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Classical Journal on Ancient Literacies

Taking a break from the break to post this for those interested. CJ Online posted a review of this new book, today, which looks like a must read:

JOHNSON AND PARKER, eds. Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome+Review by Scott Farrington: CJ Online 2009.09.08

An excerpt from the review:
Spurred by a belief that work in the field of ancient literacy has stagnated, William A. Johnson writes in the introduction that the “deterministic accounts” of ancient literacy presented by Goody, Havelock and Ong have been generally discredited, while Harris’ Ancient Literacy is narrowly focused on defining what percentage of people in antiquity could read and write. He thus offers this collection “to formulate more interesting, productive ways of talking about … text-oriented events embedded in particular sociocultural contexts” (p. 3). The essays analyze examples of literacy within social and cultural contexts.
Sounds energizing. Next, of course, I'll wait eagerly to hear if anyone's doing a similar project focused on first century Palestine...

After These Messages...

In the last 90 days, I've published or drafted around 150 posts, so it's time for a short break. I'll be back on October 1st to begin a 7 day, 7 part series on spirit that I dare hope may be eye opening for many and life changing for some. But until posting resumes, here are some highlights from September that you might have missed:

* Dealing with Nazareth #7.5, #8, #9 - a turning point in my ongoing investigation

* Reflections of Nazareth #1, #2 - first attempts to mirror-read the Gospels for Jesus' early life

* The Promise of Nazareth #1 & #2 - a rough sketch of my whole thought on the subject

* The Joys of Jesus (here) - exploring the Beatitudes as a reflection of Christ's life

* Beggars before the Spirit #1, #2, #3 - possibly a better translation than "poor in spirit"?

* Dating Paul's Conversion (here) - reams of historical reasons Paul must have met the Lord before 37 AD, not after

* Appointing Elders: Barnabas vs. Paul (here) - not all NT elders were cooked at microwave speed, like the ones in Galatia

Also, if you didn't catch my BIG series in August, here's your chance:

The Nazareth Synagogue
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14

See y'all back here with my next post on October 1st.

The New Revolution

The Age of Faith did not give way to the Age of Reason quite everywhere. In the institutional church, it merely compromised. Like the ancient Roman Ignorance, Protestant Reasoning was born serving political ends. The new mysteries were presented as intellectual concepts instead of spiritual magic. And while the new reasoners went on to do battle with their Englightenment peers, the world just kept on turning for us regular peons.

By the 20th century, despite lingering power struggles, the medieval exaltation of ignorance and mystery had revived stronger than ever, buoyed by the academic genuflection toward skeptical claims and the insistance of strong boundaries between "history" and "theology". Today, I question whether the two-tiered compromise will hold up for a population that grows closer and closer to one-tier, class wise. But I'm certain the system will do its best, once again, to compromise with the cultural change.

Personally, I don't think the early christians saw the Gospels like today's scholars think they did. Jesus & Paul talked about Adam & Eve as if they were real people. Early believers must have read the Gospels as if Jesus Christ really did and said those things, also. So no matter how sophisticated their composing processess might have happened to be, I am willing to trust the Gospel Writers. Whatever they said about Jesus is historical enough for me. And the spiritual claims are supernatural activity, not theological "truth".

Frankly, lay persons normal christians deserve better than what they're generally being given. Let the world have their skepticism. Let the authorities keep their institutions. Let the strongest pulpiteers craft whatever dogmas they can keep selling. But I think people are looking for a bold, historical-spiritual view of the Lord and his life in the Gospels. Leaders with political ambitions can continue to compromise, but I suspect most believers do not wish to compromise. In my experience, believers primarily incline to believe.

Whether straightforward or compromised, the renewed Temple Curtain of Ignorance and Mystery is probably here to stay. On the other hand, certainty and feigned certainty seem to be going the way of the do-do, the eight track, and feudalism. Ironically, my suggestion is that we might actually strengthen the faith by embracing a genuine skepticism. Are the Gospels hstorically reliable? Who can really say? IF the Gospels are historically reliable, what is their actual story? Ah ha. Now, make your own choice.

Historiography on the Gospels

I know that you know that I barely know what I'm doing. But I keep on doing it, hoping someone will correct me, if I do anything amiss. This post is another chance for some gracious sage to let me know what I'm missing - if they read start to finish.

Overall, in my research and writing/blogging, I am trying to work out a faith-based historiography of the Gospels that accepts the sources at face value but analyzes them critically for reconstructive purposes without making theo-logical assumptions. Someday I hope many people might look back and see that it was not the sources or their nature that made this such a difficult, lonely process. It is, rather, the mindset and the expectations that we have all been saddled with. Perhaps.

At any rate, I think we have MORE to gain from faith-based historical analysis of the scriptures than from 'inspirational' eisegesis. I sincerely believe there are divine, spiritual goals that can be reached by applying historical methods to the rich, dynamic material contained within scripture.

In the early to mid 20th century, Ronald Syme took hundreds of seemingly disconnected threads of classical history and reconstructed a rich tapestry of socio-political urban life in Rome in the days of Augustus. I'm not an expert on those studies by any means, but it is clear that Syme's work enhanced, deepened and hilighted aspects of the Augustan context that were already known, and brought out a few patterns that may have been overlooked. I would like to see us do more of that from a faith-based perspective, with the Gospels.

So what do I think is "hiding" in the Gospels, that can be reconstructed historically? The Father. The "hidden years". The Spiritual Life.

Yes, in many ways these elements have already been filled out, theologically, from various traditions. It's just that all those traditions diverge so frequently. And they are so heavily, preferentially interpretative (and often purely imaginative) that even their proponents won't allow them to be called "historical". That's fine by itself, but I think it has contribued to the overall gnosticism about Christ in the Gospels - and that of course is a travesty which insults the Gospels as Testimony and may even insult the testimony of God, for all I can say.

If we believe in the Gospels, then let's assume their veracity but be non-skeptically, non-theologically critical about how we analyze their historical content.

Every time I try to describe this, I ask again. Where is this being done? Tell me, and I'll go.

Event Sequencing: John's Beheading

John tells us Jesus fed 5,000 just before Passover. Matthew tells us Jesus had just heard about John's beheading earlier in that day. Mark tells us that Herod Antipas made a reference to Purim when his stepdaughter tricked him. This really can't be a coincidence, because Purim always falls about a month before Passover. Therefore, if all three writers are to be trusted on these points, the reconstructed event sequence should absolutely be taken as historical.

[Dating these events is another matter, but in 31 AD, while Sejanus was still alive, the Feast of Purim was Saturday night, February 24th, and the Passover night was Tuesday, March 26th.]

With this added perspective, we should approximate that Antipas' birthday celebration was held around or shortly after Purim. Most likely, Antipas invited the same guests from the earlier Feast of Purim, guests who would undoubtedly have expected a recitation of the Esther story by a professional or court speaker, in keeping with the Tetrarch's high status. In any such context, Antipas' birthday promise, "Whatever you ask... up to half my kingdom" can be recognized as an artful nod to the recent event's entertainment, with a clever wink to his guests.

Far more importantly, this all goes to show that the sequence of events in all four Gospels, at least at this stage of their narratives, was very much non-arbitrary. Three different Gospels offer three separate details that allign perfectly into one historical sequence. Luke's Gospel confirms the sequence and adds that the 5,000 were fed at Bethsaida. Point: all four writers had a stronger historical sense for relating events than they are sometimes given credit for.

John's beheading is clearly the most significant event during Jesus' ministry, so it makes sense that each writers' event sequence would sharpen in focus around that point in each narrative. The same holds true for the Lord's Passion week. So while there are many other challenges for Event Sequencing the content of the Gospels, this particular chain of events is encouraging because it shows the need for (and the validity of) using all four Gospels in reconstruction.

Sequence is the first step in chronology, providing perspective to history.

Event sequencing in the Gospels is vital to any historical view of Jesus' ministry years.

How Many Shipwrecks?

Among other problems, I shouldn't have told people to guess on the poll ("pop quiz"). The answers are all over the place, so let's end it right now, before anyone gets more embarrassed, like me. ;-)

How many times was Paul shipwrecked, that we know of, according to the New Testament?

Paul says, "three times I was shipwrecked..." (2.Cor 11:25) But three years later, on the ship to Rome, they "hit a shoal and ran aground." (Acts 27:41)

The point of the question is that if you remember the bit from Corinthians, you might answer "three". Or if you're thinking only of Acts, you would probably say "one". But the answer is four. It's a simple example that illustrates the need for putting it all together and also illustrates (depending on whom one asks) how very often this has not been done.

