Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Bible in and as History: Romans

file22-saint_paul_writing_his_epistles22_by_valentin_de_boulogneI’m entering the final stretch; all that remains are the Epistles and Revelations.  An epistle takes the form of a letter.  Many are written by Paul the Apostle, to this or that church in the time of his ministry.  Others are written by other sources to a general audience.  Romans is one of the former.

Epistles rest in a long-standing tradition.  Scribes from Ancient Egypt, well into the Hellenistic and Roman periods would write such things to one another.  An Epistle is a letter in form but serves a function of entertaining or more importantly, educating the reader.  It is often moralizing, the literary equivalent of a passion play.

Good parts of the life of Paul were established in Acts.  To recap; Paul was a Jew, born with Roman citizenship through his Father.  He at first persecuted Christians, before falling from his horse and having a vision, which converted him to Christianity.  He from there became an Apostle and went about spreading the good word to the Gentiles, establishing various churches.

For the sake of brevity, I won`t delve too deeply into the minutiae of determining when and where Romans was written.  The middle of the 50`s CE is the most accepted date, and Cornith the most accepted place, but the scholarship gets pretty nitty-gritty pretty quickly.

At the time of this writing, Paul has been preaching for some time, establishing churches and what not.  He intends to travel to Spain to establish more churches there, and thus, being in Greece will have an opportunity to visit Rome, as it’s on his way.   The letter is thus to the Roman Churches in preparation for this eventual visit.

After opening pleasantries, Paul starts to put forward his theology.  Parts of this will sound familiar by this stage; People have gone bad and that warrants some savage retribution from God.  Sexual immorality and Idol worship draw particular attention, though so do a host of other sins.  Paul centres Hypocrites as damned doubly by their actions.

Salvation theology is what follows; God is righteous and it is he that may cleanse people of sin.  Believers are redeemed through their faith in Jesus Christ.  Comparison is made between Adam and Jesus; As Adam, through his sin, condemned humans to die, so does Jesus, through his act of faith, restore life to the faithful.

He makes a theological argument that amounts to “Jesus died, and his death means Christians don`t have to obey the Masonic law”.  This is useful of course, as it expands the potential realm of recruits beyond those who are willing to get circumcised and not eat pork, among other things.  Or to be more academic about it; it enables a broader spread of Christianity that does not include adherence to traditions and mores that would be culturally alien in much of the Roman world.

Paul then laments for Israel and his fellows, feeling that their circumstances are a reflection of their abandonment of God(i.e. Jesus) and that if more followed his path, Israel would regain its status as God`s favoured nation.

There is more theology in this work than I have outlined, which makes it difficult to describe in succinct terms.  It ends with a with an outline of Pauls`travel plans and a farewell.

This first of the Pauline Epistles is interesting in of itself as it has a different character from all the books we`ve read previously.  While there have been varied forms in the content of the books; from a direct retelling of events to a discussion of law to a reading of prophecy, the Romans Epistles is a tad more intimate.  It`was written by a man with the intent of being read by a particular audience, though perhaps not just that audience, though I imagine Paul might be a bit surprised to learn who would end up reading his work.

While the theology can be a bit opaque, and the style is obviously that of a 1rst century form transmitted over centuries and finally interpreted into English by 17th-century English translators, it does still offer us some peek at both Paul the man, and the state of the Church in this period.

The man who writes this believes in himself and his mission, and furthermore, writes to people he believes also believe in this mission.  It has no air of supplication, but yet one of instruction, though neither is it particularly patronizing.  It is a teacher and preacher in communication with others that are equal to him in terms of the community in which they operate, and yet whom he considers being potential vectors for his instruction.  In some ways, it reminds me of communication between Scholars in the modern university system.

It would be hard for me to go over all the potential uses this particular work is put two, but a couple stand out; because this work references both the Jews as a group and in regards Masonic law, it comes up frequently in conflict with orthodox Jewish theology and in regards historical antisemitism.  Beyond just the crucifixion of Jesus, the Jews are sometimes admonished with regards their abandonment of the path of God.  This borrows obviously from the old testament, where Israel being punished for not following the true path is a recurrent motif.

This particular Epistle is also important as a source regarding the Protestant doctrine of ‘salvation through faith’.  That is the belief that only Gods will and the faith of a believer result in salvation, not ‘doing good stuff while you’re alive’.  Paul speaks of the importance of faith and the centre of divine faith and will in the Christian community.

