Category Archives: Sunday Sermon

How do we define religion?

How do we define religion?

It’s a tricky question. The most common definition is a belief in God or gods. Of course hipster doofuses are quick to point out that Buddhism has no gods, and could constitute an atheist religion. Typically, hipster doofuses are full of ignorant bullshit, because Buddhism is overflowing with gods (And hells), they’re just not integral to the process of human attainment of Nirvana. Just ask literally any non-white Buddhist and they’ll set you straight on that. Or even just look at the little shrines in any Thai restaurant.

Just the same, assuming they were right, can you have a religion without God/gods, but just some metaphysical hoobajoobery like reincarnation?

Taking that further, can you have a religion without any metaphysical beliefs whatsoever?

If we define religion as “A series of unverifiable metaphysical beliefs that affect the way one lives their life,” which seems a reasonable definition to me, then Atheism could be considered a religion, or at the very least a quasi-religion. The obvious argument there is, “They don’t believe anything metaphysical,” but it doesn’t take any sophistry to realize that believing something doesn’t exist without proof is really no different than believing something does exist without proof. They’re both faith-based assertions, and in these cases they really do affect the way people live their lives.

This is not a new argument, nor an especially clever one, I’m just putting it out there to show how vague the definition really is. Myself, I think I lean towards the Michael Chrichton camp on the subject: That we’re all wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves as a basic survival trait. The default is God/The Supernatural, however if you get rid of that, then something else will instantly take the place, be it Communism, Environmentalism, Social Justice Warriordom, Conspiracy Theories, Bernie Sanders, Alien Abductions, Ayn Rand, Unbridled Capitalism, or whatever. These things become defacto religions, the only thing separating them is that they don’t have a metaphysical aspect.

Or do they? Ayn Rand and Communism are quite adamant about how there’s no God or anything beyond life. Both of them have meetings and are organized, and have a core set of scripture-in-all-but-name writings. One has engaged in an actual crusade (Anticrusade?) against people with differing religious views, and the other probably would if it could get away with it.


SUNDAY SERMON: And The Beast Is…

Today, we’re gonna talk about the identity of The Beast from Revelation. There’s all kinds of baroque theories about this: Some big computer, some guy – probably Jewish – that we haven’t met yet, the Roman Catholic church, as well as flash-in-the-pan paranoia: Mohammed, Napoleon, Hitler, Nixon, Reagan, Both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama have all been accused of being the Beast.
My opinion of the Bible is that it was written for the generation in which it was published. If Revelation was to make any sense, it had to makes sense for the people who read it in the late 1st century. It doesn’t make sense for me to take the opinion that it had to be translated into Latin, then English, then brought to America and left to simmer for a couple centuries before people could understand what it meant. A lot of people are of that opinion.
OK, so looking at it from a first century perspective, something becomes obvious: The book is in two parts. The first third is an elliptical and/or poetic retelling of the recent past, and the second half is about the future. IOW, the second half is what we think of when we say “Prophecy,” and the first half is there to evoke the book of Daniel, and set up the second half. This is not at all inconsistent with Old Testament Jewish prophecy which was often about the present and recent past as it was the future.
The division happens around 8:1 when it reads, “When The Lamb opened the seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
Nearly all the events prior to that can be tied to specific events in the Jewish war of 66-70 AD. I’m not going to go into a full breakdown, we can discuss that some other time. Another important thing that seems clear to me: That war lasted 3 1/2 years. 3 1/2 x 2 = 7. How long was the tribulation again? 7 years. The author (At least to my reading) pretty clearly feels the tribulation has already started (That’d be the 66-70 war) and that the Church was living in a kind of extended time out before the second half started. We’re still waiting for that second half.
Which brings us to The Beast. Jews / Christians reading/hearing Revelation would clearly have identified the Jewish War events John recounts in a spiritualized form. It wasn’t a code to them (As we so often assume) or not much of one. It was really more like an open metaphor. So, also, is the Beast.
First we’re told that The Beast had a dagger thrust, but survived. We’re also told that an image of him is created, and anyone who doesn’t worship it will be slain. He further causes all, both high and low, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand, the mark being a number that is also a name. We are expressly told that people can figure this out, which means people in the 1st century could have figured it out, which means they DID.
The number in our Bibles is 666, but the number 616 is almost as common in many early manuscripts. If it’s a typo, it’s a very common one.
Greek and Hebrew letters have numerical value, just like Latin letters do. Now, in order to do ANY business transactions, you had to get a tax stamp. This was like a notary stamp, kinda, showing that the emperor had gotten his cut of the transaction. IOW, that you’d paid your sales tax. The stamp During the period immediately before Revelation was written, the emperor was Domitian. The tax stamp during his reign in the eastern empire was in Greek,and it read:
Iota Delta [space] Kappa Alpha Iota Sigma Alpha Rho Omicron Sigma. In English, this means “14th Year of Caesars’s Reign” (Sorry for spelling those out. I can’t do greek characters on FB, alas) Now, using the Greek values for those numbers we get 14+20+1+10+200+1+100+70+200 which equals….616! Clearly at least the ‘typo’ copies are referring to the emperor Domitian.
Ok, so where’d the “666” come from, then? If you add the letter Nu – “N” – then you’ve added 50 to the equation, which gives you 666. Why would you add “N?”
Because Domitian was obsessed with his uncle Nero. He persecuted Christians just like Nero did, he re-assembled as much of Nero’s staff as possible, styled himself as much like his uncle as he could. This was so obvious, so well known, that a common nickname for him was “The Bald Nero.” Just like his uncle, he even died abruptly. In Domitian’s case, by stabbing. Assassination in 96 AD.
One day he’s at the peak of his power, oppressing and killing folks, and then: toast. This happened so fast that many people didn’t believe he was really dead, but that he was just hiding somewhere, waiting to reveal himself again for some larger purpose.
“What about the mark on the head and hand?” Metaphor. If you love money, it’s on your mind. If you merely need to use money, it’s on your hand (Most people being right handed). If you don’t use money, you’re likely gonna starve (Which is to say, if you don’t get the stamp)
That image people had to worship? The imperial statue. It was a sacred object, Domitian was regarded as a god, and was commonly addressed as “Our lord and god domitian.”
Clearly this is what Revelation is referring to: The Beast was the Emperor Domitian.
This presents an obvious problem for us Christians, as the dude has been moldering away in a tomb for more than nineteen hundred years. I suppose we have to assume he’ll be resurrected whenever the second half of the Tribulation starts, or that he’s been otherwise occulted until then. That’s really not any weirder than a lot of other theories about the Beast, if we’re honest.
But there is no doubt in my mind: It was/is Domitian.

