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Bible Translation as Political Power Move: Social Location and the ESV

I’m currently teaching a three-part seminar among the congregation I serve on biblical interpretation. This is my second time teaching it. This time around, I couldn’t resist adding a few new slides and pages to the introductory section on translation. The occasion for this revision are the recent decisions made by the translation committee of the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible. I find them to be incredibly serendipitous, since they afford me the opportunity to show participants a powerful and relevant example of how not to translate the Bible.

Back in August, the ESV translation committee issued a statement declaring that they had completed the task entrusted to them by God of translating the Bible. They announced that there would be no more changes made to the ESV, ever. They called this the “Permanent Text.” As you can imagine, in many people’s minds this decision sounded eerily familiar. Was the ESV translation committee pulling a King James?

“The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.

The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). […] Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord […]” (1)

I only learned of the ESV Permanent Text when a Christianity Today article was shared by a friend on Facebook. Since Facebook is an infamous venue for satirical articles like those from The Onion or the new Christian satire site The Babylon Bee, I read the article’s headline and laughed out loud. “Since when does Christianity Today write satirical pieces?” I thought. But the headline wasn’t a joke. “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.” (2) Here’s the humor: the word “translation” necessarily means that the product cannot be the unchanging word of God. So, even if inadvertent, the headline is incredibly ironic. And yet, what the article details is no laughing matter.

“One of the changes the ESV translation committee made, which they were making permanent, was a revision of Genesis 3.16. Christianity Today reported: “Genesis 3:16 was changed from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (3)

Scot McKnight was the first Evangelical theologian I read who addresses this translation choice.

“…in this final revision they have sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong. […] I refer to Genesis 3:16’s use of “contrary to” for the Hebrew el. In the Permanent ESV we have “contrary to” while in the Protestant-like Semper Reformanda ESV we had “for” with “and.” […] This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism. […] If I read the ESV aright, there is prescription here: women are at war with their men; men are to rule their wives. It is not description but prescription.” (4)

One of the things I teach in my seminar is that who is doing the translating matters. No one reads, interprets, or translates the Bible objectively. Each of us is necessarily and irrevocably subjective. Every person has a “Social Location.”

In my seminar, I projected a slide with photos of each member of the ESV translation committee and asked this question: Notice anything odd?

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How do you think the fact that every member of the translation committee is a white male Complementarian affects their translation choices? Their race, gender, and presuppositions about gender roles affects their translation of the Bible exactly as you’d expect it would.

A few scholars even found their entire sentiment regarding translation laughable and incredibly arrogant.

“Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.

It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.” (5)

Less than a month after issuing their statement that the ESV would never change again, the committee released a statement completely reversing their course. They apologized for the mistake of trying to make a “permanent text,” but they didn’t comment at all on the verses in question. They simply admitted that translation is a task that is never-ending.

“We have become convinced that this decision [to make the ESV Permanent Text] was a mistake. […] [our goal] …we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” (6)

Some Evangelical leaders have applauded the ESV translation committee for this reversal. I’m seeing a lot of that lately. A group of white men with horrible judgment defend their horrible decisions against all opposing opinions and when a critical mass of people are convinced they are wrong, they reverse their decision with a surface-level apology and people applaud them as if they are morally courageous.

Let me be clear: the ESV translation committee has done nothing worthy of praise. Nothing. They have horrible judgment and made a horrible decision and when they were sufficiently condemned and ridiculed for it, reversed their decision to what it should have been all along. That is the opposite of commendable; it’s shameful.

They have done nothing to date to address direct insights like those offered by McKnight that their translation is dangerously wrong. Nothing. Zero. Nada.

I refuse to applaud a bunch of white men who conspired to use their power and privilege to influence millions of American Christians toward their view of gender roles using their significant publishing resources and distribution networks, and when they were embarrassed, decided to walk it back …some. Nope. Not praiseworthy. Shameful.

The ESV is not an example of a pious offering of scholarship unto the Lord. The ESV is a political power move made by white men fighting the culture wars against their foes, the “progressives.”

