Friday, February 24, 2012

A Witness to Absurdity

We continue through the Gospel of John, where recently Jesus sneaked into the Passover Feast in Jerusalem to avoid a risk which never actually existed. After the Feast, Jesus hung around and taught in the Temple courts, where some Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery to Jesus as a trap, but He ended up turning her condemners by telling the person without sin to cast the first stone.

A Witness to Absurdity
The Gospel of John, more than any of the Synoptic Gospels, stands out clearly as a fabrication to anyone with a critical eye. One witness to that is the sheer absurdity which some of Jesus' dialogs take; with Pharisees raising objections which just do not make sense. Take the dialog in John 8:12-20 for example.

At some undisclosed time after nobody cast a stone at the adulterous woman, the dialog begins with Jesus stating that He is the light of the world (John 8:12). In John 8:13, the Pharisees try to question Jesus' authority like so:
The Pharisees challenged [Jesus], "Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid." NIV
This claim is absurd. Jesus is not in a legal proceeding here, so He is not appearing as His own witness. Nor did Jesus describe anything which would have been an event in which witnesses would be required, at least in the traditional sense. Jesus is appearing as an anointed prophet, the Messiah, not someone presenting a legal case where He needs witnesses to support Him. Deuteronomy states that a prophet should be tested, not that a prophet should have witnesses. The Pharisees would have known that, and thereby the author of the Gospel of John proves that he only has a superficial understanding of God's Law, and, in turn, proves this episode to be fiction.

Is that too bold of a conclusion to make from one sentence? Very well, let us continue...

Jesus could have corrected their misunderstanding, but He did not. Instead, He continued on in that same misunderstanding. Jesus replied that despite the fact that He is testifying on His own behalf, His testimony was valid, because He knew about Himself, and while they judged by human standards, He was guided by God, the Father (John 8:14-16). He concludes the reply in John 8:17-18 with these words:
"In your own Law it is written that the testimony of two men is valid. I am one who testifies for Myself; My other witness is the Father, who sent Me." NIV
First, note how the phrase "your own Law" is spoken, as if Jesus was not a Jew and thereby subject to the Law, and as if the Jews had come up with the Law themselves as opposed to having it given to the Jews by God. This is not to say that Jesus is implying these points. Rather, from the way in which He worded it, you would have no idea that He was Jewish or that the Law had a divine origin.

OK, now about the witnesses.

Jesus could have mentioned how there were all kinds of different witnesses in the Law, and sometimes they were singular. Abraham gave seven lambs to Abimelech as a witness that Abraham had dug a well (Genesis 21:25-30). Jacob used a pillar and a pile of rocks as a witness of a peace treaty with Laban (Genesis 31:43-53). (During that example, Jacob also called God as a witness between them in Genesis 31:50.) There are also a couple times when the heavens and earth are called as witness (Deuteronomy 4:26, Deuteronomy 30:19). There is a song which is a witness (Deuteronomy 31:19). Even the book of the Law itself was considered a witness (Deuteronomy 31:26).

Instead, Jesus appeals to the Law, citing that the testimony of two witnesses is valid. There are only three times when multiple witnesses are mentioned in the Law. Numbers 35:30 states that a murderer can only be sentenced to death if there is more than one witness. Deuteronomy 17:2-7 states that if you find anyone living among you who worships other gods, or worshiping objects in the sky, then based on the testimony of two or three witnesses, that person should be put to death. Deuteronomy 19:15 states more generally that it requires two or three witnesses to convict someone of any crime. (It must have been pretty easy to get away with crimes back then!)

The common thread in these legal references to multiple witnesses is that they are required to convict someone of a crime, and have nothing to do with what a prophet says. It does not make sense that the Pharisees would have raised the issue, and it does not make sense that Jesus would have responded to them in kind.

Furthermore, Jesus' own reply falls apart logically. According to the Law, the testimonies of two men(!) were required, whereas Jesus states that He is His own witness, and His Father is a witness as well. The way in which the Law is written regarding multiple witnesses, nobody could claim God as being one of the required witnesses. It is an absurd abuse of the Law, made all the more absurd by Jesus being the one to make such a claim.

The matter concludes with Jesus telling the Pharisees that they do not know the Father (John 8:19-20).

