Zen Talk: Our Words Don’t Do Reality Justice

“The instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark.”

There’s little I find as frustrating as writing the same post twice, and though apparently I can’t possibly capture that frustration in words, I’m going to ask your forgiveness on the skimpiness of this post as it pains me to write it again.

I love this quote. It reminds me of the notion of Platonic forms. That is, we try repeatedly to capture the essence of an idea in its earthly manifestations and as close to our designs as we may come, we never truly capture its essence (not that I subscribe to the notion of Platonic forms, but this does make me think of them).

This quote also speaks to the value of experience. When we experience something we truly live it, but when we attempt to tell of that experience to others, we no doubt miss the mark. Though a shame, it reminds us of the importance of living life for ourselves.

What are your thoughts on this quote?

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Fun with the Bible: The Use of the Word Messiah/Christ/Mashiach/Savior in the Bible, Judaism and Christianity

Oh boy is this a loaded term, and once again we get the pleasure of such a fascinating topic thanks to Kay, who was wondering about the various usages, meanings and importance ascribed to this word.

The Word Messiah as it Was Meant to Be

Let me start by saying that the word messiah did not begin with what today one would call messianic inclinations. That is, the messiah was never about some wonderful, future savior in ancient Judaism (which we should really be calling the ancient Israelite religion, since Judaism would have come from the descendants of Judea and we’re really talking about the entire area’s religion before it was just Judea). In any case, “messiah” literally meant anointed and referred to the king who was anointed into his position with oil.

You may recall such a scene in the New Testament book of Mark (14:3-9) when an old woman comes and pours nice oil on Jesus’ head. Though Jesus speaks of this as a preparation for burial, Mark’s understanding of his quality as Savior was not particularly developed, and a story like this later became prized for its value of equating Jesus with the long-awaited Davidic king. Speaking of this, David himself is anointed by Samuel (I Samuel 16), and other kings are anointed too. It was an important ritual act to signify that someone had been chosen by God.

Cyrus as Messiah

The reference to Cyrus as God’s anointed one is made by Isaiah (45:1), and makes good sense when we think about what Cyrus had done (notably, Cyrus is the ONLY non-Israelite to ever be referred to by this term). After the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and decades of Babylonian captivity, Cyrus, King of Persia, decrees that the people of Judea be allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple to their God. It would certainly seem that a benevolent and wonderful act like that could only come from a person that God himself had wanted anointed as king. (As a side note, my cat’s name is Cyrus, both because of this biblical story and because Herodotus seemed to me to describe this same king Cyrus as a mischievous fellow).

It is in the book of Daniel (9:25-26) that the term mashiach nagid (the great messiah) is used, and it is thought that this is a reference to Cyrus for the wonderful thing he did for the Jews. However, bear in mind that Daniel is not a prophecy. Though it purports to come from a captive in King Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian court in the sixth century, Daniel was written in the middle of the Jewish revolt against the Greek king Antichus IV (c. 167). That’s why he is able to so accurately run through the history of the Ancient Middle East’s rulers that affect the Jews, and get increasingly specific as he describes what goes on between the Greek kings that lead up to the war of his day.

Think about Cyrus’ motivation for allowing the Jews to return to their land after he conquered the Babylonian Empire and found so many subject peoples. It wasn’t just the Jews. Cyrus was a wise statesman and realized that if he conquered the Babylonians and let all of the people they had conquered go home, they would love him and do what he says (tribute, baby). Moreover, if they rebuild their temples and pray to their gods they will pray on behalf of him, his health, wealth, and success. And that’s exactly what Cyrus asked everyone to do.

Waiting for the Messiah

So after the use of this word in these various contexts and after the Jews returned to Judea, there was no more Davidic line of kings ruling over the people in the same way that there had always been, but looking back to the time of David filled the Jews with pride and longing because it was when they were strongest, unified and their religion and homeland were the least ‘corrupted’ with outsiders (or so they thought through the lens of their backward gazing). In any case, they looked back and desperately wanted independence and their Davidic king (a king who descended from the line of David, in case that hasn’t been clear), and as this person was always mashiach, anointed, they looked forward to a time when God would give them back their anointed one. And thus begins (in an overly simplistic fashion, mind you) the beginning and longing for a Messiah that would come and free the people.

In the centuries hugging the year zero – particularly after the Romans took over the region – every person and his brother claimed to be the messiah: sent from God to rescue the people. People also claimed to be prophets at this time – in unusual abundance.

And no, to answer a question previously posed, prophets and messiahs are not the same thing. Prophets brought a message from God and the Messiah was not a messenger but a savior – the person sent to do the dirty work. He didn’t have words to deliver but a better life for the people. That idea wasn’t otherworldly in Judaism (too much, at least). It was literally about getting the king back and having independence. Jewish messianic aspirations were not always about ending this world or the world-to-come – that’s the result of two millenia of Christian influence.

Christianity and the Messiah

However, when Jesus came and was believed to be the long-awaited descendant of the Davidic line, jubilation erupted among some. His death, though, put a damper on people’s spirits (no pun intended) because they believed that he would restore the line and rescue them from the Romans. When that didn’t happen, the idea of Jesus as the anointed one was used in different ways, most successfully by Pauline Christianity who made the rest (an insanely complicated) history. Thus, Jesus was the Messiah, and when that saving was not able to be earthly salvation (the Judean kingdom), it was transformed into the other-worldly salvation of Christianity. And now Christians still await the Messiah – Jesus’ return – to bring those end of days and the good times.

