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Saturday, February 24, 2018

What The Bible Tells Us About The Bible – Lesson 2

The Bible Is A Collection of Human Spiritual Traditions

            Much has been said and taught about the Bible and many of the claims that are made are based on what serious and devout individuals want the Bible to represent. They want it to be the perfect and inerrant word of God and unfortunately it is not that. It is, however, a collection of Judeo-Christian spiritual traditions written by various authors over about a thousand years (roughly 950 BCE to about 250 CE.)  Let’s look at some of the evidence that makes this clear, because the best way to understand the Bible and its various messages is to look carefully at how the various parts are written.  In other words, we need to take seriously what the Bible tells us about the Bible.

Books In The Bible Were Created From Oral Traditions

            The first thing that must be made clear about the Old Testament is that the first written word to appear anywhere in it was penned after 920 BCE. That was some 939 years after the time of Abraham, the first Jewish patriarch, who lived around 1859 BCE. That means all the sacred traditions in the Old Testament about Abraham, his family, Joseph, the Egyptian captivity, Moses, the Exodus, the Judges, and the first three Hebrew kings, Saul, David and Solomon, were all transmitted orally before being recorded in documents that would be placed in the Hebrew Bible also known as the Christian Old Testament.  The Old Testament is only vaguely a history. Oral traditions change and are embellished as they are transmitted from generation to generation, which makes them variable and unreliable as historical records. What they do preserve, however, are what devout Jews in different locations and times felt were important spiritual and theological teachings during a 1,000-year span of history.

            The books of the New Testament are also based on oral traditions. There is not a single word in the New Testament that was written by someone who knew, saw, listened to, or talked with Jesus.  His disciples were poor, illiterate, Aramaic speaking day laborers and the writers of the Gospels that were named after Jesus’ disciples, were educated and wrote sophisticated theological documents in Greek.  They were not the same people.

            It is also clear that the Gospels of the New Testament show developing Christian theology from the earliest Gospel of Mark to the last Gospel of John. They do not all say the same things and this is one of the many reasons that the claim of Biblical inerrancy is not supported by what’s literally in the Bible.  It is clear that different Christian groups had different beliefs so when their oral traditions were written down, that created conflicting stories in the New Testament for all to see for themselves. 

Changing Traditions About Jesus’ Divinity

Christology In The Gospel Of Mark

According to Mark, Jesus became divine when John The Baptist baptized him.  Mark wrote that when Jesus came “…out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased’ “ (Mark 1:10-11). Jesus saw the dome that first century people believed separated earth from heaven split open and God spoke directly to him telling him of his then exalted state.

Mark portrays Jesus as the most human in comparison to the other Gospels. Mark has no birth narrative and, in fact, his hometown friends and his family think he might be losing his mind when he starts preaching and some were even offended (Mark 3:20-21, 31-32 & Mark 6:2-4). Approaching his crucifixion Jesus is in anguish (Mark 14:34, 36) and upon his death on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Matthew also has Jesus uttering the same last words in his Gospel (Matt 27:46). But, Jesus’ quoted last words begin to change in Luke. Luke writes that Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commit My spirit.” (Luke 23:46)  Then John shortens Jesus’ last words even more, to simply saying, “It is finished.” John (19:30) There is clearly a progression of spiritual understanding evolving from the earlier Christian writings of Mark to the later Christian writings of the Gospel of John. The Gospels reflect theological history more precisely than human history.

Christology In The Gospel Of Matthew

            Matthew, the second gospel to be written, moves the beginning of Jesus’ exalted status to his birth. Matthew records an oral tradition stating that when Jesus’ “…mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). This was supposed to be the fulfillment of  “…what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet…” (Matt. 1:22) in Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew scripture. However, when you read Isaiah 7:14 in its full context it is about a sign given to King Ahaz indicating that his country of Judah would not be conquered by the combined forces of two hostile neighboring kingdoms. (Isa. 7:16) This was a battle that took place centuries before Jesus was born, so it clearly had nothing to do with him.

In addition, The Hebrew version of the Old Testament (the Torah), contains the word, "almah" in Isaiah 7:14 which, in Hebrew, only means young woman and it is not at all ambiguous. The Hebrew word for virgin is a completely different word, "betulah".  Since "almah" is used in the original Hebrew text, its meaning must be accepted as the intended meaning of that passage, which means Matthew's assertion of a virgin birth is an error.  Matthew's Christian fervor apparently overwhelmed his skill as a scriptural scholar. Bottom line, Matthew’s story of a virgin birth was interpretive Christian messaging, not history.