So we see the purpose for which this episode is written: to emphasize Jesus' harmony with God, while contrasting Him to the Pharisees, with the Pharisees not even knowing who God really is. That is an important theological distinction to make, for sure. It is just too bad that the author of John stumbles all over himself in the process of making it.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Adulterated Verses

We are continuing on in the Gospel of John, where previously Jesus explained that you have to be invited by God to be Saved, causing several disciples to stop following Him. When Jesus then asked the Twelve Disciples if they were also going to leave, Simon/Peter replied that they could not leave the Holy One of God. This was followed by Jesus sneaking into the Passover feast in Jerusalem, only to make a public spectacle of Himself.

Adulterated Verses
We often have difficulty discerning the truth when presented with a lie which is to our liking or which aligns with our expectations. With that in mind, it must have been a monumental task to figure out which of the many gospels about Jesus represented truth, and which were false, but somehow only four of the many different gospels available were bestowed with the great honor of being included in New Testament canon. Yet even within these four Gospels, there is some parsing of truth required. Take John 8:1-11, for example.

Known as the Pericope Adulterae, John 8:1-11 is the famous story about a woman who was caught in the middle of an act of adultery. She is brought to Jesus by the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. The Pharisees and Law teachers state that the Law of Moses (God's Law) says that such women should be stoned to death, and then ask Jesus what He has to say about it.

Supposedly, this was done to trap Jesus. How exactly was He to be trapped? The text does not say, but there seems to be an implication that they were hoping Jesus would say something to contradict God's Law. Of course, that seems unfounded, given that Jesus blasted the Pharisees for not having children stoned to death according to God's Law in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23.

Anyway, after drawing in the dirt, Jesus answered their nagging questions by saying that the person without sin should throw the first stone. Instead of telling Jesus that the Law does not work that way, the accusers instead take Jesus' words to heart (which seems highly unlikely given the contentious spirit in which they supposedly approached Jesus), and they all left, one by one. With all of the accusers gone, Jesus tells the woman that then He will not condemn her either, and tells her to sin no more.

It is a great story, right? But what if it is just that? A story? A work of pious fiction? Curiously enough, the older manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not have this anecdote included in them.

But what does that mean? Is it a true story? Or is it a fake which people just want to believe? In a section of a book by Lyman Abbott regarding the Gospel of John, you can read about this enigmatic passage from the eyes of the pious. Abbott presents three different researched opinions:
  1. The author of the Gospel of John originally wrote this, but some piously conservative copyists edited the episode out because they thought it might promote adultery and other sins. That is hilarious! This opinion suggests some person thought that they knew better than Jesus, and had to censor Him! Not only that, it does not provide a satisfactory answer for why it is the older manuscripts which do not have this story.
  2. It was an interpolation (that is, a made-up story). But (notes Abbot, objectionably), the writer of such a story would have had to have been of Christ-like brilliance because of how closely it resembles what Jesus said elsewhere. Abbott's argument is that this is just too good to be made up. Of course, that is silly, given that there was a lot of fertile ground from the other Gospels and oral stories available at the time to create some pretty good fan fiction.
  3. This story came from a traditional narrative about Jesus which had been floating around for some time, in different forms, possibly even in other now-lost gospels.
This latter suggestion is the most interesting. Why? Cited as support for this position is an excerpt from the book of Historia Ecclesiastica (Church History) by Eusebius of Caesarea (Roman, Christian historian, circa CE 263 – 339) who was, in turn, commenting on Interpretations of the Sayings of the Lord by Papias of Hierapolis (circa CE 125). Eusebius said that it contained "the history of a woman accused before the Lord of numerous sins, a history contained also in the Gospel of the Hebrews."

This sounds somewhat like what we have in John 8:1-11, except John's woman is only accused of adultery, not "numerous sins." Yet that distinction is critically important...

According to God's Law, in Leviticus 20:10, BOTH the man and the woman should be killed if there is a case of adultery, but in John's version, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law only brought forth the woman. That is against what the Law says, so it seems very unlikely that they would have presented this case before Jesus without dragging the man into it as well. After all, why would they leave a blatant opportunity for Jesus to correct them if they were trying to "trap" Him?

Instead, what I think this reveals is how a story evolves over time. The original was probably about a woman accused of multiple sins before Jesus. Over time, or over the telling of it, the details got dropped, changed, and/or appended, to become what we find in John 8:1-11 today. (Caught in the act of adultery! Now that is a story!) Yet in the evolution that occurred, the story teller forgot to flesh out the details correctly, and so left out how the man who committed adultery should have been accused as well.

At a bare minimum, we see a likely case where truth was likely bent to make a better story. That just makes you wonder what else in the Gospels has been adulterated...

