December 10, 2011

Bible facts you may not know, #3

Guerin pyramids

(Here are Bible Facts number one and number two.)

1. No nuclear families. Usually where the Bible shows an individual doing something, it would have been assumed by all early readers that the person was accompanied by an entourage. I recently read Anne Rice's novel about Jesus' childhood, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I think the whole idea of Jesus novels, including those of Ms. Rice, to be preposterous folly. But the book is good as historical fiction. Especially in the way it shows the household of Joseph and Mary as a crowd of uncles and cousins and children, working and living together. And traveling together, to Bethlehem, and to Egypt. All those pictures of Joseph and Mary meandering by themselves with a donkey are nonsense.

The picture is by a favorite artist, Jules Guerin. But Joseph and Mary would likely have headed for Alexandria, and never come near the pyramids.

2. The Gospels were not written for specific communities. It is a commonplace among biblical scholars that each of the Gospels was written for an isolated community. (i.e.: the Gospel of Matthew was written for the "Matthean Community.") And that scholars can discern the nature of that group by what was being written for them, and then write papers about their pecularities. This might be called the "Scholars Full-Employment Act," since there is no end to the blarney one can come up with when writing about imaginary things. There is in fact no independent evidence for the theory. And the First Century world simply didn't work like that. People and ideas and manuscripts circulated rapidly, much like today, and no one writing a book on some important topic would have imagined that it would only be read by his local group.

This is what the world of Jesus was really like: (From Paul's second letter to Timothy, chap. 4)

...Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessaloni'ca; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me. Tych'icus I have sent to Ephesus... Greet Prisca and Aq'uila, and the household of Onesiph'orus. Eras'tus remained at Corinth; Troph'imus I left ill at Mile'tus. Do your best to come before winter. Eubu'lus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brethren.

3. The Diaspora. By the time of Jesus there were probably more Jews living outside Palestine then within. All the major cities of the empire had Jewish communities. Christianity first spread to these groups, as the early Christians were mostly Jewish, and were addressing questions that Jews were very aware of, such as the coming of the Messiah. I used to imagine that when the family of Jesus fled to Egypt, they would have been penniless refugees in a strange land, and unable to speak the language. In fact there were lots of Jews in Egypt, and it would have been like the way now that someone from China can go to any large city in the world, find the Chinatown, and be right at home. And a bit of Greek could make you understood anywhere, even in Rome.

4. WORD NOTE: "The gates of hell." People commonly take the phrase: "and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18) as a sort of poetic way of saying that the power of Hell will not defeat the Church. (Example.) But Jesus spoke in the days when siege warfare against walled cities was a major component of war. There's nothing cutsey or poetic about it; he meant something tough. It's the Church which is attacking Hell, not the other way around. And the Gates of Hell will be battered down, be they never so strong! We are not on the defensive!

5. St Ignatius of Antioch. You will recall that when Ignatius, the third Bishop of Antioch, was being transported to Rome to be thrown to the lions, he wrote a series of letters to Christian communities that we still read today, with great profit. (Well, actually, when I was growing up an Evangelical Protestant I never even heard of him. I wonder why.) Antioch in Syria was then the third largest city of the Empire, and Ignatius, who was its Christian bishop for about 40 years, would have been a high-value target. High value if one assumes, like the Roman authorities did, that a cult would melt away if its leaders were killed. Ha!

One should also realize that the bureaucratic efficiency with which we deal with prisoners did not exist before the Industrial Age. Prisoners in the past were almost always accessible; a small payment to the guards would get your friends in to bring you comforts and have a nice visit. It is not at all surprising that John the Baptist, while in Herod's dungeon, was able to send his disciples to question Jesus. Likewise Ignatius, though traveling under a military guard, received many Christian visitors.

6. The real name of Easter. Chaps like Christopher Hitchins scoff because the chief Christian holy day is named after an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess, Eostre. But Easter isn't the name of Easter. The real name of what we call Easter is Pascha, and has been since long before the Anglo-Saxons even came into existence. (The h is silent, it's pronounced Pahss-kuh.) Pascha is the Greek form of the Hebrew word Pesch, which is the Passover. Actually Eostre also meant "Spring," so the whole question may be moot. BUT, Christ is Lord of all, and He is not in the least bit diminished by pagan names. Or any other pagan things we absorb and put to good use. We devour them, we crunch them up like peanut brittle. (By the way, does anyone still eat peanut brittle? I haven't encountered it in years. Does that date me?)

7. Fishing rights belonged to the state. Peter and Andrew, or James and John and their father Zebedee, were fishermen because they bought a contract to do so. Possibly through Matthew the tax collector. You didn't just fish on a whim. Presumably the cost of a contract was high enough that you couldn't get rich, but low enough that fishermen could afford boats and nets, etc.

Posted by John Weidner at December 10, 2011 7:53 PM
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