Monday, February 10, 2014

First John 1-5, Second John, Third John, Jude, Revelation 1-22

First Letter of John contains classic John themes on light and darkness.  It warns about the Antichrist (and in that sense, aligns perfectly with both the gospel and Revelation).

Letter of John 4:10, interestingly, is a striking parallel to Gospel of John 3:16: "In this love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins.

Second Letter of John includes an emphasis on "the truth," a term Pilate uses in Gospel of John.  It also features the Golden Rule.  With three separate letters to it, clearly Jesus said this one and it left as powerful an impression on his followers as his death and resurrection.  It's also the clearest break in theology from the Old to New Testament.

Third Letter of John generally addresses those in the Church who are proving useful as well as those who aren't.  The terms "beloved" and "truth" are used, more links to Gospel of John.  I might be wrong, but it's the shortest book (so-called) of the whole Bible.

Letter of Jude, which may be ascribed to Judas/Thaddeus of the apostles, speaks of biblical lore and bad apples.  Although it spoils the running countdown of the Bible featuring exclusively material ascribed to John, it also serves as an excellent segue to Revelation.

Concerning Revelation of John, I won't go into too much detail about it here.  The basis for the popular turn-of-the-millennium Left Behind series of novels, it's classic apocalyptic literature that has previously noted parallels in the Old Testament, though itself remains the most famous of them (the Four Horsemen, the pale rider called Death among them, as well as God described as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end).  It may also be a pastiche on John's prediction for the fall of Rome, much as the earlier versions were of Babylon.

Interestingly, however, Revelation begins as a letter, and various congregations are addressed.

And finally, to close out my notes on the Bible, it only seems fitting to point out the final slandering of Balaam.  Seriously, the dude was to my mind a pretty good guy.

But perhaps you ought to read the Bible for yourself to decide.

Hebrews 1-13, James 1-5, First Peter 1-5, Second Peter 1-3

The Letter to the Hebrews is as it suggests an attempt to explain Christianity to the Jews, something Acts of the Apostles featured but the emerging faith started to reject as its mandate over time, so it's good to have a letter dedicated to it in the New Testament.

If you were ever wondering why Melchizedek appears to be so important to Christians despite only a cursory reference in Genesis, it's because of a generous emphasis in Hebrews.  Jesus, meanwhile, is described as the ultimate high priest, among other things.

Hebrews uses as part of its argument a list of Old Testament figures who were known for their exceptional faith, including Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and words that to the effect mean "etc."  In that sense it rings true with material in the Old Testament itself.

Although at one time ascribed to Paul, this is no longer the case with Hebrews, although the link of Timothy is present.

The Letter of James is probably from the same ambiguous James from Acts of the Apostles who proved to be a hassle for Paul's ministry.  This is an appropriate follow-up to Hebrews, considering this James was very much interested in retaining the Jewish tradition into the emerging Christianity.

It is in fact written to Jewish converts.  It also has an exhortation to endure trials, and an emphasis on good acts but no partiality (except, y'know, the Jews).  James references the Golden Rule, although of course he says to keep the old rules, too.  Interestingly, a fig tree is referenced, the only time outside of the gospels where it is.  It apparently really was an important legacy of Jesus's.

First Letter of Peter is also a letter to converted Jews, this time addressed to those of the Dispersion.  Rome is referenced as Babylon (as it will be in Revelation as well).  Mark is referenced.  It's a letter concerning general rules of conduct.

The Second Letter of Peter assures the recipient that Jesus is not a myth.  It also, unfortunately, continues the biblical tradition of slandering Balaam (as does Revelation).  The second coming is referenced.

First Timothy 1-6, Second Timothy 1-4, Titus 1-3, Philemon

First Letter of Paul to Timothy is, as it suggests, a letter from Paul to his favorite associate.  He's asking Timothy to remain in Ephesus.  He also warns about dissenting ministries, explains his past. Paul also outlines a number of guidelines for the emerging Church, including rules for the selection of bishops of deacons.  It's more or less a set of instructions to keep on keeping on.

Second Letter of Paul to Timothy finds Paul missing Timothy.  He's hit a rough patch.  The ministries in Asia have been less than accommodating.  He tells Timothy not to be ashamed of testifying and to accept suffering, which might just as well be Paul telling these things to himself, which in effect makes this perhaps the most personal of all the letters.  Titus, Luke, and Mark are all referenced.

