Monday, May 02, 2011

A Few Notes on MacCulloch, Chapter 4

Back to Diarmaid MacCulloch's book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I mentioned in an earlier post that when it comes to the New Testament and Christian origins, MacCulloch displays a penchant for finding disagreement or contradiction where there isn't any. More of this shows up in Chapter 4.

For example, MacCulloch claims that when Paul refused to accept financial support from churches he was working with at the time, he acted "contrary" to the teaching of Jesus who said that "those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel." But why is it contrary if Paul, for the sake of his mission, chose to relinquished his rights?

In an attempt to bolster his point, he actually makes matters worse with a complete misreading of 2 Thessalonians 3:6. There Paul instructs Christians at Thessalonica to distance themselves "from any brother who is living in idleness." According to MacCulloch, Paul's rigid work ethic here runs counter to the example of "Jesus and his wandering Twelve." The author appears to have forgotten that he had earlier quoted Jesus to the effect that those engaged in a teaching ministry had a right to be supported. The idle Christians at Thessalonica had not left fishing nets in order to follow and to learn from Jesus. As 2 Thessalonians makes clear, assuming that the return of Christ was just around the corner, they had quit working altogether only to become a public nuisance, which is a vast difference. In the words of Paul, they had gone from busy to being busybodies. Not to mention that MacCulloch shouldn't be quoting Paul from 2 Thessalonians anyway since he earlier claimed that the Apostle didn't write it, labeling it one of the "later pastiches of the authentic letters" (see 97, especially note 53 which can be found on 1025).

Shallow reading of the New Testament turns up again in a discussion of Romans 16. Contrary to MacCulloch, in verses 1 and 2 of that chapter, sister Phoebe, a diakonos of the church at Cenchreae, does not receive a greeting from Paul. Instead, the Apostle instructs the Christian community at Rome to receive her and to give her any help she may need from them. The passage makes clear that Paul had given to Pheobe the responsibility and honor of delivering his Letter to the Romans, a bit of evidence that MacCulloch might have used to strengthen his point about the relatively-high status of women in at least some segments of the first-century church (116-17).

Again, I think that MacCulloch is a pretty good researcher and writer. And I still expect that, in later portions of his book, he'll be able to teach me a few things about Christian history. Until then, I'll say that in these early chapters he should have been more careful, not so quick to question the New Testament.

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