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. 

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.

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.

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.

Did Mark Write Mark?

We’ll get back to Moses next week. But the Chief Editor opted to spend last Sunday afternoon listening to Professor Bart Ehrman lecture on the Gospel of Mark. Yep … it’s come to this for how to spend Sunday afternoon. But the lecture itself was  pretty good. And here are some key insights on Mark that the Chief Editor learned:

  • Who was the author of Mark? It was not until about 180 CE that the church elders labeled the author of this gospel as Mark. The author never identifies himself as Mark. And no one knows who he was. Only that he wrote the gospel in Greek, probably wrote it in Rome, and was not Jewish, but more likely a converted pagan. 
  • Do we have an original manuscript? We do not have anything close to the original manuscript of Mark (or any of the books of the Bible). The oldest reasonably full manuscript is from around 200 CE, and the first truly complete manuscript is from 370 CE. That means there were several decades of re-copying and editing before getting to what we see today. Professor Ehrman emphasized that the copyists were not professional scribes, and had no idea they were creating something that was going to be considered a holy book for future generations. The typical copyist was more likely some retired guy who volunteered to help out by making a few copies for some of the other churches in the area. 
  • The ending of Mark. Professor Ehrman discussed the original ending of Mark (shown in the panel below with the parchment background) vs the later addendum (also shown below). The short ending corresponds with the tone of the rest of Mark — people were afraid, and Jesus kept warning people not tell anyone about his miracles. But later on, the Christian elders wanted a narrative about a resurrection … plus some other things. So one of those scribes added the rest of the verses (scholars can tell they are different by the writing style). This is where we get the endorsements for snake handling and drinking poison. We wonder if those folks who practice these rituals today know that it was most likely some retired guy recruited as a scribe who inserted that sentence in the back of the gospel of Mark?

Was Jesus Always Considered Divine?

In today’s post, we’ll look at just when the early Christians thought Jesus became Divine. Was he already Divine while he was alive? Or did he become Divine after he was resurrected? Or something else entirely? We admit that this borders on a debate about the number of angels on the head of a pin, but we’ll try to make it interesting.

  •  Didn’t everyone who followed Jesus think he was the son of God? Maybe some did. But many merely thought that Jesus was a very good teacher, and a good man. But they did not think he was a direct incarnation of God.
  • What does Jesus say about himself in the Gospels? This is kinda complicated because the Gospels were not eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, and were written several decades after Jesus’ death. We acknowledge that certain passages in the Gospels indicate that Jesus identified himself as one with God, or maybe even Divine. But Biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman say it is not clear whether Jesus actually made these statements. Dr. Ehrman posits that Jesus probably thought he was a regular guy during his lifetime, but he was going to return at the end of times (which was supposed to be really really soon) as the Divine Messiah. 
  • What did the disciples think? When Jesus was crucified, his disciples were totally shocked. This was not how it was supposed to turn out. But at some point (and this is where things get really murky), the early followers regained hope when some of them claimed they had seen Jesus and that he was alive again.  Word spread. And some (all?) of his followers believed it. According to Dr. Ehrman, the story of the resurrection meant that Jesus had really been favored by God after all.
    • But why was he not there to talk to people about it (except for the random visions)? More murkiness. The story evolved over time that it was because Jesus had gone to heaven to be with God. 

Soooo, it looks like in the period right after Jesus’ death, most of his followers had the idea that a) Jesus was human while he was living here on earth, but b) became a Divine being after his death and resurrection. This way of thinking evolved over the centuries, amid years of Roman persecution, a split from Judaism, and in-fighting among various Christian sects. Eventually we get to the Council in Nicaea in 325 CE, where the majority vote was that Jesus had always been the Divine Son of God, even during his life on earth. Period. No further debate. Moving on.

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.

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.

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.