Sunday, September 23, 2018

The context of a writing

This post introduces some basic premises and themes for the continuing series on the Biblical and non-Biblical gospels, and begins to establish the next major segment of that analysis.
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came.
(from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky", in case anyone didn't recognize it)
Though Lewis Carroll was fond of nonsense, he knew how to make a point: context is a powerful aid to understanding. Even in a text sprinkled with unknown words, the known words serve as guideposts to help us unravel the meaning. It's hard to imagine any definition of the nonsense-words that would change the basic ideas in the poem that contains them. (I'm also fond of this poem for its use in J.R.R. Tolkien's scholarly work, in which he lampooned certain scholars for "whiffling through the tulgey wood of speculation".)

When we look at context and meaning in the Biblical gospels and the non-Biblical gospels alike, I'd like to start with some basic premises:
  • If an author writes, the author has a purpose in writing: there is something they intend to remember, or express, or convey. 
  • If an author writes to communicate with others, the author generally takes measures so that the reader can gather what the author is trying to remember, or express, or convey. 
  • If we have a complete document (or reasonably complete), and the author has done an adequate job writing, then we can reconstruct the author's point adequately to understand that point
That's not to say that every author is equally skilled, or every document equally complete. It's to say that the first stop for context clues is the document under review.
For the documents under consideration in this series, I'll adopt the method of looking at the different parts or segments of each document, and first of all consider the type of item in the collection and what we can understand simply from the type of item included. If a writing consists of a collection of sayings, we can reconstruct from that alone that the author believes the sayings are important, useful, and memorable for a purpose; if the sayings are from a particular person then we can understand that the author has a particular interest in that person and a certain view of their importance. We can take a similar approach whether a writing consists of a collection of sayings, a collection of events, or a collection of philosophical ponderings. The approach is intended to get at what the author thought was important, according to how the author developed their own framework and selected their own content.

I know this sounds incredibly basic; so did some of the other items we've surveyed like quotations of Jewish Scripture or geographical references. And yet there have been some findings that surprised me at each turn. That is to say: even though the method is straightforward, it can still reveal some unexpected findings.

(Yes, I know, we haven't gotten much out of this yet. Stayed tuned for the next scheduled post, please.)

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Healing - "He restores my soul"

The word "restore" reminds me of how my brother used to restore homes: he'd take a fixer-upper and fix it up, then rent it out. He built a very comfortable living from that, from restoring homes. He could take the most run-down wreck of a place and make it beautiful. He had an eye for it, and the know-how, and the work ethic.

There's a difference in quality between a well-kept home and a neglected one. The main difference is the people inside. Does anyone care? Is there a solid foundation of human warmth and connection? The people inside a warm home are relaxed, safe, and enjoying each others' company. They work together to create the warmth. On the other hand, the run-down house has been neglected; either the owners have abandoned it, or died, or lack love for it. (Or maybe their mind is broken ... it happens.) There's a certain hopelessness inside a run-down home, or an overwhelmed feeling. The people inside a neglected home are alone or at odds with each other, and usually angry or frightened.

With people, it is much the same way as with the physical buildings: if you know what to look for, it's easy to spot the ones from homes where there's not quite enough love. Their lives become something like the abandoned building, not quite working right, even falling apart. There's a feeling of secrets, of watchfulness, of unhealthiness, of fear.

It is just over five weeks since the death of my brother, and as with so many far-premature deaths, "Why?"is complicated. Still, it starts with the house where we grew up. Faith and hope were foreign words there; "love" was a word that didn't seem to mean what I thought it should mean. My first exposure to religious people was a breath of fresh air, mostly because I saw the warmth that comes from genuine affection and human connection, things that they took for granted, and the feeling of relaxation that came with being around people you could trust. Even the air they breathed felt different.

The warmth in a home comes from faith, from hope, from love. Those come from the people inside the home. While I have held as well as I can to Jesus who has taught me faith and hope and love, I am here to tell you that I do not have the supply of those that I need or want. So I hold the promise dear to my heart, "He restores my soul." The things that can restore a soul are the things that give it life: faith, hope, and love, the greatest gifts of the Spirit of God.


Personal note: It is my hope that, in the next few weeks, at some point it will stop feeling trivial -- and disrespectful of my brother's passing -- to continue with some other topics that I enjoy researching. But today my main thought is, "Too soon."

