Zombies and Matthew

The interns have been trying to decipher this one from Matthew 27: 52-53 for a couple of weeks now:  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Geeez, what do we do with this?

  • Matthew is the only gospel that has this story. It was penned sometime after 70 CE, well after the early Christians thought the second coming should have happened. Some scholars speculate that these verses may have been added at some point after Matthew initially hit ‘send.’ Our VP of Metaphysical Studies speculates that Matthew (or a later editor) inserted these sentences to assure early Christians that their deceased relatives would come back to life eventually, when the second coming actually occurred.
  • Surely this is a metaphor? You’d think so. Actually, Michael Licona, one of the more well-known Christian writers (who has had civilized debates with Professor Bart Ehrman on these Biblical issues) wrote a book on the resurrection, including a discussion of this verse (The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach). Interestingly, Licona argues in favor of an actual physical resurrection of Jesus, but also argues that this other event is a metaphor for dissolving the veil between life and death. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jimerwin/2013/10/27/matthew-2750-54-zombie-apocalypse-not/  Or maybe, as our VP opined, it represents dissolving the barrier between God and the individual.

We’re just gonna stop here. 

Did Moses Write the First Five Books?

Lots of folks think Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. Probably not.

  • When did Moses live? Probably around the 13th century BCE. But this assumes Moses was a real person. Scholars still debate whether he was real or a symbolic character. Or whether he may even have been the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, who ‘found him in the water.’ 
  • When were the first five books written? It’s hard to say exactly. They were assembled over multiple centuries, first as oral traditions and later committed to writing. The most aggressive guesses for the first drafts are somewhere around the 900 BCE range. 
  • So then Moses could have been the oral originator? Maybe. But there are several sections that make that seem unlikely:
    • There is an account of the death of Moses, and lots of stories afterward. For example, there is an account in Judges of how the Israelites came under subjugation after they settled in Canaan (this all happened after Moses died).
    • There’s a verse in Numbers describing Moses as ‘the most humble man on the face of the earth.’ The world’s most humble man probably would not have written that. 
    • Camels were not domesticated in the region in the time of Moses, despite being mentioned multiple times in Genesis.

If we were to get into it (for more than three bullets), there are a lot of inconsistencies throughout the first five books. Writing styles are different. Stories contradict each other (e.g. two different creation stories). And descriptions of the Jewish relationship to God differs — sometimes God is described as an angry, jealous God and sometimes God is more of an intangible spirit that sends messages through dreams. Most Biblical scholars think that ultimately three or four main writers took quill to parchment. Moses was not one of them.

Last week’s question. The interns are still working on that zombie apocalypse at the end of Matthew that we mentioned last week.

Tip of the hat to Bart Ehrman and James Tabor for their great (and readable) work on the Old Testament.

How Did the New Testament Come Together?

Retraction. Yep, sometimes our Quality Assurance department misses things. In several of our 3BT posts over the last few years, we have said that the bishops at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE voted on which books would make the cut for the New Testament. We probably lifted that straight from The DaVinci Code.  And we were wrong. The Council of Nicaea was called by Constantine to debate the all-important issue of whether Jesus and God were equal, or whether Jesus came after God and was therefore a lesser God. Constantine didn’t care which side was correct; he just wanted to coerce all the bishops across the empire to agree on one or the other and stop bickering.

The first time we see a mention of the 27 books of today’s NT is in 367 CE, in a letter from Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. This was well after the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. So if it wasn’t at the Council in 325, how did the NT come together? 

  • Criteria. First, any book that made it into the New Testament canon had to be old — let’s use pre-120 as a benchmark. And it had to be attributed to a disciple or follower of Jesus. How’d they determine that? It was not a matter of forensics or handwriting analysis. Authorship was passed on word of mouth. So you can imagine how easy it may have been a forgery (or several) to slip in under the name of Paul or Peter. Even today, Biblical scholars cannot agree on which books are authentic and which were written by a different author.
  • Early versions. The first version of the New Testament was 10 letters from Paul, plus the Gospel of Luke (written by Paul’s traveling companion). This was put together by a guy (Marcion) in the early 2nd century. Marcion did not like the Jewish version of Christianity, and so excluded certain books accordingly. Fun fact:  Even Luke himself (Chapter 1) says there were earlier versions of the Gospels that had been written before him. 
  • There’s always something. The early Christian groups all had their own ideas of who God was, who Jesus was, how salvation worked, etc. And all of them thought they were endorsing the “true” Christianity. So despite Marcion’s attempt to narrow the NT canon down to his ideal, after he died the other church elders decided to be more inclusive. They brought in the other three gospels, plus writings from Peter, James, John, and Jude. 

