Writing a commentary on one book of the Bible is a serious responsibility—not to mention three books. So, when Aída, my wife, was given that opportunity, we shook out our savings from under every mattress, so as to say, and the whole family went to the island of Crete where Paul sent Titus so long ago to nurture the fledgling church. Our son Steve, who is in media productions, took 1,400 pictures and did the driving. I edited what Aída had written so far on her manuscript (which was considerable) while she took copious notes on what she needed in each spot to enlighten more obscure parts of the texts of the pastorals. We had our team.
Years before, we three had gone to Corinth where we researched our little popular commentary on 2 Corinthians and found that being on location really makes a difference in perspective, as we could step up where Paul spoke from the bema, the city’s seat of judgment; explore the central location of the shop area and see the easy access Paul and Prisca and Aquila in their tent-making trade would have had to engage newcomers entering the city on the Roman road; or realize how close the meat market was to the looming Temple of Apollo and how simply one could compromise one’s conscience if the freshest beef was idol-sacrificed.
But Crete offered us even more. Along with all its historic ruins and locations, in downtown Herakleion, its thriving largest metropolis, in the center of a beautiful walking mall, filled with fountains, sidewalk cafés, real estate businesses, convenience stores, computer and cell phone shops, and all the other enterprises that comprise a contemporary city, stood a lovely little church with a remarkable treasure. The Holy Church of Titus the Apostle in the Holy Archdiocese of Crete’s Parish of Saint Titus housed the skull of the saint himself. It was a must-stop for all Christians.
But, frankly, the prospect of gaping at the empty eye sockets and slack, toothless jaw of one who stays eternally young in the Bible pages (Paul’s “loyal child in the common faith,” Titus 1:4)1 was not appealing. It seemed so macabre to me—what Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) had in mind when she entitled her first Brother Cadfael novel A Morbid Taste for Bones. Could not this poor man be left to rest in peace—not displayed in pieces? Could not his body have been left intact in a single grave, awaiting the day of resurrection, not apportioned out like a couple of religious party favors to desiring churches?
But, in we went to a picturesque little chapel, no bigger than a country church. We peered into the sanctuary, but could see nothing unusual—no impressive display. When the custodian could not decipher our request, he ushered us into a side room: a sacristy full of a half dozen laughing college students trying to put a sign together for a special event honoring Titus. They looked delighted that we wanted to see their saint, and one young man leaped up, proudly took us back out to the main entrance, and showed us a beautiful, round, ornate case right in the foyer so anyone could stop off the street and contemplate it. We had walked right by it. It was hard to tell what it was at first glance. Only a small space in the top was open to show a few inches of the skull of Titus, but it did not look like a skull, but a smooth piece of dark green rock.
As I stood there before it, saying to myself, this man knew Paul and Timothy and Prisca and Aquila, people came in individually and lit a candle before it (the euro equivalent of fifty cents recommended donation, but not enforced), no doubt begging the saint’s intercession in some personal manner. But that did not seem to me to be the point of keeping his skull—albeit largely out of sight—present.
No, what struck me was that Titus was here for very concrete reasons: to show he was real. His is not just a made-up story—a work of imagination as much as some of the legends of Zeus and Artemis and the other mythic gods whose fanciful tales are woven into the true history of the island (or even as dubious as those legends that attached themselves to him, for example, that he was directly descended from the great Minoan King Minos, ruler of Crete’s exquisite Palace of Knossos, whose history stretches back some 4,000 years). Yes, his reliquary was certainly ornate and resplendent with pictures of the saint set in finely worked filigree, as befits someone of great honor, but it was not set high above us in the back of the church on a throne surrounded by pillars. It was simply placed in a foyer, humbly to the left as one entered, right in the center of all the action, about waist or chest high (depending on our size), and so close one could touch it. This was a real human being at the dawn of a real faith, and this receptacle told me that, symbolically, the appointed source of the growth of the church at Crete was still present in the most graphic way that such a statement about kephalē can be made: his actual head was here. His skull was a rallying point for the faithful.
As I thought about Titus’s impact on those who came to gaze upon him as I did, I thought, here was a pastor who empowered the church of his day and whose example still inspires the church of our day. His story is one more illustration that the Bible is a living book about living people who still live in God’s presence, but also in that they stay alive in their impact on our inclusion in the faith they worked so hard to promote.
This made me think about the way we have come to regard them. For example, as we debate the place of women in the Bible, of the meaning of Jesus’ attention to those who approached him, of the proper significance and application of Paul’s teachings, I wonder if sometimes we treat these human beings as if they were simply made-up fictional characters. I particularly wonder about this when I read some of what I consider the less responsible uses of redaction criticism, where a scholar is contending that there is not an ipssima verba (that is, not the real words of a scriptural person being quoted in the gospels and Acts), but an ipssima vox, the echo of what a person said, followed by a construction of a scene by the gospel and Acts writers so that the intention of Jesus or Paul or some other person can be fleshed out in some instructive scenario.
