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Rowan Williams: I didn’t really want to be Archbishop

Away from the pressures of Lambeth Palace, and back to writing poetry, Rowan Williams is a man transformed

Rt Revd Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams: ‘There was a foolish, vain part of me which said, “Ooh, an important job, how nice”‘ 
Photo: Fiona Hanson/PA

Today he is warm, welcoming and even seems to be walking taller at his surprisingly modern home in the grounds of Magdalene College, Cambridge, where he is Master. Is this life easier? “Yes,” he says, laughing. “What do you think?”

There are no acolytes or spin doctors surrounding him here as there were at Lambeth. He is just a priest, alone in a black clerical shirt, smiling through a bushy white beard, eyes glinting under those famous eyebrows as he pours the tea.

“Yes, it is a relief not to be at the end of public scrutiny all the time. It’s great to be in this kind of environment where conversation, exploration and teaching all go on.”

Lord Williams has agreed to talk over the kitchen table like this to mark the publication by Carcanet of a new edition of his poems, some of which were written during his 10 years in office. How did he find the time as Archbishop? “I had a day job, yes,” he says, drily. Surely the top day job for a clergyman? “Ugh. Don’t.”

That’s an interesting reaction. Did he not want it? “The job? Hmm. Not particularly. Why would you? Yes. There was obviously a foolish, vain and immature part of me which said, ‘Ooh, an important job, how very nice’. And the rest of me said, ‘Come on!’ ”

So why take it? “Because, I suppose, people I trusted said, ‘Give it a go’. Because if other people have done a fair bit of thinking and praying about it, I suppose you at least have to consider that it’s a calling. I went straight to my confessor when the letter came and said, ‘What about it?’ The reply was, ‘Go for it.’”

That suggests he did not feel a direct calling of his own. “Like quite a lot of clergy of my generation, there is an assumption that you are quite likely to hear God’s call from where the Church wants to send you. So I don’t think I’d have lost any sleep if it hadn’t happened. Certainly a lot less sleep than I lost in the job.”

Writing poetry was a compulsion and a refuge, often on long journeys. “Terrible confession coming up. I don’t normally carry a mobile phone. So when I am on a long train journey, I deliberately treat it as inaccessible time.”

An Archbishop travels a great deal. “Yes. It was one of the unexpected graces of a not always terribly graceful existence.”

The first collection was published in 2002, when his appointment had just been announced. So was that during the honeymoon period then? “There was a honeymoon period? Ha ha! It didn’t quite feel that way.”

Some people said he was too nice a man for the job, too intelligent and even too holy to have to be responsible for a Church whose members were capable of fighting like a bag of cats. Others thought he was too unworldly to be of any use. “I remember that, yes. It was like, ‘God, he writes poetry. How much worse does it get?’” That still annoys him. “I don’t think poetry is unworldly. It is one of the ways we relate most intensely to that much-maligned entity called the world.”

He does have clear regrets about his time as Archbishop, which ended in December 2012. Earlier this year he said that his lesbian and gay friends felt let down by him. What did he mean? “Exactly what I said.  That’s what they say to me.  And still do. There are friendships that have been really damaged by that.”

The Archbishop blocked his friend Dr Jeffrey John from becoming Bishop of Reading in 2003, for fear the appointment of a gay bishop would cause the Church to fracture. “I think people expected me to push the agenda harder than I did. But I don’t think that an Archbishop can be a campaigner in quite that sense.”

He stumbled – or was pushed – into the biggest controversy of his time as Archbishop in 2008, when he was reported as saying it was “unavoidable” that aspects of Sharia law would be introduced into British courts. The headlines were fierce, other bishops spoke out against him, and there were calls for his resignation. He felt aggrieved, having phrased his original lecture in much more careful, exploratory terms. He seemed to give up and close down after mentioning Sharia, as if assuming everything he said would be misunderstood. Is that fair? “Yes. Though it wasn’t just that.”

The Law Society has just issued guidelines for applying Sharia to disputes over wills, so the prediction has actually come true. Does he feel vindicated? “Mildly.  Ha.  Of course, about six months after that infamous lecture, the Lord Chief Justice said something fairly similar.  But no, I did feel that [the original controversy] was a rather surreal moment.”

