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Reta's Reflections

Whether she is teaching in a college or seminary classroom, or speaking to her readers through a book or blog, or addressing attendees at an Christian Feminism Today conference, Reta generously shares her gifts as a biblical scholar and communicator. In this Bible study blog, Reta shows her special skill at relating the Bible to today’s issues and in getting others involved in discussing the material she presents. Her questions at the end of each post can be used for individual reflection or group discussion.  Read more about the Reta’s Reflections Bible Study blog and Reta Halteman Finger here.

Raphael, St Paul Preaching in Athens

Pastorals and the Canon: Closing Thoughts with 2 Timothy 3:10-4:22

Lesson 25: "Christians who stress the inerrancy and inspiration of both testaments of our Bible often refer to 2 Timothy 3:16—'all scripture is inspired by God....’ But there are two problems with such an interpretation. First, when 2 Timothy was written (late first or early second century), the only scriptures the early Christians had were the scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament.”
Detail from The Buhl Altarpiece

Persistent Themes and a Striking Omission — 2 Timothy 2:1-3:9

Lesson 24: “In spite of the potential shame attached to followers of Jesus’s gospel, as Jouette Bassler’s commentary notes, the author of 2 Timothy never mentions the most embarrassing and shameful event in Jesus’s life—his crucifixion by the Romans, a punishment meted out only on criminals and runaway slaves.”
Oil Painting of St. Paul

The Power of a “Last Will and Testament”: 2 Timothy 1:1-18

Lesson 23: "Second Timothy [is] the final letter attributed to the apostle Paul, and one which appears to unite and authenticate his entire corpus of thirteen epistles. But If you have followed the lessons of 1 Timothy and Titus, the other two of the three letters known as the “pastoral epistles,“ you become aware of a different tone or flavor as this letter begins.”
Minoan Palace Zakros Crete Landscape

Titus 3:1-15—Submission, Salvation, and Ethics

Lesson 22: "We cannot help but notice that all the above names are men. No women are mentioned in any leadership capacity. In contrast, Paul’s letters to Rome, Corinth, Philippi and Colossae all mention women leaders. Paul greets nine women out of 29 names in Romans 16.”

Titus 2:1-15—Household Organization and “Healthy Teaching”

Lesson 21: "The entire chapter concerns five groups of people in the churches of Crete: older men, older women, young women, young men, and slaves of these households. The slaves presumably also represent a range of ages and genders, but they all have the same role: to 'give satisfaction in every respect [to their owners] . . .not to talk back, not to pilfer'(vv. 9-10)."
Crete House Ruins

Titus 1: 5-16—Harsh Words for a Church in Chaos

Lesson 20: “Amid all the polemic, it is hard to miss the brutal insult against all the inhabitants of Crete in 1:12: ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’ They are acting more like animals than human beings! It is true that Americans today are hearing similar racist attacks on Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, on lazy immigrants from Central America, or on people of color from ‘s---hole countries.’ But do we expect to hear such rhetoric from our Holy Bible?!”
Arch of Titus

Titus 1:1-5 — Salutations and Thanksgivings

Lesson 19: “Paul’s undisputed letters of Corinthians and Galatians portray Titus as a long-time companion of Paul—a brother, partner, and co-worker—and, as a fund-raiser who must carry bags of coins, utterly trustworthy. Although he did not write letters (that were preserved) and did not have Jewish credentials, Titus sounds like an equal to Paul.”
Statue of Paul the Apostle in front of St Peter's Basilica on Piazza San Pietro, in Vatican City

Letter to Titus-What’s Next? 2 Timothy or Titus?

Lesson 18: “Surprise! I am taking the liberty to do a bit of canonical rearranging. We will study the letter to Titus next, and finish [our series on the Pastoral Epistles] with 2 Timothy. Why reverse the familiar order? Because 2 Timothy presents the Apostle Paul at the end of his life, it makes sense to include it last."

1 Timothy 6:3-21—Closing Advice for Church Leaders

Lesson 17: “Here we learn that opponents in the ongoing church fight believe their faith can help them get rich (1 Tim. 6:5,9). . . . The fact that the ‘prosperity gospel’ still thrives today indicates the persistence of such twisted theology. We can agree with our author that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,’ because we see how it pervades our current capitalist, free-market economy.”
Slave market, Cairo ; on stone by J.C. Bourne from a drawing by O.B. Carter, the figures by H. Warren, image courtesy of the Wellcome Museum, https://wellcomecollection.org/works/jwvub5kk

1 Timothy 6:1-2—The Crushing Yoke of Slavery, Part 2

Lesson 16: "Our last lesson sought to accurately situate 1 Timothy 6:1-2 in its literary and historical context. When we read selected biblical texts like this passage as eternally relevant, they can cause great damage. For centuries, slaveholders in the American South used this text to justify chattel slavery, as if God intended some people to serve as the personal property of their supposed superiors."
Detail from Roman mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia (2nd century AD). Photo by Pascal Radigue. From Wikipedia.

1 Timothy 6:1-2—The Crushing Yoke of Slavery, Part 1

Lesson 15: "With no concept of democracy, the functioning of Roman society could be diagrammed as a pyramid, with the emperor at the top and everyone else below in descending and unequal patron-client relationships, down to the lowliest slave. People retained their social status by doing favors, or benefactions, for their socially inferior clients, who in turn affirmed their patron’s status by publicly showing their devotion to him or her. Clients in turn were patrons to clients beneath them."
Replica of scripture on parchment from Nazareth Village

1 Timothy 5:17-25 — Instructions for Male Elders

Lesson 14: "Verse 5:23 has stumped many readers. especially teetotalers. Why should Timothy take wine instead of only water? There are both health and religious reasons for this. City water usually flowed through lead pipes or was otherwise contaminated, so stomach problems in the ancient world were common."
Photo from Nazareth Village

1 Timothy 5:16 and Acts 9:36-43 — A “Believing Woman” with Widows?

Lesson 13: "As widows, these unattached women needed to make a living. Most likely, Tabitha had a house and enough resources to supply the tools of the trade, so the women could work together as an economic collective. That is why her death was so catastrophic for these widows, and why Peter made the effort to walk all the way to her house and pray for her resuscitation."

1 Timothy 5:3-16 — The Politics of Too Many Widows!

Lesson 12: "The author of 1 Timothy assumes that independent women with some social standing and wealth not only pose a threat to the patriarchal structure of the “household of God” but also are attracted to the heretics, who, by forbidding marriage, encourage female independence."
Ruins of Ephesus

1 Timothy 4:6-16 — Instructions for Timothy, and for Us?

Lesson 11: Timothy has been “nourished” in the faith with sound teaching (v. 6). According to Thomas Long, the Greek word for “nourished” means “to be reared by,” which implies a sense of tradition connecting the faith of those gone before and the generations still to come.
burnt down candles at a wedding

1 Timothy 4:1-5 — Marriage and Food: The Intra-Church Struggle Continues

Lesson 10: “So the false teachers ‘forbid marriage and demand abstinence from [certain] foods’? Is that all the fuss is about? No wild orgies or murderous rampages? Maybe not, but these beliefs have extensive consequences. Theologically, they imply that true Christians will strive for union with a God who is pure spirit. They must leave behind earthy pleasures like sex and ordinary family life, as well as most tasty foods.”
Ruins in Ephesus

1 Timothy 3:1-16 — “Bishops” and “Deacons” in Context

Lesson 9: “Overall, why is the author of this letter so concerned to shape the Ephesian churches in the mold of Roman ideals of dignified, socially respectable, patriarchal household management? Such instructions differ widely from the social-reversal teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the countercultural theology in Paul’s undisputed letters.”
Pregnant belly and hands

1 Timothy 2:15: Salvation—A Strange Promise for Mother’s Day!

Lesson 8: "For conservative scholars who believe Paul himself wrote the Pastoral Epistles, figuring out what he meant here becomes a pressing issue. If salvation comes through Christ, as other Pauline letters affirm, what can salvation through childbearing mean? "
Carving of a Face in Rock

