Friday, January 27, 2012

Beware of Yeasty Priests

After Jesus had fed 4000 people with only seven loaves of bread and few small fish, He worked His way around the coast of the Sea of Galilee where He was confronted by some Pharisees, and possibly some Sadducees, asking Him for a sign from Heaven. Jesus rebuked them for their request, and for not already understanding the signs of the times. Jesus and His disciples soon left there for another spot on the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

Beware of Yeasty Priests
There are a number of times in the Gospels when Jesus' disciples are presented as stupid, for lack of a better word. They appear to be classic literary foils, strategically placed there to make Jesus appear that much more perfect. Yet if that is the case, we may have to redefine "perfect," at least what it means for a student-teacher relationship. For example, consider the episode of when Jesus warned His disciples about yeast.

This is another episode where it makes sense to start with Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. In Mark 8:14-21, Jesus tells His disciples to beware of the "yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." His disciples, portrayed as being dumber than dirt, discuss among themselves that Jesus must be saying this because they forgotten to bring enough bread for their journey.

Why say that they appear dumber than dirt? Well, the bread that the Pharisees would have would be deemed Holy, and not available to distribute to the common people. As for Herod, it is unfathomable that they would even think of getting bread directly from their ruler. Clearly Jesus means something other than literal bread here, but what? It seems that the disciples were too distracted by the potential food problem to understand the absurdity of their own conclusion.

Jesus, sensing that the disciples did not understand what He had just said, does what any great teacher would do. He helped them understand... No. Wait, that is not right.

Instead, Jesus focused on the bread-shortage issue. He asks His disciples to remember about the miraculous feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 people, and then asks them if they still do not understand. These miraculous feedings have absolutely nothing to do with Jesus' earlier statement about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. Instead, Jesus seemed to be reminding His disciples that they should not worry, because God will provide for them, just like He had said earlier in the Sermon on the Mount.

And that is it. Mark's account ends with no explanation about this mysterious yeast, which is obviously not really yeast. Fortunately, Matthew fixed that issue when he copied the story in Matthew 16:5-12. Matthew's version is mostly the same as Mark's, with a couple of notable exceptions.

In Matthew 16:6, Jesus tells His disciples to "guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." So Matthew changed Herod to be the Sadducees. Christian commentators generally waive this discrepancy because Herod had sided with the sect of the Sadducees over the Pharisees, and so, in a manner of speaking, he represented the Sadducees. That is certainly possible, but then Mark's use of a general term (Pharisees) to refer to a group and then a specific term (Herod) to instead represent a different group in the same sentence and context is linguistically awkward.

The other notable difference is in Matthew 16:12, where we finally discover what this mysterious yeast is:
Then [the disciples] understood that [Jesus] was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. NIV
Note Jesus had not actually told His disciples what He had meant by "yeast." Matthew's account followed the same pattern as Mark's, switching to a questioning of whether or not they understood the fact that God would provide food for them if they needed it. No, the disciples had figured out this meaning on their own.

Jesus was said to be a teacher, and good teachers must often try to nudge their own students (disciples) into figuring things out for themselves to promote true understanding. Students must be able to conceptually add two plus two, instead of just memorizing that the answer is four. So we should not be too hasty to judge Jesus for not explaining everything ad infinitum, but, at the same time, when you are dealing with less concrete concepts than basic mathematics, when you are dabbling in the language of metaphor, it is pretty important that you verify your students come up with correct understanding; that which we find in Luke.

Luke 12:1 does not give the episode which we found in Matthew and Mark, but it does have the same concept at heart, as you can see in an excerpt from that verse:
... Jesus began to speak first to His disciples, saying: "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." NIV
Luke's version shows Jesus to be a better teacher, where Jesus gives the metaphor and explains the symbolic meaning enough to be easily understood. Hypocrisy is the "yeast," and if only a little yeast gets into a pure flour dough, the yeast will spread throughout it. So stop hypocrisy as soon as you find it, or else it can spread. It is a good metaphor and a good teaching.

