Sunday, June 17, 2018

Quotations of Jewish Scripture - Gnostic Gospels

People who have read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are familiar with how conscious the writers were -- and how conscious the people within their narratives were -- of the background of Jewish Scripture that shaped Jewish culture and informed Jewish thought. When we review the alternative gospels, do those show the same worldview? Is the thought within them steeped in Jewish view of a holy culture formed by a holy God, a holy Law, and a holy Scripture?

Here we review the quotations of Jewish Scripture in each of four gospels that are sometimes classified as Gnostic: the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth.

The Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Truth are mentioned here simply because I've included them each time we discuss the Gnostic gospels. However, they contain no quotations of Jewish Scripture, and we can proceed to the remaining Gnostic gospels.

The Gospel of Philip contains one quotation that traces to the Jewish Scriptures:

"My God, my God, why, O Lord, have you forsaken me?". It was on the cross that he said these words, for he had departed from that place. 

 The Coptic Gospel of Thomas also contains one quotation that traces to the Jewish Scriptures:

Jesus said, "I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind."

From the four Gnostic gospels, those are the sum total of quotations that trace to the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. There are some points of interest that both items share:
  • Both quotations occur in Jesus' sayings
  • Neither quotation is identified by the author as a quotation from Jewish Scripture
  • There are no instances where the author independently applies a perspective or expectation from Jewish Scripture
From this, it is not clear if either author was aware that their material included quotes from a source earlier than Jesus. It is not clear from this alone whether either author was familiar with Jewish Scripture -- though some upcoming analysis will shed further light on this, when we discuss how the different authors handled other aspects of Jewish thought and history. And there is no sign here that either author attaches any particular importance to Jewish Scripture.

I'd caution any readers not to draw premature conclusions from the simple scarcity of quotations, by itself. As we move forward with other areas, we will see a more complete picture that allows us to draw better-rounded conclusions.

One other feature of interest to me is that the second quote ("what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard", etc from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas) is not attributed directly to Jesus anywhere in the New Testament. Leaving all possibilities open at this point, we could imagine that either Jesus had quoted that Scripture also and the New Testament gospels didn't record it though Paul brings up the quotation (1 Corinthians 2:9, quoting Isaiah 64:4), or that the author of the Gospel of Thomas may have heard the quotation of Paul or Isaiah and attributed it to Jesus.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A clean heart - Isaiah's call

Recently in church the weekly reading from the prophets was from Isaiah chapter 6, the vision in which Isaiah saw the Lord. He experienced fear or shame over being "a man of unclean lips" in the presence of the Holy Lord. There's such a close connection between clean lips and a clean heart. Isaiah's comments provided an occasion for me to consider exactly how we may have that kind of uncleanness.

Unclean lips might speak:
  • Lies
  • Misleading partial truths
  • Slander
  • Tempting
  • Blaming
  • Gossip
  • Criticism
  • Complaining
  • Arguing
  • Cruelty
  • Mockery
  • Insults
  • Verbal traps
  • Discord
Better things  to come out of my mouth might be:
  • Praise
  • Gratitude
  • Recognition
  • Acknowledgment
  • Comfort
  • Encouragement
  • Peace
  • Blessing
  • Understanding 
  • Hope
  • Truth
  • Love

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Geographical References - The Big Picture

This chart gives a summary view of the recent series on named geographical places in both the gospels recognized by the Christian church and in another set of documents that are sometimes discussed as alternative or non-canonical gospels.

The eight non-canonical documents reviewed had a total of 60 geographical references. Creating a summary group of the non-canonical documents can obscure some significant differences within the group: the majority of all geographical references there traced to one document, the Proto-Evangelium of James with 41 references.

As I studied the results on a document-by-document basis, I became interested in the "zoom" factor used on the maps: whether the reference was "zoomed out" to a general region (country, region, etc), whether it was a specific place (city, town, body of water, etc), or whether it was "zoomed in" to something within a city (a named building or garden, etc). The "zoomed out" general reference on the map (such as Israel or Judea) accounted for a decisive majority of the geographical references in the non-canonical gospels, and nearly half in the canonical gospels. Specific references (such as Jerusalem or Bethany) were the most common type of reference in the canonical gospels. The "zoomed in", nearly street-level references to places with proper names were relatively rare, and only occurred in the four canonical gospels among the documents currently being evaluated. These "street view" references were slightly more common in the Gospel of John than in the other canonical gospels, and slightly less common in the Gospel of Luke. It is likely that the more familiar the authors were with the geography, the more specific they were when referring to places.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Concept of Trinity as a Venn Diagram, and Divine Simplicity

