Saturday, January 31, 2009

Apostleship - A Family Affair?

Sometimes I amuse myself by imagining Jesus and the Apostles in situations they might see if they grew up in the America that I know and love. When I was a kid one of the things I did was run around in knee high grass stuffing grasshoppers in a glass jar, so I imagined James and John (the Apostle) headed home with a clay pot full of grasshoppers and James (in his wisdom) warned his younger brother to, "Keep them away from John [the Baptist]. He'll eat anything!"
This all comes to mind because of the familial relationships the significant figures of Christianity had to each other and to Jesus. Of course everyone knows John the Baptist was the son of the aunt of Mary. James the Elder and John the Apostle were brothers who's mother was the sister of Mary (which also sheds some light on the incident of Jesus leaving Mary under John's care at the foot of the cross). Peter and Andrew were the sons of Zebedee who was related to Joseph. Joseph of Aramethea was, allegedly, the great uncle of Mary. According to Eusebius, Jude was the brother of Jesus. This must have been a step brother which has been speculated by a few people to be from Joseph who was a widower before he married Mary. James the Younger may also have been a step brother, but that is in dispute among scholars. Of course not all the apostles were related to Jesus. Judas and Matthew definately had no blood relation of any notability, but that is not to say they never knew each other.
Imagine Jesus and the Apostles at Thanksgiving Day dinner, all at the kids' table and Jesus says, "What are people saying this gravy is made of?" They said in reply, "Beef, others chicken, still others say it is made of power." And he asked them, "But what do you say it is?" Peter said to him in reply, "It is turkey gravy." And he answered, "Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah, for this has not been revealed to you by man...your mother told you!" These things must make one wonder about Jesus' interactions with the future Apostles as children. Did the kids all know where Jesus was when Mary and Joseph looked for him for three days in Jerusalem? In all the sermons I ever heard on the baptism of the Lord I was always given the impression that John had never met Jesus before, but this seems unreasonable in light of their relationship as cousins. It seems that they should have spent a lot of time together as children and when the Gospel accounts of the Baptism are read there is no indication of unfamiliarity, quite the contrary, in fact they appear to know each other well.
This all makes fully half of the Apostles step brothers or first cousins of Jesus, and it tends to make me wonder if Jesus was close childhood friends with all the Apostles. While it may be interesting to think about we will not know for certain any time on this side of the Jordan.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Non-Mosaic Torah

“From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.” Of course God was not lying to Adam. The price for sin is blood. When Paul said, “According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness,” he was not presenting new information to the Jews, he was simply emphasizing what they already knew to be true. Getting there was a long road though. The first time God purified the world was in Noah’s Flood. Shortly after Noah’s flood God brought Abram into the world and promised him to make a great nation of him because of his faith. Three generations later He saved Abraham’s family from starvation by placing one of the children in a position of authority in Egypt, where he had knowledge of the coming famine and the prudence and position to prepare for it. Four hundred years later the Israelites needed salvation from their gracious hosts of old. With the night of the Passover, the political nation of Israel was born and the people who had found God’s favor found themselves being brought to the foot of Mount Sinai, where they were to receive the Law of Moses and a formal system of restitution and forgiveness.

For the first time in history man and God had an opportunity to share in a bond never experienced on Earth outside the Garden of Eden – that of mans’ sins covered over in the blood of restitution. This was very specific and many requirements had to have been met in order for the sacrifice to be a valid offering to God. The sacrifices had to be in the right place, performed by the right people with the right animals. The priests had to be ordained ministers and wear the right clothes. God’s decision on who were to fulfill all these “rights” rested on Abraham’s faithfulness. The unique relationship the Israelites shared with the Lord through the Law bore many fruits. It put them in a place of moral, spiritual, physical and mental superiority to the rest of the world. This was God’s family. They were His people and it was the Law that was the vehicle that brought them to this exalted position. Without the opportunity to stand before God without the burden of sin on their persons, they would not have been able to achieve anything more than mediocrity.

