I am obsessed with thinking about life and life’s meaning. I was born into a devout Baptist family. This meant that we constantly looked to the Bible for guidance. Recently I decided to spend some extra time reading my Bible. I chose to read Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and parts of the Mark gospel. For me, all of these readings are best read with time to ponder. There is a lot to ponder.
All four of the letters carry the name of Paul as author. Paul’s authorship of all four (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians) was unquestioned for centuries. Then critical scholarship caught up with these Bible writings, and questions about writing styles, vocabulary, and historical context raised issues that demanded answers. Traditional understandings about sacred writings fell by the wayside. It was not enough to see the words “from Paul” to establish true authorship. In more recent years, study of “sacred” writings has moved into secular universities. Billy Graham’s admonitions that “the Bible says” fall on deafened ears of a more educated general population. The Koran and the Book of Mormon have fallen to similar states. In today’s world, every document that claims divine status faces sophisticated examination.
As I took my personal journey through Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, I kept checking in current commentaries. Galatians and Philippians have been established as authentic writings of Paul. Issues like time, place, author, recipients, and subject matter in context all come together to establish authentic Pauline writings.
The study of vocabulary is important. The vocabularies of Galatians and Philippians match up. The vocabularies of Ephesians and Colossians do not match up with the verbiage in Galatians and Philippians. There are also conceptual differences of theology when close examination is exercised. Under close examination, most scholars conclude that Paul did not write Ephesians and Colossians.
How did the name of Paul get attached to the Ephesians and Colossians essays? The practice of writing things and attaching someone else’s name as author in ancient times was common. Motives can only be guessed. Motives are forever locked in the departed memories of the actual writer. No matter the motives, careful examination adds more evidence that there were lively theological debates that were taking place among the early leaders of the Christian movement. The intensity of those arguments is very plain in chapters one and two of the Galatians epistle. Paul dismisses those who might disagree with him with the condemning words “let them be accursed.” Paul makes reference to the disagreements that he had with Peter and others of the apostles. At the confrontation between Paul and Peter at a Jerusalem conference, the outcome was not agreement but a truce. As reported in the book of Acts, the agreement was “I am going my way, and you can go your way.
Over the next 250 years that is what happened. There was not one form of Christianity but many. Diversity and theological debate was the hallmark of the Christian movement. Diversity apparently invigorated the growth of the movement. Different versions of Christianity can be traced from Egypt to Rome through Antioch and on to territories to the north and east of Jerusalem. Central to the debate was an attempt to understand this prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, who became threatening enough to the status quo that he was crucified by Roman soldiers as an insurrectionist. What was the meaning of his death and his reported resurrection from the dead? What was the relationship between Christian Faith and Judaism?
This widespread debate about Christian belief came to an abrupt halt in 325 CE when the Roman Emperor Constantine called debate to stop and ordered a council of bishops at Nicaea in Asia Minor. Constantine did not allow the bishops to go home until they reached consensus on key Christian beliefs. The result was the Nicaean Creed that is still recited in most Christian communities to this very day.
I am a devout Baptist. Baptists from their origin rejected the authority of the Nicaean Creed and every other creed ever authored by any Christian Church or by any Christian theologian. Baptists embraced the Bible as their authority. They took an additional step. Among Baptists every Christian believer is obligated to read AND interpret the Bible. Baptists have no creeds nor a pope or bishop and declared the “priesthood of all believers.”
Today there is great diversity among Baptists. This should be a surprise to no one. Diversity is our heritage. It is our strength.
Speaking for myself, I love reading Mark’s gospel. I find new insights for living in the life of Jesus as reported by the Mark writer. I find new inspiration from Jesus’s storytelling. I find new understandings of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus. I love reading Paul’s letters and take seriously his interpretations of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I feel free to argue with Paul, just as did his contemporaries. I learn from the critics of Paul. Paul’s critics had important things to say.
Devout Christians have been left a rich heritage of thinking and pondering the truths of God. The materials we find in the Bible are important. We, individually and collectively, have a lot to ponder. Being intellectually passive and unengaged is unacceptable.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. He is the pastor emeritus of Church of the Covenant in Palmer. His email address is hdbss@!mtaonline.net.