Religion is locally and culturally situated. For example, the Law of Moses developed over time and some of it was likely a reaction to Egyptian and Canaanite religion which would have been well known to the Hebrews as they went out of Egypt and through Canaan.
Moses used them as a bad example of the way not to live, worship, or adopt their religious practices, such as the bull used as a symbol by both Egyptian and Canaanite religion. Moses threw a fit when he saw his people had made a golden calf image.
The wisdom and work are just beginning
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” – John 14:12 (NASB)
When Jesus was about to be taken, he said to his followers: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”
– John 15:26,27 (NASB)
“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.”
– John 16:12-13 (NASB)
Jesus opened a door to understanding. The Law of God, which is the new covenant of love, is in each of our hearts. God is love. The Spirit of truth will guide us. He didn’t expect that his words were final – it was just beginning. He expected that we would gain understanding and wisdom.
At the time he spoke, Jesus limited what he would say because we could not bear it. This was the end of his earthly ministry. The implications are obvious that we will learn much more.
The Law of God is the new covenant of Love
Jesus said that the Law and the prophets were until John the Baptist. Love fulfills the law.
Paul’s understanding of love was this: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” – Romans 13: 8-10 (NASB)
The Apostle Paul prayed: “… that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him.” – Ephesians 1:17 (NASB)
What’s in our hearts?
Despite the law in our hearts, it’s not easy to separate one thing from another. People’s thoughts and actions are largely driven by emotion (heart). Our identity and attitude are made up of our national and regional ethnic culture, family and peer beliefs and influences, religious beliefs, faithful experiences, and especially our experience-born feelings. These create our attitude toward ideas and others. This is much more powerful than any ideas our minds are exposed to.
At one point early in my life I thought that if people were just exposed to the right ideas, they would be model citizens. That was very naïve. Humorist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) thought that travel would expand minds. Yes and no. Not for those whose minds are already made up.
Humorist Will Rogers thought that we’ll never have true civilization until we have learned to recognize the rights of others. These are all true, but Rogers was closer to the truth. Jesus and the Apostles were on top of it: Love others as yourself. Respect for others is inherent in the practice of love.
What was in Paul’s heart?
The Apostle Paul was raised in Tarsus, a very active international trading area. He spoke Greek as his first language, but also Aramaic. Tarsus was known for its university, and coming from a devout Jewish family, he was educated under the supervision of Gamaliel in Jerusalem who had a school there.
He counted himself a Roman citizen. He had an understanding of Stoic philosophy (Greek origin) and often used it in his writings.
Saul-Paul wasn’t among the Zealots who were looking to overthrow Rome, but his attitude was zealous in rooting out those who were anti-Temple, and those who were converting to Christian. The Temple was the heart of Jewish religion and they had previously destroyed the Samaritan Temple. These were fighting issues.
Paul participated in persecuting early Christians “beyond measure,” including stoning Stephen. These actions no doubt helped propel his fervor when he converted to Christianity. The deeper a person’s bad behavior, the more powerful their change. Just talk to an ex-smoker about smoking. Paul retained his zealot attitude, that is, his fervor for right religion as a Christian and Apostle. See Paul The Apostle on Wikipedia.
Paul accepted Jesus’ teachings but he struggled with them. At first he wanted to place Jewish dietary (religious) restrictions on Christians, but through a dream he realized that: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” – Romans 14:14 (NASB)
This was a major step for Paul. To be unclean in Judaism meant to be unacceptable to God. Purity was highly important in Judaism. For Paul to dismiss this was a major change.
Covering your head during worship was a cultural restriction. Paul went on a rant about that, but finally said, “judge for yourselves.” (1 Corinthians 11:2-6.) And in other places expressed that everything is legal but it might not be good for you. (1 Corinthians 10:23).
So for Paul it was very difficult to accept that Christians were not subject to Jewish Law and custom. He wrestled with these issues, wrangling with them in his mind until he came to a full understanding through love.
Just as he did with head coverings, Paul crashed into same sex relationships.
What informed Paul’s view of same sex relationships?
Greek and Roman culture prevalent in Israel
The culture of the time had changed some. The exile in Babylon in 650 BCE ended both the kings and the prophets. Alexander the Great immersed Israel and Judea in Greek culture, which included nude races (women couldn’t watch) and public baths for both men and women. The Greek language became standard for trade, legal work, and religious writing, but didn’t fully displace Hebrew and Aramaic. Increased trade increased knowledge of the outside world.
