Monday, September 30, 2013

His daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances (Matthew 14)

The first issue that the SAB brings up for Matthew 14 is an easy one to resolve, but it does also raise a thought-provoking question. Did Herod think that Jesus was John the Baptist? I don't think that Luke 9:9 is really saying no to this idea, but rather suggesting it in a weaker fashion. Herod hears what Jesus is up to, and apparently there was a lot of similarity between Jesus and John (perhaps even in physical appearance, as they were cousins), so he's thinking, "If I've killed John, then why does it sound like he's still around?" But the SAB is probably right in asking what all this confusion about the possibility of John returning from the dead says about the eventual resurrection of Jesus. (While it's worth asking, I'd point out that while Jesus came after John, there's no similar figure to confuse matters after Jesus' crucifixion, so--as the reader no doubt will do anyway--make of it what you will.)

Is dancing a sin? Good question. While I don't think you'll find a verse in the Bible that definitively says this is the case, but at least the first two verses quoted in the "Yes" column are worth bringing up when asking the question. I think it depends a lot on the type of dancing. I've actually been to a church service that incorporated dance into the worship, and while I found it strange (it's certainly not common) I wouldn't say it was wrong, but then it wasn't the sort of dancing that you'll see at certain bars, if you follow me. (Not literally, I've never been to one of those bars; not even before I was a Christian!) Anyway, I've heard it said that in both Exodus 32 and here, it's implied strongly that we're talking about dancing with a definite sexual tone to it; in this case, it's a young woman dancing seductively for her uncle/stepfather which has all sorts of other layers of yuck added onto it.

Since this chapter has such a small amount of material that the SAB brings up, I might as well discuss the story in verses 15-21 in which Jesus feeds a crowd of 5,000 (plus women and children) with a few loaves and fishes. While I said I would pretty much skip over discussing the supposed absurdity of miracles (as I am with verse 14 and the other miracles in this chapter), there's a couple interesting side notes that might be brought up here. One is that not only does he feed all these people, but the leftovers fill twelve (supposedly very large) baskets. A lot of people have pointed out that 12 tends to be a very significant number Biblically, and as such, there may be something symbolic going on here, such as this being symbolic of Jesus reaching the nation of Israel (12 tribes and all that).

The other thing that's an interesting thought--although I don't know how popular a view it may be--is that some have suggested rather than a supernatural miracle here, this is a "stone soup" style miracle if you're familiar with that old folk tale. The idea is that rather than creating food out of thin air, the people present already had the food, and Jesus managed to draw out their generous side so that they shared everything they had until there was more than enough for everyone. There's definitely a part of me that likes this view of the story, as it appeals to people's better natures, which despite a real cynical side I know I have, I'd like to believe in.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Doth he not speak parables? (Matthew 13)

In Matthew 13, the SAB asks the question, "Did Jesus have secret teachings?" I think this is a question that ends up being simple and complicated at the same time, depending on how you look at it. On the simple side, I think that what Jesus is saying in John 18:20 is that he doesn't have a hidden agenda, not that he'd never said anything less than 100% public, which is clearly not true. On the complicated side, I've been fascinated for years with the question of what the purpose of Jesus' parables were, because it's far from completely clear. While I think most people think of them as little illustrations to help people understand spiritual truths, Jesus says outright to his disciples here and in similar passages in Mark 4 and Luke 8 that he's using parables to hide truth. And really, some of Jesus' parables are pretty twisted, and it's far from clear what the exact point is that he's trying to make. We'll get to at least one weird one in this chapter.

(The issue of whether there has ever been a righteous person was one that I addressed here, saying that there are different kinds of righteousness.)

In verses 31-32, Jesus tells the parable of the mustard seed, which is definitely one of his odd ones. Now while there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed (as the SAB points out) and so this might be considered a scientific error, there's something odd to consider here. While the mustard seed may have been the smallest one known to or used by first-century Israelites, as the SAB also points out, the mustard seed doesn't grow into a tree, and this would have been fairly common knowledge to Jesus' audience. So I don't think Jesus is trying to make a scientifically accurate statement here, but rather is trying to paint a picture of a bizarre miraculous occurrence. What this means, I can't say for sure, but I think most people have suggested that it's an illustration of how the teachings of a single man managed to grow into to world's largest religion.

As the SAB says, verse 35 is a misquote of Psalm 78, but I think it's just 78:2, not verse 3 as well. While it's a misquote, it's fairly close. The psalm says "dark sayings", but it's a translation of a word more often translated "riddles" meaning secrets or mysteries. The psalm doesn't say anything about "the foundation of the world" but does say "of old" using a Hebrew word meaning "of ancient time". (The Greek word translated "foundation" almost never appears in the N.T. without "of the world", for whatever that's worth.)

The parable in verses 47-50 provokes a couple questions from the SAB. Is anyone good? I'm going to go with "Yes" on this one, although it should be noted that "good" is a comparative term. The Isaiah verse really is about righteousness, an issue with a response I linked to above, while the Mark verse is an oddity that has something to do with (if I recall correctly) a belief that the Pharisees had about God. Has there ever been a just person? I think again, the answer is yes. I'm not sure what the deal is with the Ecclesiastes verse in this case. First of all, it seems to be describing not someone who is "just" but someone who is "righteous", which suggests a questionable translation (although that may open up a bigger can of worms). Secondly, I think that the book of Ecclesiastes is prone to hyperbole more than most books, and Solomon may be implying that, just or righteous, the sort of person he's describing is incredibly rare. In case it's not clear, I think the distinction between "righteous" and "just" is that the latter would describe someone who does the right thing while the latter describes someone who believes in doing the right thing. Such people are, in my opinion, not so rare as Solomon suggests.

Lastly, the SAB notes the absurdity of Jesus being largely rejected in his hometown. I don't think this is necessarily so absurd, as it may be true that someone who knew a famous person as a child might have a hard time fathoming their rise to fame. Jesus may have had a largely unremarkable childhood, seeing as virtually nothing of it is recorded in the Gospels. And so long as we're here, I would say regarding Mary being a lifelong virgin that while I don't believe it personally, I don't think it's an unreasonable stretch that these "brethren" may be half-brothers or cousins, and thus the Catholic stance on Mary's virginity may hold.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Because he had done these things on the Sabbath day (Matthew 12)

I think Matthew 12 is the first time we see Jesus and the Pharisees go head to head on the matter of the Sabbath, something that happened a lot in the Gospels. It's always been my understanding that the substance of these arguments has a lot to do with the complicated oral traditions that had risen over the centuries (and are still observed by most Jews today) that explained what the Mosaic Law meant in fine detail. In this case, picking grain is considered by the oral law to be the equivalent of harvesting, and thus work, which was forbidden. No, this matter of priests who "profane the Sabbath" is not a specific verse, but I think it's a general principle: that while normal people don't work on the Sabbath, priests at the temple actually have quite a bit of work to do.

