Showing posts with label gospel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gospel. Show all posts

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Can Everything be Translated out of Christianese?

One of the things that developed in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was a move to modernise the language used to describe matters of the Christian faith in a way that was more accessible to the world. This is, I think, an important element of the New Evangelisation, and I heartily agree with Scotty McDonald when he calls for Christians to talk “like real people,” and I support him when he describes himself as someone whose goal it is “to tell the greatest story ever told in a language that speaks to the hearts of young people.” Quite simply, the proclamation of the Gospel in the language of the other is what St Paul would call “becoming all things for all people.” (1 Corinthians 9).

We cannot remain static in our language and still be evangelical, so we must translate the essential content of the Gospel out of Christianese, that niche language of Christians, and into the language of today. This is not necessarily “average English”, it may still use copious jargon if one is appealing to, for instance, a philosophical crowd, or a scientific one, as I noted in “Theology in the Language of Today.” In any case, one must adapt to the requirements of the one being ministered to.

There are two reasons why we must show some restraint. One is fairly obvious, and that is that translation almost invariably produces imprecision, and this can certainly be a problem with some of the areas of theology more prone to paradoxical statements, like Christology, theology of the Trinity, and perhaps areas like soteriology (study of salvation) when engaging in ecumenical endeavours between Catholics and Protestants. With due care, however, and noting that the Gospel is a fairly simple and “well-understood” message, I do not think that this issue is insurmountable.

The second reason is, in my opinion, a thornier matter. I do not think that everything can be translated out of Christianese because it may be impossible to translate the Gospel accounts out of their historical context. Jesus said that he is the Good Shepherd, but that might mean close to nothing if one has never set foot on a farm. Peter writes that Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed, but nobody I have ever met has seen a Passover sacrifice with a lamb. These statements, as well as countless others in the Scriptures, are foreign to us, and yet it is unclear that we can actually translate them.

The central issue here is this: that whilst the Word is eternal, it was made flesh in a particular man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, preached, died and was resurrected in a particular time, and all the accounts we have of him are of that time. Whilst we know that the temporally-bound, the particular, and the eternal can in principle be separated, we attempt to do so at our own peril. Hence, we still have our Archbishop with his crosier, which is shepherding instrument, at least symbolically. At least we use the language of “pastor” commonly in English now, there are other symbols which now are fairly arcane.

Therefore, we cannot simply translate Christianese into English with all matters, we are going to have to put in the effort of teaching the People of God the conceptual-linguistic framework of New Testament times, and earlier Israelite history. The Passover Lamb cannot be understood without the story of the Exodus, and we can find no translation for such a unique and particular practice. I cite this just as one example – in truth, I would go so far as to say that we must have an almost Pharisaic understanding of the Law of Moses to understand not only Leviticus, Deuteronomy and parts of Exodus, but also the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, and even the one to the Philippians. Christianity is not a religion “of the book”, but it is a religion with a book. That book is old, but if we are right in saying it is inspired, we cannot change it.

This is not to say that analogues to things like the paschal lamb do not exist. It means that we must always be weary that any analogy we use, any translation we make of the language and of the culture, must be thought of as an imperfect copy. Anybody who has heard a biblical scholars speak will have heard lines like “most translations say … but the Greek/Hebrew says ...” It is part and parcel of translation that we get an imperfect copy, something that hopefully conveys the basics, but it is not the whole thing. Those same biblical scholars will tell us: we need the originals. They really make a difference.

Let me give an instance of where attempts at “dynamical equivalence” have failed. One is in replacing the Trinitarian formula (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) with something else, famously “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.” This is a pretty extreme case because there is little sense in which the two are actually equivalent, but it is a good example case because it showcases something I think is important: some complain that “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is patriarchal because Father and Son are masculine nouns, and God is not really a man. Jesus is, so they might grant “Son”, but not “Father.” That was just their patriarchal culture's way of expressing lordship.

I do not think that this critique is, at bottom, valid. But let me suppose for a moment that it is – so what? If we are to understand what the Trinitarian formula means, we are simply going to have to immerse ourselves in the culture from which we got those words from. We must learn to think like a first century Palestinian Jew to grasp what they mean. If we try and translate it to make it politically correct, trying something like “Parent, Child and Holy Spirit”, we will be losing something. If we try and go for a functional translation, such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier”, then we lose something – probably not the same thing, but something nonetheless.