This was the stage the Christ stepped out onto. In the fullness of time, God come down from Heaven and made His dwelling among us. If Jesus is truly the manifestation of God then Mary is the personification of the perfect Jewish society, but that is also a different discussion. Because the blood of goats and lambs did not remove the stain of sin and completely restore man to God, a better sacrifice was called for. God wanted a better relationship, one made perfect. While the Law was perfect, the sacrifice did nothing more than cover the sins of the people and they had to make the same sacrifice over and over again. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world,” is what Jesus told His disciples. With the backdrop of salvation history, the world was ready to move on to the perfection of the person and work of Christ Jesus the Lord through the framework given to the Israelites in the Law. This would be a valid sacrifice made in the right place, by the right people who wore the right clothes in a perfect framework for the forgiveness of sins once and for all.

If the Torah is not an historical set of documents that was not written by Moses but was written by several authors and redactors over the course of four hundred years (or so) finally finding completion a thousand years after the death of Moses, as the skeptical, liberal critics suggest, the religion of the Hebrews is nothing more than any pagan religion coming out of the Ancient Orient and it holds no more weight with God than any of the contemporary religions of its day.
The Documentary Theory asserts that four major documents make up the Torah as we know it today, namely the Elohist and the Yahwist Documents which were written to explain the history of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms respectively which were married by the Deuteronomic Code and later completed by the Priestly Code which was devised by the priesthood to consolidate power and finally completing the first five books of the Bible. Many even deny the actual existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as historical figures but flippantly explain them away as national myth. This all has very serious consequences for the faithful believer of Judaism and Christianity because it presupposes a piecemeal compilation of the Law of Moses under which the restitution of sins is obtained. If this was not given to Moses on Mount Sinai in its entirety then the claim that it is from God is false! That would mean it does not truly cover mans’ sin in any way shape or form. How then is it different than the cult worship of Inanna in Ancient Sumer? How is it different than the worship of Osiris in Egypt, Dionysius in Greece or Apollo in Rome?

The difference between the ancient religion given to Moses and the surrounding pagan cults is exactly that is was supposed to have been given by the true and living God. How is this religion different if the practice of Temple worship was never instituted in Jerusalem until 621 BC?! if monotheism was never part of Judaism until the Babylonian Exile?! The pillar that holds up the structure of the practice of the religion given to Moses is its ability to restore man’s relationship to God. It allows man to stand before God with his sins covered in the blood of restitution. No other religion has that capability. There is no washing away of sins without a complete law coming down from Mount Sinai in the hands of Moses. Suppose there were no Tabernacle, no Ark of the Covenant and no Lavitical Priesthood upon Israel’s exit from bondage in Egypt. Suppose there were no Commandments and no prescribed liturgical practice by which the Hebrews were to live. That would mean God had no direct intervention in the course of human events, that He had no desire to restore man to Himself and that the world Jesus was born into was completely devoid of religious validity in the eyes of God.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Apologetics Study Bible

For my birthday my parents gave me The Apologetics Study Bible, which I have grown to love and recommend for everyone. It is put together by the Southern Baptists rather than the Catholics but the scholarship is the highest quality. The thing that impressed me the most was the commentary.

During the Enlightenment a few ideas were proposed that have slowly begun to dominate Bible scholarship which are just false (and sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly deny the divinity of Christ). One example is Spinoza. In his Treatise on Religion and the State he writes:
"Sober and literal statements do not move the soul; if Moses had said that it was merely the East wind (as we gather from a later passage) that cleared a path for them through the Red Sea, it would have made little impression on the minds of the masses he was leading....But when interpreted literally, it is full of errors, contradictions, and obvious impossibilities-as that the Pentateuch was written by Moses."