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  1. ESV Translation Committee, “ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016)” (accessed August 20th, 2016)
    [ https://web.archive.org/web/20160820002244/http://www.esv.org/about/pt-changes ]
  2. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God,” Christianity Today (September 9th, 2016) [ http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/after-tweaking-29-verses-bible-esv-english-standard-version.html ]
  3. Ibid.
  4. Scot McKnight, “A New Stealth Translation: ESV,” Jesus Creed (September 12th, 2016) [ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/09/12/the-new-stealth-translation-esv ]
  5. Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon, “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible?
    They Must Be Joking,” Domain Thirty-Three (September 13th, 2016) [ https://domainthirtythree.com/2016/09/13/a-permanent-text-of-the-esv-bible-they-must-be-joking ]
  6. ESV Translation Committee, “Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text” (accessed September 12th) [ https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text ]
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The “Real” Jesus: Why Reza Aslan is Right! (…and Wrong)—Jesus, Revolution, and Objectivity

Reza_AslanFor those who are not familiar with Dr. Reza Aslan (like his Fox News interviewer, apparently), he is religion scholar (1) who has published several books on terrorism, Islam, and radical Islamic fundamentalism.(2) I became familiar with Aslan when he appeared twice on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, once in 2009 to promote his book How to Win a Cosmic War and again in 2010 to promote a different book: Beyond Fundamentalism. Both books deal with religion, globalization, and terrorism.(3)

Recently, Aslan has returned to The Daily Show, this time to promote his new book on Jesus, but not Christianity.(4) At the start of the interview, John Oliver (the interviewer) says:

“Let’s be clear, this book is about Jesus the man, not so much Jesus the Christ.”

To which Aslan responds, nodding his head in the affirmative:

“It’s about the historical Jesus, not the Christ of faith.”

The tricky thing about evaluating Aslan’s take on Jesus is that so much of what he says is exactly correct. But in the fine details, Aslan makes many critical errors that are both historical and theological. In this post, I’d like to give Aslan credit for what he gets correct, while also pointing out the mistakes he makes and offering a possible reason why he’s made them.

Who is the “Real” Jesus?

In the Daily Show interview, Aslan argues firstly that to understand Jesus—whether you are a Christian or not—you must understand Jesus’s historical, cultural context: first-century Palestine.

“[Jesus] lived in a specific time and place, and that time and place kinda matters. You know, I mean, it’s like, if you really want to know who he was, you’d have to put his words and his actions in the context of the world in which he lived. The teachings have to be seen according to the social ills that he confronted, and the political forces that he confronted.”

You’ll get no counter-argument from me. This is just plain true! To understand who Jesus was, we not only need the dogmas of the Church, but we also need the history of the Jewish people, of the Roman world, and the rest of his cultural context. One of the most important things we learn about Jesus from the New Testament evangelists is that Jesus didn’t live “long ago and far far away” but lived at a particular time in history, in a particular place in the world, as a particular man. Understanding those particularities is crucial to understanding Jesus and his Good News.

Aslan goes on to argue that, at the particular time when Jesus lived in the particular place he did (Palestine), that region was experienced unprecedented turmoil and tumult.

“[It was] a time of apocalyptic fervor. A time when we’re slowly moving toward this huge Jewish revolt against the Roman empire, that ultimately resulted in the leveling of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the Jews…”

I see nothing to argue with here either. The New Testament itself seems to not only confirm this, but to underscore it.

Aslan continues by pointing out that the one historical fact everyone agrees on—whether they are Christians or not—is that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This, Aslan takes to be the common denominator between all historical accounts and all religious claims. Everyone agrees on this one thing. From there, Aslan argues that this form of execution was reserved for just one set of persons: revolutionaries. He argues that Rome exclusively crucified insurgents, brigands or “bandits”. (This is actually what the Greek word translated “thief” meant, says Aslan). Based on these facts, Aslan takes the next logical step to claim that Jesus was, in fact, a revolutionary leading a cultural uprising against his people’s oppressors: Rome.