There were at least 77 million people across the world looking to him for leadership in the old job, some expecting him to be as infallible as an old-style pope and others blaming him for everything.  Anyone would sleep more easily as Master of Magdalene. His job is to chair the meetings, oversee the strategy of the college and do a bit of fundraising, he says. “There’s a whole lot of rather nebulous stuff about making it work as a community. Getting to know colleagues and students, entertaining, being around, resolving tangles. You want to make the place flourish.”

Still only 63 years old, he also teaches and is Chancellor of the University of South Wales, as well as the chairman of Christian Aid. After keeping out of the spotlight for a while, he has just begun to comment again on national issues such as education and international development, but is careful not to get in the way of his successor, Justin Welby.  “The very last thing I want to do is to be jostling for attention or position with his priorities.”

That sets him apart from his rather noisier predecessor, Lord Carey.  But I want to know what Lord Williams says to the question of the week, raised by the Prime Minister and hotly disputed by atheists such as Philip Pullman and Nick Clegg.  Is Britain still a Christian country?

He ponders this for a moment, head on one side, eyes on the garden.  The sound of the traffic presses in, before he speaks. “If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian.  It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian.  And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian.  But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.

“You need to pick your way quite carefully here,” says a man accustomed to doing so. “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that.  Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists.  I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think.”

Think of all those flowers you see at the site of road accidents, he says.  “They are one of the most interesting modern sacramentals that has developed.  I said a few years ago that we were haunted by Christianity, and that is still where I would stand.”

Surely the word “haunted” implies something that is dead?  “Ah. That is not at all the implication I would want to go with.  If I were to say, ‘That’s a haunting melody’, I don’t necessarily mean it is dead.  I mean it hangs around, persistently.”

So are we a Christian nation or not? Yes or no?  “A Christian country as a nation of believers?  No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it?  Yes.”

Will we lose our faith altogether in time?  “Given that we have a younger generation now who know less about this legacy than people under 45, there may be a further shrinkage of awareness and commitment.”

Beyond that, he is hopeful.  “The other side is that people then rediscover Christianity with a certain freshness, because it’s not ‘the boring old stuff that we learnt at school and have come to despise’.  I see signs of that, talking to youngsters here at Magdalene and in school visits.  There is a curiosity about Christianity.”

He remembers the delight of primary-school pupils when he told them the story of the Prodigal Son, which they had never heard.  “There is a real possibility of people engaging freshly and hearing things as if for the first time.”

What should the attitude of the Church be?  “I know this sounds very Anglican, but neither complacency nor panic.  We still have a foot in the imaginative door of the country and its culture.  It is interesting that most articulate members of other faiths don’t feel all that threatened by allusions to the Christian heritage, and sometimes feel it is even to their advantage.”

Lord Carey says that Christians in this country feel like a persecuted minority.  Is he right?  “Some individual Christians have had a rough time.  There has been some real stupidity and inflexibility on the part of some organisations.  But I always step back from the language of persecution,” says Lord Williams.

“Like Archbishop Justin, I have seen persecution at closer quarters.  I have stood with people who have been shut out of their churches, people whose friends have been beaten and killed.  I’ve been in Pakistan and South Sudan.  That’s persecution.  So while I feel for those who are marginalised or insensitively treated here, I don’t think we can talk about persecution.  It’s always a bit seductive to think we are victims.”

What does he think of the Prime Minister’s recent statement of faith?  “It wouldn’t sway my vote.  Not in itself.  Not of course that I have a vote.  I am still a member of the House of Lords.”

And a poet.  It is easier to read his work now, without the distracting surface shimmer of his being Archbishop.  The poems are sometimes oblique but sometimes direct, depending on whether the lines are influenced more by Dylan or R S Thomas, W H Auden or Geoffrey Hill.  The most immediately touching are those that deal with personal events, such as a failed love affair or the landscape around him on the day in 1999 that he heard his mother was dying.

“We were on holiday in the Marches.  I remember catching a train and scrabbling down to Swansea and spending the last day with her.  My father had a major cardiac arrest the same morning, before she died.  It was a complicated day.”

They both died that summer, so neither lived to see their son, the academic, become Archbishop of Canterbury.  What would his father have made of it all?  “I think he would have been quite pleased, really,” he says, then, after a moment of silent thought, repeats himself, very quietly.  “Yes. Quite pleased.”

