Friday, April 27, 2012

Understanding Grief

When Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain where Jesus was Transfigured, they encountered a crowd, which included a demon-possessed boy. The other nine Disciples had tried to perform an exorcism on the boy while Jesus was still up on the mountain, but they had failed. Jesus expelled the demon, and then explained to the Disciples that that particular type of demon required prayer and fasting in order to exorcise it.

Understanding Grief
Despite the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke sharing many stories, including verses copied nearly word-for-word at times, there are often many differences in those common sections. Usually, the changes amount to nothing more than a rewording or light editing, but other times the differences fundamentally alter the conveyed meaning.

Mark is theorized to be the original source for these stories, or at least the source from where Matthew and Luke got this shared material, and we will see some evidence for that theory as we study the times when Jesus had announced His impending betrayal, death, and resurrection to the Disciples. If Mark is the "first draft," then perhaps there would be some inconsistencies. Rest assured, we will see that kind of evidence as well.

For reasons which will become obvious, we are going to start with the second time that Jesus relayed His upcoming fate. Then, Jesus had made this announcement after performing an exorcism (Matthew 17:22-23, Mark 9:30-32, Luke 9:43-45). Matthew and Mark both state that this announcement was made sometime later, after they had traveled to a spot in Galilee (for privacy, as Mark suggests), but Luke seems to imply that the announcement was made among the crowd which had been dazzled by the exorcism. We will see possibly why Luke made the change in a moment.

The important part to focus on is the Disciples' reaction to the news that Jesus would be betrayed, killed and resurrected. Below are those reactions from the different Gospels side-by-side, quoting the NIV:
    Mark 9:32Matthew 17:23Luke 9:45
    But they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it.... And the disciples were filled with grief.But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask Him about it.
With Mark, we see the Disciples' confusion, perhaps due to their disbelief that the Messiah would be betrayed and killed. After all, the death of the Messiah was not a familiar concept to the scholars of that time. However, Mark has now gotten himself into trouble here, because he paints an inconsistent image of the Disciples' understanding of Jesus' fate.

The first time Jesus spoke directly of His fate was back in Mark 8:31-32, where, as Mark puts it, Jesus "spoke plainly" about His fate. The Disciples understood this well enough for Peter to spring into action to rebuke Jesus' notion of His fate (Mark 8:32-33). Yet afterwords, Mark has Peter, James, and John confused about Jesus' resurrection as they came down the mountain from the Transfiguration (Mark 9:9-10). In the Mark 9:30-32 account above, we cannot be sure of what exactly the Disciples did not understand. Perhaps it was only the resurrection part. Later, in Mark 10:32-34 when Jesus later mentions His fate again, there is no explicit mention of understanding one way or another, but one could draw an implicit nod to comprehension by the discussion which followed in Mark 10:35-45 where James and John ask to sit next to Jesus in His future, glorified status.

So Mark is muddy. The Disciples seem to both understand and not understand. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, definitively choose sides.

As noted above, Matthew has the Disciples filled with grief at Jesus' announcement, implicitly in recognition of His prophesied betrayal and death, which would be sorrowful regardless of a subsequent resurrection. Matthew chooses the side of understanding. Nowhere does Matthew portray the Disciples being unable to understand Jesus' fate when He explained it. Like Mark, in Matthew 16:21-23 when Jesus first announces His fate, Peter understands and objects. Again, like Mark, the third time which the prophesy is given, in Matthew 20:17-19, the passage is followed with a request for James and John to sit next to Jesus in the coming Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28). In fact, in Matthew's Gospel, it appears that the Disciples understood Jesus' upcoming death and resurrection so well that they had a designated post-resurrection meeting place (Matthew 28:16).

