Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I know not this man of whom ye speak (Matthew 26:31-75)

The SAB has a trio of questions about Peter's upcoming denial, and before I even check, I seem to recall that there was some vagueness there. "Did Jesus say before the cock crow or before the cock crow twice?" and "Did the cock crow before or after Peter's denial?" and "To whom did Peter deny knowing Jesus?" I think there are definite contradictions present in all but the second question, and that's because with the cock crowing twice, it just works out that way; that is to say in a way that I don't think the second question really adds anything to the problem of the first stated contradiction. I suppose I should put in an opinion as to which I think is right; normally if it's three to one, you'd think you'd go with the three, but it's generally understood that Mark's Gospel (the one in which the cock crows twice) was told mainly from Peter's point of view, which makes me lean towards the "twice" thing. As for the third question, again there does seem to be discrepancy, and I'd lean towards Mark's Gospel, but if anything can be said in defense of the discrepancy here, he was in the middle of a large crowd, and there may have been a lot of people talking to him in the end. Beyond that, I've got nothing on these.

"Did Jesus ask God to save him from crucifixion?" I can see how this could look like a contradiction, but there's something important in all of these passages in both columns. In every telling, Jesus says that in the end, no matter what his vulnerable human body might desire, he is there to do the will of God the Father, and that means going to the cross.

"Did Judas identify Jesus with a kiss?" Well, three of the four Gospels say so, and the fourth Gospel doesn't say that he didn't, so I'm inclined towards "Yes." (The answer to the question of whether Jesus came to bring peace was addressed here with an answer of "It's complicated.")

"Was Jesus taken to Caiaphas or Annas first?" This one takes some explanation, and it may come up elsewhere. This was a unique situation in the history of Israel in which there were two high priests, one of which had been appointed by the people and the second of which had been put into the position by the Romans. Since both were serving as high priest, Jesus was probably taken before the both of them. It may not have been simultaneous, but essentially at the same time.

"Did Jesus say, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up'?" At first I was confused by this question, since I couldn't see the difference between the columns on the linked page; then I realized what it was: the verses in Matthew and Mark say that "false witnesses" attested to him saying this. I think you have to look carefully at the wording, and that in the John passage, Jesus is talking about the "temple" of his physical body, while the witnesses are making it to sound like he's talking about the physical temple building. I don't blame the SAB for calling this a contradiction, as it's pretty subtle.

"How did Jesus respond to the high priest?" This is another fairly subtle one, and I say that it's subtle because the three responses given are still very similar, from "Thou hast said" to "Ye say that I am" to the very straightforward "I am". All of them are answering in the affirmative, although as the SAB points out, the first two are less straightforward, but the second includes "I am" within it. A possibility is that Jesus said something like "Thou hast said that I am" and it got misheard in various ways, or he may have been asked multiple times and different responses got recorded by different authors but I'm not sure what is the best way to resolve this. As I've said previously slight difference in wording doesn't bother me in general, but this seems a bit more important, as it's a crucial moment in Jesus' trial. Leaving that hanging, however, it's worth noting that, as in modern law, a witness is not required to incriminate himself. It's one of a handful of things that made Jesus' trial illegal under Jewish law. (The SAB notes that the high priest rent his clothes, which I seem to recall also being against Jewish Law.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

There they made him a supper (Matthew 26:1-30)

So with Matthew 26, we're really getting close to the end of all of this, and Jesus is getting close to the end of his life. (The question as to whether he forewarned his disciples of his death I covered in Matthew 20.)

There's a story in verses 6-13 in which a woman pours some expensive ointment on Jesus' head, and there is a question of whether it was a wasteful thing to do. While I think the case can certainly be made that it was truly wasteful and could have been better spent on helping the poor, but there are a few things to note. The parallel telling of the story from the Gospel of John points out that it was Judas Iscariot in particular who was complaining, and the reason he was complaining was not that he cared about the poor, but because he wanted the money for himself. (The passage also says that the woman, who is there identified as Mary of Bethany, poured it on Jesus' feet, a contradiction the SAB missed, but I'm sure it'll be added soon after this post is published.) Also note that Jesus is making a point in two parts. First, that he's being anointed for burial, which shows that the woman has a deeper understanding of what's going on, and second, that since he's about to die, this is the last time the disciples will have a chance to do anything for/with Jesus before he's dead, while caring for the poor--while yes, it's important--is work that will never end.

Anyway, it's Passover, so Jesus and his disciples get together to have a traditional Passover supper (commonly known as a "Seder") which comes to be known as the "Last Supper". Jesus takes the occasion to reinterpret a lot of symbolic items from the Seder in respect to his death and resurrection. A lot of these are open to interpretation, and the SAB marks the passage with the "interpretation" icon, but I'm not just going to address the items the SAB brings up, but bring up a few others.

