Archive for the ‘biblical history’ Category

Koipaint1 (2)

Being Koi, Oil on canvas. Christopher MacDonald.

As the class winds down it seems I am getting to learn, or at least hone some skills in my Gospels class. 

Our professor had prepared a long document outlining the differences in content between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark an Luke) and John’s Gospel. It was a pretty good general list, and probably the thing I took issue with was just a part of some list he inherited (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt). 

My purpose in repeating my reply is simply to educate you about so-called “double stories” in the Gospels and the sort of (in my view) less than sensical assumptions some “scholars” can make which defy common sense, the texts and clear reason.  

In this case it has to do with the two miraculous “fish stories” of Luke 5 and John 21 where nets are cast over the side of the boat and a huge haul of fish is drawn in. Luke’s account takes place at Gennesaret on the first day that James, John and Peter become disciples, the nets tear and it is after Jesus does some teaching from the boat. Only Peter is in the boat with Peter – who essentially freaks out.  In John’s acount, it is after the resurrection when the boys have become men and been with Jesus for years. These men (seven of them) have been out all night fishing on the Sea of Tiberias (Galilee), when they obey a stranger (they do not know it is Jesus) the nets fill but do not rip. Peter has the presence of mind to throw on his outer garment before throwing himself into the sea, but the others (including James and John) come along with the fish and they then have the world’s quietest big fishing haul breakfast. 

Now some scholars would have you believe that these two stories are the same event.

It gets worse – they have tenure.

So I am “calling them out.”

Having spent a great deal of time in John 21 for my final assignment I am very familiar with the story of the miraculous catch of fish both from that chapter and from Luke 5 (4-11).

and keep insisting, contrary to the real possibility over a few years time – that Jesus may have given a hundred such sermons (heck, there may have been a “sermon in the ravine” Think of the acoustics!

I appreciate the hard work our teacher put in preparing this list of distinctions between the Synoptics and John’s Gospel. I want to add before I comment on the two miracle fish stories that:

  1. I have never felt any need or desire to reconcile or harmonize Gospel accounts or “smooth off the edges” of supposed contradictions one way or the other. I simply don’t care. There is never any real fallout of any real import and the long debates about inerrancy/infallibility etc..have always seemed to me a great away to avoid either real work in the texts, or actual service in the field. What a waste of time. It bored me at 19; it super bores me at 59. (And for those who feel like “well there is a contradiction so I don’t have to believe the Bible. Good. Don’t. Now, moving on…”
  2. Just because two things are vaguely similar on the surface does not mean they are the same event.

On point two this is especially pertinent when it comes to men and women with no imagination at all, for they cannot imagine that Jesus, for example, having given a sermon on the “mount,” might also give a very similar one on a “plain.” Now you would think they might have a clue as some of the content is different as well as some of the demeanor. But no, they do not make this possible connection at all – at least not many of them – and keep insisting, contrary to the real possibility over a few years time – that Jesus may have given a hundred such sermons (heck, there may have been a “sermon in the ravine” Think of the acoustics!)

And so we come to our fish story, where the fishermen, after a night of getting “skunked” simply obey the stranger on the beach (that is odd) and don’t get upset when he asks about their fishing in a less than diplomatic way (“Caught any fish boys?” is one possible translation) but they just do it. And then when the fish swell the net John is the first to realize – then Peter.

Is it possible that it is because it has happened before — say the first day they became disciples— these two?

The differences in the story are not just when they occur. Naw…It is ALL different…contexts, nets ripping, not ripping (and that being called into attention), two different responses by Peter…one with others…the other with Peter alone…two different locales. I mean, seriously, other than fish and nets what is the same?

So I would be happy to sign off on an obvious “same” story just slotted in a different place if there was evidence and a good reason to suppose that was so. But to do it here is to take away from the meaning and depth of both stories and minimize them both.

map_002It’s poor attention to detail and basically – sooner or later – insists that you subsume one story into the other. Why? Is there any good reason for this?

I’ll buy into each Gospel writer picking and choosing what they want for their own theological ends – quite comfy with that. But that is not the same as grabbing a story and re-engineering it. And that is always the underlying aspertion. No one actually comes out and SAYS this – but it is there.

Well I am calling that stuff out.

If anything it seems evident that every embarrassing detail has been left in, as well as no few incidental ones which seemingly have no purpose at all.

This just adds to my laundry list of why modern scholarship is out of touch in many regards: no imagination or common sense.

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luke_7Or, “The Prostitute Who Loved Jesus”.

It is a moving scene in  Jesus of Nazareth when Mary Magdalene (in the biblical story we do not know who the woman is) comes to Jesus and breaks the alabaster vial of perfume and anoints his feet.

Of all the “Jesus” movies I think this one the best (Zeffirelli’s). I mean it is really impossible for any actor to portray Jesus. He’s just too big. And if you play him very human (Like DeFoe in The last Temptation of Christ, Jesus comes off as a sniveling loser) or very Divine (like Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth where he comes off like he is untouched and sort of hovering above everything like a Dyson vacuum cleaner in a white robe strangely detached). Other depictions are no better. They each catch a “side” of Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, but seem to be missing other crucial aspects (perhaps that is why there are four Gospels. though three of them are very much alike).

Well I was asked to actually preach two Sundays in a row at a church that had lost it’s pastor. I had not preached in, well a very long time. I am a writer and teacher, not a preacher. But I agreed. They gave me two passages. One was Luke 7, the other one I have repressed because I did a horrible job the following week (which is why I am back to writing and teaching).

