Friday, March 27, 2015

NT: Pre-Epistle Reflection

As I blog my way - shallowly - through the Gospels and Acts, and soon on to Epistles and Revelation, I feel like pointing out that if you’re looking for a Reader’s Digest version of the New Testament, Wikipedia is (surprise) better as both outline and high-level overview of these works. My blogging, on the other hand, is intended as a personal outline - a journal - of the books as they strike me today, more than thirty years and several readings after I first got serious about them. I won’t pretend that this is intended for a wide audience.

Decades ago, I was surprised to learn that (most) Gospel experts felt that Mark was written first - not Matthew - and that there were parallels and gaps between the four books that were interpreted as having theological, social and/or political meaning. They wern’t just flat recountings of Jesus’ life. Now, after about ten years of re-reading the NT, then reading analyses and criticisms, then reading selected books again, I’m devoid of the mystical feeling I had when I was a believer. That mysticism has been replaced by a gentle curiosity and sometimes amusement at the whole thing.

Looking back, the entry point into Jesus-belief was people and personal circumstances and rituals and my preconcieved expectations about those rituals. The books themselves were not the primary reason I believed. They certainly wouldn’t compel me to believe in this day and age. I figure that once I’ve gotten past the Gospels again, the only thing that will really get my blood going is Revelation, and I have a fun story to tell then. It has to do with Lysergic acid diethylamide - and God speaking to me.

Really!

NT: Acts 21-28

These last 8 chapters in Acts focus on Paul’s travels and travails, and continue to build the theme of the oppression and perseverance of the disciples.

I always leave Acts with this vague feeling that I missed the point - it seems so abstract. Paul is (at least) twice removed from Jesus, and his story here is being told by yet another person. There’s no hard-hitting “this is the way it should be” passages. Instead, it’s a long, subtle drip-drip-drip that appears intended to influence you in subconscious ways. I have no idea what those ways are, except to prepare you for the oppression and perseverance cycle.

Having said that, I don’t feel compelled to detail individual chapters or specific passages here - nothing ever jumps out at me. Paul travels and preaches and ends up in Rome. You can read about the Homeric parallels from better sources than I.

One thing worth mentioning is the appearance of Festus and Bernice in Chapter 25, during Paul’s captivity and trial at the hands of Agrippa. Festus and Bernice. Sounds like “Deliverance”! Yes, I’m making fun of it. Just searching for some enjoyment.

I’ll set these chapters aside and skim them again when I get into Paul’s Epistles, because, now that I know that Acts is a theological spin job, it will be interesting to see whether and how Paul’s view of the events differ - and why.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Adding to my New Testament Reading list

When I decided to re-read the New Testament yet again and actually record some high-level notes, I had in mind reading just the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation, because I wanted to focus on the presumed “core” of the NT that most people are familiar with. It popped into my head that Chris Hallquist had offered an “abridged” list of both Old and New Testament chapters and verses to read. It’s worth bookmarking. The only addition he gives to the NT list is the Epistle of James, with the following note:

Martin Luther had some doubts about whether James should be accepted as part of the Bible. Read it and see if you can guess why.

I’ll accept Chris’ challenge and add James to my reading list - just preceding Revelation.

Wheeeeee!

NT: Acts 10 - 20

I’m continuing my notes on selected books in the New Testament. I thought I’d pick up the pace with the remainder of Acts, since it is even more removed from Jesus than the Gospels. I’m keeping in mind that Acts is presented as if it were a history of how the Christian church began, and that it presents it from Luke’s perspective, which differs from Paul’s.

We’re seeing references to other congregations distributed around the Mediterranean region, which brings to mind the occasional claim of Christianity’s phenomenal growth, but some sobriety is warranted. Knowing that Acts was definitely written no earlier than 63 CE, probably 80 - 90 CE, and possibly as late as the second century, the citing of multiple groups of Christians in disparate locations is not surprising. Even if Acts was written as early as 63 CE, there would have been time for an original few hundred believers to grow into tens of thousands in the intervening years.

One of the themes in Acts is that the Apostles - having been rejected by, and persecuted by the Pharisees (a sect of Jews) - decide to take their new religion to the Gentiles.

In Chapter 10, we’re treated to the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion - allegedly the first Gentile to be converted. While there’s no doubt that Cornelius is a believer in God, and that he had a vision, and that he is in a worshipful state, and that he falls down at Peter’s feet and begins worshipping Peter, and that the two share their visions, there’s never a moment that indicates that Cornelius accepts Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. He just gets baptized (at Peter’s command) and we are left to assume that Cornelius is Convert Numero Uno. I find these loose interpretations dodgy, to put it mildly.

Chapter 11 brings a mass conversion:

1 And the apostles and brethren that were in Judaea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God.

Peter then gives a defense of eating with the uncircumcised: because he had a vision. Of course. We then hear what I believe to be the first use of the term “saved”.

14 Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved.