Here’s where the waters begin to get muddied. Aslan is correct in one sense and incorrect in an important second sense. Aslan is correct that Jesus’s crucifixion is a historical fact on which we can hang our hats. And Aslan is correct that Jesus began a movement of people that threatened the established powers that be. But from there, he chooses to make this the sole historical fact by which he evaluates all other claims. Even more so, he makes all instances of crucifixion entirely uniform. By flattening out the cause for crucifixion, to the point that there was never any variation whatsoever, he can build an airtight historical reconstruction from the one fact that Jesus was crucified alone.

This is a clear example of historical reductionism. While it is certainly true that very few, if any, credible historians would argue that Jesus was not crucified, this is far from the only historical fact upon which a reconstruction can be built. It is clear that Aslan has drawn a line around the New Testament Gospels and placed them firmly in the realm of “religious claims,” allowing none of their narratives to enter his historical imagination. Instead, only what he deems universally accepted about Jesus, by secular and critical sources alike, can be admitted. This is a very extreme view.

To demonstrate just how extreme this view is, let’s compare this view with that of Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar who is critical of Christianity. His most recent book is titled Did Jesus Exist? A Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. In it, Ehrman dedicates an entire chapter to the Gospels as sources of reliable history. As a critical scholar, Ehrman believes it is wrong to treat the Gospels as privileged texts. Instead, he evaluates them on the same bases that he would any other ancient narrative account. He writes,

“Sometimes the Gospels of the New Testament are separated from all other pieces of historical evidence and given a different kind of treatment because they happen to be found in the Bible, the collection of books that Christians gathered together declared sacred scripture. The Gospels are treated this way by two fundamentally opposed camps of readers, and my contention is both are wrong.

“At one end of the spectrum, fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians often treat the Gospels as literature unlike anything else that has ever been produced because, in their opinion, these books were inspired by God.

“At the other end of the spectrum is another group insisting that that the books of the Bible need to be given separate treatment. These are certain agnostics or atheists who claim that since, say, the Gospels are part of the Christian sacred scripture, they have less value than other books for establishing historical information.

“[The] authors [of the Gospels] were human authors… they wrote in human languages and in human contexts; their books are recognizable as human books, written according to the rhetorical conventions of their historical period. They are human and historical, whatever else you may think about them, and to treat them differently is to mistreat them and to misunderstand them.

“To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (5)

To read Ehrman, a vocal and prolific critic of Christianity’s claims about Jesus, prescribe a far more generous reading of the New Testament Gospels than affords Aslan, gives us a fixed point from which to place Aslan’s methodology. It is more than apparent that Aslan’s methodology is far beyond “left” or “liberal” and off into the void of profoundly spurious opinion.

So this raises the question: Why would Aslan be so dismissive of the Gospels as sources of true history?

The answer I propose is derived from Aslan’s repeated appeals to both controlled scholarship and objectivity. The facts, however, all point in the opposite direction. Not only are Aslan’s scholarly opinions not objective (which is always the case), he has at least one very good personal motive for creating a less-than-historical “historical Jesus”.

Reza Aslan’s De-Conversion from Evangelical Christianity

Perhaps the most revealing portion of Aslan’s Daily Show interview was when John Oliver began to share the powerful way he could relate to the humanity of Jesus, which for him as a child was most poignantly expressed in Jesus’s agonizing cry from the cross. For Oliver, this humanized Jesus and made him a person with whom he could relate. (It seems that more than ever, people who have not read the New Testament book of Hebrews, are desperately searching for a High Priest who “can empathize with

Aslan agrees, and then relates his own story of journeying from a convert to “evangelical Christianity” to an academic historian who admires his own historical reconstruction of Jesus. Aslan says,

“In college, when I began to study the New Testament, I became far more interested in this historical person, than I ever was of this (sort of) celestial ‘Christ’. This man who lived 2000 years ago, who defied the most powerful empire the world had ever know—and lost!—but nevertheless stood up for the weak and the powerless, the outcasts and the dispossessed, and ultimately sacrificed his life for those people.”

If he stopped here, I would be waving my Pentecostal hanky and shouting Amen! Aslan could be a Preacher!

But he goes on…

“Christians believe that he sacrificed his life to free us from sin. That’s a perfectly fine interpretation—for ‘the Christ’. But what we know about the man Jesus, is that he went to the cross on behalf these outcasts that he was fighting for.”

