Friday, October 12, 2012

Three questions from the Rabbi -- part 4

Continued from last week….

Dr. Brown and his friends also assume the post-Enlightenment Protestant position, that the Gospels were written down at or after the end of the first generation of Christians, when people were beginning to forget what Jesus had said and done. Thus Dr. Brown asserts that there were no eye witness accounts of the facts, though it is true that the only people present at the resurrection would have been the guards posted by the Caiaphas, the Cohen Gadol (high priest), still there were people who told what they had seen immediately following the resurrection. These eye witness testimonies are recorded in the Scriptures. 

The post-Enlightenment German scholars who dominated 19th and 20th century New Testament Studies assumed that the Gospels were a second or even third generation project for one simple reason: Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, and since there are no miracles, there can be no prophecy. Classical Protestantism denies the theological necessity of post-biblical miracle. Classical post-Enlightenment Protestantism denies their possibility. Hence Catholic scholars who ape their Protestant betters in the world of scholarship seem very uncomfortable with things miraculous. 

The devotees of this school of thought see the miracles of the New Testament as another reason to give a late date for the writing of the Gospels. The second and third generations of the Church mythologized Jesus by adding the miracle stories to which they themselves had not been witnesses.
Dr. F. E. Peters, Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at New York University has an interesting perspective on the dates of the writing of the New Testament. He has a fascinating lecture series in which he points out that the only reason for a late dating of the Gospels is precisely the denial that Jesus could possibly have predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. He makes the point that the internal evidence of the Gospels gives them an early date, some of which actually may have been set to paper before the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

For instance, it is easy to date the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts which seem to have been written as a sort of two volume legal defense of Paul. They do not tell what happens to Paul. Is he acquitted or condemned? Certainly if the book had been written after the destruction of the temple this would have been mentioned, but we don’t even have an account of Paul’s trial. According to other Christian sources he was acquitted, then re-arrested in 64 AD, (or if you prefer, CE) and executed during the persecutions under Nero after the great fire of Rome. Thus Luke/Acts must have been written around 60 AD, well within the lifetime of the hearers of Jesus. 

It is popular to imagine the first Christians as a tiny beleaguered band and you, Rabbi Yehuda yourself have told me that Jesus was noticed barely, if at all, by his Jewish contemporaries. I don’t think this is the case. Perhaps the Babylonian Aramaic community didn’t notice Jesus, but the Greek speaking western Jewish world was much disturbed by the claim that Jesus was the Messiah. In Suetonius, we read about the expulsion of Jews from Rome in (perhaps) 49AD by the Emperor Claudius (Emperor 41 to 54 AD.) “Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit” (Claudius expelled Jews from Rome who created disturbances constantly, because of the instigator Chrestus. This is the simplest and best translation my 37 years of Latin study can render.) This expulsion of the Jews may have been limited to those Jews who were instigated by Chrestos, Chrestos may well refer to Christ considering the imprecision and the fluidity of the language. The expulsion is referred to in the Acts of the Apostles Acts (18:2-3): “Paul met Priscilla and Aquila a Jewish Christian couple who were come from Italy because Claudius had expelled them from Rome. Paul stayed with them and they went into the tent making business together.”

There are other clear, early reverences to the controversial presence of Christians in Rome. For example,  Tacitus the Roman senator and historian writes in his Annals, “Nero...inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”

We have Pliny telling Trajan that Jesus was being worshiped as a god in Turkey around 100 AD. Not only did Jesus cause trouble at Rome, but he was known throughout the Mediterranean world. Mara bar Sarapion was a Stoic philosopher from Syria who lived anywhere from 73 AD and 200AD. In his letter to his son he tells for the execution of “the wise king” of the Jews whom he counts with “three wise men”: Socrates, and Pythagoras, pointing out that these great thinkers were unjustly treated and their murder had grave consequences for those that killed them. The claim that Jesus was a little known rabbi who had no effect on the world he lived is just not a sustainable hypothesis.

The most controversial references to Jesus and His followers come from a Jewish source, Flavius Josephus and are invariably refuted to be later on the impeccably scholarly grounds that they are too good to be true. The first is a reference to a relative of Jesus, James the Brother of the Lord, (not to be confused with James one of the Twelve. It is this James who is mentioned specifically by St. Paul in 1Corintians 15.) In the Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, Chapter 9, 1) Josephus tells of the execution by stoning of James, the brother of Jesus by order of Ananus ben Ananus.  The second is very controversial and troubling.  It is called the Testimonium Flavianum.

