Monthly Archives: May 2017

The Bible in and as History: Matthew

 

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Jesus is baptised by John the Baptist

At long last, we reach something about this Jesus guy and things historically get more interesting again.  The Gospels, as the books directly about Jesus are called, are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  At least those canonically accepted by most branches of Christianity.  There are a host of other Gospels, but they remain beyond the scope of this post and project, perhaps later.  I will just say that there were a bunch of different gospels, and the four that ended up in the bible did so for historical, political and theological reasons which I might talk about later.

 

Because the Gospels are in some ways a retelling of the same ‘story’ four times these posts will focus partially on the history of that particular gospel and it’s textual analysis, but also on different topics important to understanding the historical period of the Gospels, and how they have been interpreted in different ways over time.

First the basics of historical context; Judea was conquered by the Romans during the 1rst century BCE, first being a tributary Kingdom and then a province of the expanding Roman Empire.  As was common, especially in the east of the Empire, local rulers were appropriated into governing the state and Roman figures were placed in overseeing positions.  This is centuries after the Persian conquest/liberation of the area, which was the last historical period we had seen.

The Romans permitted local religious practice and, until after the period we are discussing, permitted local laws to deal with a host of crimes.  In Matthew, we have a couple of historical figures which help us place when this is happening(beyond of course that the CE calendar is based on the Gregorian Calendar which uses the Birth of Jesus as it’s periodization.)

The first is Herod, also called Herod the Great.  Historically we know quite a bit about him outside the Gospels.  He was raised a Jew but his father was a convert.  He was supported in what amounts to a Civil War by the Roman Senate as the King of the Jews.  He ascended said Throne, and was always questioned by some religious elements within Jewish society.  He was responsible for much building in the state, including expanding the second temple.  Upon his death, Rome divided his kingdom into five pieces.

His mention in Matthew, however, is what is called the ‘Murder of the Innocents’.  Hearing from three Magi about the birth of Jesus, Herod is supposed to have ordered the execution of all children of a certain age to end this potential threat to his rule.  This episode has a historicity problem, however.  Matthew is the only place it is recorded, and even sources, like the 1rst century Jewish Historian Josephus, that are hostile to Herod and record many other things he did, make no mention of it.

Pontius Pilate is the other significant historical figure we can place; We have enough sources to know he was appointed prefect of the Roman province of Judea in 26 CE and was deposed in 37 CE after putting down a Samaritan uprising.  While a historical figure in the Bible in that he presides over the execution of Jesus(and famously ‘washes his hands’ of the affair) what third-party information we have gives us little to go on.

So the Gospel itself; Mathew is a record of the life and times of Jesus Christ.  It seems almost trite to go over the story, as it suffuses aspects of western culture, but it also varies from Gospel to Gospel so I’ll try;  Jesus is born to Mary, a young wife of Joseph.  A man descended, we are told, from Abraham and King David.  Jesus is not Joseph’s son, but angels appear and so he doesn’t do what most men of the time would do if their wife was pregnant not by them.  Jesus is born, the story with Herod Happens, Magi show up etc.

A note regarding the Magi; Magi were the priest class of the Persian Zoroastrian faith.  They were experts on Astrology and Astronomy, Mathematics, and a host of other things, including occult and hidden matters.  Magi is where our English term ‘Magic’ comes from.  The function here, besides helping Herod fulfil a little bit of old testament prophecy, is one of celebrity and authority.  If the biblical tale was happening today you’d have a group of scientists show up.  The intent would be the same; These really wise and powerful guys showed up to vouch for Jesus.

A period of time skips and we get to John the Baptist.  My basic impression is that John is a fringe religious figure; a sort of ‘cult-leader’ who goes around absolving people of sins and so forth.  Jesus shows up and there is a sort of passing of the torch in which John baptises Jesus.  It’s unclear if Jesus was one of John’s followers but the intent of Matthew(which we recall is establishing religious doctrine through stories set in the past) is to show a sort of succession and that John the Baptist ‘predicts’ Jesus.  John gets executed and Jesus starts a ministry.

The majority of the text is this ministry; where we get the various sayings, parables, etc.  From a historical point of view, the important bit is this; Jesus gains more followers, including a core group of believers(the Disciples), impresses the multitudes, and comes afoul of the Judean religious authorities.  They try and trip him up, and eventually, he crosses some sort of line and they are able to, with the help of a traitorous Judas, seize Jesus and then have him executed.  After which he is buried, rises from the grave, etc.

