Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Leaving Blogger Due to Poor Service

The new blog is at Wordpress

It is a terrible disappointment that Blogger has chosen to coerce its existing users into using a new service. Since it was so deficient at enforcing and fulfilling the terms of its previous service, I have no hope that it will change its behavior now.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Mark 7, layer 2

(to be completed)

Mark 7, layer 1

This chapter begins with some discussion of ritual cleanliness. Jesus makes the radical assertion that all pollution arises from the heart. The implication is that the dietary laws, which place a heavy burden especially on the homemaker, are irrelevant.But rather than engage in that frontal assault, He harshly criticizes the Pharisees over their observance of the ritual washing of hands, a tradition but not a part of Mosaic Law.

Jesus points out that the Pharisees hold it acceptable for a man to devote his charity to the Temple and withhold it from his parents. Indeed, they prevent him from aiding his parents if he tells them that he is devoting his help to them as a gift to God. But in placing sacrifices to the Temple above caring for his parents, he has violated the more important parts of the Law.

The parable of the Syrophoenician woman is one of the oddest of the gospels. She comes to Jesus, prostrates herself before Him, and begs Him to cast a demon out of her daughter. He gives her a contemptuous response, to the effect that the Jews are God's children, and she is a dog. She captures the sense of God's grandeur by presenting the miracle of exorcism as merely a crumb that falls from the table. Jesus does not go to her house, but tells her that the demon is gone.

In the second miracle of the chapter, Jesus spits, touches the tongue of a deaf mute and, looking to heaven, sighs and commands "Be opened." The deaf mute can now hear and speak. Trying to do the miracle in reverse, Jesus tells the crowd to keep silence, but this He cannot achieve. They spread word of this miracle everywhere.

1. The practical consequences of denying the importance of cleanliness were not good. Western Europe lagged in sanitation, and even today many Christians are careless about passing illnesses around in the mistaken notion that bacteria and viruses are trumped by pleasant thoughts. This is an example of a teaching that illustrates Jesus's humanness and its inherent limitation.

2. In scolding the Pharisees for not understanding the scriptures, Jesus quotes an excellent chapter of Isaiah, chapter 29.

3. The place where Jesus speaks to the Pharisees and teachers of the law is not specified. However, the site for the first of the two miracles is specified as Tyre and the second as Decapolis (though manuscripts vary).

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mark 6, Layer 2

To be completed.

Mark 6, Layer 1

The centerpiece of this chapter is an explanation of how and why Herod Antipas (not the Herod featured in Matthew 2) murdered John the Baptist. But it also includes two major miracles, and opens with a story illustrating the tendency of people to ignore miracles before their eyes.

Jesus returns to (probably) Nazareth, and heals a few sick people. But the populace is offended by Him, because they know Him all too well. Jesus is amazed by their lack of faith. Jesus sends out the disciples in pairs, equipped with a staff, sandals, and a single tunic, ordering them to stay in one house only during their sojourn in a village, and telling them to testify against any town that does not welcome them. One wonders whether he shook the dust off his feet as he left Nazareth. We are told that He gave the disciples authority over evil spirits, so it would seem that only those who have been specifically granted the power can practice exorcism.

The execution of John the Baptist has many intriguing elements. First, it must be understood that Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and a Samaritan woman; Herod the Great was accused (Matt. 2) of a massacre of infants in an attempt to eliminate Jesus. Both father and son were famed builders. Following his father's death in 4BCE, Antipas ruled Galillee and the Peraea, Philip ruled Gaulanitis area, while Archelaus got the big urban centers (HH Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People).

The family was far too cosmopolitan and hellenistic for Jewish tastes. Herod had arrested John because John had claimed that it was not lawful for Herod to have married his sister-in-law Herodias. Herod's brother was still alive, so Jewish law did not sanction re-marriage. But, further, Herodias was Herod Antipas's niece through a half-brother. So, it is difficult to believe that any Jewish authority would sanction the marriage.

And yet, Herod liked John, feared him, and respected him. He had to be tricked into ordering his execution by Herodias's daughter, whose name is not given in the gospels, but is traditionally said to be Salome. Herodias got John's head, and John's disciples got his body.

The identification of Jesus with John was, in one sense, not very surprising. They were cousins and presumably resembled one another. Yet, Jesus was seen to be one of the ancient prophets, or Elijah, or a resurrected form of John. Herod believed the latter, perhaps because that interpretation would have absolved him of John's murder.

