Sunday, July 1, 2018

Isn't the Bible self-contradictory? part 5

Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
Here’s how St. Paul got his chance. Remember that Emperor Claudius had a penchant (Fancy French word used by the pretentious, pronounced “pawn-shawn” meaning a bit of a tendency) toward women of ill repute?  His first wife, Urgulanilla was forced on him by his grandmother the Empress Livia whom he divorced for committing adultery and murdering her sister in law. Two wives later he married his cousin Valeria Messalina who seems to have had a contest as to stamina with the head of the guild of interesting and available women. (I’m being discreet here) the Romans seem to have had a guild for everything. (By the way, Messalina won).
The morals of the Roman ruling class may shock you, but they are really no different than those of our ruling class, the politicians and Hollywood luminaires. Both have the moral sensibility of weasels. His final wife was his niece, Agrippina. She was the mother of Nero. Yes, THE Nero who didn’t actually fiddle whole Rome burned, he did blame it on the Christians. Before he started killing Christians, he was tolerant of them because they were just another kind of Jew as far as anyone new. That’s certainly what most Christians thought, as evidenced by the aforementioned Chrestos riots.  Agrippina managed to get her son Nero adopted by Claudius (they were actually sort of cousins) and he was made joint heir along with Claudius’ underage son whom Nero later had killed. Once it was a sure thing that Nero would be the next emperor, Agrippina fed her husband/uncle a dish of poisoned mushrooms and that’s all she wrote.
Nero seems to have allowed the Jews to return to Rome gradually. He killed his first wife, his cousin Claudia, then married his friend Otho’s wife Poppea Sabina and sent Otho off to be the governor of Portugal. Poppea is important I suspect. She was Nero’s girlfriend before she was his wife and according to Josephus she was a friend to the Jews, though I’m not sure of all the dates. Things were definitely looking up for the Jews and that small Jewish sect, the Christians. By the way, just for the sake of salacious gossip, Roman authors wrote that Nero kicked Poppea to death in 65 AD while she was pregnant with his child. She had gotten into a hissy fit about all the time he spent at the race track. Ever after, Nero was disconsolate at the loss of her.
The author of naughty novels and man about town, Petronius found Nero a substitute for Poppea. First the good news: the substitute looked exactly like Poppea. Next the bad news: the substitute was a 14-year-old boy. This was easily remedied by gender re-assignment surgery. You thought all this was modern stuff. It’s just as disgusting now as it was then. Nothing new under the sun. This is the world, not unlike our own, in which Christianity was born and which the faith conquered. All this allowed the Jews to return to Rome and with them the Christians. I believe that St. Paul wrote his letter to make the point that, as the Church of Rome was being re-founded, it should be founded as a CATHOLIC Church, that is, a Universal Church with no distinction between Jew and gentile.
St. Paul provides a reasoned way to extrapolate from the Law of Moses that the rigorous following of dietary and sacrificial law is no longer necessary. He points out that Abraham was not a Jew. It was impossible to be a Jew before Moses because to be a Jew is to follow the law scrupulously. There was no Law of Moses before Moses. Jews will disagree with this, but it makes sense to me. Abraham had a righteousness that cannot come from the Law of Moses because it predates the Law of Moses.
James and Paul are not contradicting each other. They are agreeing. St. James is saying the same thing in his epistle when he writes,

 “O foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is worthless? Was not our father Abraham justified by what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith was working with his works, and his faith was perfected by what he did.…”  (James 2:20-22)