Lord Williams is now working on a new collection.  He writes by hand, and talks of the pain of striking out whole stanzas.  “It’s the ‘killing your children’ moment.  You think, ‘Oh, this is clever.  This is clever.  No it’s not, it’s bollocks’.”

That’s a surprise.  The b-word would be inappropriate for an Archbishop, but it feels like a warm blast of humanity from the Master of Magdalene, delivered with a smile and a shake of the head.  He is free now to be coarse if he wants to; but also to enjoy the give-and-take of conversation without the pressure to be right all the time.

He is still talking about editing poems, but I can’t help applying the words to his experience as Archbishop when he says:  “It is about recognising those words that are clever but useless.  That is really important.  And I am not always confident that I do.”

And Rowan Williams laughs at his own failings, a liberated, happier man.

‘The Poems of Rowan Williams’ (Carcanet Press; in paperback and ebook at £9.95) is out now

bible stanton

Things They Don’t Tell You About Christianity

There would be no need for the women’s movement if the church and Bible hadn’t abused them.
— Father Leo Booth

The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation.
— Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 19th century U.S. campaigner for women’s rights

In “The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power” by Barbara G. Walker the number of witches slaughtered was estimated by scholars to be 7 to 9 million also. [Historian] Will Durant, in his 12 volume History of Civilization sets the figure also at 7 to 9 million.

Misogyny is fundamental to the basic writings of Christianity. In passage after passage, women are encouraged—no, commanded—to accept an inferior role, and to be ashamed of themselves for the simple fact that they are women.  Misogynistic biblical passages are so common that it’s difficult to know which to cite.

  • From the New Testament we find “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church…” (Ephesians 5:22–23) and “These [redeemed] are they which were not defiled with women; …” (Revelation 14:4);
  • and from the Old Testament we find “How then can man be justified with God? Or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?” (Job 25:4)
  • Other relevant New Testament passages include Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:7; 1 Corinthians 11:3, 11:9, and 14:34; and 1 Timothy 2:11–12 and 5:5–6.
  • Other Old Testament passages include Numbers 5:20–22 and Leviticus 12:2–5 and 15:17–33.

The Church and women: from early Church fathers, Saints, Popes and Reformers to today

  • What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.-– Saint Augustine of Hippo, Church Father, Bishop of Hippo Regius, 354 – 430
  • As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.— Thomas Aquinas, Saint, Doctor of the Church, 13th century
  • Although far more women are witches than men… yet men are more often bewitched than women. And the reason for this lies in the fact that God allows the devil more power over the venereal act, by which the original sin is handed down, than over the other human actions.— Henry Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Inquisitors, 1486
  • Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one’s guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. … Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good.— St. Albertus Magnus, Dominican theologian and Doctor of the Church, 13th century
  • In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.  –Tertullian, 2nd-3rd Century church father
  • To embrace a woman is to embrace a sack of manure…— Saint Odo of Cluny, 10th Century,  from The Dark Side of Christianity, by Helen Ellerbe
  • Saint John Chrysostom commanded every Christian father to instill into his son “a resolute spirit against womankind … Let him have no converse with any woman save only his mother. Let him see no woman.” — Christianity and Pagan Culture In the Later Roman Empire, by M.L.W. Laistner
  • [Churchfather, venerated as a Saint up to the 17th century] Clement of Alexandria (150?-215?): “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.”
  • [Churchfather] Tertullian (160?-220?): “Woman is a temple built over a sewer, the gateway to the devil. Woman, you are the devil’s doorway. You led astray one whom the devil would not dare attack directly. It was your fault that the Son of God had to die; you should always go in mourning and rags.”
  • [Saint] Ambrose (339-97): “Adam was deceived by Eve, not Eve by Adam… it is right that he whom that woman induced to sin should assume the role of guide lest he fall again through feminine instability.”
  • [Saint] Augustine (354-430): “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.”
  • Pope Gregory I (540-604): “Woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her ‘use’ is two fold; [carnal] sex and motherhood.”
  • [Saint] Thomas Aquinas (1225-74): “[Woman] was made only to assist with procreation.”
  • [Reformer, founder of Scottish Presbyterianism] John Knox (1513-72): “Woman was made for only one reason, to serve and obey man.”
  • [Reformer, founder of the Methodist movement] John Wesley (1703-91): “Wife: Be content to be insignificant. What loss would it be to God or man had you never been born.”
  • Southern Baptist Convention (2000): “A wife should submit herself to the leadership of her husband. Leadership in the church should always be male.”
  • Local church in Holland (2004): “More and more we see women being placed in the position of Elder or Pastor in churches. Is this a good thing? Well, if your goal is to undermine the authority of the Word of God, it’s a good thing.”
  • Martin Luther (1483-1546), leading Reformer, founder of Lutheran Protestantism: “If [women] become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth–that is why they are there.”-– Martin Luther– The Dark Side of Christianity by Helen Ellerbe
  • Orthodox Christians held women responsible for all sin. As the Bible’s Apocrypha states, ‘Of woman came the beginning of sin. And thanks to her, we all must die.’
    — The Dark Side of Christianity, by Helen Ellerbe