There are two miracles of feeding in Mark. In the first, five loaves and two fish feed five thousand men and leave twelve baskets of food. In the second (Mark 8), seven loaves and a few small fish feed four thousand men and leave seven baskets of leftovers.

The next miracle is of an outstanding kind. The disciples go ahead of Jesus by rowboat to Bethsaida. But the wind is against them, so they have to row very hard. Jesus completes His prayer, and walks out on the water. They land at Gennesaret and Jesus heals all the sick that are brought to Him.

1. What is Jesus's home town? Bethlehem (Matt. 2: 1) or Nazareth (Matt. 2: 23). Why doesn't Mark state the name of the town?
2. We learn the names of Jesus's brothers: James, Joses, Judah, and Simon.
3. Why does Jesus send the disciples out in pairs?
4. Is there a symbolism or a reason for the mutilation of John, by separating head and body?
5. The miracle of the loaves and fishes represents the breaking of the oldest curse on man, the curse of the soil in Genesis 3, by which man is obliged to earn his bread by labor. Yet the disciples's hearts have been so hardened that they don't recognize what Jesus has offered them.
6. See Bill Loader for numerological references.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Mark 5, Layer 2

(To be completed)

Mark 5, Layer 1

In the first section, Jesus performs an outstanding miracle, rescuing a man from a multitude of demons that had taken hold of him and left him living naked among the tombs, perhaps eating the dead. The demons ask to be banished to pigs, which then rush over a cliff and die.

Jesus performs two other miracles. The second of these is the raising of the 12-year old daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue from what her relatives believe is her death. In this miracle, Jairus thinks that his daughter can be saved only if Jesus touches her. Jesus asks of Jairus only that he believe.

The first miracle is different in type. A woman who has suffered bleeding for twelve years believes that if she touches Jesus, she will be healed. For His part, Jesus feels power leave Him, but cannot identify who took it.

This leaves the following observations and questions
1. The miracles of this chapter have to do with pollution: a man who lives with the dead, a woman who is bleeding, and an apparently dead child.
2. The first miracle occurs in the territory of the Gerasenes (or, variously, Gadarenes or Gergesenes). Jesus saves a man who has been hopelessly polluted by contact with the dead (and possibly by cannibalism).The man begs not to let the spirits leave the area. The injurious spirits that have made him inhumanly strong and made him cry out and cut himself on stones ask to go into ritually unclean animals, pigs. Does the fact that the pigs die in this precinct confine the evil spirits to the area? Did the man ingest the evil spirits with human flesh? What, precisely, does the word "Legion" mean, and does it have some connection with the Romans.
3. The evil spirits infesting the Gerasene resist Jesus, refusing to leave at His command until He asks the man his name. The man replies "My name is Legion, for we are many." Is Jesus speaking to the demons or to the man? Have the demons become part of the identity of the man? Why do the demons beg to be released into pigs?
4. Just as the man in the Gerasene region asks that the spirits not be allowed to leave the area, the Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave the area. They "exorcise" the son of God from their midst. The man wants to stay with Jesus, but Jesus denies him that request, instructing him instead to preach in his home town, the area known as the Ten Cities. All but one of these cities are on the east bank of the Jordan. The largest nowadays are Damascus and Amman. The Decapolis represented a region of cultural interaction between the Greek and Semitic way of life. Why does the man wait until Jesus is about to get into the boat before asking to go with Him?
5. Note that Jairus's daughter is 12 years old and the woman has been bleeding for 12 years. This might be coincidence, or it might point to a connection between the woman and the girl.
6. Why did Jesus choose Peter, James, and John to witness the miracle of raining the child? Why did he speak in Aramaic in raising the child? What, precisely, was the "ruler" of a synagogue?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Mark 4, Layer 2

(To be completed)

Mark 4, Layer 1

This chapter purports to be instruction on how to understand Jesus's parables. But this creates an awkward situation. Is there "secret knowledge" that only the enlightened attain? That was the basis of the gnostic heresy. Alternatively, is Mark illustrating how dense the disciples are, that even though they have the knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven that permits them to understand the parables, they don't? Neither explanation is completely satisfactory, but we are later told that Jesus had to explain His parables to the disciples.

Even stranger, Jesus tells His disciples that He speaks in parables to prevent those who don't already have insight into the Kingdom of Heaven from repenting and being saved. So, in Mark's telling, Jesus is no longer preaching John's gospel of repentance, but a gospel of winnowing.