By the same line of reasoning, I wonder if the women we find in Scripture are in our day bartered around scholarly commentaries like so many commodities. Mary of Bethany, for instance, is these days sometimes equated with the prostitute who anointed Jesus—in fact, she is credited with all four anointing incidences, in total disregard that the name of a good and moral woman may be being sullied. Few that I have read, either women or men, ever seem to think through the implication of what they are writing. Mary of Bethany in the Bible’s portrayal is a serious, contemplative woman, well loved by her friends. Perhaps she was like Dorcas, well beloved because, being a thoughtful person who perceived what others routinely missed, she noticed their plight. But, in the hands of these speculative theories, based on no chronological nor historical data, but simply on the fact that there are four anointing accounts and only Mary is identified in one of these, Mary is made into a whore; there is no nice way to put it. Would Lazarus, then, the man whom we are told Jesus loved (John 11:3), have been her pimp? Is that what this theory is implying? After forty-three years reading exegetical and theological writings, I have to confess, I sometimes ask myself, do some of our fellow scholars actually think through the implications of the ideas they are positing? Do we?
To me, the skull of Titus reminded me that the women and the men in the Bible were real people with real experiences, achievements, feelings, failures, and faith in Jesus, even if sometimes faltering. I asked myself, were the women given a hard time, as women are today, when they led, by, say, the Judaizers who traveled about challenging all the reforms that Paul was implementing in the name of freedom in Christ? Did Paul have to sit down with Junia and say, “Dear Sister, don’t worry. Jesus appeared to you. He gave you gifts to lead as he did to the other apostles. Just ignore those who would still those gifts in you. You keep on being prominent among the rest of the apostles in the wonderful ministry that you do.” Did he sometimes say to Prisca, “What would I have done without you and Aquila and the way you welcomed the churches into your home and oversaw them so faithfully? And what would I do now, if you hadn’t welcomed me into your shop and helped me earn my living with you, so I wouldn’t be a burden or beholden to this particular church? Listen, Prisca, I’ve had to write some tough things to these Gentile women in these predominantly Gentile churches. I don’t have to tell you that they’ve been dragging in all their pagan religious practices, ululating in worship so that it’s maddening and lording it over the men like they were still priestesses in those pagan temples on the Acrocorinth. I know you know this, but I just want to reiterate that these warnings don’t apply to a learned, faithful Jewish woman like you who is now well versed in the faith through instruction and much study. Just ignore those parts that don’t apply to you and only take to heart the parts I wrote that apply to mature Christians—oh, and, while I’m mentioning it, thank you so much for welcoming Apollos into your house church and straightening out his theology. I’d been meaning to have somebody do that, because I’m overwhelmed—all these church are such a daily burden to me—but I’m really appreciative that you stepped up and took care of it with Aquila. What a team you both make. Honestly, if I were ever called to be married, which I’m not, I’d want a marriage just like yours.”
Down through history, real men like Titus and real women like those featured in this issue of Priscilla Papers faithfully worked for the faith and passed it on so that we could contain this holy treasure of God’s saving truth in the earthen vessels that we ourselves are.
To celebrate each of them, our issue begins at the beginning of the gospel story. We usually include our poem last, as our intention is to leave you with a creative expression of our theme on which to reflect, but this time I want to mention it first, because our poet, Lithuania Christian College professor Jennifer Stewart, has provided a poignant depiction of Jesus’ mother in the first of the many sufferings she would undergo for the sake of the gospel. This tender poem is followed by a fresh look at Mary and Martha, as sisters not in competition, as is usually thought, but as actually in cooperative ministries. Our guide is Mary Stromer Hanson, who recently completed her masters studies at Denver Seminary. Another fresh look is provided by professor Beulah Wood of South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore, India, whose meticulously researched creative reconstruction of Nympha of Laodicea (who is mentioned in Col 4:15) puts flesh and blood on another biblical woman, and thereby follows the theme of rediscovery of some great women of Christian history: the theme of this issue. Next, we step on from the New Testament into the Middle Ages for Sharon Baker-Johnson’s able study of Saint Clare, who worked together with Saint Francis in Assisi. Professor Jason Eden of St. Cloud University then travels with us to Puritan America to meet a woman whose life anticipated egalitarian values. Sharon Baker-Johnson then comes back with an excursion into modern times in an analysis of Jessie Penn-Lewis and the core message of her teaching ministry and preaching ministry. And our issue completes in more contemporary times with Denver Seminary Professor Judith Diehl’s review of Eastern University Professor Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen’s book on C. S. Lewis.
If the Lord tarries, as we used to say when I was a child, and we are as faithful as Titus and the women we rediscover in this issue, we ourselves may very well become historical names to those who follow us. It would behoove us to treat those who preceded us and their accounts with respect so that we set a standard for those who follow us. Our own reputations for integrity may actually be at stake.
1. Translation by the author.