1 Timothy 2:9-15 — That Troublesome Paragraph on Women

Lesson 7: "The pastor provides what he sees as scriptural authority for women’s submission in 1 Timothy 2:13-14: Adam was formed first and only Eve was deceived by the serpent. That is a traditional Jewish interpretation of the Genesis 2-3 story, but a very limited and male-oriented one. Since both Adam and Eve sinned, is it worse to be deceived or to deliberately sin?"
Statue of Artemis - Photo by Reta Finger

1 Timothy 2:8-15 — Dangerous Arguments or Peaceful Worship?

Lesson 6: “In this context, women’s behavior was a typical concern. The pastor would have assumed that men were natural leaders, and women did not have that capacity for leadership. They were considered more emotional and prone to be taken in by the ‘myths and genealogies’ of the opponents. Thus, observes Jouette Bassler, the pastor has more instructions for women than he has for the men.”
Walking on the main street of ancient Ephesus. Photo by Reta Finger

1 Timothy 2:1-8 — Negotiating Salvation for All

Lesson 5 - In striking contrast to an emperor’s assumed role as mediator between the divine and humans because of his military conquests, Jesus as mediator generously and nonviolently gives up his life as a ransom for all—Jews, Romans, and ‘barbarians’ alike.
Opposition - falling rain and split road graphic

1 Timothy 1:8-20 — How to Describe Opponents

Lesson 4 - “The metaphor of the church as a Roman household will pervade 1 Timothy. Major questions will be: how closely does this description of church organization conform to Roman ideals of household management? Or, is the hierarchical aspect blunted by the stated aim in 1:5 of ‘love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith'?"
Dead Acacia Trees and Dunes in Namibia

1 Timothy 1:1-7 — “Speculations” or a “Divine Economy”?

Lesson 3 - “In a Roman household, inheritance always passed from father to son (not to daughters). So Paul has an inheritance for Timothy: the ‘instruction’ (1 Tim 1:5, 18), also called ‘the sound teaching’ (1:10). In Paul’s absence, Timothy functions as the head of the church(es) in Ephesus.”
Saint Paul Statue in front of the Castel Sant’angelo in Rome

Paul the Person, Paul the Personage

Lesson 2 - "Christian feminists who haven’t already tripped over 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and 14:34-36, will probably stop dead in their tracks while reading 1 Timothy 2:9-15, along with various other statements in the Pastoral Epistles limiting women."
First Timothy - Photo by Le Weaver

The Pastoral Epistles — Introduction and Questions of Authorship

Lesson 1 - "... the letters to Timothy and Titus can seem like outliers. They differ so much in tone and content that most Pauline scholars today assume they are pseudonymous."
City of Jerusalem

Appendix: Do Revelation and Christian Zionism Mix?

Lesson 38 - “It’s important to keep in mind that these visions are shaped by the biblical allusions and symbols from the Hebrew Bible and the first-century Mediterranean world. Only then can we make thoughtful connections to contemporary life.”
Angel Statue

Epilogue: Promises and Warnings—Revelation 22:6-21

Lesson 37 - “The entire scroll of Revelation would likely have been read aloud in the Sunday worship service in each of John’s seven churches in Asia Minor. . . . As John closes, he must bring his listeners back into their real world as nonconformists within their cultural context with its worship of the emperor and multiple deities, including power and wealth.”
City Planet

Descending to Earth: Jerusalem as City and Bride—Revelation 21:9-22:5

Lesson 36: “John’s vision of the New Age is quite different from conventional pictures of heaven, where disembodied spirits float around praising God and enjoying family reunions. It challenges the dispensational view of believers in a heaven beyond the natural laws of the universe—and after every unbeliever has been sent to hell.”
Revelation 21:1–22:5 Alpha and Omega Abstract

New Heaven, New Earth: The Final Vision: Revelation 21:1–22:5

Lesson 35: “The city is also the people, gathered from all over the world, collectively to become the wife of the Lamb. And a tender, motherly God says, ‘I will be their God and they will be my children’ (Rev. 21:7). No wonder this passage is so often read at funerals!”
Old Book Image, Revelation 20:11-15

Revelation 20:11-15—On Judgment Day, the Books Are Opened

Lesson 34 - “All this is to say that human beings are not God, and human greed will continue to thwart justice in the world, no matter how advanced civilization becomes. We are in no danger of outgrowing our need for a God who will judge the deeds of humanity in perfect righteousness and justice.”
Dragon-Snake Illustration

Revelation 20:1-10—A Controversial Millennium

Lesson 33 - “Though mentioned only here in Revelation, the concept of the millennium has dominated the eschatology of some Jewish and Christian groups. Some readers recognize this term in recent popular books like The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.”
Black Wing

Revelation 19:17-21—A Gruesome Picture of Judgment

Lesson 32 - "As pictures of both victory and judgment repeat themselves from former visions in Revelation or from apocalyptic passages in Ezekiel or Daniel, remember that they are visions and not concrete events. They symbolize the ultimate victory of good over evil, justice over injustice."
White Horst Image

The Rider on the White Horse— Revelation 19:11-16

Lesson 31 - “A white horse stands for conquering and victory, as we’ve seen in 6:2 with the Parthian archer, the enemy Rome feared most. But the rider on this horse comes in ‘righteousness’ (justice) to judge and make war, and his name is ‘Faithful and True.’”
Lace Curtains

Revelation 19:1-10—Heavenly Rejoicing

Lesson 30 - "John is so overcome by what he has heard and seen that he bows to worship the angel. 'You must not do that!' insists the angel. 'I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony to Jesus. Worship God!'"
Close up of Gold Coins

The Economics of Idolatry—Revelation 17-18

Lesson 29 - “John portrays Rome’s economic activity in terms of exploitation. Though Rome offers other nations the benefit of Pax Romana, in John’s view this promise of peace and prosperity is just propaganda. In fact, she deceives these nations by her sorcery (Rev. 18:23). . . ."
Whore of Babylon by Hans Burgkmair the Elder (Detail)

The Woman Seated on the Beast—Revelation 17

Lesson 28 - “Since I am intentionally presenting these Bible studies from a feminist point of view, we shall examine in some detail John’s image of the woman as a ‘great whore who is seated on many waters’ . . . . Feminists are rightly wary of women being called prostitutes.”
Tel Megiddo. Aerial View

Armageddon—In and Out of Context

Lesson 27 - “Throughout this series of lessons, I make an effort to interpret Revelation in light of its overall identity as an apocalypse, its use of first-century imagery and symbols, and its internal, cohesive structure. I do not believe it predicts specific political events that will take place in our future.”

An Exodus Theme in Revelation 15 and 16

Lesson 26 - “Then one of the four living creatures gives 'the seven angels seven golden bowls, full of the wrath of God' (15:7). . . . The text never uses the term 'punishment' for the content of the bowls; rather, they are the justice of God on those who oppress other nations and persecute those who refuse to wear the mark of the beast.”
Christmas greenery and heart garland

A Post of Christmases Past

While Reta Halteman Finger, the author of our Reta’s Reflections Bible study blog, is taking some time off to be with family and friends,  we invite you to revisit two of her earlier Christmas reflections.
Wheat Stalks

Revelation 14:6-20—Seven Angels and Two Harvests

Lesson 25 - "The second angel announces the fall of “Babylon the great” (verse 8). First mentioned here, Babylon symbolizes for readers not only Rome, but every imperial empire that has oppressed people throughout history."
Lamb of God stained glass

Revelation 14:1-5: “All Saints’ Day” in Zion

Lesson 24 - “In these lessons, we are coming to see how John’s other-worldly vision is shaped by his personal experience and deep knowledge of his scriptures. Like all the biblical authors, the author of Revelation is not immune to the patriarchal cast of his culture.”