My point is simple: we are trying to do a noble thing when we take the Gospel, take the fullness of the Christian message and take our theology, into modern language. We have to, really, because mission is what the Church is about. Yet we must be weary about imprecisions that come about, because translations are usually imperfect. Still more weary must we be that we always go back to the original, and ultimately, are capable of relating the original to those we minister to – because it is the original Jesus that we are seeking to bring them, and we are not the ones who get to decide what parts of Jesus Christ of Nazareth belong to him because he is from Nazareth, or which are his because he is the Christ. So we give them the fullness of him, and try and explain as we go along.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12)

One of the archetypical pictures of Jesus is him giving the beatitudes - a series of blessings to certain groups of people. There is another, shorter set in Luke's gospel, which I can use redaction criticism on later on and compare the two. For now, let me centre on St Matthew's account. Allow me also to note how these blessings fit into a covenantal framework in which Jesus operates: when covenants are made, their clauses have covenant blessings for those who are faithful to it, and covenant curses to those who are unfaithful to it. These are then the new covenant blessings, I think, which should be contrasted with the new covenant woes (or curses) later on.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 3)

This term "poor in spirit" is interesting in that poor generally means "lacking in [...](usually money)", but "lacking in spirit" is an English idiom equivalent roughly to being downcast. Since this is a modern idiom, I doubt this interpretation is right. Some have interpreted it to mean those who are materially poor, which fits with God's care for the poor as seen throughout the Old Testament, but that interpretation ignores the in spirit bit.

My interpretation goes something like this: blessed are those who realize their spiritual poverty. That is, not so much those who lack a spirit as some kind of entity, but more, those who are spiritually humble, who recognize their spiritual deficit. One objection to this is that, in reality, everyone is poor in spirit before God, so by that measure, everyone's is the kingdom of heaven. I do not think this objection is a good one, since this is a public sermon in which people are going to be relating these terms to themselves. Some of the audience will think "truly I am poor in spirit", and then be contented by the blessing, but others (and St Matthew probably has the Pharisees in mind) will think of themselves as rich in spirit. The distinction between the two is whether or not they recognize it - but of course, that makes a great deal of difference in practice.

Yet that is not all - I run this risk of over spiritualizing this beatitude if I make it only about knowledge of spiritual poverty, but no more. Being poor in spirit entails not only recognition of that, but also recognition of the material lack. That is to say poor in essence. Material poverty is included because this recognition of "I have nothing before you, God"  extends to both the spiritual and the material.

"...theirs is the kingdom of heaven" From my interpretation, it follows that those who recognize their poverty, both spiritual and material, are the ones who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. 

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (v. 4)

This blessing highlights the sad, those who mourn - in general, people who mourn lack something. So I suggest that this blessing is a divine promise that those who do not think they have it all, those who are aware of their lack, will be comforted by God. 

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." (v. 5)

This blessing is the clearest example of the upside down kingdom which Jesus proclaims, because the meek are usually the ones trodden on the most - they are not rulers, instead they are the doormats of rulers in this age. Not so in the age to come, Jesus says, for they will inherit the earth! This is also a clear example of how Jesus' heaven is not ethereal and other-worldly; no no, Jesus the redeemer is going to redeem this earth, and give it as inheritance to the meek.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (v. 6)

I suppose the best way to understand this is another "those who recognize they lack will be given to" statement, in that those who are not satisfied with the righteousness they have are the ones who will be given more. A similar sentiment can be found in 1 John where John says that those who are without sin make Jesus out to be deceitful - ahh, but those who sin and plead forgiveness have an advocate with the Father. This is another bid that we recognize our spiritual poverty, this time specifically our moral poverty, that we may hunger ever for more. [1]

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (v. 7)

It is unfortunate that Matthew was chosen as the first gospel to be read in this reading plan, because it has such richness that points back to the Old Testament. It is, after all, the "Jewish gospel" - and that means it requires even more context. This word "mercy" is one of those key words, I believe, which would gain enormous profundity if the reading plan had covered more of the Old Testament by this point. Not to worry, though, because the common-sense reading is already rich: Jesus blesses those who have mercy, saying that they will be had mercy on. This is not the same as "God will have mercy on you if you have mercy on others," but instead "Those who yearn for God's mercy are merciful." These beatitudes, I contend, should be seen as cumulative in the sense that I think Jesus is blessing the same group with each one. Therefore, I suggest that those will will receive mercy are merciful, over the interpretation "those who are merciful will (for this reason) receive mercy." These things are all attributes of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven, who will see God, who will receive mercy - the attributes are not why they receive these things.

