Friday, May 27, 2011

Note to Self

Jesus resurrected a dead girl, telling her parents to keep the resurrection a secret, which was an impossible command given that crowds of people already knew about it. Following that, Jesus gave sight to a couple of blind men who managed to gain private audience with Him. Similarly Jesus also instructed them to keep the healing a secret, as if they could hide the fact that they had gained their sight. As those men were leaving, a mute, demon-possessed man was brought to Jesus. Jesus drove out the demon, the man spoke, and the Pharisees accused Jesus of working for Satan.

Note to Self
It all makes sense when you do not think about it. :-) Do not get me wrong. There are times when you can think too much about something. (I know that all too well from the field of engineering.) Yet you at least need to think about the basic elements of situation to ensure you have a design which will last, or a story that is credible. In this study, we will see a passage of scripture which just does not add up.

Matthew 9:35-38 is a very odd collection of verses. It starts out OK. Matthew 9:35 has Jesus roaming around, healing people and teaching about the Kingdom of God. Then Matthew 9:36 takes a bad turn:
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. NIV
That is good, no doubt! However, think about it just a little bit more, and it gets strange. Jesus is God. God sees not only these crowds, but everybody on the entire earth. Depending on your brand of Biblical scholar, God had seen the world for at least 3000 years by that point, yet He had not been moved to compassion by their suffering, and He had not bothered to send them a shepherd before now. At most, you could make a case that God did provide compassion to the Jews, but what about the rest of the world population? Nothing. No love. No compassion. Jesus' behavior does not match God's behavior.

Next following, Matthew 9:37 is an observation that there are too few workers for the plentiful harvest; the harvest essentially referring to soul-winning for God. The use of the term “harvest” has some metaphorical implications which we will discuss at a later time with more robust verses, but for now, ponder what this may have meant about the times in which Jesus lived...

We conclude the passage with Matthew 9:38 in a peculiar state, with Jesus saying:
"Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest field." NIV
On first reading, it makes sense. There is a lot of work, so they (the disciples) need a lot of workers, but who are they supposed to ask? The Lord of the harvest, who is God, who is Jesus. So Jesus knows of the need, Jesus has the compassionate will to do something, but Jesus tells His followers to ask Him to do something about it.

That is absurd! It is like if you hired a cleaning man to clean a messy room, and then when the cleaning man walks into that room, he turns to you and says “Hey, you should really hire somebody to clean this place up. It is a mess!” It is as if Jesus was making a “note to Self” or telling His disciples, “Hey, remind Me that I need to send out workers to collect this harvest.”

Just to add to the absurdity, according to Luke 10:1-3, Jesus makes this same statement while He is sending out seventy-two workers into that harvest field.

There is one school of skeptical thought that the story of Jesus evolved quite a bit, from Jesus being only a prophet, to being fully Spirit-infused prophet, to being the fleshly Son of God sans divine power, to being actually part of God in human form; part of the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If so, this passage could be an artifact left behind from Jesus' more human, less divine, fabled existence, where there was a rigidly defined separation between Jesus and God. This theory would make sense, as there is nothing illogical about a man petitioning a god. (Assuming that a god exists, that is!)

From the school of Biblical faith, however, this does not stand out as odd at all. Jesus prayed many times to God in the Gospels (Matthew 14:23, Matthew 26:39, Luke 3:21, Luke 22:32, John 17:9). By definition, that should have been unnecessary (John 10:30). However, if Jesus prayed to God, then what is so odd about Jesus telling others to pray to God about something He already knows about? Given that God knows our inner thoughts and desires, all prayer should be unnecessary, but we are still told to pray. In fact, we do not even know what we are supposed to pray for, but we are still told to pray (Romans 8:26-27).

And it all makes sense, when you do not think about it. ;-)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Living Dead Girl

The synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree on the chronological order of a short series of anecdotes which started with the healing of a paralytic man. The harmonized story continues with Jesus picking up Matthew/Levi, the tax collector, as a disciple, and telling the Pharisees that He is not there for them. Jesus then explains that His followers will fast after He is gone, and that you do not mix old and new fabric, or pour new wine into old wine skins. John ignores all of this.