Is it necessary to keep the Sabbath? I addressed that back in Exodus 16, but there's probably a bit more that could be said. I think the Sabbath is a good thing, and I think it's something that God intended for everyone. I think the problem that Jesus is addressing in these exchanges is one that struck me as a child being raised Jewish: sometimes religious people can take what are good ideas and make them so complicated and confusing that they stop being so good and become a stumbling block. In the Jewish community, the Sabbath rarely felt like rest to me as a child, and when things get that way, they may be counter-productive. (I addressed the question about David when I covered 1Samuel 21 and the question about animal sacrifices in Genesis 4.)

Following this in the narrative are a series of miracles, to which the Pharisees make the claim that Jesus is doing the things he does because he has demonic power. The SAB points out that strategically this might make sense, and clearly it makes some sense or the Pharisees wouldn't have said it, but Jesus addresses the idea in verse 25, whether you buy his logic or not.

Who is for or against Jesus? the SAB asks. This is an interesting question, as it shows me that there is at least some recognition of poetic language, since on the face of it, there's no contradiction; the contradiction is in understanding the deeper meaning of the phrases on the linked page. I think that however you take those phrases, the conclusion is the same: Jesus doesn't believe in neutral ground when it comes to his allegiances.

Is there an unforgivable sin? This would obviously be a vital question theologically; unfortunately the answer is not obvious. I'm not sure what the consensus is, I'll give my view. Jesus speaks here about "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost", and seems to be saying it's an unforgivable sin, but what exactly is "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost"? Since Jesus brings it up at this moment, it seems likely that it's related to the current situation, and has something to do with denying the godliness of the work that Jesus is doing. Perhaps denying the godliness of the work of the Holy Ghost is key? I like to lean on an explanation that happens to explain away the contradiction, though. The (supposedly) contradicting verse is Acts 13:39, "And by him all that believe are justified from all things." What is it that the Holy Ghost does in a believer? He convicts of of our sins and turns us to Jesus; thus the unforgivable sin is refusing to allow the Holy Ghost to affect that change in your life, and thus refusing belief in Jesus. If refusing to believe in Jesus through the power of the Holy Ghost is the unforgivable sin, then there is no contradiction.

The SAB points out that Jesus sometimes used some harsh words for his adversaries, and yeah, that's true. I don't follow the next note that says that men being made accountable for their words is supposedly unjust. I'm pretty sure even earthly justice systems make people accountable for things that they say.

How are people judged by God? This is a complicated question. One reason that it's complicated is that I think there is more than one level of judgment. In the end, you go to Heaven based on faith, but I don't think that everyone gets the same rewards in Heaven. I think the other issue is that when a verse like John 5:29 says, "they that have done good," it may not be clear what "good" means. Perhaps these people have done "good" by believing in "good" things, and thus "they that have done good," are those who believe the right things. I'll admit it's a bit sketchy. The question "Is anyone justified?" is similar. I don't think that any person is justified in himself, but their words will belie what they believe, and it is their belief that will allow them to be justified by the grace of God.

Did Jesus perform many signs and wonders? Well, the obvious answer is "Yes." So what's with the "No" column verses? I think the point that Jesus is making in those declarations is not that he won't perform miracles at all, but that he won't do them for the mere sake of showmanship. Every miracle that Jesus performed was done with a practical purpose in mind, not just to show off.

Was Jonah swallowed by a fish or a whale? I've seen this one come up in a group of Christians, actually. I don't know why people argue over matters like this, though; it's a linguistic matter. In ancient Israelite culture, the way animals were classified was much simpler than they are today, and had little to do with modern biology. It's like this: if it lives in the water, it's a fish. So by the simpler Biblical classification system, even if it was a whale, it was still a fish.

I answered the question about Jesus vs. Solomon in the previous chapter, and I'm not sure what to say concerning unclean spirits, so I'm moving on.

I don't think that Jesus is trying to say in the little vignette at the end of this chapter that one should not respect one's family, rather I think Jesus is trying to say that for him, his family was bigger than just his blood relatives.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Behold, I will send Elijah the prophet (Matthew 11)

The first issue that the SAB brings up for chapter 11 is the unusual question that John the Baptist sends Jesus through his disciples, "Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?" As the SAB points out, after what John saw at Jesus' baptism, it seems strange that he can he be so unsure. I've heard it suggested that this question is really intended to be read in almost a sarcastic tone. A lot of people expected the messiah to be a major political player, and while I don't know how much John was expecting this, he must be wondering how it could be that he's locked up in prison while Jesus is about. Apparently it was not part of Jesus' plan to get John out of prison, as John ends up dying there.

The SAB asks in response to verse 11, "Who was the greatest: Jesus, Solomon, or John the Baptist?" I don't think this is a contradiction, but if you want to make this sort of comparison, why not throw in Moses, as I'm sure you could dig up one or two verses in this strain. The reason I don't think this is a contradiction is that each of these men is considered the greatest not overall, but within certain constraints. Solomon was greatest in wisdom, John the Baptist was greatest in religious piety, and Jesus, being God in the flesh, is in a category of his own and can't be reasonably compared to anyone. (Yes, I know that Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31 are making that comparison, but you could think of it like comparing the world's smartest dog to the world's smartest person.) Verse 12 is another one that I'm with the SAB on, in that I have no idea what it's supposed to mean.

Was John the Baptist Elijah? This is a tricky one, and the SAB actually supplies the answer in unusual style: Jesus said he was, so he was. I'm guessing that this is mentioned in a mocking matter, since the source of the contradiction is John's own denial in John 1:21. It does seem silly that John wouldn't know, doesn't it? I think that the real substance of the issue is symbolism vs. literalism once again. Jews are waiting for the prophet Elijah to return. Rather than dying, in 2Kings 2, Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind, and the prophet Malachi said (in Mal. 4:5) that he would come back before the "day of the LORD", which most took to be the time of the coming of the messiah. So in Jesus' day, many people were wondering how Jesus could be the messiah if Elijah had not appeared, and my take is that Jesus is saying that John the Baptist fulfilled the symbolic/prophetic role of Elijah. (For what it's worth, many Christians still believe that Elijah will literally return before Jesus comes back at the end of the world.)

In verses 21-24, Jesus seems to be condemning a number of cities for not responding to his preaching. I think this is another case, not of actually condemning, but of observing condemnation. That is, I don't think Jesus is saying he's going to punish these cities; he's saying that their lack of faith will end up being its own punishment in the end.

I'm pretty sure that I addressed the question of who is the lord of the earth back in chapter 4.