Over the first four centuries, the 27 books just kinda fell into place as the New Testament. Various Christian denominations list different dates for when they officially ‘accepted’ the NT canon. The Orthodox Christians recognized it in 692 CE. The Church of England weighed in finally in 1563. None of these were mentioned by Dan Brown in his novels.

We acknowledge all the great work by Professor Bart Ehrman, and his blog site which helps decipher these complex issues.

Question of the week. At the end of Matthew 27, there’s this:

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

What? Is this a real event or symbolic? We’ll see if the interns can figure this one out for next week.

Was Jesus a Zealot?

If you are remotely familiar with the Gospels, you have probably heard about Jesus and his tirade at the Temple, where he overturned the money-changer tables during Passover. Pretty radical stuff, right? Some conspiracy circles view this as a subversive attempt by Jesus and his band of zealots to take over the Temple. Let’s lay out a few bullets on this issue. 

  • It is not totally out of the question. In his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Rena Aslan makes a good case that Jesus was one of many militant leaders roaming ancient Palestine. More specifically:
    • Jesus followed John the Baptist. Both preached the imminent arrival of a physical kingdom of God to take over the earth. 
    • Jesus opposed Rome, the Temple priests, the wealthy Jewish aristocracy, and Herod. 
    • Tthe Gospels say that Jesus actually used phrases about about bringing the sword to the world, not peace. 
    • The grand entry into Jerusalem as described in the Gospels is not exactly a low-key event. 
    • One of Jesus’ followers is called Simon the Zealot. James and John were nicknamed “Sons of Thunder.” And many scholars think that Judas was a zealot, and one of the reasons for the betrayal was that Jesus was not willing to take a hard stand against the Romans. 
  • But maybe not. Jesus also said taxes should be paid to Caesar per the law. And if Jesus had been the leader of a band of insurrectionists, it seems likely that the Romans would have arrested the entire gang, instead of just Jesus, on the night of his arrest. And realistically, it is not likely the table-turning event was an attempt to overthrow the Temple. The Temple itself was huge — at least 4×4 city blocks. So even if Jesus and his disciples had wanted to foment a riot, they would not have created a security threat … at least for very long. 
  • So why was Jesus crucified? We are not quite sure. The Gospels are inconsistent (for another 3BT post). Left alone, the Romans may not have cared one way or another about an itinerant preacher from Galilee with a small group of followers. One plausible theory is that the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, invented a story about Jesus that offended most traditional Jews, and simultaneously planted enough concern in Pilate about a possible mass insurrection. That would do it. 

Fun fact. And it is not clear if the money-changer table incident took place in the early part of Jesus’ ministry, or in the last week. All four gospels agree that it was during Passover. But John has it early in the ministry. The other three have it in his last week.

Moses, Leavening, and Free Will

Let’s get back to Moses. Did you ever notice how the Bible (especially the Old Testament) repeats a lot of the same things? Part of it is because the Chief Editor of the OT had to piece together multiple, overlapping sources. Part of it is just bad editing. But here we go with more on Moses and the upcoming exodus:

  • What are the Israelites doing to prepare? Soooo Moses has called down nine plagues on the Egyptians, and Pharaoh still won’t let the Israelites go. But Moses thinks the release is coming soon, so he advises his people to borrow jewelry and other stuff from their neighbors to … you know … take with them on the way out. Yep, it’s right here:

Exodus 3:22, NIV: Every woman is to ask her neighbor and any woman living in her house for articles of silver and gold and for clothing, which you will put on your sons and daughters. And so you will plunder the Egyptians.

  • Whose responsibility? Exodus says several times that ‘God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.’ And that’s why he continued to stonewall Moses and refused to let the Israelites go, even after multiple demonstrations of God’s power. If this is so, how can we label Pharaoh as an evil ruler since God determined Pharaoh’s decisions? What happened to free will? 
  • Leaven and sin. In the chapters leading up to the actual departure, God spends a lot of energy focusing on unleavened bread. The 3BT research team reports that leavening (i.e. yeast) is used throughout the Bible as the symbol for … you guessed it … sin.  Soooo, in a totally symbolic (and ironic) literary moment, Exodus focuses on eliminating sin from the Jewish nation, while God is sending plagues onto the Egyptians, their animals, and their first-born sons. Plus, we also find out that the Israelites have their own slaves, which they take with them on their way out of town. Along with their neighbors’ valuables. 

So many enigmas here that were not covered in Mrs. Wilson’s Sunday school class. What are the authors of Exodus trying to demonstrate?

More on Gnosticism

Last week we had a surprising number of letters to the editor (i.e. three) expressing an interest in learning a little more about Gnosticism. It’s pretty bizarre, but definitely worth three bullets this week.