Matthew continues on with the subject of this study, initiating the event while Jesus was discussing the wine and wineskins.

Mark and Luke have a rift in time, which both record that the events of this study happened right after Jesus returned across the Sea of Galilee, which was after He exorcised a Legion of demons, sending them into swine. To Mark and Luke, the healing of the paralyzed man had occurred long before Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee.

Living Dead Girl
Can you keep a secret? Sure you can. Maybe. It depends. What is the secret about? What would be the consequences of revealing the secret? How many people already know about it? There are many factors involved in keeping a secret, and sometimes it is just impossible to do so. Take the following episode in the Bible, for example.

Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, and Luke 8:40-56 tell the tale of how Jesus brought a dead girl back to life. Interjected into the tale is the story about how a woman with a bleeding disease touched Jesus' cloak and became healed by doing so (Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5:25-34, Luke 8:42-48), but let us stay focused on the resurrection here.

The girl was the daughter of “a ruler” (according to Matthew), or a ruler of a synagogue named Jairus (according to Mark and Luke).

Matthew 9:18 has the ruler requesting Jesus for the resurrection of his daughter, because his daughter was already dead. In contrast, Mark 5:22-23 and Luke 8:41-42 have this ruler requesting healing for his daughter, because she is nearly dead. Was she dead already or just dying? Was this ruler asking for a resurrection or a healing? Unless you care about the truth, it does not matter.

Mark 5:35 and Luke 8:49 soon somewhat reconcile their side with Matthew, by having someone report that the daughter has just died, so there is no need for Jesus to come to try to heal her. To which Jesus replies to Jairus to “just believe” in Mark 5:36 and Luke 8:50. Meanwhile, Matthew's ruler believed that Jesus could resurrect his daughter from the very beginning.

Jesus makes it to the ruler's house. He tells the crowd of mourners that the girl is not dead, but rather she is asleep. Everybody laughs at Him. Jesus subsequently goes into the house and brings the girl back to life. The exact details around the resurrection are uncertain.

Matthew 9:23-26 has Jesus usher all of the noisy mourners out of the house before reviving the girl, and the news of this resurrection spreads throughout that region.

Mark 5:37-43 has Jesus limit the number of people following Him to the house to only Peter, James, and John. Jesus ushered the mourners out of the house, went back in with the ruler, his wife, and the three disciples, and then resurrected the girl. Jesus then told the parents not to let anyone know about this miracle.

Luke 8:51-56 has everyone follow Jesus up to the house. Jesus then limits the number of people going into the house to just Peter, James, John, and the parents. It is not clear whether or not the house was full of mourners at the time when Jesus entered it. Jesus resurrects the girl, and tells her parents not to tell anyone about the miracle.

OK, so here is the deal: As noted above, according to Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the girl's parents to keep a secret about the resurrection of their daughter. Jesus' request was impossible! Really! Let us review:
  • The girl's father (Jairus) was the leader of a synagogue. It is safe to assume that he was therefore well known in the community, and it should be, likewise, safe to assume that the community knew about his dying daughter.
  • When Jairus made his request for help from Jesus, he did so in front of a large crowd (Mark 5:21, Luke 8:40).
  • The girl was pronounced dead in front of the crowd (Mark 5:35, Luke 8:49).
  • A crowd of mourners had already started mourning her passing (Matthew 9:23, Mark 5:38, Luke 8:52)
  • The mourners knew that she was dead, not simply asleep (Luke 8:53)

So what exactly were the parents supposed to do to keep this secret? Lie, and say that they had only lied before, and she was really just asleep and faking illness? Explain that their one daughter did die, and that the living girl they now had was her twin, which they had kept hidden for 12 years? Besides, even if the parents kept quiet about the miracle, everybody else would run around blabbing about it!

It just does not make sense, but what else would you expect from bad fiction writers?

