Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Man Who Lived

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

The worst way to get yourself to live forever, according to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is to try and live forever. Which is ironic, given that trying to live forever has been the abiding preoccupation of humanity in most of recorded history.

Today is Resurrection Sunday; the culmination of Easter Week and a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It’s a celebration of one who has succeeded where no-one else has; in conquering death, the last enemy. However, how he did it, and what it means are things that are probably completely foreign to us.

It is remarkable that Jesus was not actually preoccupied with living forever, or preserving his own life, or making a name for himself. The way he chose was not immortality, but mortality, and he sealed it by getting himself killed. Not a good strategy, you’d think.

Christ humbled himself, and God raised him up. Its counter to our instincts. If it were up to us, we would reverse the roles by raising ourselves up so that we can look down on God. We are the ones who want to make a mark, who want to be remembered, and who want to make a name for ourselves. We want to go to heaven when we die. But, where we would fill ourselves with these things, Christ emptied himself.

So should we, says Paul.

Paul was onto something here. To him, and to the rest of the Christian community, Christ didn’t simply lay down a template from which you could construct your own immortality. Christ demonstrated what life is in the present tense. His way is not simply a program for living forever in some future eventuality – a kind of religious cosmic life assurance policy in which you deposit now and withdraw later. It is illumination for living in the present.

Because Christ humbled himself, says Paul, so should we now, in our present circumstances. Christ is the example that inspires us to consider others to be more valued than ourselves - a sure recipe for any successful human community. If we live this way now, heaven will come to us. Indeed, it will be with us already.

It’s so against our nature, and so against all logic. It’s irrational. It cannot be done without faith. Without faith, we would struggle for our own survival. We would be like the drowning man who flails at his rescuer, or the patient who grabs the surgeon’s knife at the critical cut. We would be like the man who listed his virtues as he tried to bargain his way out of death. That’s me – the one who cannot bring himself to trust his redeemer. Theologically, that's Adam, the one who brought death into the world.

If that’s you, don’t panic. Know that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so He will also raise you.

For he who becomes like the Heavenly One has heaven within himself
(Theophylact of Bulgaria, circa 1050 to 1108, commenting on Matthew 19:29, in his Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The God Who Died

… Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Reading the account of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution today in John’s Gospel (John 18 and 19) at our Good Friday service, one phrase kept nagging at sub-conscious - could have. There are so many could haves in this story, each presenting its own escape-hatch to an increasingly desperate situation, I have to wonder why it ended as painfully as it did.

Jesus could have crossed over the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives (John 18:1) and kept walking. He could have continued his campaign from the desert, returning to challenge the authorities in Jerusalem after capitalizing on his popularity to negotiate his position on the back of a sizeable army.

Jesus could have dodged Judas and his posse, and slipped away into the night, instead of belligerently presenting himself to them (John 18:5).

Jesus could have bossed them with his claim to divinity (the phrase “I am he” in John 18:5 and 8 echoes the name of God in Exodus 3:14)

Jesus could have backed up Peter’s initiative in beating off the posse with swords (John 18:10). There would have been a scuffle, some injuries and even some deaths, but he and the civic leaders could have come to an accommodation later on, as political leaders are wont to do.

The disciple who was known to the high priest (John 18:15) could have lobbied behind the scenes for Jesus' release, or even a more lenient sentence. (This disciple is probably the primary author of the Gospel and, if it was John, he would have been barely out of his 'teens at the time, though that’s not an excuse for inaction.)

Peter could have stood up in Jesus’ defense (John 18:15-17 and 25-27), but in a now-famous act of cowardice, disowned him.

Annas and Caiaphas could have been less defensive about the perceived threat from the Galilean preacher before them (John 18:19-24). However, Jesus was spearheading a counter-temple movement in their own constituency, and they knew the stakes. They could have been more concerned with the substance of the controversy at hand than the consequences on their own religion and their positions in it.

Pilate could have been equivocated less (John 18:31, 19:6). He was in an impossible position, caught in the vice between Rome’s imperative to maintain civil order, and the Jews who had been enraged at the insult Jesus had paid to their Temple. He knew that the crowd wanted blood, not justice, but he capitulated at the prospect of (politically inexcusable) bloody riots on his watch.