As with many other religious traditions, we find here that directly the faith and the direction of the organizations of that religion are far much more than it’s sainted founder.  As we will see by the number of Pauline Letters, and his place already in Acts, Paul plays a very central roll in Christianity.

Next, let’s feel some leather as we go to First Corinthians!

 

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The Bible in and as History: Acts

 

liberacion_de_san_pedro_murillo_1667

Peter the Apostle is delivered from prison

With the Gospels behind me, I move away from the life and times of Jesus, and into that of the early church which preached in his name.

 

Acts, or more properly the Acts of the Apostles, is generally thought to have been written by the same author as Luke.  Some scholars contend the two were originally a single composed text.  Both open with reference to Theophilus, a figure about whom there are many theories;  Some believe him to be a particular person to whom the works were addressed: a convert, a Roman official or something else.  Others believe it was an honourary religious title.  Regardless, this and other elements, such as the similarity in the structure of the written work in its earliest sources, makes Luke and Acts part of a greater whole.

Where Luke ends with the resurrection, Acts picks up immediately after and follows the tribulations of an earthly Church now bereft of its saviour.  Like Luke, however, the intent is not a recording of historical events, but rather to recount events as they pertain to a particular theological vision.  Events as prophecy or fulfilment therein, events as showing the path for the Faithful.

There are two different textual ‘traditions’ for Luke-Acts, the Western Text-type and the Alexandrian.  These vary in several ways and for Acts, the Western is longer and has more blame for the Jews and intercessions of the Holy Spirit.  The existing manuscripts date from the 6th and 4th centuries respectively, though we have referent works going back to the 3rd century.  This suggests an ongoing process of revision well after the initial writing, which most place around 80-90 CE, decades after Pauls imprisonment in Rome in 63 CE, which is the final event recorded in the work.  Others place the books authorship significantly later.  What is important is to remember that the Bible is not a static thing existing apart from time.

The King James version which I follow goes like this; After the resurrection, the Apostles elect Matthias to replace Judas.  The Holy spirit infuses them and they go out to perform miracles and good works in Christ’s name.  There are many conversions as they show the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, Jewish authorities begin to persecute the Christians, eventually leading to the execution of Stephen, a deacon of this early Church.

Stephen is accused of Blasphemy, gives a speech deriding and accusing the Jewish authorities of various improprieties and is then found guilty and executed by stoning.  In some considerations, he is the first Christian Martyr.

This is taken as a rejection of the Holy message by the Jews, and the message is then taken to the Samaritans and the Gentiles.  Saul of Tarsus, who would become Paul the Apostle,  is a Jew who persecutes Christians until he has a religious experience and converts.  A central figure of early Christianity, we’ll be talking plenty about him in coming posts.

The Apostle Peter converts a Gentile Centurian, and the Holy Ghost descends to show that there is Divine approval for this new mission of bringing the message to the Gentiles.  The new Church of ‘Christians’ is firmly established.

Paul starts travelling around establishing new Churches.  While in Jerusalem he is set upon by a Jewish mob, and after some trials and tribulations gets Sent to Rome as he asserts his rights as a Roman Citizen.  We don’t know what happens after he is imprisoned in Rome because the work just kind of ends.

Interesting to me is this portrayal of the early church, or perhaps ‘a’ early church.  We know that early Christianity was one of many Jewish sects emerging from the period of Roman rule, leading up through the destruction of the Second temple.  Christianity itself seems to have broken into various sects almost immediately, with conflict between those who saw Jesus message as being a strictly Jewish affair and those who spread it to Gentiles.  Luke and Acts both paint negative pictures of the Jewish community, and they would be used later to justify various kinds of Anti-semitism.

Acts thus served as a textual way to explain the early history of the Church and to theologically justify it.  It also bears our first image of Paul the Apostle, who would be a central figure in Christianity as the religious would become.

Indeed after Acts, we start into the ‘Pauline Epistles’, the letters of Paul.