Let me stress another point, though: the merciful are not often thought of as the most forgiven. It is a sad fact of life that far too often, those who are forgiving get trampled on, not given mercy. So here too we see those who are full of mercy being given just what they yearn for themselves: mercy.

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (v. 8)

Uh oh.  Nobody who really thinks they are spiritually impoverished also thinks they are pure in heart, I do not think. Has Jesus just alienated everyone?

Yes and no. I contend that here it is a matter of degree. In fact, all of the beatitudes can most aptly be thought of as a matter of degree, but this one most of all, because this one is special. Those who are closest to God are, by his grace, also those who are purest and see God the clearest. I find it difficult to find myself close to God, to see him clearly, but one thing that recurs in the lives of the saints is that as they grow in holiness, they see God all the clearer - in nature, in their brethren, in the faces of others.

Yet there's another way in this is true, and this meaning is profound: if you agree with me that the attributes accumulate and refer to the same group, then this acts as a promise. "You will be pure in heart, and will see God" - because how can you inherit God's kingdom and not see God? So those who hunger for righteousness will be filled, and those same people will be made pure in heart. This is a promise, then, of God's sanctifying grace.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (v. 9)

There's a sort of twist here, because no longer does this have the structure of "recognize need, have that need satisfied," and more generally, the connection between peacemaking and being children of God is not so obvious. Or is it? I'm going to cheat slightly and quote St Paul in chapter 5 verse 1 of his epistle to the Romans: "Having been put right with God by faith, we are at peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord."

See, the peacemakers really are given peace when they become children of God.

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (v. 10)

 In other words, "blessed are those who put the kingdom first (invariably leading to persecution of some form), for theirs the kingdom of heaven is." This is a blessing for proper prioritization - because you never get persecuted for righteousness sake if looking good in front of everyone is your priority.

"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. " (vv. 11-12)

This blessing is, primarily one of hope, but it shows us two things, and with this I can end. First, Jesus uses the term "rejoice and be glad", which means we can now look back on all those blessings, and mentally replace "blessed" with "happy." The Greek makarios allows for both interpretations, and although I think this idea of covenant blessings is the primary one (because Jesus has just gone up the mount to deliver the law of Christ - mirroring Mount Sinai and the law of Moses), this subversive understanding use of the term "happy" would surely get some heads turning. "Happy are those who mourn"? Really Jesus? "Happy are the poor in spirit?" Surely not! Yet this is proclaimed, good news for the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness' sake, the merciful, pure...these are the true happy ones, Jesus says. His kingdom is upside down, you see - no longer will Caesar rule with all his riches.

Secondly, and here is the interpretive key to all these eight beatitudes: who truly embodies them? Jesus gives us a hint in verse 12, saying "for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." This is the hint we need, because now we know with clarity who embodies these blessings, because it is the same person who embodies the prophets, the revelation from God: Jesus himself.

Who is truly poor in spirit? In St Paul's wonderful poem in his epistle to the Philippians, chapter 2, we read: "...Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross." So who is poor in spirit? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who truly mourns? We see Jesus weep for Jerusalem as he makes his way to sacrifice himself. Then he sees the sins of the world crucifying him, taking their King to death - who mourns? Jesus Christ on the cross.

Who is truly meek? On his way up Calvary, Jesus takes on himself the scorn of the multitudes, as they mock him and whip him. He takes this all the way up, not "getting off the cross" as those who mock him in the crowd say to him to do. Who is meek? Jesus Christ on the cross.

I hope you see where this is going: Jesus Christ on the cross embodies all the beatitudes: hunger and thirst for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking, persecution and the object of reviling of men. We must understand the fulfilment of Christ of the beatitudes if we are to understand the victory of Christ.

[1] I have recently finished reading a book by NT Wright, who is known to hold somewhat controversial views on the term righteousness in the writings of St Paul - but for the sake of this, the distinction is not quite so meaningful, instead a matter of emphasis, which I will omit.  

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Beginnings of Jesus' Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25)

As interesting as it is to read about Jesus, it is not until chapter 4 that we read the words of Jesus himself. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil; where Israel had failed in the desert, Jesus succeeded, and now he can move on to do what Israel was supposed to do - proclaim the word of God. Israel was meant to be the light for the world, the nation through which salvation would be extended to all, and now we have in Jesus a true Israelite to do what the whole nation was supposed to do.