Friday, September 20, 2013

This is the second death (Matthew 10)

So the first (substantive) issue that comes up in Matthew 10 is the matter of what the names of the apostles were. There are actually many minor issues here, as many of the apostles were known by more than one name, such as Peter a.k.a. Simon, but the SAB points out the most difficult one, this "Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddaeus" fellow. Mark's Gospel refers to "Thaddeus" but the two times Luke refers to the apostles by name, he refers to "Judas the brother of James" which is never explained anywhere to be the same person. I think, however, that the fact that a lot of people in the New Testament have more than one name that they go by suggests that it's quite possibly what's going on here. Both Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus may have been nicknames of Judas, as both apparently mean something like "large-hearted".

Should the Gospel be preached to everyone? Well, I don't know for sure, but it seems to me that what is going on in this passage in particular is that at this time, Jesus isn't sending the Gospel outside of Israel, but that doesn't mean that it's never to be the case.

Did Jesus tell his apostles to go barefoot and without a staff? Once again, I have to hand it to the SAB for being so detail-oriented, as I doubt I would have ever noticed this oddity. I think it can be explained, though. In the matter of staves, I think what's being said here is much like what's being said about coats; it's not that they can't have a staff, but that they should refrain from bringing a spare. Going more out on a limb here, as I don't know first century customs regarding footwear, I think a distinction is being made between sandals and heavier footwear, that they can wear the former but not the latter. (I checked, and it is a different word in the Greek, at least.)

At the mention of the infamous ancient city, the SAB asks the question "What was Sodom's sin?" I don't think this question belongs here, but I'll address it nonetheless, as it's a good one. The reason I don't think it belongs is that I don't think that verse 15 or the parallel passage in Luke 10 actually say what Sodom's crime was but only hold the city up as a comparison. (The passage from Jeremiah 23 does likewise.) While homosexuality could possibly have been an issue, I don't see a lot of evidence for it. Yes, Ezekiel says they committed an "abomination", but the Hebrew word for "abomination" that Ezekiel uses shows up over 100 times in the O.T., and only once or twice is it associated with homosexuality, so that doesn't narrow it down much; I'd say it actually is more often associated with improper sacrificial practices than improper sexual practices anyway. No, I think that the passage in Ezekiel lists the real crimes of Sodom, but they are listed in a more general sense rather than a list of specific things.

The SAB puts a whole bunch of its category labels on verse 21, because yeah, it's talking about some pretty awful stuff. While I don't disagree that this is bad, I'm assuming that the SAB is trying to imply that Jesus wants this bad stuff or something, and I don't think that's the case. Intolerance, violence, and injustice are terrible things, but they happen because that's unfortunately just the way people are. The fact that Jesus knew these things would happen doesn't mean that he made them that way. When the next verse says "...he that endureth to the end shall be saved." I think the SAB is reading too much into it to say that this is like instructions on how to be saved. Rather I think it's saying that those who do not endure will not be saved, so take it as an encouragement rather than a sort of rule.

Verse 23 is an odd one, and I suppose it does sound a bit like it's talking about the timing of end of the world. I don't know that it is, though. For one thing, it may be talking about how the apostles in particular will not manage to preach in every city of Israel, although the Gospel may eventually be preached by others nonetheless. For another thing, there may be another meaning to "till the Son of man be come." I think the bigger issue in comparing it to Matthew 24:14 is that that verse says the Gospel would be preached to "all nations" which doesn't imply necessarily "all cities". As it happens, there are Christians in every one of the world's 200-odd countries (it's hard to say how many there are as it changes, and it's hard to say what counts as a country) but certainly not in every city, so the gospel has in a sense come to "all nations" while it very well may have never been preached in numerous cities of Israel.

The SAB asks if we should fear God, a question I addressed at length back here in what I think was one of my better posts. The SAB also asks whether or not Hell exists, which I'm certain I have not addressed. It's actually a difficult question, though, at least in the way that the SAB frames it. That is to say, I'm pretty well certain that the Bible teaches that Hell is a real place, but I will readily admit that it's a place of questionable nature. (I have some reflections on the nature of Hell in my other blog here.) There are those who, no doubt in part due to many of the verses in the second part of the linked page, believe that Hell is a place where the ungodly go after death to be destroyed rather than eternally punished as is the common understanding among mainstream Christians. It may be that some of this is a matter of a sort of poetic use of the term "death" as I've heard many say; when the Bible talks of the "death" of a soul, it may be referring to the eternal torment of Hell as a sort of death. I'm going to set that issue aside as a deeper bit of theology that I feel may be out of my scope and address the "everyone goes to heaven" section of the page (although it may be too deep as well, just shorter).

There is a doctrine that's part of strict Calvinism that suggests that when Jesus died for our sins, he didn't die for the sins of unbelievers, only those who would eventually come to faith. I think that 1John 2:2 suggests that this is not the case, but note that while that verse says that Jesus "is the propitiation...for the sins of the whole world" it does not say that the whole world will go to Heaven. Now when 1Timothy 4:10 says "...specially of those that believe", I think it's approaching the nature of the real truth. The metaphor that I've always gone with is that when Jesus died on the cross, it was like he signed a blank check to pay for the sins of each and every person in the world. The problem of faith is that a blank check is only worth something if you believe in it: everyone has this spiritual blank check, but are you going to sign the back and cash it out? I'm sure it sounds weird, but it works for me, and I hope it clarified a bit where my belief is anyway.

I'm not sure what the SAB is on about with sparrows (marked with the "science" icon), so I'm not sure whether I can address it. As the SAB says, God thinks human beings are worth much more than sparrows, and I'm inclined to agree. If there's scientific evidence that this is not so, I'd probably find it interesting.

I know that the SAB is interpreting verses 32-33 more strictly than I would, and I'm guessing that most Christians would also take this as more of a guideline than a strict rule. In particular, as is pointed out, Peter denied knowing Jesus at the time of his crucifixion, but later in life was a powerful, outspoken evangelist, so I don't think he lost his salvation over it.

Verses 34-37 have a lot of the same issues that verse 21 had, but there may be a few more things to say about these verses. As for whether Jesus is peaceful, it's a bit complicated, and I addressed that issue at the end of this post. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of the meaning of verse 37 in particular, as it sounds pretty bad (although not as bad as some similar verses). Jesus is simply saying that in the end, our love of God should be our strongest love. Does that mean that we should be cruel to our family in any way? I don't believe so.