Something that’s been bothering me about Christianity

Something that concerns me about contemporary Christianity in America:
I perceive an increasingly anti-intellectual trend. I’m not saying this to rag on the church. I’m a Christian myself (Albeit a potty-mouthed one who writes just weird, weird, weird stories that occasionally cross the line into theologically suspect areas).
The thing is that more and more of late I find us opposing things like Psychiatry, and Medicine and Science and Nuclear Power and Space Exploration and Genetically Modified Foods and realistic studies of History and so on. In essence, more and more we’re taking the hippie-shit view of things (I *SAID* I was potty-mouthed. What did you expect?). We’re more and more on the wrong side of stuff. We take the Promethean view that if we go too far with Science then God will get all vengeful on us, or we take the paranoid view that Psychiatry and Book Learnin’ are just the devil’s way of poisoning your mind.
Some years ago, the preacher in the church I’m nominally a member of gave a sermon in which he advised – insisted, really – that people on psych meds trust God and throw thaat stuff away. Now, having spent a lot of time around mentally ill people – it runs in my family, and I’m manic depressive myself – I recognize that as an incredibly wrongheaded thing to do. Much like saying “Play Russian Roulette and trust God will protect you!”
Well, no, that’s just dumb. Yeah, God healed people in the past, but He appears to have subcontracted that job out to us. We’re pretty good with these things called ‘Doctors’, and honestly it’s pretty egocentric to demand the God of the entire universe cure your flu when you could just as easily cross the street and get a vaccination at Wallgreens.
I am nominally a member there. I go rarely, usually for functions other than services. I haven’t been able to find a church I like better, and if I’m honest, I do kind of enjoy worshiping at St. Mattress of the Pillow on Sunday mornings. So, yeah, I’m lazy. I can’t blame it all on doctrine.
Still, our obsession with these things sometimes borders on the paranoid.
The Accelerated Christian Education school that my son went to for a while taught him that the sun is not nuclear. Why? Well, evidently the people who wrote that lesson couldn’t figure out why God’d need stars that last billions of years when the earth is only gonna be around for 7 or 8,000, so it must be something that’ll burn out. They cited fake evidence of it getting dimmer and smaller in recorded history. I dunno what it’s supposed to be powered by. Coal, perhaps.
Oh, and check this one out: The same curriculum said that God created the earth with a thin globe of ice completely encircling it, supported entirely by air! The ice broke, which fell to earth and caused the flood. Now firstly, that kind of structure violates the basic laws of physics, and would break up in less than a day, not however many thousand years there were from creation to the flood. Secondly, it violates the Bible itself, which says (Paraphrased) that God intended us to see the stars, which you couldn’t do through a mile of ice, no matter how clear. As to the compressed air that allegedly held this thing aloft, well, again that wouldn’t work (Physics!) but they claim that this higher oxygen pressure and protection from radiation from the non-nuclear sun is what caused people like Methuselah to live to be (nearly) 1000, and our puny short lives are because we don’t have it anymore.
Did you know that Jesus was supposed to come again in 1988? I did. I got taught that a lot in 1981. It has to do with a completely illiterate misrepresentation of a passage. And they did the math wrong, too. By a Jewish calendar it shoulda been 1987. Dopes. Oh, and NATO is the Antichrist. Or maybe it’s this Pope, I mean that next one, I mean the one after him. Nope, nope, it’s this one for sure. No foolin’! This endless – and illiterate – aggressive appetite for destruction gets tedious. I have a theory about it, but I’ve already rambled too long, so we’ll save it for another day.
The obsession with evolution: whichever side you take on it, IT IS NOT A SALVATION ISSUE. At no point does the Bible say “Believe, Be Baptized, and Renounce the Works of Charles Darwin.” We’ve wasted a century and a half on something that is not going to affect whether you get into heaven or not. It’s just silly. I imagine some of us are going to have a lot of explaining to do when we get to heaven.
St. Peter: “So you did missions work?”
Dr. Duane T. Gish: “Oh, yeah, tons of it.”
Pete: “Awesome. So, what? Smuggling Bibles into the USSR? Preaching to people in Africa? Building homes for the homeless in poor countries as a reflection of the love of Christ?”
Gish: “Better!”
Pete [excited]: “Awesome! Tell me about it!”
Gish: “I spent 70 years teaching people that they are not, in fact, a monkey’s uncle.”
Pete [Blinking in disbelief. Sighs heavily. Picks up phone] “Gabe? Yeah, it’s Pete. I got another one here that is in need of mandatory psychiatric evaluation. Can you please send over some orderlies? Thanks.”
Again: I’m not ragging on Christianity. I’m a Christian myself. I make no claim as to how this works in the rest of the world. Maybe Lutherans and the Revolutionary People’s Catholic Church in China have this stuff knocked and locked, I dunno. Good for them if they do. I don’t even claim to know how it works in the BIG denominations in the US: Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans, whatever. All I know is that in us puny denominations and independent churches, which I grew up in, and which I’m most comfortable with, we seem to have made a wrong turn, and are aggressively resisting backtracking.