In verse 26, it says that Jesus takes bread, blesses it and breaks it, saying "Take, eat; this is my body." (This bread is very specific bread, as it happens. At a Seder, only unleavened bread is eaten (leaven being symbolic of evil) and there is a special thing done with some of the bread which I believe is symbolic of the Trinity and the death of Jesus. Three pieces of bread are set aside in a special pouch, and the middle one of the three (the afikomen) is broken, taken away and hidden, and then brought back to the table. This piece is put back together, and then everyone is required to eat a piece of it.) Then Jesus takes a cup of wine and tells them "Drink ye all of it, for this is my blood..." (This cup of wine is the third of four cups of wine that are had during the Seder, this one being known as the "Cup of Blessing".) So Jesus is taking traditional elements of the Seder and reinterpreting them in a messianic manner, which leads to the issue of various interpretations.

As the SAB points out, there is doctrinal difference among Christians over whether this is literally the body and blood of Jesus. Most Protestants consider it to be symbolic, while Catholics believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation, that is, that the bread and wine will somehow become the actual body and blood when consumed. What the SAB apparently doesn't know (or I assume they'd mention it) is that the Jehovah's Witnesses believe that communion is meant only to be taken on Passover (while most Christian churches will do it weekly or monthly). Admittedly, there could have been more clarity given, and it's a bit sad that despite the lack of clarity, pretty much every church is 100% convinced that their method and doctrine is correct, and others are mistaken, sometimes to the point of heresy.

The SAB asks "Is it okay to drink alcohol?" and I'll stand on my answer given in the middle of this post, which boiled down largely to a common sense stance of "It's okay in moderation."

Friday, October 25, 2013

I will not keep anger for ever (Matthew 25)

Matthew 25 opens with the parable of the ten virgins. I've dealt with the issue of polygamy before, but let me take a moment to reiterate the important misunderstanding involved in this passage: the ten virgins are not brides, they're bridesmaids. The man in the parable isn't coming to marry them, they're just the welcoming committee to lead him to the party. (Although polygamy was probably still pretty prevalent in Jesus' day, I think men still married one woman at a time.) This parable is about being ready for the second coming, but once again, I'm not real clear on what the oil represents.

The next parable is of a businessman with some servants. The SAB thinks it's strange that the master was glad that the servants invested the money, but I think it's loosely implied that that is what they were meant to do. The SAB marks the parable as cruel and violent, and honestly, I've tended to feel the same; why punish someone for not investing? At least he didn't lose it, right? This is a troubling parable, as most people have, as far as I've heard, interpreted this as being about Jesus entrusting his followers with the Gospel. If you don't share the Gospel, are you going to go to Hell, then? Parables like this one and the previous really can be confusing and troubling, I'll readily admit.

Then Jesus goes on to describe the manner in which judgment is going to come at the second coming. In this case, while most of the time there does seem to be the sentiment that salvation comes by faith, here the judgment seems clearly to be based on how people treated those less fortunate than themselves (something which the SAB marks "Good stuff"). All of this leads to a lot of questions. One thing that may explain discrepancies with other concepts of eternal judgment is that it is said here that Jesus is judging nations rather than individual people. It's always been my understanding that God deals with people not just on an individual level, but in groups; what this means for said groups is a bit hard to say. If a nation was made up of mainly cruel people, but there were a few good people mixed in, then how does the judging go? I assume that the good people get accepted, but if the nation as a whole is rejected, then who or what gets judged? In case I wasn't making it clear, I'm saying that I'm a bit fuzzy on this event overall, but I'm going to go to the individual questions that the SAB raises.

When was Heaven created? I'm going with Heaven being created when (or even slightly before) the earth was created. While the verse in John says Jesus is going "to prepare a place for you" that doesn't mean that Heaven does not exist, it means that Jesus has work to do to get Heaven ready for everyone coming there. (It was probably spiritual work, not actually physically making rooms or whatever.)

How should strangers be treated? I'm going to go with "Be kind to them." I think the verses in the second column are meant for a special purpose, and that there are certain situations that were particular to the early Israelites that required them to deal mercilessly with strangers, but those were not general rules.

"What must you do to be saved?" is a question I keep glossing over because the way the SAB puts it, it's a big question to tackle, so I'm honestly procrastinating on it. However, "Has there ever been a righteous person?" is one I addressed back in Genesis.

"How long does God's anger last?" is a good question, and I see the page there has a lot of food for thought. I think there needs to be a few things said that clears away some, but not all of the issues here. First of all, not all of these verses are intended as general statements, but rather some of them may pertain to particular incidents. Secondly, "how long" is a rather subjective matter, especially when you're dealing with a being like God who is eternal; being angry for forty years might be to his mind "but a moment". Thirdly, the length of God's anger may not be commensurate with the length of the punishment. (Maybe God was angry just for a moment, but they had to wander for forty years anyway?) Just because there's an everlasting punishment doesn't mean that there was an everlasting anger to go with it. So all that being said, I would say that the only verse on this page that clearly states God will be angry at someone forever is Malachi 1:4. Does that still leave a contradiction? Maybe, but I think the rest of these verses are more vague than the SAB makes them out to be.