Most of the rest of the chapter is flowery poetic talk that I don't know I fully follow the meaning of so well, to be honest, although I can say that I addressed the question of whether there was ever a righteous person in this post.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

But whom say ye that I am? (Matthew 9)

Matthew 9 begins with the story of Jesus healing a sick man. The SAB says that the man is healed by having his sins forgiven, but I don't think that's what the story is telling us. I think the healing and the forgiveness are supposed to be two separate acts. (I have no idea why this passage is marked as "injustice".) The forgiveness does bring up an issue, though. Apparently, this was considered blasphemous, as only God had the authority to forgive sins, so is Jesus God? Well, I'm going to take the position that Jesus is God, so I'm only going to address items in the "No" column of the linked page. In Matthew 19:17, Jesus does not expressly say that he is not God; I'll probably address that more fully when I get there. As for the rest, the confusion arises because of the oddity that is trinitarianism, an issue probably too big for me to tackle, but I suppose I'll have to at some point in the New Testament, so why not here?

Okay, so Christianity of course believes that there is one and only one God, but, as you may have heard, also believes that God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which can sound like a form of tritheism. (It's actually my understanding that the LDS church in particular is a tritheistic church, but it's more complicated than that in their case.) What is going on, though, is that while God is a single being, He manifests Himself in three persons, each of which has a slightly different role. I was actually talking with an agnostic friend about this recently, and just because he'll be delighted that I used this analogy in the blog, I will: It's sort of like the TV show Doctor Who. If you're not familiar, the show is a British sci-fi action series that features the adventures of "The Doctor", a human-appearing space alien that has a ship known as the TARDIS that allows him to travel through Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. What's important for the analogy, though, is that about a dozen actors have played The Doctor in the main series. Now unlike James Bond, who has been played by about half a dozen actors, but is always supposed to be the same person, each new actor that plays The Doctor is supposed to be taking over when the previous one dies, as death is not permanent for those of The Doctor's race, but leads to a "regeneration" in which one gets a new body and actually a new personality. Thus each regeneration of The Doctor is, while still The Doctor, like a brand new person in many ways. Back to theology, the Father (more often referred to as "God" or "Lord" than the other two), Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit (who doesn't seem to have a personal name) are all God in the end, but each of them has his own personality and role to play in Christianity (although unlike in Doctor Who, they all exist simultaneously). In a manner that is hard for me to fully understand, there also seems to be something like a rank among them, with the Father being primary in a fashion that I don't know to ever be made completely clear.

Does God desire animal sacrifices? I covered that in Genesis 4.

Starting in verse 18, we get the story of Jairus' daughter, who was either dead or at least near death when her father asked Jesus to come and help her. Was she dead? This does seem to be another place where Matthew differs from the other Gospels, but I'm not sure it really matters since I've always chosen to take Jesus at his word in verse 24 that she was never dead at all. Thus the question that the SAB asks in that verse is not an issue here, at least. (It will be eventually, of course.)

In the middle of the story is the story of a woman who was healed on the way to Jairus' house. I don't think that Jesus is saying that "medical science is unnecessary", but that there is some sort of power to be found in having faith in Jesus in addition to medicine. This may very well be just a matter of the healing power of a positive attitude for all I know; I've certainly heard it said that health is in many ways in the mind as well as in the body, and for some sorts of sickness, I don't doubt it. On the other hand, Jesus proceeds to go and heal two blind men and a mute possessed by a devil. I think both of these are undoubtedly a matter of supernatural power on the part of Jesus. No, I don't think the Bible is saying it's generally the case that a person who is mute must be possessed, only that it was the case here.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Send us into the swine (Matthew 8)

The first issue raised in Matthew 8 is the question of whether the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant came directly to Jesus, or sent messengers. While of course it could be possible that these are two different centurions, I think it's more likely that Matthew left some details out of the story. Note that in both stories, the centurion tells Jesus not to come to his house, so not coming in person makes some sense. The SAB points out that this would have been a good opportunity for Jesus to make a statement condemning slavery, but Jesus says nothing about this guy owning a slave. While I touched on this subject before, that was essentially discussing Israelite slavery, and this guy is a gentile, so I have little reason to assume that this is the same sort of arrangement. If I were to address the issue of slavery in the New Testament, I'd have to do some research, I think, but no, Jesus never comes out expressly against slavery as far as I'm aware.

The SAB makes a side-note on this story suggesting that perhaps the centurion and his servant were a gay couple. I find this difficult to fathom. Yes, I think in that day homosexuality may have been considered acceptable in Roman society, but what sort of couple would they have been if one was the owner of another? No, I think homosexuality is another issue that Jesus never directly addresses, even by silent assent.

In verse 10, we are told that Jesus was "astonished" and the SAB takes the opportunity to ask "Did Jesus know everything?" First of all, I think that Jesus expressing an emotion that is often linked with being surprised does not immediately mean that Jesus didn't know something, but I'll set that aside, because it's my view that Jesus, in the time that he walked the earth in human form, was not omniscient. The two quoted verses from the book of John aren't Jesus claiming to know everything, but his followers making that claim. The real nail in the coffin of Jesus having omniscience is Mark 13:32, in which Jesus admits there is at least one thing that he does not know. Now how much Jesus does know is worth questioning, and indeed, he does seem to know quite a bit, but he does not know everything.

Verse 12 is another odd one, and for more than just the reason the SAB notes. Yes, I'll agree with the interpretation that "the children of the kingdom" most likely refers to Jews, but that doesn't mean that all Jews will fail to be saved, I think that the point here is that despite the fact that the nation of Israel is the "chosen people", there will be many non-Jews in heaven and many Jews in hell. (I'm not really convinced that Jesus is even saying the the centurion is saved, only that he has an impressive level of faith.) The thing that I find interesting that's not noted is yet another use of the phrase "the children of..." that clouds the picture of what standing various people have before God, as discussed in a few of the recent chapters.

In verses 14-15, there is mention of Peter's mother-in-law being healed. The SAB asks, no doubt semi-sarcastically, whether this implies that the first Pope was married. Yes, Peter did appear to be married, and I don't know the full details, but it's my understanding that requiring clergy of the Catholic church to be celibate is a development more recent than the first century. I don't know if this goes for the Pope also, or whether the Catholic church thus has some explanation of this passage because of that issue; you'd probably have to ask a Catholic, not an ex-Jewish baptist like me. (The SAB marks this healing and the following casting out of devils as absurd; I'm not generally going to address miracles marked as absurdity, I think, but let them stand as miracles.)

Verses 21-22 have a man who wants to follow Jesus, but says "suffer me first to go and bury my father." I think the SAB is misunderstanding what the guy is asking here; it's always been my understanding that this was his way of saying, "I don't think my father would approve of me following you, so can I wait until he's passed away?" Jesus' response is not to literally suggest that dead people should bury each other, but that if his father can't handle Jesus, then he should be left behind. (This could still perhaps take all the tags the SAB gives it, but the meaning is not quite what it's being taken as.)

The story in verses 23-27 is another miracle, and I think the real point of the miracle, if anything, is what it says in the last verse: that even the weather obeys Jesus' commands.