SUNDAY SERMON: Is Creationism a Conspiracy Theory?

Today I’d like to discuss whether or not Creationism can be considered a kind of “Gateway Drug” to Conspiracy theories. I don’t know if any studies have ever been done on this subject, but I would very much like to see what correlation between Creationists and Conspiracy theorists exists, if any.

Now, I do not mean to imply that Creationists are all members of the tinfoil hat crowd. Most of them are like my dad: He believed the Bible was the more-or-less literal truth, and hence he didn’t believe in evolution, and that was that. After deciding it couldn’t be true, he never gave it another thought, and didn’t try to prove it wasn’t real. He didn’t care. My dad was an extremely intelligent, edcuated man, and an aerospace engineer for NASA back in the days when that actually meant something. He wasn’t a dope. He also wasn’t a biologist, so the issue wasn’t at all relevant to his life. I think that’s the case with the majority of Creationists: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Why are we still talking about this?”

In some cases, however, I think more radical Creationists can tend to slide into Conspiracy theory mode. Again: This doesn’t mean they’ve got foil on their heads, it just means that they may have been told stuff of a whack-a-doodle nature that they believe without questioning it. And why should they? If most Creationists don’t fight over the issue, then Duane T. Gish and Ken Hamm hokum isn’t going to come up very often. To be clear: I’m not trying to insult anyone, except Mr. Gish and Mr. Hamm, which I’ve already done, and Maybe Dr. Donald Howard, time permitting. I think this is a thought worth exploring though.

So what do I mean when I says “Creationsim could be a gateway drug to conspiracy theories?” Well, I’ll tell ya: There are people who believe 9/11 was an inside job. I’m not sure why a person would believe that in the first place, but that’s their faith. Fine. Now, there is an orgy of evidence to prove that wrong: the buildings were never designed to withstand impact with planes, aviation fuel burns more than hot enough to melt steel, it would take thousands of pounds of high explosive to take down the building if it wasn’t really the planes that did it, there are grieving family members, plenty of corpses., and everyone who ever had the old Microsoft Flight Simulator knows how to fly a plane into the WTC because, hey, it’s the first thing most of us did after opening the package. Even a casual examination of the facts shows that it wasn’t a ruse: 9/11 really happened.

When confronted with these facts, a conspiracy theorist will come up with counter-arguments: the corpses were just random bodies from morgues, not victims. The grieving families are actors. The buildings were destroyed by tons of high explosive buried underneath the buildings, and so on. If you successfully disprove any of these opinions, then they’ll come up with more and more to replace them, and their interpretation becomes ever more baroque, to the point where their view of the incident is completely out of touch with reality.

See what I’m getting at? Ok, so here’s an example of how this can happen in Christianity:

Between fourth and eighth grade, I went to three separate Baptist schools that used the “Accelerated Christian Education” curriculum. (“ACE,” as it’s more commonly known). I loved science, and I was really good at it. I always got high grades on the tests and exams, and I was very quickly doing work far above my grade level, which was allowed in that kind of school system.

Now, ACE was vehemently Creationist. In fact, it had been started in large part because of outrage over Evolution being taught in public schools. As such they didn’t just work Anti-Evolutionism into their science courses, it showed up in everything, with the possible exception of Math. History spent a lot of time harping about “Out of Place Artifacts” that allegedly disproved any civilizations prior to 4000 BC or so. English occasionally included writing asignments that sniped at Evolution. Bible studies were frquently little more than sermonizing against it. It was immersive.

I totally bought into it. Why wouldn’t I?

Interestingly, ACE never actually explained what Evolution was to any real degree. I didn’t have a real solid understanding of what it was I didn’t believe in until I was in college. I assume they were afraid that explaining it might cause some people to believe it. Or perhaps they didn’t understand the concept themselves. I don’t know.

At some point in my 20s or 30s I realized Evolution was real, and did not really contradict Christianity in any way.

About four years ago, my kid was going to an ACE school, and I volunteered as an assistant. Because I’m good at it, I generally got pegged with helping the kids with science stuff. In so doing I frequently had to excuse my self and go outside in order to stifle the desire to yell “Are you kidding me?” or sometimes just to laugh.

This was thirty or thirty five years after I’d gone to ACE. In my day ACE was pretty rational about the sciences, excepting the evolution thing, of course. When I came back, they had gone completely coo-coo bannannas with regards to every aspect of science.

Example: They had decided that the sun was not nuclear. Why? Because a fusion powered sun would happily burn for another 4 or 5 billion years before starting to run out of fuel. ACE couldn’t understand why you’d need something that would last so long, since the world is only 6000 years old, and will probably end any day. A super-long-lasting star, they felt, argued against special creation, so they just said that people who say the Sun is a nuclear reaction are simply lying, or deluded. They claim that the sun has been observed to shrink over the course of human history (It has not). They claim that it’ll burn out in a few thousand more years (It will not). They say that it’s some other kind of combustion, but never bother to explain what it is. I’m gonna assume coal.

Interestingly, they accept the concept of Plate Tectonics and Continental Drift – because how else would animals from Noah’s Ark get all over the world? – but they believe it happened fast. Like in a few centuries.