In part 2 of the extended interview, Aslan goes on to argue that Jesus was deeply involved in the politics of his day simply by virtue of assuming the Messianic role. Aslan correctly relates to viewers that “Messiah means ‘anointed one’. The entire purpose of the Messiah is to recreate the kingdom of David on earth, to usher in the reign of God. Well if you’re ushering in the reign of God, you’re ushering out the reign of Caesar”.

Aslan is precisely correct. The role of Messiah was a direct affront to the Roman empire, the assertion that a new empire was taking over. Simply by virtue of Jesus fulfilling the Messianic prophecies (e.g. entering Jerusalem on a donkey, etc.), Jesus’s actions proclaimed his purpose and telos.

The fundamental problem with Aslan’s assessment of Jesus is that he creates a very clear false dichotomy. One can either believe that Jesus was a revolutionary who went to the cross for his brothers and sisters fighting against the oppression of the Roman empire… OR… one can believe that Jesus went to the cross for the “sins” of all humanity. Aslan presents these options as mutually exclusive, but are they? Put simply, the answer is no.

Jesus most certainly was crucified under the charge of revolution, insurrection, revolt; Jesus most certainly did “fight for his people”; and Jesus most certainly did assume the highly political Messianic role that carried with it the implication that he would usher in the reign of God. On each one of these points, Aslan and the Church are in total agreement. The Church, however, understands something about history that Aslan does not. Namely, what the “reign of God” is actually all about.

For Aslan, the “reign of God” was merely coded Jewish language for a Jewish State, Jewish autonomy, Jewish sovereignty. But even a cursory reading of the Hebrew Bible reveals that for the Jewish people, the “reign of God” was far more than a nationalistic victory. The “reign of God” was the ushering in of an entirely new world order—a new way of all people relating to one another in love. In fact, in the Hebrew worldview, the “reign of God” would culminate in a “new heave and a new earth” (Isaiah 65.17). The Hebrew prophets foretold of a day when the “lion will lay down with the lamb” (11.6) and when “swords will be beaten into plowshares” (2.4), when people will “train for war no more” (2.4) and when God’s perfect justice will flow like a river, and cover the whole earth (Amos 5.24).

Therefore, when Jesus comes on the scene, deliberately walking in the political, revolutionary role of Messiah, he’s not only “opposing Rome on behalf of his people,” but he’s also announcing the beginning of a new age—the very “reign of God!” For Aslan to acknowledge that Jesus was fulfilling the role of the Jewish Messiah without acknowledging that the “reign of God” the Messiah would usher in was as “spiritual” as it was “political” betrays a deep, deep misunderstanding of the ancient Hebrew worldview. Ancient Hebrews didn’t divide the world into neat compartments of “spiritual” and “political.” Ancient Hebrews didn’t see their nationalistic sovereignty as something separate from the new age of shalom the Messiah would bring. They saw them as one and the same! The type of dualism that Aslan is dealing in is a Platonic (Greek) way of viewing the world that the historical Jesus would not recognize!

Objectivity, Scholarship, and the Pain of Loosing the Jesus of Faith

In both his Daily Show and Fox News interviews, Dr. Reza Aslan has attempted to disclaim his historical reconstruction of Jesus in two ways. First, he goes out of his way to assure viewers that he is not “attacking Christianity” by letting us know that his own wife and mother are Christians, and that his brother-in-law is an “evangelical pastor.” This is what I’m calling the “control” defense. By making this claim, Aslan is essentially using another version of the “I have a black friend” defense for the accusation of racism. Instead of a “black friend,” Aslan has a “Christian mother,” a “Christian wife,” and an “evangelical pastor brother-in-law.” So he’s triple protected from anti-Christian bias—see how that works?!

