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?

Fun with Genealogy — Matthew

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. 

Paul Can’t Help Himself — Clarity to the Corinthians

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. 

Trouble Brewing in Galatia

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.

Which Was Paul’s First Letter?

Let’s take up Paul’s letters, written sometime between 50-60 CE.

Which letter was the first one? You might think that Romans was first because it appears first in the New Testament. Nope. Back in the day, the church authorities decided to arrange the epistles according to … length. Romans is the longest of Paul’s letters. Philemon is the shortest. And yes, there are New Testament books after Philemon, but they were not written by Paul. Thessalonians was chronologically the first, written around 52 CE.

What was happening in Thessalonica to cause Paul to write a letter? Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia (just north of Greece). The people there had become disenchanted with the whole Roman gods system and were looking for something else just as Paul came along on one of his early missionary trips. They kinda liked this new offshoot of Judaism (not called Christianity yet). But they were growing a little impatient waiting for the return of the kingdom of God that Paul had promised was imminent.

So what do you do if you hear about this unrest in 52 CE? You write them an inspirational letter. You encourage them to “stay the course … it won’t be long now.“ How inspiring was it? Ummmm, maybe something got lost in all the translations between then and now. Or maybe you just had to be there to get the full Paul effect in I Thessalonians. 

Question of the week:  Chronologically, which was Paul’s second letter?

Even More (and the last) Fun Facts About the New Testament

This week we finish up with three final things taken from a pop quiz that New Testament Professor Bart Ehrman gives his University of North Carolina students at the beginning of the school year. 

  • Name four gospels not in the New Testament
    • Gospel of Peter. Containing a detailed account of the resurrection.
    • Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Jesus could be a brat if he wasn’t picked first for the kickball team.
    • Proto-Gospel of James. About Mary’s birth and conception.
    • Gospel of Thomas. A collection of sayings of Jesus. No narrative.
    • Gospels of Philip, Mary, and Judas. These are all Gnostic gospels.
  • What does the term “Gospel” mean? It’s an old English term for good news, or evangelical books. The significance here is that they are not called histories or biographies, and were not intended to be read that way.
  • Who carried Jesus’ cross? It depends. Mark, Matthew and Ike say that Simon of Cyrene carried it. John says that Jesus himself carried it all the way. In one of the movie versions (Greatest Story Ever Told) the producers resolve the problem by having both Simon and Jesus carry it. Ok, then. But that’s not in the gospels.

Well, that was fun. We’ll return to Paul next week.

And if you want to see what the Chief Editor wrote about Gnosticism, check this out (it’s short and fairly interesting for a topic on Gnosticism):

MORE Fun Facts About the New Testament

We received a lot of positive emails last week about our random facts post. So we’re continuing this week with three more random things taken from a pop quiz that New Testament Professor Bart Ehrman gives his Univeristy of North Carolina students at the beginning of the school year. 

  • When was Jesus born? You’d think that would be an easy one. Nope. First, there is no Year Zero. We go from 1 BCE (Before Common Era) to 1 CE (Common Era). Sooooo, even if it were accurate (which it isn’t), which was it? It used to be BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) when the monks did up the first Christian calendar. But that Christian way of dating fell out of favor in academic circles several years ago.
  • Four years off. And while we’re at it, a monk named Dennis the Short calculated the starting point for the birth year of Jesus, counting back from his place at the table in the sixth century. Somewhere he must have transposed a number. His new calendar started with Jesus’ birth in Year 1. But the Gospels indicate that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BCE. We’ll bet that made for a bad performance review for Dennis that year.
  • Who wrote each of the Gospels? First, the title of each Gospel was based on the following:
    • Matthew. A disciple of Jesus.
    • Mark. Peter’s secretary.
    • Luke. Paul’s traveling companion.
    • John. A disciple of Jesus.
    • But none of these books were actually written by the people they were named for. They were all anonymous. The author never identifies himself in any of them. And the first actual record we have of the names of the four gospels is not until around 185 CE, a century after they were circulating. 

Some Fun Facts about the New Testament

Today we have three random things taken from a pop quiz that New Testament Professor Bart Ehrman gives his Univeristy of North Carolina students at the beginning of the school year. These are fun.

  • How many books are in the New Testament? The answer is 27. But the more interesting observation (if you are into numerology) is that it is three to the third power. 3x3x3. Trinity. Three. Is that fun or what?
    • The more intellectual meaning from the 27 books is that each was written by a different author, in a different time in history. Plus they are not arranged in chronological order. That is especially overlooked sometimes in studying the Gospels, which have several overlapping stories, but quite a few differences and even contradictions. 
  • Where and In what language were they written? We have talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Jesus’ native language was Aramaic. But the books of the New Testament were written in Greek. And they were not written in Israel, but in various places throughout the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Rome was probably the most western site.  Side note:  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew.
  • Why not Latin? Latin was spoken in the western part of the Roman Empire. But scholars believe most of the books were written in the eastern part, which was still dominated by Greek-speak. Plus Greek was the common language used for business and cultural exchange, much like English today. Having the New Testament books written in Greek made it easier for the Christian doctrine to spread across the entire Roman Empire.

What was Paul’s Thorn?

Let’s get to it:  Was Paul gay?

  • Paul says he is single. This in itself is very unusual for a Jewish male, and especially a Jewish religious leader, at the time. And Paul encourages his followers to remain single … if at all possible. But Paul admits that most people cannot control their sexual desires; they can get married.
  • Then there’s some of the other things Paul says. He talks about not being able to control his ‘member.’ OK, we’ll admit this is the English translation of the Greek. But it seems unlikely that it is a reference to having sin in his other appendages, such as arms and legs. And then:
    • “I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate”. (Romans 7)
    • “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it”. (Romans 7)
    • “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” (II Corinthians)
  • What if this is true? We acknowledge that there are multiple interpretations of Paul’s reference to his “thorn.” Some of the more traditional interpretations list an eye infection or some other non-controversial malady. But we can only imagine, if this interpretation is true, how much internal angst Paul must have gone through feeling his own natural inclinations were not in line with his religious beliefs.

What did Paul say (and not say)?

This week let’s talk about what Paul said (and didn’t say) about himself and about Jesus.

  • Paul was not short on ego. He calls himself “blameless under the law.” He claims he was the best student in his class in rabbinical school. And that he had advanced far beyond his peers in pursuit of holiness. We know he liked to talk … a lot. There’s a story in Acts about Paul talking for so long, he put a boy to sleep and he fell out of a window. Paul healed him, then continued speaking.
  • Road to Damascus thing? Many of us have heard about Paul’s conversion on the Road to Damascus. But that story was written in Acts, by the same author who wrote Luke. And it was written 30 years or so after Paul’s death. Paul himself never mentions a conversion experience on the Road to Damascus.
  • So what did Paul say about Jesus? Paul is steeped in Jewish tradition (just ask him). So it was natural for him to draw parallels between Jewish traditions and Jesus.
    • The lamb that was sacrificed during certain Yom Kippur became a parallel for Jesus being sacrificed. So when Christians take up the wine and the bread on Sunday morning (it was Welch’s grape juice and wafers in my church) and say “Jesus died for my sins,” they are re-enacting a Jewish ceremony that Paul likely started.
    • Paul even says that Jesus died “in accordance with the scriptures.” What was he referring to there? It’s a reference way back to II Isaiah, which talked a lot about an archetype called the “Servant.” The “Servant” was supposed to find meaning in absorbing the world’s pain, bearing hostility, and even enduring death. The Gospel writers (writing 20 years after Paul’s letters) took this idea and ran with it … with their own embellishments.