The passage starts with a bit of narrative and a fulfilled quotation from Isaiah. I am a bit confused as to what to make of Jesus' retreat when John is arrested:

 "Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee" (v.12)

 I may have to think more about why the arrest of John has such an impact.

Next, I would like to urge any reader of the gospel of Matthew to think of many of the things that are "fulfilled" as affirmed in Jesus, more than open-ended prophecies which people are waiting for. Some really are that kind of prophecy - but a lot of the time we see things affirmed in Jesus as the true Christ, more than "this is a prediction which now comes true." Having said that, I am not quite sure under which category this quotation falls: affirmed or predicted-come-true. I suspect the former, just because of where the passage quoted in Isaiah is (the messianic section of Isaiah starts a lot later in the book).

"From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (v. 17)

We have seen how Jesus is being presented to us as the true king of Israel, having been given his Davidic lineage, been named the Messiah, given a miraculous birth, christened Son of God and excelled where Israel had fallen in temptation - now his ministry is going to begin to show this crucial fact. Jesus, King Jesus, has come to announce his kingdom. "The kingdom of heaven" is a foundational theme in the gospel according to St Matthew, and throughout the gospels the message of the King arriving constitutes the essence of what is meant by the "good news", or gospel.[1] 

"As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him." (vv. 18-22)

 This account is expanded in the gospel according to St Luke, but we shall get there when we do - it is important to understand passages first within the context of the book itself before venturing out to supplement from elsewhere. Jesus begins forming the inner circle of his group as he walks along the Sea of Galilee.[2] He calls fishermen to follow him and transforms their vocation to the fishing of people. Now, fishermen were abundant at that time around the Sea of Galilee, so we are to understand the call of Simon (Peter) and Andrew, then the two sons of Zebedee, as the calling of ordinary people. Their response is quick and decisive: they respond to Jesus' call and follow "immediately" (vv. 20, 22).

We can nowadays be much more hesitant to respond to Jesus' call to follow him. These first disciples of Jesus, all four of which are saints of the Church and became the foundation of it,[3] are ordinary people when Jesus calls them to be followers of his and fishers of people. They respond in the only way that is proper to respond to the call of God: faith. This passage expresses what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ - to come when he beckons and to step out in trust when there is not proof in the mathematical sense of Jesus' goodness. The responses of these first disciples - by no means perfect people - are an inspiration to me as I consider my own vocation, my own calling, because I think their response is the one Jesus wanted. So then, if I am to live consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom I have already pledged all my life, I too must "immediately leave my place and follow him." I am called - yet it is not entirely clear what to. I think reflecting on the beatitudes tomorrow will do me good in that regard. Nonetheless, any who read the words of Jesus are also called to be his followers - we must come when he beckons, and go too where he commands.

"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.  And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan." (vv. 23-25)

Jesus' ministry seems to have the following character: he travels, teaches and proclaims the kingdom of heaven (that is, he proclaims the gospel, ancient Greek for "good news"), and ministers to the sick. This is the model that I think many are called to follow, and the close relationship between proclamation of the gospel and works for the sick (or marginalized in general) is one that we sever to the detriment of both. It will become clearer why the two are so related soon in this gospel account.

 Jesus gains himself some fame for these deeds, and people begin to come to him for healing. He gains himself quite the following from the surrounding area - he will soon preach the greatest sermon ever delivered to this crowd, and the message given is perhaps even more counter-cultural now than it was then. The crowds of people delighted that Jesus heals them are going to dwindle when it comes to responding to his call.

[1] For a treatment of this conception of the gospel in the writings of St Paul, see "What Saint Paul Really Said", by NT Wright. His treatment of St Paul the apostle is highly illuminating.
[2] I find the very idea that we can go and walk around the same place that Jesus did to this very day absolutely incredible. The mystery of the incarnation is indeed deep.
[3] See Ephesians 2:20.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Temptations in the Widerness (Matthew 4:1-11)

The temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (which, if you have ever been to Palestine, you know is really a desert) is an exceedingly symbolic passage. I say this because it takes the form of a sort of dialogue between the devil and Jesus, and each of the three issues on which Satan tempts Jesus is highly loaded, in an almost allegorical sense.