See more: Martin Luther’s statements on women. For more anti-women sentiments to be found among Churches and Christians today, including the evangelicals:

It is this long tradition of bias against half of the human population that has made the Catholic Encyclopaedia declare:

The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul.
… If the two sexes are designed by nature for a homogeneous organic co-operation, then the leading position or a social pre-eminence must necessarily fall to one of them. Man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up.
— The Catholic Encyclopedia

Of course, the CE is generally good at obfuscating. Without retracting its statements on how woman is ‘inferior in certain respects … both as regards body and soul’ and how man is called by God to the ‘position of leader’, the CE continues that “To deduce from this the inferiority of woman or her degredation to a “second-rate human being” contradicts logic”. They are the ones who are illogical by contradicting themselves; as are those who affirm faith in such nonsense as are to be found in this ‘Encyclopaedia’.

Are women human? – voting and debating needed for Christians to decide the matter

In 584 CE, the Council Of Macon was held at Lyons. 43 Catholic bishops attended as well as 23 male representatives of other bishops. On the question of “Are women human?”, 32 voted Yes, and 31 No (that would make the remaining 5 still undecided).  Apparently, their decision was not final, as the question would be picked up again as late as the Reformation

The Original Sin and clergy against reducing pain during childbirth

In 1591 in Scotland, Euphanie Macalyane used a remedy to reduce delivery pains. For bypassing the Biblical curse of Genesis 3:16 – where God cursed Eve (and thus, women) with pain during childbirth – the devout King James VI had her burnt at the stake. Pious King James is better known for authorising the Bible’s translation into English: the KJV (King James Version).

In 1847, A British [in particular, Scottish] obstetrician, Dr. Simpson, used chloroform as an anesthetic in delivering a baby. A scandal followed, and the holy men of the Church of England prohibited the use of anesthetic in childbirth, citing Genesis 3:16: ‘God said to woman Eve, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy pain in childbearing. In pain thou shalt bring forth children and thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.'”
— Women Without Superstition, by Annie Laurie Gaylor

Scotland’s Presbyterian Church ensured that their female flock refused the treatment, frustrating Simpson’s work. In an attempt to change the Church’s adamant stance, Simpson offered Genesis 2:21 as supposedly supportive of anaesthetics: “God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam … he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh”. However, the Church, being more knowledgeable in theological matters, showed that 2:21 had happened before the Fall and thus before the Curse of Eve was pronounced, meaning the curse was still in effect. See the book: Triumph Over Pain by R. Fulop-Miller.

To relieve labor pains, as Scottish clergymen put it, would be ‘vitiating the primal curse of woman…’ The introduction of chloroform to help a woman through the pain of labor brought forth the same opposition. According to a New England minister:

‘Chloroform is a decoy of Satan, apparently offering itself to bless women; but in the end it will harden society and rob God of the deep earnest cries which arise in time of trouble, for help.’

— The Dark Side of Christian History, by Helen Ellerbe

It was only with Queen Victoria’s use of anaesthesia during her delivery that matters changed.


