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The First Christmas: Myths and Reality

from Parchment and Pen

I have to admit that I missed a couple of them.  Here are the five questions; click the link for some very interesting answers.

Here’s a true-false quiz:

1. Mary and Joseph had to travel as quickly as possible to Bethlehem because Mary could have given birth at any moment.
2. The Bethlehem innkeeper was fully booked, and so Mary had to give birth to Jesus in the barn/stall nearby/behind the inn.
3. Initially, this experience must have been frightening and lonely for Mary and Joseph.
4. “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”
5. The angels who appeared to the shepherds had wings.

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At our last meeting, Juliana, just before she had to leave for class, she asked me (because I’ve been to seminary) about questions of Pauline authorship.  Specifically she said that someone claimed that Paul didn’t even write such epistles as 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and (if I remember right) Colossians.  Still fearing that text critics might be hovering in low-earth orbit ready to pounce on my rusty seminary lore, I proceed nonetheless.

The data in question have to do with the reception history of and a few features within those letters traditionally called Paul’s.  For one, the earliest extant post-Biblical Christian writing makes reference to some of Paul’s letters but not to others.  In addition to that, the vocabularies of the documents changes fairly radically somewhere between Romans and 1 Timothy–somewhere in the neighborhood of a third of the words in the pastoral epistles appear nowhere else in Paul’s letters.  Finally, people have detected fairly radical shifts in attitudes towards social divisions as one moves from Galatians, which say that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (3.28, NIV) towards 1 Timothy, which calls for slaves to obey their masters and women to be silent in the assembly.

Those are the data, and few people dispute them.  As far as how one reconciles them, it’s hard to separate out the political/ecclesial ramifications from the disputes about the authorship itself largely because of the third reason above, so here’s an attempt at two ways to take the radical differences in the Pauline epistles:

  1. Whoever wrote Galatians, somebody else must have written 1 Timothy.  The attribution of a work to a beloved master (cf. Plato and Socrates) is not uncommon in the ancient world, and whoever wrote 1 Timothy, though his politics and written style differ radically, wanted to honor Paul and claim his authority by writing in his name.
  2. Paul wrote all of the letters traditionally ascribed to him, and the vocabulary changes presumably come from the same processes that make most of us write somewhat differently when we’re 30 and when we’re 50.  The political changes have to do with the problems that occasion his writing rather than an entirely different author putting ink on scrolls (cf. Augustine vs. Pelagius and Augustine vs. Faustus the Manichean).
  3. It doesn’t really matter who wrote “Paul’s epistles”; what matters is that in the sweep of Church history, those documents and their context in the Paul-narrative has been normative for churches.

I tend to favor the second theory, partly because I know my own ways of writing (and my politics) have changed in the last ten years and partly because I do think that the letters make sense as one Christian’s written corpus.

Anyway, that’s a fast, dirty, and probably over-simplified version of the debate.  I encourage folks to pick up a volume or two from UGA library’s sixth floor (you should remember that place well, Michael and Eric) and read up for yourselves.

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