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.

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