Friday, February 10, 2012

To Kill or Not to Kill

We will be following the Gospel of John in this study. In John, prior to this study, Jesus got tangled up in His own metaphorical language while explaining that He was the Bread of Life. He went on to explain that Salvation is by God's invitation only, which caused many disciples to stop following Him. Jesus then asked the Twelve Disciples if they, too, were going to leave, to which Simon/Peter replied that they could not leave the Holy One of God.

To Kill or Not to Kill
The Gospel of John is pretty strange at times; strange enough that it probably would have been rejected from Biblical canon (in my opinion) if it did not also contain some of the most useful theology (John 3:16, anyone?). Sometime, likely well over a century after Jesus' death, the leaders of the church decided to take the good with the bad, and adopt John as one of the official four canonical Gospel accounts. Thus, the strangeness is passed on to us. Let us revel in a portion of that oddity in this study, John 7:1-52.

(WARNING: This is going to get a little more sarcastic than a lot of my other posts, because, frankly, John deserves it.)

Opening, in John 7:1, we see:
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take His life. NIV
Got it? Jesus was either afraid, or simply did not want to die quite yet before the master plan was accomplished. Was He really at risk? We will find out later.

Also, the author of John, implicitly proving that he was not Jewish, and therefore was definitely not one of Jesus' disciples, does not even bother to differentiate who was trying to kill Jesus, such as specifically the Pharisees. He just lumps them all together. It was "the Jews" who wanted Jesus dead. This lack of discretion is what has helped seed Christian antisemitism for almost a couple thousand years now.

Now, let us move quickly into the story. It was time for the Feast of the Tabernacles, an eight day joyous celebration after the yearly harvest, when native Jews live in booths and all Jewish men are required to make offerings proportional to their wealth to God at the Temple in Jerusalem (Leviticus 23:33-43, Deuteronomy 16:13-17). Jesus' brothers teased Him that He should go to Jerusalem to work some miracles, because (from their point of view) Jesus had been working miracles in secret and they did not believe Him (John 7:2-5). (That is to say, Jesus' brothers had no credible evidence that He was the Messiah. Strange, huh? This view is both consistent and contradictory with the other Gospels, as explored in an earlier study.)

Jesus replied to His brothers that they can go to the Feast at any time, but the world hates Him, and it was not the right time for Him to go to the Feast (John 7:6-9). (Yeah, the world hated Jesus so much, people flocked to Him by the thousands! John 6:10)

Jesus' brothers went to Jerusalem, and then Jesus put on a ninja's outfit (my embellishment), and, as super-stealth-mode Jesus, went to the Feast in secrecy. (I guess that the "right time" for Jesus was just a few minutes after His brother's had left.) Those evil Jews were on the lookout for Jesus at the Feast (John 7:10-11).

The people there had mixed opinions about Jesus, but nobody should know that because the people were too afraid of those evil Jews to speak publicly about Him (John 7:11-13). (They had a lot to worry about too, given that they would have been Jews themselves!)

Halfway through the Feast, Jesus takes off His cloak of invisibility (again, my embellishment) and appears teaching in the courts of the Temple. The "Jews" are amazed at Jesus' unschooled knowledge (John 7:14-15). (So these "Jews" were not contesting what Jesus was saying, but actually, in a way, complimented His knowledge. They somehow knew enough about Him that He had not studied Scripture, yet it appears as though they had not heard of Him ever teaching before, and so are amazed now, despite Him teaching in a synagogue beforehand [John 6:59]. Something smells fishy, and it is not the Fishers of Men.)

Jesus explained that His teaching comes from God, as anyone could find out by obeying it. He goes on to say that He (because He works to honor God) and anyone else who works for the honor someone other than themselves, is inherently trustworthy (John 7:16-18). (So if you meet any of Satan's minions, do not worry, you can trust them!)

John (in typical fashion) had Jesus make an abrupt topic change, with Jesus saying that nobody obeyed God's Law, yet they all wanted to kill Him. The crowd essentially replied "What the Hell are you talking about?!?! Nobody is trying to kill you, you crazy person." (John 7:19-20) (So maybe the Jews were not trying to kill Jesus?)

Jesus then whined about how they were angry at Him for healing on the Sabbath (reference the healing in Jerusalem in John 5:1-15), yet they have no problem slicing penises (circumcision) on the Sabbath. So they needed to judge rightly (John 7:21-24).

This apparently jogged the crowd's memory, and they simultaneously questioned if Jesus was the man the man they were trying to kill, and was it true that the "authorities" had identified Him as the Messiah, despite the fact that they know where Jesus was from (John 7:25-27). (They go from not knowing if Jesus was a wanted man, to recognizing Him as such and knowing where He came from. That is possible, but unlikely. Even worse, however, they want to kill Him, and He is recognized as the Messiah! Nice job, John. Did you come up with that all by yourself, or did the Holy Spirit help you?)