The second way Aslan insulates himself from the accusation of bias is by claiming his education grants him scholarly objectivity. Aslan’s Fox News interview is a debacle for multiple reasons. The interviewer obviously did not do her homework, does not know who Aslan is, and for some reason assumes one must be a Christian to write about Jesus. Her biases are obvious and aren’t surprising in the least, considering where she works. But Aslan’s defensive posture also went overboard. The first time he countered her questioning about why a Muslim would choose to write a book on Jesus with his academic credentials, I applauded him. Aslan has more than adequate academic credentials to author a book on Jesus. It’s clear her questioning was purely out of fear of his Muslim faith. There’s no doubt the interviewer would not have started with the same line of question for a Christian author writing about Muhammed, for example. But, nevertheless, Aslan’s defense crossed the line when his insistence of his academic credentials then led him to deny any and all biases whatsoever. At that point, I felt disappointed in Dr. Aslan.

The beginning of scholarship is recognizing one’s limitations, preconceived notions, and biases, because every human being has them. None of our motives are pure, and none of us is perfectly capable of interpreting “facts.” Aslan insisted several times that he has been studying religion and Jesus in particular for 20 years. That is a long time to remain completely objective about a figure who has literally changed the world. I submit, it is impossible. Scholars with PhD are least of all objective. They have reached the end of an arduous program honing their focus tighter and tighter until it reaches a fine point. PhDs have more opinions than should be expected on subjects they have researched for decades, spending countless hours reading and writing. To remain objective on a subject onto which one has poured so much attention isn’t even feasible let alone expected. Of course Aslan is biased! Of course he has strong opinions! That’s completely normal, and doesn’t necessarily negate his scholarship. What does, however, besmirch his scholarship is adamant insistence that he is objective.

I want to suggest that there is no greater reason for Aslan’s bias than his own testimony of loosing the Jesus of Faith for himself. In his Daily Show interview he described himself when he became an evangelical Christian as a young person. He said, “I really burned with [Jesus’s] Gospel message. I really felt it deep in my life.” That’s not a dispassionate description at all. In fact, that sounds like the testimony of someone who deeply wanted to believe in Jesus. But as his testimony goes on, it’s clear that he felt he had to choose between the Christ of Faith whom he’d encountered and the Jesus of History whom he’d begun to study in school. That choice drove a wedge between Aslan and the Jesus who he’d encountered—the Risen Christ.

N. T. Wright, who is arguably the world’s foremost New Testament scholar and historian, has written an enormous amount about Jesus and his first-century context. In an article for Christianity Today from several years ago, Wright defending the need for history, but also discussed history’s limitations and our own vested interest in history. I wonder if Wright’s insight isn’t wholly relevant for Aslan.

“…history isn’t enough by itself. […] It isn’t enough to know that Jesus is the Savior; I must know that he is the Savior for me. History cannot tell me that. But it can reconstruct the framework within which it makes sense—the biblical framework that Jesus and his followers took for granted. If Jesus didn’t really exist, or was really a revolutionary Zealot, or a proto-Buddhist mystic, or an Egyptian freemason, the “for me” floats like a detached helium balloon on the thin, vulnerable air of subjectivism. It is when we put Jesus in his proper historical context that the Resurrection proposes that he was the Messiah, that the Messiah is Lord of the world, and that he died and was raised for me. History is challenging, but also reassuring.” (7)

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1. Alsan’s academic religion credentials start with a BA in Religions from Santa Clara University, an MTh from Harvard Divinity, and a PhD in Sociology of Religion from UC Santa Barbara. Sources: [http://rezaaslan.com/about/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reza_Aslan#Background, http://www.drew.edu/crcc/programsinitiatives/wallerstein-distinguished-visiting-scholars/dr-reza-aslan]

2. http://www.amazon.com/Reza-Aslan/e/B001JONKIK

3. http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-20-2009/reza-aslan, http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-april-5-2010/reza-aslan

4. Aslan’s book on Jesus is titled: Zealot, the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-july-17-2013/reza-aslan]

5. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart Ehrman (HarperOne, 2012), p.71-73 [http://amzn.com/0062204602]

6. https://twitter.com/ABlackFriend

7. “Abandon Studying the Historical Jesus? No, We Need History” by N. T. Wright
[http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/april/16.27.html?start=1]

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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: The Gospel, Keeping Torah, Power and Table Fellowship (A Tribute to Dr. King)

On this day of national remembrance for a minister of the Gospel, I thought it appropriate to write a piece that both honors Dr. King’s memory while also issuing a fresh challenge for today to the church in the US. I’d like to briefly reflect on the Gospel in the New Testament with an eye toward how it might have implications for race, power, and table fellowship in US churches.