Other fun stuff that may be conspiratorial or merely ignorant, I’ll let you decide: They distinguish between “True” scientists and the other kind. “True” scientists accept the Bible as the supreme arbiter of fact. The same workbook also maintained that rather than there being five biological kingdoms (Animal, Plant, Fungus, Protozooan, and Bacteria) we had a generation ago, or the eight they have nowadays, they maintained that there are only three: Plant, Animal, and Man, “Which rules the other two.” The same workbook maintained that a mushroom is a plant, despite the fact that it doesn’t photosynthesize, nor does it turn CO2 into air. (Just the opposite, actually)

Noahs’ Ark almost always feeds back into Creationism somehow, and ACE was no different. In my day, we were just taught that it happened, and I’m sure there were some whacky bits they threw in that I can’t remember, but it was mostly rational-if-you-don’t-look-at-it-too-closely stuff. When I volunteered a generation later, however, they had gone completely nuts.

They believe that the earth was created with an actual literal shell of ice completely surrounding it. This shell didn’t touch the ground anywhere, and was held aloft by the air, which was much higher pressure than the air we breathe nowadays. Several times more, probably – they say – compressed by the weight of the ice pressing down on it.

Forget about the fact that ice isn’t transparent. Forget about the fact that you couldn’t see the stars through it. Forget that this is impossible according to the very laws of physics that God Himself made. Forget about the fact that the Bible says the stars were put up there for signs and seasons, so obviously God wanted us to see them. Forget about the fact that this obviously meant there were SEASONS prior to the flood, ACE don’t care.

They maintain that this high-pressured air was why people like Methuselah lived so long (Which it totally would not do. Air is actually rather caustic at very high pressures for any length of time). To prove this, they cite the work of a guy in Paluxy, Texas, who built a pressure tank and has raised several generations of snakes in it, which he claims live longer than normal snakes.

I’ll pause to let the irony off using snakes to proove the Garden of Eden sink in.

The Flood, they say, happened when the ice shell cracked and collapsed. There should be craters of these miles-wide icebergs impacting the ground, but there aren’t. “Oh, they were all worn away over time.” If the flood was real, doesn’t that mean that Everest and a bunch of other mountains would have stayed above water? They’re taller than Ararat. “Oh, they didn’t exist then. They formed after the flood.”

And on and on and on it goes. In the course of a generation they went from denying one aspect of science, to denying well established facts that don’t contradict the Bible, to basically rejecting all science as a lie, all reality as a lie, in favor of a crackpot in Texas with a propane tank full of snakes.
Now where is the line between this and a conspiracy theory? If there is one, it’s too thin for me to see it. If we’re willing to discount the physical world in favor of nonsense, if we’re willing to teach it to kids, and argue it in public, then we are making ourselves look stupid. By extension we are making Christianity look like an assemblage of nutjobs, and we are, hence, working AGAINST the cause of Christ.

We really need to cut that kind of crap out, don’t you think?

Thanks for reading,

Mahatma Randy

SUNDAY SERMON: Who wrote the Gospels, Part 2

Who Wrote the Gospels, Part 2

Hi. Welcome back. Last week I discussed who wrote the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. This week I’m going to discuss Luke. Actually, I’m going to discuss both Luke and Acts, as they have the same author and to fully understand one, you need the other. This should be kind of fun, as it’s my special area of study.

Once again, Before we begin, I want to point out that I’m a Christian, but I’m not a literalist. While I’m not a preacher, a teacher, nor clergy. I not have any degrees in these matters. Don’t take anything I say on faith. For all you know, I’m Satan’s cabana boy, sent to bring umbrellas and misinformation to mislead the faithful. I don’t think that I am, but I’m capable of being wrong.

This is a HISTORICAL discussion of the origins of the Gospels, not a theological one. We’re just talking about how the books came in to their present form. For my own part, I believe they are true in every meaningful sense, I just think God used a rather more convoluted editing process to get them to their modern state than most people realize.

I do not want to challenge anyone’s faith, nor make them question the validity of scripture, so if you have a fragile faith, you should leave now.

OK: On to business.

Who wrote Luke and Acts? “Luke,” you say, “Don’t be an idiot. Everyone knows that.” Well, no, he didn’t. I’ll explain why below. Unlike Matthew and Mark, however, we do at least know how Luke/Acts came to be associated with him. It’s convoluted, but interesting:

Luke and Acts are clearly written by the same person. They are volumes 1 and 2 of the same story. They are written in Third Person. In Acts, a “Lucius” is introduced, and after that, Acts switches from third to first person. “We went here,” “We did this,” etc. It is assumed that this is because Lucius joined Paul’s party at that point. Everything up until then was stuff he’d learned about, everything after that point is stuff he’d actually taken part in. Because he has a similar name, “Lucius” is assumed to be the same as the “Doctor Luke” that Paul mentions in several of his epistles. He might be, he might not be. There’s no way to be sure. First century church records outside of the Bible itself are basically nonexistent.

In any event, since people assume that Luke wrote Acts, and the author of Acts expressly states that he wrote the Gospel of Luke, it follows logically that it was Luke that wrote Luke. Again: Duh. This is, unfortunately, flawed reasoning, as I’ll explain. Suffice to say: this Gospel, like the previous two, is anonymous.

