Reclaiming a Forgotten Saint

Paul, Andronicus, and Junia

Junia is a relatively new name to Christian scholarship. Her name appears in Romans 16:7 alongside several other women church leaders, but she is listed as an apostle, one of the original disciples of Jesus and an eyewitness to the resurrection. It shouldn’t be surprising, since the gospels are all pretty explicit that women played an important role in Jesus’ ministry and were the first ones to witness and proclaim the resurrection, but centuries of male prejudice led translators to assume that she was a man, “Junias,” a name so unusual that it doesn’t appear in any other manuscripts of the time (while “Junia” appears over 250 times).

The recent scholarship on Junia implies some interesting things about 1) the early church, 2) Christian history, and 3) how we read the Bible today, all of which have been important themes in my own ministry.

First, Biblical scholarship and the early church has been important for my own theology. In contrast to many Christians who believe the Bible must be consistent to be true, I revel in the fact that the Bible has many authors, many points of view, and many theological inconsistencies. Like the modern church, it was made up of liberals and conservatives, authoritarians and revolutionaries, mystics as well as logicians. When we read the Bible, we are thrown into a community of believers who do not always agree with each other, much less our own notions of who God is and what God is up to in the world. This is why we have four gospels, two histories of the monarchy, two creation stories, and multiple letters. I think it’s pretty clear that the early church was an egalitarian community that believed Jesus had opened the Kingdom of God to all, and that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female were all welcome at the table. But there were also early editors who were not comfortable with women in leadership, or (gasp!) uppity slaves.

Second, Christian history has likewise been a story of reformation and counter-reformation, of new movements of people reaching back to earlier traditions and reclaiming forgotten parts of the Bible. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius Loyola, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Mother Theresa, all created movements and changed their world because they reached back around their traditions to older Christian examples and the Bible itself. You can look at this as a big mess of conflicted history, or you can choose to see the power of the Holy Spirit leading people to deeper understanding of what Jesus’ Good News means to their generation or culture.

Lastly, when I preach, one of my main goals is to help people hear the Bible with fresh ears. Many of us—believers as well as skeptics—have been trained to miss important ideas in the Bible. I didn’t really fall in love with Jesus until I learned that he had a sense of humor which sometimes tended toward the gutter. People have managed to argue about homosexuality and religious exclusivism without ever recognizing the early church’s belief that God shows no partiality. I don’t want to ever claim that my interpretations of scripture are the only right ones, but I do think I offer people fresh theological options for engaging the Bible and understanding their world in light of it.

So for me, Junia speaks to all of those things—she is a link to the early church, a correction for the abuses of Christian history, and an interpretive lens for how we do theology today. She stands for all the forgotten saints at the margins who we reclaim from the past, and she symbolizes hope for a more just future for those who follow Jesus.

As I’ve been toying with church names for a church plant in the Birmingham area, Junia has come to mind. There are plenty of Methodist and other churches named after male saints, and there are even a few named for Saint Mary or Saint Elizabeth. But there aren’t any named for Junia.

Just a thought.

Judah, Tamar, and “Slut Shaming”

Horace Vernet: Judah and Tamar

The following is an excerpt from my book God Shows No Partiality. Given Rush Limbaugh’s recent insults toward Sandra Fluke, I thought it might be appropriate to share this ancient story. “Slut shaming” is a toxic aspect of our culture. I won’t say much more about Limbaugh’s comments, since others are doing such a good job of it already. But I do feel it’s important to point out that the Bible (which is often recruited to justify policing women’s sexuality) contains several stories that turn the tables on men who use such tools of social control.

One good example of an “unmasking” story is the drama of Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah, in Genesis 38. Tamar’s husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with neither a source of financial support nor a male heir. In the tradition of their culture, the responsibility for providing her with a male heir falls to her brothers-in-law. Unfortunately, the middle brother also dies when he tries to cheat her out of an heir.

Judah grieves over his two lost sons. According to their tradition, the duty of providing Tamar with a child now falls to Judah’s youngest son. Having already lost two sons to this woman under mysterious circumstances, Judah hems and haws about whether he will allow his youngest son to make love with Tamar. Years pass. Tamar is stuck at home, shamed and seemingly abandoned by God and her in-laws.

Tamar then comes up with a ploy worthy of classic theater. She learns that her father-in-law will be going on a business trip to the city of Timnah, so she disguises herself like a prostitute and seduces him while he’s away from home. Like modern cheats, he may have believed that “what happens in Timnah, stays in Timnah.”

After he has returned home and forgotten about the affair, he learns that Tamar is pregnant. Outraged that she has “played the whore,” he commands that she be burned to death. Just as she is being dragged from her tent to her death, she produces evidence that he, Judah, is the father. Filled with shame, he admits “she is more righteous than me” (v. 26).

Like many great stories, Tamar’s tale plays with the boundaries between right and wrong. On the surface, she is a wanton, a black widow, and Judah is the pillar of the community who speaks for society in sentencing her to death. But God shows no partiality, and knows that Judah is a hypocrite. God takes the side of Tamar, the woman seemingly trapped by circumstances beyond her control who uses her sexuality to win her freedom. Even situations that human beings consider scandalous violations of propriety, God may see as acts of justice.

The story itself unmasks something ugly about our society. Even today we use double standards when judging men’s and women’s sexual behavior, holding women to a higher standard while excusing men’s bad behavior by saying, “boys will be boys.” Legislators and popular evangelists still loudly condemn what they perceive as sexual immorality even as they cheat on their spouses and sleep with prostitutes. This story in the first book of the Bible works as a subtle critique of anyone who would use the Bible to police others’ sexual behavior. There is more to the story than the surface appearance of things, the author says.

In the New Testament, Matthew mentions Tamar as one of four women included in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:3). All four women are involved in similarly scandalous stories, which indicate Matthew’s awareness of a divine (and somewhat feminist) pattern in Jesus’ ancestry. Jesus, like Tamar, will be judged by an unjust system and sentenced to death. Jesus, like Tamar, will be vindicated in a radical reversal that will unmask the earthly powers.