Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Guide to the Holy Land, Part One

In the church of the Holy Sepulcher, in Jerusalem, in the main part of the Catholikon, the Greek Orthodox main church, there is a strange vase looking thing about three feet high called the “omphalos.” Omphalos is the Greek word for navel, or belly button, for those who think navel has to do with ships. It is claimed that here lies the very center of the world. 

I once read in a guide book that to claim to be the center of the world is a statement that is at all points true, the world being a sphere. I wish I could tell you what the omphalos in Jerusalem is and whence it comes, but I cannot. Perhaps it is an old lawn ornament about which someone once said, “Oh, put it over there until we figure out what to do with it.”  That is a very foolish thing to say. Once something is located in the church of the Holy Sepulcher it becomes very important and to move it takes negotiations with 5 major religious groups and the Israeli government.

There is a ladder leaning up against a window on the ledge over the main entrance to the church. It is called the immovable ladder. No one knows how it got there or when, but heaven forefend that it should be moved now. A few years back someone unknown moved it to the other end of the ledge, causing an international and inter-religious crisis that was resolved only when the ladder had been moved back to its original place of uselessness. It is there still, serving no actual purpose. There is a moral here, but I’m not sure what it is. Anyway, the navel of the world is definitely right where it has been as long as I can remember. 

Though many places claim to be the center of the world, this particular center of the world has a good claim to the name. Until Christopher Columbus or the Basques or the space aliens discovered the Americas, the Holy Land was the land bridge where Africa, Asia and Europe met. If you wanted to invade your neighbor, the Holy Land was right on your path. The Assyrians invaded Egypt, the Hittites invaded Egypt, the Egyptians, indeed the Hittites and Alexander the Great invaded everybody all by tromping through the Holy Land, much to the chagrin and inconvenience of the locals. In fact, the geography of the country is a sort of invasion.

The African tectonic plate is pushing up into Europe. The Arabian tectonic plate is pushing over into Africa, or something like that. The result is that Jerusalem is a city in the hills 2,500 feet above sea level.  Go due east almost 15 miles and down 3,400 feet and you come to Jericho and a little further to the Dead Sea which is 1,400 feet below sea level. It is the lowest place on the face of the earth, hot as blazes and dry as a bone.

The Sea of Galilee is the lowest fresh water lake in the world and is about 700 feet below sea level. It is lush and green and tropical, abundant with life. The Jordan River flows out of the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea where its waters evaporate leaving nothing behind but salt and wasteland.  Go straight up 3,400 feet through fifteen miles of desert and you come to the Judean hills, and you cross over them into the basin of the Mediterranean Sea and suddenly it is wet and green and rich.

The Judean hills are pushed up right down in the middle of the land, separating brown and rocky desert from green farms. On the crest of this ridge of steep hills sits Jerusalem like a crown. In the far north, these hills turn into real mountains beginning with snow-capped Mt. Hermon at almost 10,000 feet. All these deserts, salt flat mountains, invading armies, religious prophets and millennia of history, are in a place not much larger than a good sized metropolitan area in the USA.

From Mt. Hermon in the far North to Beersheba on the edge of the southern desert is only 200 miles. From Jerusalem to Capernaum is only about 80 miles and this in a county that is no more than fifty miles wide. The Holy Land, packed with history and faith is tiny. The “Sea” of Galilee is a moderate sized lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. It too is about 700 feet below sea level.  On the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee perches the Gospel Triangle formed by three towns where Jesus did most of his preaching and healing, Capernaum to Korazin to Bethsaida two miles by four miles by five miles as the crow flies, more or less. 

Once upon a time, the Creator of the universe, the Being who is the source of being, fixed His gaze on this little galaxy, on a little star at the edge of this little galaxy, and a speck of dust spinning around that little star, on a little town called “Little Shoot” (Nazareth in Hebrew) in a troubled little country. He fixed His gaze on a little girl from a poor family and “the Word Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us, all in a little place that really was the center of the world.

Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Why was St. Paul such a chauvinist? part 2

Letter to Mary Jo Van Istick, part 2.

