Thursday, February 28, 2013

Devotional: John 12:1-8

Illustration of Nardostachys
 (1881) from
Curtis's Botanical Magazine
When Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus Christ for His coming death, she caused quite a commotion, as is told in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. It was six days before Passover, not yet the beginning of what we know as “Passion Week.” Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and was dining in the house of Simon, called “the leper.” Lazarus was eating with the other guests, Martha was serving, and Mary commenced anointing Jesus head and feet with “nard” (Gr. νάρδος , nardos, Strong's #3487; Lat. nardus). In Hebrew the plant is called נרד (nêrd or nayrd, Strong's #5373; Aram. ܢܰܪܕ݁ܺܝܢ, nardiyn, Strong's #1947), a semitization of the Persian nârdîn, after the Sanskrit naladâ. Mary’s “nard” was an import from India that we now call “spikenard.”

Not to be confused with Celtic spikenard, American spikenard, lavender, or the game of backgammon, Indian spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi or Nardostachys grandiflora) has been known since ancient times as a prized ingredient for perfumes, medicinal cures, and even gourmet recipes from De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) by ancient foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius. It is a member of the Valerian family of flowering plants with strong odors, and grows in the high altitudes of the Himalayas (i.e., India, Nepal, and the Tibetan province of China). The ancient land and sea trade routes, such as the Silk Road, the Incense Road, and the various spice roads, insured that the potent oil was made accessible to the rich and powerful of Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and the Far East, although it was extremely costly.

Alabaster perfume jar from the tomb
of Tutankhamun, Cairo Museum
Because of the oil’s rarity, the ancients used it for special purposes, particularly in temple rites and for anointing the dead. The Egyptians, the Israelites (Jews), and the Greek worshippers of Aphrodite included it in their temple incense. According to Homer’s Iliad, Achilles anointed the body of his fellow Greek hero Patroclus with spikenard. It is also mentioned in the Old Testament wisdom book known as the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) and in the pseudepigraphal Book of Jubilees (or Lesser Genesis). In addition, archeologists discovered spikenard stored in alabaster jars in the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen. After more than three thousand years, the ointment’s scent was still strong.

According to John, Mary’s nard ointment weighed one Roman pound (Gr. λίτρα, litra; Lat. libra), which, considering the density of nard, works out to be approximately 337-355 milliliters (less than 12 fluid ounces). Given that a laborer’s daily wage was about 1 denarius (Matthew 20:2), Judas’ claim that Mary’s perfume was worth 300 denarii priced it close to a lower income annual wage, assuming unpaid Sabbaths and holidays. (Note: Based on a laborer’s income, the price might be comparable to $10,000-30,000. However, the same three-quarter pint would only cost about $200-300 wholesale and $500-600 retail in today’s more efficient global economy.) Because of its apparent value, some commentators speculate that the perfume had been saved for Mary’s dowry. In that case, in the eyes of onlookers, she was not only wasting what could be used to help the poor, but also throwing away her entire future as a married woman.

Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, He emphasized the need to help the poor. In the minds of Judas, and apparently other disciples, Mary’s sacrifice and service was an opportunity to reiterate this important lesson. Jesus’ reply probably surprised them. As He had done previously during His “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:17-48), Christ overturned His followers’ usual understanding of the Mosaic Law. The poor will always be in need of care, and Mary still had an obligation to help them (Deuteronomy 15:11). However, at that moment, it was far more important to let her express her love and gratitude to the Lord, even if it was in an extremely expensive manner.

This devotional was written as an assignment for Robert T. Davis’ course on “Johannine Literature,” which I am currently auditing at the Southern California School of Evangelism at Buena Park Church of Christ.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Devotional: John 8:48-59

In John 8:58, Jesus makes one of only a few claims to deity, but arguably the most pointed: “[B]efore Abraham was, I AM.” Not even hesitating to consider that a death sentence would need to be pushed through the proper Roman channels (John 18:31), the crowd of witnesses, impassioned by Christ’s words, immediately commenced stoning Him, the punishment for blasphemy imposed under the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 24:16). The reason for their fury was that Jesus was not merely claiming to have existed prior to Abraham. Rather, He was claiming the One True God’s Holy Name for Himself.