Incidentally, John’s Gospel walks us through Pilate’s calculations in some detail. It’s as if John is looking for some mitigating circumstances in the Governor’s actions. Even so, despite the all the best incremental judgments, it still ends in disaster, which I find to be a shrewd comment on the effectiveness of our good intentions.

The Chief Priests could have expressed a higher allegiance than to Ceasar (John 19:15). Weren’t they the servants of the Most High? Could they have delayed proceedings until a more thorough investigation had been carried out into the truth of the matter? The rich irony here is that though they were professing allegiance to Ceasar, it wasn’t Ceasar (strictly speaking, Ceasar’s representative) who was agitating for Jesus’ death. They had to manipulate Ceasar into doing what they wanted. This appears to me to be a telling parallel on what they hoped to achieve through their activities in the Temple, except that the One being subject to their manipulations was much, much higher than Ceasar.

The soldiers could have insisted on clearer orders (John 19:16). John’s Gospel records no explicit instruction from Pilate to crucify Jesus and, as the mob had already pointed out, no-one else had the authority to give the order. It seems to have been an implied understanding, but no-one was willing to sign it off. The soldiers would have been within their rights to question it.

Jesus' own family could have launched a last-ditch attempt to rescue Jesus from the cross (John 19:25). It might have been a suicidal mission against the professional soldiers who ensured that the crucified one would end up very dead indeed. However, their efforts might have galvanized the many Jews and residents in Jerusalem who were sympathetic to Jesus’ cause (see Luke 23:27) to come to his aid.

Finally, Jesus, the Word of God who had brought the cosmos into being, could have called on the mighty armies of heaven to get him down, but he didn’t.

Everything that is good and noble in the human spirit simply crumbled in the events that led to Jesus' death. It was as if all that we hold good was swept away in a tsunami of failure and weakness. We were confronted with the worst of what we are.

It's tempting to distance ourselves from this by blaming others. Who was responsible for Jesus' death? Not us, surely?

Medieval antisemitism held that the Jews were responsible, thus justifying the various pogroms in European history. Many have recoiled in recent times from this position (rightly so), but ignoring the part of "the Jews" in this story would be to write their very human faces out of the script. My own understanding is that if we view "the Jews" as categorically representative of the whole of humanity (think of their function in the office of the High Priesthood, or the sense of their “pure” decadency from the first son of God, Adam), then they represent us. In other words, they did exactly what we would do in the same circumstances. Their culpability - their sinfulness - is ours.

However, the allocating of human culpability is not entirely satisfactory in the theological context of John’s Gospel. Surely the Creator and Sustainer of all things could have set things on a different path? Surely He is not as vulnerable to the foibles of human nature and circumstance as we might think? There is another profound truth about Good Friday – the One who was ultimately responsible was the One who was crucified. He ordained it because that’s how He wanted it to be.

Of all the characters in this story, He could have had it differently, but He became the God who died.

(For further reading on the historical circumstances of Good Friday, and the social, political and religious pressures on the people involved, see

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Not Above Correction

You blind guides! You strain out a tiny bug, but swallow a truck-sized beast!
Matthew 23:24
Contrary to popular belief, Christianity does not give its followers the right to stick to their heart-felt preconceptions and prejudices, regardless of the observable evidence. The fundamental truth that there is a fundamental truth forces us to examine and align what we internally believe against an external, transcendent reality.

What this means, in practical terms, is that Christians cannot hold themselves above correction. We cannot simply fall back on our instincts and say “it’s not true because it doesn’t feel true”, even for our most intimate, core beliefs. That there is a light mandates us to push ourselves, sometimes kicking and screaming, into it. And, when we’re wrong, we’d better man up and say so. (What else is faith and repentance?)

So, with this in mind, I moderated a recent challenge to my last post about the Puns of Jesus, in particular the legitimacy of the Aramaic word, “galma” and its English translation, “gnat” (as quoted in Matthew 23:24). I must also confess to doing this partly out of a gratified vanity that someone had actually read my piece and had gone to the effort of posting a response. I digress, but it’s true.

