Sunday, April 16, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 5

Letter to Grace Uberlaw continued:

Before I can launch into a discussion of the Pharisees, there really is a bit more I must tell you about the Temple. As you remember, the First Temple, built in 957 BC by King Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba and replaced Mishkan Tent (the Tabernacle) constructed in the Sinai Desert by Moses. The new Temple, was an amazing structure. It was soon sacked by Pharaoh Shoshenq of Egypt only thirty or forty years after it was finished. It was patched back together, but was thoroughly restored by King Jehoash of Judah in 835 BC at considerable expense, only to be plundered again by the Judeans themselves in an attempt to bribe Sennacherib, King of Assyria around 700 BC. At that point, he had already deported the northern tribes of Israel. It was completely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC (or 425 BC according to rabbinical Jewish commentators.) Some of the Judeans returned from exile in Babylon in 583 BC after about sixty years in exile. They rebuilt the temple in 515 BC, but it was a mere shadow of the splendor of Solomon’s Temple and the Ark of the Covenant had been lost or hidden, probably during the Babylonian invasion of Judea sixty years before. At the heart of this new but poor reconstruction was an empty room, the Holy of Holies. The Ark of the Covenant was gone.

The few old men who remembered Solomon’s Temple from childhood before they were exiled, wept for sorrow when they saw how much shabbier this second Temple was when compared to the first. Nonetheless, the Persians were decent rulers at the time and there was a pretty boring period of almost two hundred years of relative peace. The real center of Jewish life remained in Babylon, the New York City of the ancient Mideast. Jerusalem was a bit of a backwater with its sleepy, shabby Temple. However, peace never seems to last forever.

The Temple was almost destroyed again in 332 BC when the Jews refused to allow the worship of Alexander the Great. They schmoozed Alexander who was calmed down by shrewd diplomacy and a lot of flattery.  Alexander died in 323 BC, and the Greek Ptolemies, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals, were the new rulers of Egypt and the adjoining area. In 198 BC, Antiochus, a descendant of Seleucus, another of Alexander’s generals, became the dominant local power. He ruled Syria and edged the Egyptian Ptolemies out of the Holy Land among other places. Antiochus wanted to make everyone Greek. He insisted on the worship of the Greek gods in the Jerusalem Temple, built a theater and gymnasium (Oh the Horror!) in Jerusalem and forbad circumcision. One of his successors a few years later zealously enforced the process of Hellenization (Greek-ification as it were.) He forbad the observance of Sabbath and circumcision. He set up the image of Zeus in the Jerusalem Temple and had Greek priests sacrifice pigs (the favorite food of the Greek gods) in the Temple itself.

Enough was enough! Not long after, a Jewish priest, Mattathias of the Hashmon Family, killed a Greek official who was trying to enforce the worship of the Greek gods in the hill town of Modein. In about 167 BC, the people rose to join him and his sons in a war of independence and eventually they expelled the Syrian Greeks. His son Judas Maccabaeus, (Maccabeus is a nickname that means “Hammer” because he hammered the Greeks) re-dedicated the Temple in 165 BC. The feast remembering the restoration of the Temple is called Hanukkah.  Around 63 BC, Pompey the Roman general conquered Jerusalem and desecrated the Holy of Holies by entering it, but left the Temple standing. The Jews then revolted unsuccessfully against Roman rule in 43 BC. At some point in all this revolting, the Hasmoneans, better known as the Maccabees, expanded the Temple platform on top of Mount Moriah, probably for military purposes. They also arrogated the position of High Priest and king to themselves.

High Priests were descended from Zadok the priest and kings were descended from David. The Temple platform, a sacred space built by Solomon, was 500 cubits (750feet) square. It was not a rectangle and was not to be used for any purpose but the worship of God. The Hasmoneans/Maccabees managed to defile the priesthood, the monarchy and the Temple. And it gets worse.

Along comes Herod the Great. He was a hack politician who had inveigled himself into the Maccabee family, married the last princess of the dynasty, killed off the rest of them and petitioned Rome to make him King of the Jews. Around 20 BC, he rebuilt the Temple from top to bottom and expanded the 500-cubit platform to the size of 24 football fields almost 145 acres. The front of the central shrine was said to have been plated in gold. It was reputed to be the most beautiful building in the ancient world, a magnificent monument to the glory of …Herod. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, during the Siege of Jerusalem. And since about 690 AD has been the site of a Muslim shrine and the El Aksa mosque. Jews pray at what remains of the western wall of the Herodian expansion.

History. Read it and weep!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 4

Letter to Grace Uberlaw continued:

To make heads or tails of this whole business we are going to need a slightly longer trip into the history of Israel, Judaism/Rabbinic Phariseeism and Christianity. We are going to have to set the Wayback machine for about 1,500 BC.

1Kings 6: 1 says that the Exodus, the escape of the descendants of Israel from slavery in Egypt, happened 480 years before Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem in 957 BC. That would put the date of Exodus around 1446 BC, but scholars who consider the Exodus a real event place it around 1250–1200 BC.