Centuries prior, when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, He identified Himself this way, in Exodus 3:14-15 (ESV):

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

In v. 14, God twice calls Himself אהיה (ʾEhyeh or ʾEhyah), which is the first person singular imperfect form of the verb היה (Hayah, “to be” or “to exist”). “First person” means that it is what one would use in reference to one’s self, accompanied by a pronoun “I” or “we.” Yet “singular” means that “we” is excluded. In this context, the Lord is One, in contrast to אלוהים (Elohim), which theoretically is plural. By “imperfect form,” it is meant that the action is continuous or habitual, signifying God’s existence in the past and His continuing existence. In v. 15, God instructs Moses to use His Name יהוה (Yahaweh or Yahweh), the third person form of אהיה (ʾEhyeh), which one would use in reference to a third party, accompanied by the pronoun “he.” (“They” is excluded as a plural. “She” and “it” also can be excluded because the word is decidedly masculine.)

What does this all mean in reference to Christ’s words in John 8:58? Hypothetically, a person, in conversation with others, would refer to God only as יהוה (Yahweh) or “HE IS.” He would never use אהיה (ʾEhyeh) or “I AM” since that would be, at best, poor grammar and, at worst, claims of self-deification. (Note that some lyricists of modern praise choruses could possibly be accused of blasphemy since they are notorious for incorrectly using “I AM” in this way.) When John writes ἐγὼ εἰμί (egō eimi), he is using the same Greek words that the Jewish translators of the Septuagint (LXX) chose for Exodus 3:14.

While it might be fashionable at times to insist that Jesus was the promised Messiah but never claimed to be divine, there is no mistaking the text. According to John, Jesus unabashedly declared that He is God, and the unbelieving Jews present reacted as might be expected. One of the following must be true: either John’s record, with all of its beautiful sayings and historical facts, is grossly unreliable; or Jesus is God as He claimed; or Jesus was guilty of committing blasphemy, the worst sin imaginable. Which would you choose?

This devotional was written as an assignment for Robert T. Davis’ course on “Johannine Literature,” which I am currently auditing at the Southern California School of Evangelism at Buena Park Church of Christ.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Thoughts on Nahum

"Lamas clapping hands mudra to dispel inner and outer darkness and negativity,
 Sakya Lamdre, Tharlam Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, Boudha,
 Kathmandu, Nepal" (1997) by Wonderlane (Flickr)
Apparently, in Tibet, it’s impolite to clap at people. Tibetan Buddhist monks clap in demand for an answer from their debate opponents, and all Tibetans do it to drive away evil forces or spirits. There are accounts of travelers like British Army officer Sir Francis Younghusband (1863-1942) and Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006), author of Seven Years in Tibet, mistaking for applause what more appropriately should’ve been taken as insult.

Certainly, understanding foreign cultures can be headache inducing, and ancient ones full out migraines. The problems stem not merely from ethnocentricisim, but plain old unfamiliarity with the ways other people groups think and act. This carries over to religious studies and theology. Christians are repeatedly warned against forcing modern, Greek, or “westernized” interpretations on biblical texts that should be read from an ancient, Jewish, or “oriental” perspective. Those who are unaware of their cultural bias can end up misinterpreting the Bible, perhaps even with damaging consequences. So we’re careful now. No one wants to be branded as a modern-day Herodotus.

What’s rather ironic about this is that we are also susceptible to making more mistakes by forcing a modern Jewish interpretation on texts that arguably need to be looked at from some other ancient cultural perspective. Yes, the Bible is by and large a “Jewish book” talking about Jewish people, places, things, and ideas. But we need to keep in mind that the Jews (or Judeans) were a later remnant of an older Israelite culture that had been influenced by time, different experiences, and different neighbors. It’s also easy to forget that the Bible talks about non-Jewish people, places, things, and ideas: Akkadians, Hittites, Egyptians, Philistines, Chaldeans, Persians, just to name a few. How much is lost or unwittingly added to the text when we don’t even consider the non-Jewish perspective?

A few months ago, I watched Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film version of Seven Years in Tibet (1997), starring Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, with the previously mentioned clapping scene. It was pure coincidence that I happened to be rereading the Book of Nahum shortly after, and saw the following passage in new light (Nahum 3:19, ESV):

There is no easing your hurt; your wound is grievous. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For upon whom has not come your unceasing evil?

Previously, I had a positive reading of this applause: surrounding nations clapping and cheering at Nineveh’s demise. Some translations even build this assumption into the text. The Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) reads:

Your wound cannot be healed. Your injury is fatal. Everyone hearing the news about you claps his hands in joy over you. For who has not been overwhelmed by your relentless cruelty?