  • Woe to the Women: The Bible Tells Me So by Annie Laurie Gaylor
  • The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible by Ruth Hurmence Green


Mental abuse as a form of “spiritual instruction”

…an example of Christianity’s cruel brainwashing of the innocent, consider this quotation from an officially approved, 19th-century Catholic children’s book (Tracts for Spiritual Reading, by Rev. J. Furniss, C.S.S.R.):

Look into this little prison. In the middle of it there is a boy, a young man. He is silent; despair is on him … His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. His breathing is difficult. Sometimes he opens his mouth and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalding veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones. Ask him why he is thus tormented. His answer is that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things.

There are many similar passages in this book. Commenting on it, William Meagher, Vicar-General of Dublin, states in his Approbation:

“I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children and have found nothing whatever in it contrary to the doctrines of the Holy Faith; but on the contrary, a great deal to charm, instruct and edify the youthful classes for whose benefit it has been written.”

More from Father Furniss’ writings for children:

A little child is in this red hot oven. Hear how it screams to come out! See how it twists and turns itself about in the fire. It beats it head against the roof of the oven. It stamps its little feet on the floor. You can see on the face of this little child what you see on the faces of all in hell – despair, desperate and horrible.
— Books for Children, by Father Furniss quoted in Atheism The Case Against God, by George Smith

If the book came back in print, many Christian parents will doubtless continue to find it very useful (“charming, instructive and edifying”) and a means to instill the fear of Hell in their children. If this book seems distinctly unpleasant, it is yet better than being forced to read the Bible at a young age, which many parents still inflict on their children.

There’s also Bible-sanctioned abuse, where parents are allowed to chastise their children with a “rod”.  From the Bible (KJV):

  • Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
  • Proverbs 19:18: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.”
  • Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”
  • Proverbs 23:13: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”
  • Proverbs 23:14: “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
  • Proverbs 29:15: “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
  • Hebrews 12:6-7: “the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?”
Today: pious Christians still beat their kids with the rod

Samuel Butler’s line “spare the rod, and spoil the child” from the 17th century had been taken up with enthusiasm by Christians. Beating children is illegal today in many European countries, yet the chastising of children by beating them still occurs in Christian families in America. This is especially the case with the fundamentalist Christian denominations, who know that the Bible is very clear on how they should correct the ways of their children.

  • About.Com – illustrates how there are advertisements to sell rods to Christian parents and there are devout people buying them. The market’s there.
  • A modern-day Christian site advocating the rod. They cite articles that support their Biblical views, although even if there were no such articles, one can be sure that the Biblical sanction is more than enough for them.
  • Spare the Child by Philip Greven.
    Greven cites many excerpts from present-day American Protestant writers to demonstrate that violence against children is still being promoted by Christian clerics.
  • For Your Own Good by Alice Miller
    In which the author traces the roots of physical violence towards children in the western world to the influence of Christianity.

See also:

The Evolving Destruction of the Female

When the Christian church really went full steam ahead in their destruction of women, the female and the Goddess within women, was during the Great Inquisition:I am quoting now from a classic academic work on the Goddesses by Marija Gimbutas, “The Language of the Goddess“…The author is a Professor of European archaeology at UCLA and the curator of the Old World archaeology at UCLA’s Cultural History Museum: On page 319: quote: “Women were called Disciples of Satan and this period was one of the bloodiest in history. The witch hunt of the 15th to 18th centuries was the most satanic event of European history. The murder of women accused as witches escalated to MORE THAN EIGHT MILLION. The burned or hanged women were mostly country women who learned the lore of the Goddess from their grandmothers.”

Listen to Episcopal Bishop C.L. Meyers: “A priest is a God symbol. God is masculine in both the Old and New Testaments. Christ was a man, masculine. That was a divine choice.” He said this at Grace Cathedral before 700 delegates fighting the ordination of women.Listen to the former Senior Minister of the one of the largest Presbyterian churches in Houston, Texas. the Rev. Dr. Charlie Shedd. He wrote this in a book called “How To Treat A Woman.” “Women are simple souls who like simple things. Our family airedale will come clear across the yard just for one pat on the head. Wives are like that. They will come across the house, across the room, across anything if you will just keep patting them on the head.”