Jesus then replied that, yes, they know where He is from, but He is from God and they do not know God (John 7:28-29). (So, then, they do not really know where He is from...)

And we find in John 7:30:
At this they tried to seize Him, but no one laid a hand on Him, because His time had not yet come. NIV
Oh, so Jesus is not really at any risk being in Jerusalem. He has got a Divine force field around Him, protecting Him until the proper time. Time and time again, we find that John outsmarted himself in creating this Gospel.

John writes with a purpose, but he does not have the skill to make it work. In what we have already reviewed, we see these purposes revealed:
  • John establishes that the Jews (many if not most) wanted to kill Jesus.
  • Jesus had great knowledge despite never having studied Scriptures (evidence of Divine knowledge).
  • Jesus was recognized as being the Messiah.
But as we have seen, John is too distracted in getting his points across to realize that he commits several sins of logic and sanity in the process:
  • Jesus sneaks around only to later make a fully public appearance.
  • The Jews want to kill Jesus even though they realize that He is the Messiah.
  • You can trust Satan's minions, because they are trying to make Satan look good, according to Jesus' logic.
  • Jesus was avoiding a risk in Jerusalem which did not really exist for Him.
As this anecdote continues in John 7:31-52 does not get any better. It is replete with recorded dialog which no follower of Jesus would have been witness to, a planted reference (from the crowd) of Jesus' teaching going out to the Greeks, another failed attempt to seize Jesus, and Nicodemus trying to defend Jesus. It is no wonder why that even the majority of scholars of the faith recognize this, and consider the Gospel to be more a work of literature as opposed to an eyewitness report.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Between a Rock and a Heavenly Place

Jesus was confronted by some Pharisees, and possibly some Sadducees, demanding a sign from Heaven. Instead of giving a sign, Jesus chastised them for not already understanding the signs of the times, and soon departed with His disciples to another spot on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Along the way, Jesus warned His disciples about the yeast of the Pharisees, which could have been either their teachings or hypocrisy, but definitely had nothing to do with bread.

Between a Rock and a Heavenly Place
Simon, a.k.a. Peter, has an unnatural prominence throughout the Gospels. Of the Twelve Apostles, he is mentioned the most times by far, and is recorded as acting in the most number of significant episodes, such as walking on water, protesting Jesus' fate, and later three times denying that he was Jesus' disciple. His name comes up 148 times in the Gospels; 46 times as Simon and 102 times as Peter. So "Peter" shows up over twice as often as his real name, Simon. Yet the name Peter was only used three times in spoken dialog in the Gospels; Mark 16:7, Luke 22:34, and the following episode where Simon supposedly gets that name.

Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30, and Luke 9:18-21 all contain an anecdote where Jesus asks His disciples who other people think that He is. When the question circles around to what Jesus' disciples think about who He is, Simon is the first and only disciple noted to give an answer. Simon claims that Jesus is the "Christ," that is, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word for the Messiah or Anointed One. With this truth revealed, each of these accounts ends with Jesus strictly warning His disciples not to share this information with anyone. This cloak of secrecy, shared in several locations throughout the Gospels, is one of the larger mysteries therein, having no good explanation.

(The Gospel of John is not completely devoid of this proclamation. In John 6:67-69, after many other disciples stopped following Jesus due to some unsavory teaching, Jesus asked the Twelve Apostles whether or not they, too, would leave. Simon spoke up, saying how could they leave when they believe that He is the "Holy One of God." Here, Jesus skipped warning them not to share this knowledge.)

Let us dig a little deeper.

Mark 8:27-30 and Luke 9:18-21, aside from a different locational starting point, are nearly identical in both content and sentence structure. They are so close, that they are unlikely to be two eyewitness accounts, but rather one is a copy of the other. Luke appears to be the copier, adding some small details. (For example, compare Mark 8:28 versus Luke 9:19, where Luke adds the phrase "of long ago has come back to life" describing the prophets who people think Jesus may be.)

The section of Matthew 16:13-16, and the concluding verse Matthew 16:20, combine into an account which matches both Mark's and Luke's accounts very closely, again both in content and sentence structure. This appears to be just another copy, but that is not the whole story. Matthew is very, very different...