We generally associate clapping with music, dance, and praise. The Bible contains a number of well-known passages, suggesting that that’s how the ancient Israelites interpreted the action of putting one’s hands together (2 Kings 11:12, Psalm 47:1, Psalm 98:8, Isaiah 55:12). However, a number that had slipped under my radar, so to speak, strongly suggest a negative interpretation such as mockery, insult, or a sign of distress (Job 27:23, Job 34:37, Lamentations 2:15, Ezekiel 6:11, Ezekiel 21:14, Ezekiel 21:17), and at least one, like Nahum 3:19, that’s a bit vague (Ezekiel 25:6).

Looking at these passages, there’s clearly room for multiple interpretations of clapping mentioned in the Bible. I began to search for evidence of what the Assyrians, the targets of God’s fury, would’ve thought of the prophet Nahum’s words. I found “Clapping Hands as a Gesture of Anguish and Anger in Mesopotamia and in Israel” from the Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society (JANES), Vol. 23 (1995), pp. 49-60. In the article, Nili S. Fox, Professor of Bible at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, discusses the different modes and possible interpretations of clapping in ancient Sumerian, Akkadian, and Neo-Assyrian artifacts and texts. She points out how negative meanings are often necessary to make sense of some Bible verses, including Nahum 3:19.

Of course, while there’s some indication that clapping isn’t always complementary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Assyrian perspective is synonymous with the Tibetan one. Until conclusive evidence is available (and perhaps even after), I suspect that many Christians will continue to favor a positive interpretation of all clapping because it appeals to our neo-Greco, Jewish-ish, American understanding of the Bible. I do hope, however, that many will begin to take Assyrian and other non-Jewish perspectives into careful consideration in the future. I think it would greatly improve our understanding of the Bible.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas

St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church,
Hyde Park, Chicago (Wikipedia)
One of five apocryphal texts attributed to someone named Thomas, the second century Gospel According to Thomas is a highly contentious book. The author-compiler claims to be Judas Thomas Didymus, the apostle of Jesus, revealing “hidden” teachings to his readers. However, no church has corroborated that claim by including it in any “Christian” canon, although a few people do consider the gospel more authentic that those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The book is often associated with Gnosticism although, like the canonical Gospel of John also favored by Gnostics, there is nothing inherently “gnostic” about it contents. That is, there is no emphasis on “biblical demiurgical traditions,” which attribute the physical creation to a lesser, if not evil, deity rather than to an almighty God.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is portrayed as a sort of Buddha, providing wise sayings without any of the surrounding historical or cultural context found in the canonical gospels. There’s a dearth of proper names of people, rulers, places, and ethnic groups that otherwise could be used to authenticate it. Much of its content parallels that found elsewhere in the New Testament, supporting theories of dependency in one direction or the other. Some readers find the Gospel of Thomas more inclusive of women, since Jesus is portrayed as having female students (cf. Luke 10:39) and allowing them to ask questions, in contrast to Paul, who admonishes Christian women to keep silent (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:34). However, my opinion is that this view is founded more on wishful thinking rather than fact as it fails to explain saying 114, which has Jesus conceding to Peter’s beliefs in masculine superiority.

Because of interest in the similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the canon, I recently began reading Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer’s The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. There are numerous parallels for Christians to explore, some virtually identical in teaching and others radically different. Since my husband has recently finished preaching a sermon series on the biblical parables, they are fresh in my mind. So, I decided to discuss here how parables are used in Thomas in contrast with those in the canon. Although different scholars give different numbers, throughout my reading, I identified fifteen parables in the Gospel of Thomas. Here are my thoughts on each.

The Parable of the Wise Fisherman (s. 8): In this parable, a fisherman keeps only the largest fish from his net and throws back the smaller fish. Although not unlike the story found in Matthew 13:47-50, the one found in the canon, in contrast, is both a message of inclusiveness (“fish of every kind”) and an analogy of how the righteous people will be kept and the wicked discarded. This emphasis on the superiority of some individuals to others in the Thomas version might be evidence of gnostic leanings.

The Parable of the Sower (s. 9): Although there’s no context or interpretation provided in the Gospel of Thomas, I couldn’t find any significant difference in the parable itself from how it’s presented in the Synoptics (Matt. 13:3-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:5-15).

