Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The other half of the apostolic commission

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, history

What is an apostle? To condense the first two chapters of The Normal Christian Church Life by Watchman Nee:

  • Jesus, the "apostle and high priest whom we confess" (Heb 3:1) is the unique Apostle sent by the Father.
  • Jesus appointed twelve of his disciples and called them apostles (Matt 10:2, Mark 3:13, Luke 6:13). These were the apostles of the Son; later Judas was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:26).
  • Beginning with Saul of Tarsus and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-4; 14:14), the Holy Spirit chose apostles. Others include Silas who replaced Barnabas as Paul's companion (1 Thes 1:1; 2:7) and Timothy (same verses), and Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7).
  • The term apostle is also used of those sent by churches for more specific missions, such as Epaphroditus (Phil 2:25), sent by the church in Philippi with supplies and support for Paul in prison.
  • The apostles of the Son are a closed group of twelve, now including Matthias.
  • The Spirit continues appointing and sending apostles, though the common practice is now to call them missionaries. The Latinate term missionary is simply a translation from the Greek word apostolos.

The first time I read through the New Testament I noticed Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16:7, and simply concluded they were a husband-and-wife team that worked with Paul, as did Prisca and Aquila. I took quite literally that "there is no more...male nor female" (Gal 3:28) as far as God's work us concerned. Later I was for a time tainted with the "conservative" (reactionary, to tell the truth) notion that women ought not teach. Two things happened.

I had gotten into the habit of thinking, and occasionally saying, that the Bible allowed women to work in any way except as an elder or apostle. Later I realized that Prisca and her husband did apostles' work, and she was seemingly in the lead; maybe teaching while he made the tents. Then I saw Romans 16:7 more clearly, that Andronicus and Junia were "outstanding among the apostles", that is, outstanding apostles...both of them. Luckily I didn't first read the NIV or another corrupted version that "male-ifies" her name to Junias. I was reading the AV (KJV), and fortunately that, the "21st Century KJV" and the Recovery Version all have it right: Junia.

Secondly, in the early 1990s many friends went to Russia and Eastern Europe after the break up of the USSR, as missionaries. Both male and female, married couples and singles, all ages (25 and older). One woman I'd known many years, still single in her early 40s, went to the Ukraine, learned the language, and planted herself there in a suburb of Kiev. In 1999 I met her at a church conference, with several Ukrainian women, for whom she was interpreting. Sometimes spiritual senses take over our natural senses: she smelled holy. I knew I was in the presence of an apostle, and perhaps one or more of her companions were apostles in training...or in fact.

As a side note, God graciously, over the same period of time, put my wife and me in contact with a church consisting only of women. One of them stayed at our home a few days. Most were married, but none of their husbands was willing to attend meetings or otherwise be involved in the church life. Several were unbelievers. Later, some of the men began attending, and other families were added, but the women who'd been caring for the church during more than a decade already were not about to cede leadership to the less-experienced, and formerly uncaring, men. Few of my fellow believers are happy to see female elders, but I for one am not bothered, rather I am happy.

Imagine my joy to find a book that sheds a welcome light on Junia: The Lost Apostle: Searching for the Truth About Junia by Rena Pederson. The author, a committed Christian but professional skeptic (a journalist), devoted much of her time and quite a bit of cash over several years to strip away the layers of historical obscurity and male revisionism, to find the real Junia.

Early in her book, Ms Pederson quotes Jill Briscoe: "Men of quality are not threatened by women of equality". She herself follows to say that it "may be easier to say than to do." (p. 82) This cuts to the root of the matter. Had Paul written "Andronicus and Junia, who are outstanding servants of God", nobody would be bothered that Junia is female. Any who thinks she might have worked as an apostle would be free to do so, and those who preferred to think of her as an outstanding children's meeting teacher could content themselves with that (puerile) idea. Ambiguous words like "servant" allow such mental laxity. But because she and Andronicus are clearly designated apostles, and outstanding ones at that, once reactionary conservatism took over the church, eventually (by the 13th Century) she was written out of existence.

More than half of the English translations of the Bible still in print have "Junias", a male name. This in spite of the fact that no man in all the corpus of contemporary Greek writing was ever named Junias, while Junia is rather common. It is a first-name version of the family name Junius, sort of like Lindsey as a first name (I have Lindsey ancestors, and a close friend of my younger years was a girl named Lindsey).