 In other words, Abraham could only do this if he completely trusted the Lord. St. Paul makes exactly the same point. Both Paul and James point to Abraham, who could not have been justified by the Law of Moses. James is using that reality to point out the responsibility of Christians for one another especially the rich for the poor. Paul is using the example of Abraham to point out that Greeks and Jews now have something beyond the Law of Moses. This is precisely where Orthodox Judaism and Christianity part ways. Christians and Jews agree completely that righteousness includes good works. Paul never absolves the Christian of the need for good works. In the very same letter to the Romans, Paul says clearly that without good works we cannot enter eternal life.                             
God “will repay each one according to his deeds.” To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow wickedness, there will be wrath and anger… (Romans 2:6-8)
Notice that the translation I have chosen uses the word deeds not works. This is a little dishonest. The word in Greek is “ergon” which means (a) work. It is exactly the same word used in the phrase Works of the Law, erga tou nomou in Greek. I don’t think it could be more clear. We are bound by the obligation to charity and the Ten Commandments which predate and supersede the Law of Moses.
This may all seem a bit obscure and tedious, but I assure you wars have been fought over the relationship between faith and works, and are still being fought   though, thank Heaven, with pen and no longer with sword.  I remember meeting a much respected evangelical theologian who had just finished sending Mother Teresa to hell, that is if she thought her works had saved her. His theology taught that if you believe you are saved by a work, then you are not trusting Jesus and you are bound for hell. I had to ask myself, “Has this fellow ever even read the Gospels?” There are whole wings of Christianity since the Reformation that having never seen things like the Dead Sea Scrolls tried to figure out what was meant by the phrase, “You are not saved by works.” they came up with the convenient theory that you need do nothing to go to heaven if you are saved. I hope they are right. I suspect they are wrong.
Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Isn't the Bible self-contradictory? part 4

Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
Where are we? Always a fine question when I am writing.  St James says one is not saved by faith alone, but by works also because faith without works is dead.  St. Paul says that one is not saved by works of the law.  What’s going on here? I have already explained my theory that St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem is writing a fund-raising letter for the hungry Jerusalem community. Jesus had taught that if we don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked He will say to us on the judgment day, “…depart from me, I never knew you.” (Matt 7:21) 
I have labored mightily to show that St. Paul never says that good works are not necessary for salvation, just that works of the Law of Moses won’t save you. What was Paul driving at? On to the salacious Roman gossip.
The Roman emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54 AD) was the last man standing when Caligula, his nephew and most of the other members of the family of Julius and Augustus Caesar were dead. Claudius pretended he was an idiot and they never bothered to kill him. After the army assassins killed crazy depraved Caligula, the palace guard realized that without an emperor they were out of a job. They found crazy semi-depraved Uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and made him emperor. The terrified senate went along with it and it turned out that Claudius was a pretty good emperor, except for his weakness for women of very little character.  Claudius had been quite close to a Jew, Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great (the baby killer of Bethlehem fame).  In fact, Agrippa was raised on the Palatine hill in Rome in the palace of the Caesars, not to be confused with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The emperors had the habit of inviting the children of client kings to live with the imperial family in Rome. It was a good way to Romanize them and to keep their families on their best behavior, that is if they ever wanted to see Junior again, so Claudius, Caligula and Agrippa were all chums.
Caesarea Maritima
