Sunday, November 30, 2014

What's the point in reading Matthew's gospel?

"Face it. No one knows shit about what could have happened back then, and it's all made up," commented someone on Facebook about last week's post on the different versions of the story about the woman or women who anointed Jesus.

"That kinda misses the point," I replied.

I was glad no one then asked me the obvious question, because I wasn't ready to think about it.

What IS the point of reading these stories and thinking about them?
Is there a point?
Need there be a point?

I enjoy reading the scriptures and contemplating them. I don't know which, if any, of the sentences in these texts describe events that actually happened, or people who actually existed. There is no way to verify any of the statements made, and although there are people who think finding Noah's Ark would prove that the Book is essentially a collection of true statements of fact, it would not.
I don't think there is a need to prove that the Christian canon is, along with Greek and Latin  literature, foundational to our culture, or that a study of ideologies  would be incomplete if it did not confront this collection of writings canonized by the Nicean Council. 
I can understand people being confused by my enjoyment of scripture, but I am confused by those who don't see the scholarly interest, even if it is not something they care to pursue, or even if they experience Christianity as an alien and hostile meaning system. On the weekend following Thanksgiving it is hard not to notice that some form of something called "Christianity" dominates our culture, such that no president, or candidate for the presidency, dare question any of it. 
Some readers are existentially engaged by the text. This is when one finds oneself being challenged in a way that forces one to question oneself fundamentally, to question values,  perspective, meaning system, in a way that places one at a crossroads. When this happens, it is even more critical to ask the text questions, because maybe the point in question is at this intersection.

"Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

I am reading Matthew 26, still, and will be making notes, asking questions.
Also, Mark 14 

Friday, November 28, 2014

more figure studies

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Sunday, November 23, 2014

At least one woman anointed Jesus

Matthew 26:
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

Mark and Luke don't name Caiaphas among the conspirators. Josephus said that Caiaphas was appointed by the Roman prefect who preceded Pilate.  John does name him, but has a different perspective on their motives, claiming that the conspiracy was a response to the raising of Lazarus, a miracle the other gospel writers never mention. Death and Raising of Lazarus

I have avoided going over all the differences among the four gospels to focus on what Matthew is saying, but certain stories appear in all of them, and a story of a woman anointing Jesus is one of them. Matthew follows Mark's account, placing the incident in Bethany, the home of Simon the Leper, and right after the chief priests' conspiracy and before Judas' betrayal. Neither of them give the woman's name.

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, "Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor." 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial.13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

John names Judas as the disciple to complain about the waste of money, and also accuses Judas of stealing from the funds. Matthew and Mark give the impression that Judas may have been motivated by the incident of the anointing, but don't say so explicitly. John also names the woman ( who anoints Jesus' feet) as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus.
John's version of the anointing 

Although Luke, like Matthew, follows Mark's account of these last days, he doesn't have the story of the anointing here. Instead, his story takes place about as far from the passion narrative as it could be, earlier in Jesus' ministry in Capernaum. It could be a different episode, except for the coincidence that the host is, as in Mark and Matthew, named Simon ("the Pharisee"  instead of "the Leper"). Also, like John's story, Luke says the woman anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. Mark and Matthew only say she poured oil on his head. Luke doesn't name her, but he has a different story about two sisters named Mary and Martha, with no mention of a brother Lazarus.
Luke's story about Mary and Martha

I'm not going to try to harmonize these four accounts. There is no reason in the text to believe that this Mary was Mary Magdalene, as some traditions hold, but at this point you can see why there would be confusion.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Angelus Novus, and other scraps from the heap.