This claim is contradicted by Jesus when he was on the road to Emmaus. He began His explanation of the crucifixion saying, "Beginning with Moses and all the prophets..." He also asserts several times in the Gospels directly that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. I think His testimony is a little more dependable than a disaffected and misguided philosopher who was excommunicated from his congregation for heresy (which Spinoza was). In "Nature and God" Spinoza represents our "problem of evil" as our struggle to reconcile the evil of the world with the goodness of God and concludes that good and bad are mere human inventions which are not relative to God but our own individual tastes and desires. Couple that with his later statement in the same piece of work that "neither intellect nor will pertains to the nature of God." That all sounds like prime time moral relativism to me, but his thoughts and ideas have crept into Christian theology, so much so that it is taken as a matter of fact by so many "Bible scholars" now. I have begun to hear this garbage come out of the mouths of priests almost every time they speak about the Pentateuch.

Of course the first thing I read was the commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (I wrote a defense of the traditional view of it's authorship here) and was delighted to see both sides of the story presented. The authors of the commentary on the Gospel of Mark seem to have more of an open mind than any other Biblical scholars I have heard or read, other than Father Marconi (an historical documentarian and Dominican priest who visited Anchorage and gave several classes on the Apostles John and Paul). In fact Fr. Marconi is the only Catholic priest I have ever heard give more than the biased, one-sided, liberal view of the "Q" document which is part of a theory that alleges Matthew, Mark and Luke came from a "source" document written by an unknown author who may or may not have been an Apostle. My question is, why does a church which claims to be Apostolic in nature resort to an unknown author of the most basic texts of our religion when we have reliable documentation that asserts the same texts to be written by those who we claim founded our church? The idea of the "Q" Document also came out of the Enlightenment period from the German Skeptics.

Apart from the commentaries on the books of the Bible that present a traditional (and in my humble opinion a correct) view of the books of the Bible there are articles dispersed throughout the Bible that address specific questions such as the relationship of Christianity to other religions, the reliability of the Bible account and archaeological evidence that support the claims of the Bible. One article in particular asks the question "Is Evolution fact or fantasy?" The conclusion is that the part of evolution that is true is not very interesting and the part that is interesting is not very true. This has been my view ever since I heard of Darwinian Evolution, so of course I was delighted to see another write such a view. There are brief biological outlines of prominent Christian Apologists as well as "Twisted Scripture" excerpts, which describe how various religious movements have erroneously interpreted Holy Scripture throughout the Christian Era. My only beef with it is that it leaves out the Apocrypha (which could only be expected seeing as to who put the edition together). Over all the Apologetics Study Bible is an excellent Bible and I recommend it for everyone.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


Christian mysticism comes to us in the writings of the saints. It is the achievement of union with Almighty God, and its fruit is prayer and the manifestation of God to the World through His saints.

…Presently the window opened, and Brother Matthew looked out between the bars, with his clear eyes and graying beard.
“Hullo Brother,” I said.
He recognized me, glanced at the suitcase, and said, “This time you are here to stay?”
“Yes, Brother, if you will pray for me,” I said.
Brother nodded and raised his hand to close the window. “That’s what I’ve been doing,” he said, “praying for you.”…
…Father Joachim, the guest master, came out of the door of the monastery and crossed the garden with his hands under his scapular and his eyes fixed on the cement walk. He only raised them when he was near me, and then he grinned.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said.
I did not give him the chance to ask if I had come to stay. I said: “Yes, Father, this time I want to be a novice – if I can.”
-Thomas Merton, Seven Story Mountain.

I could not stop laughing as I read about Thomas Merton’s experience entering the monastery and his novitiate. He felt a sense of victory over having met the end of conversation. He described the silence as something that pervades everything, including the stones that make up the buildings. Merton described a year in which a tremendously large number of vocations flooded the novitiate. One of the questions that occurred to him regarding some of the novices was whether they had experienced the spiritual desert too soon and too intensely, whether or not they would have stayed in the monastery had they been better prepared to go through the desert?

There was a quote I heard which I was always opposed to until I was able to put it in context with the spiritual desert. “Pain is the touchstone of all spiritual growth.” What Merton called the spiritual desert has also been called the dark night by St. John of the Cross. It is an emptiness, almost like a sadness or a desolation, but it is a movement of the soul rather than an emotion. It is also a natural progression in everyone’s spiritual life. God seduces us. He entices us with the things we love and yearn for. We are sent consolation, joy and elation, again as movements of the soul rather than emotions. In my own life it has been in solitude, silence and prayer that joy and elation has been experienced, as well as in the active life, during liturgical practice (which I consider semi-active, semi-contemplative), in bringing Holy Communion to shut-ins and the incarcerated, in speaking with the wounded, in silence with the wounded and in the company of the dying and their families. After the seduction comes the let-down, the desert, the dark night. The desert may come upon us at our invitation or at God’s command.