The last story in this chapter is an odd one about Jesus casting out some demons (or perhaps one very strange, powerful one). For reasons unknown, when Mark and Luke tell this story, they say there's only one demon-possessed man, while Matthew puts it at two. I have no idea why the difference in number, and it seems to be a big difference; I mean, who has a hard time counting to two? (Matthew does use different names in his telling of the story, so it could possibly be a different event, but there's enough detail in common to make this improbable.) Anyway, this is an interesting story for numerous reasons. The demons immediately know who Jesus is, and they refer to some time in the future that Jesus is going to torment them. Weird stuff. Note that in other versions of the story, Jesus finds out that the devil(s) is named "Legion", and in all the stories, they are sent into a herd of pigs. Some have suggested that this story is symbolic of the Roman occupation, which is possible, but I'm not real keen on that interpretation. It is odd to note that someone in a Jewish city would be keeping a herd of pigs, seeing as they're unclean animals. I find it odd that people who dislike this story object to the drowning of the pigs; I guess while I'm thinking it's good that the demons were driven out at all, these people are wondering if it could have been done more cleanly. Certainly the people of the nearby town seem to think so, as they ask Jesus to leave.

Friday, September 13, 2013

In my name shall they cast out devils (Matthew 7)

Okay, time for Matthew 7 and finishing up the Sermon on the Mount, which we start with the question of whether or not we should judge people. My take on this verse, and actually most of what's on the linked page is that we should always be careful before we decide to pass judgment on others. Most of these "judge not" verses aren't saying straight out not to judge so much as they're saying that we should think twice before we judge, and consider our own faults, which as the SAB says, is a good thing. Judging is something that we simply do as humans, in my opinion, but there's a difference also between the kind of judgment that says "X is a bad thing to do." and the kind that says "You are a bad person because you do X." In my estimation the former is a natural and good sort of judgment, while the latter is not, especially since if you happen to be judging wrong in the former, you at least won't screw up the latter, if that makes any sense.

Verses 3-4 have a bit of hyperbolic language that the SAB seems to understand, since it doesn't mark them as absurd. A funny metaphor that Jesus paints, he suggests that the average person who wants to pick at a tiny piece of sawdust in another person's eye might not realize they have a big plank of wood in their own eye blocking their view.

I'm not a Jehovah's Witness, so I'm not sure what to say about the note on verse 6. Actually, I'd have to admit that verse 6 is another one in this passage that I really have very little idea as to what it means.

Verses 7-11 seem to talk about the power of prayer, and the SAB has, perhaps rightly, an issue with the claims made here. Jesus seems to be suggesting that prayer is a sort of blank check we have with God, and we can simply get whatever we want whatsoever. There are few people that really believe this to be the case, so what does it mean? Well, one thing that can be said is that verse 11 specifies "good things" and the distinction is important. If my kids asked me for candy, would I be a good parent if I simply always gave it to them? I think there's a sense in which this is really saying that if you ask for something, you will get something good, although it may not be what you asked for. I know that there is a bigger theological question in here for which this only approaches a sufficient answer, but it's what I've got. As for the question of whether God can be found, I don't think that any of the verses in either column of that page are intended to suggest a general principle, but are apropos to certain specific situations and people.

In verse 12, Jesus gives a formulation of the Golden Rule, as it's widely known, and the SAB like most of us, is a fan. However, it then asks if the OT is supposedly summed up with the Golden Rule (which Jesus is far from the only Jew to have made such a claim) why does it have so much cruelty and violence? It's a bigger question than I'm prepared to address in this post, but I'll readily admit it's food for thought, and worth asking.

In verses 13-14, Jesus does indeed seem to be saying that most people will go to Hell. I don't know that the claim that "He seems to be OK with that." is warranted. If Jesus was okay with it, then why would he urge people to avoid it?

I'm wondering why verse 15 is marked as good stuff. Perhaps the SAB is all for being aware that the world is full of religious people who will use their religion to manipulate you. I can see how that would make sense.

Verse 19 is very similar to what John the Baptist said a few chapters ago, and once again, my response to the SAB calling it unjust, violent, and intolerant is to say that it's just an observation.

Verse 21 has a claim that's a real big deal, and something that should cause a Christian to pause. Jesus is saying that there are people who will look and maybe act like Christians, but they're not saved. while I can give a suggestion as to the significance of this apparent disparity, I have to admit that my suggestion is reading more into the verses in the "Yes." column of this page than is immediately apparent. My suggestion is that it's more than simply calling on God, but that there is some degree of sincerity in the call. Part of the problem with this reading is that in verses 22-23, these people seem to be quite surprised that the things they have done are not in line with "the will of my Father which is in Heaven." Admittedly, it seems strange to me that these people would not know that they lacked the proper sincerity.

Especially since they seem to have had the authority to do something like casting out devils as the SAB questions on two very similar pages. I'm going to use the latter page, as it breaks these verses out into three categories that I think are worth discussing. I think that the principle being illustrated by the passages in Mark 9:38 and Luke 9:49 is that Christians aren't a singular, monolithic group. I think that the people who were casting out demons in those verses were Christians, just not ones that traveled with Jesus. While I don't know that my personal view on the matter is a popular one among Christians, it's been my view for some time that there are people out there in the world who are going to be saved that aren't Christians in the matter one usually thinks of. These people may believe in Christ but they don't go to a church, or they may not know the full truth of Christianity but are still seeking the will of God, I don't know. I think such people are going to be spiritually like Christians even if they aren't like Christians in appearance or action. Just a theory. (I may owe some of this to C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, and an odd plot twist towards the end of that novel.) As for the comparison between our current passage and Mark 16:17, I think Jesus is saying that every Christian can potentially cast out demons, but just because you cast out demons doesn't mean that you're a Christian.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? (Matthew 6)

So, continuing the sermon in chapter 6, we come on a number of similar issues to what we had last chapter. In fact, I'm pretty sure we just covered the first issue, and I think the SAB is tracking with my explanation, since it marks the first several verses as "good stuff". Generally when it comes to doing good works and praying, it's good to make it a thing you aren't doing to show off. The SAB mentions school prayer and the National Day of Prayer in their note on verse 5, and I actually agree. It should be noted that prayer in public schools is not illegal, so long as one keeps it to oneself, which is the way it should be in my opinion.

On verse 9, the SAB asks the interesting question "Do Christians know how to pray?" which is another one of those odd moments when I feel it's really reaching for a contradiction, but okay. I don't think either verse is saying what the SAB is purporting it to say. The verse here in Matthew is, I suppose being an instance of instruction in how to pray, but I don't think that necessarily means that Jesus wants Christians to pray these exact words, nor does it mean that, having read this passage, one will automatically know how prayer works. On the other hand, I don't think the Romans passage is saying that people don't know how to pray, only that sometimes the exact words to say may escape someone, but that's okay, as the Holy Spirit knows what we really need even if we can't put it in words.