The following passage is condensed from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 19 verse 23 and following. It explains why St. Paul wouldn’t let women speak in church.

 “About that time (AD 56) there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there.  He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said… we receive a good income from this business…. this fellow Paul has convinced people ...that gods made by human hands are no gods at all.  There is danger (to) our trade (and to) the temple of Artemis. When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The city clerk quieted the crowd and said… you ought to calm down and not do anything rash…. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges…. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting”.

 The Romans were not the worst of occupiers. Life under the Romans could be pretty good, if you were a free male in a Roman city. Ephesus had enjoyed peace and prosperity as part of the Roman world for almost two centuries by the time St. Paul got there. In 27 BC, the Emperor Augustus had made Ephesus the capital of the province of Asia (Western Turkey) and it thus became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.  It was a provincial capital and a major commercial hub, especially important for the grain shipments from Turkey on which Rome depended. It was second only to Rome herself in its importance, according to Strabo the historian. It was a town of perhaps 150,000 and had a huge theater that held 25,000 people. When Demetrius started a riot that involved this odd little Jewish sect of Christians who said that the Ephesian religion and source of tourist wealth were idolatry, the whole city was put in danger. Romans hated rioting in the provinces. It could lead to rebellion and so endanger the all-important grain trade. Civil disorder could come under the general heading of the crime of maiestas.

Maiestas was a crime against the Roman people or against their safety. It covered a lot, such as was the occupation of public places, the meeting within the city of persons hostile to the state, incitement to sedition, administration of unlawful oaths and much more. Death was the usual punishment. In the case of a city the slaughter of many might result and huge fines could be imposed. Paul and his friends had “dissed”(insulted) Ephesus, Artemis and good public order. Remember last week about how St. Paul wrote “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”?  (1Timothy 2:12) 

Remember the Honey Bees? It might cause even more trouble if nice women went around without veils, or encouraged the practice among wives of husbands who may or may not have been believers. They might be mistaken for Honey Bees! St. Paul was trying to tell the women and men of the newly formed Christian communities, “Try not to stick out and upset people unnecessarily, especially in major Roman cities which had famous temples and lots of priestesses employed in, shall we say, “fundraising.”

It is significant to note that St. Paul says “’I’ do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent,” in his first letter to Timothy.  He had just sent Timothy to Ephesus to straighten out the mess.  Paul says, “I,” not the Lord. The prohibition against a speaking, unveiled role for women in Corinth and Ephesus was very reasonable under the circumstances. Biblical literalists, usually misnamed fundamentalists, don’t like this idea. And amazingly, there are fundamentalist on the right and the left. There are those who say the Bible forbids women to speak and there are those who insist the Bible forbids women to speak therefore the Bible is wrong. 

Both types of fundamentalist are mistaken in their premise. The Bible does not forbid women to speak. Paul does. Well, that’s convenient, accepting or rejecting what the Bible says! On the contrary, I know what the Bible says better than do the rightist or leftist sola scriptura crowd. I have a continuous interpretation of these things going back 2,000 years to when they were written. It is a tradition which is carefully guarded, at least up until these times by “the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth,” (1Tim.3:15), also part of the letter in which Paul tells his student Timothy to straighten out the mess in Ephesus. If only we could straighten out the current mess.

the Rev. Know-it-all

An afterthought: It’s interesting to me that just like the Honey Bees and their friends the silversmiths, many moderns want a religion that allows them to clothe their depravity with sanctity and are willing to riot if they don’t get what they want. Fascinating how history does seem to repeat itself.

P.S. A few readers have left comment letting me know how glad they are that I am done with endless disquisition on the Law of Moses. Sorry to be so boring, but for my money the whole issue of why we can eat shrimp and why we go church on Sunday is huge. I suspect that it may be one of the more significant things this muddled author has written, but again, I am a bit muddled.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Why was St. Paul such a chauvinist?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

Can you explain why St. Paul was such a male chauvinist?

