Wednesday, March 4, 2015

NT: Acts 1 - 4

We know that The Acts of the Apostles was written by the author of Luke, and that Acts is seen as the second part of a two-part narrative commonly called “Luke-Acts”. It reads as a continuation of Luke, addressed to the same person (Theophilus), though Luke and Acts do not appear consecutively in the New Testament. By reading Luke 24 and Acts 1, you can detect a narrative flow that you wouldn’t otherwise expect:

Luke 24:51 And it came to pass, while he [Jesus - ed.] blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
52 And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy:
53 And were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen.
...
Acts 1:1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,
2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:
3 To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:
4 And, being assembled together with [them], commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, [saith he], ye have heard of me.

With a minimum of effort (ahem...Wikipedia), we can obtain background info about Acts that we might not have if we limited ourselves to reading just the NT:

Acts was read as a reliable history of the early church well into the post-Reformation era. By the 17th century, however, biblical scholars began to notice that it was incomplete and tendentious – its picture of a harmonious church is quite at odds with that given by Paul's letters, and it omits important events such as the deaths of both Peter and Paul. The mid-19th century scholar Ferdinand Baur suggested that Luke had re-written history to present a united Peter and Paul and advance a single orthodoxy against the Marcionites. (Marcion was a 2nd-century heretic who wished to cut Christianity off entirely from the Jews).

Thus, Acts Chapter 1 continues the narrative from Luke 24 that ended with Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Acts begins by recapping the reappearance of Jesus to the disciples, adding some words and commandments that set the scene for the work that the Apostles will undertake. And we experience the Ascension for a second time:

9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.

We are also treated to a second (differing) recounting of the fate of Judas, the establishment of “ordainment” in order to “be a witness” to the resurrection...

22 Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.

...and the casting of lots to choose Matthias as a replacement in the Apostles for the dead and disgraced Judas.

It has been noted that the casting of lots for Matthias is similar to the lottery of Ajax found in Homer’s The Iliad ... And that Homeric parallels will continue to be apparent throughout Acts.

Chapter 2 is all about the Pentecost - the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. This would have you believe that the Apostles are now imbued with the power of God just as Jesus was, and thus authorized as God’s delegates to spread the good word. Depending on your attitude about such things, you might consider this your direct link to the Almighty, or the most sinister words ever written. You decide! So, Peter exhorts his brethren to repent and accept the spirit, thereby marking the beginning of “the church”.

As mentioned a little earlier, Acts appears to be harmonizing the theological views of Paul and Peter, which apparently differed. At the moment I write this, I’m not knowledgeable enough about the two theologies to comment on their differences, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

In Chapter 3, Peter heals a lame man in the name of the Lord, and preaches to the onlookers about how having faith will bring you His blessings ... Or lots of presents at Christmas.

Chapter 4 sees Peter and John accosted by the Sadducees and the authorities for preaching, which gives them an opportunity to do more preaching. I expect this theme of oppression and evangelizing to the oppressors (and onlookers) will be quite prominent.

Summary


These first Chapters in Acts set up the Church, establish the mission to preach, and demonstrate (presumably) that there will be haters, as in Chapter 4, and that the Apostles will take advantage of these attempts at oppression to further spread the word.

Did I mention preaching?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

NT: John 17 - 21

I thought I'd already posted the finale to the Gospel According to John, but I hadn't. Here goes!

John Chapter 17 contains text that is wholly absent from other Gospels - surprised? It’s Jesus praying to God to bless his believers:

26 And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare [it]: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

Gotta ask yourself: how did the author of John come across this inside info? We have a candidate explanation - “that other disciple”.

Chapter 18 dovetails largely with the previous Gospels (there are no new pericopes!) - what with Jesus’ arrest and handing over to Pilate, the trial, Peter’s denial, and the brief dialogue regarding releasing Barabbas or Jesus.

Chapter 19 builds to the climax of Jesus’ crucifixion. There are some differences with the other Gospels, for instance, Jesus expires peacefully “it is finished”, and a centurion pierces His side to insure that he’s dead.