Greek, then Roman occupation of Israel was a complex arrangement. Generally the Romans ignored Jewish religious Law, letting them do as they wanted as long as it didn’t cross civil law. The Sadducee sect had governing alliances with Rome. They accepted Roman ways and their functions at the Temple were to do the twice daily ceremonial sacrifices. They were part of the Sanhedrin.
The Pharisees weren’t fighting for nationalism but focused on interpretation and practicing Torah (law). The Herodians (Hellenistic accepting Jews) opposed any change to religion or government. The Zealots continued rebellions to overthrow the Romans. The Apostle Paul appealed to Rome to overturn his conviction that carried a death penalty.
Probably more to the point was the Patriarchal societies of the region. Judaism, Hellenism (Greek), and Roman societies were all patriarchal. Women were “generally” excluded from positions of power in government and religion. They were expected to remain sexually exclusive to their husbands and promiscuousness before marriage was frowned on. Men on the other hand had more freedom.
In ancient Jewish culture men should not visit prostitutes, although only the prostitute might be scorned. Adultery was illegal.
In all three societies men could have sex with slaves, who weren’t considered to be citizens or in other ways to have a high standing citizen-legal presence. In Judaism, sex with a slave was prohibited if the woman was engaged. Judaism ignored what non-Jews did except to cite them as bad examples.
In Roman and Greek society, sex with a dishonored woman was legal and expected. It had to be in a dominant relationship such as marriage or with dishonored women. Some Jewish scholars think it was the same for ancient Judaism. – Judaism and the Gays: Part 1 – Dealing with Mishcav Zachar.
In all three societies men were expected to be macho and dominant. While men could have sex with male slaves, and soldiers take male slaves with them for sex, in normal society men who submitted to another male was considered weak and effeminate. Paul demonstrated the same view in his writings. Men being “soft” or effeminate was something God disliked, according to Paul.
Attitudes on certain things were changing. Women were beginning to be involved in the Jewish Synagogue, and toward the end of Paul’s ministry he was praising women who were active in Christian ministry, even calling one an apostle. Jesus paved the way for this by saying that all are the same in God’s eyes, and by talking to women.
This raises a huge question. If we are all the same in God’s eyes, why is it we can’t accept that? In fact, some Christians have preserved the idea of male dominance over women, and have excluded them from positions of power and in religion. It was an idea that was becoming dead in Jesus’ and Paul’s time, and has long outlived its usefulness.
We can’t accept God’s view that we are all the same in God’s eyes because it doesn’t fit our cultural perspective. Religion is culturally situated.
Take Home Points
It’s very unlikely that the Apostles had a full understanding of everything. They understood that Jesus focus was forgiveness in a new covenant of love. Love fulfills the Law – law doesn’t correct peoples’ behavior (previous article), nor is the Law a path to the Kingdom of God. Love provides the path.
God provided our focus through his own love. Love is transforming of our hearts. Over time we change the world.
The Apostle Paul was educated in Greek language as well as Aramaic, and had a zeal for right religion as Judaism knew it. He viewed himself as an enforcer, somewhat like a mob enforcer. They punished people and if necessary they even killed people by stoning.
When Paul converted to Christianity he had even more zeal for it, probably propelled by what he had done to others as Saul.
Paul’s views were definitely shaped by culture and religion. Just as we do today he struggled with sorting this out in his own mind.
Just as Jesus said, “… “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (Matthew 19:8 (NASB), we have difficulty accepting God’s view that we are all the same. Jesus said there is only so much that we can bear. But over time we do understand and accept, our hearts transformed by love, and we change the world.
The next article is on Paul, same sex, and love.
Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.
- Additional references
Promiscuous America: Smart, Secular, and Somewhat Less Happy. Institute For Family Studies.
How Casual Sex Can Affect Our Mental Health. Psychology Today
Free Speech – Rabbi Berel Wein.
Some series references:
How to Keep Millennials Engaged in Church – on Patheos
What Is Meant by Truth? – on Patheos
Tabernacle of Hate – False Religion – on Patheos
10 Reforms Christianity Needs to Make Right Now – on Patheos
The standard of belief and conduct for Christianity is love. Legal standard.
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Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.