Thursday, December 18, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Mission Sermon

As I poke my way through the New Testament for what seems the umpteenth time - but really isn’t - I realize how little of it I retained in the past. For instance, pre-born-again, I’m certain that I never read much of it at all, and what little I did read was probably suggested by a religious associate. Once I undertook the verse-by-verse reading that launched me into deconversion, I walked away with a general impression that Jesus was a good dude, but his ministry was based on a bad dude. Or a non-existent dude, depending on how analytical I felt the day that I examined the dudeology. Over decades, non-existent dude overwhelmed bad dude as the operative concept, making Jesus increasingly irrelevant.

Today, I continue my general comments on the New Testament, still without attempting to analyze it closely. I’m just laying down the general form of the books. I have a few points that I’ll make when certain passages disturb the force, but I’m not doing this to purposely point out inconsistencies on a broad scale like a counter-apologist or critic might. I’m just organizing my impressions so that I can elaborate on them further down the road, should I desire.

The Sermon on the Mount ends in Matthew Chapter 7, so we begin Chapter 8 with Jesus healing a leper and performing other miracles and acts of charity. More of the same in Chapter 9. There are good words by Jesus, and miracles, but these chapters appear to be an interlude. I’m using this Wikipedia article to help me better detect the structure of Matthew.

The Mission Sermon - or Mission Discourse - begins in Chapter 10.

This discourse is directed to the twelve apostles who are named in Matthew 10:2-3. In the discourse Jesus advises them how to travel from city to city, carry no belongings and to preach only to Israelite communities. He tells them to be wary of opposition, but have no fear for they will be told what to say to defend themselves when needed: "For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you"

The whole spiel is done by the end of the chapter, and includes many memorable sayings. I have a question, though. Jesus is instructing his disciples - the apostles. What part if this is useful for the rank believer? I can imagine a theologist saying that all Christians are charged with spreading the good word, but I’ll be interested to see how this thought evolves through the rest of the testament.

At this point, we can detect trouble brewing:

(KJV) Matthew 10:4 Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him. Judas and his future role are mentioned.

Chapters 11 & 12 serve as a segue into the third discourse by treating us to some John the Baptist and some Pharisees action. Another indication of the trouble to come:

(KJV) Matthew 12:14 Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.

Knowing that Matthew has a general structure is really helpful and interesting, particularly when trying to establish whether (and then how) Matthew relates to the other Gospels. A peek ahead to the Wikipedia article on the upcoming Gospel of Mark lets us compare “literary styles” of the two. Matthew has a seven-part structure, whereas Mark appears much less organized:

There is no agreement on the structure of Mark.[20] There is, however, a widely recognised break at Mark 8:26–31: before 8:26 there are numerous miracle stories, the action is in Galilee, and Jesus preaches to the crowds, while after 8:31 there are hardly any miracles, the action shifts from Galilee to gentile areas or hostile Judea, and Jesus teaches the disciples.

I feel that by the time I sketch out my impressions of Mark, the need to discuss the Synoptic Problem will be nearly unavoidable. Pre-born-again, it was easy for me to assume that Matthew was written first, followed by Mark, Luke and John. Post-born-again, someone (I have no idea who it was) pointed out to me that scholars think that Mark appears to have been written first. Over the decades, I’ve read enough about it to be able to see how they arrived at that conclusion. The relatively visible structure of Matthew somewhat illustrates how an earlier compilation of sayings and stories could have been re-organized.

I’ll give the "Parabolic Discourse" a go next.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

NT: Matthew - The Sermon On The Mount

Before I proceed to whiz through the New Testament, some background is in order.

First, blogging about the NT, even as shallowly as I’m doing here, serves a purpose. It allows me to organize my coarsest-grained understanding of the books, and put them in a place where I can update them and refer to them - over, and over and over.

Second, it serves as an autobiography of sorts. An individual’s thoughts about their place in the universe may include a belief in the supernatural. It appears that this is very common. If I sound too blasé in making the shocking previous claim, it’s because I’m trying to be un-emotional about this. Some people believe that which can be observed is all that there is. These are - without getting into the finer points - naturalists. Some people, in addition to that which can be observed, believe that there are other objects that can affect this world without necessarily behaving in accordance with natural laws. In the most general sense, these people are “supernaturalists”. Mister Obvious has spoken.

I imagine that, absent any prompting from family or friends during my infancy and childhood, I would be prone to belief in some vague “ground-of-all-being” type supernatural realm. Some pantheistic concept that implies that we are all part of one transcendent object that we ought to revere and revel in.

I also imagine that my mom (mostly) planted the thought that there was “God” in heaven looking over us if we were good. Once I started to attend Sunday School, “God” was fleshed out in the form of YHWH and Jehovah.

There’s no need to over-analyze this. Teen age and young adulthood did not change this mind set much, and a brief “born again” period left me unscarred, but newly inclined to be skeptical of people quoting the Bible. So let’s see what happens starting in Matthew chapter 5.