There are other elements of Matthew’s Gospel that describe for us his overall intended message. He is the only source of the stories about Mary and Joseph living in a house where Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:11), about the Magi from the east (Matt. 2:1-12), a wandering star (Matt. 2:2, 7, 9-10), the suspicion and fear of Herod (Matt. 2:3-8), Mary and Joseph’s escape to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-14), and Herod’s slaughter of all the male children two years old and younger in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16). Only Matthew describes Mary and Joseph’s eventual return from Egypt (Matt. 2:19-21) and that they had to go live in Nazareth in Galilee instead of returning to Bethlehem, because it was still too dangerous (Matt: 2:22-23).

All of these story elements are recreations of the Joseph and Moses stories in the Torah, starting with Joseph, the interpreter of dreams (Gen. 41:15-16) who was sold into slavery in Egypt (Gen. 37:28), only to rise to be second in power to the Pharaoh (Genesis 41:40) because he protected Egypt from a severe drought. Joseph subsequently also protected his family by having the Pharaoh invite them to move to Egypt so they would survive the drought (Gen. 47:5-6). Generations later the Jews in Egypt became a threat to a new Egyptian king who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:7-8) and who decided to have all newborn Jewish boys killed by casting them “…into the Nile” (Exodus 1:22).  Then, like Joseph, Moses escaped death in Egypt and came under the protection of the Pharaoh and his family (Exodus 2:1-10). In the meantime the Jews in Egypt were treated as slaves (Exodus 2:23). Eventually, Moses was called by God (Exodus 3:7-10) to lead the Jews out of Egypt, through the desert,  where he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) then on to the border of the Promised Land (Canaan) where Moses died and was buried (Deut: 34:1-6).

Matthew wanted everyone to understand that he viewed Jesus as the new and more powerful Moses, which was initiated by his miraculous birth of a virgin, not when he was baptized. Even Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount (Matt: 5-7) appears to contain revisions of the Ten Commandments given to Moses. Matthew presents the most Jewish perspective of Jesus’ life and teachings when compared to the other Gospel writers.
Christology In The Gospel Of Luke

            The way the author of Luke writes, he may have been a pagan convert to Christianity since that appears to be his perspective. Luke, like Matthew, considers Jesus’ holy conception and birth to be the moment God exalted Jesus to a divine status (Luke 1:26-35).  The birth tradition Luke wrote in his gospel is so different from the story Matthew wrote there is no way they can be harmonized. If one is historically true then the other is false. They are both theological interpretive stories, not histories.

            Luke has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth in Galilee when they are required to travel to Bethlehem because of a census decreed by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-5). (There are no contemporaneous Roman documents indicating any such census took place.) Luke’s story continues. Despite being great with child, and having to travel by donkey or walking, Mary and Joseph make the journey. They find Bethlehem so crowded they had to lodge in a stable, with the animals. That’s where Jesus is born. (Luke 2:6-7). The shepherds in the fields come to town to visit Jesus (Luke 2:8-20) and after eight days Jesus is circumcised according to Jewish law (Luke 2:21-23). Finally Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return to “…their own city of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

            Both Matthew and Luke tell essentially the same story of Jesus’ baptism (Matt. 4:13-17) and (Luke 4:21-22). Unlike Mark, however, the voice of God in Matthew and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ baptism, spoke generally to everyone, not just to Jesus. It could have been that Luke simply followed Matthew’s version, instead of Mark’s. Still, none of these writers wrote about events he had witnessed. Each was writing down oral traditions that expressed theological viewpoints meaningful to his particular community of believers.

Christology In The Gospel Of John

            The Gospel of John is so different that none of its stories can be lined up in parallel with similar stories appearing in the Synoptic Gospels (i.e. Mark, Matthew, and Luke).  The first three Gospels are called “Synoptic” because they share common views of the events in Jesus’ life. However, John is very different. There is no birth narrative in the Gospel of John because John claims that Jesus was the Word of God made manifest on earth (John 1:14) and Jesus’ grace and truth supersede “…the Law given through Moses” (John 1: 16-17).  Jesus had existed eternally “…in the beginning with God” (John 1:1) and was the creator of all things (John 1:3-4). In stark contrast to the other Gospel writers, the writer of John is claiming that Jesus had been divine for eternity.

            Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, John has Jesus cleanse the Temple at the beginning of his teaching career (John 2:13-16) not just prior to his crucifixion (Mark 11:15-17; Matt. 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-46). Throughout the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not glorify himself. In fact he makes the statement, “Why call me good? No one is good by God alone.” (Mark 10:18 & Luke 18:19) In John, however, his acts and long speeches and signs are all about his exalted divine status and redemptive power. The Gospel of John expresses an extremely different and more complex Christology than the previous three Gospels.

