Sunday, October 11, 2009

Out of sight and out of mind

Time for an interdisciplinary tidbit.

I read about a study an Israeli scientist did with Finnish, American, and Israeli children recently. It dealt with the way language affects thought.

In Hebrew, you find gender in every noun, every adjective, and almost every verb. In English we have a few nouns with obvious gender endings, but it usually only shows up in pronouns. In Finnish (which I know less about), there is no gender for pronouns, and seldom for nouns. The study found that Israeli children universally come to a realisation of gender identity before Americans and Finns. Americans usually figure it out before Finns, but the correlation is not as strong.

That is totally irrelevant to this website. Here's what isn't:

In Hebrew there is one form of past tense. On occasion, they will use a periphrastic construction when they want to emphasise process (ie: 'I went' as opposed to 'I was going'), but this is more a part of the literary idiom, and is somewhat rare in everyday speech. In English, we have about five or six nuances of past tense that are used in every day speech (I went, I have gone, I had gone, I was going, I have been going, I had been going).

The same study found that Israeli tots have much more difficulty remembering chronology, even to the extent that they don't recall very well if something happened yesterday or the day before, or last week.

If you can't figure out what this has to do with our Jewish histories recorded in the Bible, think harder.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Hebrew Matthew

Internet was down yesterday. Here's the stuff:

Let's go over what we know about the synoptic gospels:

They are all very similar, as anyone who has read them back to back or side by side will know. The early church tells us that Matthew came first, then Mark, and then Luke. Therefore, it was said for a long time that Mark condensed Matthew, and Luke used Matthew as well but supplemented it with his own material. There are some problems with this, if one investigates the Greek text. Mark has bad Greek. It's fairly clear that he's a non-native speaker doing the best he can to tell a good story in a foreign language (and he does a pretty good job, I'd say). There are places where Matthew and Luke are obviously correcting Mark's Greek to reflect the proper Koine (or occasionally Attic) idiom. It is therefore regularly assumed that Mark was composed first, and the others follow. A lot of folks like to suggest that the fathers were just making stuff up because they liked Matthew the best (they do use him the most).

What else? There are a lot of sayings where Matthew and Luke agree that are not found in Mark. Did one use the other? Well, many people think this is unlikely because if they had, their narrative would agree more (their narratives disagree fairly often). Therefore, it is said that they must have shared another source, which we usually name “Q.” You'll know what I think about that if you've read my first post.

Take a quick peek at my post from June 15th. It's about a document we don't have that the fathers mention fairly often, a Hebrew version of Matthew. In fact, our earliest witnesses, Papias (c.125), tells us two very interesting things. One is that Matthew compiled the sayings of Jesus in Hebrew. The other thing he tells us is that each one interpreted them as best they could. Here, we actually have one of the church fathers attesting what scholars have been assuming, that there was an early sayings source utilized various evangelists and teachers at the time. Recently, some scholars have also been suggesting that there must have been a Hebrew or Aramaic source used for the sayings of Jesus (particularly Robert Lindsy and the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research).

Well here it is, right here in the fathers; the first place we ought to look, and the last place anyone does. Furthermore, Irenaeus (c.185) gives us a time-frame (Paul and Peter were founding the Church in Rome during the sixties), and possibly a location for the composition of this document ('among the Hebrews;' dare I say Palestine?). I'm liking this Hebrew Matthew more than Q already!

And what has this to do with the composition of our canonical gospels? To state briefly, I would like to suggest that this was the sayings source used by Greek Matthew and Luke in addition to Mark. What about it's content? Well, when one observes the structure of Matthew, one finds five long discourses surrounded by narrative pericopes. When Matthew does disagree with Mark, it is often with regard to the chronology of this material, so as to preserve the integrity of the discourse. I would tend to guess that, in these five discourses, one pretty much has the basic content of Hebrew Matthew. Of course, that is just a guess. Non-extent documents are non-extent (or undiscovered), and I don't want to go over board with this theory, since I think one of the great flaws of modern Gospel scholarship is conjecturing about documents and community histories that nobody has ever heard of, and ignoring the vast wealth of information we actually do have preserved by folks like Eusebius, Josephus, the Rabbis, and others; not to mention the text of scripture itself.

So what does it all mean? Before I bring together all my thoughts on the issue, I'll need to discuss the roll of oral tradition in the transmission of the Gospel in early times, and how that affected the shape of our Gospels. Only after considering this oft neglected reality can we complete the picture.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jesus and Isaac.

בנך יחידך

I realize I'm not the first person to have discovered that there is some connection between Isaac and Jesus. However, I always heard it said that Isaac was a type of Christ. I tend to be very weary about this term type. Isaac was Isaac. His story first and foremost tells us about Isaac, though it story is rather short and uneventful in comparison with both the story of his father and that of his sons. Why have people insisted on making a connection between Jesus and Isaac?