St. John divides the dark night of the soul into three groups, the dark nights of the senses, of faith, and of the will/memory. The night of the senses is the onset of spiritual growth. It is the purification of the soul by the deprivation of worldly things for the pursuit of Divine union. St. John described our senses as the windows the soul uses to peer out at the world. When we empty ourselves of the desires of the senses we are able to tread the path towards union with God.

Within the night of the senses we are able to enter further into the night of faith. This night is darker than the night of the senses. It is an emptying, or a resignation and detachment of our understanding, perception, feelings and imaginings for the sake of Divine union. This complete resignation and detachment allows God free reign within the soul and He illuminates it with faith. The result of the dark night of faith results in the purging, or putting to death, the understanding, the abandonment of the intellect, and the grounding of the soul in faith. Our memory is our knowledge formed by the senses. As we reduce our memory, God is able to perfect our nature and transform it. A will transformed for the sake of charity is able to perform works of faith which gain great merit. The verse that struck me was, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

This all seems like a grand plan when one invites it, but sometimes it catches us unaware. I went for about two and a half months in the desert one time. It seemed as though the only pleasure I could find was in choir practice for two hours every Thursday night. Even Mass on Sunday morning left me feeling empty. It wasn’t the first time I had been through the desert. I was well aware of the writings of St. John and Merton. That brought no consolation though. I felt abandoned by God. I knew I wasn’t. The movements of my soul deceived my emotions and all I could do was struggle through to the end. There is only one time in my whole life I ever remember inviting the dark night. It didn’t come, not when I wanted it to anyway.

The point of it is that I was properly prepared for the dark night. When it came, my soul was grounded in faith. Intellectually, I knew what my emotions told me was a lie, but that did not diminish the feelings of isolation from God. If I were any less prepared, it would have been easy to harden my heart and move towards a position of unbelief. Could I end up as an atheist or agnostic? Is that how people lose their faith?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Happy Pascha

Happy Pascha to all our Eastern brothers and sisters! The Lord is risen!

The Gospel of Matthew

A vein of theology infecting the Church today makes an attempt to discern who the "real" authors of the Gospels were and when they wrote. One of the claims is that the Gospel of Matthew, long considered to be the first Gospel (by Matthew, hence the name), was actually written after 70 AD by an author who was not a disciple of Jesus. This claim is based on the facts that Matthew and Mark are so similar to each other that one must have been copied from the other and the inclusion of the predicted destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the Gospel of Matthew which did occur in 70 AD.

Papias, bishop of Heirapolis, who was a student of the Apostle John and a companion of Polycarp (also a student of John), wrote that Matthew was the first to record a Gospel in writing, which he did for the Israelites in the Hebrew language. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, wrote "Against Heresies" at the end of the Second Century. To the best of my knowledge that has never been disputed. In it he said:
Matthew published his gospel among the Hebrews in their own tongue, when Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the church there. After their departure Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down to us in writing the substance of Peter's preaching. Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the gospel preached by his teacher. Then John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned on his breast, himself produced his gospel, while he was living at Ephesus in Asia.

There is a lot of information we can glean about the dating of the Gospels from this writing. Peter and Paul were both martyred in 67, so we know that Matthew wrote his gospel before that date. Mark wrote his gospel after that year because the people of Rome loved Peter so much they insisted Mark record his teachings. It is plausible that Mark and Luke were writing their Gospels at the same time. John wrote his gospel sometime before 74 because that is when he left Ephesus. We must be able to assume the accuracy of Ireneaus's statements because of his proximity to the events. If one should question his accuracy by virtue of being recorded some one and a quarter century later, I will offer the example of Emily Dickenson as a response. She did not publish more than a dozen of her poems during her own life time, but today (122 years after her death), we know with strong authority that she wrote the poems generally credited to her based on our proximity to the event and the witness of persons close to her.