There is just one problem; both Matthew and Luke cannot be right. OK, well, technically they could both be right, but it seems extremely unlikely. Matthew claims that the teaching is the yeast. Luke claims that the hypocrisy is the yeast. In the most common way in which "hypocrisy" is used, it is not a condemnation of the rules, ideals, or teachings, but rather condemnation of people who espouse rules, ideals, or teachings yet do not abide by them. In fact, for Jesus to claim that hypocrisy is the yeast, it could be claimed that it is a tacit approval of what the Pharisees were teaching.

Did you notice that Luke dropped the reference to the Sadducees? One of the primary divisions between the Pharisees and the Sadducees is that the Pharisees had a concept of the afterlife, but Sadducees rejected that notion. In that way, the teaching of the Pharisees was in alignment with the message of Christianity.

But wait! (Objectors scream.) Jesus had condemned the teaching of the Pharisees earlier in the Gospels as being the teachings of man!

Yes, well, Luke was a bit of an editor when it came to creating his Gospel. As was discussed in an earlier study, Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 are the sections accusing the Pharisees teaching man-made law, and they are the only parts of the Gospels to do so. Luke 11:37-41 took that same message and rewrote it as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The earlier study contains a strong suggestion about why Luke may have felt the change was necessary; essentially to prevent Jesus from, Himself, appearing to be a hypocrite.

So we find Matthew to be consistent with his view, and Luke to be consistent with his own view as well, but, together, they represent contradictory aspects, and thus must prompt doubt of accuracy between the Gospels.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Signs of the Times

After rebuking some Pharisees and contradicting God's Law, Jesus took a side trip to the region of Tyre and Sidon. There, He reluctantly healed a woman's demon-possessed daughter after He called her, and her people, dogs. Soon Jesus left that region to go back to Galilee, where He fed 4000 with seven loaves of bread and few small fish.

The Signs of the Times
To a large extent for us today, Biblical veracity comes down to prophesy. None of us were around to witness Jesus, and many of us lack the "feeling" of the presence of God, or the feeling we had once felt no longer exists. The only evidence which should be incontrovertible is prophesy. If words written long prior to Jesus accurately reflected His life and times, then faith can be renewed and even the most bull-headed skeptic must bow in contrition (at least if they are honest). Unfortunately, that is not what we find, such as we will see in this study.

Mark is theorized to be the earliest Gospel, and Mark 8:11-13 is a good example of why. There, the Pharisees test Jesus, asking Him for a sign, to which He tells them no sign will be given to this generation. Of course that is dead wrong based on the Biblical accounts of Jesus working many miraculous signs, but at least Mark's message is simple and short.

Matthew 16:1-4 records the same confrontation, but Matthew added the Sadducees to the group, and said that only one sign would be given; the oh-so-problematic sign of Jonah. But Matthew did not stop there. Proving himself to be somewhat of an aggregator of knowledge, Matthew spliced in a condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees; that they could interpret the weather yet could not interpret the signs of the times.

Luke does not exactly cover this episode, but Luke does contain Matthew's same condemnation about knowing the weather yet not knowing the signs of the times. If we remember from a previous study, it appeared as though Luke had edited the "sign of Jonah" the first time Matthew had mentioned it. It may be that Luke edited this anecdote as well due to the reference to the "sign of Jonah" again, and so we see in Luke 12:54-56 that he skipped the Pharisees' request for a sign and instead directed the condemnation at the crowds following Jesus:
He said to the crowd: "When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, 'It's going to rain,' and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, 'It's going to be hot,' and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?" NIV
Wrap your head around this: Jesus, speaking to a highly illiterate crowd (literacy rates were well below 10% back then), calls these people hypocrites for knowing how to interpret the weather signs (which they would have encountered every day of their lives) but not knowing how to "interpret this present time" (which is an implied reference to prophesies in the Scriptures). These people had to rely on the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes to tell them what was in the Scriptures and to inform them what were the prophesied signs, if any, occurring in their times, but here we see Jesus berating them for not knowing something which they were obviously not taught. Luke made a major blunder here.