Well, there are some Greek and Hebrew words that started it all. In John, Jesus is called the monogenes of God, which we translate variously as the “Only Son,” or the “Only Begotten,” or sometimes “One and Only”. So what? Isaac wasn't Abraham's only son, was he? Well, not exactly, but in Genesis 22 (the story of the sacrifice of Isaac), God calls Isaac Abraham's yechid, Which means, more or less, 'only son'. When Josephus retold the story the sacrifice of Isaac in Greek (Ant. 1:13), he used that Greek word, monogenes, and in fact, so did the author of Hebrews (11:17; The LXX translates the word as agapaton, 'beloved'; a loose translation, but it will also become important).

Why would God call Isaac Abraham's only son? What's Ishmael, chopped liver? Well no, God also blesses Ishmael, and he turns out to be quite a good chap in the end, and has lots of kids, with whom I am becoming acquainted here in Jerusalem (and yes, they are at strife with their brothers). However, Isaac is the only son in a legal sense. He gets all of the inheritance, and he gets all of the blessings. Interesting.

Now, it may be recalled that while the circumstances surrounding Jesus birth were quite extrordinary, he was not really Gods only son. Paul implies, and Luke outright says that Adam was also God's son. By proxy this means (as Luke records Paul saying in Athens) that the whole human race are God's children. In the Old Testament, Israel is also called God's Son, and Jews still refer to themselves as such. But John calls Jesus the only son. This does two things: first, it establishes him as the son of the inheritance (not Abraham's inheritance, necessarily, but actually God's inheritance). The second thing is that it ties Jesus very closely to another story of a father who went out to sacrifice his son. Josephus reports that Isaac was twenty five when he was Sacrificed, and the Talmud says 37. Not a small child. They also report that when he discovered his father's intentions, he willingly went along because it was the will both of his father and of God. John draws on this tradition to explain, in a very Jewish way, the nature and significance of Jesus' son-ship.

I'd like to point out a couple other parallels that I think John may have intended, but perhaps are not quite as blatant in the text. For one, Isaac's story is oddly similar to Abraham's. He marries one of his relatives, he lies to Abimelek about his wife, he builds alters and sacrifices to God, he digs wells, he prospers greatly, etc... Isaac does what his father did. John repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus does the same things as the Father, and that Jesus is essentially carrying on his work. Another thing about Isaac is that, while Abraham was the father of Israel, it is through Isaac. Isaac was the immediate father of Jacob, Israel. John is very clear that those who believe in the Son also become son's of God. That is, God is starting his own nation that will be reckoned through his only Son.

Furthermore, Genesis also mentions that Abraham had dug wells, the Philistines had stopped them up, and Isaac re-opened them. I won't go into that too much, as it's very speculative, but I will allow you to draw your own conclusions based on the significance of water and wells and the presentation of the Jewish leadership in the Gospel of John. But where did John get these ideas? Well I think it has roots in the life of Jesus himself.

When Jesus was baptized there was a voice that said, “You are my Son, my beloved. I am delighted with you.” We often see the connection with Psalm 2:7, where it says “The LORD said to me, 'You are my Son. Today, I have begotten you.'” We take this to be a reference both to his divine paternity and his Kingship (as it is originally in Psalm 2). I think there is a connection, but that isn't the only connection one can find, It's just the most obvious in English. If you were a good Hellenistic Jew or Christian in the first century, you would know that in your LXX translation Genesis 22, God repeatedly calls Isaac “Your son, your beloved,” as a translation of yechid, 'only'.

Now, I wasn't there when God spoke, but if I were a betting man, I'd say (assuming God was speaking Hebrew, which is reasonable for that place and time) he called Jesus his yechid. We still have the echo of Psalm 2, but we have a much stronger echo of Genesis 22. I believe the Gospel writers recognized this very well, and chose a translation that would alert their readers to look into the correct scripture. Too bad our translators haven't done us the service. (Not that they can really be blamed for giving us literal translations of the Greek and Hebrew, respectively). Another connection is in a little recounted story of Isaac where it says that there was a famine, but God told him not to go to Egypt, so he moved to Gerar with Abimelek and blah, blah, blah... and (Gen. 26:12) 'Isaac sowed seed in the land, and in the same year he reaped one hundred fold.' Wait... what? He sowed seed and reaped one hundred fold? Kinda reminds me of another story about a sower who sowed his seed and reaped one hundred fold...

Better to same that one for another time...

PS: I realize I totally crapped out on that lectionary thing. I did begin research for posts about it, but it was a lot lot lot of work, an usually by the time I could get sorted about the readings and their relationship, the week had long past. If I was a preacher, and it was my job to preach from the readings every week, I would definitely do it, but I don't really have the time.

By the way, I think I'm going to post my conclusions about Hebrew Matthew tomorrow.