As seen above, Luke has the Disciples prevented from understanding. Jesus' meaning is hidden from them, implicitly by God. With God hiding the meaning, Luke did not bother having Jesus talk about this in a private location, but rather had Him speak it while they were among the crowd. At the first giving of the prophesy in Luke 9:22, there is no explicit mention of understanding or not understanding, but Luke does edit out the reference to Peter's objection of Jesus' fate, presumably so that no inference of understanding can be made. In Luke 18:31-34, at the third revelation of Jesus' fate, Luke again claims that the meaning of Jesus' prophesy was hidden from the Disciples. Also, just like with Peter's objection, the subsequent request for James and John to sit next to Jesus in the glorified Kingdom, which is covered by Mark and Matthew, is edited out of the story by Luke, presumably because of its implications regarding the Disciples understanding Jesus' prophesy. In Luke 24:13-35, the truth was still hidden from the Disciples until the resurrected Jesus broke bread with them.

So we see that Mark's Disciples were confused, Matthew's were solemnly understanding, and Luke's had the truth hidden from their eyes by God. This is a serious credibility issue for all three Gospels because Mark lacks clarity, and Matthew and Luke have each crafted the story into the form in which they want to tell it, regardless of the truth.

Friday, April 20, 2012

By Prayer and Fasting

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain, where He then experienced the Transfiguration. There, Moses and Elijah showed up, speaking with Jesus in His transfigured state. Moses and Elijah departed, and then Jesus and the three Disciples walked back down the mountain, with Jesus explaining along the way that just as the Teachers of the Law had said, Elijah would come before the Messiah, and he already had come. John the Baptist was Elijah.

By Prayer and Fasting
Fasting is one of those oddities common in many faiths. In the Bible, fasting is mentioned around 65 times. There is no command, law, ordinance, or recommendation to fast in God's Law, the Torah. However, the Torah does record the first person in the Bible to have fasted.

According to Deuteronomy 9:7-29, Moses fasted two, or possibly three, times. The first time, he (and possibly Joshua) fasted for forty days when while preparing the first set of God's stone tablet commandments (Exodus 24:12-18). The second time, after having destroyed the stone tablets when he found the Israelites worshiping a Golden Cow, Moses (alone this time) fasted for another forty days to get the second set of tablets from God (which had the Biblical, not the popular, version of the Ten Commandments, Exodus 34:1-28). The third time is implicit, when, for yet another forty days (according only to the Deuteronomy account), Moses laid facedown praying to God to prevent Him from slaughtering all of the Israelites because they had been frightened by the native inhabitants of the Promised Land (Numbers 14).

Despite the lack of a legal compulsion, the example set by Moses was enough to inspire the Priests to incorporate fasting into their standardized religious tool bag, even to the point of making it ritualistic, such as including fasts for the Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av holidays, among others times. Without God's backing in the Torah, these fasts could have been considered nothing more than traditions taught by men, the kind of thing Jesus was allegedly opposed to. Yet the tradition was meaningful enough to garner God's explicit backing later in the Old Testament, such as in Joel 2:12.

By the time Jesus showed up, He Himself fasted for (you guessed it) forty days (Matthew 4:2, Luke 4:2), provided instructions for fasting (Matthew 6:16-18), and, when questioned about it, said that His followers would fast when He was gone (Matthew 9:14-15, Mark 2:18-20, Luke 5:33-35). Jesus mentions fasting later in the Gospel story too... maybe... as we will see in this study.

Matthew 17:14-21, Mark 9:14-29, and Luke 9:37-43 all record the story of how, after coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration event, Jesus exorcised a demon from a boy, who had symptoms which are very reminiscent of epileptic seizures.

Before Jesus had arrived with Peter, James, and John, the other nine Disciples had tried to exorcise the demon, but were unsuccessful (Matthew 17:16, Mark 9:18, Luke 9:40). Jesus' response to this failure is nearly identical across Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, and Luke 9:41. In Matthew 17:17 we find:
"O unbelieving and perverse generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to Me." NIV
Feel-good Christians often try to portray Jesus as overflowing with love and compassion, but what we find here is a cranky Jesus who is tired of dealing with people. This is the Jesus for the service industry workers, just doing His job until He can punch out on the eternal time clock and get back to really living.