"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil." (v. 1)

This could be overlooked as a connecting sentence into the next section, but I claim it has more importance than that. Three points can be made:

     1. Jesus was led by the Spirit, which means, God took him to be tempted. We will see that elsewhere in the New Testament, God promises to never give a temptation that we could not resist, but here we can clearly see that God still takes us into temptation.

     2. Jesus was led into the wilderness, that is, Jesus was alone - almost. Although Jesus was not with any other person, the Spirit was there with him, and obviously, the devil will appear soon. This makes it clear that whether or not Jesus resists the temptations, he will do it for the sake of God alone, not because other people are there urging him to be a good person. He could succumb, and if he did, then nobody would know. Hence, this temptation is distilled in that no other factors come into play.

     3. Jesus was led to be tempted, in other words, Jesus can be tempted too! And since Jesus has no sin, we must then infer that being tempted is not in itself sinful. This is more of a pastoral note, since we can often find ourselves guilty for having a wayward desire. We will see in the passage that Jesus never shows signs of giving in, or being troubled, and so I would contend that a real want for something illicit is indicative of sinfulness, yet still I affirm that it is not itself sin.

"The tempter came and said to him "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written,
        'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"" (vv. 3-4)

We have just seen God "christen" Jesus as Son of God, and this time in the wilderness is going to test that. The first test is one of relieving suffering, of earthly indulgence. The devil essentially asks Jesus "since you're the Son of God, you could totally just make those stones into bread, and eat, and so fill your belly. Food is not bad, is it?" Jesus response follows as if it were said to what I take to the devil's words, and he essentially replies: "No, because although food is good, it is not enough. Man cannot live by only this earthly food, but instead by what flows from the mouth of God" We could misinterpret that to mean that we could subside only by means of reading the Scriptures, but from the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible (my commentary on which you can find here), the words of God are endowed with a special meaning, because unlike the words of any creature, when God utters a word, things are made. So Jesus is not saying "I shan't eat food, because I can live off reading the Bible", but instead "I shan't succumb to my desire to make my own solution to hunger, because I must live of what proceeds from God."

""If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (vv. 6-7)

This is an interesting one, because upon reading it, I find myself thinking "Jesus is saying 'do not make falsifiable claims about God,'" but that reading is anachronistic and theologically poor. Yet understanding this passage has profound pastoral importance - for instance, if a priest says to you, "go to Iraq to share the gospel, God will protect you, because you are his child" (I use Iraq because I imagine it has a fairly hostile attitude towards Christian things), should you respond "Do not put the Lord your God to the test"? There seems to be something terribly wrong with that. Maybe it is because throwing oneself onto rocks is not in any sense "for" God, whereas my scenario is. I put forward that what is characteristic about this is that here, Satan asks Jesus to do something that is really only expressing the attitude "do this for me", and Jesus responds by saying "I act unconditionally - I do not say "do this for me", as if I was testing God." So we certainly may have boldness that comes only from the knowledge of God's care and protection - but not because we demand things for the sake of demanding them. That would be equivalent to testing God.

"Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

 Part of the irony of the previous temptation is that Satan is doing exactly what he knows not to: he is testing the Son of God, seeing if he really is God's Son. This last temptation does away with the formula "If you are the Son of God...", and in one last attempt to subdue Jesus, offers him absolutely everything of desirable nature in the world. Anybody that has been educated in the past five hundred or so years knows that there is no possible way in which one can go up a mountain and see all the kingdoms of the world - at best, you can observe half the planet, from an infinitely tall mountain. Perhaps all the kingdoms are conveniently placed on one hemisphere, and the rest of the world has civilizations which are not kingdoms, but such a reading seems completely bankrupt theologically.Still, the point is clear that Jesus is offered anything and everything he could possibly want in the whole world - if he would only renounces all he actually does want, not of this world. So true to his Sonship, Jesus says "no!, I will worship only the Lord!" This is an expression of the virtue of religion.

These temptations, though important in their own right, have higher meanings also. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes "Matthew and Luke recount three temptations of Jesus that reflect the inner struggle over his own particular mission and, at the same time, address the question as to what truly mattes in human life."[1]  It is also exceedingly important to see that these three show the underlying temptation to trust anything other than God himself.