Considered in their chronological order, the four Gospels reveal to us a progression of how succeeding Christian communities held remarkably different oral traditions about how and when Jesus was raised from humanness to divinity.

The Evolution of Monotheism

            It is frequently taught that Abraham founded the Jewish nation by rejecting polytheism and worshipping the one and only true God. However, it didn’t happen as quickly as that. There are traces of polytheism or, at least, monolatry (the worship of one god over all other lesser gods who also are believed to exist) throughout the Old Testament. Consider the First Commandment that states one must “,,,have no other gods before Me.” (Exod: 20:3) This clearly suggests that of all the gods that are in the heavens, the God of the Jews is the most important and the most powerful.  This is also true for phrases such as ”Almighty God” (Gen. 17:1) or “Lord God." There is also the story in 2 Kings about male deities having sex with attractive human females and the resulting children “…were the heroes that were of old” (2 Kings: 13:19).

Even in the first century, during Jesus’ lifetime, 90% of the population was polytheistic, so the move to monotheism involved a slow and gradual progression, even then. In fact, various early Christian communities that formed after Jesus’ crucifixion had polytheistic doctrines claiming the existence of as few as two to as many as three hundred sixty-five gods. They all claimed to be Christian, they all claimed to be right, and they all claimed that any opposing viewpoint was heretical. Ultimately, the theology that evolved into “Orthodox Christianity” finally won the religious debates and their view of heresy became the standard. As a result all opposing Christian ideas and teachings were vigorously attacked and sacred literature considered heretical was destroyed whenever possible. 

It appears that those who win will always attempt to write their own version of history. However, biblical scholarship can help us see the Bible from a theology-free perspective.  The purpose of these lessons is to provide as bias-free a look at the Bible as possible, so the practical, metaphysical, and spiritual lessons can be revealed. Dogma should not dictate reality. It should be the other way around. What we see, feel, and learn every day should be expanding our knowledge and increasing our spiritual awareness of every expression of reality we experience. What we are starts and stops with what we allow ourselves to believe. Therefore, what we believe should be treated with special care, respect, and honesty.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Pondering Eternity

             Personally, I do not know what will happen to my consciousness, my soul, my inner being after my body dies and it does not matter because whatever it is, or isn't, I accept without question. I accept it in the same way I have accepted everything new that I have learned during my lifetime and how every new experience has transformed me. 

            Living taught me that none of us knows what we do not know, but new experiences and expanded knowledge changed me to the core of my being, time and time again. There is no question that life, like I have had the privilege of experiencing, will always recreate and be exactly what it is, forever. Certainly, my time of awareness, however long that actually is, will remain for all eternity a span of time in which an individualized expression of God's love, principle, and wisdom existed. God is the principle supporting and urging each of us toward our highest human potential which is a life of total spiritual awareness.

              The ultimate reality of life, growth, awareness, and eternity leaves no one out. Accept completely what you have yet to learn and be at peace as you grow and change. Have faith in the unknown results of unconditional love and allow yourself to be transformed by those results when you experience them. It's so easy that it becomes difficult. Have faith anyway, because you can bring love and truth into existence in every moment of eternity that you touch.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

How The Meaning of "Christ" Evolved

        The word “Christ” comes from the Greek word, “Christos” which means “anointed one” and it is derived from the Greek word, “chrio,” which means to “smear or anoint.”  All of the original New Testament texts were written in Greek so "Christos" was used when translating the Hebrew word, “mashia”  also meaning “anointed one” into Greek. “Messiah” is the English equivalent of the Hebrew “mashia.”

     Ancient civilizations made no differentiations between civic or religious duties, and every city-state or empire had its pantheon of gods protecting it. The kings or emperors in power were considered chosen or “anointed” by their respective gods and it was assumed that if everyone worshipped their gods properly, the kingdom would be protected from its enemies and it would prosper.

       Ancient Israel was no different, except it started more as a monolatry, the worship of one god (Yahweh) that was believed to be superior to all other gods who were also thought to exist. When you hear phrases such as “lord of lords”, or “king of kings”, that’s a vestige of that early Jewish monolatry. Still, the early Hebrew kings, (e.g. Saul, then David, then David’s son, Solomon) were considered anointed by Yahweh, and therefore were messiahs or divine saviors and protectors of Israel.