I hope any reader does not find it too irreverent to use a Venn diagram in discussing the nature of God. Yesterday many Christians celebrated Trinity Sunday, and in recognition of that I'd like to take the wording and structure of the Trinitarian portion of the Athanasian Creed (named in honor of Athanasius) and interpret it as a Venn diagram.
Venn diagram of Trinity based on Athanasian Creed
I have taken the liberty of adding the phrase "self-existing" to the portion describing the Father, making explicit the self-existence of the Father in contrast to the portions describing the origins of the Son and Spirit. Otherwise, the material is directly from the Athanasian Creed.

I'd like to add a note about a philosophical teaching called divine simplicity. Briefly stated in simple form, that view holds that God cannot be composed or complex because the fact of complexity implies a prior cause in order to get that complex effect. Consider the implied question "Who made God like that?", and the implication that if there is a straight answer to that question as asked, then God would not be God. Without going into the full argument here, I'd like to say that the Venn diagram -- or better said, the earlier creed on which it's based -- can clarify one thing about that: if only the Father is self-existing, and the Father is the ultimate origin of Son and Spirit*, then God made Himself like that. Of all the follow-up questions that come from the idea of God as Trinity, the one I find most useful in increasing our understanding of God is "Why?" If we start with the view that God's will has a purpose within God's own wisdom and nature, and if we consider that the Son and Spirit came about by the Father's will, then "Why?" is a legitimate question. And the answer, the best I can discern so far from Christian Scripture, is to reach out to us: to be God with us and God in us.

* For those who hold the view that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, the Father alone is the necessary prerequisite for the Spirit. For those who hold the view that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, still the Father is the ultimate origin of the Spirit, as the Father is the sole origin of the Son.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The presence of God in this world

Today I am taking a brief break in the current series here for Pentecost. In its earlier Jewish meaning, on Pentecost there was an awareness of the tribes of Israel as a chosen nation with a mission and a calling -- and the Jewish traditions were mindful that their calling would one day involve all nations together before God. On the first Pentecost of the age of the Messiah, it's the day when the Holy Spirit made sure that the wonders of God were proclaimed in all the languages of the people who were gathered together to worship God in Jerusalem that day. As St Paul pointed out about some early Christian disagreements: Don't we all have the same spirit? Weren't we all baptized into one baptism, and share loyalty to one Lord?

As Christians, our divisions weaken both us and the world in which we live. If the message of Christ is the light of the world, then our divisions make room for darkness. If we face the future with hope by faith in Christ, then our divisions make room for doubt and fear. If we love each other through Christ, then our divisions make room for indifference, coldness, even hatred.

The presence of God makes a difference in our lives. The Holy Spirit builds us up in love, which increases the joy of the one who is blessed by it and works for reconciliation, spreading forgiveness in its wake. Where love steps forward -- wherever it meets good will, peace follows. St Paul was right that love is patient and love is kind. I easily forget what else he said: love is bold, love takes risks (love hopes all things). The homily this morning mentioned that in baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. And of course we prayed "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." As we love, how can we not forgive? And so we receive forgiveness. Our own lives change, along with the lives of those we have forgiven from the heart.

This morning (as I'm away from home) I worshiped in a historic church built long ago. The church was a work of beauty and art. It is a visible reminder of what faith, hope, and love may still accomplish in this world. It's a peaceful sanctuary, a place where the depth of beauty can restore faith, hope, and love by communicating the presence of God. Where places of nature and natural beauty may be inaccessible to those who live in the city, here is a place of peace and beauty that is accessible. The presence of God makes a difference in this world. Love makes it known.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Geographical References - The Gospel of John

This map covers the geographic places with proper names that are referenced in the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John has an eye for detail in its references to geography. It makes references to individual locations within a city or town: a conversation doesn't merely happen in Samaria, or even in Sychar in Samaria (the first reference in our series to a specific place within Samaria), but even more particularly the conversation occurs at Jacob's well. Another conversation took place not merely near the temple, but in Solomon's Colonnade. A miracle of healing doesn't happen at some undisclosed place in Jerusalem, but at a certain pool named Bethesda that is by a particular gate, the Sheep Gate. This gospel sometimes offers bilingual or cross-cultural references to the places named: the author mentions that the Stone Pavement is known in Aramaic as Gabbatha, that the Sea of Galilee is also known as the Sea of Tiberias. There are some smaller places not known from earlier gospels, such as Cana in Galilee, or the Kidron Valley between the site of the last supper and the garden.