You might think that, having this shared verse, the three accounts would be nearly identical, but they are not. The skeleton of the story is the same, but each author has a distinct twist. We will explore some of the finer differences in the later "Textual Analysis" section, but there are some big oddities to cover first.

Let us start with Mark 9:15, which tells us that when Jesus came down from the mountain to the crowd:
As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet Him. NIV
Now, why would the people be "overwhelmed with wonder," or, as other translations say, "greatly amazed" when they saw Jesus? Nowhere in the Gospels is anyone amazed by Jesus simply showing up, but rather they were amazed by what He did and what He said. The implication here is that there was something special, something wondrously strange, about the way Jesus looked.

It appears that Mark is relaying that the actual Transfiguration of Jesus endured beyond His time on the mountaintop. If you remember from Mark 9:2-3, the only specific transfiguration mentioned was that Jesus' "clothes became dazzling white." It was Matthew and Luke who made Jesus literally shine. So it appears that the crowd was just impressed with how white Jesus got His whites. Interestingly, Matthew and Luke do not mention the crowd being amazed when they saw Jesus.

(By the way, none of the Transfiguration accounts mention when [if ever] Jesus, or His clothing, changed back to normal.)

The next point to mention happens after Jesus expels the demon from the boy. According to Matthew 17:19 and Mark 9:28, the Disciples asked Jesus why they had had such trouble exorcizing this demon themselves. That certainly seems like a good question and good information to record, so that they (and future followers) could be better prepared for future demonic encounters. However, Luke, the Editor, crops that question and its answer out of his account. That seems more than a little odd, unless Luke did not like Jesus' answer, which brings us to our final point before the deeper textual analysis.

Depending on which manuscripts you read, or which version of the Bible you have, Mark 9:29 has Jesus reply that this kind of demon can only be expelled either "by prayer" or "by prayer and fasting." In my opinion, the omission of "and fasting" was probably a scribal error, which then had some subsequent propagation. One of the oldest extant Mark manuscripts, P45, includes "and fasting."

Jesus' reply in Matthew 17:20 to the Disciples is that they failed because of their weak faith (despite them having performed exorcisms before according to Mark 6:13). Depending on which resource you have, Matthew's version of Jesus' reply continues on with Matthew 17:21, which goes on to agree with Mark 9:29 that this particular kind of demon requires "prayer and fasting" to expel. In my opinion, Matthew 17:21 is more likely to be a legitimate verse mistakenly or purposefully omitted by scribes in some manuscripts than for it to be the later addition of a scribe. (There is more discussion on this topic below.)

So, let us "take it on faith" that prayer and fasting were required for the exorcism of these kinds of demons. The big question is why? Perhaps this type of demon was extra powerful. So what? Were the Disciples exorcising demons from their own power, or was it through God's power instead? While it was the Disciples who were making the requests for the exorcisms, clearly this power comes from God. Even the need for prayer and fasting speaks of this arrangement, as these are solicitations of God's power.

If that is the case, given that the Disciple were free to use God's power to exorcise demons, why would they then need a hunger strike and a little divine conversation for God to use His power to do the exact same thing in special cases? It really makes no sense. I mean, God would want them to perform these exorcisms, right? Would there really ever be a case where God would want to leave a demon in someone, especially if it was a strong demon? No, not if God is good. So adding this prerequisite is contrary to logic.

Besides that, Jesus had no problem exorcising the demon, and yet there is no indication that He had prayed or fasted in order to do so. Obviously, there is no need for prayer and fasting to exorcise strong demons. Perhaps this inconsistency is why Luke opted to edit out this little snippet of dialog, preferring instead to leave the Disciple's inability to exorcise the demon as a mystery.

Extra Credit - Textual Analysis
In the previous study, I suggested that the Synoptic Gospel authors shared some resources, but these resources were earlier revisions than the ones we have in the Bible today. This section of text contains evidence supporting that theory.

Below you will see a color coded textual analysis. Mark is in the left column, followed by Matthew, and then Luke. Bold black text is unique material to that particular account. Orange text is shared across all three accounts. Blue is shared by Matthew and Mark. Red is shared by Luke and Mark. Brown is shared only by Matthew and Luke.