Historically what this paints is the picture of a religion/political ‘radical’ upsetting a status quo.  Disregarding the overt supernatural elements we have stories of a man confronting a religious and political orthodoxy and seeking to overturn it.  Being half-tolerated until he becomes politically dangerous.  Then being executed.

What is interesting from a textual standpoint is how this book, being written decades later, deals both with what happened and what is happening at the time of it’s writing.  For example, Jesus’ burial has a section wherein the author basically says “Well The Jews and others say that Jesus’ followers stole his body, but no look, this is why that couldn’t be so.”  That’s not something you include if you’re recounting history; it’s something to prove a point to others.

A good number of scholars believe Mark(the next gospel) was the first to be composed and that Mathew follows from, and utilises much from Mark.  Mark was composed in the last quarter of the 1rst century, so easily a full generation after the death of Jesus and into a successive generation of Christians.  Christians who not only had not seen Jesus personally but might be dealing with third person accounts at this time.    They would also have dealt with radical historical changes in Judea.  Including the Destruction of the 2nd Temple and Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD after a series of unrests.  This undoubtedly shapes and shift the tone and content of the Gospel.

I’ll deal more with the historical context and change in Judea of the 1rst century with the Next Gospel, Mark.

 

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The Bible in and as History: Reviewing the Old Testament

bet_she27an_theatre_stage_1230When I started this project my original intent was to finish reading and commenting on the Bible in one year.  That, for various personal reasons, obviously didn’t happen, but at long last, I’ve finished the larger part, the Old Testament.

It’s been quite a slog, and I know now why so many people simply don’t bother, even among the faithful.  While the interesting bits are there, most of it is repetitive, often droning.  Some of it is not intended really to be ‘read’, but rather as something to be recited.  While there are aspects that are coherent, there are also competing theologies, made all the more complex when one layers in the New Testament.

The over-reaching theme of the text, if there can be said to be one, is that obedience to God is good, and brings reward, while disobedience brings destruction.  God punishes those who fall away from him.  This is centrally against the Israelites, but also sometimes to a province, a city, a family or an individual.

The Books of the Old Testament have varied authorship.  For many of them, their origin remains unknown, and others we have to infer through complex textual analysis.  Speaking of the Bible in History, the actual physical objects themselves are important.  We have examples in Greek and Latin from the 4th Century CE, and fragments prior to that.  The Dead Sea Scrolls were so critical in that they provided a variety of textual examples dating from the 3rd to 1rst centuries BCE.  Transmission of works via copying, by hand copying, entails an increase in potential errors.  Errors that can then more complexly become disagreements of doctrine or understanding.  If my Holy book says “God is in the field” and yours says “God is on the field” we may develop essential doctrinal differences on the basis of a single letter, with no essential way of determining which of us is correct.

I, for example, am using a copy of the King James edition transcribed into Christianity.com.  That actual data probably only dates back to the mid 2000’s, most likely transcribed from a physical copy(though of course, it could be a copy of an earlier digital copy).  Most likely it was transcribed from one of the numerous physical copies made, and that have been remade over the centuries.  Our modern era presumes the power of making reliable copies; a property of the printing press, though even there the possibility of error is far from zero.  Once you go back before the invention of the printing press, every copy is made by one or more scribes, in handwriting.

So if we were to look at what I’m reading, I’m looking at a copy, of a copy, most likely of a copy, going back to some edition of the King James Bible in the 18th century.  Those made from compiled copies and editions going back to the ‘Standard’ Text of 1769.  That made to deal with the various discrepancies the editions produced since the 1539 ‘original’ produced.  Including my favourite, the ‘Wicked Bible’, an edition published in 1631 in which an error omitted the ‘not’ from “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.  This was reprinted and copied in a number of editions before being found.

What comes, in the end, is very fascinating; A modern Canadian Atheist, reading a copy of an English translation done by 16th century Englishmen in the wake of the Reformation.  A translation of works originally in Hebrew, but largely being translated into English from Greek and Latin sources, themselves copies of earlier Hebrew sources(or other now extinct languages).  Those Hebrew sources copies of other sources, or recordings of oral traditions, largely regarding the religious and political situations of several different ‘periods’ of history, from the earliest Isreali kingdoms to the Exile and Babylonian captivity to the creation of the second temple.