Now, we are in the meat of the text! I hope you are hungry, because there is a 24 ounce (0.68 kilogram) porterhouse steak of prophesy coming your way!

Going back to Matthew's version, where instead Jesus focuses His attack more rightfully on the Pharisees and Sadducees, it appears that Jesus had expected them to realize "the signs of the times," which implies a connection to prophesies not only about Jesus, but about the events which were then occurring at that time.

So which prophesies might this implied reference refer to? John Gill, one of the great Christian Bible scholars, suggested these signs in his exposition on this verse:
"the ending of Daniel's weeks, the various miracles wrought by Christ, the wickedness of the age in which they lived, the ministry of John the Baptist, and of Christ, the great flockings of the people, both to one and to the other, with divers other things which were easy to be observed by them"
Working from the end to the beginning, we have already discussed the inaccuracies in the prophesies of people flocking to Jesus, some of the issues with Jesus' ministry, and the issues with John the Baptist leading and preparing the way and representing the foretold reappearance of Elijah. The charge that the times were wicked enough to warrant being a sign is the essence of subjectivity. The recorded miracles of Jesus, such as the feeding of the 5000 and walking on water, have proven to be highly questionable. That brings us to "Daniel's weeks."

The reference to "Daniel's weeks" comes from a prophesy in Daniel 9. The big picture is in Daniel 9:24:
"Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy." NIV
The word for "sevens" is literally the word for weeks, but the content which follows makes literal weeks an obviously wrong translation. Another interpretation of "sevens" is years, making this a prophesy about 70 years, but given the lack of everlasting righteousness being established so soon after the building of the Second Temple, this interpretation seems wrong. So in this case, the context makes it reasonably clear that these weeks are actually sets of seven years according to the day-year interpretation. All of these things are supposed to be accomplished by the end of seventy sevens, or 490 years.

The phrase "to put an end to sin" is literally just that, and is applied specifically to the Jews as the phrase "for your people" establishes. How can we be certain? Minus the "weeks" timeline, this concept is echoed in other prophesies, such as Ezekiel 36:24-36 and Ezekiel 37:21-28. These prophesies state that the Jews (Israelites) will never sin again after some certain point of time, among other things.

The phrase "to anoint the most holy" sure appears to be a reference to Jesus, right? There are a couple problems with that interpretation. The first is semantics based, because "most holy" comes from a pair of Hebrew words which refer to a holy place or a thing, more like a temple, a sanctuary, or even the city of Jerusalem itself, than a god-man. The word "place" should come after "most holy." Coincidentally, this couples well to the coming Third Temple which was prophesied in Ezekiel 40-46. The second problem is even bigger...timing.

The Times
Daniel 9:25 tells us specifically that the starting time of the 490 years began from when the decree was given to rebuild Jerusalem. The Persian leader Cyrus the Great made that decree. Being extra generous, we will use the date in which the Second Temple of Jerusalem was completed, 516 BCE, although the decree was probably around twenty years before that.

So add 490 years to 516 BCE and you get 26 BC, that "BC" stands for "Before Christ" in Christian lingo. According to Daniel's prophesy, it was before Jesus that transgressions and sins would end, atonement would be made, and there would be everlasting righteousness. This is an epic prophesy failure.

These dates come from secular historians, but Jewish history states that the decree to build Jerusalem came much later, around 370 BCE, and vehemently maintain that the Second Temple stood for 420 years. Add 490 years to that and you get 120 CE. If you subtract seven years, 113 CE is when a foreign power conquered Israel. And since 120 CE, the Jews have never sinned and have had everlasting righteousness. Wait, that is not right either. Is this the actual prophesy failure?

No. Strangely enough, Jewish scholars, apparently contradicting their own Scriptures, suggest that the timeline instead begins with the destruction of the First Temple, and that Cyrus the Great was the anointed leader to come after 49 years. This trick aligns that fateful last seven years of prophesy with the start of the reign of the tyrannical High Priest Alexander Yannai (103 BCE). The problem is that Yannai's reign lasted twenty seven years, not seven, and we are again lacking an everlasting righteousness.