Two things are immediately obvious: Mark's account is much longer, and, correspondingly, Mark's account has much more unique material. That is not too unusual for Mark. We have seen cases where Matthew and Luke whittle down Mark's account before, such as in the beheading of John the Baptist.

Another interesting observation is the amount of red and blue. We see that Matthew has borrowed from Mark, and we see that Luke has borrowed from Mark, not Matthew, and they each focused on different parts of Mark's story.

So what is unique to Mark? Primarily two things, aside from the implicit reference to the Transfiguration noted above.

One is that Mark begins the scene with an argument involving the Teachers of the Law (Mark 9:14-16). It is not too surprising that Matthew and Luke would have excluded this detail. It adds nothing significant to the story, other than to point out one more time that their little group often had confrontations the Teachers of the Law.

The other is that Jesus had an extended dialog with the boy's father (Mark 9:21-27). The strange part there is that the father asks Jesus to help "if you can." In Mark 9:23, Jesus mocked him by repeating those words to him, and said that anything is possible for those who believe. The mocking may have seemed a little too harsh for Matthew and Luke, justifying their omission of it. However, it seems that Matthew may have reformatted the topic, as we will see in a moment. Another notable part of this dialog is the father's paradoxical reply in Mark 9:24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" It is no surprise that Matthew and Luke dropped that peculiar statement.

One final, minor uniqueness to point out in Mark is that Jesus identified that this was a "deaf and mute spirit," as in a spirit which causes deafness and the inability to speak, but there is nowhere else in any of the accounts that it mentions that the boy is deaf. In fact, Mark is the only Gospel to ever mention Jesus healing a person who was both deaf and mute, and he does so twice; both here and in Mark 7:31-37.

On to Matthew. There are two primary unique points to Matthew as well.

The first is that Matthew 17:14-15 presents the boy's father with more humility and recognition of Jesus' identity: he kneels before Jesus and calls Him "Lord."

The second is Matthew 17:20, as noted above, which states that the/a reason that the Disciples could not expel the demon was because of their lack of faith, and that if they had just a little faith, they could move mountains. This message is similar in essence to what Jesus tells the father in Mark's version, plus it ties in with Jesus' earlier complaint about this "unbelieving" generation. It is easy to see the origin of Matthew's words, too, as we see a similar mountain-moving statement in Mark 11:23 (and its parallel in Matthew 21:21). That is to say, faith-moving-mountains was already part of the Jesus' story, providing a source for Matthew to copy-and paste-this blurb here.

Luke has nothing significant in its unique material. Rather, his omission of the Disciples asking why they had failed is the most notable aspect of his account.

Closing out this analysis, at the beginning of this section I stated that there was evidence supporting a the sharing of earlier revisions of source material, and it is time to deliver that evidence. Jumping back to the verse where Jesus whined about having to put up with people, the Mark 9:19 we have today has Jesus calling those people an "unbelieving generation." However, both Matthew 17:17 and Luke 9:41 record that Jesus called them an "unbelieving and perverse generation." This is the only spot where Matthew and Luke share information which is not in Mark in this anecdote. Also, as noted earlier, it appears that both Matthew and Luke drew from Mark as a resource here, but not from each other. The reasonable conclusion is that they were drawing from some version of Mark which also had that "perversion." However, either through scribal error, or through intentional editing (given that this scene does not portray anything perverse about these people, who had come to Jesus looking for divine help), the version of Mark we have today omits this reprimand.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who Was John Again?

After Jesus informed us that the Kingdom of God was coming soon (sometime before everyone to whom He was speaking had died), and after Jesus briefly turned into the one-man light show, known as the Transfiguration, a couple of the Gospels take a moment to remind us just who John the Baptist was.

Who Was John Again?
There are those who theorize that the Synoptic Gospels were created in a succession, usually starting with Mark, followed by Matthew, followed by Luke, and that each one drew on its predecessor(s) for resource material. I do not think that it is quite that simple, because I suspect that the versions which were shared were earlier revisions, a little different than how we find today. Yet to my (imperfect) knowledge, other than versions of Mark which end without anyone seeing Jesus resurrected (Mark 16:9-20), there are no extant early copies to prove my theory.