Imagine reading a cookbook that was an English translation of a Japanese translation from 200 years ago that itself was a translation of a Chinese work from 400 years ago, and just the beginnings of the problem come into focus.

This becomes all the more apparent as we move into the New Testament and a new generation, separated from the Old Testament as we are from the writers of the King James Bible, by centuries, utilise it and it’s religious traditions while describing their text.

We dive now into the Gospels, and confusing dating conventions, with Matthew.

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The Bible in and as History: Books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi

malachiI end my long read of the Old Testament with the last three minor prophets.

Haggai is one of the shortest books of the bible, being only two chapters long.  It is set in 520 BCE, about 18 Years after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid empire.  Cyrus had pronounced a return of various displaced peoples and a  rebuilding of temples destroyed by the Babylonians.  This included the Temple of Jews.  Cyrus is sometimes seen as a broad reformer or humanitarian, though other historians see this as vested in old traditions; The New Monarch grants reforms and gifts upon achieving supremacy over the old.

So Haggai is set after the Captivity and is a prophecy in regards to the construction of a new temple.  It abjures the people to construct a new temple and then reports that having seen the anger of God, they do.  It has similar themes to other minor prophets; Following Gods will leads to good things, going against it to bad.  The nation has fallen and now risen, a prophecy of good things to come after they pass through destruction.  All in all there isn’t a lot to say about it.

The book is interesting in that it’s set after the end of the Exile.  The Exile obviously holds a central place in Judaism, especially after the destruction of the second temple.  The recurrence; the temple destroyed, being dispersed into foreign lands beneath ‘strangers’ has a central resonance.  Haggai is a prophet speaking in the end of the first exile, unaware of the second.

Zachariah was a contemporary of Haggai, writing in the period of Darius the Great.  Darius was the ruler of the Academician Empire starting in 522 BCE, and it achieved it’s greatest extent during his rule.  These are the persons which would challenge and invade Greek lands, and of them we have accounts not merely from the bible, but also from Greek and Persian sources.

Zachariah is concerned with the history of the Jewish people and in particular the end of the Exile.  It presents first an allegorical history, leading towards the end of the Exile as both a promise of hope and a warning.  “God…” it seems to say “… has warned us before and made good on his threats but look, he also keeps to his promises, so lets not forget that this time alright?”  In this it conforms to other works in the bible but in a more particular way.  Like Haggai, Zachariah is writing from a period in which the temple is being reconstructed and prophecies of previous era’s seem, on some level, to be coming true.  Perhaps not precisely in the way those prophets would imagine, as the Jewish people still did not govern themselves, and the reconstruction was at the will of an Empire that wished obedient Satraps, but still.

The later portions of Zachariah thus reflect a prophecy more optimistic than some; speaking of a bright future for Israel in which it will be a leader among nations.

It should be noted that while a good portion of scholars accept a single authorship for the book in the 6th century, not all do.  Because the later portion of the text has no historical referents and seems to jive with themes from later works, some believe it was authored a century or more later and appended to Zachariah.

We end the old testament with Malachi, which is short and sweet and a bit of an anti-climax I am afraid.  It is only four chapters long, and contains virtually no historical information.  Because it uses a Persian term, most scholars place it after the rebuilding of the temple and the end of the Exile, so after 515 BCE.  This seems logical as a more ancient source would refer to a king rather than a governor, and might use a Babylonian term during the majority of the exile.

Malachi is largely an admonition to the priests to be more faithful.  A list of grievances, and a sort of nag against those who should hold God most high not performing their duties.  Surely not the first or the last polemic against a corrupt priest class.

One historical note is important however.  Malachi makes several Messianic promises, and these show up in Christianity and the New Testament, as obviously Christians hold that Jesus fulfilled those prophecies.  For Jews they stand as things to look for in the coming Messiah.

Alright, so over the course of what is three years, rather than the one I set out for, I have finally finished the Old Testament and am ready to begin the New.  I haven’t quite decided how I will tackle the four gospels, but I might try a different format so as to not get repetitive.  I might also do a post on my thoughts on the entirety of the Old Testament.

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