Peter’s Prejudice

After Jesus’ ascension, and after the church was endued with the power of the Holy Spirit, God used Peter to share the Gospel with the Gentile centurion named Cornelius. Peter initially objected to this mission (Acts 10.9-23). He was a ”good Jew.” He obeyed the Torah, including the call to be undefiled, separate from “the nations.” Father Abraham was promised that his offspring would be a blessing, would reveal the Most High God, to the whole world—including the Gentiles. But by Jesus’ time, those who called themselves Abraham’s children saw the nations as enemies to be despised and avoided (Luke 10:25-37). Those who taught the Torah sought to justify themselves with the Scriptures (v. 29). But Jesus taught that even the despised Samaritans are ‘neighbors’ whom God’s people are to show mercy (v. 36-37).

Peter was slow to catch on to Jesus’ program, but eventually he got it. When he saw that the Spirit had led him to Cornelius, he said,

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” (Acts 10.34-35) 

And after he witnessed the Holy Spirit being given to Cornelius’ household, just as He had been given to Jesus’ Jewish disciples, he said,

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (v. 47)

Peter’s declaration that these Gentiles should not be prevented from receiving water baptism is highly significant. Water baptism is initiation into the one Church of Jesus Christ. Peter was so thoroughly convinced that Cornelius and his family were true disciples of Jesus, that he was willing to welcome them into the church and join them around the Lord’s Table in fellowship.

The Truth of the Gospel

Old habits are hard to break, especially if they those habits have been formed within one’s religion-culture-ethnic identity. Some men “came from James” to Antioch—which is to say some Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem. Quickly, Peter forgot the lesson God taught him in the vision of the sheet full of “unclean” animals, and in the home of Cornelius. Just that quickly, Peter became ashamed of the Gospel for which he had previously praised God. All the sudden, it was no longer glorious of God to have open up the Gospel to all nations under heaven in Jesus—it was shameful. Peter didn’t want to be judged by his Jewish brethren. Peter wanted to please them, win their approval (Gal. 1.10).

Paul has risked his life for the Gospel on many occasions. Once, when the Jews heard a rumor he had brought Titus into the Temple courts, they were going to kill him! (Acts 21) Paul would not tolerate the Gospel’s perversion to uphold cultural taboos. For Paul, the cross means God has opened up the Kingdom to all people. For Paul, keeping Torah was a cowardly act of capitulation and fear of persecution (6.12). For Paul, keeping Torah meant being alienated from Christ, traveling beyond the realm of grace (5.4). Paul was pissed! (5.12)

Peter wasn’t just being “cliquey”, he wasn’t just being snobby; Peter was ashamed of the Gospel! Paul says Peter was not acting “in line with the truth of the Gospel.” (2.14) Instead, Peter had been deceived, thrown into confusion, and believed “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all”. (1.6-7)

Some groups of evangelical Christians in the US today would like you and me to believe that issues of race and ethnic identity are peripheral to “the Gospel.” For them, “the Gospel” is the forgiveness of their individual sins. For them, “the Gospel” is just between you and God—a “personal relationship with God.” Paul disagrees.

For Paul, those who advocated for the Judaizing of the Gentile believers rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that the Messiah of Israel is the Lord of All Nations!! For Paul, those who relied upon their ethnic identity as Jews who keep Torah, were not trusting in their New Identity as followers of the Way: the One New Humanity (Eph. 2.15).

Paul rebuked Peter saying,

“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2.14-16

Regarding Paul’s rebuke of Peter, N. T. Wright comments:

“The force his statement is clear: “Yes, you are Jewish; but as a Christian Jew you ought not to be separating on ethnic lines.” Reading Paul strictly in his own context—as John Piper rightly insists we must always ultimately do—we are forced to conclude, at least in a preliminary way, that ‘to be justified’ here does not mean ‘to be granted free forgiveness of your sins,’ to come into right relation with God’ or some other near-synonym of ‘to be reckoned “in the right” before God,’ but rather, and very specifically, ‘to be reckoned by God to be a true member of his family, and hence with the right to share table fellowship.’ […] for Paul, ‘justification,’ whatever else it included, always had in mind God’s declaration of membership, and that this always referred specifically to the coming together of Jews and Gentiles in faithful membership of the Christian family.