For scope, the Gospel of John mentions 28 distinct places, with Galilee and Jerusalem leading the list by how often they receive mention. Third place in John's gospel goes to Samaria (including Samaritans), which receives nearly as much mention as Jerusalem.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Geographical References - The Gospel of Luke

This map covers the geographic places with proper names that are referenced in the Gospel of Luke.

With over 130 named mentions of geographical places, the Gospel of Luke mentions place names more times than the Gospel of Matthew. However, nearly 25% of those mentions are Jerusalem, and so Luke mentions 31 distinct places, slightly down from Matthew's 36. In Luke, Jerusalem has overtaken Galilee as the most-mentioned place name.

Within Jerusalem and its vicinity, gone are some of the pinpoint references from Matthew and Mark to named locations at a granular level such as Gethsemane, Golgotha, or the Praetorium. Luke retains the specific mention of the Mount of Olives and adds a new one: Siloam, the site of the tower that fell. Gone, too, are Matthew's references to the ancient tribal territories of the Twelve Tribes. In Luke, more reference is given to providing non-Jewish context: there are mentions of the nearby regions of Traconitis, Iturea, and Abilene. Samaria and the Samaritans receive four mentions here. Luke mentions Jesus' comments on the widow of Zarephath in context of God's inclusion of those who are not Jews. Unique among the gospel writers, Luke refers to the "Sea of Galilee" as the "Lake of Gennesaret", though -- like many places -- that body of water has been known by a number of different names. Luke also adds Nain and Emmaus to the list of places where we have a record of some of Jesus' actions occurring there.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Geographical References - The Gospel of Matthew

This map covers the geographic places with proper names that are referenced in the Gospel of Matthew. More analysis is below the map.

Matthew's Geographical Frame of Reference

The Gospel of Matthew, in general, had a broader geographic span than the Gospel of Mark. Some noticeable contributing factors are:
  • Matthew's gospel recounts Jesus' birth, with references to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt -- a time period in Jesus' life that Mark did not cover. 
  • Matthew provides basic orientation in history and ancestry, a common-enough feature of Jewish narratives, and so mentions Babylon. 
  • Matthew sees the events as taking place in a certain Jewish religious prophetic context, and so mentions the designated territories of the ancient tribes where we find much of the action of his narrative: in the land of Judah, the land of Zebulun, and the land of Naphtali. It's arguable that the land of Judah was essentially a precursor to Judea, so "land of Judah" was combined with Judea on this map.
  • Matthew provides more "red letter" text of Jesus' conversations, where Jesus makes reference to Nineveh, Sodom, and Gomorrah -- so there are conversational mentions of places that are not directly connected to a person or event in the narrative. I'm aware that there's debate not only over the placement of Sodom and Gomorrah, but even over their historicity; those debates are beyond the scope of this post where the question is more simply: what would the earliest readers of Matthew's gospel have thought?
In all, the map indicates 36 distinct places which, together, are mentioned 115 times in the Gospel of Matthew. The most commonly-mentioned places are Galilee and Jerusalem; those two items make up roughly 25% of the geographical references in the Gospel of Matthew. For perspective, those same two places made up roughly 33% of the geographical references in the Gospel of Mark.

Here, in the details of the maps, we see the beginnings of a trend: the further away a place is located (from the perspective of the original author), the more likely we are to have the place referenced by the name of a larger geographic territory, while the closer a place is (from the original author's perspective), the more likely the author is to include names of smaller regions, specific cities or towns, and landmarks such as gardens and specific individual buildings.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Geographical References - The Gospel of Mark

