This folk-singing trio of the 1960s were storytellers for their age.

This folk-singing trio of the 1960s were storytellers for their age.

Conclusion: Peter, Paul, and Mary in Perspective

Throughout this study I have argued that Peter, Paul, and Mary, like Jesus before them, were Jewish apocalypticists. Apocalyptic thinkers thought that the end of all things would be like the beginning: the earth would return to its original paradisal state—a new Garden of Eden, in which there would be no more sin, evil, pain, or suffering. In this spirit—that the end is to be like the beginning—I would like to conclude this book on the same note that I began it on, with reference to the Peter, Paul, and Mary of modern times.

This folk-singing trio of the 1960s were storytellers for their age. As with most storytellers, many of their most popular songs were in fact reproductions of songs written by others. These reproductions were themselves subject to a number of interpretations, applicable to a wide range of situations.

Some of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s best-known songs involved personal loss and separation. The popular tune “500 Miles,” for example, speaks of one’s lover missing the train she is on, only to hear the whistle blow from a hundred miles away.

Even better known is a song (written by John Denver, no less) that tugged at our heartstrings in ninth grade, even if it does seem a bit hokey now:

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go
I’m standin’ here outside your door I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin’, it’s early morn
The taxi’s waitin’, he’s blowin’ his horn
Already I’m so lonesome I could die . . .
‘Cause I’m leavin’ on a jet plane Don’t know when I’ll be back again Oh, babe, I hate to go . . .

Are these songs merely about the heart-rending pain of going on a trip? Are they about losing a loved one forever? Or could they be about moving into the modern world of the 1960s, away from the comforts of the postwar ‘50s, into an age of armament, protest, racial tension? Could they be about a sense of loss as we move into a new world, leaving the old, comfortable one behind?

The early Christians would have related to some such sense of estrangement from the world. In fact, it was one of their own major refrains. This was certainly true of Gnostic Christians, including the author of the Gospel of Mary. In their view, there was deep within themselves, at their inner core, a spark of the divine that had become estranged from its heavenly home. This spark was entrapped here in this evil world of matter, separated from the spiritual realm from which it came and to which it was eager to return. Other Christians felt a sense of alienation as well, including the apostle Paul and the author of 1 Peter, who believed that their real home was in heaven. For them, when it came to this world of pain and misery, they were just passing through.

Many early followers of Christ told tales about the glories of this other world, whose power was sometimes manifest here on earth and whose blessings awaited those who remained faithful to the death. How are these stories to be interpreted? Are the glories of God’s coming Kingdom meant to be taken literally as an expression of what would happen here on earth? Would God overthrow the forces of evil to establish his sovereignty once and for all, as Jesus himself seems to have taught and his followers Peter, Paul, and Mary evidently believed? Or do the stories refer to life in heaven that will come to souls once they have passed from this mortal coil, as seems to be the message of the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter? Or could they refer to the blessings of life in the here and now for those who have experienced the full benefits of salvation at the point of their baptism and who, therefore, are already “ruling in the heavenly places,” as taught by the opponents of Paul in Corinth and by some of Paul’s own later followers, including the author of the book of Ephesians?

The thing about stories is that no one, not even their authors, can control their interpretation. Stories continue to live once they are produced. And as they live, they change. This was especially true in the ancient world, when there were none of the possibilities and limitations given to us by modern mass media. When I buy a CD with Peter, Paul, and Mary singing “Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet / But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat,” I can go to another town in another state and buy another of the same song, and it will be exactly the same song. And I can do it time after time.

In the ancient world it was never that way, because there were no means for mechanical or electronic reproduction that could guarantee the accuracy of the product. As a result, people living in the ancient world did not understand or see the need to preserve traditions unchanged from one retelling to another. This is true of people who live in oral cultures generally, as opposed to written or electronic cultures. In antiquity such people changed their songs and stories depending on their own feelings and emotions and on the situation within which they sang or recited them. Changes could be made based on the audience, the time of day, the historical, cultural, or political context, and so on. Sometimes the stories simply changed because it seemed that they ought to change. The words of “Lemon Tree” might be changed simply because some of them make no sense. Truth be told, the fruit of the lemon is not “impossible” to eat. And so someone might change it to say “The fruit of the poor lemon is not very pleasant to eat.” But then the rhythm would be thrown off, so it would need to be changed again, in some other way. Someone else might decide that the song makes better sense if it refers not to lemons but, say, to kumquats. Then the rhyming scheme wouldn’t work, and the whole thing would need to be reworked. And so it would go.

If this is true for songs about lemons, how much more for matters that really and truly mattered to those who passed along their cherished traditions? In our written cultures, we might think that the really important historical events of antiquity—the life of Socrates, the conquests of Rome, the death of Jesus—would have been remembered with pinpoint accuracy precisely because they were so important. Not so for ancient people. Stories were changed with what would strike us today as reckless abandon, precisely because they did matter so much to those telling them. They were modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up.

For historians who study the ancient world, it is important to know what actually did happened, insofar as this is possible. It is important, for example, to know what Jesus really said and did, to know why he faced such opposition, to know why he was crucified, to know why his followers continued to believe in him after his death. But it is also important to know how the tales about him were retold: sometimes modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes made up.

So too with his followers, including the three we have focused on here, the ancient trio of Simon Peter, the Apostle Paul, and Mary Magdalene. They too lived real historical lives, and it is important—or at least intriguing—to know what these lives were like, to know what they said and did and experienced, insofar as we can. But it is also important to know how their stories lived on in the decades and centuries after their deaths, as Christian storytellers told and retold their tales.

Some of these tales will not get us back to the historical Peter, Paul, and Mary. Peter probably did not make a tuna fish come back to life; Paul probably did not baptize a talking lion; Mary probably did not restore a woman to life after she lay dead for two years on a deserted island. But many Christians believed these things happened. When they told these stories and others like them—even stories that happened to be historically accurate—they did so for reasons. These stories meant something to the storytellers—the stories spoke to them, expressed their understanding of the world, embodied their beliefs, values, and concerns—just as the folk songs of the 1960s do for some of us.

At the end of the day, probably not too many of us are all that concerned about the proper interpretation of “If I Had a Hammer” or “Lemon Tree.” More of us may be concerned about the meaning of the life of Jesus, and possibly even the lives of his followers. But it is always important to remember that in pursuing these concerns we are not only trying to reconstruct something like the brute facts of history. We are also involved in seeing how history was interpreted by those who have handed it down to us.

The reality is that history does not come to us in unmediated guise. It comes to us in stories from the past, told by real flesh-and-blood humans who were interpreting their stories—even their historically accurate ones—in light of their own situations, concerns, beliefs, practices, needs, and values. This is true even of us today, living in a written culture and an electronic age. We too speak about the past because it means something to us in the present; we too re-present what we know and think and believe in ways that matter to us; we too seek to understand the past while trying to make sense of the world we live in today. (Pg.260)

WE&P by: EZorrillaM.