Is God Spirit, Anthropomorphic, or Both?

This week we digress from the main story of Moses to address how God appears in different formats in the Old Testament. Here’s what we mean:

  • Spirit or Man-like? Genesis 1 describes God as omniscient and omnipresent when he creates the universe. But Genesis 2 (i.e. Adam & Eve) describes God as an anthropomorphic being who forms Adam out of mud and wanders around the Garden of Eden looking for A&E. 
  • Anthropomorphic examples. Most of the memorable God-events in the Old Testament come when God appears either as an angel or as an earthly being.
    • God wrestles with Jacob and actually breaks a thigh bone during the tussle.
    • God (and two other angels) eat dinner with Abraham in his tent one night.  
    • God speaks to Moses out of a burning bush.
    • And just last week we described an altercation between Moses and God, leading to an emergency circumcision and a creepy verse about what happened to the foreskin. So there’s that.

So which is it? Is God the omnipresent ephemeral being ‘out there’ someplace? Or does God regularly appear in the form of angels and human-like beings? 

  • Different authors; different time periods.Part of the confusions is because  there were multiple authors for the Old Testament. (The books were not written by Moses.) Most biblical scholars think that Genesis 1 (which portrays God as an amorphous being), and all the Old Testament stories that describe God more akin to a spirit, were written by some guy in around 500 BCE. Genesis 2, with the anthropomorphic God who wrestles with people, gets mad, gets jealous, and does all kinds of human stuff, was written around 1,000 BCE.

You’ve got to have a lot of time (and several interns) to comb through the Old Testament to figure who wrote which verses. But that’s what biblical scholars … and their grad students …  do. And we are grateful to Professor Bart Ehrman and his grad students for that fine work.

Tamar — Not in my Sunday School class

This week we are going to switch it up a little and look at the Old Testament. In particular, Chapter 38 in Genesis. The chapter is about one of Jacob’s 12 sons — Judah. You remember those sons — the ones who sent Joseph off to Egypt. Let’s see if we can condense the first part of the story. 

  • Judah has three sons. He hooks up Son #1 with a woman named Tamar. Son #1 dies. He hooks up Son #2 with Tamar. Son #2 dies (there’s an embedded story in there about coitus interruptus as birth control). There is still Son #3, but neither he nor Judah are feeling real good about the pattern going on here. So while Judah is thinking about it, he takes off on a buddy’s trip to “shear the sheep.” Really. That’s what they called it in Genesis. It was a thing. And while he goes off with the sheep, he tells Tamar to go live with her father … indefinitely. 
  • But Tamar is having none of that. She sees where this is going. So here’s the plan:  She dresses up like a prostitute with a veil, and positions herself along the road she knows Judah will take on his way back from “sheep shearing.” They negotiate a deal (this must not have been Judah’s first rodeo). where she comes away with his signet, cord, and staff. Tamar becomes pregnant. And Judah accuses her of being a prostitute (she must have kept the veil on). As Judah is about to burn her at the stake, she pulls out the signet, cord, and staff. Oooops. 
  • What makes this more interesting. Tamar goes on to have two sons, and is listed in the direct genealogy line of Jesus in Matthew’s first chapter. The 3BT interns searched for possible Christian interpretations for this story. The best we got was this metaphysical interpretation:  In the journey from sense to Spirit the soul passes through many phases, misdirects its faculties, and practices multitudinous forms of dissipation or waste.

Sure. That pretty much sums up a great story about patriarchy, misogyny, and human frailties. And we’re pretty sure that Mrs. Wilson, our 6th grade Sunday School teacher, would never have touched it.

We got inspired to tackle this story when we ran across a YouTube lecture on Genesis 38 over on the Patheos website. It was entertaining and thought-provoking; two concepts we embrace here at 3BT. Here’s the link if you want to hear about it first-hand (with even more sarcasm than here).

Finishing Up Joseph and the Family in Egypt

This week we wrap up the story of Joseph and the family in Egypt. In the last few chapters of Genesis Jacob finally makes his way to Egypt to join the rest of the family. Side-note: Jacob is also called Israel, and both names are used interchangeably throughout the text. Confusing? Yes. Helpful? No.

