real. It isn’t Middle Earth or “a galaxy far, far away.” It is part of the story of this same planet earth we inhabit today. And all of us are biologically linked to people who lived in the same period (and perhaps even place) that we’re exploring in this book. Each of us has a great, great grandmother (x ~40) who lived, worked, hoped, ached, and laughed at the very time (late 20s AD) when Livia died, Tiberius ruled, Pontius Pilate harassed the residents of Judea, Jesus taught crowds in Galilee, and the prolific Roman author Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was starting primary school. 

History is not just real; it is knowable. Not fully knowable, of course. Probably less than 1% of ancient remains remain today. But 1% is enough to provide precious insight into the real lives of first-century men and women.

Try this thought-experiment  ... (more to come)

EULOGY FOR TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE

By Dr John Dickson (St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Roseville) 

A PDF of this blog can be downloaded here.


The classical, or traditional, view of marriage is not dumb or mean. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. And nor is it particularly religious, even though it coincides with what the major Faiths teach.

The clearest arguments for preferring the classical notion of marriage have not received much airtime. This is perhaps because those arguments seem merely academic compared to the heartfelt appeals of YES-campaigners and the serious concerns of the NO-campaigners. And I sincerely hope my attempt to rehearse some more abstract reasonings don’t disregard the very real hopes and fears of our community.

If the polls are right, a change to Australian marriage law is only a matter of time. I, for one, won’t be grumpy about that. The benefits of living in a liberal democracy far outweigh any angst people may have over losing an argument like this. I also hope and pray that if same-sex marriage is legalized it will make a positive impact on the mental health outcomes of the LGBTI community.

My purpose in outlining the classical case for marriage isn’t to bolster the NO-campaign. It is to clarify why being un-persuaded about same-sex marriage is not necessarily thoughtless or heartless. What follows, then, is a kind of ‘eulogy’ for traditional marriage, a tribute to a venerable idea that seems to have failed to commend itself to a majority of Australians. 

1. Equality in marriage

Many who disagree with the concept of same-sex marriage still feel the force of the key argument in its favour. If marriage is a bond of love between two adults, it makes perfect sense to extend the legal definition of marriage to include couples of the same sex. After all, same-sex love is just as real as the love between people of the opposite sex. Given this fact, and assuming marriage is just a bond of adult love, same-sex marriage follows as a matter of logic, and of justice.

But while everyone can (and should) accept that same-sex love is as important as heterosexual love, many do not believe that marriage should be thought of simply as a bond of love between adults. Many see marriage as definitionally connected to the one kind of human bond that can (at least in principle) create children. In other words, it is the union of a man and a woman. This emphasis on ‘procreation’ can, of course, be questioned: What about the elderly or infertile couple? I will try answer this below. But the key point remains: If we think of marriage as linked in some way to procreation, same-sex marriage just doesn’t follow, either as logic or justice. Rejecting same-sex marriage involves no judgement about the quality of same-sex love, let alone homophobia. It simply acknowledges that same-sex couples are a different kind of human bond, one that doesn’t have the defining characteristic of marriage.

Every definition of marriage excludes bonds of love that don’t fit the definition. For example, the proposed redefinition of marriage will still exclude polyamorous unions (not to be confused with polygamy). The loving bond of a bisexual man and his male and female lovers will be excluded from any definition that insists marriage can only be between two people. But this ‘exclusion’ does not involve a negative judgement about bisexuality or the quality of polyamorous love. It simply follows from the two-person definition of marriage. In exactly the same way, excluding same-sex couples from marriage isn’t a judgement about the quality of same-sex love. It is a logical consequence of the opposite-sex definition of marriage.

The question is: What is the best definition of marriage—is it a bond of love between adults (of either sex) or the union of a man and a woman?

2. The universality of marriage

All cultures we know anything significant about have affirmed the same core idea of marriage, as the union of a man and a woman. Evidence of any other concept of marriage is entirely lacking from the historical record, despite unsourced claims to the contrary. Even in polygamous cultures, where an elite male takes several wives, the classical definition of marriage is still operating: the man is thought to have several separate marriages, each involving a union between just one man and just one woman.

The customs and laws surrounding marriage have, of course, differed over time and throughout cultures. But the central idea of marriage is universal.