Revelation 13—Two Beasts and a Dragon: The Counterfeit Trinity

Lesson 23 - “Revelation 13:11-17 explains how the land beast, like a publicity manager, spreads the fame of the first beast and compels worship. It is also a hybrid creature, but its 'two horns like a lamb’ (verse 11) make it hard for followers to distinguish good from evil.”
Female Imagery in Revelation

Revelation 12:1-17—Part Two: Female Imagery in Revelation

Lesson 22 - “The heavenly woman of Revelation 12:1-17 calls for more attention, just as great literature often demands more than one reading before we can fully absorb it. While researching and writing the first draft of this lesson, I realized that our extraordinary woman was not the lone female in the story.”
Revelation 12:1-17 in stained glass

Revelation 12:1-17—The Woman and the Dragon

Lesson 21 - “Chapter 12 signals a major shift in the narrative. Until now, seven letters have been read, seven seals opened, and seven trumpets blown—and the kingdom has arrived in Rev. 11:15-18! So how do the woman and the dragon relate to what came before?”

An Interlude:  Revelation Meets Harvey and Irma

Lesson 20 - "So many disagreements among Christians result from different assumptions about how to interpret the Bible. . . . When we read God’s Word as literal words straight from the mouth of God for all times and places, we get many things wrong. In the ancient Middle East, it was natural for Israelites to connect natural disasters with God’s judgment for sin."
Ancient olive tree

Prophetic Witness before the Seventh Trumpet — Revelation 11:3-19

Lesson 19 - “As the seventh angel blows his trumpet,. . . voices in heaven announce the divine takeover of the kingdom of this world. John does not mean that this is happening in his first-century time, or in our time today, but it is happening in his vision. It portrays God’s spiritual protection even through death and God’s vindication of faithful witness.”
Model of Jerusalem Temple - Photo by Reta Finger

Revelation 10:1–11:2 — An Interlude before the End

Lesson 18 - “As we read Revelation, we must remind ourselves that John is seeing a vision, and the objects and events are not physically real. Bruce Metzger puts it this way in Breaking the Code: ‘The descriptions are not descriptions of real occurrences. The intention is to fix the reader’s thought, not upon the symbol, but upon the idea that the symbolic language is designed to convey.’”
Locust Larvae Photo

Revelation 9:1-21 —The Woes of Trumpets Five and Six

Lesson 17 - "If an emperor like Augustus Caesar is deified, all people must worship him and his value system. . . . By John’s use of comparable imagery to portray allegiance to God and the slaughtered Lamb, he sets before his churches a choice. Whom do you worship? An emperor who controls by the sword, or the slaughtered Lamb standing before the throne of God?"

Revelation 8:1-13—Silence before the Trumpets

Lesson 16 - “Think of the pause just before the majestic ending of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Notice that Revelation 8:1-13 begins with just such a dramatic pause... Imagine yourself standing in silence after this heavenly song was read aloud or chanted at your church in Asia Minor. "
"Colorful Rising Hands"

Every Nation, Tribe, People, and Language— Revelation 7:9-17

Lesson 15 - “In 7:9-17 the scene shifts from earth to heaven. Here, the church that has been militantly, though non-violently, confronting evil on earth is now pictured after the battle is over. John sees a multitude of people so great no one can count them. All Israelite categories are gone; this crowd is actually from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (7:9).”
Storm Clouds suggested by Revelation 7-1-8

A New Use for a Seal—Revelation 7:1-8

Lesson 14 - “The same signet ring seal with which God sealed up the scroll of human history is now stamped on the foreheads of God’s followers. The purpose here is to protect them, in life or death, from “the great ordeal” (7:14) which is to come. Here John draws from Ezekiel 9:4, where those who had lamented the evil around them are sealed to protect them from judgment.”

Horses, Martyrs, and Meteors—Revelation 6:1-17

Lesson 13 - "Church members in western Asia Minor did not need a university education to understand this cycle of conquest, war, famine, and death. In the ancient world where Rome ruled, it was always happening somewhere. These four broken seals revealed horrors they understood."
Angel With Trumpet

Broken Seals: Getting our Bearings in Revelation 6–11

Lesson 12 - "The actions of both seals and trumpets take place on the earth but with occasional glimpses of heavenly worship. The majestic songs in 11:15-18 sound like the final triumph of God and the Lamb. Except it’s not the end. The apocalypse goes on for another eleven chapters!"
Scroll Illustration by Ted Finger

The Scroll, the Lion, and the Lamb—Revelation 5

Lesson 11 - What follows next is pure worship. Imagine Handel’s “Messiah,” sung first by the four living creatures and the 24 elders, then by thousands upon thousands of angels, then by “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea”! But instead of the Hallelujah Chorus, this is a “new song .."
Door - Graphic designed by Lē Weaver (Marg Herder)

An Open Door in the Sky: Revelation 4:1–5:4

Lesson 10 - "It is one thing to have Jesus visit you and walk among your earthly churches in Asia Minor in the Roman Empire. It is quite another to peek through an open door and look into heaven itself!”
Ruins in Ancient City of Philadelphia, photo by Reta Finger

Conflict and Crisis in Asia Minor—Revelation 2 and 3

Lesson 9 - "The churches in Sardis and Laodicea, by yielding to the materialism around them, represent commercial accommodation; while some in the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira practice eating foods sacrificed to idols or tolerate those who do, reflecting their adaptation to Roman civil religion."
Ruins of Stadium Near the Acropolis at Pergamum. Photo by Reta Finger

How Cities Influence Churches—Revelation 2:1-3:22

Lesson 8 - “We’ll especially pay attention to the allusions John makes to the distinctive character of each of the cities where the churches were located. More important for John’s purposes, however, is the character of the churches themselves amidst the dangers that surround them from pagan influence, as well as from what John perceives as false teaching from rival religious groups.”
Mosaic on Island of Patmos

Jesus among the Seven Lampstands—Revelation 2-3

Lesson 7 - We can make one more observation: each church will hear not only its own message but will learn about the problems and promises of the other six as well. Since no church can thus hide its failings (or strengths), none can lord it over the others. If they take John’s vision seriously, they will instead be in a position to support each other.

John and His Vision of the Risen Jesus—Revelation 1:9-20

Lesson 6 - "At first, Christians had been considered a sect within Judaism, but by late first century it was clear that they were becoming a separate religion, which included many non-Jews as well. Things got worse during the reign of the Roman emperor Domitian (81-96 CE)."

Structure and Symbol in Revelation

Lesson 5 - "If we take symbols literally, we miss the point. Jesus appears awkward with a two-edged sword coming out of his mouth (1:16), but it merely symbolizes his word of judgment. On the other hand, if we interpret these symbols to make sense in our world today, we’ll get it wrong, since the intended audience knew nothing of our culture and time."
The Starry Night

Starry Skies in the Ancient Near East

Lesson 4 - "Like shamans in some cultures today, John had the gift of ASC—‘altered states of consciousness.’ While ‘in the spirit,’ he could journey to the sky or perceive spiritual reality in the otherwise invisible air. These ecstatic experiences sometimes produced grammatical errors in his Greek, but they also provided readers with colorful word-pictures and glowing poetry that nevertheless needed to be interpreted within the context of first-century symbols and metaphors.”

Is the New Testament Apocalyptic?

Lesson 3 - “Even though Revelation is the only apocalypse in the New Testament, every other book presupposes an apocalyptic worldview. Beyond the natural, ordinary world that we live in and perceive with our senses, there exists an unseen reality: the one God has a host of good angels who are doing battle with Satan and his demonic followers.
The angel Michael making war on the dragon Woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

An Apocalyptic Worldview

Lesson 2 - “The title, ‘Revelation,” is translated from the Greek word, ‘apocalypse.’ It refers to something previously hidden that is now being revealed. ‘Apocalypse’ is a distinct literary genre which uses symbolic language and imagery and is usually written under an assumed name. But dragons and beasts and other symbols reveal little to modern readers, so [lessons in this series] will provide a social context for interpretation.”
Old Scroll on Wooden Background by Africa Studio

Revelation—Whom Will You Worship?

Lesson 1 - “This may be the most misunderstood book in our entire canon. Some Christians ignore it entirely because of its bizarre imagery, while others pore over it attempting to unlock a chronological key to the future. [In this series], we will challenge some current end-time predictions and schemes based in part on Revelation, as well as seek to understand its genre, its cultural context, and what it might say to Christians in the 21st century.”
Map of Early Christian Churches

What Should Philemon Do?