You might think that with all of these mixed up dates, Biblical scholars would shy away from associating this prophesy with Jesus, but they cannot do that, given that Jesus Himself referenced this specific prophesy in Matthew 24:15-20, Mark 13:14-18, and (a slightly modified version in) Luke 21:20-24. Jesus uses it to point out signs yet to come...

That leads to one more timeline theory: According to Nehemiah 2, Artaxerxes gave a commission to rebuild Jerusalem in 444 BCE (Jehovah's Witnesses claim 455 BCE instead, while Seventh Day Adventists claim 457 BCE). Add 490 years to that and you get 46 CE (or 35 CE according to the Jehovah's Witnesses or 33 CE via Seventh Day Adventists). Despite this timeline being essentially useless to Daniel such that it hardly seems to be an answer to his prayer (Daniel 9:20-23), at least this is in the right range. So let us review the signs.

The Signs
Daniel 9:25-27 is the rest of the prophesy; the events leading up to the perfection achieved at the end of those 490 years. These verses are written so haphazardly as to make it extremely difficult to assemble the proper meaning and timing, especially when translators throw in punctuations which are not in the original Hebrew. Here is how I would render it as clearly as possible:
From the time when the order is given to rebuild Jerusalem, in 49 years there will be an anointed leader (a.k.a. a messiah), and the city will continue on for another 434 years during turbulent times. After those 483 total years, the anointed ruler will be cut off. A foreign leader and his people will capture the city, and will rule it for 7 years until his per-ordained fate. He will make cooperative promises with many of the people during that time. Yet rebellions and blasphemes will be frequent during his reign. Approximately 3.5 years into his rule, he will stop the Temple sacrifices and set up an abomination in the Temple which will last until the end of his reign. At some point, he will destroy the city and the Temple, like a flood, in battle.
Where did Daniel come up with these numbers? Of course, it is difficult to say. Some secular scholars and liberal Christian scholars have suggested that this is an ex eventuex prophesy written after the events sometime in the second century BCE, and that it (the last week of the prophesy in particular) aligns to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the associated Maccabean Revolt (171 BCE), but this requires Daniel to be really bad with dates; off by around 70 years in his timeline even with the most-favorable timeline given above.

I think that there may be a better fitting, but completely overlooked explanation.

If the authorship of the prophesy is much older than the second century BCE, written closer to the time when Daniel supposedly lived, maybe even by Daniel himself, I would suggest instead that it could be an echo of the Old Testament history. The 49 years could represent the time from when David was anointed to become the future king (1 Samuel 16:13) up to the end of his forty-year reign (1 Kings 2:10-11), but there is no specific date given for his anointing to be certain. More precise, however, is that from Solomon's reign to the time when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem was approximately 433.5 years according to the chronology in 1 Kings and 2 Kings, which is pretty darn close to 434 years. It could be that Daniel was forecasting that history would repeat itself. However this time, after a seven year tribulation period instead of a seventy year exile, the cycle of repeated history would end, and everlasting righteousness would be established.

Now, onto the signs:
  • An anointed one (a messiah, a.k.a. a ruler chosen by God and anointed with oil, reference Exodus 29:7, 1 Samuel 10:1, 1 Samuel 16:13) will rule in 49 years
  • There are anointed rulers for the next 434 years
  • The anointed ruler will be cut off, replaced by a foreign ruler (or at least a non-anointed ruler)
  • That foreign ruler will rule for seven years (Romans ruled it for well over seven years)
  • That foreign ruler will make promises to many
  • That foreign ruler will put an end to sacrifices and offerings in 3.5 years (Sacrifices continued to the Temple destruction in 70 CE)
  • That foreign ruler will set up an "abomination which causes desolation" in the Temple which will remain there until his preordained end.
  • Jerusalem and the Temple will be destroyed at some point by this foreign ruler's people
  • At the end of this seven-year rule, God will make atonement for the Jewish people, put an end to sin, and establish everlasting righteousness.
Collectively, this is one huge failure of prophesy. Yet with so many tempting elements, and with Jesus Himself referencing this specific prophesy in Matthew 24:15-20, Mark 13:14-18, and (a slightly modified version in) Luke 21:20-24, Christians cannot ignore it and cannot accept that it is a failure. The product of this contradiction results in some of the most contemptible attempts at Biblical scholarship you will ever find.