Letter of Paul to Titus, meanwhile, is obviously another personal address to a notable colleague.  He's explaining why Titus was left in Crete, and how best to deal with the Cretans, which probably explains why we have that term today.  Which means in honor of this letter, if you hadn't been using it before, you should now (but in a loving way).

Letter of Paul to Philemon is the last one directly ascribed to Paul in the New Testament.  He's once again a prisoner as he's composing it.  Timothy is referenced.  He's basically directing matters from prison.  Mark and Luke are also referenced.

Colossians 1-4, First Thessalonians 1-5, Second Thessalonians 1-3

The seventh letter from, the Letter to the Colossians, features a reference to Timothy right from the start.  It explains what exactly Jesus represented, warns about falling for dissenting beliefs.  Perhaps the biggest news out of this letter also explains something from Acts.  Remember how Paul and Barnabas had a falling out over Mark?  According to this letter, Barnabas had a good reason to side with Mark, because the possible gospel writer was in fact his cousin.  Another probably gospel (and Acts) writer, Luke is referenced, as "the beloved physician."  Considering how often Paul is described as getting banged up in Acts, he could certainly use one of those.  The letter concludes with a message to pass it along.  And passed along it has been.

First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians references Timothy right away.  These Thessalonians are also excellent examples of the faith.  Paul references his rough treatment in Philippi, which otherwise didn't deter him there, because that's the other community to get a happy letter from him.

Second Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians also references Timothy immediately (it should be noted that when this happens, it means Paul has included him in the opening address, so these letters can be said to be coming from both of them).  Paul is still very pleased with the Thessalonians.  He likes them so much he uses them as an example to other communities (and thanks to this letter's presence in the New Testament, keeps on doing it).  Both letters speak of the second coming, which is an event preceded by the Antichrist.  You can take that literally or interpret it to indicate the persecution from the Roman Empire, which certainly got pretty nasty.

Galatians 1-6, Ephesians 1-6, Philippians 1-4

The fourth letter from Paul, to the Galatians, opens with an allusion to his unofficial apostolic status, which by now is clearly something that preoccupies him.

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel - not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ."

That's this letter in a nutshell, Paul again worrying about competing Christian ministries.

He references his past again.

He says three years passed before he went to Jerusalem and met with Peter and the other apostles, including "James the Lord's brother."  Take that for what you will, but it's among the reasons some people (certainly not mainstream Christians) argue that Jesus had siblings, and why Reza Aslan argues in Zealot that the James who is prominent in Acts, and probably the one who gives Paul all the problems he references in his letters, is in fact Jesus' brother (keeping in mind that this James is probably also not the other James among the twelve apostles).

After an additional fourteen years he returns to Jerusalem with Barnabas.  Titus is with them.  John has traveled with them as well.

As featured in Acts, the matter of Jewish law and how applicable it is to Gentile converts to Christianity is the main sticking point Paul discusses.  He outright says that the old ways are no longer relevant.

In Letter of Paul to the Ephesians, Paul is imprisoned as he composes it.  It's a letter to Gentiles explaining their inheritance of the faith.  It contains general instructions on how to be good Christians.

Letter of Paul to the Philippians begins with Timothy referenced.  Paul is actually quite pleased with the Philippians (good to see him in a good mood for a change!), which is no surprise given how this ministry is described in Acts.

He still touches on the matter of theological dissension, but not nearly in the heavy tones he previously used.  He hopes to send Timothy to the Philippians soon.  He touches on his origins.  Paul is also pleased that the Philippians were concerned about him!

Romans 1-16, First Corinthians 1-16, Second Corinthians 1-13

The letters begin with the longest and perhaps best of them, Letter of Paul to the Romans.  It's one he wrote before actually going to Rome, whereas most of the others address a community he's already visited.  The term "barbarian" is referenced.  Fun fact!  "Barbarian" is a term the Romans came up with to describe peoples whose languages they considered unintelligible, so that they sounded like they were talking nonsense (in other words, "bar bar bar bar," or what we today would interpret perhaps as "blah blah blah blah," which means that if we have coined the term, it would be "blahblahian" or perhaps "blahblahing" like Viking).

Among Paul's goals for Christianity he sees as giving honor and thanks to God.  He says, "God has no partiality," which is quite a development for a former Jew.  Paul explains Jesus basically as the reverse Adam.  Perhaps earlier when I was discussing how Adam is seen that way it was indeed an argument that traces all the way back to Letter to the Romans.  He also tends to explain faith, in this letters, in philosophical terms, an intellectual argument that happens to include a concept of a divine being.  It's a giant leap forward from the dogma constantly featured in the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.  His talk of living by the spirit rather than the flesh is basically an argument to rise above petty, harmful impulses.  It's no different from, say, Buddhist ideals (before you consider that a sacrilege, keep in mind that although Buddhism came from Hinduism, it is a philosophy rather than religion).  If you want to talk religion based from the Bible to a skeptic, perhaps Romans would be a good place to start.