“Many people have attempted to write about the things that have taken place among us. Reports of these things were handed down to us. There were people who saw these things for themselves from the beginning. They saw them and then passed the word on. With this in mind, I myself have carefully looked into everything from the beginning. So I also decided to write down an orderly report of exactly what happened.” (Luke 1:1-3)

Right from the git-go, the author is telling us that he’s using pre-existing accounts and sources to compile his tale. We can tell pretty conclusively that the Author of Luke/Acts is using the Gospel of Mark, the Septuigint, and the hypothetical Q document that I told you about last week. In addition, he is certainly using Flavius Josephus’ history, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” which wouldn’t have been available to Matthew’s author. Those are pretty much beyond question. In addition it’s a sure bet that he’s using some kind of diary written by one of Paul’s traveling companions (Though not necessarily that of Lucius and/or Luke himself). This hypothetical document is called the “We Source” or “We Document” by scholars. It’s almost a certainty. There were undoubtedly some other sources – oral or written – that we have no idea about. Remember: The guy was trying to do a thorough job, and he did do one.

It’s also possible that he had the Epistle to the Hebrews and First Peter, to cull from, as well as the non-Canonical “First Epistle of Clement.” It’s possible he may have been aware of the Gospel of Matthew to work off of as well. These are by no means certain. In the case of Matthew, it’s particularly contentious and hinges on when Luke/Acts was actually written.

Curiously for a traveling companion of Paul, the author clearly does not have any access to the Epistles. He doesn’t quote them, even when it would provide a lot of personal details about the Apostle’s personal history (Such as Galatians), or otherwise help his case. He seems aware that Paul maintained correspondence, since there’s a brief mention of Paul “Sending a letter he wrote,” but the author is clearly vague about how extensive this was, or wasn’t. This argues against Luke being the author. An actual traveling companion would know this stuff.

It’s also worth noting that Acts isn’t entirely in first person after Lucius is introduced. It actually weaves in and out of first and third person, implying that the author is using bits of the “We Source,” where it fits, and not continually.

So our boy poured through all these, and cranked out his narrative, and it must be stated that he did a good job. Luke/Acts is far and away my favorite part of the New Testament.

Now: When was it written?

No earlier than 93 or 94 AD.

Why? Because that’s when Josephus’ history was published. Actually, it was probably at least a few years later than that. Books were prestigious and expensive in those days, and copied by hand. “Antiquities of the Jews” is an enormous book, and copies would have been very expensive, and slow to circulate. If the author of the Gospel lived in Rome, it’s possible he could have gotten access to a copy fairly early in a library or something. If he was anywhere else, then it could have taken a very long time for him to get access. That pushes the date of authorship back.

Assuming he makes reference to First Clement – which I find unlikely – then that confirms a late date of authorship. That epistle was written around 95 AD. Assuming he really is referencing Hebrews, then that argues for a late date as well as most scholars consider that late  as well, around 100 AD.

It’s not stated in the author’s introduction, but it is sort of implicit that the actual witnesses are dying off, or already had, and he wanted to set the record straight. That, too, points to a fairly late date.

All these argue against Lucius or Luke being the author. Assuming he was 30 when he signed on with Paul, then he’d be in his 70s by the earliest possible date of composition. While old folks were not uncommon in the Empire, life expectancy was generally shorter than ours. Added to which, traveling with a subversive like Paul was dangerous business.

Traditionally, the conservative estimate for the date of authorship was 80-90 AD. A more reasonable modern opinion is that it was somewhere between 100-110 AD. I agree with that estimate. If so, that would make Luke the last of the Gospels to be written.

Ok, here’s where it gets weird. I’ll actually talk about the thematic unity of Luke/Acts and their internal plumbing at some later date, because that’s interesting. For today, though, I’ll discuss the odd circumstances by which the Gospel was conveyed to us.

We don’t know where Luke was composed, however there is no mention of it prior to 144 AD (!). In the late 130s a guy named “Marcion” came to Rome. He was the Bishop of Pontius, and a successful businessman as well. His father is said to have been made a bishop by Paul himself. I’ll talk about Marcion at some later date, as the guy is fascinating, but for right now let’s focus on how he fits in to this particular narrative.

Marcion went straight to the Bishop of Rome (They didn’t really have Popes in those days) and gave him a very impressive gift: a collection of ten of Paul’s thirteen epistles! These were unknown in Rome up to this point. (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not included. They don’t show up until late in the 2nd century). He also brought the Gospel of Luke.

Now, it is unclear if Luke was known in Rome at that time, or if Marcion’s copy was their introduction. If it was known in Rome, no one saw fit to comment on it. Or, if they did, no such comments survive.

Understandably, Marcion was the toast of the Christian community, and the church gave him a reward of 200,000 cesterces. (About $600,000) Within a few years, however, he’d worn out his welcome. He was accused of heresy and of “Adulterating and Mutilating Scripture,” and formally excommunicated in 144 AD. Undeterred, Marcion simply started his own cult – “Marcionitism” – and was very successful for the next 400 or 500 years. For a while there, he was even giving real Christianity a run for it’s money.

The scripture Marcion was adulterating was, of course, Luke, and the first mention we have of Luke is actually about this weird guy chopping it up and inserting his own stuff. No copies survive, but if you want to know what he did to it, a guy named Tertullian did an extensive critique a couple generations later that is so detailed you can pretty much reconstruct the whole thing from his comments. (As people have done)

Presumably if Luke came to Rome with Marcion, then Acts must have as well, but nobody ever mentions it. The first mention of Acts is very late, although the exact date escapes me, and I don’t have any of my reference materials around. I can only assume it simply wasn’t considered very important until later on.

So where did Luke/Acts come from?

It is honestly still very unclear. Some say that Marcion himself wrote it, but that seems unlikely to me. The author is unaware of Paul’s letters, and Marcion had a collection of them. Likewise, if Marcion had written it himself, why would he have needed to mutilate it to bring it in to line with his personal theology?