A thought had occurred to me that perhaps this tall tale was actually meant to be a parable. The mentioning that this girl was 12 years old coincides with the Bat Mitzvah age, when a young Jewish girl would be considered under the Law. The girl dies, as death is a common punishment under the Law, and as a representation that the system of the Law is broken. Jesus comes along and resurrects the girl, fixing the broken system by implementing Christianity. Jairus would be representative of a faithful Jewish believer, who mourns for the broken system, and who Jesus supports by telling him to keep on believing in God. If this parable approach is correct, the secret at the end is still a bit tricky to figure out its purpose. Perhaps the command to keep the fixing of the broken system by Jesus a secret would come from being practical; to keep their belief in secret to avoid being attacked by other Jews who still clung to the old system? Pure speculation, I know...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Who Needs Help?

Beginning with Jesus healing a paralyzed man by forgiving his sins, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree on the chronological order of a short series of anecdotes. Meanwhile, John skips these events entirely.

Who Needs Help?
Not every issue with the Biblical text is earth shattering or belief altering. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence which suggests issues with veracity, but would never convince a believer to kindle the flame of a healthy skepticism. We will examine a couple of these lesser points in this study.

Matthew 9:9, Mark 2:14, and Luke 5:27-28 all briefly tell how a tax collector by the name of Matthew/Levi was called by Jesus. Jesus said “Follow Me,” and Matthew/Levi immediately gets up and follows Him. There are a couple issues here.

One issue is the obvious discrepancy between the account in Matthew, which calls the tax collector “Matthew,” and the accounts of Mark and Luke, which call the tax collector “Levi.” It is suggested that Matthew had two names, and perhaps one was a baptismal name, or perhaps an additional chosen name or nickname. So let us assume they are indeed the same person and move on to the bigger issue.

The second issue is that this tax collector, Matthew, is said to be the author of the Gospel of Matthew. Pause just a moment and consider that. We are roughly one-third of the way through the Gospel of Matthew, and yet just now in the story is when Matthew appears. How did Matthew get the information for this Gospel prior to this point of entry into the story?

The preceding chapters of Matthew record material which could only be accurately recorded by an eyewitness, such as exact quotes of what Jesus said and the conversations He had. Furthermore, it contains anecdotes which are unique to Matthew's Gospel, such as the three wise men visiting the baby Jesus, Herod ordering infanticide, and the full version of the epic Sermon on the Mount!

Sure, Matthew could have done some research to find out what happened beforehand, but you do not see any explicit demarcation to indicate what happened before Matthew joined the crew versus what happened after. You do not find “this is what I am told” versus “this is what I saw.” There is no change in perspective from third-person to first- person. That makes Matthew's authorship and eyewitness account at least a little suspect.

Moving on from there, Matthew 9:10-13, Mark 2:15-17, and Luke 5:29-32 record how Matthew/Levi hosted a dinner banquet for Jesus at his house. Jesus partakes. Pharisees asked Jesus' disciples why Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners. The three Gospels record similar responses from Jesus, with Matthew 9:12-13 being the longest:
On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." NIV
Here is the odd part about Jesus' response: Jesus thought that the Pharisees were sinners (for following man's ways instead of God's ways) and had false righteousness (Matthew 15:1-16, for example, illustrates both). So the literal interpretation is obviously inaccurate.

So, was Jesus being satirical? It appears that way. In effect, cutting through the deep sarcasm, Jesus was telling the Pharisees that Jesus had no time for them because they did not even realize that they were sinners. Fair enough, but is that consistent with Jesus' message? Yes and no.

Yes. This is fairly consistent with how Jesus treats the Pharisees throughout the Gospels. It is consistent with the message of not tossing pearls to swine.

But, no. No, it is not consistent with the message of Christianity. In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus says that we should forgive people essentially an unlimited amount of times, but Jesus does not forgive these Pharisees. Jesus supposedly appeared to the Pharisees' murderous thug and firm supporter, Saul, and changed him into a gentle Christian for the Gentiles in Acts 9:1-31, but Jesus does not earnestly seek to to change these Pharisees. Finally, there is the anthem of 2 Peter 3:9, where God does not want anyone to perish, yet we find that Jesus completely shuns helping the Pharisees.