Chapter 20 dives right in to the resurrection, when Mary Magdalene “seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre”. She doesn’t explicitly see that Jesus is gone (!) She gets Peter and “that other disciple”:

3 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.
4 So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.

And the fun begins! Note that “that other disciple” has been referred to other places throughout John, and is (presumably) synonymous with “the disciple that Jesus loved”. Very mysterious! Peter and the gang enter the tomb, find Jesus missing and two angels in attendance. We go on to find Jesus reappearing to disciples, allaying Thomas’ doubts, and other stuff:

30 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book:
31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

In Chapter 21 appears to be all new, with additional whiteners and brighteners. Or, maybe it just elaborates on his reappearance to his disciples to an extent not found in the other Gospels.

1 After these things Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on this wise shewed he [himself].
...
20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?
...
24 This is the disciple which testifieth of these things, and wrote these things: and we know that his testimony is true.
25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.

...and “the disciple whom Jesus loved” rears his ugly head again, and is identified as the source for this testament. Amen.

Parallels


As I’ve said throughout my blogging on the Gospels, I’m purposely doing a shallow treatment, mostly to document their outline for my own future reference. Consequently, I don’t feel a need to get into depth about how different John is from the Synoptics - yet. Still, we saw that John’s Jesus was “large and in charge”. He agonizes very little over his fate, accepts it stoically, and drives on.

Obviously, with John being the most different of the four Gospels, the Gospel Parallels are as good reference to set you off on your search for details. To recap, John Chapter 17 is wholly unique, while 18, 19 & 20 are largely organized in the same manner as the other Gospels, with a few gaps and mismatches. John Chapter 21 is - again - unique. Since John is written so late in the first century, we expect some divergence from the Synoptics, but NT heavyweights will commonly attribute these differences to political and “inter-denominational” squabbles, which the author of John may have wanted to address. Regardless, the Gospel according to John is a pleasure to read - it almost sounds Shakespearean in comparison to Mark.

Next - Acts!



NT: A Gospels Reflection

Now that I’ve finished reading the four canonical Gospels again - allow me a reflection and a look forward.

The average Christian will likely have read the Gospels in order - Matthew, Mark, Luke, John - as I did many decades ago. So Matthew ends up making that important first impression. Once you look into these books more deeply, as I have in this most recent endeavor, you start to see that Mark was probably written first, and that several Epistles (Galations, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, others) predate Mark by a few years or substantially more. I’ll acknowledge that a few scholars and many laypeople have differing opinions on the dating of the Bible, for instance at CARM and by Norman Geisler, but I’ll presume the following view of chronology obtains until a compelling alternative arises: that some Epistles were written first, then Mark, then other Gospels and Epistles, and finally The Gospel of John, the Epistles of John, and Revelation.

When we look, we can see that the canonical Gospels had some obvious gaps and mismatches between them, and further reading indicates that the authors probably had theological motives - and possibly literary ones - for writing how they did. Knowing now that there is no tradition of a flesh-and-blood Jesus walking the Earth in many of the Epistles that precede the Gospels seems to imply that walking, talking, ministering, miracle-ing Jesus began with Mark, which is written maybe 40 years after the alleged Crucifixion. So, to quote Richard Carrier in On The Historicity Of Jesus - Why We Might Have Reason For Doubt, “that’s weird”. For instance, Carrier notes at the start of his chapter on Acts:

The book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction.

He goes on to point out other kinds of “weirdness” throughout his examinations of the NT - a sample of the incongruities:

It is clear ‘the author of Acts wanted to stress the continuity of Judaism and Christianity, Paul’s close relation to the other apostles, and the unity of the first believers’ and thus had to ‘subvert’ the Epistles of Paul, especially Galatians. For example, we know Paul ‘was unknown by face to the churches of Judea’ until many years after his conversion (as he explains in Gal. 1.22- 23), and after his conversion he went away to Arabia before returning to Damascus, and he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (as he explains in Gal. 1.15- 18); whereas Acts 7–9 has him known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church continuously from the beginning, even before his conversion, and instead of going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts he goes immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem just a few weeks later, and never spends a moment in Arabia. And yet we have the truth from Paul himself.

