Christianity Is to Blame for the Bigoted Purposes to Which It’s Being Put, but ...Historians/History
tags: religion, Christianity
There's evidence this was Christianity's original creed: "There is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male and female, for you are all one.”
When Christianity was new, before it was a new religion, when it still resided in the house of Judaism, before the gospels gave it a story and Paul gave it a theology, it had, already, a creed. It did not say anything about God or Christ, about sin or salvation. But it did ask the followers of Jesus to believe something: that they were all children of God. Before they called him the Son of God, he had called them the sons of God. That was the beginning of Christianity’s first creed.
Scholars have known about this creed for many years—more than a century at least—but most people have never heard of it. It began with the words “you are all children (“sons”) of God,” but it went on from there. It said that they could not be divided by race or clan, nor by social status, not even by gender. They were to stand together in solidarity with one another. They were all “one.” You might be forgiven for thinking that this sounds more like a line from “Godspell” than serious history, but sometimes history can surprise you.
This history actually comes from a chapter in the life of Paul. Paul did not write this creed, but he did imbed it in one of his letters, the Epistle to the Galatians. That letter—perhaps the most contentious of the Pauline corpus—was written as part of a heated dispute about whether non-Jews could participate in the Jesus movement if they would not agree to be circumcised. Paul thought they could, but his opponents disagreed. Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, should observe the Jewish Law if they were going to follow the Jewish messiah. To counter this view, Paul wrote these words into his letter to the Galatians: “For you are all children (“sons”) of God in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized have put on Christ. There is no Jew or Greek; there is no slave or free; there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
To someone following Paul’s argument in Galatians, the eye will focus immediately on the phrase “there is no Jew or Greek.” That was, after all, Paul’s point in writing this letter. But, there is more here for the historian than that single phrase—much more. Notice, for example, how this phrase is the first of three phrases, each formulated in the same way:
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
Sometimes people talk pretty like that, but usually something this nice is the product of forethought and planning. Perhaps Paul had heard these words before. Perhaps his readers had. But that is not all. Notice, too, how the passage begins and ends with statements that are also formulated exactly the same:
For you are all children of God in Christ Jesus.
For you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Again, maybe Paul just talks like this sometimes. But most scholars do not think that is what’s going on here. They think, rather, that Paul is quoting a very early Christian creed. With a little exegetical spadework to unearth the creed from its setting and wipe off some of the embellishment provided by Paul himself, that early creed probably went something like this:
You are all children of God.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female;
For you are all one.
Was this the first Christian creed? Maybe. Since Paul is quoting it, it predates his letter to the Galatians, written in the 40s C.E. There isn’t very much from our nascent Christian sources that would predate that. To be sure, there are a few other rivals to the claim of “first” creed, like 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, or Romans 4:25. These are also pre-Pauline creedal statements that must have been very early. But if you go and look them up now, you won’t be very surprised by what they say: they speak quite predictably of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our forgotten creed says nothing about this, or about sin and salvation, or other claims early Christians eventually would make about Jesus Christ. Instead, it seems to presuppose a time when the followers of Jesus had not gotten that far. Rather than thinking up new things to say about him, they were still thinking about what he had said about them.
Where did it come from? In the midst of quoting the creed, Paul slips in a statement about baptism (“for as many of you as were baptized”). That is an important clue. Since the letter isn’t really about baptism, most scholars think that this is simply Paul reminding his readers of where these words come from: they were originally a baptismal creed (e.g., Betz, Galatians, 184). Maybe people repeated it when they were baptized, or perhaps others said it to them as they came up out of the water. These are details we do not know. All we have is the creed. But it was almost certainly associated with baptism—a practice that pre-dates even Jesus. Before there was Jesus, there was John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus. Eventually, many of John’s followers wound up in the Jesus movement and they may well have simply brought their liturgy with them. Specualtion.
We do know, however, where the idea of it came from. There was at the time a popular saying, a cliché really, attributed by some to the ancient philosopher Thales, by others to Socrates, that went something like this: “I thank the fates each day that I was born a Greek and not a barbarian, a free man and not a slave, a man and not a woman.” Romans might have substituted Roman for Greek, and there are Jewish versions that substitute Jew for Greek. So, with a little imagination it is not difficult to conjure the scene, where an early Jewish poet, a follower of Jesus, pondered the meaning of baptism and came up with this creed. In this cliché are all the ways by which people divide themselves one from another: Greek from barbarian (race); free from slave (class); male from female (gender). It’s a pretty complete list. And on one side of that list lies all the power—with native born free men. On the other side lie the subordinated others—foreigners, slaves, and women. The anonymous poet who created this creed decided that baptism could wash away all that hierarchy and privilege. Among the followers of Jesus there would be no hierarchy, no privilege. No Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female. Instead, they would seek solidarity: “for you are all one.” Notice, by the way, it’s not “you are all the same.” Sameness wasn’t the point. Oneness is solidarity.
But did anyone ever take this creed seriously? Part of what makes it so unbelievable is the fact that the Christian church has so seldom embraced its vision. Anti-Judaism, if not outright anti-Semitism, was always a standard feature of Christian theology until a post-Holocaust period of soul searching chased it at last from most official church teachings. The church’s Bible defends slavery, as did the church until after the American Civil War. And very few Christian denominations have ever embraced the notion of gender equality, even today. In the United States, the church is the last institutional space in which it is still legal to discriminate on the basis of gender. So, what happened to this creed? Why was it so soon forgotten?