Paul also affirms Jesus's "love thy neighbor" commandment, the famous Golden Rule, which is a running theme throughout the letters, emphasizing how it truly has become the most important of them all.  One of his dominant themes is the purity of faith, which is something that can sometimes be lost in discussions on religion.  If you think about it, faith is something a sports fan has when they support their favorite team even if they're dreadful.

Romans was written before Paul traveled to Jerusalem as outlined in Acts of the Apostles.  He states that he hopes to stop by on his way to Spain.  A ton of names are referenced throughout the letters, representing a lot of lost early notable Christians, although among them is the famous Timothy.  There's a Lucius who could be Luke, although that name specifically begins to appear in other letters.

The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians begins with the line, "Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus."  A lot of material in these letters finds him in a defensive mode, which is probably weird for modern Christians to consider, given how prominent Paul is in Christian history, arguably the second most important figure of the New Testament after Jesus.  In his own time, Paul was actually a lot like the rejected prophets of the Old Testament, and even Jesus.  I guess it only figures.

The letter is an appeal against dissension, another common theme that was also referenced in Romans.  Although, of course, in the gospels Jesus himself says it's perfectly fine that people aren't completely uniform in how they represent him.  People being people, the first Christians immediately disagree with that stance.  (Although the Jesus argument might have been snuck in by someone to present that very argument.)

Peter, referenced here and in several other mentions initially as Cephas, becomes the first prominent apostle of the gospels and Acts to appear in Paul's letters.

Paul tends to be modest in this letter.  He makes a point of the message itself being wise rather than specifically how it's delivered.  This perspective might also exist because Paul is frustrated with himself.

Continuing with the argument that Paul is surprisingly philosophical, he says understanding thrives best in the spiritual individual, presumably because they're given to reflection rather than gut instinct.

"We have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things."  Good line.

Paul has sent Timothy ahead of him to try and correct a few matters.

"Shun immorality."  Notice, "shun" rather than condemn it.  Although even that is another point that opposes Jesus's teachings in the gospels, where he openly associates with sinners.

"We know...'there is no God but one'" sounds like a template to the later central pillar of Islam.

"If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you."  This is an example of what he was thinking in the opening line.  The apostles as outlined in Acts were those who witnessed the resurrected Jesus and had followed him his whole ministry.  Paul clearly doesn't fit the latter objective, but it's incredibly hard to argue that he didn't become one of the leading witnesses.

Barnabas is referenced.  Surprisingly, he doesn't turn up too often, despite his prominence in relation to Paul in Acts.

Paul expounds on the idea that a perfect Christian lives in imitation of Christ.  The later Thomas a Kempis writes a famous Christian work based on this concept.

One of the famous lines from Paul's letters: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways."

Paul discusses how Jesus died and came back, and how Peter experienced this, and then James experienced it (unclear as to which one, but probably the ambiguous one from Acts), and then Paul himself.  He circles back to the Adam argument.

Ephesus and Galatia are referenced.

The letter is also an admonishment to bad behavior among the Corinthians.

Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians references Timothy right from the start.  It discusses recent troubles Paul has experienced.  He feels bad about his last visit.  In fact, this whole letter is also a way of him apologizing for the tone of the last letter.

He speaks of Moses and the Old Testament as a veil that Jesus lifted, another clever argument on his part.  He calls Jesus an act of reconciliation (which ties back in with Adam).

Titus is referenced for the first time.

Paul admits that Corinth has been an excellent example for the cause.  He talks his own biographical material (not for the last time).

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Acts of the Apostles 1-28

At the beginning of Acts of the Apostles, which tradition links (as Acts does itself) to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is still part of the narrative.  Acts says he was with the apostles for 40 days.  Perhaps inevitably, John the Baptist is referenced.  The ascension occurs, as it did in Luke as well.

The apostles are listed (Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the Lesser, Simon, and Judas), and Mary, Jesus's mother, as well as 120 additional (or perhaps including) followers, among those left behind.  They are described in their new charge as witnesses to the resurrection.  Since the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the apostles elect a new twelfth member, Matthias, who otherwise is never mentioned again.  The descent of the Holy Spirit (I didn't mention this third member of the Holy Trinity previously, who otherwise is referenced in the gospels, rest assured) occurs, giving the apostles the ability to speak foreign languages without actually having learned them.