Why do we not know such simple facts of the New Testament Story?

Think Different

Be willing to be wrong. Ask stupid questions. Try stuff that isn’t supposed to be tried. Question things that aren’t normally questioned. Fall on your face. Lose face. Stand up again. Try again. Run all the way through thought experiments. Don’t disallow anything, at first. Always swing for the fence. Once in a while, you might hit it out of the park, or at least get to first base. You might even bat someone else in to home plate.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” --Uncle Albert

Schooling Time

Okay, Thanks to Mark (mvgh) Hoffman - and thank you, Lord! - I've been taken to school. It's funny what can get stuck in your head wrong without being corrected... until you finally start trying to use it (in real life!) and have to undo the wrong learning to replace it with good learning.

I'll keep wondering if there's some poetic or spiritual sense in which the Kingdom is also drawing [us] near, in Matthew 4:17. (Deleted post of yesterday, perhaps still in your feed.) Or maybe it is also implicitly drawing [Him] near. But wonderings aside, I definitely understand now why the most straightforward rendering is simply that the Kingdom draws [itself] near, or, "approaches". I like "approaches" much better than "is at hand" anyway! And for all this, and for David Ker who posted about it in the first place, I'm extremely grateful.

On a related note, Peter Kirk has me just about convinced that "pitiful" isn't worth as much consideration in Matthew 5:7 as I suspected it might be. Again, still I wonder. But, oh so so. So much learning. And I hate to say, I am beginning to HATE not knowing much more about Greek than I do. But there's only so much time for schooling, isn't there? Alas, alack. What to do?

I was told eight years ago in Greece that a wealthy American once asked an Italian tour guide how long they needed to spend before understanding the history and cultural heritage of Rome. Gently and graciously, the guide answered: Un'ora. Una vita. One hour. One life.

Time to press on, then...

The Promise of Nazareth - 2

[Part 2 of 2] Jesus of Nazareth was every bit as human as we are, so he must have had an advantage. John's Gospel shows us (more clearly than the others) that the Father was intimately involved in Jesus' life. He was not a puppet master. He was not a taskmaster. He was not a power ring. He was a Father. Somewhere between birth and age thirty-four, Jesus learned how to pray, listen for, hear and talk with his Father. Most of us with human fathers will barely be able to relate or imagine what this must have been like, but their relationship was the context for everything.

If he lived by his own teachings, then he must have been living with Encouragement. Therefore, like probably none of us since, Jesus of Nazareth spent three decades practicing God's presence. That ability grew. It developed. Baby Jesus was not quoting the scripture and teenage Jesus was not doing miracles. But from childhood, Jesus took strongly to heart the two "greatest commandments". He genuinely sought to love God with a holistic devotion. His love for the least was love as unto His Father. Thus, the Father was Jesus' advantage. The Life of the Father was in Him. He had emptied himself, but the one thing Life does is, it grows. Over three decades, it filled Him up. Life, abundantly.

On Easter Sunday night, Jesus gave his disciples the same advantage. Life came within. When the church was born at Pentecost, and in Samaria, Peter & John gave them the same advantage. God's Spirit could now move within them. Thirty days after Pentecost may or may not have been as strong an advantage as thirty years in Nazareth, and beginning any serious pursuit from childhood always pays tremendous long term dividends. But He gave Us this same Advantage. Thanks to the Cross, we should understand that God's expectations have far less to do with our lives now, than God's Hope.

The Law came through Moses. Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law and pleased God. Thus, Jesus Christ brought us God's Favor. Christ lived by God's Life, abundantly, and I think He did that partly just to prove it could be done. But if He did not live that Life, then how could we honor Him for asking us to live that Life? Expectation and irony have nothing to do with the Sermon on the Mount. Idealism is closer, but still not quite right. The practical truth is that only the Life of God can live up to the standard of God. But that Life is Jesus Christ, in His Spirit. And that Standard is Jesus Christ, who still delights His Father.

By the way, if you're not quite that full of Him yet (like the rest of us) don't sweat it. Stay rooted in His Life within. Drink in the water. Stretch to the Light. And keep growing. That's what Life does, after all. In Nazareth, Jesus Christ had this Life, this advantage, beginning to develop from a fairly early age. We are older, but we are like Him in that we need time to develop in Life, after becomming believers. We now have the same Spirit in our human spirits that was in his human spirit. Plus, we have his blood. Plus, we are in Him who is eternally pleasing to Him.

The fact that Christ pleased God, in Nazareth, is something we should really celebrate.

Exceptional Shared Items

I don't often do posts of "link love" but I don't automate my Feed window, either. If you ever want to know which blogposts made me say "Hmmmm" most appreciatively, you can always click on the "Shared Items" in my sidebar. Sometimes they're a few days behind, and I feed-read some blogs more frequently than others, but whatever's there has been deliberately shared. Plus, sometimes, it's starred. Ooooo. Star power. ;-)

With that said, I do want to say here that I particularly enjoyed the responses of Michael Whitenton (here) and Doug Chaplin (here and here) to April DeConick's recent posts on historical-critical methodology. Check 'em all out, if you haven't already.

As long as I'm fawning, I may as well add that although there is certainly no biblioblogger I always agree with, Doug's opinions have long been among those I consistently respect the most, especially when he weighs in on the balance between faith and historical work. So thanks, Doug. I'm really glad you're still blogging.

By the way, Michael, Mister Tumnus called. If you can meet us at the lampost tomorrow, we're having tea at 2 with Lucy Pevensie of Spar Oom. Fawns and Pevensies only. ;-)

The Promise of Nazareth - 1

Jesus himself testified, according to John, that his teaching came from the Father and we must conclude those lessons began of providence in the Nazareth Synagogue. Yet Jesus did no teaching in his hometown before his baptism and we have no reason to think he went anywhere else to do any teaching. So what did he do with all that learning for thirty years, besides sit on it?

Did Jesus live by the lessons he was learning in Nazareth? It would be absurdly hypocritical to imagine he did not. Did Jesus teach lessons he'd spent three decades practicing? Again, if the Gospels' high opinion of this man is reliable, we must assume that he did. The lessons Jesus taught, which eventually came from his Father in ways mystical as well as providential, were entirely focused on interpreting the Law of God and applying it to situations of daily life.

The commandments of God expressed to the Hebrew Nation those things that God wants, that he desires, that he in fact commands. Therefore, sucessfully fulfilling those commandments, one would have to assume, should naturally bring God some divine manner of satisfaction. Thus, in a manner of speaking, fulfilling the Law would be the way to please God.

Matthew, Mark & Luke all profess near the beginning of their Gospels that God was indeed pleased with Jesus. Matthew adds, more pointedly, that Jesus fulfilled all righteousness and fulfilled the Law. The entire Law? Or His own interpretation of the Law? It doesn't matter. Matthew's testimony is that Jesus' life in Nazareth was pleasing to God, and Matthew's account of Jesus' teaching is the Lord passing on ways the rest of us may also become pleasing to God.

Are we therefore also required to fulfill the Law? The Law no longer needs to be fulfilled. Are we required to earn our salvation? Of course not. Jesus already did that for us, too. With such mercies, are we expected to live up to Jesus' standard? With such mercies, we trust that God knows our very human limitations. But with such mercies as we have from God, who among us would not desire to please Him?

To be continued...

Pop Quiz on Paul

The poll in the sidebar will stay up top for one week only. No cheating or re-voting, please! :-) Without looking it up, please answer this question: How many times was Paul shipwrecked, that we know of, according to the New Testament?

Meredith says your choices are A) 1, B) 2, C) 3, or D) 4. You may not phone a friend, ask the audience or go 50/50. If you think you know - make that your final answer. If you don't know, take a guess.

No comments for this post. I'll blog about the results in one week, when the poll closes. Hopefully most of you will get this one right...

Historical Positivity & Damascus

Jona Lendering just blogged about the Positivist Fallacy, which occurs when scholars forget that "there are many historical facts for which we have no evidence." Or as I like to put it, we should at least try to reconstruct what happened in-between the recorded events, based on what facts we do have. Jona's explanation might possibly be encapsulated by these helpful lines:
When we have a great number of sources, that does not mean that an event was significant. Nor does a small number of sources mean that nothing happened.
I hope Professor Lendering will forgive and correct me if I miscategorize, but I think this also applies to an occasional assumption rife within Biblical Studies: two similar references do not necessarily refer to the same event. An example I will continue to raise is Paul's escape(s?) from Damascus.