 “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”

 Clearly, this is the work of a Christian and Flavius Josephus was no Christian. It was considered a complete fabrication until....  In 1971 a different Arabic version of the Testimonium was found.

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. His conduct was good, and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after the crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.”

The fact that there is another less clear Christian version of the text makes quite a few scholars think that Jospehus did mention Jesus’ ministry. If they mention John and James, especially calling him the brother of Jesus, why would he not bother to explain who Jesus was? It makes sense that he would have alluded to Jesus as someone important. And he does not say that Jesus rose from the dead, but that his followers claimed that he had risen from the dead, which they most certainly did. They believed it enough to leave their settled lives and court death. It is odd to do that sort of thing for something that you know to be a lie. What after all did they get out of it? Fame? Money? Not if you read the many works written to condemn them. It is reasonable to think that an historian of the time would have noticed Jesus and that he would have noticed the strange but dogged belief that drove followers, like James to go willingly, even stubbornly to their deaths. These things are not myths -- they are the stuff of history.

Dr. Brown, no matter how great a scholar he was, had difficulty, as do I who am not a scholar, seeing events outside the lens of our own upbringing. We see these things in our minds  the way we were brought up to see them, and it is almost a superhuman effort to see them as if for the first time. The Miracles of Jesus and especially his resurrection brought the disciples into a world that is quite beyond our comprehension and beyond our experience of time and space.

There is a most amazing cloth that seems to be the most significant witness to the resurrection. The modern world has dismissed it out of hand because of a botched carbon fourteen test that any serious researcher now believes was a failure. The evidence cloth’s antiquity and authenticity is overwhelming ( or  At this point any serious scholar will put this article down and go see what’s on television.   

But I dare you to look at those web sights. The first, by the way, is done by a Jew, Barrie Schwortz, who is not a convert to Christianity. He is just a serious investigator. To me the most telling point about the Shroud is that it is covered by a certain kind of limestone dust. Richard Levi-Setti of the Enrico Fermi Institute at the University of Chicago and Joseph Kohlbeck, Resident Scientist at the Hercules Aerospace Center in Utah, identified the dust as  travertine aragonite limestone, having the exact same  chemical signature as the limestone of the empty tomb of Christ in Jerusalem. That type of stone is unique in all the world. Anyone who has been to Jerusalem and seen that lovely pink-golden limestone glowing in the sunset knows it is unique. “Jerushalayim shel zahav... Jerusalem is golden....”   

The shroud is science, not speculation. It is there. It is the photo of the resurrection that some demand. And what a photo it is. It is unique among all the images of the world. It is a 1st century holograph. That’s right. It contains holographic information that when processed produces the image of a man in the process of rising from the dead. The holographic image stands about three feet off the cloth. The cloth is not the picture, it is simply a storage system. The marks on the cloth seem to be made of a slight oxidation of the topmost fibrils of the thread of the cloth. It is a kind of flash-radiation burn that could have lasted no more than nanoseconds.  But there it is: a hologram. It’s there. That’s science. That’s more than photography. Dame Isabel Piczek a Nobel prize winning particle physicist describes the shroud image as a kind of holographic event horizon. If I understand her, She believes the image was made when a new kind of thing passed through the cloth into another dimension of existence. (Mind you, I am like a Neanderthal trying to describe the Sistine chapel here) An event horizon. A new dimension of being. Resurrection.....

To enter into a world where refrigerators float and saints can fly is to lose one’s bearings. What happened when and who and how become conflated, not simply because we are confused, but because the strictures of time and space are changed. It is fascinating to me that the verities of the world of Newton and Galileo have been  turned on their head by Einstein and Stephen Hawking. We have to live in a world where planets travel in circles and suns seems to rise and set or we would go mad. We can live in no other world and keep our sanity, but modern physics posits a real world  that makes the miraculous seem almost ordinary.

To say that a man could rise from the dead again and pass through walls and to appear and disappear, but that He and those with whom He wanted to meet needed to check the bus schedules to see when the next ride to Galilee was available is absurd.  (Regarding flying saints, c.f. St Joseph Cupertino, or in our own times St. “Padre” Pio or St. Gemma Galgani) If the resurrection happened, trying to quibble about one angel or two and how long it might take to get to Galilee and back are ridiculous. In a world where things like this can happen anything is possible and trying to describe such events with ink quill and papyrus roll are like trying to write down what one sees when gazing at the sun. This may not satisfy you, but these things happen, and there is no explaining them with the language that we are accustomed to use. One can only enter into them.

Next week: I’m not done by any means.

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