Khristos, the Greek word from which we get Christ, is the term used to refer to Jesus in the language that Paul’s Christianity spread through the Greek-speaking world. That’s why that word become the popular one.

Summary

Any questions, comments or thoughts? Please don’t be shy. Leave them below!

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Fun with the Bible: Was the Author of the Gospel of Luke Really a Woman?

Who Really Wrote the Gospels

It is a common scholarly contention that the author of the Gospel of Luke was actually a woman. Now, it is definitely accepted that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not the authors of the respectively named gospels. Indeed, there’s no claim of authorship in the gospels, but similar to the Five Books of Moses, people wanted to attribute authorship to credible sources.

Thus, the third gospel was attributed to Luke, “the beloved physician” of Col. 4:14. As scholars and religious people alike agree, the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, hence Luke-Acts, though neither mentions Luke’s name or the “acts of the apostles.” But no matter – I said we were here to talk about Luke’s gender.

Ways that Luke Could be a Woman

So why might Luke be a woman. A few brief reasons that I’m going to mention and then I’ll leave the rest to you to read yourself.

1. There are more female characters in Luke (and when I say this I include Acts because of the similarities) than any other gospel. And it’s disproportionate – not just a couple. (e.g. the extended scenes with Mary and Elizabeth in chapter 1).

2. Luke speaks on multiple occassions of things that only concern women (menstration, pregnancy, etc.) and seems to understand and compare events to the pain and beauty of childbirth.

3. Woman have active and important roles for main events throughout the story, being the first to see Jesus, care for him, talk to him, etc. after key happenings. Women also believe in Jesus more often than men. (e.g. the poor widow in 21:1-4 whose offering is more important than anyone else’s; 24:10 when the women believe in and share the ressurection and the apostles don’t believe at first).

Reasonable Skepticism

If you doubt what I’ve written I understand. My examples are minimal and my case not made particularly well. However, there are many more examples of these things and more reasons that the author of Luke-Acts could have been a woman. The best way to start to see these reasons (aside from scholarly literature) is to read Luke-Acts with this in mind and start to recognize the huge and important role of women and the imagery related to women that exists.

It is possible, of course, that a male author could have a view of women that made them necessary characters in his telling, but his understanding of female experiences would be quite impressive. In either case, just read for yourself and see what you think about the role of women. Even if you disagree, what do you think about the place of women in Luke-Acts? Did you notice anything that you didn’t before?

Summary

Remember, Fun with the Bible is not about destroying people’s understanding of the Bible but about enhancing it by questioning our established beliefs and making us rethink how much there is to read about beyond what we’ve been told. Feel free to ask any questions and leave any comments about these and other issues.

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Fun with the Bible: The Synoptic Gospels and John Crucify Jesus on Different Days – Want to Know Why?

What!? The gospels have contradictory stories?! Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. Now, I’m not going to do all of the legwork for you – you’ll have to read through the stories (at least the key parts at the end) to see for yourself what’s going on – but I will tell you what’s written and, as briefly as possible, what it means.

The Synoptic Gospels are Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are all telling effectively the same story. In their story, there is a Last Supper (you remember – Jesus gives out the bread…’my body’ … etc.), and that Last Supper is what Jewish holiday meal? Passover. Correct! So, Passover is the same day every year: the night of the 14th of the month of Nissan. That means that the next day, the 15th of Nissan, Jesus is crucified (making the 15th a Friday, right?), and then he is resurrected on Sunday the 17th (three days later – Bible counts each of the days whether it’s whole or not).

You with me?

Now, in John, there is a symbolism different than in the Synoptic Gospels: there is no Last Supper (well, at least not an important one that’s mentioned and thought to be Passover), and Jesus is actually crucified on the 14th of Nissan (which is thus, in this story, a Friday) and resurrected on Sunday, which in this story is the 16th of Nissan. But why different dates?

Well, on the 14th of Nissan, during the day, Jews would sacrifice the lamb that was then eaten that night during Passover (an important ritual we won’t get into here). The lamb was always sacrificed on that day, the 14th of Nissan, and the Passover meal eaten that night. For John, Jesus was the Lamb of God (no other gospel uses this language) and John wanted Jesus to be the Passover sacrifice – the ultimate sacrifice that atoned for our sins (which is mostly the purpose of sacrifice – atoning).

John felt this symbolism stood above all else in importance – making Jesus the ultimate passover sacrifice – and so he crucifies Jesus on Friday, the 14th of Nissan. However, considering the Last Supper, as the Passover meal that had the symbolism of the bread and wine as Jesus’ body and blood, to be of utmost importance, the writers of Matthew, Mark and Luke made Jesus’ crucifixion the following day, Friday the 15th of Nissan (since the Passover meal is always the night of the 14th).

Pretty crazy and cool, huh? Today, the symbolism of either gospel is used to create a much larger theology though the dating ultimately makes the two stories irreconcilable with their portrayal of facts. Fascinating theology but impossible factually. Which one is true? We’ll never know, but both are holy canon in Christianity and considered to be 100% accurate.

What do you think? Did you go read for yourself and see? Is anything unclear or would you like to know more? Please just ask – the fascinating literature surrounding these facts in the first few centuries after Jesus (and the simultaneous development of Judaism and its understanding of Passover) is incredible.

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