The ancient Roman view of marriage offers a helpful illustration. The Romans were famously open to same-sex relationships—perhaps more than we are today—but they did not entertain the idea of the ‘marriage’ of people of the same sex. This was not because of ‘homophobia’! It was simply because they saw marriage as a unique class of human bond that could (in principle) create and raise shared offspring. Consider the words from a treatise on marriage by the first-century philosopher Musonius Rufus, known as the ‘Socrates of Rome’, a pagan not a Christian:

“The husband and wife should come together for the purpose of making a life in common and of procreating children, and furthermore of regarding all things in common between them, and nothing peculiar or private to one or the other, not even their own bodies. In marriage there must be, above all, perfect companionship and mutual love of husband and wife, both in health and in sickness and under all conditions, since it was with desire for this as well as for having children that both entered upon marriage.”
(Musonius Rufus, Fragments, 13A).

The quotation puts the lie to the common claim that ancient marriage was all about property, inheritance, and the power of men! There is no denying that patriarchy and hierarchy coloured ancient marriage—along with everything else—but the ideal for the Romans, as for other cultures, was the loving mutuality of a man and a woman as the proper context for raising shared offspring. That’s what marriage was about.

These notions probably sound religious, almost biblical. Similar ideas are indeed introduced in the book of Genesis (Gen 1:27-28; 2:21-24) and reaffirmed by Jesus himself (Matthew 19:4-6). But this is simply because all cultures shared the same perspective. What’s more, the Bible itself makes clear that marriage is not a religious practice, only for the faithful, but a common Good given by the Creator for the benefit of all cultures.

What is the significance of noting this unanimous opinion of history? Certainly not to offer an ‘argument from tradition’, the assertion that things should ‘remain the same’ because ‘they’ve always been that way’. The point is more substantial. When humans throughout history have agreed about a central feature of life, it should at least give us pause to ask: Why? What did the rest of humanity see that we have missed? As G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, “Never move a fence until you know why it was put there.”

It is not difficult to discover why diverse cultures put the same ‘fence’ in place. There is, at least, some logic and good intention behind the tradition.

3. The logic of marriage

It is perhaps the most basic truth of our existence that everyone comes into the world through the union of one man and one woman. All societies observed this fact and highlighted the male-female bond as a bedrock reality by giving it the unique title ‘marriage’. This is why marriage has exactly the three defining features it does: (1) two people, (2) of the opposite sex, (3) who intend to stay together. All three features are logically interconnected as the only way to hope that new human beings will be raised by the people directly responsible for their existence. If that’s worth hoping for, classical marriage makes sense.

Traditional societies did not wait for children to be born to a couple before they declared them ‘married’. Nor were they unaware that some marriages did not produce offspring. Yet, it was equally obvious that this is the only kind of human bond that can, and usually does, create children. Couples that were infertile or elderly were still considered ‘married’, because the term wasn’t a description of the outcome of the union but a marker of the kind of union it was. There is only one class of human bond that can, even in principle, create and raise shared offspring. All male-female unions were known as ‘marriage’ for the simple reason that all such unions—whether or not they produced children—pointed to the incomparable Good that is inherent to the male-female bond, in a way that isn’t the case (by definition) for same-sex bonds. The common claim that we cannot link marriage to procreation because some marriages can’t have children misunderstands the classical view. 

4. The good in marriage

But why should any of this matter? Even if it is admitted that there is a certain logic to the traditional understanding of marriage, why fight to preserve that understanding when it exacerbates feelings of exclusion among LGBTI Australians?

The answer turns on how important we think it is that new members of the human family are raised by the two people responsible for their existence—for their DNA, physiology, personality, and genealogical history. If we decide that this is not especially important, there will be little motivation to preserve the classical use of the term ‘marriage’. If, on the other hand, we think that—all things being equal—kids raised by their mother and father is an incomparable moral and social Good (for children, parents, and society), it makes sense to reserve the title ‘marriage’ for the only kind of union that is inherently capable of this Good, intrinsically oriented toward it, and usually achieves it.

A unique bond serving a unique Good warrants a unique title. Redefining marriage to mean just ‘a bond of adult love’ removes the very thing that made marriage a bedrock institution in the first place (the in-principle capacity to create and raise shared children), and so diminishes the place given to marriage in our society. Just as the well-intentioned school policy that “every child gets an award” can, over time, water down the very notion of an award, so including any loving adult relationship as ‘marriage’ diminishes the notion of marriage itself. This is not because same-sex love is inferior to heterosexual love. It is because same-sex couples do not serve the same (in-principle) goal as couples of the opposite sex.