Who really needs Jesus' help? Apparently, that is up to Jesus' discretion. As someone Christians attempt to emulate Jesus, perhaps they should do well to remember that they should use discretion as well, and they should ignore Scripture which suggests otherwise.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Origin of Paralysis

This is another Gospel story with different precursors. Matthew: Jesus calms the storm and casts demons into swine. Mark: Jesus prays alone, and then travels throughout Galilee, preaching and exorcising, and finally cures a leper. Luke: Jesus gathers fishers of men and then cures a leper. John: No comment. Despite different origins, the Gospels all come together for this next anecdote. All but John, that is.

The Origin of Paralysis
Every so often, a piece of ancient text will reveal a detail which ties it to the epoch in which it was written. Some details are blatant, like mentioning the nation of Persia. Others are a little more subtle, requiring special attention to draw out from the text, but the extra effort can be rewarding in more clearly revealing the beliefs and customs of the time. For example, take the story of Jesus healing a paralytic man.

Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-12, and Luke 5:17-26 all record the story about how four men delivered their paralyzed friend on a mat to Jesus. Jesus tells the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven. Some teachers of the Law, and possibly some Pharisees too, either began to talk amongst themselves or think to themselves that Jesus was blaspheming. Jesus detects their thoughts, and asks them which is easier to say: “'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk.'” Jesus then heals the paralyzed man to show them all that Jesus can forgive sins, and then tells the man to get up and leave. Everybody is impressed by the miracle.

That is great, but there are several issues and revelations which need closer scrutiny here.

When did this happen? Matthew 9:1 records that this event happened right after Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee, which was right after He sent demons into swine. The demons-into-swine trick was also recorded in Mark 5:1-20. Yet Mark 2:1 records that the healing of the paralyzed man happened a “few days” after Jesus healed a leper in Mark 1:40-45 (which is also recorded in Matthew 8:2-4). There is no way to reconcile this timeline.

Next, this is one of the passages in the Gospels in which Jesus confirms a few things here:

Jesus retained at least some supernatural powers of God, and God can read minds. That is nothing new, but debate often plays out in Christian circles about exactly how much Godly power, if any, did Jesus give up when becoming a man. (Bonus Question: How did the Gospel authors know what Jesus knew about the Law teachers' thoughts?)

Jesus can forgive sins. Let me repeat: Jesus can forgive sins; as in Jesus can forgive sins without being crucified. That is, Jesus can heal the rift between man and God without a sacrifice. That is, the crucifixion was not essential or mandatory to re-unite sinful man with Holy God.

As mind-blowing as the revelation above is to Christian doctrine, there is another one which catches my attention even more. When Jesus observed the four men bring in their paralyzed friend, He “saw their faith,” but Jesus did not forgive the sins of all of these men. Instead, Jesus only forgave the sins of the paralyzed man, despite being impressed with the faith of all of these men (Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 5:20). Why would that be? The answer is Biblical...

Back in those times, people who were afflicted with disease were thought to be punished by God for their sins. As was covered in a previous study, if you were sick, you were guilty. This fact is also revealed right in this episode in a subtle manner. First, as noted, Jesus only forgave the paralytic man. Second, when Jesus asked if it was easier to say that sins are forgiven or that to tell the paralyzed man to get up and walk (Matthew 9:5, Mark 2:9, Luke 5:23), He was not really asking which sentence is easier to speak. No, instead Jesus was asking which of these acts is easier to actually do, with Jesus' implicit answer being that they are equally difficult because the punishment for sin (paralysis) would require God's forgiveness to be healed.

This was the custom of belief at the time, the custom defining how people knew that God interacted with them. If they were sick, God was punishing them. If they were wealthy and healthy, God was happy with them. This same belief, and one of its associated issues, is echoed elsewhere in the Gospels, in John 9:1-2:
As [Jesus] went along, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" NIV
Remember the next time you are sick, or you get paralyzed, or you get cancer, that, from a Biblical perspective, it is either because God is punishing you for your sins or because (in the example from John 9:1-38) the healing of your ailment will bring glory to God. So if you happen to die with your disease, I guess you will die knowing that God was punishing you. Oh, and God is Love. ;-)

Instead, I recommend aligning your beliefs with reality, and recognize that the “Truth” of the Bible is not really all that true. God's word is not eternal. Rather, it is outdated.