John Dominic Crossan  (John Dominic Crossan was born in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, in 1934. He was educated in Ireland and the United States, received a Doctorate of Divinity from Maynooth College, Ireland, in 1959, and did post-doctoral research at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome from 1959 to 1961 and at the École Biblique in Jerusalem from 1965 to 1967. He was a member of a thirteenth-century Roman Catholic religious order, the Servites (Ordo Servorum Mariae), from 1950 to 1969 and an ordained priest from 1957 to 1969. He joined DePaul University, Chicago, in 1969 and remained there until 1995. He is now a Professor Emeritus in its Department of Religious Studies.

He was Co-Chair of the Jesus Seminar from 1985 to 1996 as it met in twice-annual meetings to debate the historicity of the life of Jesus in the gospels. He was Chair of the Parables Seminar in 1972-76, Editor of Semeia. An Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism  in 1980-86, and Chair of the Historical Jesus Section in 1993-1998, within the Society of Biblical Literature, an international scholarly association for biblical study based in the United States.)

SOPOCANI-MONASTERY-large300The 13th-century Sopoćani monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site near the source of the Raška River, just east of Novi Pazar in the south-western corner of Serbia. After two centuries of attack, desolation and abandonment, its Church of the Holy Trinity is now rebuilt, its frescoes restored and its monastic life revived.

In the southern choir of that eastward-pointing church are frescoes of seven apostles. Five are now unidentifiable, as time and decay has literally defaced them, but each is folding a single scroll. Matthew is identifiable and he is holding the book of his Gospel. But the most clearly identifiable is the leading figure on the choir’s east wall. It is the apostle Paul, complete with his recognizable receding hairline. His right hand is raised in the traditional Byzantine teaching gesture of fingers separated into two (for two natures in Christ) and three (for three Persons in the Trinity). What is extraordinary, however, is that his left hand holds 10 clearly distinguishable scrolls — not a single scroll or book but 10 scrolls in a cluster.

APOSTLE-PAUL-large300Why 10 scrolls when Christianity’s New Testament attributes 13 letters to the apostle Paul: letters to communities such as the Romans, Corinthians (twice), Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians (twice) and to individuals such as Timothy (twice), Titus and Philemon.

There is, however, a massive consensus in modern scholarship that those three letters to Timothy and Titus were written in Paul’s name but long after his death. It would seen, then, that around 1265 a Byzantine artist at Sopoćani already accepted that viewpoint — hence, only 10 scrolls for 10 letters.

There is also a strong (but not massive) consensus among much of modern scholarship that a further three of those 10 letters were not written by Paul. In other words, we have seven letters certainly from the historical Paul (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon), three others probably not from him (Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and a final three certainly not from him (1-2 Timothy, Titus). Those are all, of course, historical conclusions and not dogmatic presumptions. Well and good, but, even if correct, so what? And why should anyone care?

It is not just that we have factual and fictional letters of “Paul” or that those 13 letters are mixed between a Paul and a Pseudo-Paul. It is not just that, after Paul’s death, followers imagined him in new situations and had him respond to new problems — as if in a seamless if fictional continuity from past into present and future.

The problem is that those post-Pauline or Pseudo-Pauline letters are primarily counter-Pauline and anti-Pauline. What happens across those three sets of letters is that the radical Paul of the authentic seven letters (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon) is slowly but steadily morphed into the conservative Paul of the probably inauthentic threesome (Ephesians Colossians, 2 Thessalonians) and finally into the reactionary Paul of those certainly inauthentic ones (1-2 Timothy, Titus).

In other words, the radical Paul is being deradicalized, sanitized and Romanized. His radical views on, for example, slavery and patriarchy, are being retrofitted into Roman cultural expectations and Roman social presuppositions. Watch, then, how it works in terms of slavery (I leave patriarchy for my next blog in this series on Paul):

The radical and historical Paul sent back the now-converted slave Onesimus to his owner and told him that a Christian could not own a Christian for how could Christians be equal and unequal to one another at the same time? He reminds him “to do your duty,” to free Onesimus, and to consider him “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother — especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 1:8,16).

Next, the later, conservative counter-Paul takes Christian owners with Christian slaves absolutely for granted, addresses both classes and reminds each of its mutual obligations. “Slaves obey … fearing the Lord” and “Masters treat your slaves justly … you also have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 3:22-4:1 & Ephesians 6:5-9). Christian-on-Christian slavery is back but now in kinder, gentler mode!

Finally, the still later and reactionary anti-Paul never mentions mutual duties, addresses only the master, and says to “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and … to be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10).