Why would it be so "unimaginable" for a woman to be an apostle? Blame it on the way Christendom developed. The strong Greek element that gradually took over the philosophically-minded clerics, once a hierarchy had built up, was quite misgynistic. Pederson writes, "The Greeks saw female sexuality as a threat that had to be controlled, subordinated, and restricted. The Roman Christians carried on that viewpoint." (p. 147)

I might add that the pagan "mysteries" were mainly involved with sexuality rituals, which had two purposes: to ritually ensure fertility of crops and livestock, and to introduce sex in a social setting that reduced its power over the "young and impressionable". Modern engagement and marriage rituals, including the sexually-charged play (garters, thrown flowers, etc.) at "receptions", are a holdover of pagan fertility rituals intended to strengthen family cohesion.

Why do we carry such misogyny with us, still in the 21st Century? In a word, men are afraid of women, or more accurately, they are afraid of their reactions to women. I'll admit it; I am afraid of my reactions. Until last year, I was supervised by a bubbly, voluptuous blonde half my age. You can bet I had to struggle to remain calm in her presence. It is easier now, working for a nice young man just a year or two older than the blonde; I have no sexual attraction to him whatever (oh, man what would I do if I were bisexual?!?). We are sexual beings. It colors every aspect of our lives. I've known but one man who seemingly had no sexual feelings for male or female, and it may be he is just a good actor. Misogyny may be one way to reduce the danger of sex in public life, but it is a particularly damaging one. Clear-headed self-control is ever so much better.

The author visited Italy several times, to see historical sites contemporary with Junia's Rome and learn what life might have been like for her as a church leader in 65 AD...and how she might have been martyred, for it is likely that she was. She visited and interviewed religious leaders and teachers, finding a surprising level of acceptance of Junia as a female apostle. There was considerable discussion of the Romans verse and early writings.

In the process, she found herself up against the problem of origins. The oldest manuscripts we have were copied from older—now lost—manuscripts, 250-300 years after Paul wrote Romans. She realized as she hadn't been before how troublesome it can be to determine what Paul, Mark, Luke or anyone actually wrote. Among the 5,600 New Testament manuscripts we have older than 14th Century, there are a third of a million "variants", places where one manuscript differs from others on a word, a phrase, or perhaps just an accent.

I have at my side a wonderful volume, "A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament" by Bruce M. Metzger. It lists all the important variants. Most are innocuous, such as a half dozen manuscripts that in Stephen's testimony in Acts 7, have him say "your fathers" rather than "our fathers", referring to the Patriarchs (Acts 7:39). More serious are cases like the verses after Mark 16:8 that do not appear in our oldest manuscripts.

She concludes in her chapter "Which Bible Can You Believe" that "You can believe that scripture, overall, is inspired by God, as I do, but leave room for the possibility that translators and printers make mistakes." (p. 171) The situation is particularly clear when you have multiple versions of an event, such as the healing of the blind man near Jericho.

In Matthew's account (20:29-34), it occurs as Jesus is leaving Jericho, and he heals two blind men. Mark (10:46-52) also has Jesus leaving Jericho, and one blind man named Bartimaeus is healed. Luke (18:35-43) reports that as Jesus was approaching Jericho, he heals one blind man. He follows with the story of Zacchaeus, which the other Gospels do not have.

There are two seeming contradictions to clear up: when did this occur, and how many were healed? The latter point is easier. Matthew was an accountant, the kind of person to notice the second blind man, who was otherwise overshadowed by his more vocal companion. The "when" could be a bit more of a problem, but let us consider this difference in the persons: Matthew and Peter (reported by Mark) were both eye-witnesses, who noticed different things, but knew when an event happened in the flow of events. Luke gained his knowledge by interviewing witnesses, years later. He probably didn't have a complete copy of Mark's Gospel to help. It is likely that he got the stories of the blind man and of Zacchaeus from the same person on two occasions, someone who didn't recall, didn't mention, which came first, so Luke recorded them in the order he received them.

Ms Pederson presents a fascinating analysis of the winding path that Junia/Junias has followed through the ages, until today, nearly all of the most recent translations have Junia, following the universal testimony of Greek manuscripts and of all commentators of the first eight or ten centuries of the Christian era.

Near the end of her pilgrimage, the author visited, on three occasions, the little church named for Prisca, in Rome. On her final visit, she arrived an hour early for the Mass (daylight savings time fooled her). When the people arrived, she sat among a living congregation of families, with altar boys and altar girls, with mothers and fathers herding their children together, and found that, in seeking for Junia, Junia had found her.

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