I found OHJ's Chapters 9, 10 & 11 on Acts, the Gospels and the Epistles to be a terrific reading aid. If you’re not a Bible scholar, but enjoy the writings of Dr. Bart Ehrman and Robert Price, then you’ll probably appreciate Carrier’s very well organized, detailed examination in these chapters.

Carrier also makes effective points on why we should have expected certain things to be written, where they apparently weren’t. For example, we might have expected Paul to defend his view that Jesus was a cosmic being as opposed to a terrestrial one, because if Jesus was actually flesh-and-blood and people knew about him, his legend would have already been spreading for twenty years prior to the earliest Epistle. Paul’s view would be in conflict. Instead, Paul makes no attempt to explain why we should accept the idea that Jesus is solely a cosmic entity. The absence of a defense indicates that Paul was unaware that there was a differing Jesus story against which an explanation or defense would have been required. That implies that a tradition of a terrestrial Jesus that preached and performed earthly miracles did not exist when Paul was writing. And THAT implies that the tradition of terrestrial Jesus did not become widespread until later. Carrier points out (OHJ Elements 40-42) that “cosmic Jesus” was already a Jewish tradition in some sects, even before Paul began evangelizing, which lends credence to the idea that Paul might have just elaborated upon existing Jewish thought. Hmmmmm.

For reference, here are a couple of the passages that might be interpreted to indicate Jesus already existed as a celestial being:

Zech 3:1 And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.
...
Zech 6:11 Then take silver and gold, and make crowns, and set [them] upon the head of Joshua the son of Josedech, the high priest;

Here, "Joshua" is being translated as “Jesus”. Although I marvel at the theological ability to translate words and names to suit one’s preferred narrative, you can make a case that this is not too much of a leap from the OT to “cosmic Jesus” as understood by Paul and other Epistle authors.

The canonical Gospels sketch a picture of Jesus, but reading one Gospel just gives you part of the sketch. If you only read Mark, you’d never conclude that Jesus was anything more that a notable wise man, occasional magician and eventual martyr. By the time you’ve read the other three Gospels, the additional birth, ministry and passion narratives complete the outline and add some detail, but even that is incomplete. The Epistles provide the color, the Old Testament provides the background, and Revelation provides the climax. It’s a tortured analogy, but there’s an awful lot required to paint the complete portrait of this Jesus character.

The literary evidence indicates strongly that the idea of Jesus appears to have grown from a vaguely defined Jewish “cosmic Jesus” to become a terrestrial Jesus within several generations of early evangelists such as Paul. For the first few hundred years of developing Jesus worship, there were theological tugs-of-war over how Jewish or not he should be, and how mystical or not he should be. The concept was field-tested and modified freely and frequently until a consensus view emerged, then that consensus view gets adopted by the most powerful empire on Earth, and suddenly you have a significant portion of Earth’s civilizations marching to the tune of a unique new monotheistic religion which left its local forebears in the dust.

Clearly, skepticism is warranted. Without the Bible, there’s no artifact that points to a Jewish preacher traveling the area around what is now Israel, performing miracles, preaching, making prophecies, and giving the impression to the locals that he is the agent of the deity and will be the agent whereby all people achieve salvation. None. No writings. No personal or civil record. No monument. No home, no bedroom (”Jesus slept here”), no manger or farm or the inn where Joseph and Mary were turned away (”Jesus didn’t sleep here”). Nuthin. Jesus might have been a guy, but it’s not apparent. Absent the Bible, there is nothing concrete to even give us a hint. Subsequent historians (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) could only report what Christians said Christ was, not about what Christ actually was. Nothing.