Moses, Joel, and David are invoked in the early preaching, where people are called to repent.  Peter and John are most routinely singled out in the early part of Acts.  They cure a cripple.  The religious authorities arrest them, are baffled by the fact that they're representing a man who was executed, and try to stop all this continuing talk of Jesus.

The faithful kind of turn into a hippy commune, sharing the wealth as it were in order to get by.  There's a curious episode where a couple who sells their possessions and is supposed to, like everyone else, give the proceeds to the group instead holds a portion of it back.  When this is discovered, they separately drop dead.

Peter and John are arrested again, and this occasions the first time in Acts where someone is freed by an angel.  They immediately return to preaching.  They're brought right back.  At this point, Acts references incidents that are supposed to be similar, including men named Theudas and Judas the Galilean, whose similar attempts at mass revolutions failed.  Peter and John are released on the chance that their human plans will similarly fail, although if they succeed it possibly really is the will of God.  (Although this is the only time any of them get off that easy.)

Stephen is selected among a small group of evangelists for a special mission.  When he reaches his fateful event, he retells biblical history from Abraham to Solomon.  Most interestingly, he interprets Moses as a blatantly Christian figure, very much in the mold of Jesus, a prophet rejected in his own time.  Nothing he says stretches the truth, actually.  Really a brilliant little sermon.  In this corollary, John the Baptist becomes the Aaron figure.  When he reaches Solomon, Stephen rightly points out that although at this point the temple entered Jewish tradition, God never really wanted a single dwelling place to begin with.  The religious authorities are angry that he pointed out how they always rejected the prophets who spoke of the messiah in the past, even though they came to believe in them, but still ended up rejecting the messiah anyway.  He then becomes the first martyr.  Paul, initially referred to as Saul, is witness to and complicit in the deed.

A Philip who could be the apostle or the one from the group Stephen was a part of preaches among the Samaritans.  This ambiguity is heightened when a Philip is referenced later and specifically linked to the Stephen group.  Either way, the Philip at this point challenges a local charlatan, and is later backed up by the team of Peter and John, who end up staying for a while to preach.  Philip then converts an Ethiopian by helping him understand and interpret Isaiah.

Paul is converted through his famous mystical experience on the road to Damascus.  Here he is blinded in a bright light and speaks with Jesus himself.  He later recounts the incident twice.  He almost immediately becomes a target of the Jews.

Peter cures a paralyzed man.  He resurrects a disciple named Tabitha.  A centurion named Cornelius receives a visit from an angel.  Peter receives a vision that leads him to Cornelius.  It's said to be the incident that convinces Peter to accept ministry to the Gentiles.

Barnabas starts working with Paul.  They preach for a whole year in Antioch.  The disciples become officially known as Christians.

Herod begins a persecution, executing John's brother James.  He also arrests Peter, who escapes thanks to an angel.

Another piece of supposition here in a new disciple referred to as Mark possibly being the author of the Gospel of Mark.  He plays no huge role, however, and actually later becomes a sticking point between Barnabas and Paul.  For the moment, however, all three travel together, and it's this point where Paul is officially referred to only as such.  John travels with them for a time.  Paul explains biblical history from Moses to David in an effort to introduce Jesus.  He also references John the Baptist.  There's no reason to reference John the Baptist in Acts unless his reputation really still was inordinate.  Perhaps for that reason, Acts also has him explain that he is not himself the messiah.  Paul then explains how and why Jesus died and how he came back.  Perhaps because they're not always hugely successful, Paul and Barnabas move around a lot from place to place.

Paul cures a cripple.  This sparks another curious development.  Based on this miracle, the locals get a little carried away.  They declare Barnabas to be Zeus and Paul to be Hermes and attempt to worship them.  Neither is amused, of course, by this development.  (Although it certainly sheds light on how people viewed Zeus and Hermes at the time.  From a modern perspective, it would certainly seem that if either of these two were to perform an act of divine intervention, it would be Zeus.  Acts explains it to be Hermes because Paul is the spokesperson, which would mean that Zeus at this point is expected to be the figure in the background, all-powerful but uninvolved, whereas trusty messenger Hermes is free to do as he likes, which certainly squares with classical mythology, but still.  At least he isn't making any demigod babies.)