So, feeling a little more fresh than I was when finishing up the last chapter, I'll try to address the question of whether we are all God's children. This is a tricky one actually, as I think the Bible can play pretty loose with this issue. Let me dispense with a few of these by noting that some of these verses may say "X are the children of God" but that may not imply that "not X are not the children of God". Also, there are a lot of issues being made separate here that are not actually separate, e.g. one might want to assume that "them that believe on [Jesus'] name" and "As many as are led by the Spirit of God" refer to the same group of people. Still, there is a sense in which we are all children of God because God created the human race, as I think I touched on for a similar issue in Genesis 6, and that wasn't much clearer. I think in most of these verses, the sentiment is that spiritually you are the "children of" whatever or whomever you do the will of.

Is God's will always done in heaven? I have to hand it to the SAB for catching these slightly less-than-obvious details, but I don't think this will float. Verse 10 doesn't say "always", and while I don't think it would be wrong to assume that it's generally the case that God's will is done in heaven, the fact there was an exception to the rule doesn't make the rule wrong.

While I understand that the wording of verse 13 might lead one to question whether God tempts people, I don't think this verse in particular is meant to say that. I think the idea here is asking God to keep us from temptation, not that God would tempt us if we failed to ask, but that we may ask God for further protection from temptation that might come from other sources.

I find it interesting that the SAB marks verse 15 with "injustice" and then comments "Fair is fair!" I'm not sure what point was being made there, but yes, it does seem rather fair, and I think it's a principle that some Christians have lost sight of: if God has forgiven our sins, then what place do we have to be unforgiving?

Verse 23 is marked as absurdity, and I'll have to admit here I don't know what this verse means; it does sound rather odd.

In verse 26, Jesus makes an odd comparison between people and birds. The SAB points out that birds don't have it quite so good as Jesus seems to be making it out to be. While I suppose it's technically right about this, there's something to be said (for better or worse) about how bad people have it anyway. Back in the first century, the life expectancy was pretty low, and this was largely due to infant mortality. I suppose the real point here is that the average human doesn't live as carefree a life as a bird, but even though, birds that do manage to live a good healthy life do so without having struggles that people do. And I don't think Jesus is saying that birds don't matter, he's just saying that they matter considerably less than humans do.

I don't think that the last few verses are Jesus saying that one should simply not care in any way about material things. In fact, I don't think I even need to appeal to hyperbole as I did in most of the points earlier to say that this is merely a matter of comparison, that is, Jesus is saying that material things should be less of a consideration than spiritual matters.

Monday, September 09, 2013

He taught them as one having authority (Matthew 5)

So, we move on to Matthew 5 and the "Sermon on the Mount" as it is called. Of course it's called that because Matthew 5:1 says that he went up on a mountain to preach it, but is this correct? The SAB points out that Luke 6 has Jesus giving this sermon on a plain. Yeah, this could be a contradiction, but I do have a couple thoughts on this. First of all, the sermon starting in Luke 6 is not exactly the same as the sermon here, and while it could be two different recollections of the same sermon (Luke's Gospel is, I believe, not purporting to be a first-hand account as the other three are) it's also possible that these are two different sermons, each of which was in a different place. Another thing to consider, although I'm not sure it quite covers the wording of Luke, is that I don't think Jesus was literally standing on top of a mountain anyway, as such a setting would afford very poor acoustics. Jesus was probably on a flat spot in a mountainous area where his audience would be standing on a slope overlooking him in a sort of natural amphitheater. At least, that's how I've always imagined it.

The SAB marks a few lines in the sermon as "good stuff", but as often is the case when it does so, I'm perplexed as to the choice. Why verses 5, 7, and 9, but not 6 and 8? I mean, coming from an atheistic point of view, I get why not 10 and 11, but what's wrong with "they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness" and "the pure in heart"? So long as we're not talking about self-righteousness (because who can stand that?) aren't righteousness and purity good things?

Should we let others see our good works? I think this is one of those things that people take too strongly in those verses in which seem to support an answer of "no". I don't think that the issue is whether our good works are seen so much as whether we were doing it to show off. For most people, our intentions are mixed, so it's subtle. Take this blog as an example: as much as I am making these posts to educate people and have a healthy dialogue with the SAB, I think I'm doing a good thing; as much as I'm doing it to show off my debating skills and seem holier-than-thou (which I'm sure I'm not 100% free of) I'm being sort of a jerk. Jesus is saying that doing the right thing matters, and why you do it matters as well.

Jesus takes a moment starting in verse 17 to say he supports the Old Testament law, and it raises some issues for the SAB. I don't think I need to say much for the charge of injustice and violence on verse 17, as that's really a question of how you view the whole of the OT, and I don't see me addressing such a big question here. What I can address, although it's pretty big too, is whether Christians have to obey the OT law. There's an important distinction to be made with most of the verses in the "yes" column on that page, and this passage as well: they're addressed to Jews living in Israel. It's always been my position that the OT laws were binding to the nation of Israel and not to gentile Christians, but I'll admit that such an assessment leaves some gray area. Jewish Christians? People living in modern Israel? I don't know, but I don't think so. The thing that I know is that whether the OT law must be followed, Jesus is saying it's important, and he's certainly not going to replace it with lawlessness.

Will the earth last forever? There are a couple things to say about this. First and simply, I think verse 18 is poetic language, and rather than implying that earth will be destroyed, Jesus is saying that the OT is something that is more durable than even the earth itself. That being said, I do think that the Bible teaches that the earth is a temporary thing, albeit an incredibly long-lived thing. I think in most of the passages where the Bible says that the earth is given "for ever" it's really saying "as long as you live", which is long enough for anyone. I think there is a more complicated theological view that the earth will last as long as time, which will itself last for a finite amount.

There are many questions on verse 20, but I think I can respond to them all with another appeal to poetic language. when Jesus says "your righteousness shall exceed..." he's not giving a formula for salvation, he's saying "Think of the most righteous person you can think of; that's not righteous enough to be saved on account of righteousness." The point is not to set the bar high, but to say that the bar is higher than you can possibly imagine.

I don't think that Jesus is saying that saying the word "fool" gives someone an immediate one-way ticket to Hell. I think what he's saying is that anger leads to violence, so people should be careful about what they say.