In the scheme of the book of Matthew, however, probably the most important thing is how this mirrors "Jesus as the true Israel". This has been hinted at in quoting Hosea ("out of Egypt I called my son"), and here we see how where Israel failed, Jesus succeeded.[2] In this way, Jesus, the true Son, comes out of his 40 day period spotless, and ready to begin his ministry, just as Israel was meant to do after the 40 years in the wilderness.

[1] Jesus of Nazareth, page 28.
[2] Israel doubted God's providence (Exodus 16:3), put God to the test (Exodus 17:1) and abandoned God for idolatry (Exodus 32).

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Matthean Infancy Narrative (Part 2)

If anybody does not think that Matthew 1 presented Jesus as king, then they might have a bit of a tough time understanding why the wise men come to Jerusalem asking "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?" (v. 2)

Now, there are two ways (at least) we can understand the literary effect of including the wise men in the narrative. First, we could view them as being St Matthew's way of introducing Herod and the role he plays. Though a valid understanding, since these men do not have any kind of role after chapter 2, I contend that this gives us a very shallow view. The second seems more likely:

Matthew 1 is about King Jesus, finally come, the true son of David, here to save his people from their sins. Now, even in this chapter, we begin to see the role the book of Isaiah is going to play in how Jesus understands and explains his ministry. Since St Matthew gives no reference to Isaiah other than saying "the prophet", I think it fit to infer that the audience in question would have had a decent grasp of the Old Testament (although he makes reference to Jeremiah explicitly in 2:17 before quoting him). I believe St Matthew has passages such as Isaiah 60 in mind, or perhaps Isaiah 49, where the message of salvation finally goes out to the nations. The wise men here represent the first of these peoples who will flock to Jerusalem, flock to the holy mount Zion and hear the word of God. Right now, these men pay homage to the king of the Jews...but why? I think St Matthew is foreshadowing here the inclusion of the gentiles. Perhaps he is even saying "look, even the pagans pay homage!" before he shows us how the Jews themselves will react to Jesus and his teachings. In that sense, he foreshadows also the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.

Herod also appears only in this section in St Matthew's gospel, and his reaction to the wise men is interesting: verse 3 reads "When king Herod heard this he was frightened and all Jerusalem with him." Herod is scared because he knows very well that the Jews are awaiting a king from the line of David, and he can be no such king. Herod has a sort of paranoia that some more active Israelite will plunge a knife in his back or slip something in his drink - so clearly, he is not happy when somebody comes to ask for the king of the Jews. This needs to be dealt with.

Before getting to how Herod deals with this, however, I should comment on the second half of the verse - why is Jerusalem frightened?An anachronistic answer might be that they fear the Messiah will rebuke them, and so they fear his coming. I think it far more likely that Jerusalem is more scared of what Herod will do with this information. Indeed, it is not pretty. Herod tells the wise men to inform him of Jesus' location, and deviously plans to kill him. This is not strictly stated in the text, but Herod is not being very open about this ("Herod secretly called for the wise men..."), and also it is reasonable to infer from what Herod does when this first plan is thwarted - more on that in a moment.

The wise men come to the child Jesus and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh from their treasure chests, all with joy. I contend, although there is much room for disagreement, that these gifts are meant to be reminiscent of Solomon, the man with the most gold, and frankincense/myrrh only appear together, to the best of my knowledge, in the Songs of Solomon (see 3:6, 4:6, 4:14). This interpretation fits well with St Matthew's royal portrayal of Jesus, and how the wise men treat him as king, yet the reference may well be obscure. Others have suggested that gold symbolizes his kingship, whereas frankincense his divinity, and myrrh his Passion and death. as myrrh was sometimes used with as a burial ointment (see John 19:39). This was the interpretation of St Irenaeus, and his allegorical interpretation is sound doctrinally, so I have no problem with it. [1]

The most memorable thing that Herod does within the Bible is the massacre of the innocents, but because of no extra-biblical evidence for such a horrific act, some scholars have suggested that it never happened. From a literary standpoint, it is not senseless to have this story here, since one of the the images that St Matthew takes from the Old Testament and applies to Jesus is Jesus as the New Moses (which we shall get to in particular with the sermon on the mount, which reminisces of Mount Sinai). Moses also lives in a time where the authorities are killing children, and Moses also escapes (this is narrated in the book of Exodus). Although more historical evidence would be preferable to properly establish its occurrence, we must understand that Bethlehem is not a very large village, and so the number of children killed would most likely be very small, and it is completely possible that such an event was not newsworthy to later historians, through whom we have no record of it. Herod's evildoings were numerous enough and much more notable in other instances, that this particular one may well have passed under the radar.