First let's establish the authority of the Epistle to the Romans. It is universally accepted without question that Paul is the author of this epistle. Eusebius, in "The History of the Church" dates Paul's execution to 67 AD, which is generally accepted as accurate. Paul makes four clear references to the Gospel of Matthew in his Epistle to the Romans. In Romans 9:5 Paul wrote "...theirs (the Israelites) the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Messiah." This statement is a reference to Matthew's genealogy of Jesus found in 1:1-16. Again, Romans 12:14 finds Paul exhorting the faithful to "Bless those who persecute, bless and do not curse them." This is exactly what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5:38-48. In Romans Chapter Two Paul entreats Christians to abstain from judgment of others and follow the path of a true disciple in the same manner Jesus did in the end of the Sermon on the Mount (7:1-5, 21-23). This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it suffices to present the argument that the Gospel according to Matthew was written before the year 67, not after the year 70.

Philo was a Jewish philosopher from the city of Alexandria. Although he was trained in the Greek tradition, his emphasis was on the Jewish canon of Holy Scripture. Born in 20 BC he died in 50 AD. This is all significant to Matthew's Gospel because of one of the things Philo observed about the church in Alexandria:
They read the sacred scriptures, and study their ancestral wisdom philosophically, allegorizing it, since they regard the literal sense as symbolic of a hidden reality revealed in figures. They posses also short works by early writers, the founders of their sect, who left many specimens of the allegorical method, which they take as their models, following the system on which their predecessors worked.

Paul’s writings are universally given dates of authorship after the death of Philo, so we can exclude any of his writings from those Philo mentions. The Letter of James is concerned almost exclusively with moral conduct, not with allegorical interpretation, so it, likewise, may be excluded. 1 & 2 Peter are dated to the mid Sixties, also too late. All three of John's letters are given a date in the late First Century along with Jude. The Revelation to St. John is well known to be from the Apostle John while exiled on the Island of Patmos, so it may also be excluded from consideration of what Philo was referring to. That leaves us with the Gospel of Matthew, which fills the bill exactly, written by a founder of the sect with many specimens of allegorical interpretation!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Swimming the Tiber II

I remember the disappointment I felt with the news that nothing was going to happen until September. There was another devout Catholic at work. He was about ten years older than me and very knowledgeable about the Church. He devoted his college years to learning Church history (other than his college studies, which only included engineering) and encouraged me to read a lot. He always asked if the books I read were published by Ignatius Press. I didn’t understand why that was so important to him, but I do now. I eventually asked him to sponsor me in my confirmation, which he was delighted to do. All summer I eagerly awaited the beginning of RCIA. As usual, I loved it. I loved everything about being Catholic, except that all the people who ran RCIA kept saying that we would become Catholic on Easter. Didn’t they understand? I became Roman Catholic on the day I visited Our Lady of Las Vegas.

My study of the Church began with the Saints. St Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross, St. Thomas Merton and the like filled my book shelves. Prayer was an ongoing search for me. I looked everywhere I knew where to. Finally going on a silent retreat at a Carmelite retreat house, I was introduced to the Liturgy of the Hours. I knew instantly that was what I was searching for. I took an interest in the different religious orders and their founders. The realization that history is not about places and dates eventually dawned on me. It is about people. I love people. Since then I have gobbled up history books and another realization came. History is about God. The primary purpose for learning history is to learn the Divine waltz we are dancing, to look back and try to see how God seduces us, how He longs for us and what He does to approach us. How could I have missed that all those years growing up?