For example, one scholarly view is that Jesus was the ruler of the final seven years, where the anointed Jesus was cut off (killed) during that seven years, He had made a covenant with many people, His sacrifice put an end to sacrifices, He had made atonement, He had established an everlasting righteousness, and the Temple was destroyed...eventually (30+ years later).

Contrast this with another popular Christian scholarly view where the ruler during that final seven years is actually the Antichrist, who will rule after the Church is Raptured. It is the Antichrist who will make a covenant with many, will stop the sacrifices and offerings (even though Jesus had already made them unnecessary and somehow even the Rapture of the Church does not convince the Jews enough that the Christians were right to make them stop sacrificing on their own), and will attack Jerusalem and the Temple. This view holds that the first 483 years of Daniel's prophesy has already happened (culminating with Jesus) and did happen sequentially, but that this final set of seven years is (obviously) still yet to occur, which makes absolutely no sense other than making people feel better about a failed prophesy.

For Christian scholars to study the same four verses of prophesy and come up with both Jesus and the Antichrist being represented in the same words is simultaneously hilarious and sad. Yet this shows you the lengths that believers will go to in order to mold these Old Testament prophesies into what they want them to be instead of simply believing what they are actually saying.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Toss It to Their Dogs

We have come to a point in the Gospel storyline where Matthew and Mark continue on alone for a little while. Jesus fed the five thousand men, plus others, and then walked on water to meet His disciples on the Sea of Galilee. This was followed by a confrontation with some traveling Pharisees over hand-washing, where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching contrary to God's Law, only for Jesus to give His own teaching which was contrary to God's Law regarding being clean and unclean.

Toss It to Their Dogs
Jesus is often portrayed as being humble, merciful, and generous; assuming a lowly position, opting not to condemn but rather save, and healing all who came to Him. It is a nice picture, but it is not the whole story. There are other, more controversial, aspects which crop up as you explore the Gospels in their entirety. Take, for example, the episode where Jesus is approached by a Canaanite.

Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 record a journey of Jesus into the region of Tyre and Sidon, coastline cities to the north of Israel. Allow me to repeat that for emphasis, this is outside of Israel. Why is Jesus outside of Israel? Well, Mark, the earlier-written of the two Gospels, seems to imply that Jesus either on the run, or was looking for a little private relaxation, because Mark 7:24 reveals that Jesus was trying to keep His presence there a secret. Matthew did not want his version of the Messiah sneaking around, so he left off the secrecy in Matthew 15:21, which also leaves off any kind of indication of why Jesus would go there.

I know. Right now you are thinking: "You Fool, Jesus was sent to the Jews and the Gentiles. That is why He was there." Is that so? Hmm. Let us see what Jesus has to say about that a little later.

Despite the secrecy of Jesus' visit, or lack thereof, news of His presence spreads. This was Jesus' first recorded visit to the region, but supposedly His fame had already reached the region and had earlier enticed some of its denizens to go see Jesus while He was in the region of Galilee (Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17). So, naturally large crowds gathered... No. Wait. Just one woman. One woman came to see Jesus while He was there, because she had a demon-possessed daughter. She begged Jesus to help her daughter (Matthew 15:22, Mark 7:25-26).