One final comment should be made on typology in this passage, because the Isaiah passage earlier and the Hosea passage of verse 15 both seem to be taken wildly out of context if we suppose that St Matthew is using them as proof-texts, or prophecies yet to be fulfilled that come to fruition in Jesus. The verse from Isaiah, in context, seems to be referring to king Hezekiah, who does appear to rescue Israel from various evils (see 2 Kings 18, in particular verses 1-6). The Hosea passage, in turn, refers to the already accomplished (even by the time of Hosea) calling of Israel (God's first born son, Exodus 4:22) out of Egypt. How then, does Jesus fulfil these finished prophecies? The answer is typology. King Hezekiah indeed rescued Israel from various evils, and King Jesus does all the more. Hezekiah is "God With Us", and Jesus, so much more! Jesus is therefore a "type of King Hezekiah", but an ultimate type - ie, the fulfilment of that prophecy. Hosea is not even being prophetic in the quoted verse, and yet just as Israel was called out of Egypt, so too the true and eternal first-born son of God, Jesus, is called out of Egypt. We should not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus makes them come true in the sense that they were still open-ended - nor must we forget that Jesus really is the king that rescues us from evil, that he is "God with us" and that he is the Son of God.

[1] At some point in church history distinctions began to be made between different levels on which the text spoke, and each level gave rise to a way of understanding it. One of these was the allegorical, which does not mean that St Irenaeus was a liberal theologian, simply that he was not reading it as simple history, but also as a literary work. The distinctions were not entirely exact, but in broad strokes some medieval theologians would have a four level system: the literal sense, the allegorical sense, anagogical sense and the moral sense. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Matthew 1:1-17: The Coming of the King

Genealogies are dull, right?

Well, perhaps to us, and if so, then Matthew 1 is mostly quite dull too. Whatever may be said about inspiration, the gospel of Matthew displays some solid literary skill, though, so it seems like a rather odd oversight to put such a boring passage right at the beginning, whilst trying to capture the audience's attention. I would like to give some back-story to this opening to show why this genealogy is probably the most interesting in the whole New Testament, and perhaps the whole Bible. So to do that, some history:

Long before the first century AD, Israel had been formed from the patriarchs, and to Abraham had been given the first covenant promises - a nation through him, and the promised land (corresponding to modern day Palestine). The Israelites had managed to conquer the promised land, and lived there for quite a few generations. In this period another covenant was made, one with king David, that there would always be a king from the line of David. The Son of David would reign Israel forever, the prophecy said. This dynasty lasted for an enormously long time - but not forever. Disaster came.

The nation of Israel was exiled, and no king was on the throne. A few centuries later, Israel returns, but her king is not Davidic. The Maccabees took back Judea from the Seleucids, setting up the Hasmonean dynasty...but they were not the real deal. They were not from the line of David. Their kingdom could not last if God's prophecy was to be fulfilled, if God's Messiah would reign - for he had to be of the line of David.

As exciting as the return from exile was, there was no true king on the throne. Herod is enthroned by Rome, but when he concocts his genealogy attempting to show Davidic descent, nobody believes him. This causes him a great deal of paranoia, as we shall see in the next bit of the infancy narrative of Matthew, however now it suffices to say that still, the king was not on the throne.

Were was the king? Who was to be God's anointed one, the Christ? Had God forgotten his promises to Abraham and David?

This is the atmosphere into which Matthew writes his opening genealogy:

"This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Matthew 1:1, NET)

Picture yourself in the first century, despaired by God's seeming absence. You hear someone excitedly opening up a scroll, there is some news to be heard! And this news opens up saying "here is the lineage of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." Not just any of the descendents of David, of which there are many. Here is Jesus, the Christ, the true son of David. The King has come.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought

It would be very arrogant indeed if I, a student of a discipline far from studies of religion or ancient and classical era history, wrote a small entry on a blog that I thought should be regarded as the correct understandings of the foundations of this system of beliefs in all its diversity. I do want to write, however, a short piece detailing what the foundation isn't - the Bible. Most Christian are actually not Protestants, and some of the pillars of Christian thought in the 21st century are the Sacred Scriptures (meaning the Old and New Testaments collected in either the Protestant or Catholic Bibles), Sacred Tradition, Reason and the Church (or Magisterium).