It probably wasn’t written in Rome, as both books are in Greek. Given its late date of authorship, it may not have been taken seriously, or at least not as seriously as the other two gospels. It was regarded as scripture by 144, however, and it was called by its present name by around 208 AD.

My own unverifiable hunch is that it was written somewhere in Asia Minor, though definitely not Ephesus for reasons we’ll get to next week. It was comparatively new, and probably not widely circulated yet in Marcion’s day. Rome may have been aware of it, but may not have had a copy, or may only recently have gotten one from some other source. Remember: In the primitive days of Christianity, communications were unreliable and sparse. Remember: These people didn’t even know about Paul’s letters, which make up about half the New Testament!

As a counter theory, it’s also possible that Rome already had a copy, which is where Marcion first encountered it. If so, this would explain why he’d take the time to rewrite it in Rome, rather than having done so before he got there. This doesn’t really explain why there’s no mention of it before him, but even in the early 2nd century, accurate information is fairly scant. It’s possible information fell through the cracks, and it’s also possible that the details of the story of Marcion’s arrival and departure may have muddled some details.

Personally, this month, I believe the latter theory. I go back and forth, though.

And that’s all I’ve got.

Thank you for reading. Remember: I may be a fool or a devil or simply sloppy in my research. Really none of those are mutually exclusive. Do not quote me, and do not believe me without doing your own research.

I welcome comments below. I’d really like to discuss this.

SUNDAY SERMON: Who Wrote The Gospels?

Before we begin, I want to point out that I’m a Christian, but I’m not a literalist. While I’m a pretty good armchair theologian/historian, I’m not accredited or empowered by anyone as clergy, nor do I have any degrees in these matters. Basically don’t take anything I say about the Gospel as Gospel truth, OK? I’m capable of being wrong, and I’m not writing this to change anyone’s mind or challenge anyone’s faith, I’m just putting it out there because it’s interesting, and because I think discussion on the subject WITH THOSE WHO ARE READY FOR IT could be kind of interesting. If you’ve got a fragile faith, I caution you to turn back now because I will probably say things that might upset your faith, and I don’t want to do that. People did that to me when I was a kid, and it really messed me up, and I would never want to do that. Again: Turn back now if you’re not very secure in your relationship with God.

This will be a historical discussion of the origins of the Gospels, not a theological one.

OK: Who wrote the Gospels?

On the face of it, that’s simple: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote ’em. Duh. Everyone knows that. The problem is that all four gospels are actually anonymous, and make no claims of authorship. The names we gave them are simply traditions – with one possible partial exception – and are frequently based on fairly specious reasoning and no real incontrovertable evidence. Before we begin, I want to point out that nothing I say means the Gospels are not true, or that they’re not inspired scripture. I believe they are. I simply believe they had a somewhat more convoluted origin than most people do.

Today I’m going to focus on Matthew and Mark.

Let’s start easy: What order were they written in? Probably you’ll say “Matthew was first, then Mark, then Luke, then John around the end of the 1st century.” That’s been the official position of Christianity as a whole since about the 4th century, and was the unofficial opinion for a long time before that. This notion comes from a guy named Papias, writing around 100 AD, who said that Peter was the first one to write down the Sayings of the Lord, and that Mark was his secretary, and later on Mark attempted to relate the stories of Jesus that Peter had told him, though he got some of the order wrong. This would seem to settle the matter, but it kind of doesn’t. Papias was regarded by high-ranking Church folk in the 4th century as “A man of limited imagination.” Since Papias work only survives in excerpts embedded in other people’s writings, we can’t really be sure. Particularly since some people quoting him say he was a dope.

But let’s assume he wasn’t a dope, and we’ll get back to him in a minute.

If you read Matthew and Mark cold, like if you’ve never read them before, and you read Mark first, you will almost definitely conclude that Mark is the earlier book. It’s much more primitive in its storytelling, it ignores a lot of details, the author is clearly very excited by what he’s telling, but he’s got more enthusiasm than skill, and I mean no offence by that. Matthew, by comparison, is much more polished, much slicker, much more detailed, and – again, if you’re reading it cold – it seems like it was based on Mark. A rewritten, expanded version.

This is actually the opinion of most secular scholars of the Bible (Yes, such a thing exists) and a significant number of Christian scholars. And Chistian scholarly posers like me. But what of Papias? How could he have bungled something that happened so soon before his own time?

Well, there’s a clue: He never says “Gospel,” he says “Sayings of the Lord.” Then he says Mark wrote his own book based on reminiscences of Peter afterwards. We assume he meant Gospel, but he might not have.

Jesus is the Son of God, but while human He lived the life of an intinerrant preacher, a wandering sage. Such things were not uncommon in Judea. John the Baptist is another example, but there are quite a few others. In such cases, it’s not uncommon for one or two of the closer followers to write down their teacher’s maxims. In fact it’d be unusual if someone didn’t do that. Generally these things ended up with no narrative, just a bunch of sayings. Think of the book of Proverbs.

In the 19th century, people studying the Gospels noticed a high degree of correlation between the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Even if they’re recording the same sermon (Which the Gospels make clear they are not), the word order is too precise for people relying on memory 30 or 40 years after the event. Particularly since Luke wasn’t even there. This gave rise to the theory that both the authors of Matthew and Luke were making use of some pre-existing source that consited of just the sayings of Jesus. This came to be known as the “Quelle” theory (“Source” in German), but mostly we call it “Q” for short. While it is by no means definite that the Q existed, and there’s one major hole in the theory, it , and variations on it, have been kind of the dominant theories for the last 130 years or so.