Here are the basic tenets:

  • Matter vs spirit. The Gnostics thought that everything is made up of matter and spirit. Spirit is good. Matter (e.g. the body) is bad.
  • Myths. This is where the going gets weird. Grab a beverage.
    • Before there was Earth … or anything … there was a universal God that was comprised of pure spirit.  
    • There were also a bunch of divine entities emanating from this divine God. They were called Aeons (just go with it). The Aeons made up this thing called the Divine Realm.
    • Everything was great until one day, one of the Aeons (Wisdom) fell from the Universe. And it caused a cosmic disaster. Ultimately, this lesser divine being created the Earth (that was the bizarre part — the big God did not create Earth). And after that Wisdom broke up into a lot of individual spiritual pieces. And these ended up inside us humans.
    • The goal of the Gnostic religion is to release that divine spark that was left within us. And we can do that by acquiring the ‘secret knowledge.’
    • Secret knowledge? Yeah, all good mystical belief systems have secret knowledge. According to the Gnostics, the secret knowledge is a discovery of who you are, where you came from, how you got here, and how you can return (sounds a lot like Buddhism).
    • Who can get secret knowledge if it is secret? That’s where the connection to Christianity comes in. Jesus came from the Divine realm to set us free from the material trappings of our body. And according to some Gnostic accounts, Jesus gave this knowledge to certain disciples (and Paul) after his resurrection. Unfortunately, the Nag Hammadi library documents don’t have those specific instructions.
  • Fake News. The more traditional Church fathers thought the Gnostics conducted wild sex orgies in their Sunday worship service. Ultimately they decreed that the Gnostics were heretics (because that’s what you do) and banned the Gnostics from the Christian church. Hence, the buried scripts at Nag Hammadi. In reality, the Gnostics did not have sex orgies, and they used the New Testament sources (especially John) as a basis for their doctrine.  

Where did we get this information? The Chief Editor has no first-hand knowledge of Gnosticism. So the R&D department watched Bart Ehrman’s lecture on Gnosticism, and reviewed the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia.

The Gospel of Thomas and Gnosticism

This week when we ran across a new site (to us) called Religion for Breakfast. It is produced by Dr. Andrew Henry. Despite being a doctor in religious studies, Dr. Andrew works with more secular publications such as The Atlantic. The Chief Editor believes this gives him additional credibility. Plus he is a younger guy and sports some awesome facial hair.

This week he talked about the Gospel of Thomas, which is as good a reason as any to post three bullets about it here.

  • Summary please. The Gospel of Thomas was found in Egypt in the 1940s as part of the Nag Hammadi texts. The texts date back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries CE, possibly earlier. It’s 114 sayings of Jesus. No narratives. No sermons. Some of the sayings are similar to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But many scholars believe the G of T was produced by the Gnostic splinter group of early Christians. 
  • Gnostic splinter group? Yes, contrary to most Christian church publications, there was not a uniform system of beliefs that evolved spontaneously after Jesus’ life on earth. One of these groups was called the Gnostics. They had an interesting set of beliefs:
    • There were two Gods — one good (Monad) and one not-so-good (Demiurge). The bad one set up Adam & Eve for failure in the Garden.
    • There was no physical resurrection, but the soul of Jesus (and everyone else) escapes the wretched physical body at death and continues on in the ethereal realm.
    • There were some secret sayings by Jesus that only a few people know about. For example, Judas and Jesus had a ‘talk’ in private right before the betrayal.
  • Why did the Gospel of Thomas miss the cut? A few reasons. 1) the primary four gospels had already been making the rounds and had gained an exclusive fan club in the Christian community before the G of T was published. 2) The early church leaders considered the Gnostic system of beliefs to be the arch-heresy of all heresies. 3) The early church leaders thought the Gnostics ate babies during communion. 

Well, that was fun.

Did Jesus Teach About the Soul and Afterlife?

This week we are going to look at whether Jesus actually said anything about the promise of an eternal afterlife for the soul. The short answer is “No.”

  • Jesus was a traditional Jew. In the 1st century, most Jews who thought about these things did not believe there was a separate soul that was different from the body. The body and the soul were one (e.g. God formed man out of the dust). And when the body died, so did the soul. It was the Greeks who developed the idea about souls being separated from the body. 
  • Jesus thought the apocalypse was going to happen soon … like next week. In the apocalypse, God would return to punish the wicked and reward the pious. This was going to be true no matter how long the body had been dead. Dead bodies would come back to life. And their souls with them. Thinking this was imminent, Jesus urged people to repent and get right with God. Most had better things to do. And a lot of folks (think the ones with big houses) saw his teachings as potentially dangerous to the status quo. This ultimately led to his arrest and crucifixion. 
  • Soooo how do we get current Christian doctrine about heaven/hell/soul etc.? That all came about after Jesus’ death. Most of the converts to Christianity were pagans (i.e. non-Jewish). They were more open to the idea that the soul could be separate from the body. Plus, once the idea of Jesus’ resurrection (physical or otherwise) gained momentum in the late 1st century, the church leaders framed up the early Christian doctrine to include a separate and eternal soul. That has largely stayed in place to today.

