This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 18:1-11) transports me to an outdoor Roman theatre in early first century Judea, or actually the facade of such a theatre, on the set of Monty Python’s fantastic farce, The Life of Brian. In this lampoon of the birth of Christianity, the wise men and shepherds go to the wrong stable, where a poor bloke named Brian has been born. Brian then spends his life trying to convince people that they have made a terrible mistake, that he is not the Messiah. In the scene I’m thinking about, Brian is trying to join one of the many resistance movements that people the countryside, in opposition to the Roman occupation. He mistakes the People’s Front of Judea for the Judean People’s Front, not to be confused with the Judean Popular People’s Front, or the Popular Front of Judea (Whatever happened to the Popular Front? He’s over there. Splinter!). What does it take to join the People’s Front of Judea? Reg (John Cleese) clues him in: Listen, if you wanted to join the PFJ you’d have to really hate the Romans. Brian: I do. Reg: How much? Brian: A lot. Reg: Ok, you’re in. Along with the splinter groups there are the self-identified messiahs and crazy prophets competing for space and a share of the audience: And the eyes thereof red with the blood of living creatures. . . For the demon shall bear a nine-bladed sword. Nine-bladed! Not two or five or seven, but nine, which he will wield on all wretched sinners, sinners just like you, sir, there. . . There shall, in that time, be rumours of things going astray. . .
Sometimes I think it helps to read some of scripture with Monty Python accents. Not that I want to lampoon the sacred story, but we’ve somehow lost something in our somewhat sanitized readings; we miss a cultural complexity that would be humorous were it not so tragic. Take today’s Passage. Being two thousand years removed from the cultural context of first century Judaism, we read the book of Acts and imagine that Christianity was born as a fully grown integrated body soon after the resurrection, and competed with a homogenous Judaism for the hearts and minds of people living under Roman rule. My former colleague Walter Ziffer, a brilliant scholar of first century Judaism and the emergence of Christianity, has done yeoman’s work in helping to flesh out the more complex and complete picture, which involves an ongoing series of family fights within a Judaic community fraught with many divisions, largely over how to respond faithfully to life under occupation in the land of promise. There were many messiah’s dotting the countryside, and many crazy prophets who would enter the synagogue in attempts to reinterpret the old texts. Paul might be counted among these, as he sought to convince the divided community that Jesus of Nazareth, the one they had seen crucified, as they had seen so many others, was indeed the fulfillment of all the prophecies, and the people need no longer abide by the things that made them Jewish – such as circumcision, the dietary laws, etc. It is in this context of great debates over how to be faithful to the covenant and how to resist the hated Roman imperialism and how to restore their former glory that the synagogue Jews heard Paul and rejected his arguments, reviling him as one of the crazies. And it is in this context that Paul essentially flipped them off, shaking the dust off his clothes and giving them a curse of David: Your blood be on your own heads! To understand how these were fighting words, we only have to remember that when David gave this curse back in 2 Samuel, he followed it by executing the accursed. Paul then splintered off to try his fortunes in the greener pastures of the Gentiles.
Walter Ziffer points out an irony of what happened as Paul washed his hands of the blood of his Jewish family of faith. Without Paul and the Christian missionary movement, monotheism, which originated with the Hebrew people, would not have spread to the world. Judaism was not, and is not, a missionary enterprise. Its hopes are in the prophetic promise that one day the world will come to them. But, as Paul shook the dust of these synagogue leaders from his clothes, he and his spiritual descendents essentially carried their message, or a central part of their message (that the Lord God is one, and we are to love God with all our heart and soul), to the world. Indeed, it turned out to be a pretty Popular Front.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.