Papias said that Peter wrote down the “Sayings of the Lord.” What if he literally meant “The sayings of the Lord,” and nothing beyond that? In other words, what if Peter wrote Q? Presumably it would have ciruclated and been associated with him.

Hypothesis: Someone gets a copy of Q, and a copy of Mark, and thinks, “You know, I really should incorporate these sayings into this other book, and I could add some stories I know that the book doesn’t have, and I could smooth over some passages and stuff.” They might have taken Mark’s Gospel, used it as a boilerplate, and then written Matthew. Since the Q would have already been associated with Matthew, people would probably assume he wrote the Gospel as well. Over time this misattribution gets to be taken as ‘established fact,’ And there you go.

You know, assuming the Q existed in the first place, which, I stress, is hypothetical. One argument in favor of this is that Papias says Matthew wrote in Hebrew, but the Gospel of Matthew was clearly written in Greek. (Linguists can tell that, pretty much beyond doubt) The Sermon on the Mount was also written in Greek, but that’s not problematic because it just means somewhere along the line someone made a fairly free translation from Hebrew to Greek.

There is a big hole in this theory: There is no material evidence that Q existed. No copies survive, and if it did, there are no surviving mentions of it apart from (possibly) Papias. This is not insurmountable, however: there are actually very, very few really early Christian writings that survive. Saint Whomever of Whatever might have gone on and on and on about the Q, but since all copies of his work were lost in, say, the fire of Rome (64 AD) or the two times Jerusalem was burned to the ground (70 AD and 166 AD), it’s not uncommon. And encapsulating Q in a larger, more readable source would render it rather obsolete, so it wouldn’t be surprising if it just kind of faded from history as a result.

Again: Just a hypothesis, not a fact. It’s a very common hypothesis, however. The idea that Matthew wrote the Q is my personal spin on it, though I’m sure others have suggested it at some point.

So who actually wrote Matthew? Dunno. The most likely speculation is that he was the leader of a church, probably in Antioch, Syria, probably around 80 or 90 AD. People spoke Greek there, but the author makes no effort to explain Jewish practices (Which Mark’s Gospel does), which implies his audience would have already been familiar with them, whereas Mark’s Gospel was intended for a more strictly Gentile audience. It might also have been written by a small committee of learned Christians. This is speculation, but it’s all pretty reasonable. The end result was that Matthew ended up becoming the most widespread, and most popular Gospel, quickly crossing the empire.

Let’s get back to Mark:

The book is most commonly thought to have been written between 70 and 80 AD, which seems reasonable. There are a number of clues that indicate it took place after the First Jewish War (66-70 AD) but I’m not going to get into those. An early date of authorship gives it plenty of time to get spread around, and plenty of time for the anonymous author of Matthew to expand and rewrite it. While clearly written in Greek, Mark is most commonly thought to have been written in Rome, given that the author includes a lot of Latin terms, and explains a lot of Jewish customs.

So who wrote it? Dunno. The author never identifies himself, nor gives any clues. It almost definitely wasn’t Mark, though. So how did it get associated with him? Again: Dunno. Perhaps some of the stories were based on things Mark told people. Perhaps the author knew Mark. It’s impossible to say. It’s important to remember that Christianity was a very small religion in those days. There might only have been a few thousand Christians in the entire world in 70 AD. There wasn’t much communication between them, and with the destruction of Jerusalem, there was no centralized authority or leadership. Basically this is a situation where misinformation would spread much faster than accurate information.

There is one more interesting curiosity about Mark: the earliest manuscripts – and the earliest remaining commentary about the Gospel – all end at 16:8. The version in our Bibles ends at 16:20. What’s that all about?

When early Christians talk about Mark – in such documents as remain – they never mention anything after the women running away from the tomb, then it ends. In the 4th century, Eusebius flat out states that the Gospel ends at that point, though several different endings had begun to turn up. These, he says, are not original, and some are to be considered as spurrious. The NIV and several other translations of the Bible have a footnote at 16:8 saying “The oldest manuscripts stop at this point.”

Why the abrupt ending? Why no post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? The book makes it very clear that Jesus did come back from the dead, but we never see Him. There are three basic theories about this:

1 – There was an ending, but it’s been lost over time.

2 – The author always intended to end the book where he did for whatever reason.

3 – The author died before finishing the manuscript, and it’s incomplete.

Of these, #1 is the most popular, but I think least likely. No one ever makes any comment about any missing scenes. There’s no “Hey, what did you think of that bit where Jesus and James go for a post-resurrection walk and Jesus tells James….” or “What’s with that weird death scene for Judas in the end of Mark?” or anything like that. What this tells us is that the ‘original ending’ must have been lost very, very, very early, since no one seems to have ever heard of it.

I’ve heard several explanations supporting #2, but none of them really hold water for me, so I won’t bore you with them.

#3 seems most likely. People die all the time, and 70 AD wasn’t exactly the safest time for Christians.

Bottom line: at some point after the first century, but before the fourth, some well-meaning Christians took it upon themselves to ‘finish’ Mark. They made a short synopsis of the post-resurrection events from the other three Gospels, and tacked it on. I say “They” because there are actually at least four different endings to Mark that have been found.

Thus Mark technically had two authors: Whomever actually wrote it, and whatever person or persons wrote the last 12 verses.

I want to reiterate that I believe the Gospels to be scripture, inspired by God. The books we got are the ones God wanted us to have. I just believe that the “editing process” God directed them through before they got to their present form was more involved than is commonly realized. And also more fascinating. I also want to make it clear that I do not think this is a salvation issue. I do not believe anyone will go to hell if they think Matthew didn’t write Matthew, or if they do think he did. I don’t believe it matters for our salvation in anyway.