Naturally, you would expect Jesus, the epitome of love and virtue, endowed with unlimited powers of healing and exorcism, and overflowing with compassion for everyone, to jump at the chance to free this woman's daughter of the evil spirit, just like He had done literally countless times before for other people. You would be wrong. Matthew 15:23 records that Jesus would not even waste His breath to speak to her until He was prodded by His disciples to do so because she was bothering them. When Jesus finally did say something, it was far from what would be expected, as we see in Matthew 15:24:
[Jesus] answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." NIV
According to this line, Jesus was sent only for the Jews, according to the will of God the Father (the implied sender of Jesus). No Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47). No inclusion of Gentiles. Maybe. Let us take a moment to birth this pregnant statement.

This could be a relic of a time when the Jesus story was exclusively for the Jews. With the above-noted Great Commission (the commission to preach Jesus to all of the world) being at the end of the Gospels, they could easily be a late addition to the story at a time when it seemed that the Gentiles had become interested in Jesus. In fact, the oldest manuscripts of Mark do not include this Great Commission. (Those versions end at Mark 16:8, with an empty tomb but no eyewitnesses to a risen Jesus.) Of course, there is also the curious fact that Saul/Paul was specifically designated as the Apostle to the Gentiles in Acts 9:15, which would not have been necessary if the surviving eleven Apostles had been given a commission to go out to all of the nations. Finally, and in connection to the point above, we should also consider that the "all of the nations" in the Great Commission may not have actually meant all the nations of the world. In the Old Testament, such as in Zechariah 11:10, "all of the nations" was also used (although rarely) to mean exclusively the Jews, as each of the Twelve Tribes of Jews had a "nation" of their own* within the greater nation of Israel. So it is possible that the Great Commission, even if it was included in early Gospel drafts, may not have been all that great in scope.

On the other hand, Jesus could just be saying that God the Father's specific orders were for Jesus to spread the message to the Jews, and for believers to subsequently spread the message to the rest of the world. Then Jesus' statement would seem to be an indication that He placed following the commands of God the Father first and foremost, so He could not heal the woman's daughter because it was outside His God-given scope, and yet He healed the daughter anyway just a handful of verses later. Plus, if Jesus was only sent to the Jews, what on earth was He doing outside of the nation of Israel? It makes no sense for Jesus to travel to Tyre or Sidon. It is like going to Norway to help the people of Sweden.

The story really does not get better as it continues. The woman begs for help again (Matthew 15:25). From here on out, Matthew 15:26-28 and Mark 7:27-30 have essentially the same content, but there is one peculiar difference.

Matthew 15:26 is similar to Mark 7:27, but Mark adds a qualifying statement (highlighted in bold below) in Jesus' reply to the woman:
"First let the children eat all they want," [Jesus] told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." NIV
If you were reading Mark's version alone, you may not really know what Jesus means by "the children." That is probably why Matthew touched up the story when he copied it for his Gospel, adding the part discussed above regarding the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is saying that the Jews should get first dibs on healing miracles and exorcisms, and possibly on interaction with Jesus. Of course, again, this leads to the question of why was Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon if such preference was to be given to the Jews?

Jesus' statement suggests that there is a limited quantity of God's blessing.

Also, you should note that to use the reference of dogs here, referring to this woman and her people in general, was a pretty big insult. This is not exactly the kind of language you would expect from Mr. Compassion.

Do not think that the statement implies that it was a Jews-first, then Gentiles sentiment either. The metaphor is children verses dogs. They were not equal in Jesus' eyes, and not even worthy of sitting at the table. The concept through the metaphor is that maybe, just maybe, some compassion may spill over for the Gentiles, but it is far from guaranteed.

Finally you should note that this is the same Jesus who had earlier instructed His own Disciples to freely give of their powers of healing and exorcism when sending them out on their first mission (Matthew 10:8). This is no free giving. This is a test of endurance against intentional discouragement, rendering Jesus a hypocrite in the classic sense.

The woman, unfazed or perhaps desperate beyond any other hope, pleads one more time, continuing in Jesus' metaphor to suggest that she would gladly take any crumbs which dropped from the table. This persistence finally won over Jesus' compassionate side, and so He exorcised her daughter remotely (Matthew 15:27-28, Mark 7:28-30). Allegedly the daughter is healed, even though there are no witnesses in Jesus' party to verify that fact, given that the daughter was not present at the time.

