The Bible reader will recall that Paul is the great apostle of salvation by faith:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves;
it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." (Ephesians
How strange that he should turn out of to believe in salvation by works for one half the human race, and that moreover by means of an activity that had never been understood by either Jews or Christians to be a meritorious act: enduring childbirth.
This is the same Paul who says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there
is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28). How, if
there is neither male nor female in Christ, can the salvation plan for
women turn out to be not faith, but suffering a biological process no man
can perform? How easy can this be! Can salvation really come from a life
experience most women, wicked or well-intentioned, undergo anyway? Jezebel
was a mom (2 Kings 10:13). Will welfare moms lead the charge into the kingdom?
How foolish are those who condemn that eager woman who hung around the
fertility clinic until she got octuplets, demanding to know who was expected
to pay for it! If Dr. Ehrman is right, these women have found the pearl
of great price.
And how can Paul recommend that women remain single, as he is, if so doing
ensures their damnation?: "But I say to the unmarried and to the widows:
It is good for them if they remain even as I am..." (1 Corinthians
7:8). No doubt this new information will be a disappointment for those
religious organizations which keep nuns on the payroll.
So have we discovered another 'Bible contradiction'? Is this author right
in thinking 1 Timothy 2:15 was written by a forger, which says,
"Nevertheless she will be saved in childbearing if they continue in
faith, love, and holiness, with self-control." (1 Timothy 2:15).
You can be saved by the fire-fighter from the fire downstairs or saved
by Jesus from the fire to come. When Paul promises his pagan ship-mates
they can be "saved" if they obey his instructions, he does not
mean to eternal life, but 'saved' only in the sense they will walk away
from a boat smashed upon the rocks:
"Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, 'Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved [sothenai].'” (Acts 27:31).
We hope to be saved to eternal life, preserved and held out of the fire
lit by God's wrath. On a more modest note, people also hope, amidst the
vicissitudes of life, to be kept safe, preserved in health. It turns out
Dr. Ehrman is well aware of this sense of 'saved:'
"The Greek word for 'save,' in this and other contexts, refers to
restoring a person to health and wholeness." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's
Problem,' p 233).
He just sees no need to cue the unwary reader. Christian women who cling to their Savior will be kept safe through [dia] the painful and dangerous experience of child-bearing.
But why do pain and danger still accompany childbirth? After Eve fell, she was cursed: "In pain you shall bring forth children..." (Genesis 3:16). When Christ came and reconciled God with man, was not the curse lifted? No doubt many optimistic ideas have found encouragement in this thought, from nudism to socialism. But these ideas are premature. Thorns and thistles still rise from the ground. Has the son of the woman already trod on the serpent's head (Genesis 3:15)...or "shortly" (Romans 16:20)?
Some people believe the pious are already exempt: "During her
pregnancy, Jochebed observed that the child in her womb was destined
for great things. All the time she suffered no pain, and also she
suffered none in giving birth to her son, for pious women are not
included in the curse pronounced upon Eve, decreeing sorrow in
conception and in child-bearing." (Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the
Jews, Volume 2, Kindle location 2905). But two thousand years of
Christian experience sorts this blessing into the realm of the
'not-yet.' Does this mean Jesus cannot really have been the Messiah?
This is the kind of argument to which Paul is responding, as
heard in a medieval dispute between Jews and Christians: "'And how
stands it with your assumption that your Messiah redeemed the world
from original sin? The penalties decreed for that sin still exist.
Women still suffer pain in childbirth; in the sweat of the brow must
the ground be plowed, and Death still thins the hosts of the living —
evils which, according to your construction of the Bible, result
only from original sin." (Rabbi Moses ben Nachmani (Ramban), quoted
in Michael L. Rodkinson, The History of the Talmud, Volume 19, The
Babylonian Talmud, Kindle location 76091). This argument requires a
response, in Paul's day as in the medieval period, and here Paul is
giving it. The remedy for the curse is here, though not yet
established in full dominion. We are in-between. Those women who
pray in faith will be kept safe through child-bearing, even while
undergoing pain, a curse for the sin from which Jesus cleansed us.