  • Joseph is still in charge of food distribution in the famine. And he’s pretty ruthless. First, the poor people of Egypt give all their money to the rich to buy food. When the money runs out, Joseph makes them give up their livestock. When that runs out Joseph makes them give up their land. Eventually Joseph arranges to provide seed to the people, but takes a 20% cut from the crop yield. Funny how we did not get that part of the story in Sunday School.
    • In case you were wondering, Joseph and the family are just fine. So are the religious leaders. 
  • Finally, it is time for Jacob to die. He is 147 years old, and the 22nd oldest person in the Bible. In chapter 49, he calls out each of his sons for a final word. Not all the sons get accolades.
    • He curses the eldest son Reuben for ‘doing it’ with one of Jacob’s concubines on Jacob’s couch. That was 40 years ago.
    • He also curses two other brothers (Simeon and Levi) for a a combination of forced circumcision followed by an immediate attack on a village back in Canaan. The other nine sons get various levels of blessing. 
    • Who are these people?
  • And an entourage of 70 people make the journey back to Canaan to bury Jacob. Pharaoh sends several representatives too. It is unclear if that was meant as a tribute to Jacob, or whether he just wanted to keep an eye on Joseph, his best government administrator.

On the way back, the brothers ‘find’ a letter from Jacob clearly instructing Joseph to forgive his brothers for any past transgressions. Evidently, Joseph bought it because that’s where Genesis ends. As an endnote to the book, God said that he would help Joseph and the family leave this place and return to “the promised land.” God is silent on how long it’s gonna take.

We acknowledge Hemant Mehta over at TheFriendlyAtheist.com for his comprehensive, pithy, and entertaining YouTube series on Joseph. 

Charades in Egypt — Joseph and the Brothers

Last time we left Joseph working the cash register during the famine in Egypt. We now bring in the brothers. You remember … the ones who sold him into slavery a few years earlier. They are now at home with Dad (Jacob) in Canaan. Things are not going well there … because there’s a famine. And the brothers take off for Egypt to see if they can get some help. Dad and the youngest brother Benjamin stay home. Dad must have been suspicious about the last time he sent out one of the youngest brothers with the older ones.

  • The brothers appear before Jacob. This is where the charades begin. How could all 10 brothers not recognize Joseph? And when they leave to go back to Canaan the first time, how could they not know their sacks were filled with silver? And once they got back to Canaan (with a ton of food) why did they sit around for a year or so eating that food while one of the brothers was being held as a hostage back in Egypt?
  • Joseph finally makes the big reveal when the brothers return. But he says everything’s OK between them because it was God who made all this happen. No hard feelings. OK? But Joseph does rub it in a little when he tells them to go back and tell Dad which brother was the biggest success in the family. And still there’s no explanation for all the charades, the hostage taking, and the trips back and forth to Canaan. 
  • Searching for reasons. The Chief Editor will likely never fully embrace metaphysical thinking on these stories. Nevertheless, we had the interns dig out some of the more interesting metaphysical interpretations from the Unity playbook. 
    • What does Joseph represent? The highest perception of Truth, expressing through the imaging faculty in physical consciousness (Egypt), is represented by Joseph.
    • Why the multiple trips to Egypt by the brothers? The first trip was in preparation for the final reconciliation that was to take place between the intellect and the body. We cannot have a joyous reunion of soul and body unless we are willing let the higher thoughts (Joseph) descend into the subconsciousness (Egypt).
    • What does the “land of Egypt” represent? Metaphysically, the “land of Egypt” represents the subconscious mind. It is the realm of substance and life in body consciousness. 

    OMG. We know some of our readers love this metaphysical stuff. And we’re pretty sure our outside metaphysical consultant will be drafting a strongly worded email to the Chief Editor later this morning. But the Chief Editor just does not get it.

Mark on the last days of Jesus

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.

More Sex Scandals in Genesis

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.

Did Matthew Really Think Mary was a Virgin?

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.

Who Saw Jesus First — Mary Magdalene or Peter?

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. 

Influence of “The Times” on Mark

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 vs Paul on Jesus

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?