Paul ends up getting stoned (in the traditional sense) and presumed dead, but afterward seems fine.  Paul and Barnabas start dealing with contradictory messages from other evangelists.  At an assembly to help streamline matters, Peter agrees with what they're saying, while James has caveats.  It's not clear if this James is James the Lesser, one of the apostles.  Reza Aslan in Zealot posits that it's Jesus's brother.  Which admittedly would not be a hugely favorable interpretation to mainstream Christianity, certainly among Catholics, given that Mary was said to be a virgin and thus Jesus an only child.  To Aslan's interpretation, this brother of Jesus would have become a member of the early Church after the crucifixion, become at that point highly motivated to carry on his brother's legacy.

A letter from Paul and Barnabas is quoted.  Since we know Paul sent plenty of letters, because the remaining New Testament is made up almost exclusively of them, which are in fact the earliest extant material from it, this is definitely appropriate material for Acts.

It's at this point that Paul and Barnabas have a difference of opinion concerning Mark.  Barnabas sides with Mark.  So they pair off.  Paul carries on with Silas, and subsequently meets Timothy, to whom two of the later letters in the New Testament are written.

Interestingly, Philippi (as in the later Letter to the Philippians) is located in Macedonia.  This is notable to me in relation to Alexander the Great, whom you'll remember was referenced in First Book of Maccabees.  Here Paul performs an exorcism.  But it's another acts that spectacularly backfires on him.  He and Silas are beaten as a result.  They're imprisoned but miraculously freed.  Because they're both Roman citizens, Paul and Silas actually receive an apology.  Then they visit the Thessalonians (also recipients of a later New Testament letter).  When they visit Athens, they're interviewed by philosophers from the Epicurean and Stoic traditions.  Epicureans in particular would have had a problem with Christian theology centered on the miraculous event of the resurrection.  Stoics would have had an easier time of it.  Acts in fact says some of them are convinced, and that would probably have been the Stoics.  Paul cleverly uses a local altar dedicated to "an unknown god" in his ministry here.  He then visits the Corinthians (later recipients of a New Testament letter as well).

Roman emperor Claudius is referenced a few times in Acts.  At this point it's because he's expelled the Jews from Rome.

Silas and Timothy meet back up with Paul.  They'd stayed behind in Macedonia.  Paul officially rejects the Jews in favor of the Gentiles.  He stays in Corinth for a little over a year.  He visits the Ephesians next (subjects of another New Testament letter), then Galatians (also subjects of a New Testament letter).  A man in Ephesus speaks about Jesus, but apparently knows more about John the Baptist (which seems about right).  This occasions for Paul to go back and correct him.  He teaches in the hall of Tyrannus for two years.  (In Star Wars lore, Count Dooku was secretly Darth Tyranus, if that interests you.)

A demon rejects some Jewish exorcists who attempt to mockingly invoke Jesus.

The Greek goddess Artemis is referenced, and her worshippers work themselves into a tizzy.

By this point, Luke has entered the scene, although he never references himself directly but rather in "we" statements.

Even though he knows it's dangerous, Paul becomes intent on going to Jerusalem.  Once there, he meets with James (presumably the same ambiguous one as before) and the elders.  He's seized by angry Jews who try and kill him.  He entreats a nameless Egyptian who had led a revolt of thousands to help him.  (As the final reference to Egypt in the Bible, it is appropriately epic.)  He explains his origins to the angry crowd, which doesn't help him at all.  It's only the fact of his Roman citizenship that saves Paul from a scourging.  He speaks before the religious authorities (the usual Sadducees and Pharisees of the gospels, the latter of whom he was previously a member; these two groups are Jews who believe different things, much like, say, Christians and Protestants, or Sunnis and Shiites), who end up divided over him.  A plot arises to assassinate him, which only the fact of his Roman citizenship once again saves him from.

Paul, by the way, calls Christianity the Way.

His standing trial reads very comparably to Jesus's similar experience, except of course for the ending.

The governor Felix is sympathetic to a point, which leads to Paul remaining in prison rather than some other fate.  Felix is succeeded by Festus, at which point Paul is brought before Agrippa, to whom he again explains his faith journey.  Festus calls Paul crazy, and Agrippa jokes that Paul is trying to convert him to Christianity.  He'd set Paul free if he could, but Paul has requested an audience with the Roman emperor.  So Paul is set on a circuitous journey to Rome, at which point Acts begins to read like an adventure story straight out of Melville.  The book ends with Paul having stayed in Rome two years preaching.