Mary Jo Van Istick

Dear Mary Jo,

I’m not sure he was such a chauvinist. He wrote, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” (1Cor 7:4)  As far as I know, Paul of Tarsus was the first person in history to say that a man and a woman had equal rights over one another in any way.  He also forbad divorce in an age when divorce was easy and common. He conceded that a woman under certain circumstances could divorce her husband, though a Christian woman who did so could not remarry.

This is amazing. I have long studied ancient texts etc. because I don’t really have much of a social life, but in my many years of study I have never run into a document earlier than the time of St. Paul that allowed a woman to divorce a man. Men could and did divorce women frequently, but women tell a man to go packing? Never! Women did not have the right to initiate divorce until around a century after St. Paul wrote these words. (1 Cor. 7:10-13) “To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord), a wife must not separate from her husband, but if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. A husband must not divorce his wife. For the rest, I say this (I, not the Lord): If a brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. If a woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. (1 Cor. 7 10-13)

Apparently, Paul thought it permissible for women to divorce men under certain circumstances, but not to remarry as the Lord Jesus taught. He seems also to have taught that a Christian man could never divorce his wife with the sole exception of a non-Christian wife and then only with her permission. This is astounding considering the customs of the time. Further, Paul says the prohibition against a man divorcing his wife is a command from the Lord and not just an opinion of Paul’s. The permission to divorce an unbelieving wife if she wants out of the marriage is Paul’s opinion not the Lord’s. Fascinating.

Paul clearly indicates that some of what he says is from the Lord and that some is not. Again, amazing! Paul, unlike most modern theologians, was able to admit that his opinion was not necessarily God’s opinion!! How can this be? If it’s in the Bible isn’t it God speaking? Apparently not. Paul clearly says that some things he orders as a legitimate Church authority are not from God, but others are.

This brings us to unveiled women speaking in church. There are two particularly egregious and irritating passages about women kept quiet in church. “As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people, women should remain silent in the churches, they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:33-35) and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1Timothy 2:12)

Corinth and Ephesus were important Greek cities in the Roman Empire. Corinth was an important trade city that straddled the narrow isthmus between northern and southern Greece. To save time and avoid danger, ships would be hauled out of the water by slaves on one end of the isthmus and dragged to the other end. There were lots of sailors with a lot of time on their hands. There was also a temple dedicated to Aphrodite the goddess of “Luv” on a hilltop right in the middle of town.  In it were a thousand beautiful women who served as priestesses of the goddess. The ancient believed that intimacy with a temple priestess, or a transvestite temple priest depending on your tastes, was an act of religious devotion and would bring good luck. For a certain monetary consideration the women (and quasi-women) clergy of Corinth were happy to be of help. Needless to say, the sailors ran into town to pray while their boats were being dragged across the isthmus. In the ancient world women talking with strangers in the streets was simply not done, except of course for those in the service of pagan religion. They went about heads uncovered saying things like, “Hello, Sailor!” to perfect strangers.

The new sect of the Christians considered itself a family of faith and was a very small group of people. They first seem to have met in private homes for worship and as one would in a domestic gathering the ladies took off their veils, greeted everyone with a kiss and talked freely. You know how neighbors love to talk. The Corinthians, I imagine, peering through the lattice at their Christian neighbors, seeing unveiled women talking and kissing, must have thought, Oh Good! Another outpost of the worship of our goddess! To this St. Paul responded, “Put your veils back on and be quiet ladies. The neighbors are getting the wrong idea!” 

Ephesus was another port town just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth. It was even more religious than Corinth. It was the home of the great temple of Artemis (Diana) the virgin goddess, patroness of hunters. Diana was served by a great number of priestesses called Melissai or “honey bees”. At first they were all virgins but customs change. The honey bees conducted the rituals of the temple which included sacrifices and ceremonial prostitution. The temple at Ephesus was magnificent and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World which was an ancient bucket list. There were actual tours that would take you to see the seven wonders, and the Temple of Diana at Ephesus was on the list. Lots of tourists; lots of honey bees. So what has this to do with women being kept quiet in church?

(Next week: St. Paul and the revenge of the Honey Bees!)