Jesus’ brother lays a smackdown on Paul – TIL #7: “Fly from Heaven”

The latest episode of Mark Goodacre‘s always excellent NT Pod regarding Jesus’ brothers gave me the perfect opportunity to present this long-time candidate for Theologically Interesting Lyric. I have problems with some of the historical-critical assumptions and theological claims of the lyrics, but concerning the lyrics as art, it’s great stuff. I’ll interact with the NT Pod’s material a bit more below.

Fly from Heaven
written by Glen Philips, performed by Toad the Wet Sprocket on the album Dulcinea

Verse 1:
Paul is making me nervous
Paul is making me scared
Walk into this room and swaggers
Like he’s God’s own messenger

Changed the name of my brother
Changed the things that he said
Says that he speaks to him
But he never even knew the man
But I’d give my life for him

Chorus 1:
Like water through my hands
You’d give him any endin’
But if he’s all you say
Would he fly from heaven
To this world again
To this world again

Verse 2:
Take whatever you’re needing
Take whatever you can
We are broken from within
Run to another land

Chorus 2:
Like water through my hands
Or is it just beginning
But if he’s all you say
Would he fly from heaven
To this world again
To this world again

Bridge:
They took my brother
They ripped him from me
To twist his words as they did his body
Denied his family
Denied his beauty
To lay him down at the feet of those he couldn’t save
Couldn’t save, couldn’t save

Chorus 3:
Will it be the end
Or is he still ascending?
But if he’s all you say
Would he fly from heaven
To this world again
To this world again

 

(link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnPvWAeprmI)

The song assumes the validity of the claim that Paul was a Johnny-come-lately who glommed onto some of the teachings of a relatively ordinary Jewish teacher/martyr and created a religion essentially out of whole cloth.

Songwriter Glen Philips, a Jew in upbringing turned spiritualist/agnostic, explains that he set out to write how a brother of Jesus (presumably but not necessarily James) might have felt to hear someone as outspoken, influential, but relatively foreign as Paul come on the scene and claim to speak on Jesus’ behalf, name him the Christ (“changed the name of my brother”), and create a religion around him despite the fact that “he never even knew the man.” It doesn’t take a professing Christian biblical scholar to see problems with some of this, but it works as a take-off for the song, which is quite poignant as a character sketch.

The NT Pod episode I referred to above highlights the varying depictions of the brothers of Jesus in the New Testament. In none of the Gospels are they accounted among Jesus’ followers, and in both the earliest and the latest Gospels there is evidence of tension: Mark 3 shows Jesus’ family doubting his sanity and Jesus essentially disassociate himself from them, and John 7.5 asserts that they did not “believe in him.” In contrast, both Acts and Paul’s epistles show Jesus’ brother James as a particularly prominent leader of the church. Goodacre discusses a couple possibilities accounting for this difference in (at least) James’ attitude toward Jesus, including a post-Resurrection conversion experience or the Gospel writers’ attempts to discredit or downplay the authority of Jesus’ family, and James in particular, in the church.

As most biblical scholars are aware, the Gospels also frequently show the disciples/apostles in a bad light, particularly in Mark. If the Evangelists gave his family the same treatment, it might well lead one to suppose either that Mark was part of a community that eschewed all currently known leadership alike or that the denigration of Jesus’ followers in his Gospel should not imply a profound criticism of their post-Resurrection leadership. Regardless, this would have been an extremely weak tactic for the Evangelists to take: showing Jesus’ followers as not believing or understanding his mission prior to the Resurrection would surely not have been anything but a weightless potshot considering the well-known belief and devotion of the apostles and James in the church-era.

All this to me suggests another case of creatively reading too much intrigue into the texts; my guess is that, for Mark at least (and maybe John), there was dramatic power in showing Jesus’ disciples and family as original failures who everyone knew became important leaders — the least becoming greatest in stereotypically Christian fashion. This does not mean that James or Jesus’ other family members were indeed skeptics converted by the Resurrection of Jesus: it could well have been dramatic license on the Gospels’ part that showed them having a hard time believing Jesus. But it is striking that this same license was utilized by more than one Evangelist independently.

In any case, the song by Toad the Wet Sprocket certainly seems to paint a different picture, showing a loving and supportive brother who can’t figure out why someone’s gone and concocted a religion by twisting his brother’s words. That there was tension between James and Paul is implied in more than one place in the New Testament, but it wasn’t because Paul had created a religion out of Jesus: James was leader of the Jerusalem church, and he did indeed end up “giv[ing his] life for him.”

It’s a theologically interesting lyric, nonetheless.

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