There is a very fascinating and very garbled reminiscence of the Exodus in the writing of the Greek historian Hecataeus of Abdera around 300BC. He wrote that the Egyptians blamed a plague on foreigners whom they drove out of Egypt. Their leader, Moses led them into the land of Canaan. Still more interesting (and more garbled) are the writings of Manetho, an Egyptian historian (also around 300 BC) who is quoted by the Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD). Manetho wrote about the Hyksos, a despised foreign people from Asia. They conquered Egypt but were eventually expelled by the indigenous Egyptians. When they were expelled they founded the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. In a second story Manetho says that 80,000 lepers and other unclean foreigners led by the priest Osarseph, united with the Hyksos in Jerusalem in an attempt to take over Egypt, but again, the pharaoh and his son chased them out of Egypt. Osarseph finally gives these lepers a code of law. The name Osarseph sounds like a combination of the names Moses and Joseph. Who knows?

All that said, the most ancient archaeological reference to Israel is found on the Stele of Merneptah. A stele is a kind of stone plaque on which kings, particularly Egyptian kings, loved to point out how wonderful and victorious they were. The Pharaoh Merneptah reigning from 1213 to 1203 BC brags on this particular stele that he had conquered the Libyans but the stele also throws in a few other conquests in case you weren’t that impressed by conquest of Libya.  “Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe. Ashkelon has been overcome. Gezer has been captured. Yano'am is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” Merneptah should visit Rogers Park or Skokie, if he thinks that Israel is no more. Merneptah claims to have defeated Israel in about 1210 BC. If Israel actually left Egypt in 1250 BC and wandered 40 years in the desert, they would not even have finished unpacking their suit cases before Merneptah obliterated them.

My point is this; it seems that Israel was well established in the hill country of Canaan (present day Israel) by 1210 BC.  Another interesting detail is hinted at by the song of Miriam. It is the most archaic Hebrew text in the Bible. More usually called the “Shiryat Hayam,” the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1–18). It recounts the deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians and the crossing of the Red Sea. The style of its Hebrew comes from before 1,000 BC. We still sing it at our Easter Vigil Mass. It is a marvel that a song written at least 3,100 years ago, recounting an event that may have happed 3,500 years ago will be sung in Skokie, Illinois next week as we remember the event. Songs are easy to remember and persist for centuries even with their archaic language. All of us know that beloved old English song, “Sumer is a cumin in, lude sing cuku.” Well, at least I know it. It is medieval English at least 800 years old. Songs persist.  This would hint that the song of the sea was written well before the building of the temple. It may date to the Exodus in 1500 BC. (or 1250?)

There was in fact an Exodus. Moses in fact received the law. It may not have happened exactly the way we remember it from the classic 1956 film “Exodus” starring Charlton Heston, Yule Brenner, Edward G. Robinson and that smoldering femme fatale, Ann Baxter. We all assume that Rameses the Great, (Yul Brenner) was the pharaoh of the Exodus, and therefore the Exodus had to happen around 1250 BC when Yul Brenner, I mean Rameses, was pharaoh of Egypt. This is of course because they built the city of Pi-Ramses. There is a slight detail worth mentioning. The city of Rameses existed for centuries before Pharaoh Rameses was born. Rameses like many politicians enjoyed naming other people’s accomplishments after himself. Three things should be remembered. Israel was well established in Canaan by 1200 BC, the Song of the Sea detailing the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt by means of a miracle goes way back and finally something happened that later Egyptians wanted to spin: Israel didn’t escape, we threw them out!

The Bible sometimes presents history that is poetic and telescoped, but it does present history. The Exodus and the gift of the law created Israel and have sustained Israel. Our relation to the Law of Moses is one of the great themes of the Bible. This law commanded that building of an ark, the “ahron” into which were placed the stone tablets of the law which Moses had received from Heaven. This ahron was carefully veiled and placed inside the inner chamber of a special tent called the “mishkan”, or the “dwelling.”  This tent is called the tabernacle in English, a word that means “little hut” or “little dwelling” in Latin. It’s the same word we Catholics use for the box in which we reserve the Holy Eucharist. That was then surrounded by a large roofless structure made of fabric called the tent of meeting, or the sanctuary. 

The ahron/ark travelled with the people in the desert and eventually came to the city of Shiloh in central Canaan, about twenty miles north of Jerusalem. About 1,000 BC, David brought the ahron/ark to Jerusalem his new capital, and his son Solomon built the Temple to house the ahron/ark in imitation of the tabernacle and the sanctuary that accompanied them in the desert. The law in the ark in the tabernacle in the temple, like Russian nesting dolls, are the foundation of all things Jewish and Christian.

As far as Rabbinic Phariseeism/Judaism is concerned, the ark is gone, the tabernacle is gone, the temple is gone. Only the law endures. As far as traditional Orthodox and Catholic Christianity is concerned they are not gone, Jesus, the Messiah is the law come to life, the womb of the Virgin Mary was a living ark, we are the tabernacle made of living stones where the presence of God dwells and we are the temple that is a house of prayer for all nations. The things seen in the desert and housed in Jerusalem were just foreshadowings of the true temple made of living stones, the Church, the Israel of God.

