Sunday, August 05, 2007

Arithmancy 101

When I started this blog I didn't intend a real focus, just whatever I felt like yammering about. But I did figure a theme that would pop up now and again is how I juggle being a Christian and a liberal. Not a problem, till you get to St. Paul. Paul has been evoked to keep women out of the priesthood, to say slavery isn't so bad, to call gay relationships an abomination. He's not the only, or the original, source of any of this but mention his name and lots of people understandably look daggers at you.

And that meant at some point explaining why I think St. Paul is neither God-appointed, nor Satan spawned. A half-done version has been sitting here in my word processor, inspired by a neat history book I found and wanted to share. Then the subject came up elsewhere, so maybe its time to dust this off.

I wondered for a long time why exactly we're supposed to treat Paul's words as The Word of God. There are plenty of sources on the formation of the New Testament canon, but I ran into some clues by accident, in this nifty little book that I read for a whole different reason, i.e., that I like book stuff.

BOOKS AND READERS IN THE EARLY CHURCH: A HISTORY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN TEXTS. HARRY Y GAMBLE. YALE U. Pr. 1995. (All quotes are from it, unless otherwise indicated.)


Nascent Christianity was a scattered and, in the Roman empire, an outlaw movement.  So.  How do you keep a group not only going, but on the straight-and-narrow? Pressure and influence are comin' at it from all sides. Authorities who want to wipe it out. Local gods. The general tendency for any belief system to evolve and fashion new interpretations and rituals. You have to train it like a vine.

Today you'd keep your movement in-touch and on-message by internet and cell phones. In the 1st-to- 3rd centuries it was done with writing.
These numerous and far-flung Christian congregations, large and small, nevertheless retained a sharp awareness of their collective identity as the ecclesia katholike and affirmed their mutual relations through frequent communication.
Till the second century CE, the book as we know it barely existed. A "book" was a scroll. Cumbersome, single-sided, you needed both hands to hold it, you had to rewind afterwards (!) and forget leafing back to a previous passage if you needed it. It's not real hard to see why the codex --the bound pile of leaves between covers, essentially the book as we know it -- took over.

And early Christianity had a lot to do with that. Codices had been used for books before, but hadn't caught on much, and were primarily a way to make early blank books for people to take their own notes in. Then the Christian movement came along.

The short version is that their literature needed to be easily portable, easy to reference, and easily hidden. You could get more text in the same space using a codex than using a scroll. If nothing else, you used both sides. You could also more easily flip to whatever passage dealt with a specific question.

Enter Paul. Advantage number one: he was one of the very earliest to write to far-flung congregations and guide them.

Advantage two: He struck exactly the right note:
One of the most urgent tasks of the Christian movement in its infancy was to support its convictions by showing their consistency with Jewish scriptures. ... Proper interpretation of scripture was...vital to their identity and agency as "the true Israel."... Paul frequently resorts to Jewish scripture in writing to Gentile Christian congregations.
Advantage three: He was considered just as "apostolic" as the Twelve. Eusebius says as much (Church History 3:24, written before 325 CE).

By Paul's self-proclamation, he equated his experience on the road to Damascus as delegation by God of the same level of authority that the Twelve had been given. His --to church authorities-- unimpeachable personal conduct and theology supported this. But another little factor plays in here.

Advantage four: The Mystical Number Seven
There is an old theory, mentioned in a number of ancient Christian sources, that the apostle had written to seven churches and that therefore, because the number seven symbolized totality or universality, Paul had addressed the church at large.
(This would have been an early ten-letter collection [1], some of which were attributed to Paul at the time but were later disproved.)
If the edition had consisted of a group of codices or scrolls, even so small a group as two, it could not have signified Paul's catholic relevance, for nothing would prevent the individual codices or scrolls from being taken separately and the sevenfold disposition of the letters thus being obscured or lost. ... The very nature of this edition therefore required its presentation as a physical unit, a single book.
This reverence for the number seven was pretty powerful stuff to the ancient world mentality. Heck, we're not over it yet. That Paul had been moved to address all of Christiankind only enhanced his reputation as one chosen, set apart.

Paul's Greatest Hits collection was too big for one scroll. Its total length would have been at least double a useable size, and triple the size of an average scroll.

It was almost certainly passed around instead as a codex, a non-traditional format at the time, but one that allowed the collection to maintain that mystical seven-based integrity by existing in one volume. There's evidence -- though no surviving full copies -- that a single-volume "seven churches" edition of his letters was a familiar book by the early 2nd century when the pseudonymous writer of II Peter proclaimed Paul's apostolic status in 3:15-16.

Glimpsing what's behind the canonization of Paul's work actually helps me like the guy better than most liberals probably do.  The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but we pretty much all do the best we can, and Paul felt pressured.  He believed the second coming was imminent, and -- now we're into my opinion here -- that changing societal or gender roles was pointless.   Get the message out, people, we do not have time to quibble about who teaches and who does the cooking when society is about to end anyway.   While he tells one community not to allow women any authority, he acknowledges woman deacons in others (Romans 16, and possibly 1Timothy 3).

What does it add up to? To me it makes sense as an instruction to not waste time sweeping a house that's about to burn down.  However things are, leave them be, and put the effort into the real job.

His condemnation of same-sex relationships stems, I think, from the idea that God creates things to operate exactly One Correct Way, and that any small population that statistically diverges is "unnatural" and has to be the work of Satan. On this I have no trouble dismissing Paul without despising him for it.

Sometimes letting daylight fall on and dissolve the magic is a very good thing. Till we do, the choices falsely appear to be: take his words as those of God Himself ... or dismiss him as a power-mad fraud. Neither is necessary.

[1] Corinthians (1 & 2); Romans; Ephesians; Thessalonians (1 & 2); Galatians; Phillipians; Colossians & Philemon (grouped together).

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