Moses Negotiates with Pharaoh — Kinda

When we left Moses the last time, he was busy wrestling with God in a tent but had not done a lot to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Now we get into some good drama.

  • Early negotiations. Moses (and his brother Aaron who does most of the talking) go to Pharaoh several times over the course of Chapters 7-13.  First they try to influence Pharaoh using tricks with the magic staff (Moses and Aaron are both in their 80s, so picture talent night at the Senior Center). This does not work too well, largely because Pharaoh’s magicians can go toe to toe with Moses. Then they go back and forth with Pharaoh, calling down one plague after another. Pharaoh capitulates and then reneges over and over again. Ultimately, we get 10 plagues.

                       1. Nile turns into blood.
                       2. Frogs appear; then die. Think of the stench.
                       3. Lice.
                       4. Flies.
                       5. Pestilence from fire ash.
                       6. Boils caused by the pestilence.
                       7. Hailstorm destroying crops and livestock. More stench.
                       8. Locusts destroying more crops.
                       9. Darkness for 3 days.
                     10. Death to first born Egyptian sons.

  • Natural phenomena?  The 3BT research staffers consulted with the Biblical Archeology Society (BAS) archives. The BAS people had some interesting observations. Some researchers have connected the Egyptian plagues to natural phenomena that were possible in ancient Egypt. Torrential rains in Ethiopia could have sent red clay (“blood”) into the Nile, which could have caused a migration of frogs, further causing lice and flies, which caused the death of cattle and human boils. A Libyan dust storm could have caused the three days of darkness.
  • Literary devices. Both the BAS people and various religious sources posited that the 10 plagues were each directed at a specific Egyptian God, essentially proving the the Israelite God was better than theirs. And then there’s the metaphysical interpretations, which are always fun because no one can really argue against them. We found these two from the TruthUnity.net site to be the most interesting
    • Pharaoh’s reluctance and fluctuations about letting the people go illustrate the position our personal ego takes when spiritual growth offers a threat to its domination in our lives. Materialistic and sensual self-interest (Pharaoh) is not easily convinced to make way for spiritual commitment
    • The various plagues are broad, general references to painful manifestations caused by negative thinking and emotions. The plagues are symbolic of useless, unnecessary suffering caused by ignorance and selfishness.

See? Can’t argue.

Was Jesus God or the Son of God?

Last week we figured out that Jesus’ early followers probably did not think he was a god (or THE God). But the church authorities in the late 1st century developed the concept of Jesus being God, probably with an eye toward expanding the market for Christianity to the gentile population. But the church fathers created a real conundrum when they made Jesus equal to God: Was Jesus the Son of God or was Jesus THE God. 

  • Did Jesus say he was God? We have no eyewitness accounts of what Jesus actually said about that matter (or any matter). But in the first three Gospels, Jesus never calls himself God. And none of his disciples thought he was God. The only Gospel that really broaches the subject is John, which was written 70 years after Jesus’ death. Jesus may have said he was the messiah, but that refers more to being king over Israel (possibly in the expected apocalypse). It does not equate to Jesus saying he was God.
  • How did this get resolved? This was all ironed out in the 4th century under Emperor Constantine, who had either a) an epiphany of Christ or b) a political realization that the Christians had become a critical mass that needed to be appeased. He called together everyone who was anyone in the Christian church to Nicaea. After suffering through days and weeks in a smoke filled room, the church leaders voted and agreed that Jesus was both 100% God and 100% human. And although the vote was split, they also passed the resolution that Jesus had always been equal with God the Father. So when you’re mindlessly reciting one of those creeds during Sunday morning service, remember … it was negotiated.
  • But that almost says there are two gods (maybe three with the Holy Spirit). Exactly. We assigned the 3BT interns to look for answers to this dilemma at the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) website. The interns had a real challenge figuring this one out, just like all those Christian bishops at Nicaea. For example, Jesus did a lot of praying. Theoretically, he must have been praying to THE God. But that would not make sense if Jesus were already THE God. And if Jesus was God while he was here, did he really feel anything human (that one caused quite a rift in the community in the 2nd century). The best the interns could come up with is “it’s a paradox.” Here’s what the CARM people said to wrap up their essay on it:  So, when we say that Jesus is God, we are saying that he is divine by nature. He is, after all, the second person of the Trinity. But when we say that Jesus is the Son of God, we are saying that he is also God since that is what the phrase means.

That pretty much clears things up (sarcasm intended). We’re going back to Moses next week. It is much more straightforward dealing with magic staffs, plagues, and snakes.