I’M ALMOST FINISHED paraphrasing the letters of Paul, and I’m struck by how often he says things that doesn’t make sense.
When you go through his letters one word at a time, trying to put what he says into your own words, there are plenty of times you have to take a wild guess.
I’m working in 1 Corinthians 11 at the moment.
That’s the chapter where he tells men they should keep their hair cut short and women should keep their hair long. Here’s a sneak peek of three verses:
“Come on, can’t you see it’s unnatural for a man to have long hair and that he should be ashamed? But a woman with long hair should be proud of herself. Her long hair is like a cape that covers her. If anyone wants to argue about this, don’t bother. There’s just one custom when it comes to haircuts. It’s the custom I just described” (1 Corinthians 11:14-16 Casual English Bible).
I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard about boy’s haircuts in the 1970s. Those were the days when you might see a shapely blonde from behind, walk up to say hello, and then get yourself jarred bug-eyed when what turned around to greet you was a bearded face.
For a moment, it felt like you had just kissed your sister.
Some Bible experts say this style of gender blending, which makes it harder to tell one sex from the other, is the kind of thing that may have been going on in the Corinthian church.
This particular theory, one of many, says that some people were starting to dress androgynously. That means you couldn’t tell which sex the person was until you got close enough that they could see your face turn deep red. (By the way, if your face turns red easily you are more likely to experience rosacea in your later years. So says my dermatologist.)
As the theory goes, the Christians were taking one of Paul’s teachings too far: “We’re not men or women. We’re one people, united in Jesus, the Messiah” (Galatians 3:28).
The more scholarly Bible translations tend to simply translate the confusion, and leave it there. I think we need Bibles that do that.
Some of the easy reading Bible paraphrases, however, take a stab at making guesses. That’s what I’ve been doing, qualifying the guesses with footnotes.
I’m telling you about this because so many people seem to think it’s a simple matter to read the Bible and trust what it says.
But when we study what it says, we realize that sometimes we can’t figure out what it says. In Paul’s case, he is writing letters to people who know the back story. They likely know why he has gotten all worked up about haircuts and women needing to cover their heads when they go to worship services.
I think there’s a temptation for people to pick a theory or an explanation from out of a grab bag of sermons they’ve heard, and hang onto it like they got it from God. They want to make the Bible simple and easy to grasp.
But if the Bible is about God and the kingdom of God, should we expect those stories and teachings to always be simple and easy to grasp?
I’m thinking we may have to struggle for some of this.
I know there are days when I struggle trying to figure out what Paul is saying so I can put it in casual English.
On days like that, I’m especially grateful for footnotes.
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