Perhaps it is for these very serious issues that Luke, the Editor, opted not to include this episode in his Gospel.

* - That each of the tribes had their own nation is not 100% accurate. The Tribe of Levi, a.k.a. the Levites, did not have their own nation, but were rather scattered through each of the other Jewish nations serving as priests. Nevertheless, there were still considered to be twelve nations, as the Tribe of Joseph was considered to be split into the Tribe of Manasseh and the Tribe of Ephriam. See this map for reference.

Curiously, you will see that the map actually includes Tyre and Sidon as part of the territory of the Tribe of Asher as defined in Joshua 19:24-31. Yet as 2 Samuel 5:11 later indicates, Tyre had a Gentile king. Neither Tyre nor Sidon were ever captured and populated by Jews or fully incorporated into their kingdom, but Tyre was often portrayed as having a friendly, almost vassal-like relationship for some time with the Jews (2 Samuel 5:11, 1 Kings 5:1, 1 Kings 9:11-12). Yet at some point in time, the relationship with Tyre turned sour, causing God to condemn it (Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 26).

Friday, January 6, 2012

Are You Still So Dull?

Matthew and Mark had Jesus feed the five thousand, followed by a walk on the waters of the Sea of Galilee before the anecdote in this next study. Luke also had Jesus feed the five thousand, but skipped the aquatic jaunt. Luke does not include the content of this study until much later in his Gospel timeline, after Jesus was accused of being Satanic, spoke about the sign of Jonah, and spoke about the eye being the lamp of the body. Previously we discussed how John showed Salvation is by invitation only, but John skips this next topic entirely.

Are You Still So Dull?
When examining Scriptures, there should be a balance in concentration on the message and the details. In many ways, the message is the most important part; what you need to remember to guide your life and see the overall purpose. Yet details are also important, even critically important, to establish the credibility and authority of the message. Details are the foundation which can support or refute any alleged message from God. Let us examine how details can erode the foundation of a message.

Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 both similarly record an anecdote when some Pharisees from Jerusalem visiting the region north of the Sea of Galilee found that Jesus' disciples were eating without first washing their hands, transgressing the tradition of Jewish elders. The Pharisees asked Jesus why His disciples were transgressing the custom (Matthew 15:1-2, Mark 7:1-5).

Jesus counterattacks, asking the Pharisees why they break the commands of God in favor of their traditions. In example, Jesus says that God commanded for non-parent-honoring children to be put to death, but the Pharisees instead teach that it is acceptable for the children to choose to devote their gifts to God as opposed to their parents (Matthew 15:3-6, Mark 7:9-13).

This may just be the most confused passage in the Synoptic Gospels. Take a moment to think about what Jesus said here. Jesus is complaining that they are not obeying God's Law to put certain children to death. That should be strange enough to anyone who thinks that God is abounding in love and mercy. But did you also notice the what the Pharisees were allowing instead?

It is not that the Pharisees were completely ignoring this law. It is not that they were giving a free pass for children to curse their parents. It was that the Pharisees were allowing children to choose to devote gifts to God as opposed to their own parents. The Pharisees were allowing the children to put God, their heavenly Father, first and foremost. And Jesus had a problem with this teaching, despite His own teaching that serving God was more important than serving family.

Jesus also mentions how Isaiah had prophesied about the Pharisees; how they honored God with their lips but not their hearts, and taught teachings of man over those of God (Matthew 15:7-9, Mark 7:6-8). Yet if you look at the context of Isaiah 29 surrounding the quoted verse of Isaiah 29:13, it appears that the quoted verse is not prophesy at all, but rather a condemnation of the status of Jerusalem (referred to as "Ariel" in this text) in the time of Isaiah, and the actual prophesy is about how God will have all of the other nations attack Jerusalem to humble the Israelites, only to have God eliminate the forces of the other nations in an instant in order to shock the Israelites into worshiping God in purity.