Lesson 2 - How did such a personal letter become Scripture? We know some of Paul’s letters could be lost (1 Corinthians 5:9 refers to one). Perhaps the original readers enjoyed the humor and a chance to see another side of Paul. If the Onesimus mentioned in Colossians 4:9 as Paul’s faithful co-worker is the same person, that indicates Philemon did what Paul requested. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that the bishop of Ephesus at the end of the first century, mentioned by the church father Ignatius, was named Onesimus.
Ruins of a first-century Greco-Roman villa

Letter to Philemon: Another Side of Paul

Lesson 1 - "This letter is so full of puns, innuendos, double entendres, and other persuasive techniques that even Philemon must have scratched his head for a while. Clearly, Paul wants something from Philemon and is laying it on pretty thick to get him to do it—but what is it?"
"Women Bow And Pray" by justinkendra

Conclusion: The ongoing challenge of biblical interpretation

Lesson 22 "We need church leaders and pastors who learn Hebrew and Greek well enough to use available resources and then help laypersons better understand how translation works across time and cultures. Instead, I fear many churchgoing Christians who sincerely care about the Bible read it 'on the flat,' as if the writings were written in our native language and reflect contemporary assumptions."

“Strenuous Tolerance”:  Can we get along when we don’t agree?

Lesson 21 "According to Romans 14:1–15:6, what really matters ethically is how we treat other people and how consistent we are in living by our own consciences without condemning others who differ from us. The challenge—especially in matters relating to sexuality—is deciding which actions are intrinsically hurtful to others and which are not."

The Bigger Picture:  Sin as a Moving Target

Lesson 20 “So how do we relate to more conservative friends, relatives, or fellow church members who complain that the church ‘is not calling sin sin anymore’? After our Bible study in the local Mennonite church, I spoke with a friend who is part of that congregation and understands the resistance of some people to accept same-sex marriage. ‘In their lifetime,’ she said, ‘these older people have had to make so many adjustments and changes in the church. This is just one more change that seems too hard to make.’ I appreciated her compassion and understanding, but for those to whom scripture matters, both conservatives and revisionists must do their biblical homework as well.”

“Inheriting the Kingdom of God”—1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:9-10, and Jude 7

Lesson 19 Many Christians still read these three texts as a handy, short-cut way to condemn all persons with any same-sex orientation or who are in committed, same-gender relationships. In light of these cultural and literary contexts, it is inappropriate to translate either malakoi or arsenokoitai as 'homosexuals.'

Inflammatory Words in Romans 1:24-27

Lesson 18 “Although today we tend to see sexual attraction as something deep within the individual, these ancient writers used fire imagery to show that ‘sexual passion is a force which invades the lover from the outside’ (Fredrickson, p. 211). Thus Paul uses ekkaiō in the passive voice—‘to be inflamed.’ This is illustrated by the god Eros shooting his burning arrows into the hearts of hapless lovers. Fire is also insubstantial and fleeting. Thus the lover is never satisfied with sexual consummation, but keeps seeking more and more exotic experiences (p. 212), like drinking salty water that only makes one thirstier.”

What Is Natural and Unnatural Sex in Romans 1:24-27?

Lesson 17 "Besides the analogy of food to explain using persons of either gender as sexual objects, Greco-Romans also compared sexual use to household management. Wives were part of the property of a man’s household, as were his slaves, and he could 'use' them as he wished.

The Love and Sex Lives of Ancient Greeks and Romans

Lesson 16 “In the Roman Empire, marriage was for procreation. Unless enslaved, males would marry in order to produce offspring, preferably sons, to whom they would pass on their lineage and wealth. Parents arranged marriages for reasons of social class and economics—usually a virgin adolescent girl paired with a sexually experienced man about ten years older.

Romans 1:24-27 and Pornography: “God gave them up…”

Lesson 15 "I was stunned to realize that this is what Paul is talking about in Romans 1:24-27! A constant exposure to sexual images of pleasure, power, and domination lead to a search for new highs. Normal sexual relationships no longer satisfy, so people experiment with ever more exotic and abusive acts.

The Historical and Literary Setting for Romans 1:24-27

Lesson 14 "We cannot do justice to this passage until we understand its purpose in Paul’s lengthy theological letter to the Roman Christians—which is actually composed as a speech to be delivered publicly and passionately. Why did Paul write this speech to believers living in a city he had never visited? It’s a long story, which will take up the rest of this lesson."

Sodom’s Sin: What Does the Bible Actually Say?

Lesson 13 "And so, dear reader, that concludes our analysis of all Old Testament references used against LGBTQ people today. Slim pickings, indeed. Not a word about women’s sexuality. And three references (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13; and Genesis 19:1-11) emphasizing how horrible it would be for any free male to lose honor by being raped or forced to take the woman’s passive role in this highly patriarchal ancient culture."

Levitical Laws:  “Thou shalt not”. . . But why not?

Lesson 12 "As Christians today debate LGBTQ issues, they weight these elements in different ways. Conservative believers rely more on Scripture and tradition, while progressives stress experience. (And too often reason flies out the window!)"

A Challenge for LGBTQ Biblical Progressives

Lesson 11 "Revisionist biblical scholars have examined the texts that refer negatively to non-heterosexual sexual behavior (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Gen 19; Judg 19; Rom 1:26-27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10; Jude 7). Though interpretations vary in the details, these scholars conclude such texts say nothing about sexual orientation or love-based, consensual same-gender sexual relations and certainly nothing about gay marriage.

Does the Bible Teach Biological Complementarity?

Lesson 10 “For many Christians [who voice opinions about same-sex sexual expression], these disapproving biblical verses imply the case is closed. But why does scripture (or God) disapprove? Or as James Brownson puts it in Bible, Gender, Sexuality, (mentioned in Lesson 8), what is the ‘moral logic’ behind this disapproval?”

Sliding Down the Slippery Slope—or Climbing Upward?

Lesson 9 "But this complementarian position can only be held if the Bible is read 'on the flat,' as if it were written for contemporary people and contained no scientific or historical errors."

The Bible and Same-Sex Relationships: Some Resources

Lesson 8 "My concern in this series of lessons is this: how do we discuss this issue with people who hold a traditional view and see that view as more biblically-based than ours? Can we adequately interact with the so-called “clobber-texts” used to condemn same-sex sexual expression (i.e., Genesis 19:1-11; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1: 24-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10)?"

Can You Read the Signs? Principles of Interpretation

Lesson 7 “Biblical texts come alive through archeological discoveries, as well as sociology and anthropology, which help modern people understand the different traditions and habits of ancient peoples. For example, male honor was more important than female honor. Read the stories of attempted rape at Sodom in Genesis 19:1-11 and the actual rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. In each case, men offered their women to the rapists while preserving the honor of the men within the house.”

Different Interpretations—Different Missions

Lesson 6 “It is small wonder that Christians assuming different biblical hermeneutics often talk past each other. As one who deeply loves and respects the Bible, I will not try to protect it. It may be God-breathed, but it is also a human product with perspectives limited by time and culture. “

Gender Disputes in Bible Translation

Lesson 5 "The translation was called Today’s New International Version of the Bible (TNIV), an updated edition of the New International Version (NIV), a favorite of conservative Christians. And many of them were not happy with the new edition. Why the unhappiness? Because the TNIV was the first NIV updating to use gender-inclusive people language."

Problems with Biblical Inerrancy

Lesson 4 "As someone who has loved the Bible since childhood and has devoted her life and career to better understanding it, I find this view of strict verbal inspiration incomprehensible. I suppose it can be held in the mind as theory, but not in practice."

A Brief History of Biblical Inspiration

Lesson 3 "Through worship and study, the written word became divine revelation... By the time some of them returned to Jerusalem from exile (permitted by the Persian ruler, Cyrus, beginning in 539 BCE), they had a collection of writings that became guides for their priests, prophets, and all the people of Yahweh (see Nehemiah 8:1-12)."

Is the Bible Divinely Inspired?

Lesson 2 "Is the Bible divinely inspired and thus authoritative? Discussions on inspiration often start by quoting 2 Timothy 3:16 from the New Testament. The NRSV reads, 'All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.' This is the usual translation, but it is not the only one. A footnote in the NRSV includes this alternative: 'Every scripture inspired by God is also…' The difference is significant."