At any rate, Jesus tells of the farmer (the preacher, inspired by God) who sows the seed (the Word of God) to people, some of whom are unlucky and so the bird (Satan) eats the Word, some of whom are unfaithful (shallow-soiled) and fall away, some of whom are beleagured with worries (amid thorns), and a few of whom are fruitful, and return so much that the planting is successful.

Next is the parable of the lamp, in which Jesus says everything is meant to be known.

In a wisdom saying, He also tells us that we are given more of whatever we give. And if we consider what have to be too little to give to others, that little will be taken away. In a related parable, He compares the Kingdom of Heaven to the spontaneous creation of crops from sowing. So the farmer "gives away" his seed grain, but gets back more than he gave. Or perhaps, He says, the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, very small, but capable of growing to be a large weed.

The chapter closes with a miracle. A small flotilla, including Jesus and the disciples, sets off for the other side of the lake. Jesus falls asleep. His disciples have to wake Him when a storm sets in, and He commands the storm to cease. He asks the disciples why they are afraid and if they lack faith. We are told the answer: they are terrified because they have no faith at all, not even recognizing God sitting before them.

One last matter. The chapter says that Jesus preached from a boat. There's no obvious practical reason for this. Even if the shoreline bends, one wouldn't get a larger audience than could be obtained on land, and the noise of the water would be likely to make it harder to hear. Perhaps Jesus was trying to prevent His audience from touching Him.

So, this chapter leaves us with more questions than answers:
1. Is Jesus trying to conceal saving knowledge by using parables?
2. Is there a secret knowledge in the rest of Mark, to which this chapter alerts us?
3. How does Jesus's use of parables square with the parable of the lamp?
4. Why, really, did Jesus preach from a boat?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Mark 3, Layer 2

(To be completed at a later date)

Mark 3, Layer 1

Mark 3 begins with an outstanding miracle. While casting demons out of people might be dismissed as psychological rather than divine, Jesus evidently (for we are not explicitly told) cures a man's crippled hand.

Much more interesting than the miracle is the context. People (we are later told they are Pharisees) who want to accuse Jesus of breaking the Sabbath watch him closely. So He
performs the miracle of healing without any ceremony at all. He just tells the crippled man to
stand up and stretch out his hand (imagine the Pharisee's difficulty in turning that into a charge that would stick).

Also interesting is how He phrases His question to the spies: How should we observe the Sabbath-- by doing good or by doing evil? By killing or by preserving life? The spies answer
Him not in words, but by going from the synagogue directly to Herod's clique, whose hands will later be stained red with the blood of John the Baptist. There they will plot to kill. Jesus responds with anger to their stubborness.

Mark 3 then describes Jesus's withdrawal from people and their energy in pursuing Him, and Jesus's decision to appoint apostles to handle the increased traffic. The appointing of the apostles is a small point of interest: Jesus went onto a mountainside and called to those He wished to appoint. He didn't ask them to accompany Him or have a public apostleship ceremony. He called and they came.

The final section of the chapter is one of the most powerful chapters of the gospels. It contains three lessons. The first is that Jesus's family, learning that He is teaching so intently that He is not eating, declares Him to be insane. When they show up and send someone to call Him out from the house where He is teaching, He claims the people sitting around Him as his mother and his brothers. There are several ways to take this. The usual interpretation is that He is disowning His family allegiances in favor of the community of believers. But perhaps He is making a metaphysical statement, that human beings are all one, that whoever we stand before have as much claim to kinship with us as our biological kin.

The second lesson of this chapter (a house divided against itself cannot stand) was made famous by Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln used it to explain why he could not allow the South to secede. For Jews, the meaning of "a house divided" would be especially poignant, since the decline of Israel and the roots of its enslavement by the Romans began with the civil war between the northern and southern kingdoms.

But Jesus is using it both to justify His own works as divine and also to describe evil as a unity. The teachers of the law accuse Him of being possessed by Beelzebub and so having the power to drive out demons. He makes a small joke by shifting the name of the evil one, "Beelzebub" (the lord of the flies) to "Satan". Since the meaning of "Satan" is obstacle, He is asking how can the obstacle drive out the obstacle.

But He is deadly serious. The teachers of the law have committed the one sin for which there is no forgiveness, namely inverting the meaning of good and evil. To grasp the full meaning of this, one must understand that the ancients had a simpler understanding of "good" and "evil" than moderns do. Moderns conceive of "good" and "evil" as states of mind, reflecting the intention made manifest in deeds. But the ancients saw "good" to be identical to "helping" and "evil" to be identical to "harming."