          However, Judaism following the Babylonian exile became strictly monotheistic, and Yahweh was then considered the one and only God with power over all people and all things. Many of the Jewish leaders were weak and ineffective which led to the Jews being a conquered people time and again. This created a longing for a return of a messiah, or anointed leader, that was as powerful and majestic as David, thus, the interest in the “line of David.”

      This longing and expectation by Jews for a conquering messiah while living under the harsh rule of the Roman Empire was the reality of the Middle East into which Jesus was born and raised. As a Jew, he, too, probably expected a messiah, a ruler, anointed by the God of the Jews to establish this new kingdom on earth. This was the message of John the Baptist which Jesus supported and which he continued teaching after John the Baptist was executed. 

      The belief was that God’s kingdom would overthrow all the evil kingdoms of human domination and suffering, particularly, the Roman Empire. Jesus’ teachings on the coming Kingdom of God had to do with this kind of expected, all powerful kingdom, here on earth, under the direct rule of God. 

       It is possible that Jesus saw himself as God's anointed earthly ruler (messiah). He taught that human expectations would be reversed upon the arrival of the Kingdom of God, so that the last would be first and the first, last. The strongest evidence that this could have been true was the fact that Jesus was crucified. The Romans used crucifixion almost exclusively as punishment for sedition or rebellion against the empire.

        The apostle Paul never met Jesus and only directly interacted with Peter and Jesus’ brother, James, for brief periods of time. In fact, Paul had serious disagreements with both Peter and James because his teachings were significantly different from what Peter, James, and the Jerusalem Fellowship believed and taught. The Jerusalem Fellowship was the central leadership of the group of devout Jews known as Followers of The Way whose teachings were most directly tied to the actual teachings of Jesus, so the disconnect between the teachings of Paul and the Jerusalem Fellowship is an interesting contradiction. Needless to say, historically, Paul's teachings had greater impact on evolving Christian theology than did the teachings of the Jerusalem Fellowship following Jesus' crucifixion.

            They believed Jesus was the Messiah (or Christ) and expected him to return very soon to establish God’s kingdom on earth. They expected new members, whether Jews or gentiles, to conform to Jewish teachings and practices, such as circumcision, as well as the expectation of Jesus’ return as part of their faith commitment.

      Paul had a related, but significantly different vision. He taught that the Kingdom of God was in heaven, not on earth, where rewards were granted after one’s life on earth ended. Paul focused his evangelism on gentiles and did not require them to follow any Jewish practices. After all, if the end was near for everyone, why would anything of earthly origin be important? Paul never referred to any of Jesus' earthly teachings. Paul always stated that his communications were not with Jesus, but were visionary, with the risen Christ, whose spiritual resurrection indicated to Paul that Jesus had been chosen by God to be the first of a new kind of spiritual being into which all selected followers of the Christ could expect, themselves, to become.

      Paul interpreted Jesus’ crucifixion as a sacrifice that freed all sinners from their sin, provided they believed in Christ’s redemptive power. He got this idea from the Jewish celebration of Passover which required the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb in remembrance of the flight of the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. This idea was supported by the Gospel writers who wrote that Jesus' crucifixion occurred in Jerusalem during the time of Passover.

      Members of the Jerusalem Fellowship were those who historically lived with Jesus, but when the Roman’s conquered and destroyed Jerusalem around 70 CE, the Jerusalem Fellowship ceased to exist. The Followers of The Way outside Jerusalem, however, continued their worship of Jesus as The Christ in synagogues spread throughout areas around the eastern Mediterranian. 

       Many of these assemblies had been established and shepherded by Paul so the vast majority of members were pagan converts who were used to accepting and worshipping new gods who performed miraculous deeds for their chosen people. Even the Roman emperors of that time were considered anointed by gods, sons of gods, saviors of their people, and capable of being resurrected from the dead. There is no reason to expect that these ideas would not then resonate with pagans as they made their conversion to Paul’s form of Judaism, the precursor to what was to become known as Christianity.

     The Christology relating to miraculous events marking stages of Jesus’ earthly life and the view of him as God on earth, are theological evolutions which occurred within the oral traditions after Jesus’ death and preceding the writing of the Gospels. The Synoptic Gospel writers then used these oral traditions as their foundations for producing their stories for their particular community of Jewish believers in Christ. These texts were used in synagogues as weekly lessons. The gospel stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection among the Synoptic Gospels, contain contradictions between the different books which clearly reflect the different ways these separate Jewish communities had come to view Jesus, long after he was gone.