Next week: More about the Pharisees. They really were and are a fascinating bunch.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Didn't Jesus do away with all the rules? part 3

Why should we bother with all this anyway? There are few good reasons.  The first is that we Christians have a tendency to be either legalists or libertines. We develop an unhealthy interest in regulations, or we are libertines. Legalists are utterly unglued by whether or not a broken rosary can be thrown away. Libertines say stupid things like, Jesus freed us from sin and “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 12:1) They take these to mean that I can rob banks and chase women (or men as the case may be) as much as I please.  The second is that we have had a rather thorny relationship with the Jews for the last two thousand years give or take.
Allow me to point out, as I have many times before to the point of being tedious, that the Christian’s relationship to the Law of Moses has nothing to do with our being a development of Judaism. I think it is very inexact to say that Christianity comes from Judaism. We do not. Judaism and Christianity share roots in the religion of Israel and its temple in Jerusalem. Again, what we call Judaism is really Rabbinic Pharisee-ism. I cringe every time I hear a non-Jew use the word Pharisee. They usually use it to mean hypocrite. Pharisees were not hypocrites. Wait! I thought Jesus called the Pharisees hypocrites. “Woe to you, lawyers and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” (Matthew 23:13) Are you saying that Jesus thought lawyers were hypocrites? I’d be careful if I were you. Let’s define our terms. Webster defines a hypocrite as a person who acts in a way that goes against what he or she claims to believe or feel. (For example) “He’s a hypocrite who complains about litter and then litters.” A hypocrite is a person who claims or pretends to have certain beliefs about what is right but who behaves in a way that disagrees with those beliefs.

This is certainly not true of Pharisees. They were scrupulous about doing what they professed. Jesus was using a common and necessarily pejorative term in ancient Greek. In modern language a hypocrite is a dissembler, a liar intent on deceiving others. In ancient Greek it meant something quite different. It meant “stage actor.”  Hypo” in Greek means “under and “upokritis” meant to answer. Huh?  In ancient dramatic theater actors wore masks. They were literally answering from under a mask. You had to have a beautiful body and a beautiful voice, but an ancient Greek dramatic actor could have the face of a goat, because no one ever saw it. Drama required that a person wear a mask denoting the character he was portraying. Everybody knew from the mask that this was the god Zeus, or the hero Achilles etc. The masks were pretty much stock characters. I was taught, but can’t seem to footnote, that in the mask was a sort of megaphone that made it easier for the actor to project his voice. Hence, the mask was the all-important piece of equipment for the play actor.

Our word in English “person” comes from the Latin word for dramatic mask, “Personare” meant to make a sound through something.  Jesus was not accusing Pharisees of being liars. He was accusing them of being play actors which is something different. A good actor is quite convinced of his role in the drama. He “gets into” character. If an actor can convince himself, then he can convince the audience. What Jesus is saying is that the religion of the Pharisees is meant to be seen. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. We try to give good example and not to cause scandal or confusion. That is exactly what the Pharisees were trying to do. So who were the Pharisees?  After the Maccabee defeat of the Syrian Greeks around 150 BC, the temple was purified, the priesthood reestablished, but the priesthood also became the political leadership of the land. The Maccabees made themselves kings, as well as priests though they were not descended from David and the tribe of Judah. They controlled government and the temple. The Pharisees formed from the scribes and sages in reaction to the priestly domination of religious and political life in the land.

The name Pharisee comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic word parushi, which means “the separated.” They were separated from the irreligious whether Gentile or Jew. The important difference between the Pharisees and other Jewish groups was their belief that all Jews had to observe the purity laws outside the temple. The priestly families who treated the temple and its religion as their own property held that religion was best left to the professionals. The Pharisees included the common man in religious observance by insisting that an Israelite was to practice ritual purity everywhere, not just in the temple and not just if he were a priest. They were in that sense the party of the common man. And they were accepted and trusted by the common people, in contrast to the Sadducees and the priestly aristocracy. The Pharisees held that, “A learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.” (A mamzer is an outcast child born of a forbidden relationship, such as adultery or incest, in which marriage of the parents could not lawfully occur). 

You can guess what this means in plain English. The whole point is that pedigree doesn’t matter. No wonder they were loved by the masses. It is interesting that a Jew is a Jew. There is no such thing as Jewish aristocracy as far as I can tell. The Pharisees drew a way of life from the written and the oral Torah, which is the application of the law handed down from Moses through the elders of Israel. This way of life was available to the common man. It gave him a greater role in the religious life. Sadducees rejected the concept of an Oral Torah. The Pharisees went on to preserve this oral law in the form of the Talmud. Thus they became the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism.  The Talmud is the definitive book interpreting Torah and defining Jewish life. The sages of the Talmud considered themselves the heirs of the Pharisees, thus Pharisaic Judaism is the foundation of mainstream modern Judaism. Thus it is that legal observance is the bedrock of modern orthodox Jewish life.

This is where Christianity and Judaism diverge. For us law is a gift. The Messiah is the bedrock. We believe that the Messiah is the Torah come to life.

Next week: More fascinating stuff about the Law.