Biblical scholars tend to assume that the escape of Acts 9:25 was the same as the one Paul mentions in 2nd Corinthians 11:32, but Galatians 1:17 tells us that Paul left Damascus to go into Arabia and returned again to Damascus. I submit that the typical view is actually an extreme instance of the Positivist Fallacy, because it abdicates responsibility for analyzing events in favor of a purely textual efficiency (which also happens to be problematic, but that is a separate issue).

Discussions of this supposed "problem" typically fail to reconstruct a timeline of events at all or make much attempt to determine at which departure Paul made his supposedly singular escape through the wall? Was "it" at his first or his second Damascene departure? If the second, why did he leave the first time? And if the first, why did he escape into Arabia when Aretas' ethnarch was out to get him as well?

It seems much more likely the Jews were out to get Paul shortly after his conversion and the Arabian official was after him for something he did in Arabia. Reaching this conclusion, however, involves reconstructing facts indirectly referenced by Galatians. Quoth the Professor, once more:
What scholars did wrong, is that they forgot that there are many historical facts for which we have no evidence. Instead they focused on the facts for which positive evidence exists (hence the name "Positive Fallacy").
Since secondary historiography must involve reconstruction and probability, I begin to wonder if the traditional struggles of faith-based Biblical Historians all result partly from the religious-political need to be certain, or Positive, about what we say from the scriptures.

The Joys of Jesus

Reflections and refractions of Matthew 5:3-10 & 7:28-29

Jesus of Nazareth prayed to God like a beggar prays for daily bread. He prayed to the Spirit of God and he found and received God there, in the Spirit. And Jesus found joy in this lifelong poverty before God's Spirit, because the Kingdom of God had at least one faithful subject, on Earth.

Jesus of Nazareth privately lamented and wailed. He knew that something had been lost. He knew that God was not King, on the Earth. But Jesus found joy in submission to his Father. He was one who was not lost. He was called into the comfort of his Father's Kingdom.

Jesus of Nazareth was gentle and humble of heart. He did not break a bruised reed. He did not snuff out a smouldering wick. He did not rule over men like the lords of the Gentiles. But Jesus found joy because the Father gave all things over to him, so he knew he stood to inherit everything.

Jesus of Nazareth ate food and drank wine, but he hungered and thirsted much more to be right with His Father. In Him was Life and in that Life, Jesus grew. He had emptied himself, but since birth, his Father's Life and Rightness had been growing inside Him. And so Jesus found Joy, because during their three decades together on Earth, the Father was filling the Son.

Jesus of Nazareth was somewhat pitiful. He never became anyone special. He never got to get married. He never got to have kids. He just worked with wood, cared for his family, attended the Synagogue and showed compassion to other people. But Jesus found joy, because the Father took pity on his life and blessed him with spiritual blessings.

Jesus of Nazareth was clean all the way to his heart. His innermost thoughts were not cluttered and corrupted by other desires, because nothing else in all the world ever happened to equal the greatest desire of Jesus' own particular heart. Like no one before him and perhaps no one since, Jesus loved God, his Father, with all his mind and soul and strength. And so Jesus found joy, because wherever his heart looked, it could see God.

Jesus of Nazareth came to bring fire on the earth, so that God could have peace. He came to fulfil the Law, so that man could find favor with God. He came to make peace between God and man, not among all mankind. And so Jesus found joy, because He was not a son of the world, but a faithful, loyal son to his Father, God.

Jesus of Nazareth was hounded because of his Rightness with God. He was pursued. He was chased. He was always in motion. Friends and foes alike came to him everywhere, constantly pestering Him. And everywhere he went, Jesus found joy in proclaiming to all of them that the Kingdom of Heaven was right there, at hand.

The people who listened to Jesus were blessed, because he spoke with authority. He spoke from his own life experience. And the fact that people could tell Jesus knew what he was talking about... was the most amazing thing about his teaching.

Blessed are the Pitiful?

When Brian said he was curious about my sandbox rendering "Blessed are the pitiful, because they will receive pity." I realized, hey, I'm still curious about that one too. Liddell & Scott's Lexicon glosses 'elehmwn' as pitiful, merciful. Related forms are glossed slightly more often with the idea of pity than mercy; the central idea (whatever it actually was) seems to include compassion, feeling pity, and the sense of giving charitable alms. A larger study is not within my reach at the moment, unfortunately, but here are some thoughts.

First, I'd definitely imagine pity was more common in the ancient world than mercy. The connotation of mercy seems to imply power, in that mercy is something we can choose to give or withhold. Kings and judges deal in mercy, but any beggar can pity a fellow beggar. At least, so it goes in practice. But no matter how seldom alms were given, beggars asked for them daily, constantly. A common hope could have as much influence on word usage as a common experience, so these thoughts might be a wash.

The Oxford English Dictionary references both Pitiful and Pitiable going as far back as about 1450, and the double meaning of pitiful goes back exactly that far as well. Technically, pitiable is still in usage today as but I think we can agree the sense of "pitiful" as "merciful" has pretty much faded away. Liddell & Scott worked from lexicons going back to 1797 but the L&S itself has been revised as recently as 1996. Assuming nobody slipped up at Oxford, there's probably a reason L&S continues to list pitiful and merciful as separate glosses.

Since the OED emphasizes the double meaning of pitiful and the L&S offers a complex meaning for 'elehmwn', I think we should probably expect that Matthew intended us to read Jesus' Beatitude with a double meaning as well. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pitiful.

You need mercy. You receive mercy. You learn, God hopes, to show mercy.

There's a natural progression in that sequence that is not always universal, but it is common. Sometimes in life, a person is challenged to show mercy and then they find God. I definitely think Jesus meant to challenge his disciples and the crowd on that mountain to show mercy, but I absolutely know they could already relate to needing mercy, because their lives were indeed somewhat, if not extremely, pitiful.

Yes, Yes, Ye... Siiigh

Finally scanning a year's worth of journal links at the UTA Library today, I found (among many others) this wonderful gem. In reviewing The Nature of New Testament Theology (Blackwell, 2006) one J.L. Houlden says:
In work on New Testament theology the tendency is so deeply embedded to read the New Testament writers in terms of concepts that may (often in the light of later developments) be discerned in them—surely regardless of any attempt to see that, in their New Testament context, they ‘felt’ anything but conceptual in tone in the later doctrinal sense.
and
It is hard not to feel that the strongly rational character of much New Testament theological writing is often working against the grain of the aspirations of the writers whose works are the subject of their studies.
Absolutely. But as it happens, Professor Houlden is drawing what I find a very limiting dichotomy in bewailing the lack of "any attempt to explore what might be boldly described as the poetic and image-laden character of early Christian writing and sensibility." A quick google search shows his book, The Strange Story of the Gospels, is also concerned with:
"the abstractness of much Christian teaching, especially when compared with the suppleness and imaginative power of the Gospels. ... Creeds leap from Jesus' birth to his death in an instant; and the teaching of the Christian faith has often glossed over the life of Jesus to use the Gospels as collections of moral guidance or for spiritual edification."
Again, Houlden is absolutely right and I passionately agree these points need much more attention. But do we really have to jump from rational abstractness to the opposite (soulish) extreme of feelings and imagination? Is "Story" really just a non-abstract means of expressing a message? Or is it possible christian academics might someday start acting like the Story of the Gospels could indeed be worthy of considering as History, also?

We live in hope...

Capernaum & Conversations on Old Posts

Someday I'll do an entire post on why Jesus moved to Capernaum from Nazareth, and why he must have taken Mary and the boys along with him [and Joseph too, a year or so before his death]. Until then, it's pretty much all in the comments below this related post of a month ago, in a conversation which got refreshed a bit, today. (H/T Peter Kirk) So check it out if you're interested, and chime in if you like.

I love when old posts get comments, like this one, also today. So if I ever said anything you had to think about for a while, but forgot to come back and post on, try the search bar and lend me your here, here's. Even better, argue. I love a good argument. Losing one is rare, I admit. ;-) But I love being wrong twice as much as I love being right. Seriously, just imagine what ignorance you might be able to save me from today! :-)

Good feeback is critical. Critical feedback is best. The comment link is standing by...

Everybody Happy?

(1) The SOTM was Jesus' instructions on, essentially, how to make God "happy".
(2) It begins with a list of counterintuitive ways to become happy with God.

Brilliant!

Thought for the Day

Arguing over translations without reconstructing the full context of scripture is like arguing over which note-pluck sounds better without putting the strings on an actual instrument.

The Joys of Being Jesus

This post has been revised and will be deleted soon. Go here for the updated version.

Perspective on James, not New Enough

Charles Savelle posted a link on Bible X to an article-in-progress slash blog-post by William Varner at Dr.IBEX. The first half of that article/post is wonderful, if a bit incomplete. Check it out, and note well a couple of key citations. Now, here are my own opinions:

No question, James became THE leader of the Jerusalem church, and may have considered himself THE leader of the worldwide church, but Paul did not share that opinion. Yes, Paul obeyed James, but Paul did not tell his churches to obey Jerusalem. Quite the opposite, in Galatians.

I am thrilled for what Varner affirms in this "new" perspective on James, but his section on the Epistle was much weaker - perhaps because Varner had not fully set the stage by examining the ongoing conflict after Acts 15 between Jerusalem and the Gentile churches. The confusion in Corinth mirrors the letter of the Council, strongly suggesting Peter, not Paul, was responsible for introducing those points into southern Greece.

If James and Paul remained at peace in Judea but in conflict abroad, it strongly suggests their apparent debates were in fact contemporary - iow, James was written after the Council. This in turn casts a dramatically literal light on James' Epistle's address: "To the twelve tribes dispersed". It was hardly to "the whole church" as Varner would like. This, combined with the strong parallels in language between James and Galatians, means we should work hard to reconstruct an occasion for James' Epistle after the Council of Jerusalem.

Interpretations of [and apologetics for] the theological [or, more likely, semantic] conflicts between the Epistles of James and Paul must follow, not lead, this historical inquiry.

Timeline of Western Thought

Wow. I'm not particularly interested in diving into this at all, but if I was (or whenever I am), THIS would absolutely be the way I'd want to go about it. These are interactive timelines of philosophical and theological movements and their key figures. I'll definitely keep this link here as a general resource, and I guess I'll encourage those already afflicted with such concerns to go in whole hog on the St. John's Nottingham site. Seriously. Knock yourself out. ;-)

(HT to JRDK on FB)

More Beatitude Sandboxing

This is turning into a series: (B1) Happy are the beggars before the Spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (here, here and here) (B2) Happy are those who lament, because they'll be called in and comforted. (here) (B4) Happy are those who hunger and thirst to be just before God, because they'll be well fed. (here)

Look up the next four yourself, but here's what I've got. (The ancient sense of mercy as pity is especially interesting.)

B3-Happy are the gentle, because they stand to inherit the earth.
B5-Happy are the pitiful, because they will receive pity.
B6-Happy are those who are clean all the way to the heart, because they will see God.
B7-Happy are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God.

Now... this last one is surprising... "persecuted" [diwkw]. If you go all the way back, back, back to line 1 in the Lexicon entry, the original meaning is something like cause to run, chase or pursue. It can also mean banish or drive away. I must once again emphasize my linguistic ignorance here, but I must also note that, once again, the beatitude rendering gets its own gloss at the bottom of the Liddel Scott entry (alongside John 5:16).

I just don't understand "persecuted" here. It definitely seems more appropriate in the context of vs.11 & 12, but in Matt.5:10, it comes in as a stand alone thought. My sandbox suggestion is to consider hound - "hounded because of righteousness". That's not in the lexicon, but it seems to split the difference well enough between the root and its ultimate rendering; now, check out Mt.5:44, 10:23 & 23:34 with hound, pursue, and/or banish in mind.

I also wonder about the legal option. L&S say diwkw can be prosecute, impeach, indict or accuse. I don't see that connection clearly yet, but I'm looking for it because the sentence ends with righteousness/justice. In the end, this looks like another deliberate multiple meaning from Jesus, like summon/comfort in v.4. The irony is too rich not to be there.

Happy are those who are prosecuted for being just. They'll get a Kingdom that is someplace else.

I'm also tempted to just be completely interpretative with the possessive case, here.

Happy are those who are hounded for being right with God. OF THEM is the Kingdom of heaven.

[Greek Grammar Alert: On that last one, I probably need to upgrade my understanding of of. ;-) But still.]

One last thought... who do we know that was hounded for his righteousness? Hounded, chased, pursued, accused, indicted, prosecuted? All those things happened for several years, in Judea & Galilee. But it was not only the authorities who pursued him. Along with them, it was also the crowds who pursued him, because of his righteousness. And from them, He brought down the Kingdom of Heaven. And TO them, He WAS the Kingdom of Heaven.

Just some more things to consider, at least...

Just, Righteous, Rightwise

Wordplay is just wordplay, but getting at the reality behind the words is what matters. With that, here's another translation sandcastle to enjoy, at least briefly.

I once heard Tyndale invented the word "righteousness" - a word that sometimes does and other times does not sound like biblish jargon to my ears. The Oxford English Dictionary cites various forms of the word being rendered as "rightwise" or "rightwiseness" (from c.800 to 1500 AD). "Rightwise" sounds even odder than "righteousness", until you think about it. I know how to rightwise a canoe. I know how to rightwise my desk. And I don't always have the resources or opportunity, but I know how to rightwise a troubled soul in the world... or at least, how to make the attempt.

Wow. Actually, I'm suddenly starting to like this "rightwise" thing, a lot. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to be rightwise. (Literally, "for being-rightwise" OR, "for just-ness"; I say "just-ness" because just-ice applies at large to the world and just-ness applies personally, or so I presume.)

That may not be a preferred translation of Matthew 5:6, but it's helping me out tonight, at least. I may have to start checking the OED much more often. :-)

Lament and be Summoned

Again? Really, maybe it's me, but I don't think this is minor...

"Mourn" in our day always has the connotation of death or a great loss. Again, the best interpretations and explanations of Matt.5:4 tend to bring out that this has to do with mourning our sins and inadequacy before God. But the most basic meaning of the greek word is "lament" or "bewail". Yes, that's archaic, but I think it's much more general, and in that sense it's probably more appropriate.

The reward for lamenting in this beatitude is to be comforted. I guess that makes sense assuming the paired contrast, but there's probably a double meaning here, at the very least, because the root meaning of 'parakaleo' is "summon". So Jesus said if you lament, you will be called to come in. "In" where? The Kingdom, undoubtedly.

Happy are those who beg to the Spirit, because they get the Kingdom of Heaven.
Happy are those who lament, because they will be called in (and comforted).

I may just be playing in the sandbox here, as I was before, but that does bring out a bit more continuity, does it not? I'm actually afraid to begin looking up the rest of the passage! But now, of course, right or wrong, I pretty much have to keep going...

Jesus the Ascetic?

Michael Barber shared a nice piece on Benedict/Ratzinger's upcoming Volume II of Jesus of Nazareth which includes this interesting snippet:
It’s a historical, theological, and ascetic reflection on the childhood, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Ascetic? That shocked me at first, considering the historical connotations of the term, but I guess asceticism is relative after all. I may have to check this out in the spring. If he says Jesus fasted during childhood, y'all be sure and testify that I scooped* the Pope! ;-)

*Note: I haven't actually dated the Lord's fasting, and don't expect to. So yes, I am kidding. :-)

Chess vs. Backgammon

Whenever I go brainless, working in my study, I play board games online. It used to be Shredder Chess, but a couple of months ago, I started playing online backgammon. Firstly, my game was falling completely apart on their "takeback button", and secondly, my wife and I had been re-watching the first season of LOST. When Locke told Walt "Backgammon's a lot better game than checkers." I thought, "Hmmm." After five seasons, I pretty much consider Darlton the best writing team on TeeVee in, like, forevah-evah, so I decided I'd better try backgammon.

I'd never learned the rules and I decided pretty quickly that this Skyworks Technologies program was cheating. Badly. But, brainless time is brainless time, and I was still learning, so I kept losing. After some weeks of getting better, I started to realize the computer wasn't cheating, it was teaching. As far as I can tell, the digital dice rolls are legitimately random, but each roll gives me a limited number of options. Each time I pass up a good move for a poor move - again, depending on each set of available options - the computer becomes more and more likely to punish me for it. Likewise, if I consistently make the best possible moves in each situation, the dice become somewhat more likely to fall in my favor. I'm still playing on level one, but I skunk the computer pretty regularly now, and yet it's still teaching me.

So what have I learned? Apparently, the key in backgammon is to minimize risks and maximize opportunities, while simultaneously doing the opposite to your opponent. Over time, it has also occurred to me that Chess is largely about creativity and vision against nearly endless possibilities (which the more novice player more greatly underestimates), whereas Backgammon rewards safe and cautiously calculated maneuvers against a slate of both known and unknown probabilities. As someone who's spent the past four years trying to raise my research and argument skills from amateur-quality apologetics to professional-quality historical analytics, I can't help seeing a fascinating parallel there. That is, assuming my assessment is actually sound. ;-)

Beggars before the Spirit - 3

SPIRIT is supernatural & experiential, according to Matthew. (post #1) But "poor in spirit" is vague and abstract. (post #2) And now for my suggestion:

I don't pretend to be a great greek-grammarian, but I'm willing to bet the dative to pneumati (in Matt.5:3) can probably (and might best) be left as a simple indirect object, with no verb or other inserted word required. The line is taken to be poetic after all, isn't it? If we do that, the active sense of the subject "beggars" provides an implied action to complete the thought, doesn't it?

On that reasoning, anyway, I hereby and humbly submit my own fledgling effort: Blessed are the beggars before the Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Note: For the literal, we could say "those who beg" instead of "beggars". Also, I'd actually prefer "to the Spirit" or "of the Spirit", but "to" seems awkward and "of" is too vague. While it may be true that we beggars are both begging to God's Spirit and begging for God's Spirit, my main concern is to reinstate Matthew's normal personification of SPIRIT, instead of merely objectifying it. If the subject gives us an implied action, the dative suggests whom that action is directed towards. Doesn't it?

Or for something more idiomatic, I suggest: Happy are those who beg for the Spirit; their reward is the Kingdom of Heaven.

And for a complete paraphrase, I like: Happy are those who beg for God's Spirit. They get the Kingdom of Heaven.

Hey, blogger-man. You know whut? From whar I can see, this Kingdom looks purty weak around these hear parts. You reckon maybe we oughter stop just "being poor" and start akshuly beggin? Oh, waitamminit. That reminds me now 'bout what Jesus prayed, on the very next page of that speech he was givin'. He said, Father... Thy Kingdom come. Ya think maybe that's the same thing he was thinkin about this first B-atytude? Like he was saying, If you beg for the Spirit, you'll get the Kingdom of God.

Well, whaddyaknow? I think, maybe so. :-)

To be concluded... (???)

The new A-fili-ation

I don't often post about the debate of the week in biblioblogdom, but I do try to keep up. Of all the recent entries into the recent hoo-hah, this contribution is worth ten pounds of belly laughs. Whatever else we do in disagreement, it's always nice to be able to laugh. For example:
"I can't stand these people. They only invited us to their private party to avoid looking like snobs."
John said, filling his plate at the buffet line.

Beggars before the Spirit - 2

Matthew consistently uses the word SPIRIT as something that is supernatural, experiential, personal, dynamic, physically inhabiting (and/or inhabitable), and capable of both desire and possibly even resentment. Therefore, typical translations of the first beatitude seem inconsistent in the way they render this very same word. The best interpretations may lean towards a consistent truth, but the typical translation itself (I think, to most readers) effectively replaces the metaphysical nature of what SPIRIT is with a purely metaphorical meaning, which chiefly serves to modify the meaning of a different, connecting word.

The phrase "poor in spirit" is actually vague three times over. First, "the poor" is itself an abstract, metaphoricaly collective singular term, whereas the original greek is an dynamically picturesque plural. Homer, Herodotus and Hesiod all would have recognized a meaning much closer to "beggars". Third, "spirit" has no practical meaning at all in the rendering other than to clarify that the beggars themselves aren't after material wealth. So what, precisely, are they after? (For that matter, why choose the editorial lowercase "s"? Why not a capital "S"?) But secondly, this particular "in" is purely metaphorical, which the English word "in" can sometimes be, but this particular "in" doesen't even appear as part of the greek.

The "poor" part really isn't so bad. That's the part we do get, I think. But I strongly suspect this editorial, metaphorical "in spirit" has a subliminally undermining effect against the other "in spirit" references of Matthew's gospel. For example, somebody reading post #1 probably argued with me to their screen that David wasn't physically "in" the spirit and God's voice wasn't physically "in" the disciples. Oh, really? Well. Why do you think that way? Hmm.

It's pretty clear what I think. But I strongly suggest we should all at least consider a translation of Jesus' first 'beatitude' that is consistent with the supernatural reality conveyed by the bulk of Matthew's regular uses of this word, SPIRIT.

Naturally, since I'm bringing it up, I have a suggestion.

To be continued...

Beggars before the Spirit - 1

Every time Matthew uses the word SPIRIT, he's talking about something that is supernaturally experiential. Every. Single. Time. The words in, out and upon also show up a lot, near the word SPIRIT, in a virtually physical way. Right from the start, the SPIRIT conceived in Mary.
After that, the pattern continues.

John said Jesus would dunk people into the SPIRIT. Then Jesus himself was alighted upon by the SPIRIT (apparently baptized into the spirit, after the Father had already been well pleased in Him) and the SPIRIT led Jesus into the wilderness. Later, Matthew cites God, according to Isaiah, as being well pleased in his servant before putting his SPIRIT upon Him. (The same sequence as the baptism: in, then upon.)

Jesus cast out SPIRITS and gave his disciples the ability to do the same. Jesus said the SPIRIT of the Father would speak in the disciples, if they got in trouble. Jesus cast out demons in the SPIRIT of God and describes SPIRITS that move in and out of people like houses. Jesus warned people not to blaspheme or speak against the SPIRIT or risk being unforgiven.

Jesus says David once spoke in the SPIRIT. He told his sleepy disciples that SPIRIT, wherever it was at that moment, had its own desire. Dying, Jesus released his SPIRIT. Resurrected, Jesus sent the eleven to baptize people into the name of the Father, Son and Holy SPIRIT.

As you may have already noticed, this post includes every reference to SPIRIT in Matthew, except one.

To be continued...

Brushing Up

A local professor is letting me audit his Greek course this semester and we're using the same ATHENAZE textbook from Oxford I used 15 years ago. The updated edition includes some things about accents that I didn't pick up before, which is nice. I'm also starting to remember things about that professor's style and course requirements that partly explain the gaps in what I retained. (True disclosure: first semester A, second semester B. Ouch.)

Sometimes a little knowledge can be just enough, but a little too much can be dangerous. I'll just have to balance Jona Lendering's reminder today about qualification with Coach Wooden's (again): "Do not let what you cannot do prevent you from doing what you can." And this, above my desk, from Samuel Johnson's Preface: [paragraph 93] "A whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and even a whole life would not be sufficient. He whose design includes whatever language can express must often speak of what he does not understand."

Always gotta draw the line somewhere. And yet, there is much to be done. Once more, into the breach...

The Apostles' Teaching

I'd never looked at Acts 2:42 in the greek until recently. In English, I had always assumed the word for "teaching" was a verb form. It sure gets preached that way. Day by day the apostles were teaching and the people were devoted to being there, during the teaching. You know, just like sunday morning. Let us now rise for the dismissal.

As a house churcher since 1996, trying to follow Paul's model more closely, I always supposed Jerusalem was different, or at least different in its beginning. Reading Acts 2, it sure did look to me like hundreds or thousands of new believers were sitting at the apostles' feet each day hearing lectures. But the greek word for "teaching" is a noun. Being devoted to someone's teaching as a system of thought and attitudes is a BIG difference from being devoted to someone's teaching activity on their particular schedule.

This was brought out to me recently during an e-conversation with Alan Knox, who I'm thrilled to say has just posted on the topic with more great greeky insights to suggest Acts 2:42 should make us "picture the early believers attempting to live their lives in accordance with the message that the apostles taught" (Emphasis mine). I recommend Alan's entire post but here's my favorite bit:

This passage demonstrates how those early believers lived according to the gospel (the apostles’ teaching), and how they shared their lives and their meals with one another. On the day of Pentecost, God did not create individuals who loved to sit and listen to teaching.

By the way, if you haven't heard about Alan Knox yet, he's a student at Southeastern doing his Ph.D on the purpose of the church meeting being for mutual edification. And when I asked Alan about co-existing at SEBTS with such a stance, he said he finds a lot of people saying they agree with him in theory, but not in practice. Well, isn't that special? ;-)

Dating Paul's Conversion

IF the Arabian (Nabatean) King Aretas ever occupied Damascus, it would have been before 37 AD. It could not have been after. Ogg missed this. Jewett missed this. Bowersock pointed it out in 1983 and few have acknowledged it since. The historical context is vital to Pauline chronology AND to the chronology of the earliest church in Jerusalem.

Here's the very-skinny. In 20 BC, the Kingdom of Zenodorus was granted to Herod the Great even though it had been promised to Nabatea. The Nabateans made trouble in Trachonitis until Aretas betrothed his daughter to Antipas (c.1 BC/1 AD) and Philip managed to forge good relations with the Nabateans in his Tetrarchy. But Antipas broke the treaty when he married Herodias (28/29 AD) and Philip's death (33/34 AD) filled the old Kingdom of Zenodorus with an absolute power vacuum.

Tiberius (undoubtedly with, through or by proxy of Macro, the new Praetorian Prefect after Sejanus) officially annexed Philip's Tetrarchy into Provincia Syria. But Syria had been suffering from a power vacuum of its own. The Proconsul Lamia was an absentee Governor for ten years until Pomponius Flaccus [not to be confused with the Egyptian Prefect hated by Philo] arrived in 32. But Flaccus died in office in 33 and Tiberius (and/or Macro) sent L. Vitellius in 35, more than a whole year after Philip and Flaccus had both died.

Presumably, Vitellius was to establish the new status of Philip's Tetrarchy, but Vitellius had his hands full immediately with conflict on all sides. Dealing with the Parthian invasion of Armenia occupied Vitellius' first two summers while the Governor also sent one of his four Legions to help Cappadocia against a mountain tribe of Cilicians. Meanwhile, Herod Antipas had taken the liberty of sending his own small army to occupy the strategic fortress-city of Gamala in the Golan Heights. But while Antipas was at the Euphrates making peace with the Parthian King Artabanus, the Nabatean army took Gamala and crushed Herod's army.

By early 37, Vitellius was marching south, but purposely dawdled, resenting Antipas for taking credit about the Euphrates treaty in a letter to the Emperor. Tiberius (and/or Macro) had ordered Vitellius to avenge Antipas, but Vitellius lingered in Jerusalem after Passover until news arrived of Tiberius' death. At that, the Governor took his Legions back north. Gamala had already been reclaimed (officially for Syria) and Aretas had long since retreated. And just by coincidence, almost simultaneously, in Rome, the new Emperor Caligula (and his chief advisor, Macro) were appointing Antipas' nephew, Herod Agrippa, as the new King of the old Kingdom/Tetrarchy.

According to our records, Aretas did not attack or press through Trachonitis under Agrippa. It is extremely doubtful that Aretas could have managed possessions from the other side of Agrippa. And Aretas was somewhere in his 60's already, at least. He had been king since 9/8 BC. Two years after Caligula made Agrippa King of Trachonitis and the Golan, Aretas died, in 39 AD.

That's the whole skinny. Now here's the point.

It had long been assumed, by a very poor reading of 2nd Corinthians 11:32, that Aretas must have been granted Damascus by Rome, and the next argument went that since Tiberius sent Vitellius after Aretas, it must have been the nutsy Caligula. These arguments required skepticism of Josephus on Gamala as the point of battle, since the Golan was not an official "boundary" between Antipas and Aretas. But Josephus said Gamala, so the territorial issues must go back to the old grudge over Zenodorus. Only Bowersock (Roman Arabia, 1983) makes complete sense out of Tacitus, Josephus and Paul on this issue.

My own tiny contribution to this conversation is that Macro alone should be enough to debunk the old argument that Caligula suddenly did an about face from Tiberian policy. For all practical purposes, Macro was running the Empire in all twelve months of 37 AD, besides which Caligula never showed any interest in foriegn policy, except for the Temple worship fiasco in 39/40. Caligula merely gave his 'uncle Herod' a Kingdom as a reward for his friendship in recent years. Herod's Kingship, of course, is another issue the old arguments failed to deal with. If Caligula had wanted to give Damascus to anyone, it should have been Agrippa.

The Conclusion: Paul's "three years" in Arabia must end before winter of 36/37 and therefore his conversion must be dated to 33/34.

The Challenge: If we also take 33 as the year of Christ's Passion and Pentecost, what does that do to our view of the earliest church in Jerusalem? Tentatively clinging to 30 AD, which has become increasingly difficult to defend in recent decades except by appeal to tradition, seems to be motivated in some cases by a bias towards keeping Acts 1-8 in a long stretch of years. I think it was less than four months, but that's a story for some other time...

Reflections of Nazareth - 2

The Synoptic Gospels tell us God was pleased with Jesus at his baptism. Therefore, any Synoptic claim about what pleases God may serve as implicit testimony about Jesus' life in Nazareth. For example:

If we repeat the assumption from post #1, that God's reward implies God's pleasure, then we may invert at least the following portions of Matthew's 6th chapter as historical reconstructions: When Jesus lived in Nazareth, it was customary for him to give to the poor, but he did it secretly. Often times Jesus would go into a room, close the door, and pray to his Father in secret. And sometimes Jesus would fast, but he kept his face washed and put oil on his head so that nobody could tell, except for the Father. In Nazareth, the Father saw Jesus do these things, probably for many years, and the Father was pleased with his Son.

Now, let's consider this argument.

The third point is of course repeated from post #1 and the earlier points are phrased very similarly in the passage. We may note once again that Matthew contrasts Jesus here with the Pharisees and characterizes this larger section of teaching as coming from one who spoke with authority <exousia>.

Incidently, this is the first time Matthew uses this word and four of its other eight uses come soon after this (7:29 => 8:9, 9:6, 9:8, 10:1). However we nuance and build our understanding of power/authority, I will simply suggest this much. The word means someone had the right to do something and/or the ability to do something. Matthew is saying Jesus had the right and/or the ability to teach these things. So if the crowds (and Matthew) believed Jesus was able to teach these things, is there any chance they believed Jesus was unable to do them? I think not.

Given these complimentary principles of power and sincerity in his teaching, we can probably justify inverting all of Matthew 5-7 as a valid reconstruction of Jesus' personal life. However, to date those behaviors to before his baptism, according to our arguments so far, we would also need to characterize the entire Sermon on the Mount as one complete teaching on how to please God. That can probably be done very easily, and may have been done before, but I'm not prepared to build and present that argument myself at the moment.

(Unless: if the SOTM is a condensed rendering of Jesus' Halakah, then it primarly addresses how to obey God's commandments, and doing what God commands is one third of our definition for pleasing Him.)

Just to be clear, I am in fact suggesting Matthew did intend the entire Sermon on the Mount not only as instructions for his readers but also as a reflection of Jesus' own disciplines. But the real problem for our purpose here is that after we justify that position (and date it pre-baptism), some details will be more challenging to invert and reconstruct from than others. We'll go through these in time, but for now, in this series, we'll take baby steps.

For all of these reasons, for now, let's keep things simple and stick with the principle at top. We are looking for behaviors and attitudes specifically offered, according to Matthew, as ones that God likes, that God wants, or that God commands. We have also added things that God "rewards".

It's very important to go slow, take our time, and be very careful we do not assume things. We should work very hard to sense out the boundaries between proving what are Matthew's direct implications and what might only be the sloppy, eager insertions our own preferred inferrences. However, if the argument at top is valid, we now have at least three personal habits/behaviors for Jesus in Nazareth. We have giving, prayer, and fasting, all done in secret and focused on the Father - that's not a bad start at all. We hereby claim these details (and possibly much more to come) as early biographical data purposely embedded in Matthew's testimony through direct implication.

I don't know about you, but I hear the Lord's "silent years" growing slightly louder.

To be continued...

My Royal "We"

...is a teacher's "we". Just to be clear. I'm on sabbatical this year to finish my book, but I have been for nine years previously a High School Math Teacher. Historical analysis is like a Geometry Proof to me, and a traditional teacher stands at the chalkboard and includes the students in his demonstrative thinking. Alright, Class, first we start with a given...

Far more importantly, I am really hoping more people will chime in and jump in like Peter Kirk has been doing. If I was savvy, I'd publish all this myself someday in a large book called Jesus In Nazareth. It'd sell a million copies and I'd be famous (although not necessarily rich, given the typical publishing model). That'd be great, but the truth is I'm blogging it all because I really do need the audience, input and feedback to sharpen my focus.

Besides that, a really big problem usually needs more than one head to solve it. Besides that, this really belongs to us all. Unless I do get that contract, then alllll the money belongs to my wife! ;-)

How Did Jesus Live?

My blogging Philos Peter Kirk has blogged some very helpful thoughts in response to my post this morning. Go check it out. Then, please, add your own insights and inquiries to this discussion. Then keep coming back. We'll be here all month. Tip your waitress and try the veal. ;-)

Jesus on the Mount

A good friend and teacher of mine once pointed out that new christians read through the Gospels and look for two things: (1) Things that make them go "wow" and (2) Things it says they've gotta do. He suggested instead that every verse of scripture can reveal something directly about Jesus and his Father. But somehow I still fail to remember that advice...

For example, I think it's fair to say the "new christian" approach probably describes my own reading of the "Sermon on the Mount" right up until recently (and probably most of what I've ever heard or seen written about it, although your experience may vary). But while Matthew definitely intended to relay Jesus' instructions for living, I now believe Matthew also intended something more, beyond that. Since the whole book was about Jesus, Matthew must have intended for Jesus' teachings to reflect directly, for his readers, who Jesus was and how he lived.

I've enjoyed finding Jesus on the Mount, and I'll be posting more about it in days to come. So if you've never done so before, I encourage you to re-read the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and look for implied descriptions of Jesus' own earthly life, as he lived it unto the Father. Even if you're not so sure about Matthew's intention, it could still be God's intention for us to find Jesus Himself in this passage. [Ya think? ;-) ]

While the devotional value of this reading should be quickly apparent for believers, I'm trying to be much more careful about drawing historical conclusions. I'd love to start a blogger-sation on this in both areas, so feel free to comment or post your own considerations from both a devotional and an historical-critical perspective. No hurry, of course. There are several bloggers whose eventual response to this I will hopefully anticipate, but I won't put anyone on the spot with a "tag" just yet, especially if this is indeed a 'new' idea.

Think about it. More importantly, enjoy finding the Lord. :-)

Reflections of Nazareth - 1

The Synoptic Gospels tell us God was pleased with Jesus at his baptism. Therefore, any Synoptic claim about what pleases God may serve as implicit testimony about Jesus' life in Nazareth. For example:

In Matthew 6:16-18, Jesus tells us that God rewards those who fast secretly, who put oil on their heads and wash their face, so that no one will know they are fasting. If rewarding such behavior means God likes that behavior, then Matthew must be implying this behavior was characteristic of Jesus before his baptism. We can reconstruct this with a simple inversion of Matthew's statement and say: According to Matthew's direct implication, there were times in Nazareth when Jesus fasted, but he washed his face and put oil on his head so that nobody could tell, except for the Father. And the Father saw Jesus do this, and the Father was pleased by it. (Note: For the moment, we will refrain from interpreting "reward".)

Now, let's consider this argument.

I would contend this is simply the most logical, straightforward implication of Matthew's own testimony. The only required interpretation, assuming God's reward implies God's pleasure, is hardly a stretch. Furthermore, reading this verse as a reflection of Jesus' own life is confirmed by Matthew's narration at the end of the larger passage, in which he says Jesus taught as one having authority.

If this is not valid, we would have to assume that Matthew thought Jesus was inventing new strategies for fasting which he'd never practiced himself. That certainly doesn't seem to fit Matthew's high opinion of Jesus and would actually place him closer to the showy hypocrites just decried in the same series of statements. And Matthew must have an opinion on this one way or the other, unless we suppose Matthew had mentally divorced Jesus' teachings from Jesus as a man. Personally, I do not believe that was the case.

Therefore, if we take the original passage as an historical teaching of Jesus, according to Matthew, then we may also take the inversion of it as a historical aspect of Jesus' life in Nazareth. According to Matthew, by direct implication, there were times in Nazareth when Jesus fasted. This does not tell us how many times Jesus fasted, how often or from what age in life he began doing so, but it does describe characteristic behavior which qualifies as historical activity, and dates to before Jesus' baptism (according to the premise at top).

If this first example is valid, we should keep testing our new methodology. We may also begin to hope that what have been called the Lord's "silent years" may indeed sound forth as echoes, through direct implications of the Synoptic Gospel writers.

To be continued...

Dealing with Nazareth - 9

Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that God was pleased with Jesus at his baptism. Our functional definition (in this series) is that you please someone by doing what they like, what they want, and/or what they tell you to do. Given that understanding, our next question is: What do Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us about God's preferences, desires and commands?

Whatever they say about those topics they must also have intended their readers to understand as a reflection of Christ's life in Nazareth, before his baptism. Furthermore, if the details of their testimony are historically accurate, then such direct implications should also be considered historically accurate. The only question is, can we effectively distinguish between that which the authors clearly meant to imply on this topic and that which our own interpretative leanings might have us infer? In short, can we determine what Matthew, Mark and Luke are telling us, implicitly, about how Jesus was pleasing to God, in his behaviors?

I think we can, although it may take a little trial and error to work out a careful and proper procedure.

To be continued...

Dealing with Nazareth - 8

With twenty-one posts so far in our faith-based historical investigation into Jesus' so-called "silent years", according to the Gospels... here's a rough sketch of what we can now put together:

Jesus’ life in Nazareth was pleasing to God. From a very early age, Jesus was aware that he had a special relationship to God as His Father, and Jesus cared a great deal about things that had to do with his Father. God's favor was on Jesus, and Jesus’ favor with God continued to grow.

Jesus attended Sabbath meetings faithfully and grew in favor with the Synagogue community but received no more than a typical public education for his day and age. He was not known in particular for being outstanding in studies but for being the son of a carpenter. As such, the members of his Synagogue never foresaw him becoming a teacher of Mosaic Law. Despite this, Jesus managed to memorize a great deal of scripture by hearing it read aloud and spending long hours remembering passages and reflecting on their deeper meanings.

By age 12, his ability to consider God-centered interpretation of the Law was world class and this wisdom continued increasing for years afterwards. Uniquely, Jesus was learning things at the Nazareth Synagogue that the Father was providing only to him. Perhaps most amazing of all, Jesus never left any memorable impressions on the Jews of Nazareth by speaking words of wisdom or favor about their common faith. Apparently, just as Mary treasured these things in her heart, her son also kept his insightful reflections about God as a secret devotion, just between himself and his Father.

Despite this unique and private devotional life, Jesus was far from a recluse. As an active part of the community, the young Lord was well known in his town. His obedience to his parents was only one reason his favor grew among the Nazarenes. He was gracious and social with his Nazarene neighbors, to the point that Mary and Joseph became accustomed to finding him in the company of friends and relatives. In general, the townspeople of Nazareth held good opinions of Jesus, even though they never thought he was anyone great in worldly terms or according to nomal Jewish conventions.

In his teens and twenties, Jesus continued to participate in the regular activities of his Synagogue community, but his predominant role in the town remained only that of a carpenter's son - and later, a carpenter in his own right. Jesus never married or became a parent, but he spent at least part of his teen years assisting Mary & Joseph with the household’s much younger children. Later, much of his twenties were spent taking over Joseph’s trade and becoming the man of the house.

Evidently, caring a lot about God, studying the scriptures and wanting to be involved in his Father's doings led Jesus into helping his parents, supporting his family and simply being part of his local community for about thirty years - from 4 BC until 28 AD.

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Seriously, now, why are these years called the “hidden years’? This is hardly a lack of information about Jesus' life in Nazareth. We have chronology, community life, family life and a strong measure of personal devotion to God (albeit not a well defined one, at this point in our study). All we are missing is specific personal characteristics and habitual behaviors. But if we can develop a careful, precise methodology for mirror reading the Gospels, then we might round out an actual biography here, albeit a brief one. Not too shabby, all things considered.

Granted, we have no major events (other than Archelaus’ exile in 6 AD allowing Joseph the peace of mind to bring Jesus to Passover in 7) but sometimes life is just like that. We cannot speculate or invent things that might have happened. Therefore, from this basic framework of his not so hidden early life, we now ask the central question that opened this series (on Aug.1st) once again. What personal deeds did Jesus actually do, before his baptism, that were pleasing to God?

I’ll begin working to answer that question, from the Gospels, with my very next post.

To be continued…

Dealing with Nazareth - 7.5

Summarizing the series so far...

Post #1 - IF we can make any historical conclusions about how Jesus pleased the Father, before his baptism, then THAT is what Jesus was doing in Nazareth.

Post #2 - To proceed, we must assume God's pleasure depended at least partly on Jesus' actions. Technically theo-logic, this assumption is required for the sake of the inquiry.

Post #3 - Personal reflections on methodology: accept scripture's supernatural claims at face value, but do not reconstruct events based on theological ideas.

Post #4 - More distinctions between Theological interpretation (both valid and invalid) and our goal, which is to figure out what Jesus was doing in Nazareth.

Post #5 - A working understanding of active ways to please anyone: Do what they want [and/or] Do what they like [and/or] Do what they command. Consideration of potential conclusions and challenges to come.

Post #6 - Analysis of Jesus at age 12 reveals an impressive degree of focus on God and an astounding, doubtlessly God-centered interpretation of Torah, but we may not (yet) assume Jesus' obedience to any direct commands delivered through divine spiritual communion.

Post #7 - Chronological stages of Jesus' life, pre-baptism: estimating the ages of Joseph & Mary shows within a reasonable margin or error that Jesus spent his teens being a big brother and his twenties becoming the man of the household. As a whole, this data gives us some boundaries for the rest of our investigation.

(Intermission) Fourteen Post Series on The Nazareth Synagogue - By examining particular evidence from all four Gospels, we conclude Jesus was active in his community but received no more public education than anyone else in his hometown. Assuming the focus he displayed at age 12 was present much earlier in his childhood, Jesus received a special education from his Father (John 7:16) simply by [or at least by] attending Synagogue meetings and paying close attention. Over hundreds of weeks, His astounding pre-teen sagacity developed by hearing the Law and Prophets each Sabbath day and spending long hours reflecting upon them at length. This private reflection naturally expressed itself as devotional time before God, and the development of that devotion was doubtlessly encouraged by the most common and frequently repeated scripture in ancient Jewish life - the one which later became "The Greatest Commandment" in Jesus' public ministry: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. In short, the young Jesus was a common Jew who cared about God to an uncommon degree.

Note: we have not yet drawn any conclusions about the potential presence or absence of any direct metaphysical contact or communication between Jesus and the Father. Their close spiritual intimacy so visible in his public years must have developed at some point (most likely before Jesus' baptism, imho) but up to this point in the study we have not considered any evidence for how, when or why that deeper communion might have begun. It may help to keep that in mind as we proceed from here.

Next: More. Hopefully lots, lots more.

Stay tuned...

PROJECTS

UPDATE COMING SOON (SPRING/SUMMER 2010)

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You might enjoy these posts working Towards a Historical Nativity.

I'm presently working on a historical reconstruction of Jesus in Nazareth.

The Philos (friend) delivers the Agape (love) - A New Take on John 21.

Gospel Chronology must sequence the deaths of John the Baptist and Sejanus.

My synoptic hypothesis is that Matthew journaled first, but gospel'd last.

Event wise, Occam's razor suggests Paul Fled Damascus Twice.
(Or else, how'd he manage to tick off the Nabatean Ethnarch before visiting Arabia?)

Finally, my print-revision of the Year-by-Year site is getting closer to (self) publication. The original (draft) posts are still online for the time being, but won't stay up forever.

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There's much more... but that'll do for now. I'm adding a link to this "PAGE" that should rest above my top post from now on. Just click "PROJECTS" if you want to check back for more updates! :-)

SuperMan? SuperPuppet? SuperFan.

When I set out in June to focus on writing about Jesus in Nazareth, one of my first thoughts was to avoid making Jesus sound like Superman - Come see the amazing sinless wonder! His willpower alone will make you want to weep! Just as critically, I also did not want Him to seem like SuperPuppet - The World's Perfect Man is an obedient shell. He always lets God pull his strings. Both of those sound like sideshow attractions, but what is the alternative? How do you explain what Jesus did in Nazareth from a historical, event centered perspective?

I had been studying and searching and struggling with this for the past two years when something broke through, this past June. I remembered what Rocky had said, and it suddenly expanded. Jesus did everything he did for one reason. Because it pleased the Father. That was eye opening. Instead of Superman or SuperPuppet, he was a SuperFan, so to speak.* We might even call him SuperJew, if that means he kept to the heart and spirit of Torah, which being the "Greatest Commandments", but I wouldn't use that term if it sounds again like he was Captain Willpower.

What it boils down to is that Jesus must have felt genuine, passionate regard for His Father, in Nazareth. You see it more easily in John, but it's in the Synoptic Gospels as well. His whole life makes no sense unless Jesus was all about the Father. I'm not sure whether I can make a historical argument for the mystical development of that devotion or not, but I'm aiming to get awfully close. Close is probably going to be most appropriate here anyway, because faith is supposed to be necessary, but here's my big thought:

When you look at how Jesus lived, how unique his discipline was, how unique his vision was, how different he was from the people in his hometown, how much insight and wisdom he kept to himself, and yet how connected with them he remained, how he participated and socialized as part of the community, how he earned favor in their eyes without ever becoming anyone 'special'... I'd say he would HAVE to be SuperMan to negotiate all that UNLESS Jesus was getting significant guidance, love and encouragement from His Father, in the Spirit, for many years leading up to his Baptism. An indwelling Father in Nazareth makes everything slide into place.

Like I say, that's what I'm thinking. It's easy enough to believe it, and I do think it might make a pretty good historical argument. But one question is how much support can be built for this argument from a faith-based historiographical view of the Gospels. So that's what I'm working on. Feel free to join in...

Fascinating

I posted Rocky's saying as my Facebook status and three out of four commenters who hadn't heard it before immediately started talking about themselves going to the Cross. Maybe they knew what I meant and just launched into application, but golly. Can't we celebrate first? Or did they not understand? Did you?

Mercy on all of us, Lord. We have so far to go...

Ancient Literacy ~ Internet Literacy

A question for congregational christians in 2009: Does your church have a website? What percentage of your members would you guess know how to surf to that website? What percentage were involved with setting up that website? Or could have been? Anyone?

We live in a culture where Computer Literacy is broad, but varies greatly in depth. Ancient Literacy was the same way, especially among the Jews. Today, most people can surf to a website, and anyone can look at it. Fifteen years ago few could even surf. I think these proportions suggest a practical model for thinking about ancient literacy. It was broad, but varried greatly in depth.

Every Synagogue member could hear scripture read, but fewer of them could actually read aloud. Literacy rates soared among the Jews after 70 AD. Before then, we're not sure. But just like most of us have to hire professionals to program our computers and design our websites (and companies to facilitate our free blogs), the ancient world in all epochs had very few writers. However, they all valued writings.

"These words.. shall be on your heart.. teach them.. talk of them.. bind them as a sign.. write them on the doorposts..... then watch yourself that you do not forget the Lord..." (Deut 6:6-12) The most uneducated housewife could fondly look on her doorpost at unintelligible symbols and recall what she had been told that it meant. In the same way today, the clerics among us are rare, but they exist because we rely on their skill, because we need and we value their product.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. The low rate of literacy does NOT make it more likely there were no early writings among Jesus' followers. The high rate of value ascribed to literature, not to mention the community minded attitudes of the ancient Jews, makes it highly likely that the earliest Jesus followers would have conscripted one literate person among their numbers to start writing things down!

They all valued writings about Moses and Elijah. Is it possible they neglected to give Jesus the same consideration? Jesus talked about scripture all the time. Is it possible they didn't value his words at least as much as the words he was quoting? I am firmly convinced any twelve guys can be blind idiots about very significant details, but in three years of following Him around and asking each other, "What was that he said the other day?" Don't you think one of them, at least once, spoke up and said, "Do we have anybody who can write some of this down?"

The scholarly writer leads a largely solitary life, but the early believers did almost nothing alone. If even one of the 120 was literate, the odds are very high indeed that the group, as a group, encouraged that one to begin some kind of written record. Of course, we don't have that record. We may or may not be able to speculate with much confidence on who wrote it or whether it informed the Gospels as a source. But I do think we should at the very least be more expectant that such a record of Jesus' words and deeds did exist, than that it did not.