      In 80 CE, at a meeting of Rabbi’s and Jewish sages, a new blessing was added to the Shemoneh Esreh, the Eighteen Benedictions (blessings) that observant Jews recited three times a day. This new blessing referred to Jews who still practiced Judaism but believed that Jesus was the Messiah as heretics. In whatever synagogues this blessing was accepted, that effectively ejected Jewish followers of The Way from synagogue membership.  This was one of the events that gradually forced the division of Jews and Christ believers into separate and competing religions.

      By the time the Gospel of John was written, about 90 CE, the Christ of Jesus had been elevated from simply the Jewish expectation of a world leader messiah to the creative, eternal wisdom (Sophia) at the right hand of God, in existence from the beginning of time. In John, eternal wisdom was made humanly manifest in the life and acts of Jesus, the anointed, the Christ. Some scholars also believe that the bitter attitude toward “the Jews” expressed in the Gospel of John was a response to the exclusion of Jewish believers of Jesus as the Messiah from synagogue membership.

      Viewing the Gospels as literally true and as reports of historically accurate facts, reduces them to meaninglessness because of their factual inaccuracies and contradictions. However, viewed as metaphysical teachings, they reveal a history of developing spiritual awakening toward universal inclusion, wholeness, and justice for all. Anyone who unselfishly seeks eternal Truth and expresses unconditional love in all that he or she thinks and does participates in God’s anointing (Christhood), just as Jesus taught and demonstrated. (Matt 5:48)


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Life Itself Is Supernatural

          Life, as we know it, cannot be explained. We don't really know how cells can be made to live, grow, and multiply. We have identified many little pieces, but we don't know a lot about how everything works together to create the synergy which is life itself.  Scientists are not even sure about the electron. Is it a particle or a wave type event?  We sort of know that gravity is real, but what causes it? Haven't figured that out yet.

          The entire body of human knowledge that we do understand and use to run our civilizations, is like a small box of sand. By comparison, what we don't know can be represented by all the remaining sand on all the beaches and in all the deserts, worldwide. There is precious little of total reality that we have actually figured out.

          Therefore, if we define "supernatural" as those things that cannot be explained or verified by science, then most of human life is supernatural, because science cannot yet explain it. Despite our scientific ignorance, however, we are capable of having complete faith in all that reality slowly reveals to us. What we know and don't know are inseparably linked in truth and we are the ones who must change our perspectives as science reveals how newly discovered understandings link with what is already known.

          It is my belief that even scientific knowledge does not progress without humans expressing a spiritual sense of the unknown. Faith is a result when spiritual inspiration leads to expected outcomes. This is true for both scientific inquiry as well as spiritual and religious growth. A calm sense of the unknown somehow leads to verifiably new understandings.

          In short, life is a wonderful, supernatural series of evolving experiences, until new knowledge and perspectives are revealed and accepted. Enjoy and celebrate what comes your way, but also, keep searching and reaching for what you haven't yet grasped.





Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Meaning of Easter

        For many Christians, Easter represents a historical event in which the anointed Son of God arose from the dead after being crucified as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of all mankind. It is taught, if you believe this, you will be saved and go to heaven when your life on earth concludes.

        For many other Christians, Easter represents a historical event in which a Jewish teacher/prophet from Nazareth was crucified because of his teachings against the Roman domination system of the time as well as the Jewish Temple authorities that collaborated with those same Roman authorities.

        Synagogue teachings written after Jesus' death, for followers of The Way,  included resurrection stories (i.e. the New Testament gospels) because the impact of Jesus’ teachings and presence was not extinguished by his torture and death. It was also believed, at the time, that only a supernatural intervention by God to establish God’s Kingdom of unconditional love and social justice, could and would completely defeat human imperial domination systems.  Some early Christians also believed that this heavenly intervention would be initiated by a second coming of Jesus to earth.

        Jesus was wrong about the expected supernatural intervention which did not occur during his generation, nor in any generation since. However, the spiritual understandings inspired by the teachings of Jesus as well as other religious leaders over the millennium, have slowly nudged human thinking and institutions closer to the demonstration of unconditional love and equality in human justice.

        However you choose to interpret Easter is up to what makes sense and satisfies you. Still, despite any differences in historical perspectives among Christians, we might all agree that living our lives consciously, with love, forgiveness, and a passion for justice, is the spiritual foundation and the highest metaphysical intent of the Easter message.

        The English word “repent” as found in the Bible comes from a Greek word "metanoeo" which means something like to rethink or to think in a new way. So, each Easter, we are reminded that whenever we find ourselves thinking in ways that prevent us from loving or being just toward others, we can and are invited to repent

         If we humans can increase our spiritual capacity to love, forgive, and to seek out justice for all, wouldn't that mean that God's Kingdom is coming on earth, as it is in heaven?

     Amen and so it is.