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The Bible in and as History: John

So finally we round out the four Canonical gospels with John.  We’ve thus-far seen Jesus as a revolutionary preacher, as a religious Icon, and as a sort of Wizard performing Magic for the faithful.  What we have also seen though, are four closely related Gospels.  Mark, Mathew and Luke are called the Synoptic Gospels because there are elements of unity between all three.  Speeches that repeat.  Doctrines that repeat, sometimes almost word for word.  You can see, in the Synoptic Gospels, a story told through three lenses, but linked to common sources.  As mentioned previously, most believe Luke, for example, was composed utilizing Mathew and another source, some sort of Oral tradition now lost.

John is the odd man out then.  This Gospel comes from another tradition, another set of sources, and though it possesses some similarities, it also is very set apart.  One can read Mathew for example and then John and see two almost completely different narratives.  In this Gospel, John the Baptist is more a sign himself than a Prophet.  One set to clear the way for the Messiah, and one of several.  What’s more, nothing regarding Jesus’ miracle birth is covered in John.  Like Mathew, it goes straight into his ministry, though the things it talks about are quite different.

In common with the other Gospels, Jesus preaches in Galilea, but he performs many more miracles, especially of healing, and some of the things he expressly does in the other gospels, such as his disputations with authorities over his disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath, are omitted.  None of the familiar Parables are here, nor are many of the sections regarding Jesus’ teachings.  Though he feeds the multitudes and walks on water, he also claims directly to be the son of God, and that he is sent from Heaven, which the Jews Dispute.  He turns water into Wine at the wedding of Cana.  He uses his power to raise Lazarus from the Dead, as a foreshadowing of his own resurrection.

Jesus’ execution is more similar to what has transpired before, with his judgement, being brought before Pilate, his crucifixion.  Though while the crucifixion has various places within the Gospels, here it seems more a known outcome.  Less something the people do without realizing what they are doing and more a fore-ordained event permitting Jesus to return to ‘the Father’.

After his death, his resurrection is also far more drawn out. There are more references to his disciples seeing him, and he delivers greater messages and portents after his resurrection.  This is a Jesus for whom the resurrection was assured, and offers not a break, but a continuation, or perhaps culmination of his ministry.

John is written, as each of the Gospels are, in a particular historical context and for a particular audience.  Its authorship is in dispute.  Traditionally it is according to John the Apostle, one of Jesus twelve apostles, though this is not considered likely by most biblical scholars.  Its authorship is generally placed at 80-100 CE, and it is placed within a tradition of Johannine literature, which includes John, the First, Second and Third Epistles of John and the Book of Revelations.  It is believed there was a specific or several specific, Johannine ‘sects’ that composed these particular works, based around a theological conception of Jesus as a direct deity and interceder.  That is, in Mark, you have Jesus as a very Jewish-type Prophet.  John see’s Jesus as a more mythical figure, who rather than being the Son of God who shows us the way through his teachers, is the Son of God who gives us the way through his existence.

The context of this group in the case of the Gospel of John is also the emerging divergence between Judaism and early Christianity.  It is clear that initially, ‘Christians’ were in a way a ‘sect’ of John the Baptists followers, who were themselves a sect of unorthodox Judaism(for the 1rst century that is).  Over time there came to be separation, as more Gentiles entered the faith, as the faith mutated and split.  By the time of the Gospel of John, there is a clear need to differentiate one-self from ‘The Jews’ of the Second Temple.  Keeping in mind of course that this temple was destroyed in 70 CE, right before John was likely written.  So you have the orthodox Jewish religious authorities, with the central object of their authority having been destroyed by the Romans, dealing with a separate sect supporting eclectic and apocalyptic claims regarding the death of their saviour figure two generations or so earlier.  John clearly sets out to provide separation between ‘Christians’ and ‘Jews’.  Its language establishes ‘The Jews’ as separate from the author, and it is here one finds the most direct ‘blame’ for Jesus Crucifixion.  While in later centuries this would be a source of justification for anti-Semitism, John is largely concerned with the preservation of its own religious community.

Interesting to consider is how this book, compared to the other three Gospels, enters into ‘Canonicity’.  The Gospel of John was clearly in use in a host of early Christian communities, though not all.

Its message seems to have appealed in a broader Roman World, in a way perhaps that Matthew or Mark might not have.  As we shall see going forward, the Pauline works will take a subsect of a subsect of Judaism and transform it into a distinct religion, infused with Greek and Roman tradition, as well as Hebrew.

With the Gospels finished we move on to works that vary more in their content; Next time is Acts.

 

 

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