Tuesday, December 30, 2014
Thursday, December 25, 2014
Sunday, December 21, 2014
Jesus' Tomb, Socrates' Cave, and Walter Benjamin's State of Emergency, kind of
certainly did not experience time as either homogeneous or empty.
Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past
times were experienced in remembrance--namely, in just the same way.
We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future.
The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This
stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn
to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however,
that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For
every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might
Walter Benjamin http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html
A gentile in the first century, who was reasonably informed, literate,
and trying to understand the Jewish religion, might look for some
understanding of the messiah by comparing him to the mythical
Socratic figure in Plato's allegory of the cave. Plato's figure is
often compared to a bodhisatva. He escapes the underground prison and
its shadow world and discovers the physical world and, finally,
through dialectic, the transcendent ultimate reality. Returning to the
underground to bring the good news of a higher consciousness, he is
killed by the prisoners.
"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of
emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must
attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this
insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring
about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in
the struggle against Fascism. "
The ideal city described by Plato, an attempt to find the form of a
republic harmonized with the same principles that integrate the parts
of an individual soul, could be re-imagined under the influence of the
Jewish prophets, and placed in a future, as a possible world where
humanity would commune in common with the creative source without
rituals or doctrines or laws because the utopian software would be
free and downloadable to all, etc.
"The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer
of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the
spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead
will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not
ceased to be victorious." WB
It seems probable to me that someone named "Yeshua" taught in first
century Galilee, and had a big following, who he led to Jerusalem to
confront the establishment, which charged him with disturbing the
peace, inciting a riot, and making terrorist threats, as well as
blaphemously claiming to be the Messiah, and had him crucified. These
are plausible elements in the story of this Jesus. I think it takes an
extraordinary amount of faith to believe he didn't exist at all, given
the accounts written by people who knew people who knew him. But there
were other dead messiahs, and other failed messianic movements.
Jesus' story spread through oral teachings for decades, beginning with
the remembrances of his followers, enhanced by dreams and visions and
by selections from the Jewish scriptures. Paul's experience of Jesus
was through a vision, an altered state, in which the risen Messiah
called him to spread the teaching. His letters to churches are the
earliest writings of the Jesus movement. His ministry lasted from the
mid- 30s to the 50s. His teaching became the orthodox teaching.
The gospels were compiled out of folklore and memories and the sayings
and parables Jesus had taught his disciples to spread. The gospels are
a unique literary form. The speeches of Jesus can be compared to the
speeches of Socrates as written by Plato, not necessarily an accurate
transcription of words spoken, but as a poetic telling of
Aristotle said that poetry was more philosophical than history,
because history is a record of particular events, while poetry is
concerned with universals. The universal meaning contained by the
poetry of the gospels is the poetry of the Jewish prophets and their
faith in a possible world of a new covenant and a community annointed
with a new spirit, the new wine of the republic of heaven. The old
gods had been defeated by Caesar and were made to submit to him. The
only god not defeated was the one that could not be pictured. He was
only represented in words, and these words were of great interest to
The Jewish scriptures, and the scriptures of the early christians, and
the literature of hellenic civilization, are the foundational texts of
the Western canon, and therefore foundational to how we think. We need
to change how we think, but we need to understand what we are
changing. The universal part of the poetry of scripture include a view
of history as headed somewhere. Historical materialism was a moment in
messianic thought. Walter Benjamin's evocative theses on history are
concerned with this metanarrative at a time of crisis, and are what
got me thinking about reading through Matthew's gospel. Now I'm going
to take up Paul's letter to the Romans, although I'm not going to blog
about it. At Paul D'Agostino's suggestion I've been reading Giorgio
Agamben's The Time That Remains, in which he comments on both the
apostle Paul and Benjamin.
Thanks for reading
Thursday, December 18, 2014
They were afraid
There was darkness at noon, the synoptic gospels agree. All four gospels say he was offered sour wine on some cloth at the end of a stick, and that he cried out loud and was dead. The synoptic gospels say that the veil in the Temple was torn in two, symbolizing direct access to the divine presence. Matthew tells of a zombie apocalypse -- the bodies of some saints were raised and walked around and were seen by many. He died sooner than normal for a crucified man. The Romans liked to torture the crucified for a long time, to prolong the work of Justice on the criminal, so Pilate was surprised to hear of his death already. All four gospels mention a wealthy man named Joseph of Arimithea taking the corpse and placing it in a tomb he had.
There are significant differences in the four versions of the story. John's gospel gives Peter and John more central roles in the discovery of the empty tomb. I prefer Mark's account, and I prefer the shorter version of Mark, which ends at 16:8.
The crucifixion was watched by many women who had followed Jesus since Galilee, and who had taken care of him. The men had run away and were apparently still hiding, but these women stayed and watched and came forward to prepare his body. It would be worthwhile to collect the various times this gospel mentions women serving Jesus and the various times Jesus says that those who are greatest will serve the others. The arrival of the women ready to anoint the absent body recalls the earlier incident in Bethany where an unnamed woman anointed Jesus "before burial."