Nowadays, I treat Christianity as a social anthropology topic. I can somewhat see how it came to be. I reasonably understand why people might believe, based on my own experience. I can see benefits that might accrue through membership, and how - provisionally - it might be somewhat advantageous for local societies, even in the present day. And it continues to fascinate me.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NT: John 13-16

Before I speed through the next few chapters of John, a few comments. First, I’ve been reading Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus” (”OHJ”) on and off since the holidays (mostly “off”). When I picked it back up, I entered the chapter(s) where he starts to evaluate the Gospels in detail, starting with Mark, then Matthew, Luke and John. OHJ is very well worth having as a resource to refer to if you’re reading the Gospels, because of the copious information available on how the Gospels were written, and how they relate to other literature from that period. Add that to your Gospel Parallels for an enhanced reading experience! Another nice reading (and viewing) aid is PBS Frontline’s “From Jesus to Christ” series, particularly the section “What Are the Gospels?”, which discusses the gospels with various historians and commentators.

Back to the Gospel According to John. This next handful of chapters is almost entirely different from the Synoptics, and contains many memorable and poetic passages.

In Chapter 13 we get another indication that Jesus knows what’s coming down the pike - i.e. His crucifixion:

1 Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.

The first 30 verses are similar to passages in some of the other Gospels, but note that the feet-washing episode is not found in Mark, the earliest Gospel that we have. Jesus foretells his betrayal, and predicts Peter’s denial of him - both familiar themes.

38 Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.

The “verily, verilies” are a prominent feature of Jesus’ patois in John, but apparently no other author. This *appears* to be a literary affectation that was introduced in the King James Bible, which drew upon William Tyndale’s 1500's translation of Greek and Hebrew sources. I read it on the Internetz, so it must be true!

Chapter 14 brings us more good news:

6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

In Chapter 15, we get still more memorable sayings, but today, this following passage jumps out at me. Jesus is essentially saying “You’re my friend only if you do what I say. Really, you’re not a slave - you’re my friends! Trust me!” Kinda sinister, dontcha think?

14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

By Chapter 16, the disciples are convinced that Jesus knows everything, which - I gotta tell you - doesn’t speak well of the disciples. They seem kinda stupid.

30 Now are we sure that thou knowest all things, and needest not that any man should ask thee: by this we believe that thou camest forth from God.
31 Jesus answered them, Do ye now believe?
32 Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.
33 These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

In John, the Passion Narrative is quite a bit more drawn-out and involved due to these three last, utterly unique chapters. They’re good reading, but it’s hard to believe that an author writing 60-70 years after Jesus died would have so much dramatic detail.

In my next installment, we’ll see how John treats the crucifixion and resurrection.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

NT: John 9-12

The Gospel According to John continues to demonstrate extensive differences from the Synoptics. Chapter 9 is consumed by the pericope “Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind” - and nothing else. Chapter 10 contains the passages “I am the Good Shepherd”, “Division among the Jews again”, “Jesus at the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem”, and “Jesus Withdraws across the Jordan” ... all totally unfamiliar to Matthew, Mark and Luke.

In Chapter 11, we also are treated to new stories, such as “The Raising of Lazarus”, “The Chief Priests and Pharisees Take Counsel against Jesus” and “Jesus Retires to Ephraim" ... all of which are unfamiiar to the Synoptics. It isn’t until the start of Chapter 12 that we again see some concordance between John and the other three. The similarity is short-lived, with “The Anointing at Bethany” a clear parallel, a divergence into “The Plot against Lazarus”, then converging again with “The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem”. After that, John differs from the Synoptics through the end of the chapter.

Parallels


There are precious few parallels between these four chapters in John and anything found in the Synoptics. I won’t / can’t make an educated guess as to why this is the case. Since John appears to have been written so much later than the other Gospels (90 or 100 AD), critics imply that John is a polemic that reflects a different geopolitical context, with different concerns and a different audience. This will be interesting to research further.

In summary, from John 7 through 11, there are no parallels with the other Gospels. If you include Chapter 5 (which is completely new), you have a stretch from 5 through 12 in which John is 95% unique. Amazing!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

NT: John 5-8

I mentioned a few posts ago that the Gospel According to John would present a different personality to Jesus. I once heard John’s Jesus as being “large and in charge”. That’s probably apropos. It will become obvious during the crucifixion.