After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Agrippa seems to have helped Claudius have the senate and the palace guards agree on the accession of Claudius to the imperial purple. Claudius gave Agrippa control of most of his grandfather Herod the Great’s territory. He also gave part of Lebanon to Herod Agrippa’s brother Herod. (They weren’t real original in their choice of names.) Agrippa became one of the most powerful and consequently most dangerous kings in the Middle Eastern territory of the Roman Empire. Herod started fortifying places and making lots of new friends in the Middle East, which made his friend Emperor Claudius a bit nervous. Could it be that Herod Agrippa was fomenting rebellion and taking himself a little too seriously as a possible Jewish messiah? He was acclaimed as a god by the crowd in the amphitheater in Caesarea on the coast of the Holy Land. The Acts of the Apostles said for this sin of allowing himself to be hailed as a god, he was struck down by an angel and was dead only three years after receiving the enlarged kingdom.
What’s point of all this? Jews had started to make Emperor Claudius nervous. They were 10 percent of the population of the empire. There was a community of them in all the major cities of the empire, maybe a million around Alexandria Egypt and certainly a large number in Antioch, the third city of the empire and a sizable community in Rome. They were well positioned to make trouble. They did in fact revolt in the Holy Land in 66 AD and again in 132 AD, but more ominously they rose up in Cyprus and North Africa in 115 AD. They certainly made the emperors nervous and Claudius, despite what everyone thought, was certainly no fool. When, in 50AD (probably) there were riots among the Jews of Rome about a certain Chrestos, Claudius said, “Enough!” and expelled the Jews from Rome.
This fellow Chrestos was probably Christos, the Greek word for messiah. Christianity had reached Rome early and they were busy fighting over the whole issue of who was in the Church and who was out. Claudius seems to have sent the whole lot packing. Paul met the exilesPriscilla and Aquila from Rome in Corinth around 50 AD and they opened a tent making business together. From them Paul would have heard the sad story of the Church of Rome and I suspect this gave Paul a great idea. He would get his theological point of view in on the ground floor when things eventually opened for Jews in Rome. His opportunity was not long in coming. (More on this later.) Remember his point of view. God loved Greeks as well as Jews and a Greek didn’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian.
The synagogue was a new thing at the time of Christ. The synagogue is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). It possibly developed in the Babylonian community of Jews a couple hundred years before Christ. The religion of Israel was a domestic religion that required three pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple per year if possible. The prayers and blessings and dietary laws that made up the practice of religion were up to the individual. The sacrifices necessary for purification etc. were performed in the Jerusalem temple, but beyond that, there were no place of religious assembly. The equation changed in Babylon. How could one maintain the religion of Israel without the temple? Pilgrimage was pretty much out of the question if you had to walk to Jerusalem from Babylon in Iraq. The answer? The synagogue! It was a place where one could be an Israelite with other Israelites -- a sort of community center.  Gradually the synagogue and the rabbis, religious teachers, came to supplant the temple in the daily life of Jews, especially those not living in the Holy Land. For a couple centuries the rabbis and the synagogue existed alongside the temple and the sacrificing priests, the cohenim, the descendants of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. When the temple was finally destroyed, all that was left was the synagogue. It became the de facto center of what was now truly “Jewish” life. 
There were a lot of gentiles (non-Jews) who attended synagogue. They were called the God-fearers. They had pretty much given up on the silly religions of the ancient world. Remember the Egyptian hippo-jackal-cow gods? The Roman and Greek gods looked more like people, but you had to hide your kid sister from them and sometimes your kid brother. They weren’t very nice gods. A lot of well-educated Romans and Greeks were fascinated by the Jewish religion which spoke of one God who was reasonable and actually interested in human beings, a reasonable moral code and a fairly reasonable set of writings. They weren’t going to jump into the deep end of the pool what with circumcision and no pork and temple sacrifices. They came to synagogue and prayed and studied but nothing more. They were Jewish wannabes, but couldn’t go the whole way, then along comes St. Paul…
Next week: More salacious ancient Roman gossip, I promise