Biblical Interpretation: Can We Get It Right?

Lesson 1 "This new series of lessons in Reta’s Reflections will not be a book study, as earlier studies have been. Rather, it will deal with the broader issue of hermeneutics, the science of interpretation as it relates to how we understand our Scriptures. The question of how we interpret authoritative texts becomes acute when current social, economic, or political issues divide believers who look to these texts for answers."

The Perils of God’s Mercy—Jonah 4:1-11

Lesson 4 - “The story of Jonah teaches us that God cares about those we perceive as our worst enemies. Jonah’s dilemma was the opposite of Job’s. Job’s agonizing question to God was, ‘How can God let bad things happen to good people?’ Jonah asks how God can allow good things to happen to bad people. Both of these books challenge other scriptures that promise blessings for those who obey God’s laws and curses on those who don’t. In both cases God responds with open-ended questions with which we must wrestle.”

Changing God’s Mind—Jonah 3:1-10

Lesson 3 - “Having disobeyed once to dire consequences, Jonah figures he has no choice; so off he trots, eastward over the desert until he arrives in Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire (now in Iraq). In 3:3 we see both contrast and repetition: instead of a raging sea, Jonah finds a huge urban center. The city is so large it takes three days to walk across it, paralleling the three days Jonah had spent inside the fish (1:17).”

Going down to Sheol: Jonah 2:1-10

Lesson 2 - “But now, rescued by the fish, Jonah ‘gets religion.’ Sort of. He’s grateful to be saved from ‘the belly of Sheol’ after all. But he blames God for ‘casting him into the deep’ (v 3)—when it’s his own fault for fleeing from God’s presence and then requesting to be thrown into the sea.

Away from God’s Presence—Jonah 1:1-17

Lesson 1 - “Although we find no women in this story thus far, the Hebrew word for ship is feminine and has a will of her own: she threatens to break apart (v 4). Jonah goes down into ‘her hold’ as into a womb, and falls asleep. (The actual Hebrew term is ‘the innermost parts of the ship.’) Later, he ends up in the fish’s 'belly' (v 17), which comes from the same Hebrew root as 'womb.' Jonah is both protected and entrapped by these female images.”

Postscript: The Reception of John’s Gospel

Lesson 48 - “The biblical canon—the list of books that comprise the Bible as we know it today— was not fixed until the mid or late 4th century. Long before that, however, churches developed lists of texts appropriate for reading in their assemblies. The Synoptic Gospels were a shoo-in from the beginning, since Jesus was the central authority figure for Christians. But some, especially Jewish Christians, questioned John’s Gospel because it portrayed Jesus as more divine and less human than did the Synoptics.”

The Rehabilitation of Peter—John 21:15-25

Lesson 47 - What does the author intend by using two different words for ‘love’ in John 21:15-17? ‘Agape’ is the all-encompassing love from God that enables disciples to be kind and accepting toward everyone, whether or not they are lovable. ‘Philos’ is the warm affection friends have for each other.

A Fish Story:  Mother Jesus Serves Breakfast—John 21:1-14

Lesson 46 - “By the time everyone arrives, Jesus is making breakfast, just as he did back in John 6 when he fed 5000 people. Like an ordinary housewife, he fries flatbread and cooks some of the fish they had just caught. I can see the disciples standing around awkwardly, unused to helping with women’s work, and not knowing what to say (v 12).”

A “Touching” Group Appearance—John 20:19-31

Lesson 45 - "Within our current Western worldview, a dead body that becomes alive again cannot be explained by biology or physics. Thus, some Christians see Jesus’s resurrection as less a physical reality and more as a metaphor for new life and new spiritual insight. However, it is quite clear that Jesus’s disciples and the early church were totally convinced that Jesus had been bodily raised from death; some claimed to have seen and touched him! Otherwise, he would have been a failed messiah, and everyone would have gone back to their former lives and hoped for the real one to show up."

A Pivotal Reunion in the Garden—John 20:1-18

Lesson 44 - “As a feminist reader, I page back through this Gospel looking for people ‘in the know,’ and I find they are mostly women! Mary Magdalene’s knowing in today’s lesson parallels that of other prominent women in this Gospel: Jesus's mother, the Samaritan woman at the well, Martha of Bethany, and Mary of Bethany."

Jesus’s Burial and the Meaning of the Empty Tomb—John 19:38-20:10

Lesson 43 - "If they could afford it, Judeans buried their dead in a lengthy process. The first stage happened quickly, however. Between the last breath and sundown, the body was washed and anointed with spices, usually by women, and then laid on a shelf in a tomb cut out of the limestone bedrock around Jerusalem. Rites of mourning would begin at that time and continue for a full year. During that time, the flesh would rot away, leaving only the bones by the end of the year. This decomposition was necessary as a way for the person’s sins to be expiated. "

Crucified, Dead, and Buried—John 19:16b-42

Lesson 42 - "There was nothing romantic about crucifixion. The victims had been stripped naked, their 10-level pain laced with public humiliation and shame. Many lingered for days, covered in their own excrement. From the onlookers’ mocking point of view, they got what they deserved. After they died, corpses were usually left hanging for birds and other predators to pick their bones clean. Crucifixions were Rome’s most dramatic advertisements to occupied peoples: 'We’re in charge. Don’t mess with us, or you’re next!'”

Jesus, Pilate, and “The Jews”: The Empire Strikes Back—John 18:28–19:16a

Lesson 41 - "Scene 1 is an honor challenge. The elite Judeans have decided in 11:47-53 that Jesus must die. But stoning him for religious reasons will only turn the common people against them. Rome must view him as a political threat and crucify him for rebellion. Hence the Judeans’ smart alecky retort in John 18:30, indicating that, of course, Jesus is a criminal. Why else would they have brought him to Pilate?"

Jesus’s Trial before Pilate: Not What You Expect—John 18:29-19:16a

Lesson 40 - "Then add to this complicated political system another category: the Jewish rebels and messiahs who believed God wanted them to violently overthrow the Romans. Such unrest pushed the priestly caste more strongly toward cooperation with the Roman governor and against the peasants, who comprised 90 percent of the population."

Arrest and Trial by Night—John 18:1-27

Lesson 39 - "Jesus is in control of the situation. He knows 'all that was to happen to him' (v 4). He steps forward and questions first: 'Whom are you looking for?' When they reply, 'Jesus of Nazareth,' he identifies himself. The NRSV quotes Jesus saying, 'I am he,' but the Greek text uses the name we’ve heard many times before in this Gospel—egō eimí—'I AM.' When Jesus says this, all the officers step back and ignobly fall to the ground! (v 6). As they scramble to their feet, the question and the replies are repeated again: 'I told you that I AM!' Taking charge in this way is a matter of honor. Only the inferior are controlled by those above them."

Praying for Myself, Us, and Them—John 17:1-26

Lesson 38 - "Although the patron-client relationship is used between humanity and God, Jesus is clear that this should not be practiced among believers. The goal of Jesus’s work with his disciples is not to act superior to them (remember the footwashing in John 13?). Instead he asks God to 'protect them…so that they may be one as we are one' (v 11). Later, he asks 'also for those who will believe in me through their [the disciples’] word, that they may all be one' (vv 20-21). The level of intimacy between Jesus and his Father/Mother is to be the pattern for all believers. No more pulling rank over others because of higher social status. That is how 'the world' works."

Living in a Hostile World—John 16:1-33

Lesson 37 - "The suffering Johannine communities are symbolized by a woman in labor (16:20-22). Earlier we noted how Jesus’s role in John’s Gospel is similar to an idealized Mediterranean woman who is given complete authority over her household and children. This is another example of Jesus’s (and the Spirit’s) understanding of women’s concerns. We can imagine Jesus as an older woman ministering to her daughter who labors to bring forth a child. In this way the Advocate stands with the marginalized community, making the reassuring promise that, in Jesus’s words, 'You have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one can take your joy from you' (16:2-24)."