The Apostle Paul, who inadvertently preserved the creed by quoting it in Galatians, actually took it quite seriously. He was completely dedicated to the idea that in the churches he founded there should be “no Jew or Greek,” and fought tooth and nail his entire life to defend this vision. But his open-door Gentile policy proved to be far more successful that even Paul could imagine. Soon Gentiles (Greeks, Romans, etc.) would vastly outnumber Jews in these churches, until everyone forgot that Jews had ever been part of the picture at all. “No Jew or Greek” eventually became “no Jews!” and a long and sorry history of Christian anti-Judaism would begin to unfold.
Whether Paul ever took “no slave or free” as seriously is a matter for debate. The problem is that Paul’s own statements about slavery are so muted and garbled it is hard to tell what he actually thought (esp. 1 Cor 7:21-24 and the Letter to Philemon). One almost gets the impression that Paul’s inscrutability on this score might even have been intentional. Slavery was the third rail of ancient social critique and criticizing it could land one in real, death-defying trouble. Still, if Paul balked on slavery, others didn’t. In fact, from a letter of Pliny the Younger—the earliest, extant non-Christian comment on Christians—we have evidence that some churches were actually led by slaves—female slaves at that (Epistulae 10.96).
And what about “no male and female?” Did anyone take the third clause of our creed seriously? Yes, actually, Paul did. Today Paul is thought of primarily as the Bible’s misogynist-in-chief. But that impression is based on a misreading of the evidence. In Paul’s authentic letters there is ample evidence that Paul himself regarded women as his equal, relied on women leaders in his churches, and even placed himself under the patronage and authority of one woman, Phoebe, about whom we know from chapter 16 of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In that chapter—originally a letter of recommendation for Phoebe—we learn of several women who were important leaders in the early Jesus movement. All of this has led to a dramatic revision of the role women played in the story of Christian origins, and Paul in particular (e.g. Schuessler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her). So why is Paul remembered as so thoroughly misogynistic?
It is mostly because of his legacy. Paul eventually became a famous and important early leader of the Christian church. In the late first and early second centuries C.E., followers of the great apostle took to forging letters in his name. Some scholars regard this simply as a school exercise for students of Paul. But others are arguing that these forgeries—including 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Ephesians, and probably also Colossians and 2 Thessalonians (almost half the Pauline corpus)—were more insidious attempts to appropriate the apostle’s authority in support of their own views (Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery, e.g.). Among them was the idea that women should remain silent and subordinate. 1 Timothy even goes so far as to say women “will be saved through child bearing.” I doubt Paul ever said anything like that to his patron, Phoebe! These authors also used Paul’s authority to clear up any ambiguity about the apostle’s position on slavery, instructing slaves to be obedient servants and to accept enslavement as God’s will for their lives. To this day, Paul remains a controversial figure for many African American Christians because of these forgeries and how they were used to subjugate enslaved Africans in America.
So that early creed—perhaps the first Christian creed—never really caught on. Instead, the church declared its faith in miraculous birth stories, healings, resurrection from the dead, and eternal salvation. Solidarity that could unite people across lines drawn hard by race, class and gender proved to be a bridge too far. The creed breaks the surface again in Paul’s letter known as 1 Corinthians (see 1 Cor 12:13), and even in the forged letter, Colossians (3:11), but then more or less disappears under the murky waters of history. Pieces of it can occasionally be found floating in non-canonical writings, where “no male and female” remained an important baptismal theme (MacDonald, No Male and Female). But the creed itself would have little influence in a new religion that enforced patriarchy, endorsed slavery, and embraced anti-Semitism.
Is this creed worth remembering today? That depends. In his study of the first clause of the creed, “no Jew or Greek,” the Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarin, was suspicious (A Radical Jew). He worried a lot about that phrase. He saw clearly how Paul’s well-meaning universalism eventually became a totalizing force beneath which all that is unique and distinctive about Jew and Greek would one day be submerged and obliterated. Diversity should be celebrated, not paved over in the name of one, universal, ideal humanity. Indeed, if “you are all one” were to become “you are all the same,” the whole point of the creed might be lost. Caution is in order. Difference must be honored.
But Boyarin’s book appeared in 1994. After a long season of celebrating diversity in America, we have suddenly witnessed the resurgence of other, more traditional suspicions: of foreigners, of the poor, of women eager to join men in halls of power. Race, class, and gender difference is once again used as a tool to create a more sinister solidarity: us versus them. Difference once again makes a difference. Fear of foreigners, distain for the poor, and bare-naked misogyny dominated our last presidential election and we are living today with the effects. Turning the tide of this new wave of authoritarianism will take every cultural resource at our disposal. In such a time as this, it is important to remember that the religion that is so often invoked in defense of bigotry once harbored a dream of solidarity that would allay divisions based on race, class, and gender. It was a dream rooted in a very simple, ancient, yet ever new claim: “You are all children of God.”
Boyarin, Daniel. A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Betz, Hans-Dieter. Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Ehrman, Bart. Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
MacDonald, Dennis. There is No Male and Female: The Fate of a Dominical Saying in Paul and Gnosticism. Harvard Dissertations in Religion 20. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.
Schuessler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1983.
comments powered by Disqus
- Boston Refused to Close Schools During the 1918 Flu. Then Children Began to Die
- Trump Won’t Win by Doubling-Down on his Racist Appeals but the Right’s Open Bigotry Comes at a Cost
- What to Stream: A Blazing Interview with Orson Welles By Richard Brody
- Trump’s Attack on the Postal Service Is a Threat to Democracy—and to Rural America
- Kamala Harris and the Growing Political Power of Black Women
- The Harvard Professor Who Told the World That Jesus Had a Wife (Review)
- For Black Suffragists, the Lens Was a Mighty Sword
- In Women’s Suffrage, a Spotlight for Unsung Pioneers
- A Powerful New Memorial To UVA’s Enslaved Workers Reclaims Lost Lives And Forgotten Narratives
- Unearthing New Histories of Black Appalachia (Review)