Sunday, February 28, 2010

Matthew 2: 1-12

In Matthew 2:1-12, Jesus has been born and the magi are looking for him. Even though there's a large star that guides them, they drop by Herod's palace to ask him if he's heard of the baby. This story seems to establish that the importance of Jesus is acknowledged by 1) a star 2) three wise men who march in and out of history. It also is a way to let us know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, thereby fulfilling another Old Testament prophecy, this time from the book of Micah. It also sets us up for the manifestation of Herod's fear and jealousy when he learns that a new king has been born.

What interests me about Matthew 2:1-12 is the mythology that has arisen over these few verses. Some of that mythology is expressed in song. For example, in We Three Kings, the wise men are not only given names, the verses express the (made-up) meaning behind the gifts they give. Melchior gives gold to show that Jesus is a king forever; Gaspar gives frankincense because it shows his deity; and Balthazar gives myrrh to represent the tomb where Jesus is sealed after his crucifixion. In the last verse of the carol, Jesus arises. Those names aren't mentioned in the Bible and are part of a later tradition.* According to the Oxford Book of Christmas Carols, We Three Kings was written by Dr. J.H. Hopkins, a U.S. minister, around 1857.

I grew up in an independent Christian Church, an inheritor of the Stone Campbell Restoration Movement, where we were taught to base our beliefs only on what it says in the Bible; yet we sang this decidedly unbiblical song with names derived from Catholic tradition. That's what Christianity is like today--a hodgepodge of scripture, interpretation, legend, tradition, and nonsense.

*The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent has a lengthy and somewhat interesting discussion about the magi.


I found a new blog today where the blogger asked "Why do we have to hide faith?"

Since I work at a school where seemingly no one hides their faith, but I am forced to hide my atheism, the question seems silly. I wish that more of my colleagues would hide their faith. At graduation last year, students led two prayers. The act meant something to everyone in the audience. To me, it meant that I was part of an oppressed, invisible minority. To them, it was probably profoundly meaningful in some way.

Jesus said in Matthew 6 that you're not supposed to be out there praying on street corners; prayer should be private. If you're a Christian, how could you possibly think it was right to pray at secular festivals such as graduations and football games? Why would you consider it necessary to proclaim your faith to nonbelievers.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Matthew 1:1-24

Ah, yes, the begats. In the New International version, "Abraham begat Isaac" becomes the prosaic "Abraham was the father of Isaac."

I remember what they taught us in Sunday School about Matthew 1:1-17. It was designed to prove that Jesus was the Messiah because of a prophecy Samuel made about the Messiah being a descendant of David. Nah, I'm not going to look up the passage in Samuel. You can do that if you like. We were taught about the significance of the fourteen generations described in verse 17: "Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ." Since I've been searching for my lost great-grandmother for the last forty-some years, I've found it difficult to believe that they could lay out all those generations without making a mistake. The complete genealogy is not relevant to me. With that many generations, they could have filled in gaps with any names. Who could refute it?

Then the passage loses me completely when they continue with verses 18-24 to explain that Joseph isn't Jesus's biological father. Since Joseph isn't Jesus's father, why should I care about his genealogy? It has nothing to do with Jesus.

An angel shows up in Joseph's dream and explains that Jesus was the product of the Holy Spirit getting it on with Mary. The angel convinces Joseph to marry Mary even though she isn't pregnant with his child. Joseph believes the angel's story that this baby is Immanuel. He sticks by her, and doesn't have sex with her until after Jesus is born. The King James version says "he knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son" and the New International is equally obscure, saying "he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son."

Why bother mentioning her virginity? The birth is a miracle. This isn't an ordinary baby. In Sunday School they probably mentioned another prophecy that the virgin birth fulfills.

Thus, I've only begun to re-read the New Testament, and Matthew 1:1-24 has already left me in the dust. First, they list the complete genealogy of an insignificant guy named Joseph. Yet, somehow someone knows that he is descended from David. Then they negate the important of the genealogy because Jesus isn't Joseph's biological child. To top it off, they add a story of a baby that wasn't conceived via messy insemination, and of an unusual step-dad who sticks by a woman 2010 years ago (roughly) because he's told by an angel in a dream that this baby is Immanuel.

Exactly what portion of Matthew 1:1-24 is believable? None of it. Then why do you expect me to believe?

Re-reading the New Testament

I'm extremely fond of the Old Testament--all those gory battles, the vengeful God, the lists of rules and complex genealogy--but I'm going to start with the New Testament. My favorite Bible version has always been the King James. Nearly any verse in the Bible is more beautiful to me in King James English--perhaps less intelligible, but definitely more beautiful.

For example, here is Leviticus 14:17 from the King James version:

14: And if the burnt sacrifice for his offering to the Lord be of fowls, then he shall bring his offering of turledoves, or of young pigeons. 15: And the priest shall bring it unto the altar, and wring off his head, and burn it on the altar; and the blood thereof shall be wrung out at the side of the altar 16: And he shall pluck away his crop with his feathers, and cast it beside the altar on the east part, by the place of the ashes 17: And he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder: and the priest shall burn it upon the altar, upon the wood that is upon the fire: it is a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the Lord.

Here is the far less magical, less poetic, and less dramatic New International Version:

14 " 'If the offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, he is to offer a dove or a young pigeon. 15 The priest shall bring it to the altar, wring off the head and burn it on the altar; its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. 16 He is to remove the crop with its contents and throw it to the east side of the altar, where the ashes are. 17 He shall tear it open by the wings, not severing it completely, and then the priest shall burn it on the wood that is on the fire on the altar. It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, an aroma pleasing to the LORD.

Where is the poetry in "He shall tear it open by the wings, not severing it completely"? I much prefer "And he shall cleave it with the wings thereof, but shall not divide it asunder." It's especially effective if you read it aloud.

Even though I love the Old Testament more than the New and the King James version better than any other, I'm going to ignore those preferences and re-read the New Testament first in the New International version of the Bible. Why? I read the Old Testament more often. I don't want the beauty of the language to interfere with my understanding.

The Bible helped make me an atheist

There's an excellent chance that if I'd lived in an earlier time or if I'd been raised in a different denomination, I wouldn't be an atheist. In an earlier time, say, before Gutenberg's invention, I wouldn't have read the Bible. I would have relied on priestly interpretations, and I might have bought the story unanalytically. In a different denomination, where Bible study and Bible reading weren't considered as important or emphasized as highly, again, I wouldn't have read the Bible as many times, and thus I might have been able to have faith.

Since Bible reading helped me becoming an atheist, it seems like a good idea to periodically revisit it. I can now do that in a public forum. Who might be interested? Perhaps other atheists; perhaps religious people who want to convert atheists; maybe just my friends; maybe just me.