"Does Hell exist?" I addressed here, and while I didn't have a good definitive answer for it in the end, I think, "Is death final?" was an issue I addressed back in Joshua.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

He shall make it desolate, even until the consummation (Matthew 24)

Wow, chapter 24 looks pretty intense, at least there are a ton of notes on it, so I get the feeling this is going to be a heck of a lot more work than the last chapter.

So Jesus points out the Temple, and tells his disciples that the whole of it is going to be torn down (which I know the SAB doesn't keep track of prophecies that came true, but before the end of the 1st century, the temple was destroyed, and has yet to be rebuilt), this leads to the disciples asking Jesus to tell them more about the future, and Jesus unloads a whole lot of stuff on them. Note that while the SAB says this is all talking about the end of the world, Jesus actually says in verse 6 that "the end is not yet." Still, the general thrust of Jesus' speech here is the events leading up to the second coming and thereafter the end of the world, so make of it what you will.

I'm not sure what to make of the hodge-podge of icons the SAB tosses up over this chapter, including prophecy, absurdity, science/history, injustice, cruelty/violence, contradiction, and interpretation. Women and family values get tossed in about half way through as well. Perhaps I should address this chapter by icon?

Prophecy: Yes, this is all Jesus talking about the future, and I assume that the SAB brings out the "prophecy" icon when it feels that there was a prediction made that didn't come true. I think it's not hard to see that a lot of the things that Jesus talks about here have indeed come to pass, and since the world isn't ended yet, anything that hasn't happened (there are a few, admittedly) still could. I think that the issue that the SAB has with this is the idea that "all of these things will happen within the lifespan of Jesus' contemporaries" as they seem to take verse 34 as saying. Verse 34 actually says, "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." I think the interpretation hinges on what you think "This generation" means. It's not unreasonable to take the position that the SAB takes, but I've always taken the position that he was talking about the generation that sees certain things come to pass will see the end. What certain things? Some have suggested that the generation that sees the recreation of the nation of Israel is the generation talked about here, and that's a possibility. (The SAB even mentions this possibility with respect to the failed modern-day prophecy of Hal Lindsey on verse 32.) Another is the generation that sees the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, as that sets the stage for the "abomination of desolation" which is something horrible that's supposed to happen in the temple. There's a lot of room for interpretation here, and I think it's a bad idea for even (maybe especially) Christians to try to read too much specific in here. (The supposed failed prophecy of verse 14 I discussed back in Matthew 10.)

Absurdity: As usual, I have a hard time figuring out what the SAB specifically finds absurd here, so I don't think I can address this one.

Science and history: I don't see any obvious historic problems with this chapter, so I'm guessing the issue here is the scientific note on verse 29? This all goes back to some similar things I said when going through the early part of Genesis. Just because the verse says "the moon shall not give her light" doesn't mean that Jesus is making a scientific statement about the nature of moonlight. The very fact that English has the word "moonlight" means that we can talk about it while being aware that it is, by nature, reflected sunlight. Now, as for stars falling from Heaven, this could just be a description of a meteor shower, which people today who know the true nature thereof still refer to as "shooting stars". In short, I think the SAB is reading way too much into this short verse.

Injustice, cruelty and violence: I'd be willing to say that there's some unjust and violent stuff happening here, but usually when the SAB calls something unjust or cruel, it's trying to say that God in particular was being unjust or cruel, which I don't see any particular basis for here. Some awful stuff happens during this time described, but I don't see any of it explicitly said to be the doing of God.

Contradiction: The SAB marks a handful of passages with contradictions. The only one I haven't covered elsewhere is Will Jesus' second coming be visible to all? to which I would say that the single verse in the "no" column is not meant to be taken as for all time.

Interpretation: Not sure how to address this one since I'm not sure which verse(s) it refers to, and I tend to find these interpretive differences uninteresting to me, since I usually care very little what the Watchtower Society or Hal Lindsey might have had to say about it.

Women, family values: I guess verse 19 is the particular verse that this issue refers to, but I think it's easily addressed. Jesus isn't saying that pregnant and nursing women are especially cursed, but only points out that when things get really difficult, it may be especially difficult for this subsection of society.

Monday, October 21, 2013

And thou shalt bring it to thy father (Matthew 23)

Chapter 23's first issue is a familiar one, the question of whether we should let others see our good works. I'm standing by my answer in chapter 5, namely that it's not so much whether you're seen, but what your intentions are.

Next, it asks whether it is OK to call anyone "father". Frankly, this verse has always confused me, since Jesus doesn't seem to make exception for our earthly fathers, and I've actually met people who feel this is the right interpretation, although it seems absurd to me. I think that the best interpretation (my opinion) is that this verse and the following are saying that people of religious authority should not take fancy titles for themselves, and it has little to nothing to do with parenthood or slavery.