Mark 16: 1
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Lost in the logos 2
Mocking him for his bizarre and grandiose claims, the police beat the terrorist suspect before he was put to death by executive order.
This project of blogging Matthew's gospel will conclude with questions.
When I began this study I had a modest goal, which was to read and comment
on the text in the manner of contemporary recaps of TV shows like Breaking
Bad or Mad Men. When I was watching those shows I liked to read some of the
online discussions and reviews. I thought I could have a similarly
informal, even vulgar, discussion of the first book in the New Testament. I
planned to read a chapter or two and then write what came to mind.
Although I was raised on the Christian Bible, and was taught in Sunday School for
two decades before I took up my own study (from a new perspective) I soon
found myself lost in what one would suppose to be familiar territory. When
I saw that I was lost in the text I knew I was on the right path.
Matthew 24:1 As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his
disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 Then he
asked them, "You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone
will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
Matthew 27:59 Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for
false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, 60 but
they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came
forward 61 and said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of
God and to build it in three days.'" 62 The high priest stood up and said,
"Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?" 63 But
Jesus was silent.
This bit about rebuilding the temple in three days wasn't mentioned in
Matthew before this testimony, and in 24:2 Jesus didn't say he would throw
down the stones, so the witnesses seem to be distorting the truth.
Does Matthew want us to identify Jesus' body with the
temple, "rebuilt" or resurrected in three days? Is he suggesting that the
temple priests are somehow responsible for the destruction of Temple?
Matthew 27:63 Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath
before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." 64 Jesus
said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you,
From now on you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven."
65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why
do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy.
Did Jesus answer Caiaphus' question? "You have said so" was Jesus' reply to
Judas' "Surely not I, Rabbi?" in 26: 25. The implication in both cases is
that the questions are really statements. Jesus then says something that
the high priest declares blasphemous:
But I tell you, From now on you will see the Human Being
seated at the right hand of Power
and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Maybe Jesus was being ironic?
Why did Jesus say "son of man" in reply to the high priest's "son of God?"
"Son of man" means human being, but Jesus also seemed to use it in a
specific way to refer to himself as the messiah. I would have to go back to find the other times he used that term.
The human being seated at the right hand of power, as in the first verse of
Psalm 110 (which Jesus brought up earlier, as a puzzle of interpretation, when he was teaching in the temple), interpreted to mean the messiah, is here identified with the "one
like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven" from one of Daniel's
terrifying dreams, and Jesus said the high priest will see this, "from now
He seems to be saying that the messianic time has begun. What did he mean?
Before the Roman authority he again answers "You say so," this time to
Pilate's asking if he is the King of the Jews. Pilate knew that Herod
Antipas was the king, of course, so he was either asking if Jesus intended
to overthrow Herod or if he was crazy.
Mark's version says that Barabbus was in prison for his part in an
insurrection in which a murder took place. Matthew only says he was a
Matthew adds the part about Pilate washing his hands before the mob and
declaring his innocence, while the crowd (led by the priests) reply, "Let
his blood be on our children." Christian Anti-semites continue to take this to be a curse on all Jews, and a rationale for persecution and genocide.
The account of the death of Jesus seems to mix eye witness accounts with
bits from Psalm 22, starting with, "they divide my clothes among
themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots," and finishing with, "My
God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Tomorrow I'll write about the events after his death, but for now note that
Matthew 28: 11 adds an alternate explanation for the empty tomb:
...some of the guard went into the city and told the chief
priests everything that had happened. 12 After the priests had assembled
with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the
soldiers, 13 telling them, "You must say, 'His disciples came by night and
stole him away while we were asleep.'14 If this comes to the governor's
ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." 15 So they took the
money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the
Jews to this day.
-- and not only "the Jews," certainly, to this day.
In October I wrote:
So much of this gospel is uninspiring, and even depressing, because of its anti- Pharisee propaganda, but it reflects the situation of Matthew's community soon after the destruction of the temple, and decades after Jesus' crucifixion, when his followers were accused of heresy and spreading propaganda about their dead messiah. I wonder if the real point of Matthew's attacks on the Pharisees is to discredit their claim that Jesus' disciples had stolen Jesus' body and lied about the resurrection. The Jesus movement was based on a small group of followers who claimed to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus and to have been called by him to spread his message until the messiah returns and the messianic age is realized, utopia now.
The scripture Jesus quotes that causes Caiaphas to tear his garment is Daniel'saccount of a dream, a night vision, and the "one like a human being" was, according to a footnote in the NRSV, traditionally thought to be the Messiah, but was more likely the figure elsewhere in Daniel identified as the angel Michael, who I will mention in tomorrow's post.
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.