What is at stake in that sad progression from Paul to anti-Paul? Why is it of importance that — at least with regard to slavery — radical Christian liberty is being changed back into normal Roman slavery. It means this: Jewish Christianity is becoming Roman Christianity. And this: Constantine here we come!


On the mid-Aegean coast of Turkey, half-way up the northern slope of the Bülbüldag and high above the excavations of ancient Ephesus, is a long, narrow shrine-cave. On your immediate right as you enter its 50-foot length is a fresco depicting a scene from the Acts of Thecla, a set of stories now preserved as Chapters 1-43 of the second-century Acts of Paul. (Google: “Early Christian Writings.”)

Three characters are identified by name on that fresco. Paul is seated in the middle addressing Thecla to viewer left. She is a virgin — hence unveiled — but house-bound — hence nubile. An elegantly veiled matron, her mother Theoclia, is to viewer right.

2011-08-08-fresco.jpg Both the right hands of Paul and of Theoclia are raised in identical authoritative teaching gestures. Since Paul lacks any halo, my inexpert opinion would date that fresco to the 400s.

We saw, with slavery in my previous post, that the de-radicalization and re-romanization of Paul was already well underway in those post-Pauline letters attributed to him. So also here with regard to gender. Those two women — poised on either side of Paul — represent two linked controversies which would change the radical Paul of Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon, first into the conservative Pseudo-Paul of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, then, finally, into the reactionary Anti-Paul of 1-2 Timothy and Titus.

Patriarchy. One controversy is represented by Theoclia to Paul’s left. As noted above, her right hand was originally raised in a teaching gesture every bit as authoritative as that of Paul. But it was later both gouged out and burned off. Furthermore, since only her eyes are obliterated, that erasure was not just general iconoclasm but individual assault. She is represented, in other words, as a woman teaching with authority whose image is then effaced with prejudice. This is simply a visual image of that reactionary post-Pauline and anti-Pauline command that “no woman [is] to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Timothy 2:12).

That is not, of course, the view of the historical Paul whose letter to the Christian communities of Rome was delivered — that is, read and explained — by a woman named Phoebe, an administrator of a house-church near Corinth (Romans 16:1-2). Neither is it the position of the  historical Paul who described the woman Junia as “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16:7) — an “apostle” is somebody “sent” by God with authority to found new Christian communities.

Celibacy. The other controversy is represented by Thecla, to Paul’s right. In the story of that scene from the Acts of Thecla, Paul is advocating celibate asceticism. Recall, for comparison, that his contemporary, the Jewish philosopher Philo, described women and men who lived similar lives in the desert outside Alexandria. Not, of course, because sex was evil in any way, but because they could not live lives of justice and equality in the midst of urban family pressures (On the Contemplative Life 1.2; 2.17; 9.70).

Thecla hears Paul’s challenge and, at about thirteen years of age, she rejects her family-appointed suitor and any possibility of marriage. She refuses to be passed from the authority of one male — her father — to that of another male — her husband. Thecla’s option for virginal celibacy is a far more profound rejection of patriarchal power than that of Theoclia’s claim to teaching authority.

Thecla, therefore, is condemned to beasts in the arena. But then something extraordinary happens. The crowd splits, not just between Christians — for Thecla — and Pagans — against her.  It splits between Women — for her — and Men — against her. In fact, that story is not just early Christian feminism but early Christian femalism because a lioness protects her against a lion. And the Women confuse the animals’ sense of smell by casting their perfumes into the arena.

In that cave-shrine scene, those two women, Thecla and Theoclia represent together the full legacy of Pauline radicalism which reactionary letters such as 1-2 Timothy and Titus seek rather desperately to cauterize and contain. Those anti-Pauline letters want Christian teachers to be male and not female (1 Timothy 2:8-15) but they also want those males to be normal not ascetic, married not celibate, and, to be absolutely sure, they want to see their children (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9).

The historical Paul is being pulled — kicking and screaming — away from Christianity’s radical past and into Christianity’s Roman future. As with owner and slave so also with male and female, hierarchies rejected by Christian radicality — in, for example, Galatians 3:26-28 — are being retrofitted into Roman normalcy. Once again, then, Constantine here we come.

John Dominic Crossan

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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May 2020



On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory