Last week we reached out to New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, to get his take on the Cana wedding story and whether it had anything to do with the mythological god of wine Dionysius. He responded!!! Dr. Ehrman said that he has seen that comparison before. And the wine analogy is pretty good. But he said there are many other parts of John’s gospel that are not consistent with the Greek god. So he gives it very little credence.
Poop. We still think it’s a fun idea.
This week let’s do a little genealogy, specifically in the first chapter of Matthew. This is also from Dr. Ehrman’s blog posts this week (we were there anyway, exchanging notes on Dionysius).
- Ends at Joseph. Matthew (written after Mark and before Luke) starts off with a lengthy genealogy of Jesus. The genealogy contains most of the prominent Jewish leaders of the past, including Abraham and King David. It’s really long. No one reads it. But it is interesting that it ends at Joseph, who Matthew says was Mary’s husband. Ummm, but Mary was a virgin according to Matthew. So what’s the point of ending at Joseph? Moving on.
- Fun with numerology. Matthew also points out that there were 14 generations between Abraham and David, 14 more to the deportation to Babylon, and 14 more to get to the birth of Jesus. But don’t go in and count the generations in Matthew’s list, because they don’t add up to 14. And some of the genealogy links do not match the father/son genealogies in the Old Testament. Matthew evidently needed a quality assurance department. What was significant about 14? In ancient Israel, 7 was the perfect number. It represented the divinity. And what could be better than 7? 2×7 = 14.
- Sex and the City. Matthew’s genealogy is also interesting because it contains four women — very unusual in a male-dominated society. The names: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. All four women were Gentiles, not Jews. And all four women were involved in sex scandals (a couple of prostitutes, adultery, etc). But all their stories ultimately turned out to be in line with God’s will. One theory here is that Matthew was trying to draw a parallel between these historic women and skepticism over Mary’s virgin status.
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We will return again to Egypt, Joseph and more sheep shearing next week. This week let’s go back to the Gospels — specifically Mark, the first Gospel written. The following observations are based on the ideas of Bishop Shelby Spong. He argues that Mark did not intend for his Gospel to be a historically accurate account of Jesus’ life. Nor of his death.
- Mark was written in the late 70s CE. This would have been after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Equally important, it was also written before the split between the Christian church and Judaism. (It was not called the Christian Church at the time, but Followers of the Way.) This split occurred around 88 CE, 58 years after the crucifixion of Jesus! The significance: Christianity arose out of the traditions of Judaism. It did not start as a separate religion all on its own.
- 40% of Mark deals with the last week in the life of Jesus. Mark’s account of the crucifixion in Chapters 14 and 15 are the first descriptions we have of the final hours of Jesus’ life. Paul wrote his letters 20+ years earlier. But he is very cryptic, saying only that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Maybe that was all anyone really knew, since even Mark says that “they all fled” when Jesus was arrested. This would mean we have no eyewitness accounts. (Also, regarding the Resurrection, the original Mark is also very cryptic, saying in the last verse that there was an empty tomb … period. The last several verses were added later by someone else.)
- Mark’s Intent? Probably what Mark is doing (and we were not there) is back-casting the story to fit the scriptures from Psalms and Isaiah. Mark never intended it to be a historically accurate account. Psalm 22 in particular (written 400 years prior to Mark) talks about mocking crowds, thirst, piercing of hands and feet, and soldiers casting lots for clothes. There are similar parallels in Isaiah.
So, there we go. If we picture Mark in his environment in the late 70s CE, the entire Gospel takes a different meaning. It does not mean the Christian faith is invalid (and Spong is still a bishop in the Episcopal church). But it points out that the Gospels were not meant to be read from a literal standpoint.
Fun Fact: Spong thinks the gospels provide several clues to indicate the crucifixion took place in the Fall, not the Spring.
We had a lot of fun two weeks ago with Judah, sheep shearing, and the Tamar sex scandal. Staff voted this week to carry on with a similar theme in the next chapter in Genesis. While Judah is back home in Canaan with his brothers, Tamar, and the sheep, the youngest brother Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt. This is when things get interesting.
- Joseph the Pool Boy. First, Joseph finds himself as an over-seer in the house of a high Egyptian official named Potiphar. According to Genesis 39, Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce him (think Mrs. Robinson). And just like Dustin Hoffman, Joseph takes off, unfortunately leaving his cloak in her bedroom. Accusations follow. And Joseph lands in prison.
- Joseph makes a comeback. Joseph gets out of prison after some impressive dream interpretations in front of the Pharaoh. A couple of chapters later, Pharaoh marries Joseph off to the daughter of an Egyptian aristocrat to a) keep Joseph happy and b) to maintain political stability. And the name of the aristocratic father of the daughter? Potiphera. That sure sounds a lot like Potiphar
- Did something happen to Potiphar? The 3BT research staff ran across Talmud commentary this week that adds a lot of intrigue to this story. According to the commentary, Potiphar originally bought Joseph for sexual purposes. This brought down the wrath of the angel Gabriel, who decided this sex/slave stuff was not appropriate and decided to castrate him. Subsequently he changed his name (or more likely, someone changed it for him) from Potiphar to the more feminine Potiphera. This might explain a lot of things, including why Potiphar’s wife was after Joseph in the first place.
Soooo, justice is served on Potiphar. And he can’t even hold a grudge against Joseph because Joseph is his son-in-law.
We can’t make this stuff up.
It’s Christmas Eve. What else we gonna talk about other than the birth stories?
Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that contain birth stories. Although most Biblical scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark open on the kitchen table for much of their narrative on Jesus’ teachings, both Matthew and Luke were on their own when devising Jesus’ birth story. And if you lay them side by side, you can tell how different they really are — despite Charlie Brown Christmas.
- Here’s the basic differences. One has wise men; the other has shepherds. One has a census; the other does not. One has a flight to Egypt; the other does not. One has a manger; the other has a house (that one surprised the Chief Editor too). The angel announces the pending birth to Joseph in one, Mary in the other.
- Bethlehem. Both manage to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth. That was necessary because of the Old Testament prophecy on the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. Matthew says they were residents there already. Luke has to devise the census story to get them from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Fun fact: There is no record of any kind of census in that area at that time.
- An alternative interpretation on Matthew. We ran across an article by Biblical researcher Robert Miller, who wrote a book entitled Born Divine. Miller asserts that most readers comingle Luke and Matthew’s stories, and assume they both talk about a virgin birth. But Miller argues that Matthew never said Jesus was born of a virgin. He believes that Matthew realized he had a problem to deal with — Jesus the Messiah was born of a mother who got pregnant before she was married. And he has to figure out how to explain that away. Matthew devotes a lot of space to talking about Joseph and the entire decision process. Plus Matthew devotes a lot of Chapter 1 on Jesus’ genealogy, which includes Tamar (see last week’s scandalous post) as well as several other women of ill repute. This was all meant to legitimize Jesus’ birth, but not to insinuate that Mary was was a virgin. Luke pretty much ignores all of this and simply says Mary was impregnated by God.
This week’s question of the week: Who saw Jesus first after the empty tomb — Mary Magdalene or Peter?
- Mark says that Mary Magdalene, along with two other women, find the empty tomb on the third day. But the original Mark stops there and has no appearance stories at all. Interesting side note: We say “the original Mark stopped there” because most scholars think verses 9+ from the last chapter, depicting appearances of Jesus afterward, were … how do we say … appended later by someone else.
- Matthew and John both have Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene before any of the disciples. Mary Magdalene and the ‘other’ Mary find the empty tomb, and later on Jesus appears to the women. It is not until after the disciples escape toGalilee that Jesus appears to them.
- Luke leaves the women out of the picture, writing that Jesus appeared only to the male followers. But Luke also wrote Acts, Paul’s major marketing pamphlet. And Paul did not like women to have any kind of power in the church, let alone be the first to see Jesus. Paul’s sparse account of the resurrection also makes no mention of the women, and succinctly says that Jesus appeared fist to Peter.
This Peter vs Mary thing continues in some of the “other” gospels that did not make the cut. For example, in the Gospel of Thomas, Peter asks Mary to leave because, “women are not worthy of life.” And in the Gospel of Mary, Peter argues that surely Jesus would not have revealed his secrets to a woman.
So there’s that.
The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, including the Temple in 70 CE. All of Paul’s epistles were written before the destruction. All the Gospels were written after — Mark and Matthew both within 20 years. Today let’s look at what the author of Mark might have been thinking as he penned his account.
The Chief Editor is not usually big on symbolism (or metaphysical interpretations). But sometimes we just gotta do it. And although our 3BT staff is talented, we certainly did not think these up on our own. Big thanks to the writings of Shelby Spong for these observations.
- Symbols — Judas. We are not 100% sure Judas was a real person (Paul never mentions the name or the betrayal). But note that the name Judas is similar to Judah, land of the Jewish people. If we follow this thought, Mark’s narrative uses Jesus as a symbol for separation from the established Jewish system. In another part of Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ transfiguration, he is saying the light of God has shifted away from the Temple and onto Jesus.
- More symbols — John the Baptist. Mark also sets up John the Baptist as the symbolic (or maybe real) return of Elijah. This is significant because the Jewish texts said that Elijah was supposed to precede the Messiah. Both wore a camel hair shirt and a girdle (think leather apron like a blacksmith). And they both ate locusts and honey.
- And more symbols — Jewish holidays. The Jews have a series of religious ceremonies and holidays they celebrate every year. Jesus’ followers, for around 40 years anyway, would have participated in all those observances. Over that 40-year period, the oral stories about Jesus kept getting more and more entwined with the history and festivals of the Jews. By the time Mark sets quill to parchment, he decides to arrange his entire account around these Jewish holidays. It culminates with the crucifixion taking place within the Passover. This is symbolic because of the slaughter of the lamb in Passover ceremonies.
If we follow the timeline here, it seems like the idea of Jesus being the Messiah may have evolved slowly over time. And when Mark wrote his Gospel soon after the destruction of the Temple, the time was right to solidify this idea in writing.
Mark was the first Gospel, written probably in the 70s CE by a 2nd generation Christian (i.e. someone who had never met Jesus). Mark was written in Greek, not Aramaic (Jesus’ language). In the original form (not that we have the original manuscript), it had no punctuation, no spaces spaces between words, no chapters, no sentences, no verses. That was the thing back then. Punctuation was added hundreds of years later.
With that intro, let’s do a quick comparison between Paul and Mark on the life and death of Jesus. Reminder, Paul’s letters were actually written first. And even though Paul never met Jesus, he did meet Jesus’ brother James. And Peter. They did not like each other very much.
- Jesus’ death. Paul says, “He died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” That’s it. No last supper, no Garden of Gethsemane, no betrayal at midnight, etc. Mark provides all these details. On Jesus’ burial, Paul says, “He was buried.” No tomb, no Joseph of Arimathea, etc. Mark adds all these.
- The Resurrection. Here Paul provides a little more substance. We would expect that because the Resurrection is Paul’s primary message. But even with that, Paul’s descriptions are sparse. Paul simply says, “He rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul also talks about how Jesus “appeared” to Cepheus, the twelve (was Judas replaced?), James, and finally to Paul himself (six years later). But the Greek word “appeared” is open to a variety of meanings. Scholars such as Bishop Shelby Spong are not sure if Paul means it physically or spiritually. Nevertheless, there is no empty tomb, no angels, no visit of the women, and no angelic messenger in Paul. Mark adds all these.
- Miracles. Paul says nothing about Jesus being a teacher or about any miracles. Mark starts both of these ideas.
Question of the week: In which of Paul’s letters do we get his real theology?
John was the last Gospel written, likely at the end of the first century. John is the only gospel to contain the story of Jesus’ turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. And the guests remark about how it is so much better than the first wine that was served. Let’s take an alternative view of this story.
- Why is this listed first? John starts off (after the preamble about the Word), with Jesus at the wedding. No virgin birth. No John the Baptist. No forty days in the wilderness. For John, this miracle story must have been significant. But why?
Brian Muraresku wrote a recent book titled The Immortality Key, The Secret History of the Religion with No Name. In his book, Brian posits two theories about the significance of turning the water into wine at Cana.
- Connection to the Roman god. The Greek/Roman god of wine was Dionysus. But some of the Greek festivals associated with Dionysus were limited to the upper echelons of society. And even the Roman government was starting to crack down on some of these Dionysian festivals. Muraresku believes the story in John was an attempt to a) make a clandestine connection between Jesus and Dionysus and b) to make it obvious that Jesus was a god for all classes of people.
- And then there’s the wine itself. The land of Canaan was well-know for its wine production. It was also known for its herb production; more specifically, hallucinogenic herbs. Muraresku believes that what made the wine at Cana so special was the extra psychedelic kick coming from a few well portioned additives to the wine jars.
Isn’t that a hoot? But what if .. just what if … it is true? The Chief Editor has sent a query to reputable New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, to get a reality check. We’ll report back in a future edition.
Paul was not the most like-able guy. Nor was he the most dynamic speaker. There is a story in Acts about a young man falling asleep In the middle of one of Paul’s sermons. He was sitting on a window ledge and fell out. Paul, not to be deterred, healed the man … and carried on.
Likewise, sometimes when Paul tries to offer pastoral counseling to his congregants, he can come across … how should we say … bristly. Take, for instance, his letters to the Corinthians #1stcenturymegachurch.
- The behaviors. The folks at Corinth were taking some of the early Christian ideas a little too far. For example, some were using the Eucharist as an excuse to drink … a lot; some of them were doubling down on their sinful activity, then playing the “salvation” card as a way to atone for these additional sins; finally (and this is where Paul really got his drawers in a knot), the women of Corinth were arguing that they should be equal to men in the church. Their logic: Paul’s own words, “in Christ there is neither male nor female”.
- The reprimand. Paul can’t help himself. There are certain generational and cultural biases that even Paul can’t alter. After addressing some of their other questionable behaviors, he finally says what he really thinks: I forbid a woman to have authority over a man! Yep, that pretty much clears things up. And we can see those male patriarchs up in Corinth waving that letter around town on the day it came in the mail. We’re also pretty sure things at home were a little tense that night.
- Some random other stuff. I Corinthians is probably a single letter. But most scholars think II Corinthians is a composite of maybe four other letters,. Sometimes you can tell because there are verses that do not flow from the text surrounding them. Why would the early Christians not preserve Paul’s letters intact? You gotta appreciate that these were letters, not holy doctrine at the time. So some of them may have been trashed. And copying letters was laborious and expensive at the time. So II Corinthians may have been an expedient way of preserving only Paul’s “most important” paragraphs.
Last week we talked about Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. The folks up there were impatient for the second coming that Paul had promised them. And yet nothing had happened after a couple of years. They were beginning to think they had been sold a bill of goods. In Paul’s first letter up there he had to tell them to ‘buck up, it won’t be long now.’
Things in Galatia was different. In Galatia, Paul’s message about Jesus was being delivered out of the Jewish synagogue. And it was attracting a lot of local gentiles. You gotta think everyone knew that this was not going to end well.
- How was Paul’s message different? Paul had decided his traditional Jewish education was not working for him. His main message was that Christ alone was all you need for salvation. All those rituals required of strict Judaism? No need. Kosher diet? Superfluous. Circumcision? You gotta be kidding. This really pissed off the local Jewish leaders.
- So what do you do if you’ve got an individual causing rifts in your local congregation? You appeal to the big guns in Jerusalem — Peter and James (Jesus’ brother). According to Peter and James, contrary to what Paul said, believers in Jesus were expected to participate in all the traditional Jewish rituals. All of them. Paul fought back, attacking both Peter and James in his letters. And while he was at it, he berated the Galatians for abandoning his message about Jesus and retracting back into the traditional Judaism. Paul was not a patient man.
- How did it end? It’s hard to tell. It is not likely Paul and Peter ever shared a glass of wine together. But it is interesting that Acts (written 20 years later, after Peter was killed by Nero) says that Peter converted to Paul’s way of viewing things. Sure he did.