My challenger had searched for “galma” but could not find it in the lexicons. Instead, a search for the Greek term “konops” (gnat), came up as בקא “bakae”. The wider inference (if I read his post rightly) is that much of Christianity and Christian apologetics is nothing more than the blind leading the blind (if I may borrow a phrase from the passage of Matthew’s Gospel under consideration).

Being entirely dependent on the one and only source in my blog, and finding my inferences being potentially founded on sand, I determined to find out more, and to publish whatever I discovered, even if it meant being damned, to boot. (Oh dear, Wellington’s boot prompts yet another pun - I can’t seem to avoid them on this topic).

There are, as a quick Google search will demonstrate, a multiplicity of blogs, sites, theological dictionaries, and other theologizings on the (supposed) Aramaic word-play on “gnat” and “camel” in Jesus’ now famous sound-bite. Obviously, I was a relative latecomer to this particular homage. However, truth is not a democracy, and something doesn’t become true just because a large number of people believe it. (Popular Atheism springs to mind, but I digress again.) Was this a myth that had been propagated throughout the Christian community to uphold an untruth about the sources and reliability of the Gospels? There is certainly enough motivation to sustain it, but is there a more solid foundation in an observable, external reality?

To be fair to my challenger, one on-line English-Aramaic Lexicon returns “baqa” for “gnat”. Further, it is difficult to find dictionary sources (as opposed to derivative blogs and books) for the Aramaic word “galma”. “Gamla” (camel), by contrast enjoys much attestation, and I can claim some familiarity with it, having spent a few days many years ago helping to dig up the city of the same name in the Golan Heights. The city, incidentally, gets its name from the camel-back shaped hill that it sits on, which is something I can confidently confirm, having seen it with my own eyes.

At this point, my inferences appear to be quite shaky, and if I am to be found wanting, I’d be better off falling on my own sword than someone else’s. However, my (admittedly cursory) exploration of the subject is not concluded yet.

One of the problems, I found, is that the Anglicisation of the Aramaic word for “gnat” is variously spelled “galma”, “kalma” or “qalma”. Searches for the two latter variants yield a multitude of translations, including “gnat”, “louse” or “vermin”. Entries for “louse” and “vermin” in the on-line English-Aramaic Lexicon yield “galma” (or “kalma” or “qalma”) as quoted in our English translations , and extend the semantic range to “bugs in grain”.

Another problem, which I must defer to scholars more knowledgeable than me, is that forms of Aramaic have survived until recent times. A lexicon of the dialect that survived until 1988, “TheNeo-Aramaic Dialect of Barwar” records “baqa” as “gnat” and “qalma” as “louse”. The linguistic puzzle here is that I don’t know if the modern semantic range of “qalma” (meaning “louse”) reflects the Aramaic of Jesus’ time, some 19 centuries prior, or if it had changed over time.

However the etymology works, the imagery of Jesus’ saying remains intact; you strain out tiny bugs, but swallow truck-sized beasts of burden. (Incidentally, both are "unclean" and therefore forbidden for consumption, even inadvertently.) The only concern, then, is whether the traditional rendering of “galma” as “gnat” should be something else, say “louse” or “vermin” or “tiny bug”. None of these sound as good in English, however, and the Aramaic pun fades in translation.

Translation, I believe, is a process of compromises, though I hesitate to go as far as Professor Robert Alter (a stellar scholar of Old Testament Hebrew) who holds that all translation is blasphemy. We might not capture all the associations and word-plays from the now-extinct languages of the Bible but, surely, the search for their meanings is not entirely hopeless.

The second objection of my correspondent is somewhat beyond the scope of my original blog; do Christians foster and promote untruths in order to support their beliefs? As I noted at the start, we have a mandate not to but, that’s no guarantee of success. As a Christian, I have the freedom to own my blindness because the light is there whether I see it or not. The question remains though; am I blind because my eyes are faulty, or is it because there is nothing to see? The answer to that question would take far more than this brief survey of gnats and camels allows.