Then Jesus lets loose with some harsh language for his detractors (again I stand on my answer in chapter 5 concerning the term "fool") which I'd say you need to decide for yourself whether they deserve it. After all, in verse 31, when Jesus calls them "the children of them which killed the prophets" he's technically telling the truth. Now when he specifically mentions "Zacharias son of Barachias" there does seem to be a problem there, as the name "Barachias" doesn't seem to appear elsewhere in the Bible, and the easily-identified Zacharias does seem to be the son of Jehoiada. I don't have any easy solutions for this one, the only things coming to mind are that "Barachias" may have been a grandfather or great-grandfather, or alternately (but more of a stretch) "son of Barachias" may have been some sort of title, as "Barachias" means "blessing of Jehovah". I really don't know, although it might be worth noting for better or worse that there was another "Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah" mentioned in Isaiah 8. (That could be source of the solution OR the problem, really.)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Doth not your master pay tribute? (Matthew 22)

Matthew 22 opens with a parable of a marriage feast, and it's a pretty strange parable once again. It almost makes sense (well as much sense as you can expect from a parable) until you get down to verse 11, at which point there is some guy without a "wedding garment" which I'll venture to guess meant that he wasn't dressed up properly for the occasion. But then, these guests were just a bunch of random people called in from off of the street, if we're to understand the story, so...? I have to admit, this one has always stumped me on the face of it. There's a symbolic aspect that almost makes sense, but it involves reading in a lot that really isn't there. See, there's this theological concept that when we are saved, our unrighteousness is removed from us, and we become clothed with the righteousness of God, and so it might seem that perhaps this guy accepted the invitation, but thought he could get into the party on his own merits, despite being just some guy off the street. See, it only just barely makes sense of it, and it involves bringing in a lot of theological baggage; it probably was a waste of space and I should just left it, but that's the luxury of blogging I guess: waste as much space as you care to, and just move on. (I've addressed the existence of Hell in Matthew 10 as deeply as I care to, so I'll drop that link and move on.)

After this parable comes the famous story of Jesus being asked whether or not one should pay taxes. There's a lot of interesting material here. Note that the Pharisees and the Herodians (who usually hated each other) were working together to trick Jesus. Note that it was a trick, and that a simple answer of "No" would be considered insurrection against Rome, while a simple answer of "Yes" would be denying the authority of Jewish nationalism. Also, although I'm pulling this from vague memory, note that the "image and superscription" on the coin were enough to make Roman coins quintessentially tiny pagan idols. Like the SAB, I think Jesus' answer is not only saying pay taxes, but that one should keep church and state separate (although it's not very clear as to which is which overall, but the concept stands, I think.)

Now the Sadducees--who were a religious group who didn't believe in an afterlife as the text says--come up to Jesus with a bizarre question that, while clearly made up, was also within the realm of possibility of Mosaic Law. Jesus skips over the whole question to point out that in the afterlife, there is no marriage. (It doesn't say no sex here, but it's not outrageous to imply it.)

Finally after all the tricky questions, someone simply asks him to name the greatest commandment, to which Jesus replies "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind." and adds on the second-greatest, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." which the SAB is happy to get on board with as being great, but asks then how should nonbelievers be treated? I may have skipped this before, but I think it's pretty straightforward most of the time. The section that says "Shun them" is not a problem, in my estimation. First of all, I think "Shun them" is an overstatement of what this verse it really saying, which is that you should avoid entering into legal contracts with them, but you can still love them while keeping yourself disentangled legally. It's the "Kill them" section that's clearly harder to deal with, duh. First of all, I don't think that this verse is saying that anybody who is an unbeliever should be treated this way, even in ancient Israel (which this is another verse that I think applies mainly if not only to that context). I think this is particularly for a person who believes in a strange religion and tries to convince others to follow him into that belief. So how does this fit into loving your neighbor? I suggest this: if following after strange gods is going to lead to ruin, then it is best that this sort of theological swindling should be dealt with the same way that purely physical swindling is dealt with. You have ways that you deal with a thief. You have ways that you deal with a murderer. Someone who is enticing people after false gods is a thief and a murderer of people's souls, and should be dealt with seriously, at least in ancient Israel. Yeah, it sounds harsh, and it is, but I think it's for a reason.

The last issue on this chapter is whether Jesus is the son of David. (Remember in Biblical language, this meant ancestor; Jesus was certainly not the actual son of David.) I think that the two verses in the "No" column are not Jesus saying "No", but rather pointing out to those within hearing that the actual relationship between the Messiah and David was a complicated one, and not as simple as just a mere ancestral one. Jesus may be the son of David, but he's greater than David all the same.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Vile figs, that cannot be eaten, they are so evil (Matthew 21)

The first question of chapter 21 is the timing of Jesus' "temple tantrum", a term I've never heard before, and while I don't think it's likely to catch on, it does have a ring to it. The Gospel of John clearly puts it at the beginning of his ministry, while the others put it near the end. There are two common interpretations of this discrepancy, the most common one being that this event happened twice, and John's Gospel tells the first time, while the others tell the latter. Another possibility (although this may be my own interpretation alone, as I can't recall specifically hearing this anywhere) is that John's Gospel is simply not interested in chronology, and specifically outside of the last week of Jesus' life, John simply strings together stories he remembers in any old order, which also explains why his Gospel is so different from the other three.