The Parable of the Mustard Seed (s. 20): This parable also doesn’t differ significantly from the Synoptics’ versions (Matt.13:31-32, Mark 4:30-32, Luke 13:18-19), except that the question about what the kingdom is like comes from the students (i.e., disciples).

The Parable of the Children (s. 21): In this parable, children are expelled from playing in a field not belonging to them. The interpretation that follows is a warning about being alert to thieves, as is found in Matthew 24:43-44. What this has to do with the disciples being like naked children, I haven’t a clue.

The Parable of the Wheat and Tares (s. 57): Suprisingly, I actually found the Thomas version more straightforward than those found in the Bible . While Matthew 13:24-30 doesn’t say why it would be any easier to distinguish between the wheat and weeds during the harvest, the Gospel of Thomas explains that the fully developed plants clearly identify themselves while the seeds look alike. In other words, righteous and evil people bear obvious fruit (Matt. 7:15-20, 12:33; Luke 6:43-45).

The Parable of the Rich Fool (s. 63): While Luke 12:16-21 focuses on the damnation of the soul that works for treasure on earth (cf. Matthew 6:19-21), the Thomas version merely suggests that physical death is around the corner for everyone. In other words, even though the stories are similar, the Gospel of Thomas seems to have taken the “punch” out of it.

The Parable of Wedding Feast or Great Banquet (s.64): The Thomas version never mentions a wedding, but obviously tells the story found in Matthew 22:1-14 and Luke 14:7-42, which differ from each other. Something noticeably absent, though, is Thomas’ failure to relate the parable to the kingdom, eternal punishment, or eternal rewards.

The Parable of the Tenants (s. 65): This is another example of where the missing context weakens the parables message. While the Gospel of Thomas presents this as just another story, the Synoptics (Matt.21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-20) show that it was a direct attack on the Jewish religious leaders, who had been initially charged to do God’s work but then neglected their duties and abused their power.

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price (s. 76): This parable, as given in the Gospel of Thomas, actually combines the story of the merchant who values the pearl so much that sells all he has (Matt. 13:45-46) with the lesson about storing up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-21). I feel that this pairing results in the important teaching of valuing the kingdom above everything else being overshadowed by the message against greed (Matt. 6:24).

The Parable of the Leaven (s. 96): When read in Matthew 13:33 or Luke 13:20-21, we can see the emphasis placed on what the leaven does to the dough and connect it to how the kingdom spreads throughout the world. In the Thomas version, we are told that the woman makes two large loaves of bread, but how this actually relates to the kingdom is left out.

The Parable of the Broken Jar (s. 97): This parable, only found in the Gospel of Thomas, tells about a woman carrying a jar full of flour, who never notices the crack until reaching home and finding the jar empty. The moral of the story appears to be that neglect or inattentiveness can result in losing the kingdom or one’s place in the kingdom. This interpretation noticeably challenges the Calvinist doctrine of “preservation of the saints” (i.e., predestination) and is more in line with some doctrines of “free grace” that allow for Christians losing their salvation.

The Parable of the Assassin (s. 98): Also unique to Thomas, this parable tells about a man testing the strength of his sword before pursuing and killing his enemy. The interpretation that makes the most sense to me is that the kingdom is prepared and successful in conquering its enemies.

The Parable of Lost Sheep (s. 107): The Gospel of Thomas’ version harkens back a bit to the earlier “The Parable of the Wise Fisherman.” As in Matthew 18:12-14 and Luke 15:3-7, but the rejoicing over having found the one lost sheep is interpreted as that one being loved more value than all the others. This might have gnostic leanings in that some followers are seen as being more enlightened and superior than others.

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure (s. 109): Here the Thomas version provides a lot of extra context for the story that isn’t found in Matthew 13:44. The latter has the discoverer selling everything he has to obtain the land, telling us to sacrifice everything to obtain the kingdom. The former, however, tells about the land’s owner stumbling across the treasure left by a past owner and becoming rich as a result, with no apparent spiritual lesson coming out of the text.

Although many of the teachings presented in the Gospel of Thomas strongly resemble those found in the Bible, the missing element is the story of Jesus, His pure life, His tragic death, and His glorious resurrection. Like Thomas Jefferson’s edited version, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, there’s no hope offered to mankind, only wisdom sayings. Without the miraculous, the “nonsense” as Jefferson called it, we are left with a rather uninspiring work. It’s no wonder that it has been virtually lost in obscurity.