What, then are the ‘works of the law,’ by which one cannot be ‘justified’ in this sense? Again, the context is pretty clear. They are the ‘living like a Jew’ of Galatians 2:14, the separation from the ‘Gentile sinners’ of Galatians 2:15. They are not, in other words, the moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate. They are the things that divide Jew from Gentile: specially, in the context of this passage (and we have no right to read Galatians 2:16 other than in the context of Galatians 2:11-15) the ‘works of the law’ which specify, however different Jewish groups might have put it at the time, that ‘Jews do not eat with Gentiles.’ What one might gain by such ‘works of the law’ is not a treasury of moral merit, but the assured status of belonging to God’s people, separated from the rest of humankind.”
Justification, p. 116-117

Power and the Gospel: What does Race have to do with Power?

Table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians is the backdrop behind Galatians, and many (if not all) of Paul’s letters. But even the racial segregation and injustice that Torah-keeping secured in the church wasn’t the ultimate issue—Power was. Ethnic identity secured for the Jewish Christians their privileged position of power in the fledgling Christian community. As long as one had to become a Jew (be circumcised and keep the Torah) to be a full member of the Church, then Jewish Christians held all the power. How could Jewish Christians, who have the proud, holy tradition of being Abraham’s children, God’s “called-out ones,” give equal standing in the church to those “Gentile sinners” who often persecuted and oppressed them? This is the Gospel Paul was willing to die to protect:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

– Philippians 2.5-11

Jesus had all the power in the universe: equality with God. Yet, it was precisely his divinity that compelled him to take on flesh, dwell among humanity like light exposing darkness, and lay down his life for his enemies. Jesus divested himself of power because he was God, not in spite of that fact!

Dr. King famously called Sunday mornings the most segregated time of the American week. While fighting for the civil rights of African Americans, he prophetically called the US church to account. He challenged us to consider the implications of the Gospel on race and power, economic oppression and war. He was a minister of the Gospel, and it is important for us not to let his legacy get hijacked or co-opted.

Power Dynamics in the Church: Then and Now

In the sixth chapter of Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah helps us see the application of first-century Gospel power dynamics better, so that we can more easily discern how they are at work in the US church today. To establish the historical context of his exposition on Acts 15, he writes:

“The dramatic increase of Gentile believers into the Christian church surprised many of the Jewish believers, creating an unexpected and maybe even unwelcome diversity in the early church. Having formerly operated in a fairly rigid (Jewish customs and traditions) and strict single-ethnic cultural context, the early church was now becoming racially and ethnically pluralistic. Racial heterogeneity was becoming the norm.” (p 115)

Rah points out that Peter’s prejudice wasn’t uncommon. Jewish Christians in the first century had many reasons to distrust and discriminate against Gentiles. Is the US in the 21st century any different?

“A number of similarities exist between the context and ethos of the early church and the current context of American evangelicalism. First, the impact and history of racism and racist perspectives are evident in both contexts. The dramatic changes that form the backdrop for Acts 15 were complicated by the history of animosity between Jews and Gentiles. As an occupied power, Jews were antagonistic toward their Gentile conquerors.

The history of Jewish separatism had also led to a sense of racial segregation and hostility toward Gentiles. A common prayer of the Jewish male thanked God ‘for not making me a Gentile, a woman, or a slave.’ This perspective had historical roots that informed how the Jewish Christians would receive Gentile believers.

In the American church context, there also exists a history of animosity in race relations. There is no denying the long and well-documented history of racism in America[…]” (p. 116-117)

Racism existed in the first century, though they didn’t use the same categories we use today. Jews separated the world into two groups: themselves and everyone else. After all, they are God’s chosen people. But God’s chosen people had a long history of exile and oppression. They carried deep-seated resentment toward their Pagan oppressors. Keeping Torah wasn’t just the way first-century Jewish Christians maintained their ethnic identity, it was also the way they maintained power in the church. Theirs was the faith in the One True God, and theirs would be faith in His Messiah: Jesus.