The next question is the manner of transportation that Jesus used to enter Jerusalem. There is definitely some confusion here, but note that while the other Gospels are arguing between a colt and an ass, the passage here in Matthew talks of "a colt the foal of an ass" which would indicate that the colt was an ass nonetheless. So that really leaves only Matthew that seems to be indicating Jesus riding on two animals. Since, as the SAB itself seems to be well aware, this is pretty much a physical impossibility, I would say that Jesus rode on the colt (a young ass) and perhaps the mare (if that's the right term) was brought along.

Anyway, all of this was supposed to fulfill a prophecy in Zachariah 9:9, but the SAB objects that this cannot be correct due to technicalities in the following verses, namely that Jesus failed to have an army or (an earthly) kingdom. This is the sort of technicality that never bothers Christians, though, I'm afraid, as there is an understanding that a future day is coming at which all of that will be completely fulfilled. There are actually a lot of prophecies that Jesus sort of half-fulfilled with an understanding that the complete fulfillment would come in the future. I'm sure most skeptics will call that sort of thing a cop-out once again, but I've got nothing else on this one.

Later in the chapter, Jesus famously curses a fig tree, but how fast did the curse take? In this telling of the story, it says "presently the fig tree withered away" while in Mark's Gospel, we're told "in the morning" they saw the "tree dried up from the roots". This could certainly be an outright contradiction, or it could be that certain members of Jesus' party noticed it at different times, or it could be that there's something else going on here which is a pure guess on my part: perhaps "withered away" and "dried up from the roots" could be different terms for stages of drying out that the tree passed through. I don't know enough Greek (or enough about figs) to say whether that has any deeper merit, I only toss it out as a possibility, as I recall there was a similar issue involved in drying of the ground after Noah's flood. (I think I've mostly been skipping the "What the Bible says about X" pages when they come up, but I think there's a quick note I could make about the fig page: All this destroying of fig trees is, I think a testimony of how good figs are rather than bad. After all, if you want to punish someone, you take away something good, right? You don't see God smiting their poison ivy or some such plant, do you?)

Jesus tells a parable of a rented vineyard in verses 33-41, and the SAB marks it with injustice and violence. I've got to ask, towards whom? I would agree that the people running the vineyard were unjust and violent, but I'm not sure that's what the SAB means, perhaps implying that "the lord of the vineyard" was unjust and violent for taking revenge on these men for killing his servants and son. If so, I can't really agree.

Last issue in the chapter is verse 44, which is marked as violent, unjust, and intolerant. That's a lot to pile on a bit of poetic language, as the stone spoken of is indeed Jesus, but that being so, what does the verse really mean? (After all, Jesus is not literally a stone.) I have my own thoughts, but barring an interpretation of what the SAB thinks it means, I'm not sure what to say.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Tell me, what shall thy wages be? (Matthew 20)

Chapter 20 opens with another very strange parable, as the SAB puts it, "The parable of the unfair, lying employer." Rather than try to describe it, I'll let you read it yourself. A note on the face of the parable's content that I think is needed is that "a penny" is not a direct translation (it was actually a denarius, a coin worth ten times another smaller Roman coin, and commonly paid for a days wages), and the agreed wage was reasonable, or else the first group certainly wouldn't have signed on. The latter groups of workers are told "whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive." Now in the matter of unfairness, I can certainly see where the argument comes from: if you've got groups of people working 12, 9, 6, 3, and 1 hours, and you pay them all the same, it does seem unfair, I'll grant. But lying? Look, the first group agreed to work for a penny, so there's no lying there. If all the other groups agreed to work for "whatever is right" then that's subject to opinion, namely the opinion of the owner of the vineyard. The accusation of lying seems like quite a stretch to me.

So what about the unfairness, and the meaning of the parable? As I've said before, I can only guess, but it's always seemed to me that this parable is talking about the gift of salvation, and how even if you spent your whole life going to church and being a good person, spreading the Gospel, you get just as much salvation as someone with a deathbed confession of faith who goofed off their whole life. The SAB asks what the meaning of verse 15 is, and I think I know this one; "Is thine eye evil because I am good?" is, I believe, supposed to mean "Are you giving me such a dirty look just because I've decided to be generous?"

Did Jesus forewarn the apostles of his death and resurrection? Yes he did, but the fact that they failed to understand, as John 20:9 points out, is a separate matter.

When we are told the story of the mother of James and John asking for seats of honor for her sons in the coming kingdom, the SAB points out that the parallel passage in Mark doesn't mention the mother. I figure that this could be a matter of Mark not noticing (or not mentioning) the mother being there, and in the real story, it wasn't her personally who asked, but rather that she goaded her sons into asking. The SAB may not agree, but that makes both versions work out fine in my estimation.