In the following study, we will find what appears to be evidence of progressive assembly. As I have pointed out in prior studies, here we again will see indirect evidence of Matthew's aggregation, and direct evidence of Luke's editing skills. So let us begin with the alleged primary source, Mark.

Right after the Transfiguration, Mark 9:11-13 records this:
And [Peter, James, and John] asked [Jesus], "Why do the Teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?"
Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him." NIV
So in Mark's version, the Disciples are ignorant of the prophesy about Elijah. Jesus replying that Elijah had come, and that "they" did what they wished to him is a tacit reference to John the Baptist, who was recently beheaded in the storyline, but readers of Mark and the Disciples have to connect those dots themselves.

In the middle, there is that awkward rhetorical question posed by Jesus, about the "Son of Man" suffering and being rejected. This is just to say; yes, Elijah came, just as it was written, and I (Jesus) will be rejected, just as it is also written; the prophesies cannot be broken.

Now, let us move on to the parallel passage of Matthew 17:10-13, where we find:
The Disciples asked Him, "Why then do the Teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?"
Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He was talking to them about John the Baptist. NIV
There are many interesting differences in Matthew's account, but the major two are a refinement in Jesus' reply (getting rid of the awkward rhetorical question and emphasizing the similar treatment Jesus would experience) and the explicit mention that John the Baptist was Elijah. It was then that these Disciples realized John the Baptist was Elijah.

Now, quickly on to Luke, and quick it will be, because Luke edited out this snippet of dialog from his Gospel. Why would he do that?

To answer that question, we have to step back in Gospel-time. This is the closest, and the only time, that Mark ever approaches referring to John the Baptist as Elijah. However, both Matthew and Luke have explicit references to John the Baptist being Elijah earlier in the storyline which are not found in Mark. Their shared material, excluded from Mark, begins with John the Baptist questioning if Jesus was the Messiah, which then prompts Jesus to explain how John the Baptist was the preparatory agent prophesied by Malachi, the one who Malachi would later call (and to whom Jesus would refer as) Elijah.

Here is where it gets interesting. In Matthew's version, that earlier extra material, where Jesus ultimately declares that John the Baptist is Elijah, happened while the Disciples were away on their First Mission, so it kind of makes some sense that they would not have understood about the prophesy of Elijah coming first or John the Baptist's alleged real identity until the moment of this post-Transfiguration discussion.

However, in Luke's version, John the Baptist questioned Jesus' Messiah status before the Disciples had gone on their First Mission, meaning that they were all present when Jesus explained that John the Baptist was Elijah. So Luke had to edit out this conversation which took place after the Transfiguration in order to remain internally consistent in his Gospel, because it would have been illogical for the Disciples to ask such a question if they had already heard Jesus explain John the Baptist's position in prophesy, but that potential error which he edited out is now made manifest when looking at the other Gospels.

We find that Matthew was willing to make refinements in the language for clarity. However, Luke went much further in his changes, preserving the chronologically earlier, more detailed reference to John the Baptist being Elijah while dropping out this post-Transfiguration discussion because it conflicted with his own version of the legend's timeline.

I have heard some believers claim that, when compared against Matthew and Mark, Luke really got the timeline correct. Well, if so, he did it at the abuse and expense of the veracity of those prior accounts.

Friday, April 6, 2012

White Like Jesus

We are continuing on in the Gospels, where just prior to the following study's topic, Jesus explained that you need to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him if you want to be rewarded in God's Kingdom, which was to be established in less time than a human lifespan.

White Like Jesus
The Transfiguration of Jesus is a rather odd event in the Gospels when you compare it against the rest of the content. There was no teaching, no exorcism, no healing, and Jesus is working no miracle. It appears completely superfluous, as though it could be removed without harming the Gospel story one bit. Let us take a closer look at it.

Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-10, and Luke 9:28-36 all describe an event when Jesus led Simon/Peter, John, and James up on a high mountain, where Jesus' was transfigured.

What exactly was Jesus' actual Transfiguration? That depends on which Gospel you consult. Mark 9:3 simply tells us that Jesus clothes became whiter than any bleach could make them. Matthew 17:2 claims that Jesus' face was bright like the sun, and His clothes were like light. Luke 9:29 says that Jesus' face "changed" and his clothes were as bright as lightning. So in these infallible accounts, we go from Jesus just wearing clothes which made sodium hypochlorate (a.k.a. bleach) jealous, to turning Jesus, and His clothing, into a one man light show of such intensity that it would be hard to look at without being blinded.

Next, each account tells us that Elijah and Moses appeared, and spoke with Jesus, and that Peter wanted to set up three tents there; one for each of them, because (according to Mark and Luke) he did not know what he was saying (Matthew 17:3-4, Mark 9:4-6, Luke 9:30-33).

It is amazing that the Disciples recognized the two men as Elijah and Moses. It is not like they would have been wearing name badges or bearing photo identification. There is not a detailed physical description of these long-dead men in the Bible. Plus, there was (possibly) all of that blinding light emanating from Jesus, making it as difficult to see anyone else as it is to see constellations at noon. So how could they be so sure who they were? It could have been possible that they had overheard Jesus speaking these men's names, which brings us to the next quirk:

Why is it that neither Matthew (Jesus' Disciple) nor Mark (allegedly the eyewitness Peter's companion) tell us what was discussed between these men and Jesus, but Luke, allegedly the physician of Paul (who was not one of Jesus' Disciples) manages to figure out that they had been talking about Jesus' upcoming "departure" in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31)? Not only that, but Luke adds the information that the Disciples had been asleep when the two men showed up, thereby missing the traditional meet-and-greet stage of a conversation when names are most often spoken (Luke 9:32).

Continuing on, as Peter had finished suggesting the tents, a glowing (according to Matthew) cloud enveloped all of them, followed by the voice of God claiming that Jesus was His beloved Son, and they should listen to Him. When the cloud disappeared, the two mystery men were gone as well (Matthew 17:5-8, Mark 9:7-8, Luke 9:34-36).

According to Luke 9:36, the Disciples voluntarily kept this transfiguration event secret. However, According to Matthew 17:9 and Mark 9:9, Jesus told them not to tell anyone about the Transfiguration until after He was raised from the dead, thereby continuing Jesus' effort to try to hide His alleged identity.

In another oddity, after Jesus tells them not to say anything, in Mark 9:10 we find:
[The Disciples] kept the matter to themselves, discussing what "rising from the dead" meant. NIV
How could they not know what "rising from the dead" meant? From 1 Kings 17:17-24, from verses describing one of the men they thought that they had just seen, Elijah raised a boy from the dead. Also, according to Mark 5:21-43, these exact same three Disciples observed Jesus bring a dead girl back to life. Furthermore, according to Mark 8:31, Jesus had earlier explained to them that "He must be killed and after three days rise again."

I suspect that Mark's gaff here is an artifact from the progressive construction of the Jesus' story. This Transfiguration anecdote was probably included in the story first, with Jesus raising the dead girl and Jesus speaking of His impending resurrection being later additions. Wisely, both Matthew and Luke edit out from their accounts the remark about the Disciples arguing over Jesus' resurrection.

Another oddity worth mentioning is that John, the one Disciple who allegedly wrote his own Gospel and who was an eyewitness to the Transfiguration, does not mention this at all. It seems that seeing Elijah and Moses, a neon Jesus, and a talking God-cloud did not leave a memorable enough impression on him to record it.

The final thing to note is the possible origin which spawned this Transfiguration story. For that, we turn back in the Bible to Exodus 34:29-35. There we see that any time Moses spoke to God, His face would glow so much that it scared his fellow Israelites, and he would have to wear a veil to keep them from being frightened. So Jesus' Transfiguration story served as more (I would say fabricated) evidence which proved that Jesus had a divine connection.