None of this questions same-sex couples adopting children. Adoption almost always benefits children, and so is almost always a good thing. But single people can also adopt, as can de facto couples. This doesn’t make the adults involved ‘married’. As I have said, marriage doesn't refer to the outcome of having children in a household. It is the marker of a unique class of relationship that embodies a unique hope—that a child would know and be known by the two people who brought her into the world, and love and be loved by those very same people. If that hope really matters, so does classical marriage.

Conclusion

My purpose in writing this ‘eulogy’ to traditional marriage is simply to highlight that disagreeing with the concept of same-sex marriage is not necessarily thoughtless and heartless. It arises from an abiding conviction that societies are enhanced by giving more (not less) emphasis to the most basic unit of human community: the one kind of human bond inherently oriented toward raising shared offspring. We can, and should, affirm same-sex couples for the inherent goods they represent (love, joy, intimacy, and more) but, like the ancient Romans, we should be able to honour such relationships without redefining the bedrock institution of marriage in a way that sidelines the very thing that makes it bedrock.

Whatever happens in the coming months, we should give each other permission to profoundly disagree about these important matters and strive to respect and understand each other all the same. We all still have to get along the day after any new legislation.


Is Jesus Missing from the Oxford Classical Dictionary? Or, Why Internet Scepticism is Sometimes Really Dumb.

John Loftus is a former evangelical theology student who lost his faith and started the popular atheist blog “Debunking Christianity”. A few weeks ago, he published a piece by a regular contributor Harry McCall, whom Loftus describes as “having a background in high-level biblical scholarship.” McCall’s article questions the existence of Jesus—of course—under the headline, “For the fourth time Jesus fails to qualify as a historical entry in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (OCD).” 

After building up the importance of the OCD (quite rightly) as the “ultimate work on the classical world”, the author points out that the editors of the newly published 4th edition of the dictionary fail to give Jesus an entry—as they do for thousands of other historical figures from Graeco-Roman antiquity, such as Julius Caesar, Cicero, and so on. There is an entry on ‘Christianity’, of course, but even here, so McCall tells us, the entry highlights the many unknowns in the expansion of the new religion. “In conclusion,” he declares with innocent delight, “while Christian apologists may find proof of Jesus as a historical figure in a few Classical authors, the professional editors and contributors of this long standing ultimate reference work on the classical world would strongly disagree!” 

Whether ignorance, deliberate deception, or just good old-fashioned dogmatic blindness, this line of reasoning provides an unhappy window into much that is wrong with evangelical atheism. John Loftus knows more about Christianity than the average atheist. He should know better than to give airtime to the intellectual gibberish of Harry McCall.

The following critique is not really intended as a rebuttal of the arguments of Loftus and McCall—which cannot be taken seriously—but, rather, as an illustration of the absence of truth-telling in much internet scepticism. 

The difference between classical and Near Eastern studies

First, while comprehensive for the Greek and Roman worlds, the Oxford Classical Dictionary has very little interest in events or figures of what is called the ancient Near East (Israel, Syria, Nabatea, and so on). Jesus is formally part of that history not Graeco-Roman history. In the Oxford tradition, especially, the ‘classical world’ is a wholly different subject area from that of Near Eastern and Jewish studies (or what is sometimes called Oriental studies). Oxford University, for example, the publisher of this famous academic dictionary, has a Faculty of Classics which deals with Greece and Rome and a Faculty of Oriental Studies which treats Israel, Mesopotamia, and so on. It was this latter faculty that was home to one of the great Jesus scholars of the last 40 years, Professor Geza Vermes. McCall and Loftus show no awareness of this basic division in the study of the ancient world. (My own university, by the way, Macquarie University, seeks to bridge this divide with its Ancient History Department, where students can study both the Classical and Near Eastern / Jewish worlds within a single program. But we are special!).