How much power did Jesus have? This is a good question, and I think I addressed part of this previously, but there's a special case here in this chapter. As I think I mentioned before, the passage in Mark 6 isn't about Jesus having a lack of power, but having a lack of opportunity to show it. In Matthew 20:23, the issue is not so much that Jesus can't choose, but that he's allowing that choice to be given over to the authority of God the Father.

The SAB asks "Was Jesus a ransom for many or a ransom for all?" to which I'm going to respond that this is just splitting hairs. If Jesus is a ransom for all, doesn't it logically follow that he was a ransom for many? Maybe I'm missing something here. The SAB further asks "Who (or what) is the ransom for the righteous?" and pulls up some confusing verses. Honestly, the really confusing verses are the ones from the book of Proverbs, and the Hebrew term used there seems to really mean "ransom" (it has other meanings, but none of them seem like they would apply) so I'm not sure what is really meant there. One possible interpretation, although I think it might be a stretch, is the thought that on the cross, Jesus was transformed into our wickedness in order that we would be deemed righteous in his stead, thus making Proverbs 21:18 into a sort of explanation of Jesus's substitutionary sacrifice. I've really no idea at all what to make of Proverbs 13:8.

Finishing out the chapter, we have the story of two blind men sitting by the road near Jericho that Jesus healed. The SAB points out some discrepancies between some similar stories in the other Gospels and claims them to be contradictions. Maybe they are, but the way they could be contradictions is manifold. Perhaps there were two blind men, but Mark and Luke only remembered one. Perhaps there was one blind man coming in, and another going out. Why is it that Mark knows the name of the blind man, but he/they were anonymous in the other stories? In the end, I don't know what's going on here. Perhaps one or more of the authors got their stories wrong. Perhaps this isn't different tellings of the same story, but is two or three different incidents that happened in about the same place. Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, October 11, 2013

I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off (Matthew 19)

In Matthew 19, verses 4-10, the SAB brings up some questions regarding marriage. Hopefully, I've already answered these elsewhere, let me see. Is marriage a good thing? I addressed this largely in Genesis 2, at which time I said that for most people, being married is a great thing, but Paul happens to point out that as good as it is, marriage complicates life, and one should be careful to think about the implications of that sort of commitment before entering into it. I addressed polygamy most fully on this page, where I said that I don't think polygamy is a sin, but it's far from a desirable state of affairs, usually leading to trouble. What about divorce? I addressed that back in chapter 5, and it's worth noting here that the SAB puts verses 6 and 9 in separate categories; as I've said before, an apparent contradiction that follows so quickly is usually (in my opinion) an indication that one is not understanding the real meaning of the passage: verse 9 is further clarification on verse 6, not a contradiction.

Following this, Jesus has some cryptic things to say about eunuchs in verse 12, and while I don't really know what it's about, I can give some speculation and response to the SAB's speculation. The idea presented that perhaps Jesus is talking about homosexuals is a thought provoking one; I myself had once considered that possibility that this verse was referring to transsexuals, after all, there do exist genetic disorders in which a person does not develop functional genitals. On the other hand, people who "have made themselves eunuchs" does seem to suggest self-castration, but if I can appeal to hyperbole again, it may be that he is referring to people who have taken a vow of celibacy, which doesn't seem too far of a stretch. (This would imply that those who were "born eunuchs" are people with no natural sexual drive, a concept not unheard of.) The SAB links to two pages that are almost identical (and neither of which mention the eunuch from Acts 8, who might be considered noteworthy) to ask what God may feel about castration, both of which hinge on Deut. 23:1 which says that a man with wounded genitals "shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD." I really should do some more research here, and I'm surprised I haven't covered that phrase already. One thing I'm fairly sure it does mean is that such a man cannot serve as a priest in the temple. I don't believe it means that such a man cannot be a practicing Jew (and that is an important distinction, as we're now talking about the N.T. church, not the O.T. "congregation"). I suspect that the distinction is that such a person cannot perform any religious duties, which even non-priests perform at times. (If Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, none of this matters, of course.)

The bit about children was already covered in the previous chapter, and while each of the particulars of verse 17 have been covered, it's an odd verse that deserves some special attention. Jesus says "Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is God." Jesus seems, as the SAB claims, to be saying that he is not neither good nor God, so what's going on? I seem to vaguely remember hearing before that it was the belief of the Pharisees that "good" was an adjective that could only rightfully applied to God; whether this was the case, I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Jesus is cautioning this guy to think twice before applying labels to people and things, even if he happens to be right.

