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.  

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Isn't the Bible self-contradictory? part 2

Letter to Fidel Labrador continued...
Just to refresh your memory, St Paul says, “We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”  However, St. James says, “As you can see, a man is justified by his works and not by faith alone.”  These two statements sure seem contradictory. Hold on one minute.  St Paul says we are not justified by works of the law.  St. James says we are justified by works and faith together. “Works of the law”, a phrase, is quite different from the single word “works.” 
There is one other place in early Jewish literature where the phrase works of the law appears, albeit, in Hebrew. Let us turn to the Dead Sea Scrolls, always a fun read. There is a scroll titled 4QMMT, Miqsat Ma’aseh haTorah or more easily, "Some Works of the Law".  It deals with such important issue as dogs being forbidden entry into Jerusalem and several regulations about the impurity of the leper during the period of purification until final purification. Who among us has not lost sleep over these questions? A particularly interesting issue deals with the purity of the streams of liquids poured from a pure vessel into an impure one. As you all know from your regular reading of the book of Leviticus, a clay or porcelain vessel once made ritually impure, cannot be purified and must be destroyed. And you all must know if a dead rodent falls into a clay vessel, that vessel is made unclean. The question is this: if one pours water from a clay pitcher into the unclean clay bowl, can the ritual impurity that infests the clay bowl travel up the stream of water and defile the clay pitcher so that it too must be broken? The Pharisees said no, the Qumran loonies said yes and St. Paul said, “Are you for real?” (I am of course paraphrasing the words of Sacred Scripture). The scroll ends with the statement, “And these are some works of the law.”  So, it seems that the phrase “works of the law” is a very specific reference to the important issues of clay bowls, dogs in Jerusalem and whom temple priests may marry. When St. Paul says we are not justified by works, he is clearly referring to ritual taboos such as grain offering left overnight in the temple and the rules regarding the slaughter of pregnant animals et alia. These things will never justify a person. So just what is justification?
Read Romans the eighth chapter, 28th verse and following:
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.  For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified.”
St. Paul is insistent that God’s purpose is to adopt us as His children. In order to do this, He must make us look like His Only Begotten Son, Jesus the Messiah, the only person worthy of divine sonship.   So, what did Jesus look like? If you could get into a time machine and go back to the carpenter shop in Nazareth 2,000 years ago you wouldn’t walk out saying, “Oh, what beautiful blue eyes He has, just like the calendar on the refrigerator!”  You would probably think, “Boy was He kind and patient. He was so generous, He undercharged me!”  What did Jesus look like? There is a perfectly good description of Jesus in the Bible. We find it in Galatians the 5th chapter verses 22 and 23:
 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
That’s what Jesus looked like. That’s what you would have thought had you asked Him to fix your plow or cart. St. Justin Martyr who was born just 70 years after the death and resurrection of the Lord in Nablus in the Holy Land 20 or 30 miles from Nazareth and about half way to Jerusalem. He tells a beautiful story about Our Lord the carpenter.
People were poor in Galilee. A farm animal was a big investment. The ox that pulled the plow was the most expensive thing a poor farmer might own. Think of it as a very expensive piece of farm machinery. If an animal was chafed or injured by its harness and yoke, the animal might be infected and die. Jesus had a reputation for being so good with animals that his animal collars and yokes were perfect. People came from all over Galilee to have their animals fitted for collars by Jesus. When Jesus stood up and said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. My yoke is easy, my burden light.” I suspect He was telling a bit of a joke. His hearers would have smiled and thought, “Yes, this is the carpenter/yoke-maker turned rabbi.” Jesus was saying in effect, if you think I’m good with animals I am much better with the human heart.
This is what Jesus looked like, meek and humble of heart. The word humble in the text is an interesting word. It is “tapeinos” and means “undistinguished.”  Children and sinners were drawn to Jesus. The great and mighty weren’t. That’s what Jesus looked like. He set you at ease if you were nobody. He made you nervous if you thought you were somebody. God’s purpose is to make me look like Him, ordinary and kind and generous. I would rather look rich and important. It’s going to take a lifetime to convince me that looking like Jesus is the way to go. To be just is to be godly. It is to look like God who looks like Christ.
I remember the story of Mother Teresa washing the feet of a dying leper. The leper who believed in reincarnation and that he was suffering for sins committed in a past life asked her, “Why are you doing this?” Mother Teresa said, “Because I want to be like Jesus.” The leper asked, “Does He look like you?” “No,” she said, “but I try to look like Him. The leper said, “If this is true, I want to be a Christian.”
Years ago, I was a guest on an evangelical news show that was broadcasting the installation of a Catholic archbishop. I was there to explain weird Catholic things to the Protestants. They were particularly interested in the hats. There was a famous Protestant dean of a famous evangelical institute who preceded me on the air. As I heard what he was saying I felt so sorry for him. He was talking about Mother Teresa. He insisted that though she might be a fine person, if she believed that her good works would save her she was damned. If one thought he was saved by a work, he was certainly headed for hell. How could he have so misunderstood the Scriptures? Christ clearly says that if we fail to do good works He does not know us and that we should depart into that fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
To believe is to trust. If I trust Jesus, I am going to do as he asks. No matter how much I insist that I trust Him, if I refuse to do what He asks I neither trust nor love Him. That’s what St. James is saying. St. Paul is saying that no amount of avoiding pork and breaking unclean clay pots will make us look like God and make us worthy of heaven. He does however say that, “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to his works.”  (Romans 2:5-6)
It is only by trusting Christ and consequently obeying Him by loving one another that we can be made to look like Him and be adopted by God. They are not contradicting each other at all.
The gossip about Roman emperors is sure to be in next week’s adventure packed article.
To be continued…..