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Isn't the Bible self-contradictory? part 3

Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
So, Paul makes the point that God wants to adopt us as His sons and daughters. This is huge. Paul is saying that God is the perfect family. Father, Son and Holy Spirit and His purpose is to make you part of that family. This will not be accomplished by ritual law. If the law won’t get us adopted by God, what’s it for? First Timothy 8 and following helps clear it up:

 Now we know that the Law is good, if one uses it legitimately. We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching…

 (Note to the squeamish and the politically correct: If you think the above is judgmental inappropriate, bullying, etc., it’s the Bible. When a Catholic priest can’t quote the Bible, then we might all as well move to Canada.)  If we are saved by faith and justified by faith what is the point of the law? St. Paul is very clear about this. He says that the law exists to make us aware of right and wrong. We can kid ourselves about our spiritual condition, but if we are slave trading mother killers we need to make some changes.  St Paul is as clear as can be. The law won’t save you, but it will sure let you know you need saving, that is if you pay attention to it.
The moral law which enjoins self-restraint and charity is the mirror of the divine face. If we look into it clearly, we will see our own deformity and God’s perfect beauty. But what about the ritual laws? In the five books of Moses that the Jews call the Torah, there are 613 laws. We Christians only follow 10. What’s up with that?  Ten laws reflect the very nature of God. For instance, “Thou shalt not kill” Why? God is the Giver and Lord of life. “Thou shalt not steal.” Why? God is generosity. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Why? God is faithful and so on.  Some of the 613 laws are liturgical laws, in effect applications of the first three commandments. Some are moral precepts extending the remaining 7 of the Ten Commandments. 
Then there are the Khukim, a whole lot of the commandments that seem to make no sense at all, such as Leviticus 26:1, “Thou shalt not bow down on a smooth stone.” Numbers 15: 28 “You must have tassels on four cornered garments” Why? Everyone’s got a theory, but no one quite knows. I might as well add my hair brained theory to the rest. Perhaps you’ve seen the movie Forrest Gump. When Forrest, not the sharpest quill on the porcupine, goes off to the army, he meets a fellow called Bubba, who is also not a rocket scientist. The drill sergeant singles the pair out for special attention and makes them clean the barracks floor with a tooth brush. They happily comply and end up being the two best soldiers in the outfit. 
I think the Almighty was doing the same thing with Israel. Religion as a moral code was something of an anomaly in the ancient world, especially monotheistic religious morality. The ancients worshipped some randy gods who really didn’t care a fig about humanity. If you gave them the occasional goat or chicken you might get them not to smite you for no good reason at all other than divine irritability and you might get them to do what you wanted, like cause your neighbors crops to wither and to make his wife develop the vapors, but the idea that a supremely holy god might demand holiness and moral integrity was absurd. To this sort of practical voodoo that was ancient religion, and for that matter the religion of a whole lot of people today, the Egyptians added gods that looked like swamp creatures. There was Bashtet, a cat and Hathor, half cow and half woman and then there was Anubis, half man and half jackal. My absolute favorite Egyptian deity is Tawaret, the goddess of childbirth and fertility who has the front of a hippopotamus, the back of a crocodile and the attributes of a cat. If that doesn’t say “Worship me!”, what does? I remember hearing the story of a Hindu who was perplexed that Jews and Christians worship only one god.  He said that he couldn’t possibly manage without a few hundred of them. If you think you must convince the gods to do your bidding, then a lot of gods are useful. Strike out with one and move on the the next. If you think that God is to be served and loved, then one will do quite nicely.
This whole idea that the gods existed to be placated and. if possible taken advantage of, is paganism and is still with us. After a few centuries in Egypt, the descendants of Israel were pagans. God did not make Israel wander in the desert to get Israel out of Egypt so much as to get Egypt out of Israel. The Law of Moses set religion on its head by making religion about a right relationship between God and humanity and not about the manipulation of powerful forces for one’s own benefit.
The quote from the first letter to Timothy mentioned above says that “the Law is good, if one uses it legitimately” Notice “law” and “legitimately”. This is exactly what the text says. The word for law is “nomos” and the word for legitimately is “nomimos.”  The law is just that: law. It doesn’t save you. It instructs you. It reins you in. People quibble about whether the covenant with the Jews is still in effect or do we Christians believe that we have replaced the Jews. Nonsense. There is no covenant with the Jews. The covenant of Sinai was made with the house of Israel. Remember Israel, whose name used to be Jacob, who had twelve sons who, in their turn, were the founders of twelve tribes?  The tribe of Judah, who most people call Jews, was one tribe. There were 11 others. I maintain that the Jews are still Israel. It’s just that they are not the whole Israelite enchilada, or should I say blintz. It is interesting to note that there is no new Israel mentioned in the New Testament. There is a new covenant and a New Jerusalem but no new Israel. There is just Israel. And I would maintain that we Christians are part of the House of Israel. 
Is the old covenant still in effect? I suppose as far as it goes it still is. It never promises resurrection or life after death or the forgiveness of willful sin.  The covenant with the house of Israel can be summed up very simply: “I will be your God and you will be My people.” That’s the purpose of the Law of Moses. Israel belongs to the Lord just as surely as Forrest Gump and his friend Bubba belonged to the drill sergeant.
Next week: I am not really any closer to wrapping this up than I was weeks ago. The bait and switch about the salacious ancient Roman gossip must be getting tiresome, but I promise it’s coming.