Other certain figures without entries in the OCD

Secondly, illustrative of this academic division between classical and oriental studies, especially at Oxford, is the fact that the Oxford Classical Dictionary fails to give entries on a multitude of important figures from ancient Israel, Syria, Nabatea, and so on, people who certainly existed. Some Jewish figures appear in the OCD, on account of their direct involvement in the affairs of Greece and Rome (Herod and Philo, for example), but the vast majority of significant historical figures in Judea and Galilee fail to get their own entry. I am thinking of Caiaphas, the high priest of Israel at the time of Jesus. Or Izates, the king of Adiabene who along with his mother Helena were the most famous converts to Judaism in the period and whose tombs in Jerusalem can be visited to this day. Then there’s the 1st-century BC tyrant king and high priest Alexander Jannaeus, whose coins are littered throughout archaeological digs in the region. Then there are the leading rabbis of the period, Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel, or the great rebel leaders such as Judas of Gamla the founder of a mass rebellion in Judea in AD 6 and Eleazar who led the revolt against Rome right through to his death at Masada in AD 73. 

All of these figures were as well known in the period as Jesus of Nazareth (some more so). None of them earns an entry in the OCD. Why? Because they are not formally part of Classical history in the Oxford tradition. They are, however, found in the standard works of Jewish and Near Eastern history. And no one doubts their existence. 

That King Izates and Jesus of Nazareth fail to get their own entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary is no more significant than the fact that there is no article on Cicero in the four volume Cambridge History of Judaism (where, by the way, there is an 50-page article on the historical Jesus).

What the Oxford Classical Dictionary actually says about Jesus

Thirdly, what the ‘Debunking Christianity’ article fails to mention is even more revealing than what it claims. One can forgive John Loftus and Harry McCall for not knowing their Classical history from their Near Eastern and Jewish history, but it is very difficult to understand their omission of what the OCD in fact says about Jesus in its entry on Christianity. McCall gives the appearance of having dealt with the content of the entry. He quotes from its closing paragraph (which concerns the 4th-century expansion of Christianity). But it is telling that he says nothing about the opening paragraphs of the entry, which set the figure of Jesus in his world and contains such statements as: “The first followers of Jesus inhabited a political system, the Roman empire, that regarded Jews as singular…”; “Jesus lived, therefore, in a divided Palestine …”; “It is likely that Jesus reflected several tendencies in the Judaism of his day …”; “Jesus emphasized the imminent ending of the visible world and the judgement of God …”; and so on. 

The existence of Jesus is treated as certain in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, even if the reason he rates a mention in this standard Classical reference work is that it was Christianity—rather than Jesus himself—that went on to become an important feature of the Greek and Roman worlds. 

The conclusion of the ‘Debunking Christianity’ article—that the professional historians of the OCD equivocate on the existence of Jesus—is fanciful. If McCall and Loftus aren’t evidence of the ignorance or dishonesty of evangelical atheism, they are surely examples of its one-eyed dogmatism. As a result, sometimes internet scepticism is really dumb.

 

The Logic of Classical Marriage

The institution of marriage as classically understood is grounded in an objective fact of universal human experience. While all kinds of bonds of love exist in the world, only the lifelong bond of a man to a woman—and just one man to one woman—has the power to create and nurture a new family and so move the wider human family toward its unfolding history. Put another way, only a bonded pair of complementary sexes is able both to produce children and ensure they grow up in the care of their mother and father. These unique powers have been recognised and honoured throughout almost all human cultures by giving marriage a unique status and name. 

It was always known that some marriages were unable to create a new family. Yet these bonds were still recognised and honoured as marriages because, while hindered through defect or the divine will from creating and nurturing a family, they were nonetheless oriented toward the same goal and thus bore witness to the intrinsic powers of this unique bond under normal circumstances. Childless marriages throughout history were viewed as (something like) faithful but injured members of the same team striving toward the same goal. Committed same-sex relationships, on the other hand, were never granted the status of 'matrimonium' (to use the official Roman language) precisely because, while a somewhat accepted bond of love, such unions by definition could not be oriented toward the same goal of creating human beings and ensuring that those human beings grow up in the care of their mother and father. 

Please understand: I don’t offer any of this as a reason why Australians must not support ‘gay marriage’. I freely acknowledge that I have no special privileges in society. Christians have no right to tell the nation what to do. Persuasion, service, and prayer are all we've got, and all we really need. 

I offer this thought simply to underline why I continue to feel that marriage as classically understood is not a fluid concept but one grounded in an objective fact of universal human reality. I hope that others might at least recognise that there is a certain logic to the classical vision of marriage. It is not an arbitrary religious dogma but a precious and near-universal judgment of the human experience. It is not merely a claim that "t