As discussed in earlier studies, the author of Matthew appears to be an aggregator, splicing little sayings, teachings, and anecdotes into the Gospel story. (If you are familiar with the Gospel of Thomas, you can understand the type of written and/or oral sources which Matthew was possibly using.) This particular episode is one of the clearest examples of this type of aggregation in the Gospels.

The verses in Matthew which do not match with Mark or Luke contain a venerated blessing of Simon by Jesus. There are precious few spots in the Gospels where Simon actually looks good, so the author of Matthew had limited options to insert these words of blessing, making this event (after Simon's acknowledgment of Jesus as Christ) a prime location to insert this blessing, unless he was willing to completely fabricate a new episode to do so. So Matthew presents Jesus' response in Matthew 16:17-19 as this:
Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven." NIV
The impact of these three verses is huge in Christianity. This gives us the colloquial image of Saint Peter standing in front of the pearly gates of Heaven. More significantly, these verses have been used to establish of Peter as the head of the church, serving as the first Bishop and kicking off the supreme line of Apostolic succession which became the papacy of the Catholic Church, and endowed with the power to send people to Heaven or Hell.

Too bad Matthew made several big mistakes by including these verses.

Consider Jesus' claim that only God, the Father, had revealed Jesus' identity to Simon. In John 1:35-41, we find where Jesus was starting to recruit the Twelve Apostles. Andrew, Simon's brother, had been a disciple of John the Baptist. John the Baptist called Jesus the "Lamb of God," which prompted Andrew to ditch John the Baptist and follow Jesus instead. Upon spending a little time with Jesus, Andrew rushed back to his brother Simon and told him "We have found the Messiah."

Then there are also all of those episodes where demons have yelled Jesus' identity out loud; Matthew 8:29, Mark 1:24, Mark 5:7, Luke 4:34, Luke 4:41, and Luke 8:28.

Even more recently relative to this particular anecdote, when Jesus had walked on water, all of the disciples in the boat at that time (including Simon) worshiped Jesus, calling Him the "Son of God" (that part is unique to Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 14:33)! In fact, that earlier proclamation makes Jesus' question of who they thought He was unnecessary, and Jesus' reward to Simon for providing the correct answer unfounded.

So we can clearly see the issues which the author of Matthew created when he spliced these verses into the storyline. This content does not belong here. Given that it is unique to the Gospel of Matthew and the contradictions it creates, it probably does not belong in the Jesus story at all. Try telling that to the Pope.

A Rose by Any Other Name... (Extra Credit)
The renaming of Simon to Peter itself is not without issue either. "Peter" is "Petros" in the Greek language. It is unprecedented in the Bible for God (this time in the form of Jesus) to give someone another name which is not in Hebrew. Not only is "Peter" not Hebrew, but it is not Aramaic, which was the common language of that region of Israel at that time.

Now in Greek, Petros, when not used as a person-name, is thought possibly to have meant a rock, as in a small rock you could throw. As Jesus continued on with that sentence where Simon is called Petros, He said "and on this rock I will build My church," where "rock" is the Greek word "petra," which means a solid mass of rock. So in effect, it appears as though Jesus made an intentional pun: Simon, you are Petros, and on this petra... It is somewhat like saying "My friend Clifford jumped over a cliff."

Interestingly enough, in John 1:42, John records a different timing for the renaming of Simon. In fact, there, right when Jesus first meets Simon, He renames him... "Cephas." Cephas is Aramaic for rock. Aramaic lacks a common, similar sounding person-name like the Petros/petra relationship. (In transliterated Hebrew, rock may have been either "eben" or "tsur," which also lack similar person-names.)

So in which language did Simon receive his new name, and when? The answer is not clear here, or anywhere else in the New Testament.

It appears that some point after Jesus left the picture, Simon started really using his new name. Simon, as a reference to this particular Simon, appears only seven more times in Acts and the Epistles. Compare that to the 76 times the name Peter shows up beyond the Gospels. All except four of those instances are in Acts. Of those four exceptions, two are used in the introductions to the Epistles which were supposedly authored by Peter. So in other words, Peter was calling himself the Greek version of rock. The other two times are found in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians.

Even more strange is the use of Aramaic Cephas. Cephas appears only once in the Gospels; where John has Jesus name Simon Cephas. However, there are eight more times beyond the Gospels when Cephas is used, confined to two Epistles from Paul; 1 Corinthians and Galatians. In 1 Corinthians, Cephas seems to be interchangeable with Peter, as may be best demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 15:5 (cross-reference to Luke 24:33-34). In Galatians, however, Peter and Cephas appear to be different people, as you can see in Galatians 2:7-14, where both the names Peter and Cephas are used.