I have to admit that I am probably just as confused by verse 28 as the SAB is. While I think I understand it as a symbolic principle, that is, that lusting is in many ways as bad as actually committing sexual sin, taking it fully literally is confusing. (And there are people who insist that we should take it that way!) The SAB asks if this means that someone who lusts should be given the punishment of an adulterer, i.e. death. In fact, it seems to be asking whether the woman being lusted after should be killed as well, which highlights to me the real absurdity of comparing lust to adultery in completely equivalent terms: in the former case, the woman hasn't done anything, has she? I think in this matter as in much of this sermon, Jesus is utilizing hyperbole.

Case in point, in the next two verses, Jesus says that people should pluck out their eyes and cut off their hands to avoid sin. The reason I think this is hyperbolic language (and I'm far from the only one to make such a judgment) is that a person who is struggling with lust doesn't have a problem with their hands or eyes, they have a problem with their brains, and you can't pluck those out. Sure, if you have an issue with masturbation, cutting off your hands will stop it, but it's not going to stop the lust that's driving it.

Is divorce ever permissible? While the SAB is astute in noticing that Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18 don't mention any exceptions, it is of course generally understood that when there has been adultery, the wronged party has divorce as an option. (Yes, as the SAB points out, the case of an unfaithful wife is the only one mentioned and not the gender reverse, but most modern churches interpret these passages with gender neutrality.) Deuteronomy 24:1-2 refers to adultery, in my opinion, and 1Corinthians 7:15, although odd, makes some sense, as it would be unfair to make someone stay married to someone who had abandoned them.

The matter of whether one should ever make an oath is also hyperbole, and I covered it in the second-to-last paragraph of this entry. Basically Jesus is saying it's better to just be an honest person than someone who has to make a special oath in order to be believed.

It may be that the hyperbole in verses 39-41 may have some cultural significance. I've heard it said that in respect to verse 41, there was a custom in the Roman empire that a Roman soldier could compel a person to carry their pack for them for up to a mile. Jesus is saying here in many ways that even people you don't like (such as members of an occupying foreign army) are opportunities to show kindness, and you should love your enemy. Clearly the Bible is full of people not loving their enemies, but I don't think that renders the principle void. (The theological question of how God should treat His enemies is a bigger issue I'm not going to try to tackle here.)

So to finish up this chapter, which has already gone on far too long, I'm going to dismiss verse 45 as being poetic as well, and the point thereof being that people of all levels of righteousness have to live in the same world, and not to categorize what level of righteousness any particular person might have. As for the question raised by the SAB on verse 48...maybe there's something there, but I'm not sure what to say at this point. As it comes up in the next chapter, maybe I'll pick it up there.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Then shall they fast in those days (Matthew 4)

The first issue that the SAB has with Matthew 4 is an interesting one, as it brings up bigger theological issues. If James 1:13 says that God cannot be tempted, then how is it that Jesus, supposedly being God, can be tempted? Is this a contradiction? Once again, I think this can be chalked up to the ambiguity of language, but it raises other questions for me. The ambiguity is this: Let me use the example of one of my kids. Suppose you were to try to get my older daughter to do something and you were to bribe her with a chocolate bar. Believe it or not,  she actually doesn't like chocolate, so in a sense, while you could bribe her with chocolate, in another sense, you can't...because it wouldn't be successful. I think that's the point of what James is saying. (This goes for the issue on verse seven as well.)

The bigger theological issue this raises, at least for me, is the question of why the devil would even bother. As I've heard many people point out--in regards to this passage, no less--the devil seems to be well-versed in scripture, so one might wonder why he bothers to oppose God since he must know how futile such action must be. I don't have an answer for that, it's just something I've always wondered.

Anyway, the SAB seems to be asking how it can be possible for Jesus to have fasted for 40 days and nights. There are a few things to say about this. One thing is that there are no details given about the fast; I would assume that Jesus didn't go without water for forty days, but rather only went without food. As it happens, there was this thing a few years back (it may still be as popular now, I don't know) where a lot of people I knew were doing 40-day fasts. They didn't go completely without consuming anything, but I know they went without solid food for 40 days; it doesn't take superhuman endurance for that sort of thing. Which brings me to a more important point: Jesus was superhuman. I don't think it's so hard to imagine that someone who had the ability to walk on water and raise people from the dead could manage to go a long time without food.

Well, after fasting, the devil shows up and tries to tempt Jesus, even suggesting scripture to support the things that he's tempting Jesus to do. As the SAB says, Jesus misquotes Deuteronomy 6:13, and this is not a translation error for the KJV. Not only is the word "only" present in the Greek, but it's there in the parallel passage of Luke 4:8. I would say in defense of this misquote that the verse that immediately follows ("Ye shall not go after other gods...") implies "only", so it's not an unreasonable stretch for Jesus to put it there.

I find it interesting the way that the SAB envisions the sorts of things that the Bible talks about, and how it's clearly different than I do. I would have never considered the physical impossibility of the scene in verse eight, but I suppose it's an issue worth considering. The thing I'd always wondered about this scene is how and why it ended up in the Gospels at all, since there's no recording of a time that Jesus sat down with his disciples and said, "Let me tell you about this wild thing that happened this one time I was fasting!" As for the issue of whether we've got some sort of flat-earth situation, I think that I'd have to say that this is figurative language in some way. I mean, even if you supposed that the devil and Jesus were standing on the moon, they'd still only see half the earth (there were kingdoms in the western hemisphere, and maybe even Australia), and I don't think there is an angle at which you could see everything. But even if the world were flat and there was a huge mountain, you'd be looking at everything from miles and miles away, so you wouldn't really see all those kingdoms, would you? I'm sure detractors will call it a cop-out, but yeah, I'm going to go with figurative speech here.

Verse nine is an interesting one, because I think a lot of people miss the implications of the offer the devil is giving, but the SAB gets it. If the devil is offering Jesus the earth, doesn't that imply that the devil owns it? You can't tempt someone by offering them something that's not yours, so the devil must own "all the kingdoms of the world". So the SAB is right to ask the questions it asks about the earth. As important as this issue is, since this post is getting long, I'm going to answer it simply. There's a sense in which both God and the devil own the earth. In the end, God owns the earth; He created it, and at the end of time, He's going to take it back. In another very real sense, the devil owns the earth, but it's sort of like a guy with a long-term lease. I actually talked about this when I covered the book of Ruth and cross-referenced Revelation 5 and referred back to this chapter.

But back to verse 10 and Jesus' quote of Deut. 6:13. The SAB asks whether the Bible tells us to serve only God or whether we are to serve others. I think the answer to this is similar to the one I just gave. Ultimately, God is the one we are made to serve, but in the course of living our lives, we serve God by serving others. Children should serve parents, spouses should serve one another, employees should serve bosses, and citizens should serve their governments in some manner. While it may seem like a contradiction on the face of it if you take the language a certain way, I think the idea is that we serve God by serving the people that God wants us to serve.

