Sunday, June 08, 2014

Sunday School 6/8/2014

Matthew 1 in the King James Version

a tree in Greenpoint by unknown artist

 For anyone who has never read any of the gospels, I'd recommend starting with Mark. Mark's gospel is not only the earliest account, it is the common source of much of the material that went into Matthew and Luke's versions. Mark's account is more dramatic and intense and, in the earliest version, ends with an emphasis of the fear experienced by the disciples when they encountered an empty tomb. Mark's Jesus is "uncanny," as Harold Bloom described it.
My interest in Matthew has to do with exploring the doctrine of "the kingdom of heaven" or "the kingdom of god," as an idea of a just, transcendent revolutionary community. My connection to the biblical writings is poetic and existential and critical. I hope to show what I mean by that pretentious claim as I write, or else prove that I'm an idiot. I rely on the scholarship of others, but I aim to respond spontaneously.

The geneaology of Christ
Matthew begins his book with an account of Jesus' ancestry: "A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham." This is meant to establish that Jesus was a Jew, apparently, and also in the line of King David, but the genealogy turns out to be for "Joseph the husband of Mary; of her was born Jesus who is called Christ." Matthew says that Joseph didn't "know" (yadda yadda) Mary, who was a virgin. So, what's the point of the genealogy?
Matthew's gospel is not the earliest gospel we have. Mark's gospel, thought to be written some four decades after Jesus' death, was first, and Matthew and Luke appropriated much of it for their books. Luke also has a genealogy that is a different from Matthew's in that it starts with Adam, "the son of God" (there are other differences). Why was Matthew made the opening chapter of a collection named "The New Testament"?
The gospels took the place of eye witness testimony after the first generation of the Jesus movement died out. In the period between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels there was a Jewish rebellion against Rome that resulted in the slaughter of many Jews and the destruction of their Temple. After this catastrophe, Rabbinic Judaism eventually became the mainstream Jewish religion, and the messianic movement started by Jesus became increasingly a non-Jewish religion.
The author, or compiler, of Matthew's book was a Jew writing to Jewish Christians, and his book is meant to claim that Jesus' ministry was the true continuation and fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures, traditions, and desire for a kingdom in a new covenant with the God of the Jewish scriptures (which Christians came to call "the old covenant," or "Old Testament"). The Christians in the New Testament are almost entirely a Jewish sect competing with other Jewish groups, but by the time the New Testament was compiled, the Jesus movement had become a new religion for gentiles.
The early Christians didn't read the Bible, because there was no Bible. They'd read the Prophets, the Psalms, the Law, etc., of the traditional scriptures, usually in Greek translation, and they'd read copies of letters from the apostles and written accounts of Jesus' ministry, including sayings attributed to him.
Jesus' followers believed that Jesus had been resurrected and would return to establish a kingdom (in their lifetime?), and they used passages from scripture to show that this new era was foretold all the way back to Abraham, and that Jesus' death and resurrection fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. Were these passages  taken out of context?
" Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us."
In the Christian canon, Matthew's genealogy of Christ is the first move in the revision of scripture that became the Bible. According to Matthew, I guess, Jesus doesn't belong to the Abrahamic genealogy as a biological heir, but as the continuation and culmination of a narrative.

My interest in the early christian writings is in their role in the formation of Western Civ ideology and empire, and The Way Things Are Now. The New Testament synthesized an ethic and a mythology that merged with hellenic culture to evolve into the all pervasive multiculture we call Reality, and it also gave us the idea of a counterculture, and some wild apocalyptic poetry.


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