So, now that Jesus has blasted the Pharisees for not completely obeying God's Law, you may expect Jesus to next give them a further lesson about that God had said about washing or cleanliness. If so, you would be wrong. Instead, Jesus teaches something completely different to God's Law, stating that nothing a man eats makes him unclean, and instead it is what a man says which can make him unclean (Matthew 15:10-11, Mark 7:14-15). The teaching itself is good, but it contradicts God's Law in Leviticus 11 regarding acceptable animals to eat, and completely ignores the other ways which God said that a person could be come unclean, such as if they simply touched anything unclean (Leviticus 5:2-3) (which may have been the source for the ritual washing), if they get a skin disease (Leviticus 13:3), if a man has a nocturnal emission (Leviticus 15:16), if anyone has sex involving a discharge of semen (Leviticus 15:18), or a woman has her period (Leviticus 15:19), among other causes.

There is a school of thought that Jesus contradicting these cleanliness laws is acceptable, because these laws belong to a subset of God's Law known as ceremonial laws. Some scholars posit that the ceremonial laws were fulfilled and thus nullified through Jesus, among other things. Being clean or unclean affected whether or not you could participate in festivals and worshiping God in the Temple, and so often Christian scholars take the position that these cleanliness laws were a metaphor, of sorts, to show how God could not tolerate to be around sin, and thus why Jesus' sacrifice was necessary. However, as is clearly seen in the examples above, some forms of uncleanliness came simply from natural biological functions; functions which nobody has control over. So the analogy of uncleanliness representing a state of sinfulness falls apart, if you are willing to consider the details.

Moving on, Matthew 15:12-14 contains a semi-unique thought, where Jesus' disciples tell Jesus that the Pharisees were offended. Jesus replies that they are blind guides who should be left alone to guide the blind. (Luke 6:39 also mentions the blind leading the blind, but not in connection with the Pharisees.) This is a rather interesting teaching, as Jesus is effectively saying "go ahead and let other religious teachers misguide other people." That is great news for religious tolerance, but it does not portray an attitude that God loves everyone and wants them to be saved.

Matthew 15:15-20 and Mark 7:17-23 both conclude the episode with Jesus' disciples asking Him to explain this "parable," which is not much of a parable. Jesus, being the great teacher that He was, asked them "Are you still so dull?" Are you really that stupid? Are you truly that slow-minded? You know, it is the kind of question you would expect from a merciful, humble, meek, and omniscient teacher. Not.

Anyway, Jesus goes on to explain that food does not affect or portray the morals of a person, but what people say can reveal all sorts of evils within their hearts. Again, this is a good teaching, so good you have to wonder why an omniscient God would not have included it from the beginning instead of messing around with apparently artificial cleanliness.

Here is the kicker: Jesus' disciples had already been breaking this hand-washing tradition, presumably for some time, but Jesus did not bother explaining to His own disciples why they were breaking this tradition until now. At least, that is what you should believe according to the text. In reality, however, this is a give away that the whole episode is a fictitious construct crafted to support a particular teaching; the teaching that it does not matter what is within your belly, but rather it is what is within your heart that matters to God.

As we have seen, there are many issues within this anecdote which make it questionable, at best, if not a flat out fictitious fable. Perhaps that is why Luke, the Editor, re-imagines the story differently. In Luke 11:37-41, Luke has Jesus invited for dinner to the house of a Pharisee, where that Pharisee questioned Jesus Himself why He did not wash His hands before eating. Jesus replies, blasting the Pharisees in general for being concerned with the appearance of outside cleanliness despite themselves being wicked and greedy on the inside. Jesus then tells him to give what is in the dish to the poor, and then everything will be clean for him. Thereby, Luke effectively circumnavigates the issues present in Matthew and Mark version. Now if only there was a demonstration that the Divine knew that personal hygiene, such as washing your hands before eating, was also a good thing, perhaps we could give God a little more credit.