My Baptist theology had deep roots though. My complete submission took a full six years, a little at a time, always a little more to go to fully embrace the traditional teachings. I ended up taking the advice of my sponsor and jumped in with both feet on learning Church history. The more I learned, the more I loved it and the more I was able to give myself to the Church. I quickly began to attend Mass at 6:00 PM every Tuesday at St. Joe’s. I was on fire! As soon as I could I became a lector and a Eucharistic minister. For the next three years I helped in RCIA and I helped start a Bible study at St. Francis. For a while I was at church every day of the week, I just couldn’t get enough of it. My primary purpose for becoming a Eucharistic minister was to bring the Eucharist to shut-ins. I wanted to bring it to hospitals, but there were none in my parish bounds, so I took Holy Communion to a couple total care and partial care centers. Eventually I began to bring Holy Communion to the county pokey too, which I found to be my favorite form of service. Our Lady held Mass every morning at 6:30 so I added Fridays to my Mass schedule. A little at a time I began to add more days until I was going to Mass six days a week. I also moved across town, which I used as an excuse to begin going to Mass at St. Joe’s on Sundays. It truly was an excuse because then I had to drive even further to get to church Sunday morning than I would have if I had stayed in St. Francis. I eventually joined the choir at St. Joe’s and took on service at the Shrine of the Most Holy Redeemer (which is on the Las Vegas Strip).

Right after I moved and starting going to St. Joe’s Parish I also became interested in Greek Orthodoxy. On several Sundays I attended both a Catholic Mass and the Divine Liturgy at St. John Greek Orthodox Church (which ended just in time to zip over to the noon Mass at St. Joe’s). The Eastern services were so mystifying! I was also excited to see all the women wearing nice dresses or skirts and all the men wore suits with ties (a few just wore polo shirts or sweaters with jackets, but that was okay too). The vestments were so elaborate and beautiful, incense was used every Sunday, the Liturgy was sung – all of it! and no one left before the end of the service. Everyone got up and kissed the priest’s hand before leaving the sanctuary. It was very exotic! It was also very exciting. I felt transported to another age, another place. I was also learning about history. The Church Councils and the Filioque scandalized me. Having made a close friend who was just returning to the Orthodox Church (He introduced me to blogging. His site is A…Sinner, over in the blog roll) I grew more and more intoxicated with the East. He attended St. Paul’s Russian Orthodox Church on the east side of town (the side I also lived on). We spent a lot of time together and our favorite thing to talk about was the Church. I attended several Divine Liturgies at St. Paul.

After a year or two I finally decided to leave the Latin Church for the Greek. It was such an agonizing debate for me. I loved the Roman Church with every fiber of my being, but I had a tremendous pull towards the Greek Church. It didn’t help that I heard a lot of Anti-Catholic rhetoric at the time. That never affected my love for the Church, but it had a strong impact on my thinking. Maybe I would grow to love the Greek Church as much as I do the Roman, at least I made a habit of telling myself that. Then something strange happened. I felt an overwhelming urge to learn Latin! This from the same person who vehemently denounced the practice of the Roman Church of holding on to an antiquated language that no one could understand for so long. It shocked me, but I figured it was God’s way of telling me to remain in the Latin Church. That was about four years ago. My love for Catholicism has only grown and I have come to form some very definite beliefs about the Filioque (I am no longer scandalized) and the relationship between the East and the West. Reunion remains foremost in my heart. The final turning point for me was in the confessional booth. I was so tired of fighting. For the most part I was on board with the teachings of the Church, but there were just a couple key issues that I hadn’t surrendered on. Only a year previously I had surrendered on the use of birth control. That was probably the hardest to swallow because it still sticks out in my mind. I do not even remember what else I had refused to admit the Roman Catholic Church was right on and I was wrong. That was me just being obstinate.

At the time I was experiencing emotionally the hardest time in my entire life so I turned to the Church more than ever before. I was celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation every other week. Only one other person was in line that day, so I only had a short time to make an examination of conscience, so I sat down with a short list. As soon as I sat down a new article for confession came to mind and I told the priest, “I have always considered myself to be the final authority for all matters of faith and theology in my own life and I want to submit to the teachings of the Church.” Six years after that fateful day in Our Lady of Las Vegas I was finally able to give myself fully to Rome and I do not think I have ever been more liberated in my spirituality. Scott Hahn certainly got it right when he said, “Home, sweet Rome.”