Saturday, January 24, 2015

Passover Plot or Pentecost Portent?

The good story of Jesus of Nazareth ends with his trial, execution and burial. Or does it? Four versions that are in modern Christian Bibles tell of a rising from the dead. A sequel tells about about a dove and tongues of fire on the fiftieth day of the death.

The execution of Jesus is so widely attested as the one incontestable fact about this obscure Galilean woodworker that it is not worth pondering insofar as the history of it goes.

But how did a band of devout Jews following the executed self-made rabbi of humble origins end up founding a new religion?

Hugh J. Schonfield's 1965 work The Passover Plot argued, from a respectful Jewish scholarly stance, that somehow the apostles conspired to reinterpret the gospel events into something a bit larger than the actual life that happens. It is one modern iteration of a polemic that goes back 2,000 years.

The much maligned, but second-string, professors who adopted the overly grand title of "The Jesus Seminar" more recently pointed to the two or three decades that passed between the events in the gospel and the first written testimony.

Something happened to the understandably scared bunch of fisherman and tradesmen who followed Jesus the day he was arrested. At first, as even the canonical gospels admit, they were scattered, or gathered in small groups in hiding.

Then the Rebbe appeared to them alive. Then, finally, a dove descended upon them spewing tongues of fire and they were suddenly polyglots in Jerusalem and risked death to spread the "good news."

Even then, contrary to the catechetics of many a well-meaning nun, they weren't Christian and wouldn't have known a pope if he came to shake their hand. They were a band of Jews with a peculiar story to tell: a sect sometimes called Nazarenes, after their deceased leader.

The book of Acts tells of a debate in Jerusalem between Peter and Paul on whether to circumcise Gentile converts to believers in the teachings, resurrection and lordship of Jesus the Christ. This was no grand, genteel erudite discussion in a renaissance basilica in Rome; this was a band of still persecuted "Jesusite" die-hards gathered in lofts and barns, arguing like vendors in bazaars.

Indeed, they were in the bazaar of ideas that was Judaism in Palestine of the first century up to the year 70. Some of their fellow Jews called them apostates. The Romans didn't like their stirring up things but couldn't tell apart one non-Jesusite Jew from a Nazarene.

To my mind, the apostles' willingness to hold fast to their story to the point of death suggests more than a simple "plot" to make a living off some flim-flam man's sweet talk. The original meaning of "martyr" is witness; a martyrdom gives witness to the martyred's conviction.

I would argue that what we know as Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove (Acts 2:1–31), which presumably occurred on the Jewish feast of Shevuot, represents a portent of some sort that led to a radical transformation.

Perhaps they were so shocked that they had to go over and over their recollections of the events and words of the exciting three years with Jesus many times. Then, a "fire" of clarity arose among them about the overall meaning of what they had witnessed.

The words attributed to Jesus offer enough ambiguity to leave open whether he intended to be regarded the Son of God and the founder of a church. But, clearly, by some point in the 50s (Jesus was executed in the 30s), when we find the first New Testament documents, the apostles believed Jesus had intended this.

The earliest "creed" was unambiguous but simple: Jesus is Lord.

This lordship included the role of Messiah, meaningful at that time only to Jews, and included, in the present tense of "to be" the assertion that the executed Jesus is alive.

The rest is commentary, 2,000 years of it, and we now turn to that story.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A maiden named Myriam

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:46-50)
It is unlikely that Myriam, the mother of Yehoshua, came to the attention of his followers until a moment such as this.

The followers of Jesus were not known to have been his childhood pals. They would not have known Mary as the mom who served them punch and cookies when they came in from playing in the yard (yes, I am placing her in a telegenic 1950s U.S. suburb for the sake of the modern reader).

The much revered Mary has what Hollywood would call a "supporting role" in the gospel narratives.

She appears in the New Testament in the birth and infancy narratives in Luke 1-2, Matthew 1:18-25; in stories about Jesus and his family, Mark 3:31-35 and 6:1-6; at the Wedding at Cana, John 2; and at the foot of the cross, John 19. She may also be the Mary present at the discovery of the empty tomb in the resurrection narratives. Beyond the gospels, Mary is with the apostles at Pentecost, Acts 1:14. Some writers place Mary as the enigmatic woman and the dragon in Revelation 12. Wrapping up  the film analogy, Mary has actual speaking parts only in Luke's nativity narrative and in John's Cana story.

In the gospels the virgin birth is noted as historical, but each narrative raises some fairly large questions. Luke, a Gentile, seems abysmally ignorant of Jewish purification rites and his story cannot have come from the historical Mary. Matthew presents an odd juxtaposition of a paternal genealogy, which makes little sense in light of the story in which Joseph is clearly not the father. Mark passages are typically stark and yield no definitive answer with respect to the actual number and names of Jesus' immediate family members.

The Cana story is so clearly a foreshadowing of the Last Supper's institution of the eucharist rite that its historicity is almost beside the point. Let's again recall that these are not newspaper accounts, much less modern historical writings.

The virgin birth is not a statement of modern biologists. It is a classic narration of the portentous and foreshadowing beginnings of a notable person. This was a common literary technique in the Greco-Roman world: great people were said to be born or raised in extraordinary circumstances.

Followers of Jesus' apostles very likely took all these accounts at face value, but without the modern concern for empirical scientific facts, which were unknown, or rare, in the ancient world.

The gospels, particularly John, were also in part responding to polemic against Mary and her son, at the time in which the followers of Jesus were one of several competing Jewish sects.

The Talmud, for example, speaks of Jesus as a sorcerer, son of Pantera, a Roman seducer of Miriam, who was unfaithful to her husband. This is not a quote, but a summary gloss of many talmudic references; moreover, scholars cannot uncontrovertibly state that these people are the Jesus and Myriam of Nazareth in the gospels. Yet such descriptions of people who could be the gospel characters can certainly explain why Luke and Matthew offered their versions of the Christmas story.

The gospels are discourses about God, not biographies.

Mary is presented as typical of the Anawim, poor oppressed Jews who lived in expectation of a Messiah. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah in Mary's response at the annunciation and echoes of Hannah and Samuel in the presentation at the Temple.

As for Myriam, the woman, we know very little that could be certified today as historical fact. A little less than we know of Jesus.

Could she have believed an angel announcing that she would bear a child without being with a man? Yes, she could. People of her time and place ascribed all sorts of things, from the common cold to leprosy and cures therefrom, to a constellation of good and evil spirits that animated a world about which they knew little scientifically.

We can suppose that a virgin birth would be scandalous, just as Jesus not marrying is oddly unconventional to the point of verging on scandalous. (Imagine the gossip: "What is that young man doing hanging around those tavern people and whores instead of getting married and taking up a craft?")

Joseph would, indeed, have been Matthew's forgiving man, ready to dismiss her quietly (an engagement was much more serious business then).

Yes, Mary might later have had shocks and surprises along the way to the cross, despite what the angel told her. What could a simple, rural girl from Galilee know about what a Messiah's life and death would be like?

All Myriam's experience allowed her to suppose was that her son was going to learn his craft from Joseph, then marry a nice Jewish girl and give her grandchildren. As for preaching, healing, a trial and crucifixion, I'm sure that at sometime she muttered to herself the Aramaic equivalent of Oy, vey!