Now the exchange that happens after this is one that's repeated in the other Gospels, and is a source of some contention, even outside of the SAB. Is Jesus really saying that the way to be saved is to keep the commandments? While the consensus is no, there is a strain of thought among Christianity that since Jesus said it, he must have really meant it, so what is the implication? (And the fact that Jesus is shown as listing a different set of commandments in each telling is once again something I think of as being of minimal importance; he was just tossing out a few, not making an exhaustive list.) Well in the case of this guy, Jesus shatters this guy's hope by telling him to give away all of his possessions to the poor. It's been said (even in the Bible) that the whole of the law can be summed up by "Love God with all your heart", and "Love your neighbor as yourself." If this guy couldn't give up all that he had, then he certainly loved money more than God, and he also surely wasn't able to love his neighbor as himself. (As for finer points on stealing and killing, I covered those in Exodus 20.) Jesus may be saying that you could go to heaven IF you could keep all the commandments, but that's an awfully big IF.

Is it OK to be rich? This can be a sticking point in the Bible, and I think the answer is subtle. I don't think the Bible ever outright says that wealth is a sign of wickedness, but rather shows awareness of that saying that to whom much is given, much is expected. If you're a good, honest, and hard-working person, wealth will probably come to you, but once you have it, God will expect you to use your wealth for good things. Sure there are a lot of rich people who are greedy bastards, but I personally have known people with six and seven-figure incomes who are some of the most generous and kind people you'd ever know. I think the N.T. verses the SAB gives, especially the one here in Matthew, are pointing out the danger of the love of money.

The question of whether God can do anything was addressed in Genesis 18. The issue of the apostles sitting on 12 thrones is not something I've ever addressed, although I recently asked a pastor his opinion on the matter (In the context of Revelation 4) and he suggested that rather than Judas Iscariot, Paul might be sitting on one of the thrones mentioned. Lastly, I don't think that verse 29 is suggesting that people should give up their wives and children, but rather that if they end up having to because of following Jesus, they will get something better as a reward.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

I understood as a child (Matthew 18)

I think I'm going to be a little disappointed in myself when it comes to chapter 18, as the SAB opens with a question that I don't think I have a good answer for, even though it seems like it shouldn't be a tough one. Is it a good thing to be childish? I think it's quite clear from the number of times Jesus makes this statement that being like a child is a desirable state. However, it's also clear that Paul is teaching childishness is bad. As I said, I don't know the resolution of this issue, but I do think I can shed some light on possibilities. You don't have to be a theologian to recognize that there are traits common to children that are both desirable and not. Children are very trusting, full of energy, and generally cute. At the same time, they are ignorant, weak, and prone to temper tantrums. Perhaps the Bible could stand to be more clear on what it means when it compares us to children, whether negatively or positively. The one thing that Jesus does specify here as a positive trait is humility, which is certainly something that young children are very good at, and I could see being a positive trait for a Christian.

I don't think that Jesus is condemning the whole world in verse 7, but rather making an observation that the world is full of bad things. And as I said back in chapter five when similar things were said by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, I think verses 8-9 are hyperbole.

The SAB asks whether God can be seen. I addressed this in Genesis 12, but I think this verse is a special case, because it's talking about angels rather than human beings; I don't doubt that angels can see God.

While the note on verses 15-17 is talking about JWs, which would usually mean I don't care, it's on a noteworthy subject that I might as well address. I think that the Catholic church and the Jehovah's Witnesses have both been excellent examples of how not to deal with child molesters. While I could possibly imagine that there might be an acceptable way for these organizations to deal with such troubles internally, the fact is (as far as I am aware) both organizations have simply not dealt with the problem at all. And after all, in the end, it's turned out to be counter-productive if their main aim was to avoid shaming themselves. Anyway, child molestation is a serious crime, and it should be dealt with severely.

In verses 23-35 Jesus tells a parable about a king and a debtor. The SAB has problems with this parable, and while I understand, I think it's worth mentioning that it is only a parable, and as I said a few chapters back, you can't always take parables quite at face value. Just because the parable involves torture and slavery doesn't immediately imply that Jesus is coming out in favor of those things, but it does say at the end that people need to be forgiving or they will miss out on being forgiven, so take that however you will.

Monday, October 07, 2013

And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings (Matthew 17)

In chapter 17, I am once again impressed by the SAB's attention to detail. "When did the transfiguration occur?" we are asked, and I have to admit that I never noticed that Luke's Gospel says "eight days". While I guess it's a genuine error, and I don't know why Luke disagrees with the others, I'd note that it's not a detail of particular importance, and besides, Luke says "about" eight days, which is strange, but I would say that six is "about" eight. Anyway, the transfiguration happens, and for some reason this prompts the disciples to ask about the prophecy concerning the prophet Elijah, which I addressed in chapter 11.

In verse 14, a man brings his "lunatick" son to Jesus. Interestingly, the odd term seems to be a direct translation, as both the English and the Greek words refer to a person who is made crazy by the moon. I'm not sure what the SAB has against this passage in particular, but it is a strange one, and I admittedly don't know what to make of it. Here's the fairly infamous verse in which Jesus says that faith can be used to move mountains, and yet I don't know of any instances of Christians doing such a thing. It may be hyperbole once again. Of course, the chapter ends with a very bizarre miracle, so who knows?