Chapter 5 has a few interesting tidbits between the run-of-the-mill healings and miracles. The first one that struck me starts with Jesus healing the cripple at the troubling waters:

15 The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.
16 And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day.
17 But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.
18 Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.

Here we see an explicit statement of conflict between Jesus and the Jews very early in the gospel. The phrase “the Jews sought the more to kill him” pulls no punches. If you search through the prior three Gospels, the words “Jew” or “Jews” appear sparingly, and never in reference to an intent to persecute or kill him. It’s always the Pharisees that appear to be scheming against Jesus. This is possibly meaningless, what with Pharisees being a subset of Judaism at the time, but the explicit use of the broader term “Jews” makes these passages sound accusatory of all Judaism, thus conveying a sense of greater conflict.

The second passage that jumps out at me is at the end of the chapter

46 For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.
47 But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?

Jesus makes clear his association to Moses, thus the reader might presume that, as in the prior Gospels, Jesus’ intent is to carry out the prophecies and commandments contained in the Hebrew Bible.

Chapter 6 brings fishes and loaves, walking on water, parables, abandonment by some disciples, a hint at the Ascension and a bit of prophecy concerning Judas. Of note - and I’m surprised that I never noticed this - is that Jesus appears to have teleportation ability!

21 Then they willingly received him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.

Chapter 7 begins a stretch where John differs from the Synoptics entirely. Jesus is in Galilee, he avoids the Jews, he alludes to his eventual demise, and we get a brief back-and-forth on the nature and heritage of the Christ.

Chapter 8 is also completely new material. He saves the adulterous woman (”...He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her“), engages in more banter about his nature and about the relevance of the Mosaic texts, then escapes a stoning.

Parallels

Chapter 5 is completely different than the Synoptics (see the Gospel Parallels), while Chapter 6 is about 50% new. Both are chronologically situated during the “Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee” period, but John’s view of this period is a substantial detour from previous Gospels. He omits the vast majority of prior writings.

Chapters 7 & 8 also represent a complete divergence from the Synoptics, although he makes up for it with many memorable quotes.


Friday, February 6, 2015

NT: John 1-4

The Gospel According to John is an interesting case. That it differs from the three prior “Synoptic” Gospels in content and tone is generally not disputed, but it still pays to remember that this book is reputed to be inspired documentation of the first coming of Jesus, his ministry, Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension. The differences between John and the Synoptics will be apparent as we progress, but to the believing novice (such as I once was) it is not disturbingly different.

Chapter 1 begins differently than the other Gospels by referring to what appear to be mystical concepts such as “the Word” and “the Light”.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 The same was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name [was] John.
7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all [men] through him might believe.

It goes on like this through verse 30, where John the Baptist begins giving witness to the coming of Jesus, and John’s own baptism of Him. We see the appearance of the first Apostles, and by chapter’s end, Jesus’ divinity is established in no uncertain terms.

Chapter 2 finds Jesus at a marriage in Cana, where he turns water into wine.

11 This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.

Then he travels through Capernaum on to Jerusalem, where he drives the moneychangers out of the temple and threatens to destroy it.

Chapter 3 presents the discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus’ ministry in Judea, and John the Baptist’s testament to Christ. None of these pericopes appear in the other Gospels.

Chapter 4 gives us “The Journey into Galilee”, “The Discourse with the Woman of Samaria”, “ Ministry in Galilee”, ”Jesus' Preaching at Nazareth” and ends with the Centurion and his servant. All of this is part of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.

Parallels


This is where reviewing the Gospel Parallels is really shocking. There is none of the Synoptics’ “Birth and Childhood” passages in John. The Beginning of Jesus' Public Ministry in John starts completely differently than the Synoptics, then includes a few pericopes found in them, then omits vast swaths, including the Sermon on the Mount. It is clear that the author of John either didn’t know about the missing events, or found them unworthy to document, while at the same time adding much unique material.

Shocking, I tell you!