A Vineyard of Friendship—John 15:1-17

Lesson 36 - “Agape love, of course, does not have to mean liking another person—it is wanting the best for them as you want the best for yourself. It is taking others on their own terms and accepting them the way they are, understanding that hurtful behavior can come from personal insecurity or even mental illness. It may sometimes mean confrontation and ‘tough love’ that can easily be misinterpreted. Agape love demands a lot of humility. It is not surprising that Jesus called this kind of loving a ‘command’ (v. 17)—something you do rather than something you necessarily feel.”

Questions and Misunderstandings—John 14:1-31

Lesson 35 - "The 'key verse' in this section is verse 6, which many Christians know by heart: 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.' Unfortunately, this is often used as a doctrinal statement meant to exclude non-Christians. 'Unless you believe in Jesus you can’t be saved,' some will say. Instead of 'not letting hearts be troubled' (14:1), this verse has troubled Christian hearts and those from other religions alike.

Loyalty and Betrayal among Beloved Friends—John 13:18-38

Lesson 34 - “But in this Gospel, Judas’s action is so reprehensible it is as if the devil himself possessed him (vv. 2, 27). As further evidence, Jesus quotes an apt line from Psalm 41:9—‘Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.’ (See Jn 13:18.) In that Mediterranean culture, to ‘lift the heel’ means showing the sole of one’s foot to another. It is a great insult, a wish to utterly shame another.”

The Way Up Is Way Down—John 13:1-17

Lesson 33 - "Actually, there’s a lot going on under the surface of this special Passover meal, but only Jesus and Judas are aware of it. Judas is part of a devilish plot that Jesus strongly suspects, and he realizes this will be his last meal with 'his own.' It is 'during supper' (v. 2) that he gets up and takes off his outer robe to strip down to the knee-length tunic that characterizes a slave. He ties a towel around his waist, pours water into a washbasin, and starts washing the other men’s feet (13:2-5). This is his last chance to demonstrate the kind of humble caring that members of the family of God need to have for each other."

Gethsemane in a New Setting—John 12:20-50

Lesson 32 - "Unlike the Synoptics, however, this fourth Gospel does not describe Jesus as pleading for God to rescue him from death. As we saw in Lesson 25 on the 'noble shepherd,' a characteristic of nobility is the voluntary laying down of one’s life for others (John 10:11). In this spirit, Jesus accepts his destiny: 'It is for this reason that I have come to this hour'(12:27)."

Political Street Theater—John 12:9-19

Lesson 31 - "Does it matter who came up with the parade idea? Probably not, except that John’s Gospel portrays a logical cause-and-effect. Jesus is already popular among the common people in Jerusalem, and his raising of Lazarus is the final sign of his right to be king in Israel (John 12:18). What better time to show him off than to a city crowded with Passover pilgrims!"

Mary the Anointer—John 12:1-8

Lesson 30 - "The name 'Bethany' means 'house of affliction' or 'house of the poor,' which had to be outside of Jerusalem for purity reasons. Brian Capper, an Acts scholar, suggests that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus may have had Essene connections and have sponsored a poorhouse close to their home. Perhaps Jesus originally met these siblings through his concern for the poor. If Mary’s ointment was poured out in the presence of poor people who were more used to smelling bad odors, a 'house filled with the fragrance of the perfume' (John 12:3) would have been a treat. In their presence, Jesus’s statement would have denoted compassion rather than callousness.

A Tomb with a View—John 11:38-57; 12:9-11

Lesson 29 - "The miracle of raising the dead is the last and greatest of Jesus’s 'signs' in this Gospel. But can it be literally true? In our experience, dead people do not come to life again. And if it did happen, why do the other Gospels omit such a dramatic event?"

A Household of Beloved Disciples—John 11:17-37

Lesson 28 - "The other unanswered question is how Jesus came to know and love this family. Was he a cousin or other relative? Did the sisters run a hostel for pilgrims coming to worship at Jerusalem, and he stayed with them when he came? Whatever brought them together, it was such a loving, intimate friendship that both sisters felt free to reproach Jesus for not coming sooner. Only these three siblings are known in this Gospel as 'beloved disciples.'"

An (Un)Fortunate Illness? — John 11:1-16

Lesson 27 - "Leaving Thelma, I knew I would never see her again in this life. I did not expect Jesus to raise her as he had raised Lazarus. If we are older than 8 or 9, we know that dead persons do not come to life again. What then can we learn from a story about a man pulled out of his grave alive after four days? Is it a story of hope? Or is it only a legend conveniently omitted by the Synoptic Gospels?"

Feeding Sheep or Eating Them? — John 10:1-21 and Ezekiel 34

Lesson 26 - "Ezekiel’s description of the false shepherds translates all too well into the 21st century, as large corporations extract resources from powerless people and regions, leaving them worse off than before. 'Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not the shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.'"

The Noble Shepherd versus the Thieves— John 10:1-18

Lesson 25 - "Jesus then names himself as the shepherd, the 'good shepherd' who lays down his life for the sheep (10:11-18). How is Jesus 'good'? There are two common Greek words for 'good': kalos and agathos. According to Jerome Neyrey, a New Testament social context scholar, agathos belongs to the realm of ethics and virtue, but kalos to the cultural world of honor and shame. Kalos, used here, is better translated as 'noble' or 'honorable.'"

Sheep Parables and Temple Festivals—John 10:1-42

Lesson 24 - "This Gospel’s emphasis on the Jewish calendar and its festivals demonstrates the author’s deep roots in the Hebrew Bible and the events that the festivals commemorate. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus remains in Galilee until the spring festival of Passover, here Jesus travels to Jerusalem over several years of ministry. He is faithfully Torah-observant as he immerses himself into these events. He becomes water and light; he is the gate that protects the sheep. He will—even more literally—become the Passover lamb."

“What Really Happened?”: Story Becomes History— John 9:1-41

Lesson 23 - At first, Jesus-believers saw their movement as Jesus had understood himself—as part of a renewal movement within Judaism. But as the decades went by, tensions were increasing. Our Fourth Gospel, probably written in the 90s CE, may be chronicling the fatal split.

Who Is Blind and Who Can See? A One-Act Comedy in Six Scenes— John...

Lesson 22 - "In this case, the sign weaves through such a thicket of ironies and misunderstandings that it rivals some of Shakespeare’s comedies. The antagonists work hard to prove that white is black and black is white, making this chapter the most hilarious in the whole New Testament! As you read it, ponder these questions: Who is blind and who can see? Who is a sinner and who is righteous? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who knows where Jesus 'comes from,' and who knows nothing?"

Stones of Humiliation for Adulterers—John 7:53-8:11

Lesson 21 - "Perhaps this delectable story was passed on orally, independent of the four Gospels, but was too juicy not to eventually insert into a canonical document. In any case, it is consistent with Jesus’ other evasion of verbal traps and his respect for women and their equal rights with men."

Living Water and Eternal Light—John 8:12-59

Lesson 20 - These rituals lie behind Jesus’ proclamation of himself as the Water of Life in John 7:37-39 and the Light of the World in 8:12. As light, Jesus claims not only to replace the law but to physically represent Lady Wisdom herself (see Lesson 2). As living water, his Spirit fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy of cleansing Jerusalem on that great “day of the Lord.”

The Trial before the Trial—John 7:1-52

Lesson 19 - "The offices of king and priest tended to reinforce each other, often leading to apostasy, economic oppression, and political disaster. Thus arose the prophetic tradition, challenging both priest and king, and often serving as a voice for oppressed people crushed by their elite overlords. Jesus stands in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who suffered for speaking truth to power. "

Turning Back and Dropping Out—John 6:59-71

Lesson 18 - There are many Christians I have known or read about who like the Gospel of John. Sometimes what they like is a simplistic interpretation: all you have to do is believe in Jesus and then you’re saved and have eternal life. Put more crassly, it’s “fire insurance” for not going to hell. More thoughtful persons might observe that this Gospel puts less emphasis on morality and righteous behavior than do the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. However, the very fact that interested followers of Jesus are now deserting in droves implies that something more has been called for than mere head belief.