Healing someone was, by definition, doing good. By saying that Jesus was healing by means of an evil (injurious) spirit, he teachers of the law were calling "aid" "injury." And there is no mystery as to why this sin, as opposed to all others, cannot be forgiven. A person who calls "light" "darkness" and "darkness" "light" cannot be guided to the light. Instead, the more that they are offered light, the farther into darkness they will flee. God would have to overrule free will to save such people and, by so doing, would destroy their humanity.

By Jesus's words, we understand what the Holy Spirit is. Just as gravity is the tendency by which one mass falls toward another, the Holy Spirit is the tendency by which Truth emerges from falsehood. And so calling "darkness" "light" or calling "healing" "injury" denies the Holy Spirit.

Jesus reinforces the meaning of the parable with what would seem to be a weak simile. He says that to rob the house of a strong man, one must first tie up the strong man up. It has been noted by other commentators that He is referring to the work of salvation as stealing from the devil, that by doing evil to evil, one does good.

And so we are left with a number of questions:
1. How exactly does God call us?
2. How does Jesus's anger square with His warning about anger?
3. Is the one unforgivable sin described elsewhere in the Bible or is this original to Jesus?
4. How does this description of the Holy Spirit square with other descriptions of it?
5. Why is the simile of the strong man thrown in? It seems unnecessary and distracting.
6. How is Mark's telling of this event different from the telling of Matthew 12 and Luke 11?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Mark 2, layer 2

(To be completed at a later date)

Mark 2

This chapter describes Jesus's first miracle and several key teachings.

The miracle involves the healing of a paralytic. The paralytic’s friends are so certain that Jesus can heal the man that they climb up on the roof of the house in Capernaum where Jesus is staying and break in through the roof. This would certainly have resulted in severe punishment under any other circumstances, so Jesus rewards their faith by healing the paralytic. But He does so in a very odd way: He forgives the man’s sins. We are told that He then reads the minds of teachers of the law, who think that He is blaspheming by claiming to forgive sins. He therefore converts the spiritual miracle of forgiving sin into the physical miracle of mobility.

Jesus calls Levi, the taxpayer, to His service. Taxpayers were resented, not only because they fed the luxury of the Romans and their Jewish collaborators, but because they were corrupt. He goes to Levi’s house to eat with tax collectors, sinners and, of course, Levi. This time, Pharisees join the teachers of the law in criticizing Jesus’s mingling with the impure. In reply, Jesus gives a very important teaching, that He calls those who are ill from sin; note again the parallelism of physical illness and sin.

Next, Mark presents three teachings. His first lesson is that the disciples do not follow an ascetic life because their Savior is with them in the flesh, as a bridegroom. Afterwards, they will fast. The second appears to be a disconnected teaching presented as a dyad: unshrunk patches are not sewed on clothes that have already shrunk from washing and yeasty wine must be placed in flexible wineskins so that it doesn’t burst the skin.

The third teaching is that Love rules the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made to benefit mankind and not as an arbitrary rule into which mankind must fit itself. On these grounds, he rebukes the Pharisees for trying to forbid Jesus’s disciples from plucking grain. But the biblical example He gives is very odd. He says that David entered the temple to get ceremonial bread in the days of Abiathar the high priest.

In reality, Ahimelech was high priest (1 Sam. 21) and Abiathar was his son. But even more peculiar, Jesus says that David ate the consecrated bread inside the temple and took some to his men to eat. But in 1 Samuel 21, we are not told that David ate the bread inside the temple, but we are also pretty sure he has no men with him.

Points that are raised by this chapter:

1. The action takes place in Capernaum.
2. Note that the paralytic does not get up and walk until Jesus tells him to do so. Does forgiving sin produce physical health?
3. Why did the teachers of the law and the Pharisees criticize Jesus for associating with tax collectors? This would not seem to be a religious or purity issue, but rather an issue of nationalism.
4. Christians have a tendency to feel superior over having seen the truth. But Jesus seems to say that the church is a hospital to heal sin.
5. Why is Jesus’s description of David’s consumption of the show bread seemingly so divergent from the one we know from the 1 Samuel? Is the present canon of the Old Testament wrong? Is Jesus wrong? Did Jesus know a version of the story as told in 1 Samuel that differs from what was enrolled in the canon? Or has translation from Hebrew and Greek into English created seams in the story that do not exist in the original.