Continuing the "geography" series, the next map covers the geographic places with proper names that are referenced in the Gospel of Mark, the shortest of the Biblical gospels and considered by many to be the earliest-written of the Biblical gospels. Additional notes are placed below the map.
The Breadth of the Geographical Interest
The Gospel of Mark has more places than the maps we have previously reviewed, with 27 distinct places mentioned, and 71 distinct mentions of those places. Here we see an increase in the variety of places: a collection of regions, landscape features, towns or cities, and named places within or around the city. The majority of places mentioned are in the immediate vicinity of Jesus' known historical locations, and within the range that could be easily traveled in the Roman era. In a brief comparison to the eight non-canonical gospels covered in the previous posts, those eight documents mention 6 distinct places among them: Bethlehem, Israel, Jerusalem, the Jordan River, Judea, and Samaria. The number of distinct places mentioned does vary among those documents, from a low of zero in two of the non-Biblical gospels, to a high of four distinct places in the Proto-Evangelium of James. Interestingly, the non-canonical gospels mention two places that the Gospel of Mark does not mention: Samaria is mentioned in 2 of the 8 non-canonical gospels, and Bethlehem is mentioned in one of them, while neither is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark. The reason Bethlehem isn't mentioned in Mark is fairly clear: as the Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus as an adult, there is no reason to mention Bethlehem. The reason there is no mention of Samaria is more open to speculation, whether because it is a minor point in any of the narratives of Jesus' life, or because there is tension between Samaritans and Jews; either would be a plausible reason. While Mark mentions more non-Jewish places than I'd realized before plotting them on a map, he doesn't mention Samaria. (With a quick preview of the four Biblical gospels, the remaining ones all mention Samaria or Samaritans.)

Relative Geographical Context
The Gospel of Mark, as mentioned briefly, has 71 references to 27 distinct places. The most common places mentioned are Galilee and Jerusalem, which combine to make roughly 31% of the referenced geographical names. This compares to the combined total of the eight non-canonical gospels reviewed with 60 references to 6 places, with over 50% of the references being broad references to "Israel", and 75% of the references going to either "Israel" or "Jerusalem". To keep these findings in perspective, it may help to refer to the previous chart on the relative lengths of these documents. None of these non-Biblical gospels is as long as the Gospel of Mark; in fact, the five shortest of them combined are still not quite as long as the Gospel of Mark. However, by the time these 8 non-Biblical documents are all considered -- including some of the longer non-canonical gospels, there is over twice the amount of material as the Gospel of Mark but noticeably less context by way of physical geography.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Geographical References - Non-Canonical Gospels, Other than Gnostic Gospels

The next installment in the "geography" series covers the more commonly-known documents that are often referred to as gospels, but are not in the Bible, other than the Gnostic gospels discussed in the previous post. Again, against the background of the modern-day features that come pre-loaded on google maps, I have plotted the geographical items referenced in these alternative gospels. Additional notes are placed below the map.

The documents reviewed for this map, each with is own layer, are:
  • The Gospel of the Savior
  • The Infancy Gospel of Thomas 
  • The Proto-Evangelium of James 
  • The Gospel of Peter 
Among the four documents reviewed here, there are four distinct places mentioned:
  • Bethlehem: 4 mentions (all in the Proto-Evangelium of James)
  • Israel: 33 mentions (often indirectly by identifying a character as an "Israelite")
  • Jerusalem: 8 mentions
  • Judea: 7 mentions
Prominence of Israel as the Main Geographic Reference

Over 60% of all geographical references in these four documents are to Israel, including referring to someone as an Israelite. Israel is the only place mentioned in all four of the documents. In the Gospel of the Savior, the two references to Israel are the only geographical references. The Gospel of Peter mentions Israel twice. In the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the narrator's introduction of himself as "Thomas the Israelite" constitutes 1/3 of the mappable geographical references in the document (the other two are references to Jerusalem). While the other documents reference "Israel" once or twice each, the Proto-Evangelium of James mentions Israel frequently, tallying up 28 of the 33 references to Israel, and 28 of the total 52 geographical references in the four documents currently reviewed. These references are often in the context "tribes of Israel", "children of Israel", "God of Israel", and similar constructions. That is, slightly over half of all geographical references in the four documents are references to Israel in the Proto-Evangelium of James.

Later analysis will put this finding in context against other documents to be reviewed.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Geographical References - Gnostic Gospels

I'm now trying my hand at some basic google maps to plot the geographical references in the Gnostic Gospels. The map below reflects some of my learning curve with google maps, no doubt. Amid the many modern-day features that come pre-loaded on these maps -- and it doesn't seem that google currently allows these pre-loaded features to be turned off -- I have plotted the geographical items referenced in the Gnostic Gospels. Some notes are in order and are placed below the map.