My own church (a rather lovely one based in a suburb of Brisbane, in Australia) is part of the Protestant tradition which holds to the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" (Latin for "Only Scripture"). My opinion on this doctrine is implied in how I described Protestantism; it is a tradition. The Bible itself, to the best of my knowledge, does not claim to be the sole authority. There are questions it poses but does not answer. There are references to outside sources of information. There are even references to tradition in a positive way! The epistles of the apostles are often in the form of logical arguments, or at least reasoned arguments. Jesus speaks in parables which are, in his own words, to obscure the meaning of his words (why he does this can be the subject of another entry), the apostles use apostolic authority...meaning that overall, tradition has a place in the Bible, reason has its place, Magisterial authority has its place and really, "only the Bible has the truth" is profoundly unbiblical.

So what does the Bible say about authority? Well, as seen in yesterday's entry, the founding figure of Christianity claimed to be, in and of himself, the truth. This same figure's parting words according to the gospel of St Matthew are "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." There are references to authority (of Jesus), a command to make disciples and to teach. This is not quite the same as "give them a book and let them read it". Indeed, that would not have made sense for many many years - canonization was not for a few centuries, and not until the 16th century did the reformation occur that came up with this doctrine that the Bible was the only authority.

Where is the pillar of Christianity, then? It is not in a series of documents dating back millennia. At least, Jesus does not seem to think so. The foundation of Christianity is Christ. And unlike what many evangelical fundamentalists seem to hold to, when Paul writes about what would falsify Christian belief, it is clear that the final authority is not in the Bible. It is in  Christ's resurrection.

One final remark - yesterday I wrote about the peculiar and striking claim made by Jesus, as recorded by St John's gospel. In that same chapter, he says "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves."

What then can Christianity hold on to? Where can we draw the line between fact and fiction? On the basis of the evidence for the works of Jesus, most notably the resurrection.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Truth, The Way, and The Life - a striking claim

As a student of both the natural sciences and philosophy (the latter of which I hope everyone is), I had to figure out what exactly I wanted to find out with my studies. Was it the right arguments to defend my position? Did I want to justify myself? Or did I want to be cool, learn the jargon of physics and philosophy, and impress my friends?

The difficult thing with both of these, is that if done properly, all of these desires are dispelled. One cannot honestly consider issues in science, ethics, epistemology, ontology or indeed theology, and expect to quickly learn how to defend a previously held position. Philosophy, when done right, renews one's mind. Examination of philosophy is the grandest cure for naïvety that the human race has come up with - nothing is left unchallenged. Physics goes even futher. At least it is conceivable that a philosopher remain dogmatic, but the natural world does not care what we think. It simply is. Our notions cannot be left unchallenged.

So what can a truth seeker think when reading the gospel according to St John, the fourteenth chapter? Well, one thing is certain. Such a claim is quite unparalleled in history. Yet it is also rather odd. Scientists vary in exactly how they interpret their work, but one way of thinking of physics is by saying that the equations and concepts developed are our way of understanding what exists.* Here is a man, however, declaring that he himself is the truth. Not something exterior - the fullness of truth in a person. Completely unlike anything I can grasp! The big question of epistemology, "what is true, and what can we, or do we, know?", embodied in a person.

Very well then, if we believe this man (which by now, it should be clear is Jesus of Nazareth), how are we to respond? I can barely grasp what it means for this bloke to be the Truth, but to take a line from the Scottish philosopher David Hume, one cannot deduce an ought from an is. The truth, what exists and is, does not necessarily tell you how things should be, the ought. However, Jesus does not stop there. He claims also to be "the way". The big question of ethics, "how should one live?", answered again by saying that he is the manner one should live. Ridiculous...isn't it?

For some reason, Christians have a tendency to latch on to the last bit - Jesus as a life-giver. This is, of course, crucial, because without this the first two are pointless - but without the first two, the last one is pointless too. Life finds its meaning in truth and the way it ought to be. Jesus says he offers all three.

The Christian response is belief. But everyone has to try and figure out why this man says the things he does. If he is wrong, then who cares? Yet such a striking claim merits consideration. And if he is right, if he speaks the truth, then who could possibly remain unchanged?

* I am an instrumentalist, which essentially means that I think that science discovers the best way of modelling and thinking of phenomena, without necessarily being an objective portrayal of reality as is. Hence, this is not quite my view, but it certainly seems to be the lay-person view and of many of my peers.