According to Genesis, men's dominance over women was a consequence of the fall: "And he shall rule over you" (Genesis 3:16). Some people probably thought this dominance was over, since Christ had come. But not Paul. The conflict revolves around where we are on God's timeline, not who is worth what.
To be sure, children are understood in the Bible to be an unmixed blessing:
"Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
The fruit of the womb is a reward." (Psalm 127:3).
But the process by which they come into the world is not salvific. If Dr.
Ehrman were to pay attention to his fellow agnostic Robert Ingersoll, he
would hear that:
"It [the Bible] makes maternity an offense for which a sin offering had to be made. It was wicked to give birth to a boy, and twice as wicked to give birth to a girl." (Robert Ingersoll, 'About the Holy Bible,' II).
Aren't agnostics prone to tendentious overstatement! The purity code of the Mosaic law does not assign moral turpitude to a discharge of blood, but does require cleansing. In Judaism childbirth is an occurrence for which the mother must be purified, on account of the blood:
"When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son
or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as
a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering,
to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before
the LORD, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow
of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.
Some believers were so alarmed at the thought of God incarnate wallowing
in blood and bodily fluids that they affirmed instead that He had passed
through Mary 'like water through a pipe.' When did this paradigm get turned
on its head, and childbirth became, not defiling, but salvific?
Dr. Ehrman does not tell us, because, in his way of reading the Bible,
every utterance is a bolt from the blue, unconnected to anything that has
gone before or since, the better to find 'Bible contradictions.' Christians
read the Bible by fitting everything together, because they understand
these works to be of common authorship. But even unbelievers must realize
there are not really in life so many bolts from the blue. When asked, 'what
do you think,' most people's response is to replay a tape of something
they heard in childhood. Those who believe in inspiration may expect innovation,
because the Holy Spirit can drag even a stubborn man like Peter, kicking
and screaming, to the house of Cornelius the Gentile. Those who rule out
inspiration must expect true originality to be rare; it takes much careful
thought to disentangle and question the conventional wisdom. To read the
Bible as Dr. Ehrman does, disconnected, every utterance a new world of
discourse, is not even plausible from a secular standpoint. If it were
not the way to harvest 'Bible contradictions,' no one would read this way.
The Adulterous Woman
The modern reader will have noticed Bible have been shrinking in recent
years. Bibles like the NRSV and the NASB are light-weights compared with
the venerable and hefty KJV. Not only is there a difference in quantity
but of quality: many clear statements of the deity of Jesus Christ found
in the KJV are among the detritus pruned away by the newer versions.
The reason why modern Bibles are thinner than the old-fashioned ones is
a procedural rule adopted at the outset of the endeavor of modern textual
criticism: that the shorter reader is to be preferred to the longer one.
This rule can be extracted at the end of the process by the alert reader
with a set of postal scales; but it only can be extracted at the end because
it was put in at the beginning. Sometimes this sequence is misstated, as
if modern textual critics had 'discovered' that the text ought to be shorter;
this has not been 'discovered,' it is hard-wired into the methodology used
by this discipline. Should the rules of textual criticism be lost, they
could be reverse engineered out of what they've done with the text; what
they've done with the text is not an independent datum or fact about the
world which they have 'discovered.'
It was widely assumed by the founders of this discipline that sacred texts
grew by accretion: we start with a few lonely sentences, they cohere with
others, soon a whole structure precipitates into view, growing like a stalactite.
This process was imagined to be under the superintendence of the 'zeitgeist'
or some other supernatural agency. But no one has ever actually seen a
text come into existence in quite this manner, and skeptics said, 'Show
me when this has ever happened.' Our collection of early manuscripts is
so meager that no statistically meaningful results can be stated to confirm
that the New Testament was a 'growing' text.
Bart Ehrman would like to promote this rule, that the shorter reading is
to be preferred, from a methodological first principle into an empirical
fact. The woman taken in adultery is a very important test case for him.
The story is familiar to readers of the majority text of the Bible:
"Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the
people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them. hen the scribes and
Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had
set her in the midst, they said to Him, 'Teacher, this woman was caught
in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that
such should be stoned. But what do You say?' This they said, testing Him,
that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped
down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them,
'He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.'
And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard
it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning
with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman
standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one
but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours?
Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, Lord.' And Jesus said to
her, 'Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.'" (John 8:2-11).