To maintain this power dynamic in the church, the “agitators” Paul spoke of in Galatians (1.7, 5.12) were requiring Gentiles to become Jews to be accepted into the Christian church family. Rah writes,

“A way to define racism from a biblical-theological framework is the establishment of human standards that replace the standards of God. Racism, therefore, could be seen as the product of prejudice and power. [The agitators] sought to maintain their power by asserting their racial preferences above and beyond the standards set by God. [The agitators] believed that they had the right to demand a physical likeness (via circumcision) above the spiritual likeness demanded by God. [The agitators] were asking the Gentiles to ”become like us in order to belong to the church.” (p. 118)*

In Acts 15, the leaders of the church formally confront the issue of Gentiles entering the church. Rah’s comments on this monumental event are helpful for my purposes:

“…the early church leadership makes the correct choices that lead to the unleashing of the gospel to move beyond the confines of Jewish culture. They focus on the essentials of faith that served to unite the community. […]

Peter asserted that we are all saved by grace and that there is nothing distinctive about us that merits God’s love. Therefore, there is a unity and a commonality in our salvation experience. […]

The historical doctrinal clarification that ensued—salvation by [God’s grace] through [faith]—gave Jews and Gentiles unparalleled equality as members of His body and shifted the sharing of the power from issues of race and culture to those of interdependence and giftedness. […]

When a majority culture is dominant, it is that culture that determines how power is used and distributed. The danger in a multicultural church context  is that we would repeat the mistakes the early church was making prior to the Jerusalem Council. The dominant group in power was not yet willing to yield its cultural values for the sake of those who were marginalized or alienated from that power.” (p. 119-120)

Tumbling Today’s Cultural Taboos

The contemporary US church has a lot to learn from the Middle-Eastern church of the first-century. For starters, it could recognize that the church wasn’t Western, wasn’t white, and wasn’t “American.” Perhaps letting the context of the New Testament challenge our American exceptionalism and Western pride would serve us well. But more than that, letting the context of the New Testament speak for itself would allow us to see more precisely how the Holy Spirit moved in that community when racial and socioeconomic diversity descended upon it.

Today in the US, many churches fein a type of multi ethnicity or multiculturalism. But lurking just below the surface is a dominant culture fighting to preserve its privileged and powerful position. The only cure for such worldliness is for the church to look to Jesus the self-emptier, Jesus the power-divester. He did not see his privilege and power as something to be grasped, but instead took on the nature of a servant and laid down his life for others—even others who despised him.

There are groups in the US with power and privileged. The Gospel of Jesus calls on those groups to take on the nature of servants, laying down their power, even their lives. There are also groups in the US who are marginalized, alienated from power. The Gospel calls these groups into the church to be known and to know others. The Gospel comforts the powerless, even while it discomforts the powerful.

In your community, identify the weak, the vulnerable, those who are cast out. Who are they? Are they known to you? How has your church either excluded them due to cultural differences, or embraced them across boundaries? What could you do to divest yourselves of power, invite them into interdependent service along-side yourselves?

Praise be to the God of Abraham who threw open the way of salvation to all people by choosing for himself a people through whom he would demonstrate his covenant faithfulness. This God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the God of both Jews and Gentiles, African Americans, caucasians, Asian Americans, Latino Americans, and people from every tribe and tongue. And one day we will all sit at His banqueting table together in glory. Let us strive to reflect that reality now.

* “Judaizers” was changed to “agitators.” As N. T. Wright points out, “[Paul] was, in short, under attack from people whom scholars have come to call by a variety of names, but perhaps most straightforwardly (and following what Paul himself says in Galatians 1:7), ‘agitators.’ They are not, we note, ‘Judaizers,’ despite often being called that; that word, properly, refers to Gentiles who are trying to become Jews—which is what the erstwhile pagan Galatians, having come to faith in Jesus the Messiah, were not being urged to do. The agitators, in other words, were trying to get the Galatians to ‘Judaize.'” (Justification, p. 113)