Friday, October 04, 2013

We have found the Messias (Matthew 16)

Matthew 16 has another disagreement between Jesus and the Pharisees (and the Sadducees as a bonus) about showing signs. Yeah, there's some harsh language, but I think Jesus makes a good point; there have already been quite a number of signs performed by Jesus, even in front of them, and as I said back in chapter 12 when there was a similar exchange, Jesus isn't there to perform tricks for anybody.

The SAB asks of verse 17 "How did Peter find out that Jesus was the Messiah?" I can see why the SAB might consider this verse a contradiction with John 1:41, but I don't think it is. Yes, Andrew told Peter that Jesus was the Messiah, but I think Jesus is saying that Peter's finally accepting this truth was a spiritual matter. I mean, I could tell any reader of my blog that Jesus was the Messiah until the second coming, but I think there needs to be something spiritual that "reveals" the truth of this to your heart, so to speak.

Verses 18-19 are open to interpretation, but it does seem on the face of it that this may be Jesus stating that Peter is to be the leader of the church; sure, you can call him the first Pope if you'd like to put it that way, I have no problem with it. Some have suggested that "this rock" that Jesus speaks of is not Peter himself, but Peter's statement of faith that Jesus is the Messiah, and there's some wiggle room for such an interpretation. As for what "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" means, I can't say; as the SAB points out, the Catholic church has had a spotty history, so it's certainly not incorruptible. As a side note, I'd like to point out that protestants who like to wave aside such ugly history with declarations of, "Of, but that's the Catholic church!" can't really take such an easy out when it comes to history of the church before the protestant reformation, as until that point in most of Europe the Catholic church was synonymous with Christianity. Just a thought.

Almost immediately after praising Peter, Jesus ends up having to rebuke Peter trying to rebuke him over his coming death. Harsh, but then even a Catholic will tell you that being Pope doesn't make you perfect. (Remember also that "satan" means "adversary", and Peter was certainly being adversarial at that moment.)

In verse 25, which the SAB marks as unjust and absurd, Jesus says that one should lose one's life in order truly find it. No I don't think Jesus is saying that you should kill yourself, but is suggesting that people should put aside their personal desires and seek Jesus first. Jesus goes on to speak of how God "will reward each according to his works." and asks whether salvation is by faith alone. I think I already addressed this a few chapters back, but my view is that while salvation is by faith, in the afterlife, there are different rewards according to the works that a person of faith has done.

At the end of this chapter, Jesus makes a very strange statement, "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." The SAB interprets this as a statement about the end of the world, which is not unreasonable, except seeing as nearly 2,000 years have passed since Jesus made the statement and now, and we don't know of any 2,000-year-olds, this would seem to be a problem. The only solution that I know of is that some have suggested the event Jesus is talking about is not the second coming, but the strange, miraculous event that Matthew talks about in the very next chapter, known as the Transfiguration.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Ye hold the tradition of men (Matthew 15)

Matthew 15 opens with an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees over religious traditions. It's important to realize (although easy to miss) that the hand washing that is talked about here is not simply for cleanliness, but rather they're talking about a kind of ritual hand washing; I'm afraid I forget the full details at the moment. Jesus is making a statement about how the commandments of God are of higher value than mere traditions, and uses a couple of passages about a child's relation to their parents. Yeah, the law about putting a disobedient child to death is pretty severe, and I honestly don't feel equal to discussing it at length, but for the purpose of this passage, I think the point that Jesus is trying to make is that honoring your parents is serious business according to God, and the Pharisees had made a tradition that allowed people to not care for their parents. Whatever you may feel about the laws Jesus brings up, the thing is that people were using excuses to not follow them, and placing tradition over the law of God. What Jesus says in verse 13 may sound rather harsh as the SAB takes it, but I think in this context it can be taken as saying that tradition, in the end, is pointless unless it conforms to the will of God.

As I've said before, history is not one of my strong points, so I'm not sure what to say about Ezekiel's prophecy about Tyre. I'm sure there are others who have examined this topic, so maybe if I remember this later and feel ambitious, I'll look into it.

The story of the Canaanite woman in verses 21-28 is an odd one, as it makes Jesus look pretty uncaring. The interpretation that I've always heard of this story is that Jesus was testing the woman to give her a chance to show her faith. Admittedly it's still strange, but if Jesus knew that she would be that persistent, it could serve as a good example of faith and humility to other people.

Again this chapter ends with a miraculous feeding. As with the last one, there is a huge amount of leftover food, and once again, the amount is perhaps symbolic, as this would seem to be a mixed crowd (not just Jews) and seven is considered to be a number of completion. The SAB suggests that these two stories may be "the result of two oral traditions of the same fictitious story." While that doesn't seem too unreasonable, it should be noted that in the next chapter, Jesus refers back to these as two separate stories.