So the last issue in this chapter is that of timing. Matthew (and Mark, apparently) seem to be implying that Jesus chose his apostles (or particularly Peter and Andrew) after John got put in prison, while the Gospel of John suggests the opposite. Well, as it happens, this sort of thing happens a lot in the Gospels. The ordering of events seems to get scrambled around a lot between one telling and another. My general answer is once again, something that's going to be considered a cop-out by many, but I really don't think it is: the Gospel writers just didn't care about getting their narratives in proper temporal order. I'm using that as a blanket dismissal of contradictions of this type, but there still will be times where getting the order is important (the Sunday morning after Jesus is crucified has some issues that need sorting out) and a fair number of times, there will be things that can be said to sort things out anyway.

In this particular case, I'd say a couple things. One is that one event coming after the other in the narrative doesn't necessarily mean that they come after each other in time, and I think here verse 17 ends one story and 18 starts another. But that's about what I said in the previous paragraph. Another possibility is that John ended up in prison more than once; he was pretty unpopular among the religious and political leaders, maybe even moreso than Jesus. Here's a more important distinction: I don't think that the story of the calling of Peter in John is the same story told here. Doesn't it seem odd that Jesus would just be walking along and call these two guys almost at random, and they immediately drop everything and follow him? No, I think this is the official calling moment, while other stories like the one in John 1 are stories of how Jesus had interacted with these men previous to calling them.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

And was baptized of John in Jordan (Matthew 3)

Just to keep things in order, in case anyone tries to read this blog straight through rather than jumping around, I'll insert a short note here that I've already analyzed the rest of Matthew 1 here, and Matthew 2 here (with verse 11 in particular addressed here). Merry Christmas and all that. So, on to chapter 3.

The first issue that the SAB has with this chapter is whether or not John baptized any Pharisees. I think this isn't a problem; in verse 11 I don't think John is addressing the Pharisees in particular, but the crowd at large and saying that baptism is something he's offering whether or not any particular member of the crowd is taking him up on the offer. As for calling them "O generation of vipers...", yes, I'd agree that this is harsh language, but I'd note that the word "generation" may be somewhat questionable in meaning, so I'm not sure what the SAB is insinuating about "an entire generation". He may not even be talking about the Pharisees as a whole.

I think marking verses 10-12 with violence may be a bit strong, but I don't have a major issue with this. The point that John is making is a metaphorical one. If a fruit tree doesn't bear fruit, then what good is it, and why not just use it for firewood? So if you're someone who isn't doing something worthwhile with their life, then what good are you? It's food for thought, in my opinion.

Now the SAB thinks that Jesus coming to John to get baptized is absurd, and as they note, John himself seems to be of the same opinion. It is rather odd, and for the very reasons that the SAB points out. If baptism is is about repentance and sinfulness, and Jesus is sinless, then what the heck is going on? I've heard it suggested that Jesus is getting baptized in order to be an example for generations of Christians to come, which might be possible, but I think that it's a mistake to assume that everything Jesus ever did was intended to be an example to follow. I suppose it does make some slight sense out of verse 15, of which the SAB wonders as to the meaning.

The last issue in this chapter is a question concerning the wording used by the voice of God, which here disagrees with the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke. Make what you want of this sort of thing; slight differences in wording in the Gospels don't bother me personally, and this is only the first of many of this sort. I figure if the gist of the wording is the same, why should it bother me?

Monday, September 02, 2013

But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law (Matthew 1:1-17)

So here I am again, and starting over with the New Testament, in Matthew 1. As the SAB points out about this chapter, Paul writes in a couple places that genealogies are a waste of time, and yet as with so many other places in the Bible, we're here presented with not just a genealogy, but one that will lead to (as Titus 3:9 in particular warns against) "foolish questions, ... and contentions, and strivings about the law;" oh well. I'll dismiss the genealogy issue with a simple fact: I don't know what Paul had against them, so I'm going to gloss over that issue until I may happen to hit one of those passages in a future entry. I'm going to have plenty of other things to deal with here.

The first specific detail the SAB latches onto in this list is the mention of Tamar in verse three. Of course, that story is a rather racy one, so I can see why the SAB marks it with the sex symbol, but I'm not sure what the absurdity symbol is about. If it has something to do with the related cross reference to Deut. 23:2, it's something interesting I find worth noting: David was ten generations removed from Tamar, so while there are some hints in Genesis that Judah was intended to be the royal line of Israel, in the end, David was the first in that line to take the throne; perhaps it was because of the ten generations thing in the Deuteronomy passage?

The SAB goes on to comment on the inconsistencies between this genealogy and the one in Luke's Gospel, which is as par for the course in Biblical criticism as noting the apparent disparities between Genesis 1 & 2. In this case, there are a number of issues that I think are valid to bring up, and are not simple misunderstandings, although there are some good responses that some people have come up with. The usual response to the discrepancies on the whole is that one of these two genealogies is that of Mary, while the other is that of Joseph. This explains away some of the discrepancy, but admittedly may bring up other issues.

I've heard it said that this genealogy is that of Mary, since it's the one that mentions Mary, but that's a problem with the bigger issue of why Mary's genealogy is needed in the first place. If we skip down to the note on verse 12, the SAB asks "Did Jeconiah have any children?" which is actually an important question. As referenced on the linked page, Jeremiah 22 says that Jeconiah should be considered to be childless, but this is a bit of poetic speech, the latter part of the quoted passage explaining the real meaning: no blood descendant of Jeconiah was to ever be allowed to be king. Thus, while the royal line goes through Jeconiah, it was cursed by God in Jeremiah's time, requiring any future king of Israel to be a blood descendant of David, but only a legal descendant of Jeconiah. Since Joseph (the husband of Mary) was a descendant of Jeconiah, but Jesus was only adopted by Joseph, that gives Jesus the blood and legal requirements to sit on the throne. This is a complicated issue that I'm not doing justice here, but I don't want (nor do I likely have the wherewithal) to write a huge essay here on this single topic. Suffice to say that if this is the reason for the two genealogies, then this one needs to be Joseph's.

This also answers (albeit pretty weakly, I'll admit) the question on verse 16 regarding the identity of Jesus' paternal grandfather: it was Jacob son of Matthan, while Heli son of Matthat (confusingly similar name there) had to be his maternal grandfather. As for the rest of the issues, and particularly Matthew's odd fetish for the number 14, they have to do with, well honestly, Matthew was fudging the numbers, and very poorly. For reasons he doesn't explain, Matthew really likes this pattern of 14s. It has something to do with Hebrew numerology and some relationship between the Messiah and the number 14. I know the numerical value of the name "David" in Hebrew is 14, but beyond that, you'd have to look elsewhere. As I said, I'm trying to not stretch this out to ridiculously long, and I probably already have.