Meeting every Monday evening from 5:30 until 6:30 in the upstairs loft at Uncle Charlie’s, a group of Christians (conservative and progressive), Jews, Muslims, skeptics, agnostics and even an atheist or two, comb slowly through Biblical texts seeking their meaning. There are those around the table who read it all quite literally, while others read it metaphorically, and others with a rather jaundiced view.
Tolstoy said that what makes Christians crazy is how they feel the need to reconcile it all; Hebrew scripture with the Gospels and the Gospels with Paul’s letters. He thought we’d be better off to stick to the words of Jesus.
In the 4th century, Jerome translated the Latin Bible based on Greek New Testament manuscripts. Jerome’s work became the Vulgate. Jerome became a saint.
One night Jerome, a religious skeptic, suffered a nightmare seeing himself before God. Asked whether he was a Christian, Jerome said yes. The Judge said sternly, “You lie; you’re a Ciceronian, not a Christian. (Ciceronianus es, non Christianus!)” Jerome awoke and set a new course.
On judgment day we Christians may be asked the same. If we say, as did Jerome, “We are Christians,” the Judge may respond, “Paulum es, non Christianus.”
Consider how Christian’s claims have deeper roots in Paul’s writings than in Jesus’ teaching. Our dogmatic dogfights arise frequently, not from what Jesus said, but from Paul’s legalistic teachings. Disagreements over slavery, the role of women in church and community, equal rights for homosexuals, use of musical instruments in worship, even social welfare policy, and so much more have arisen from giving greater meaning to the words of Paul than to those of Jesus.
Paul taught that salvation comes through faith, not works. But Jesus (and now Pope Francis) says that on judgment day we’ll be asked pointblank what we did for the least of our brothers and sisters.
Paul’s words are often given strict interpretation even when at odds with Jesus’ words. In Mark 2 Jesus is found at a table dining with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees asked his disciples, "C’mon, why does he eat with unworthy people like tax collectors and sinners?"
The lesson was clear. Right? Not for Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians (5:10-13) Paul advised followers “not to associate with immoral men…not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber -- not even to eat with such a one.”
So…do we follow Jesus or Paul? “Paulum es, o Christianus?”
This is not simply a minor inconsistency. Following Paul leads us in one direction. Following Jesus leads us in another. Some of Paul’s teachings brought Christians into line with contemporary political and cultural norms. Following Paul led Christians to support slavery, marginalize women and discriminate against the GLBTQ community. Following Jesus led to a justice-vision and altogether different choices.
The Bible Jesus read was what we call the Old Testament. Those who criticized him read the same Bible. The literalists among them became exorcised when he healed on the Sabbath. They interpreted scripture literally, which in the Book of Numbers, includes an account of a man violating scripture by gathering sticks on the Sabbath. “The LORD said, ‘The man shall be put to death; and all the congregation brought him outside the camp, and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses.”
Jesus confronted the literalists when, while walking through fields on the Sabbath, his hungry disciples gathered a few heads of grain just as the man brought before Moses had gathered a few sticks. Literalists claimed the disciples were violating scripture. Literally, they had a case. But Jesus explained that what’s right isn’t determined by literal interpretation of scripture. As a compass always points true north even when we think north is another direction, so the needle on our moral compass should always point toward mercy and love.
Paulum o Christianus? Literalis o Christianus?