If we consider the classification "Gnostic Gospel" to be useful -- which is beyond the scope of this post -- then this map includes geographical references from all the documents that I have typically included in this classification: The Gospel of Thomas (Coptic), the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, and the Gospel of Mary. Among those 4 documents, together they reference a total of 5 different geographical items, with Jerusalem being mentioned 3 times in the Gospel of Philip for a total of 8 references to those 5 different geographical items:

Israel / Israelite Jerusalem Jordan Judea / Judaea Samaria / Samaritan
Gospel of Thomas (Coptic) 1 0 0 1 1
Gospel of Philip 0 3 1 0 1
Gospel of Truth

Gospel of Mary

The Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Mary are counted among the Gnostic Gospels, but do not mention any geographical locations.

For thoroughness' sake I'd want to mention why a reference to "Nazareth" isn't plotted even though the Gospel of Philip includes several Nazareth-related words: it is because the author of the Gospel of Philip does not seem to consider it to be a geographical reference. Here is the passage in question from the Gospel of Philip, for those who want to assess for themselves whether "Nazorean", "Nazarene", or "Nazara" was recognized by the Gospel of Philip's author as having any geographical significance:
The apostles who were before us had these names for him: "Jesus, the Nazorean, Messiah", that is, "Jesus, the Nazorean, the Christ". The last name is "Christ", the first is "Jesus", that in the middle is "the Nazarene". "Messiah" has two meanings, both "the Christ" and "the measured". "Jesus" in Hebrew is "the redemption". "Nazara" is "the Truth". "The Nazarene" then, is "the Truth". "Christ" has been measured. "The Nazarene" and "Jesus" are they who have been measured.
The map above has layers, and when reviewing it in google maps you should be able to turn on and off the layers corresponding to each particular gnostic gospel, to allow an individual view of a particular gospel, or a combined view of all (the default view).

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Christ is risen!

I have come to love life, and to enjoy it. And so I thank God that he thought our lives worth saving.

He is risen indeed!

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry and the Betrayal

Today is Palm Sunday, when we commemorate the anniversary of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey -- on a colt, the foal of a donkey -- to welcoming crowds who did not miss the fact that the old prophecy of the Messiah expected him to ride into Jerusalem just that way. Many Palm Sunday sermons claim that, by the end of the week, these same crowds would be shouting "Crucify him!" That's not quite true; the authorities arrested him in secret at night, and held the trial at night, because the crowds were so solidly on Jesus' side that the authorities didn't dare move against Jesus in the daytime when he taught openly on the Temple grounds. Their unwillingness to move against Jesus openly is why they needed to recruit a traitor, and the backstory of the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. It wasn't the people who turned against Jesus; it was one of the disciples. More than that, it was one of the original twelve apostles. And if they could turn, anyone could.

What would make a disciple turn against Jesus? What would make an apostle turn against Jesus? We don't know what happened, and are left trying to reconstruct it from scant information. But in the end, even not knowing the details, there is only one kind of thing makes people turn against another: something else has become more important to them. With Judas, some people speculate that it was money. Some speculate that it was self-love (could he have wanted recognition?), or wanting to see a political victory over the Romans, or a military victory over the Romans. At the end of the day I'm not sure it matters which thing became more important to Judas, only that something became more important to Judas. I wonder: Would Judas have followed Jesus if Jesus had done things his way? (Who would have been following who?)

It is probably a common temptation to wish Jesus were doing things differently. Peter knew that temptation: he scolded Jesus for accepting his upcoming death. The apostles wanted Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel. All of us have something that we want put right, and it may even be something that God will put right when the moment arrives -- like the Messiah living forever. The moment the cause becomes more important to us than our Lord, I wonder if we are at risk of becoming the traitor.

We'll wish our fellow-Christians saw eye-to-eye with us on what was most important. But our unity will not be exactly Christian unity if it's built on something besides trusting Jesus and putting him first. We may achieve some kind of unity around other causes, we may find a group that agrees with us on priorities, we may build a group that pursues a specific goal. But we have to watch ourselves that this is not done at the cost of building on other ground besides Christ. What if some other cause should become more important to us than Christ? I do not say "we hurt Christ's cause" because even Judas Iscariot did not, in the end, harm Christ's cause -- he harmed his own. For all that something else was more important to Judas, it's ironic that we don't even know what it was. It's not even a footnote.

Unity in Christ means trusting that he is, after all, doing the right thing at the right time with the right priorities. It means considering that we may, after all, need to have enough humility to follow him, and all that implies about letting him take the lead.