More perfect priest, superior sacrifice: Hebrews

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

There’s a long tradition of grouping Hebrews with Paul’s letters. In the Latin and King James Bible tradition it has usually been titled “Paul’s letter to the Hebrews” as well. Despite that, it has still always been placed after the letters which stand under Paul’s name. Paul’s letters come in order from the longest, Romans, with sixteen chapters, to the shortest, Philemon, with only a single chapter. Even when Hebrews was referred to as Paul’s letter, then, its position in the New Testament put a question mark over the attribution. The style and content have persuaded most contemporary readers that Paul, whose name is entirely missing from the anonymous text, cannot possibly be the author.

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Negotiating the master-slave relationship in a church family: the letter to Philemon

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Philemon is the shortest of all Paul’s letters. (That hasn’t stopped someone writing a 600 page commentary on its 25 verses!) In the Roman Catholic lectionary selected verses are read on the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C. The corresponding Proper 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary, as so often, lengthens the reading to almost the whole letter, leaving out only the closing greetings. 

While some of the precise details are obscure, the overall picture is generally agreed to be straightforward. Philemon seems to be a member of the church at Colossae, who found his Christian faith through Paul’s ministry. Onesimus is a runaway slave of Philemon who has ended up in Paul’s company, and been visiting him while Paul is under arrest. As a result of his contact with Paul, he has come to faith in Christ independently of the commitment made by his master. 

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House rules and cultural accommodation: the Pastoral letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Icon of St Timothy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Sunday lectionary reads selections from 1 & 2 Timothy through in sequence towards the end of Year C,1 and uses a couple of short excerpts from Titus in the selections for Christmas Day. As I noted in my introduction to Paul’s letters, these three are sufficiently like each other to be grouped together, and sufficiently different from Paul’s other letters for many people to wonder if he wrote them. Although they are usually called, collectively, the Pastoral Letters, I think they might better be thought of as “organisational letters” written for those who have some responsibility for organising the church.

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It's the end of the world as we know it: the Thessalonian letters

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

I take both the letters to the church at Thessalonica together. Between them they have no more lectionary readings than the individual letters we have already looked at, and they cover much the same territory. Their key theme is how to live when you are expecting the end of the world as you know it. While living in expectation of Christ’s appearing remains a significant theme in Paul’s letters, it is at its most intense here. It also seems to be an expectation that is not fully understood by his Gentile converts in Thessalonica, who lack the grounding in Old Testament texts to fully appreciate it. Unsurprisingly, given this emphasis, the majority of readings from these letters comes in the Advent season.

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King of the universe: Colossians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

A small number of passages from Colossians crop up several times over the course of the lectionary. Selections from the letter are read through in the earlier summer weeks of post-Easter Ordinary Time, in Year C. The hymnic passage extolling Christ as the centre of both creation and its restoration as new creation (Col 1:15-20) is also read on Christ the King (again Year C). And the opening of chapter 3 is also read on Easter Day (Year A).

The letter as a whole reads a little like a first rehearsal for some of the themes we have seen developed in Ephesians. The story of human redemption is told on the same cosmic scale. In his description of Christ as “the image of the invisible God”, Paul seems to be echoing Wisdom chapter 7, especially verses 23-27. If Jewish thinkers increasingly saw Torah as the repository of divine wisdom, Paul leads the way for Christian thinkers in seeing Christ as wisdom’s true incarnation, a theme that is developed in John’s gospel.

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Colonies of heaven: Christianity as a Roman religion in Philippians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Christianity might have been born in a thoroughly Jewish home, but it quickly got sent to a Roman boarding school. In Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we see something of that happening. Philippi, like Corinth was a Roman colony, and Paul draws rather more positively on that heritage to shape his language when he writes to the Philippians, than he does in his more troubled relationship with Corinth. Indeed, it may well have been the Philippian church Paul had in mind when he spoke of the generosity of the Macedonian churches (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), appealing to the competitive spirit at Corinth, and trying to get them to up their game in the generosity stakes.

Paul envisages in Philippians that his death might be a very real possible outcome of his imprisonment. The picture is the traditional site of Paul’s burial in Rome.
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A bold vision of a cosmic church: Ephesians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

When we turn from Galatians to Ephesians, the change of tone is startling. This is one of those letters where the tone is rather less argumentative as well as less specific than Paul normally is. For many scholars, that suggests a disciple of Paul summarising some key elements of his master’s teaching. For others, it represents simply a different scribe, and Paul in a more reflective and different mode of teaching. The letter certainly shares Paul’s love of long and convoluted sentences, with Eph 1:3-14 essentially being a single sentence in the original Greek (depending on your view of what a sentence is!).

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