"There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm."
Walter Benjamin's Theses on History

Doing a scrapyard thing.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

torn and drawn figures

Sunday, November 02, 2014

notes on the apocalypse of Jesus

Matthew 24

"Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’"

I agree with Elaine Pagels that it is likely Jesus did predict the destruction of Herod's Temple, and that this isn't one of those prophecies most likely written after the fact. I think it was this prophecy, as well as his guerrilla theater in the Temple, that was identified with him and that was the basis of the movement, especially after the Temple was destroyed (although some stones still remain upon stones). Back at the Mount of Olives, his disciples ask for details and the prophecy he gives them refers to events of the Jewish war with Rome that Matthew's generation had experienced, and that had culminated with the siege of Jerusalem, but it also points to the future ("immediately after the suffering of those days") end times and the coming of the son of man on the clouds. The capitalization of "son of man" by the English translators is an interpretation of the text. This convention of capitalizing isn't in the original text. The phrase "son of man" means "human being," but Christian interpretation reads or misreads "Son of Man" to mean Jesus as Messiah. Jesus told his disciples that all this warfare and persecution would continue until the news of the transcendent community he called the "kingdom of heaven" had spread to all nations, and THEN the end would come.
Jesus' apocalyptic discourse draws on the prophets, especially Daniel. Daniel's prophetic writing is understood to be "after the fact" and to interpret history up to his time.
 The meaning one finds in any text depends on one's existential relationship with its perceived message. So the meaning of apocalyptic texts can be amplified emotionally when you are in the center of a crisis that demands too much emotionally and practically and ultimately is going to change you and your world, which is why a lot of people avoid apocalyptic prophecy/poetry like Ebola, and why they are dangerous in the hands of paranoids, but they can also provide you with a symbolic language to talk about current events. The parables Matthew attaches to the prophecy here confront the listener with questions.  Are you taking care of the people you are supposed to take care of? Are you prepared for the ceremony you are going to take part in?  Is there oil for your lamp? Have you invested your talents and realized their potential, or have you hidden your gifts away? Think of these parables like vivid dreams that seem to be telling you something, to draw attention to aspects of your present situation you have been putting out of your thoughts. The prophetic call to responsibility and righteousness goes the individual as well as the community, and this is how parables act like dreams to disturb your complacency, like a thief in the night.
Well, Jesus was speaking in code in the parables, but everyone knew, I think, what he was talking about. Was it simply so he wouldn't say anything incriminating? The "abomination of desolation in the holy place"  or "desolating sacrilege" (let the reader understand) quotes the prophet Daniel. Daniel's prophecy is thought (by the secular humanist critical bible scholars I rely on) to be "after the fact" and to be about a specific invader impressively named Antiochus Epiphanes who lived centuries after the time Daniel is supposed to be set in, and over a century before Jesus. I think Daniel's prophecy is a symbolic interpretation of historical events, putting them in the mythical history of Israel.

Matthew 25 1-30
And this is the end times part of Jesus' discourse in the Mount of Olives. He is clearly telling his disciples that things are going to get bad, but ultimately each nation (or individuals within each nation?) will be judged according to whether they fed the hungry, clothed the poor, took care of the sick, welcomed the immigrant, and was compassionate to those in prison. So, if you are unclear about what a real "christian" nation might be, there it is in Matthew 25: 31 - 46, and it has nothing to do with manger scenes in front of City Hall or ritual prayers in public schools, but this is what Jesus meant by righteousness. These righteous individuals belong to the potential transcendent community
"prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me."

Here are some passages from the book of Daniel that are relevant to these chapters in Matthew:

Daniel 7:13-14
13         As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being 
    coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
    and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
    and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
    should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
    that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
    that shall never be destroyed.

9: 25 - 27
25 Know therefore and understand: from the time that the word went out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the time of an anointed prince, there shall be seven weeks; and for sixty-two weeks it shall be built again with streets and moat, but in a troubled time. 26 After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing, and the troops of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. 27 He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.”

12: 1-4  
There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky,[b] and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.

12: 8 -13

I heard but could not understand; so I said, “My lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?” He said, “Go your way, Daniel, for the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the end. 10 Many shall be purified, cleansed, and refined, but the wicked shall continue to act wickedly. None of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. 11 From the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that desolates is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred ninety days. 12 Happy are those who persevere and attain the thousand three hundred thirty-five days. 13 But you, go your way, and rest; you shall rise for your reward at the end of the days.”