So the religion transforms from a rag-tag band of misfits that have been rejected by the Jews into a multi-region religion, in just a few verses.

19 Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.
20 And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus.
21 And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.

We also see the first reference to “Christians”:

25 Then departed Barnabas to Tarsus, for to seek Saul:
26 And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.

...thus marking the creation of the first Christian church in Antioch.

Chapter 12 brings us Herod Agrippa, who kills “James the brother of John”, and because this kind of activity seemed to please the Jews, and Herod seems to want to please them, he arrests Peter as well. What a suck-up.

So Peter is rescued almost immediately by an angel. When Herod finds out Peter has escaped, he rousts the locals, but the angel smites him dead. To top it off, incongruously, Barnabas and Saul return from their ministry in Jerusalem, are joined by John, and ... we’re left hanging. Maybe they play Foosball in their undershorts for a while.

Chapters 13 & 14 clarify the status of the three amigos from the the preceding chapter, as Barnabas, Saul and John are sent on a mission to further minister to the folks. As you’d expect, there’s continuing tension between the Jews and the new religion:

Acts 14:2 But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles, and made their minds evil affected against the brethren.

Chapter 15 finds the boys back in Antioch, with much praising and preaching. At the end of the chapter, Paul heads out on the road for another mission or two.

Chapters 16 through 20 are centered largely on Paul’s missions to other regions - his second and third.

Chapter 16 begins with a whirlwind of travel. Apparently accompanied by Silas, Paul travels to Derbe and Lystra; by Mysia to Troas; into Macedonia, from Troas to Samothracia and Neapolis; "And from thence to Philippi". WHEW!!

They do some preaching and praying, encounter a woman named Lydia, get thrown in jail, pray for escape, are rewarded with an earthquake which cracks open the prison, then stay with Lydia. So THAT happened.

Paul & Silas’ stay Lydia’s was brief. In Chapter 17, they move on.

1 Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where was a synagogue of the Jews:

If this chapter had been written by a neighbor, I’d have made sure they were aware of the following irony:

22 Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' hill, and said, [Ye] men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious.
23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.
24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;

Chapter 18:

1 After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth;

Some minor hi-jinks ensue, follower by brief travels to Stria, Ephesus, Caesarea, Antioch, Galatia and Phrygia. Then we are told:

24 And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, [and] mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus.

Apollos was apparently adjudged to be a good dude, so the disciples were advised to welcome him with open arms. Why is this important? I forget.

Chapter 19: Paul is in Ephesus (a flashback?) And baptizes some people, and engages in some familiar skullduggery with the folks.

Chapter 20:

1 And after the uproar was ceased, Paul called unto [him] the disciples, and embraced [them], and departed for to go into Macedonia.

The bouncing from town-to-town at breakneck speed continues for the first half of this chapter.

The author identifies himself as a hanger-on ... note that he refers to disciples as “them”:

5 These going before tarried for us at Troas.
6 And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days.
7 And upon the first [day] of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.

In the end, Paul gathers the elders of the church at Ephesus and gives a farewell speech. Everyone is sad.

Friday, March 13, 2015

NT: Acts 5 - 9

The next five chapters of the Acts of the Apostles appear to be a vehicle for getting to the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) in Chapter 9. It’s probably not meant that way, but knowing that Saul/Paul is really the main guy in establising the direction of Christianity, it has that feel.

Peter seems to be the main character in Chapter 5 ... healings and preaching abounds.

Stephen is the man doing the great works in Chapter 6, but the locals (Jews, apparently) are wary of his undermining the God of Abraham, and come down on him.

Chapter 7 is a continuation of the prior chapter’s story, with the (presumably Jewish) high priest offering us a flashback to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses. It appears that Stephen, while being beset by these non-believers, has a vision of Jesus in Heaven:

55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,

...and then he falls asleep.

In Chapter 8, Saul of Tarsus makes an appearance to oppress and torment Stephen. Philip is doing most of the good works in this chapter, presumably with Saul hot on his trail.

Chapter 9 presents us with the famous conversion of Paul on the road to damascus.

Peter remains a main source of action on and off throughout these first few chapters. It will be interesting how the Peter-vs-Paul theology struggle is portrayed.

Now that I’m re-reading this for the fourth or fifth time, the verse-by-verse action seems tedious. The apostles are preaching and doing wondrous works, and they’re being oppressed. I get it. It appears that this pattern of being oppressed, which sets up a millenia-long persecution complex rivaled only by the Jews themselves, is being presented as a foundational principle to bring people into the fold. It’s tiresome. I suspect that when I first read the New Testament verse-by-verse, I was both full of the spirit, and feeling beset upon by various forces in the world, so I probably felt kinship with these guys. I certainly don’t today.

Going into a lot of detail on the theological implications of individual chapters and verses has never been my goal, but Acts has been less interesting than I remember. If it doesn’t get better, I’ll be forced to do something drastic, like skim through the rest of Acts in an even more superficial way than I have so far. Is that possible?

FSM save me!


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!