The Bread that Comes Down from Heaven – John 6:30-58

Lesson 17 - Jesus continues, pursuing the image of bread coming down from heaven. Just as manna came from heaven, so he has come from above to bring life to the world. This discourse on the bread of life is one of the clearest examples of the “descent of the Word/Sophia,” discussed in Lessons 1 and 2. It is a reminder of incarnation, the Word who descends to human level and lives among us (1:14). It echoes the “turkey theology” of the previous lesson, where a human becomes a wild turkey mother to provide life to chicks which otherwise would die.

The Word Became Flesh and Lived among Us

Lesson 16 - "Perhaps one reason I find this analogy meaningful is because I relate to Jesus more as a human and less as a divine figure whose feet rarely touch the ground. Becoming flesh is the point of 'Immanuel—God with us.' Too often Christians see primarily the inaccessible divinity of Jesus, and thus cannot follow him in life. As a result, they miss the point of the downward thrust of Incarnation."

“It’s me. Don’t be afraid!”—John 6:16-29

Lesson 15 - Alas, the crowd reminds us of Nicodemus (Lesson 7) who always interpreted Jesus’ words on an earthly level and thus missed their true significance. In this case, “works” and “food” have double meanings. The crowd asks, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” no doubt thinking of how they might earn their next meal of bread and fish. Yet all they need to do is put their trust in, and give total loyalty to, the One whom God has sent (6:29).

A Meal (Almost) Fit for a King—John 6:1-15

Lesson 14 - If John’s Gospel were a stage play, a dramatic scene shift would occur between chapters 5 and 6. Acting as his own lawyer in Jerusalem (5:30-47), Jesus now dons a Red Cross hat as he heals many on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee (6:2). This draws a huge crowd, who, out of need or curiosity, forget to pack a lunch. In 6:3-15, the Great Physician becomes Mother Jesus as he personally distributes food to his dependents. For once in their lives, these peasants eat until they can eat no more. For once, there are leftovers.

Jesus Judges the Judges at His Trial—John 5:30-47

Lesson 13 - "Susanna’s trial illuminates this second part of Jesus’ defense against the Jewish leaders (John 5:30-47). In the previous lesson (5:19-29), he refutes the charge of being “equal to God” by taking the role of a wife and mother in a patriarchal household. Here he declares 'not guilty!' to the charge that he broke the Sabbath by telling the man he healed in 5:1-18 to pick up his mat and walk. As Jerome Neyrey’s New Cambridge commentary points out, Jesus poses as his own lawyer, marshaling five witnesses to testify on his behalf before the elders who are serving as his judges (5:16).

From Sentence of Death to Androgynous Rebuttal—John 5:17-29

Lesson 12 - Jacobs-Malina says that “Jesus’ primary role was to create and maintain the household of God on earth.” In this way, he acts most like “the wife of the absent husband” (p 2). If we read John 5:19-29, this is exactly what we see. Using “Son” rather than “wife/mother” to this audience, Jesus insists that he can do nothing on his own except what he sees the Father doing. At the same time, the absent husband/father grants him enormous power, even raising the dead and judging all people.

Doing Good Can Get You in Trouble!—John 5:1-18

Lesson 11 - "Scholars differ on how the pool was used, but its reputation of having intermittent healing properties when the water bubbled up suggests it may well have been used by Romans and Jews alike as an Asclepion. The son of the Greek god Apollo was Asclepius, worshiped as a healer and 'savior.' His cult developed healing complexes in many cities of the Empire, such as Corinth and Pergamum. Here in the heart of the Holy City came the desperate sick. Whether through Yahweh or Asclepius, all they wanted was health and wholeness."

Healing in Absentia: Can You Read Signs?—John 4:43-54

Lesson 10 - The conclusion is distinctly Johannine. After the first sign of water into wine, Jesus’ disciples believe in him (2:11). After the second sign, the little boy’s entire household believes (4:53). Many people witness a miracle but miss what it signifies. “To believe” means understanding what the miracle is pointing toward. Little by little, Jesus gathers believers who can read signs.

Man Meets Woman at a Well—John 4:1-42—Part II

Lesson 9 - But place does not matter, asserts Jesus. God is spirit; we must worship God within our spirits, for God is actively seeking such people to relate to (23-24). This is a bold assertion. “Place of worship” was what separated Samaritans from Jews. For a Jew, only the temple at Jerusalem was sacred. Now Jesus challenges place, just as he had Jewish ritual law at the Cana wedding! (Lesson 4). For a moment she pauses, uncertain. “Well, when Messiah comes, he’ll tell us the truth about everything!”

Man Meets Woman at a Well—John 4:1-42 (Part I)

Lesson 8 - The Samaritan woman is neither shepherdess nor virgin, and Jesus is no wife-hunter. We don’t know if the woman ever gave Jesus a drink from the well, but we do know that he reversed gender roles and offered her a drink instead. Once again, the author draws from the Hebrew Bible to portray Jesus not only as a prophet in the tradition of his people, but as the “One from Above” who relives Hebrew history—and then breaks its mold in shocking new ways.

Jesus and Nicodemus—Spiritual Direction or Verbal Sparring? John 3:1-21

Lesson 7 - "John’s Gospel is also dualistic in terms of belief or unbelief in Jesus as Word-become-flesh (3:17-18). But the physical, created world is never seen as evil. Rather, many aspects of our earthly life point the seeker to spiritual reality. A mother’s experience of the miracle of her child’s birth illustrates the action of Mother Sophia-Spirit giving us birth 'anothen'—from above. We cannot control the wind; likewise we cannot control the Spirit moving among us."

Jesus as Spiritual Director—John 2:23-25

Lesson 6 - As we shall see in the lessons that follow, irony pervades these accounts. Theologian Nicodemus never understands Jesus. Before long, dialogue vanishes into a monologue by Jesus as his client creeps away under cover of darkness. But the nameless woman is the real theologian, conversing longer with Jesus than anyone else in this Gospel. In the end she introduces this “Messiah” (4:25-26, 29) to her entire village.

Another “Sign”: Housecleaning the Temple—John 2:13-22

Lesson 5 - “'These are written so you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah…and through believing you may have life in his name.' In other words, all the events are signs pointing in one direction—calling the reader to an unswerving loyalty to and trust in this Son/Sophia who in turn points the way to a true understanding of God."

A Wedding Surprise—John 2:1-11

Lesson 4 - "Clearly, John’s Gospel shows through symbol and story what Matthew’s Gospel explains in plain language in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Instead of Moses, Yahweh’s Son/Sophia has come down 'in the sight of all the people' to introduce a New Age where human need and enjoyment trump overly-rigid Law (see John 1:17)."

Always Playing Second Fiddle? John 1:19-34

Lesson 3 - Throughout this chapter to verse 42, the persons and careers of the Baptist and Jesus are intertwined. John’s role is as witness, to testify to “the Light” (1:6-8). It is powerful, it is essential, but it is unrelentingly secondary. If you are studying this in a group, have different members read the antagonistic dialogue of verses 19-28 as a mini readers’ theater. Note how John forcefully defends his authoritative actions, yet asserts he is only an agent of someone else.

Gender Remixed: Sophia and Word

Lesson 2 - "What would Greek-speaking Jewish readers have drawn from this opening reflection on logos? [One of the possible interpretations of the meaning] was Wisdom. Hebrew sages of old were part of a movement that emphasized gaining wisdom through close observation of the natural world. See, for example, Proverbs 6:6-11, about observing the behavior of ants in order to live well. But these sages were not inventing wisdom; they were discovering it. For Wisdom was personified as a woman co-creating with God from the very beginning. Read her exquisite poem in Proverbs 8:22-31. Before all of God’s creative acts, 'I was beside him as a master worker, and I was daily his delight…' (v 30)."

Our Mothering Jesus: Studies in John’s Gospel

Lesson 1 - "I chose this Gospel for our second lesson series because I think it is the most thoroughly feminist writing in our New Testament. Most Christians don’t know that—but all the more reason to get acquainted with this tough, tender, mothering Jesus who befriends women as well as men."

I Corinthians Epilogue—It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Lesson 19 - “'Everything will turn out alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it isn’t the end.' Such Yogi Berra or Marigold Hotel wisdom applies well to the Apostle Paul’s rocky relationship with his Corinthian churches. 'First' Corinthians wasn’t even the first letter he wrote to them. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 Paul refers to an earlier letter which at least some had misunderstood. We can be sure that the letter we have, with its radical vision of sharing honor, wealth, and power equally in the Body of Christ in Corinth, will be resisted by those with the most to lose."