There really is nothing like being given 30 minutes to preach a passage from the Bible and just blowing it.  As I left the building (quickly) I looked at the Wademan and he murmured “you sucked dude.”


Anyway, the week before I did not suck but it was not because of my speaking ability. It  was the text and how it had come alive for me and would for others.

I’ll walk you through this process  because it is instructive.

I read the passage a number of times to get a general sense. I made note of questions I had about the dinner in question. What would they have probably served? Who would have sat where? What customs would be observed? Why does Luke note it is an “alabaster vial” and what kind of perfumes did they have and use? Why was the prostitute allowed in? Did she know others in the room? What was Simon’s motive in inviting Jesus? Etc.

Basically, I wanted to be inside the room and SEE it happening very much like a forensics expert tries to piece together the events of a crime or incident. I started to ask forensic questions just like Goren does on Law & Order CI or Grissom does in CSI. What does the physical evidence in the room tell us about the events?

Exhibit One: The Perfume

I went to the local Junior College library and looked up every book I could find on ancient perfume bottles and perfumes. I learned that  unlike our modern perfumes, these perfumes lost their scent very quickly. They were most often herbs ground up in oil and sealed in a vial of alabaster with wax or other substances that would effectively seal the scent from the air.

One such alabaster vial, a sealed vial, was recovered from the area of the Dead Sea. Now if that alabaster vial had been filled with Brut cologne, seal or no seal, 2,000 years later it would still be potent. In this case, though sealed, there was no scent. That a major difference.

So a vial of perfume in the First Century might last a few weeks if properly cared for, and would be very expensive.

What was it used for?  As we know, this woman (from the text) was a prostitute. It would seem logical that it was used not as much to allure men as to simply mask the smell of other men and sex.  Keep that in mind.

389px-Meal_house_simon_pharisee_xil2_hiExhibit Two: The table setting

Further research, not from Bible commentaries (though they are invaluable), but simple historical information on Middle Eastern customs for dinner gatherings revealed even more. Simon, as a Pharisee would be a man of some means and a layout of the typical eating or dining room was described and illustrated in a way that makes the picture here (to the left) patently absurd.

First, they “reclined at table” meaning they lay down low on pillows with a low table. If you have not been to an authentic Persian restaurant GO! It is so much fun and you lay on pillows and eat all the food with your hands with ritual rosewater washings  in between courses. [note: In San Francisco, no place is better than El Mansour at 33rd and Clement].

You eat at long tables about two feet above the floor.  This is why, in the Bible it often says they were “reclining at table”.

I learned that there would most probably be three tables: the head table nearest the kitchen for fastest service; a second running longways to the side, then a third table at the far end facing the head table. The primary guests would be at table one; the next most important at the side table and the least important (if any) at the far table.

We can assume from Jesus’ own words in verses 44-46 where he notes that upon entering Simon the Pharisee’s house he was not (as a Rabbi) afforded the customary washings, a kiss of greeting, an anointing of oil upon the head, all of which would be common custom and a sign of respect and welcome to an invited Rabbi.

Jesus Himself notes that he has been “dissed”. Given such, which table do you think Jesus was instructed to recline at? While it cannot be proven, we can infer with some confidence that Jesus would be at the third table farthest from the host, yet still facing him as he reclined for the meal.

Read the passage again placing yourself in the room. The smell of the food, candles, loud talking, Jesus being “dealt with” like a curiosity and not an honored guest.

Christ-in-the-House-of-Simon-the-Pharisee,-c.1656Exhibit Three: The location of the Woman

If Jesus is reclining at any of the tables, the woman is behind him, breaking the seal of  the  alabaster vial and pouring out the precious perfume on Jesus’ feet then letting her hair down she cleaned His feet with her tears and with her own long hair.

Note, she is behind him and farthest away from Simon the Pharisee.

This painting is not as bad as the previous one (where you expect George Washington to walk in and sit down). It’s just that it gives Jesus way too much prominence. That and  he is at the head table (on the left). Think of a darker more spread out scene with Simon and friends at the big left ended table, the center table longer and Jesus at the far end table with the woman behind him in somewhat darkness.

All the evidence from this time period paints such a forensic picture and not a romanticized or spiritualized one.

4 b&wsmExhibit Four: The scandalous actions of the woman.

In Middle Eastern culture, for a woman to let down her hair was the equivalent of her exposing her breasts.

We know that her reputation was well noted (v. 39) in town. It is not a stretch (I think) that some of the guests at the table that night had also been guests are her place of business.

Thus, her anointing the feet of Jesus may have seemed odd to them, but her letting down her hair would indicate a desire to be sexual with the Rabbi whether true or not. Thus Simon reasons within his own mind “If Jesus were a prophet he would know that the woman touching him is a sinner!”

Well there you have it except perhaps the menu. I did some research and actually once taught this passage by preparing a simple Middle Eastern dinner of spicy lentil soup over fresh spinach, fruits, bowls of nuts and wine. The participants lay on pillows and ate with their hands. I’m not sure how helpful it was, but it did make for a more enjoyable “Bible study”?

Now that you have some of the forensic evidence and background, I want to switch over to SPOKE. The Grand Book is about learning how to study the Bible. Hopefully some of this has been helpful. SPOKE is for what Jesus actually does and seeing that in an intimate way. If you care to come along you may be as surprised as I was after I gathered all this forensic “data”.

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