Anyway, the majority of books in the New Testament are letters to various churches, mostly attributed to Paul. They present these churches as institutions that have already been in operation for a while, meaning that the Bible's only real record of the progression of Christianity as the exclusive territory of a group of Jews who followed Jesus around to a cult with a small but significant Gentile following is in the sketchy and often historically dubious book of Acts.
And now, a few things in these letters that I found particularly interesting:
- Paul provides a fair amount of fodder for religious homophobes. I've seen a suggestion that the thorn in his flesh mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is a reference to his own closeted homosexuality. 1 Romans 1:23-27 presents "women who exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural" and men who "were consumed with passion for one another" as the same ones who "exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." I'm not sure what his take would be on modern homosexuality, since I don't know that very many gay people today worship idols. 1 Corinthians 6:9 refers to male prostitutes and sodomites as people who will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Actually, the King James Version uses "effeminate" for the former, which seems even more troublesome in a way. I mean, what qualifies as "effeminate"? If a guy moisturizes his skin or enjoys shoe shopping, is he destined for Hell?
- The view of Paul and other early church leaders on women seems rather ambivalent. There are several references to men having authority over their wives, but 1 Corinthians 7 also adds that women have authority over their husbands. Most other passages of this sort say that men should love their wives, but only the women have to be submissive. 1 Corinthians also says that women should shut up in church (14:34-35, a passage that some doubt was even written by Paul) and cover their heads while praying (11:5-7). On the other hand, there are some mentions of women as important figures in early Christianity (Priscilla, Phoebe, etc.).
- 1 Corinthians 11:14-15: "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering." This is pretty amusing in light of how Jesus is popularly depicted. Of course, Paul never actually saw Jesus in the flesh, but wouldn't one of his compatriots who had have alerted him to this fact? I've heard that modern scholars think Jesus probably didn't have long hair anyway.
- According to Romans 14:2, vegetarians are weak in faith. Okay, that's somewhat out of context. Paul doesn't really seem to be condemning vegetarianism per se, just mentioning that the faithful don't really need to adhere to any dietary restrictions, but also shouldn't judge those who do. Kind of interesting in light of the rules associated with Lent, I suppose.
- I'd heard the "all Cretans are liars" comment (often attributed to Epimenides of Crete) used as an example of paradox, but I didn't know it was mentioned in the Bible. It's right there in Titus 1:12, though, with no real indication of its paradoxical nature. Actually, as a book I have points out, it isn't really a paradox anyway, since a person doesn't have to lie 100% of the time to be considered a liar.
I fully intend to read some other holy books in the future. I should probably tackle the Qur'an at some point. Well, a translation of the Qur'an, anyway; it's not really the sacred book of Islam unless it's in Arabic, which does make sense. There seem to be a fair number of American Christians who consider the King James to be THE official Word of God, despite the fact that it's a translation, and hence doesn't totally reflect all of the nuances of the original languages. Before starting on this, though, I think I'll try to finish Dante's Divine Comedy. I read most of Inferno in high school, but never made it to the end.