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The greatest of these is love

St Paul looked into the future and foresaw a day when all his long studying and soul-searching was behind him, when his eloquence would no longer matter. He could foresee the end of himself, and the end of all things, including all the most excellent accomplishments of mankind: "Knowledge will pass away," and "the imperfect disappears". Instead of seeing these things with pessimism ("Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless!"), he saw them with the confidence in the resurrection that ran so strong in the generation that had seen Jesus' resurrection: that when our best efforts have passed away, "These three remain: Faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love."

Even in this world, if I look at the times that I treasure, they are times filled with faith, hope, and love. If I search for memories that I treasure, and people that I treasure, and stories of their actions that I would pass on, I look at these memories and see that they are the ones when people act with faith, hope, and love. Here and now, our best efforts are not of any great value without those things. "If I speak with the tongue of angels, but have no love" it is an intensely painful sound. "If I understand all mysteries but have no love, I am nothing."

"These three remain: Faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love." Those are the things that make any action memorable -- or worthy of memory. May they be the basis for my actions.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Wisdom in the age of information

This morning as I read a Bible commentary, the commentator acknowledged that one particular passage was open to several interpretations which all seem valid, and included this comment:
If we search the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation in an effort to shed light on a particular statement of the Bible and fail to find the answer we are seeking, that does not mean that our efforts have all been useless. Just think of all the other information we might glean in the process. (From the Albrecht & Albrecht commentary on Matthew 10:23)
Is the Word of God intended to give us information? I ask that question in the context of the thought that information has a place in building our understanding. So information adds to knowledge, which (we hope) adds to understanding, which (we hope) adds to wisdom. I'll assume the best of the commentators and figure they meant the knowledge gleaned would increase our wisdom and understanding; if not, it's trivial.

There have been artists who paint with dots ("pointillism" is the name of the style) on the assumption that our minds will connect the dots and arrive at a larger understanding. But what if they didn't? What if we scanned a picture from top to bottom and only came a way with a collection of dots? What if we searched the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and only came away with gleaned information? When we search the Bible from start to end, the points there add up to a picture: God who loves us, God who reaches out to form relationships with people, God who orders the world to bless our lives, God who has compassion on our weakness and binds the wounds of the brokenhearted, God who stands with us in our trials, God who will not let corruption and evil continue forever, God who is faithful to the promises that he makes us.

As I read, may I seek not so much to have "the right answer" on one point, as to connect the dots.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Bible Verses - Gratitude for those who comfort the mourning

  1. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. - Ecclesiastes 7:2
  2. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress - James 1:27 (I figure this is applicable to comforting anyone who is bereaved)
  3. A timely word--how good that is! - Proverbs 15:23
  4. A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver. - Proverbs 25:11

  5. There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. - Proverbs 18:24

Sunday, August 05, 2018


There has been a death in the family, and there will be no post this weekend.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Jewish Scripture Quotations - The Big Picture

This chart gives a summary view of the recent series on quotations of Jewish Scripture, both in the gospels recognized by the Christian church and in a variety of other documents that are sometimes discussed as alternative or non-canonical gospels.

The eight non-canonical documents reviewed had a total of 7 passages quoting Jewish Scripture among them, so that the average number of quotations was slightly less than one per alternative gospel. The four Biblical gospels have a total of 83 such passages, with a group average of slightly more than twenty such passages per generally-recognized gospel. Again, group totals can obscure individual differences. Among the non-Biblical gospels, several contain no quotations of Jewish Scripture, while the Gospel of Peter contains 3 such passages. Among the Biblical gospels, the numbers ranged from a low of 13 in the Gospel of Mark to a high of 39 in the Gospel of Matthew. In each case, we're measuring passages of the document which contain quotations rather than individual quotations; there were a few instances in the New Testament documents where a single passage might contain more than one quotation.

Studying the results in detail, some other areas of interest came to light. Some documents only contained quotations of Jewish Scripture only when they were quoting Jesus, and there was no sign that the author was aware that the material was a quotation of an earlier source. Some quotations were introduced in a way that showed familiarity with individual authors within the older writings. Some documents showed Jewish Scripture being applied independently by the author, suggesting that the author came from a background which included Jewish Scripture as part of their own personal worldview.