Chapter 5 seems like a candidate for the most-quoted Bible chapter ever. It is, of course, the famous Sermon on the Mount. We hear Jesus in his own words bestowing blessings, advising the faithful on how to carry and display their faith - it is beautiful, moving literature. I can imagine, without claiming that it actually happened to me personally, that someone looking for salvation need only read Matt 1:1 through Matt 5:48 to become filled with the spirit and become born-again. As we noted in my last post, the first four chapters are sparse and fairly uncomplicated. Chapter 5 is a soaring sermon for believers, it could truly transform you. Read it once, you’re a believer. There is, however, some weird shit. Lets look.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great [is] your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

No problem with verse 12 above - Jesus seems to be wrapping up a benediction. But WTF is verse 13 about? I probably read this chapter 5 or 10 times, and I bet that verse 13 didn’t bother me until recently. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. And why is "salt of the earth" good?

Jesus gets back to business in verse 14 by telling his disciples that they are the light of the world, and sprinkles some truly memorable phrases in the following verses. Then it gets weird again.

17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach [them], the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

So proceeds a stretch of teaching and commandments that - if you find the Old Testament repulsive like I do - makes you realize that Jesus is selling the same snake oil as that reprehensible old twat YHWH. This sounds harsh, but it is truly my reaction. As a young man, I became born-again, read the New Testament verse-by-verse, and was overjoyed at the soaring beauty of what Jesus had to say. Then I read the Old Testament. Full stop. Much has been written about what a vile monster YHWH is, no need for me to recount it. Let it be said that I now felt that I’d saw Yahweh’s balls off with a rusty nail file if I ever saw him, so hearing Jesus uphold worship of this monstrous dickhead disabused me of any illusions that Jesus was fundamentally different.

From verse 19 through the end of the chapter (verse 48), Jesus tells the faithful how his commands are different and (sometimes) more stringent than the “old laws”.

Chapters 6 and 7 continue his teachings. As I was writing this post, I happened upon a literary summary of the New Testament at SparkNotes. I’m not recommending them as anything more than a nicely organized summary, but it’s there for the reading. For example, they point out the loose organization of Matthew into an introduction (chapters 1-4), The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7),

...The Mission Sermon, which empowers Jesus’s apostles, follows Jesus’s recognition that more teachers and preachers are necessary (10:1–42). The mysterious Sermon in Parables responds to Jesus’s frustration with the fact that many people do not understand or accept his message (13:1–52). The Sermon on the Church responds to the need to establish a lasting fraternity of Christians (18:1–35). Finally, the Eschatological Sermon, which addresses the end of the world, responds to the developing certainty that Jesus will be crucified (23:1–25:46)

...concluded by the Last Supper and Jesus’ Resurrection.

Next time I’ll skip through chapters 6 and 7 again briefly to see what memorable thoughts we can accrue, then I’ll set out into the Mission Sermon.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The New Testament: Matthew

I participated in a Bible reading group once upon a time. The idea was good, but the implementation soured as the group progressed from the Old to New Testaments. The reasonable, and sometimes studiously devout believers that covered the Old Testament with us were replaced by a small, odd band of believers that were less interested in discussing the actual NT text, and more interested in exercising a weird argumentativeness. I don’t know if I can honestly apply the term “apologetics” to the approach being taken, but the group fell apart quickly, aided (I’ll presume) by a personal relationship between the blog host and one of the “new NT apologists”. I can just imagine our host, in the wee hours of the morning, thinking to himself “I have to put up with this guy in real life because he’s related to my sister. This blog shit has got to go.”

So, I never re-read the NT straight through, as I expected. Here, I’ll share some of my notes as I try again.

Matthew Chapter 1 primarily enumerates Jesus’ ancestors - ancestry being very important in the Hebrew world to establish one’s claim to power. At verse 18 the text describes Jesus’ birth, and establishes the concept of the virgin birth.

Matthew Chapter 2 is a rocket sled ride from Jesus’ birth to his arrival in Nazareth to begin his ministry.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

His eventual arrival in Nazareth:

23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.

Chapter 3 begins with tales of John the Baptist, into which is woven the story of Jesus:

13 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.

The chapter ends on a note that comes up in apologetics and theology:

16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

One can be forgiven for assuming that this is the singular event at which Jesus' divinity is first recognized, but it's worth considering. Whether Jesus was eternal and whether he was eternally devine, are not questions we can answer given what we’ve read so far.

Chapter 4 sees Jesus going off into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, but prevailing, and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. He enlists Simon/Peter, Andrew (Simon’s brother), James and John (James’ brother) as apostles / “fishers of men”. In just 25 verses, he has become famous, being followed by “great multitudes of people”.

I’ve read these first four chapters in Matthew many, many times now. The Gospels, Acts, some Pauline Epistles and Apocalypse are usually considered essential reading for the studious. Each time I re-read Matthew, I’m increasing struck by how sparse it is, and how the parallel passages in Mark are even more sparse. Here, Christmastime 2014, we will not see any mention of the celebration of Christmas. The Synoptic Gospels - Matthew, Mark and Luke - seem to serve as the platform on which a religion is to be built. The prime mover in that new religion of Jesus worship is Paul, who we'll get to after the Gospels are complete. Let me note that during Jesus’ lifetime, no mention of him is preserved. No monuments, legal documents or contemporary historical mention exists. When I was a believer, I never gave this much thought. Now, as a more thoughtful amateur critic, I find it exceedingly strange.

More next time.