1 Corinthians 16—Can Money Create Unity?—and Other Earthy Details

Lesson 18 - "Actually, this collection is a big deal for Paul. He devotes two whole chapters in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 and much of Romans 15 to the collection he wants to take “to the saints in Jerusalem.” Paul manipulates his audience as well as any door-to-door salesman or telephone fund-raiser. He encourages his audience to put aside any extra money they make each week so he won’t need to hassle them when he gets there (1 Cor. 16:2). In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7, he tells them how very generous the Philippian and Thessalonian churches in Macedonia have been—they were 'begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry'(!). Then he piles it on by reversing the situation in 9:1-2—how he boasted to the Macedonians, 'saying that the people of Achaia [Corinthians] have been ready since last year!'”

1 Corinthians 15—Puzzles over Jesus’ Resurrection—and Ours (Part B)

Lesson 17 - In 15:1-11, Paul states his core belief: “that Christ died for our sins,…that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (3-4). For proof of Jesus’ resurrection, Paul cites six appearances of the risen Jesus—to Peter, to the twelve disciples, to over 500 people, to James (leader of the Jerusalem church), to “all the apostles,” and last of all, to Paul himself (on the road to Damascus several years later) (5-9). Why didn’t Paul mention the women at the tomb?

1 Corinthians 15—Puzzles over Jesus’ Resurrection (and Ours)

Lesson 16 - This is the third time I have started to write this lesson. One reason it’s so hard is because neither Paul, nor I, nor anyone who reads this knows very well what we’re talking about. Obviously, Paul had not yet died at the time he was writing this, nor have any of us yet died; and none of us has yet been raised to life as Paul says Jesus has. What we have are intimations from pre-Christian Jewish writings, visions by some mystics, hints from Jesus before his death, witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and Paul’s Spirit-inspired (we hope!) logic.

1 Corinthians 14—The Spirit Is in the Details

Lesson 15 - "In today’s lesson, Paul focuses on two controversial spiritual gifts—prophesying and speaking in tongues. These are the public, vocal charisms that individual speakers are using to glorify themselves rather than building up the whole body in true worship."

The Christmas Story—When Tradition Trumps Text

Lesson 14 - "Ever since the second century, stories embroidering the canonical accounts of Jesus’ birth have become embedded in our celebrations. Every crèche gets so much wrong. Maybe we should worry less about our culture “taking Christ out of Christmas” and more about accurately reading our texts. I’ll warn you ahead of time—there was no stable, no inn, and no innkeeper."

1 Corinthians 13—Not Just for Weddings!

Lesson 13 - Self-giving love is the greatest quality to endure to eternity (1 Corinthians13:13). Does God have a Google-like “Cloud” where such unselfish acts are stored, no matter how small? Are acts of self-gratification immediately deleted from the Divine Hard Drive? This seems to be the gist of 1 Corinthians 13.

Contrasting Worldviews in 1 Corinthians 12

Lesson 12 - Corinthian Christ-believers hearing this chapter would have understood how radical was Paul’s theology over against the hierarchical socio-religious structure of empire. Elites may have rejected Paul’s view, while lower-class persons would be heartened. How do Christ-believers hear Chapter 12 today? As a commonplace and tame description of the church—or as a radical critique of our culture, our religions, and our American empire?

Misunderstanding the “Supper of the Lord”—1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Lesson 11 - Most “tables of the Lord” today focus primarily on one’s vertical relationship with Jesus. Even our church potlucks—where actual meal-sharing takes place—usually comprise people of similar social status. Today in this post-campaign season, bipartisanship still remains an elusive dream. Huge socio-economic chasms lie between the 1% and the bottom half of the 99%. Perhaps Christians on the political left or right, the well-off or the struggling, should observe Jesus’ practice by eating together. What do you think might happen?

The Apostle Paul’s “Woman Problem”—1 Cor. 11:2-16 (Lesson 10)

Lesson 10 - "One may wonder about the 'chain of command' in 11:3: God, Christ, man, woman. Is this the same person who opts out of the hierarchical 'patronage pyramids' that structure life in the Roman Empire in chapter 9? (see Lessons 3 and 9). This linkage and the mixed messages of this passage indicate to me that Paul is still a work in progress."

Give Up My Position and Salary? No Way!—1 Corinthians 8-10, Part 2

Lesson 9 - ". . .Paul has a big problem with such hierarchical values and practices. His vision of God’s reign on earth is egalitarian with special concern for the poor and hungry. He knows how entrenched such idolatrous thinking becomes the higher one ascends on the socioeconomic ladder. So he uses the example of his own life to show his house churches the cost of switching allegiances from Caesar to Jesus."

Carnivores and Vegetarians—Can We Get Along? (1 Corinthians 8)

Lesson 8 - "The issue of conscience is not new, at least not in my experience. Were you ever part of a youth group wrestling with what to do about differing convictions regarding use of alcohol, watching certain movies, or any number of “worldly” practices that some think are okay and others reject? We may also remember reverse ego-traps in such conversations, when the “weak” would try to manipulate the “strong” into feeling guilty. This happens politically today when, on the basis of their own religious conscience, some conservative Christians want to deny access to free birth control in health insurance plans for their employees."

Counter-Cultural Advice on Marriage and Family Life—1 Corinthians 7

Lesson 7 - "After the creation stories of two necessary genders, the biblical record that follows is rife with polygamy, adultery, rape, and prostitution—mostly perpetuated by powerful men in patriarchal cultures. Heroes like Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon seem little concerned to exemplify “biblical marriage.”

Scandalous Sex and Unjust Lawsuits—1 Corinthians 5 & 6

Lesson 6 - "The report Chloe’s people (1:11) brought to Paul in Ephesus contained shocking news— scandalous enough, perhaps, for a headline in the ancient Roman equivalent of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. No wonder they’re quarreling!" Paul holds off until he has laid out the theological foundation of his gospel (Lesson 4) and explained how he and Apollos worked together for church unity (Lesson 5). Then he lets loose. “It has been reported to me that there is sexual immorality among you of a kind not found even among pagans!” (5:1). Given what we know about Roman debauchery, this must be over the top!

We Are Not Competitors!—1 Corinthians 3:5-4:23

Lesson 5 - Thus, beginning in 1 Cor. 3:5, Paul attacks a problem many Christians will recognize—competition between church leaders and their factions. Apparently, Apollos is Paul’s only significant rival for leadership among the Corinthian churches. His superior eloquence has quite possibly attracted more believers of higher status. Patrons with more wealth and influence are changing the character of the house churches. But Paul never denounces or shames Apollos.

Crazy, Upside-down Wisdom in 1 Corinthians 1:18-3:4

Lesson 4 - In the last blog we set the stage for hearing Paul’s response to the quarreling factions in the house-churches he helped to plant. Paul is deeply troubled by this. “Has Christ been divided?

After the Apostle Paul Left Corinth

Lesson 3 - During his two or three years in Corinth, Apollos has been a smash hit in the Corinthian Jesus-assemblies. We can guess that the “not many” who are “wise by human standards…powerful…and of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26) comprised those believers who were attracted to Apollos’ preaching more than were the laborers and slaves who made up the majority within the Corinthian assemblies.

Getting around the Roman Empire

Lesson 2 - Paul of Tarsus dominates so much of the New Testament not only because he was a brilliant and passionate church-planter, but because he wrote letters to those assemblies after he moved on—letters deemed important enough to be copied and shared with believers in other cities like Philippi, Rome, or Corinth. “If you give us a copy of your letter, we’ll give you a copy of ours.” Maybe you don’t like Paul, but you have to hand it to him—the guy had vision!

Introduction to the Bible Study Series

Lesson 1 - For Christian feminists who read this website, no matter how little we know about the Bible, or how much we’ve been hurt by oppressive interpretations of it, or how quaint it seems compared to our world today, we still have some “Bible DNA” in our roots. At some level, we are “People of the Book,” an appellation applied to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, each with scripture they privilege above all others.