So what do you think? Sound off below!

Next time out, we’ll talk about the Gospel of Luke and Acts, which is kind of my specialty.

SUNDAY SERMON: Facts versus Faith

The “Mahatma” part of my screen name is just a joke a friend of mine thought up 30 years ago after watching “Ghandi” on TV. I’m not a theologian, clergyman, or mystic. I am not credentialed in any faith or denomination, and I’m not starting my own. I am, however, prone to editorializing and it struck me as funny to pretend that any thoughts I had on a Sunday constituted a sermon. So here we are.

Remember: I’m nobody. Do not risk your soul on anything I say. I’m just telling you the way things seem to me at this particular moment, which may or may not be full of crap.

Ok, that said: Today’s “Sermon” is about “Facts versus Faith.”

In Paluxy, Texas, there’s a place where fossil dinosaur footprints cross modern human footprints. This proves evolution isn’t true. This was drilled in to me in Christian school as a kid. The Bible is literally true and Evolution was a filthy lie. That’s what I believed.

When I got older, I got to wondering about Paluxy. I mean, if it’s true, then why isn’t this singular disproof of evolution more famous? Why aren’t bands of athiests, dynamite in hand, attempting to blow the place up, so that they can continue to spread their lies? That would seem to be the thing to do, right? So why aren’t they?

Turns out they’re not lying. Paluxy is.

There were dinosaur tracks, yeah, but there were never any human ones there. Or at least never any natural ones. Back during the Great Depression the locals sold dinosaur footprints to people passing through because, hey, it was the Great Depression. Anything for a buck. Many of these were forged with a hammer and a chisel. Some of the real dinosaur footprints did look kind of human, but they weren’t. They were dinosaur footprints that had kind of collapsed in on themselves. You know how a footprint in the snow will look much bigger a day or two later than your actual foot? Same process, different medium. Several people also carved human tracks in to the site, I’m told, either to “Prove” their faith, or simply to sucker tourists. Though Young Earth Creationists frequently cite the Paluxy tracks, no one ever mentions that some of them are 18 inches long, because the old timer who carved ’em was a member of some weird-ass cult who believed that before the flood all men were giants who spoke with God directly, or some such nonsense.

There is a man who I will charitably say is insane, because the only alternative is that he’s a bold-faced liar. He’s a Scientist/Christian, or so he claims, though his degree comes from an unaccredited diploma mill. He’s been caught several times faking evidence of Young Earth Creationism, and he’s set up an institute to take donations which will help him preach “the Truth” about how Evolution is a lie, and Genesis is exactly, completely, literally, specifically correct. Don’t even get me started on his crazy theory about the flood, which violates (Off the top of my head) two, possibly three laws of physics and at least one specific quote from the Bible itself.

This man has managed to worm his way in to the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. While ACE is laughably bad, it’s also the most widespread Christian homeschool curriculum and there’s scads of actual physical ACE schools, so basically this madman (or possibly conman) is pumping nonsense (or deliberate lies) in to the minds of children and making money off of it.

I am not cool with that.

Now this is where it gets tricky, so stay with me: this is not an article about Evolution. I couldn’t give less of a rip about that. What I’m actually talking about is a disturbing phenomenon in the low churches (Anglicanism, Baptists, Churches of Christ, some Methodists, basically all the smaller, less formal Protestant denominations. The ones prone to Bible Thumping). That is this: the need to PROVE articles of faith are true.

Put it another way: the Bible says that God created the world in seven says. A person says, “Well, that must be true.” Then they’re confronted with proof to the contrary. “Well, that can’t be true,” they think. From that point on the three most common reactions are,

1) Try to prove the contrary opinion is wrong

2) Decide “Well, this is all crap, I’ve been wasting my life, I’m gonna’ go get a hooker and a six-pack of Miller”

3) Shrug your shoulders, say “Well, I’m sure there’s an explanation, but it’s above my paygrade,” and go on with your religious life as normal.

Number Three is the healthiest of those options. Numbers one and two are the products of overly literal minds.

Option Number One is, in my mind, the least desireable option. Worse than number two, even, for reasons I don’t feel like get distracted with right now.

Why is One a problem? Because people tend to confuse “Facts” and “Faith.” They are not the same thing. They’re not even close, actualy. One is “Believing,” and the other is “Knowledge.” The Apostle Paul defines “Faith” as “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Putting it less poetically, it means “Faith is believing in stuff you want to be true without a shred of evidence.”

If something you have faith in turns out to be demonstrably true, that’s coincidence. For instance, for a long time people believed that there were particles smaller then atoms, and others who believed atoms were as small as you could get. Then it turned out that there were scads of subatomic particles, and that went from “Belief” to “Knowledge.”

Now, from my reading of the Bible – which may be incorrect – it appears to me that God places a lot of stock on faith, and not so much on actual knowledge. Jesus tells Thomas that it’s good he saw and believed he was back from the dead, but says in no uncertain terms that it’s far better for people who didn’t see that, yet still believed. Why does God do this? I dunno. I have a theory, which I’ll tell at some time in the future if anyone is interested, but I can’t claim to know the mind of God. I only know what the book says, or at least what the book appears to be saying when I read it.

Now, speaking as a Christian, and as a onetime History Major, and as a friend of a few archeologists, I can tell you that the amount of evidence to support the Bible as a whole is pretty scant, and external evidence supporting the New Testament is The Big Goose Egg. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true, just that it didn’t leave any fingerprints that we can positively ID.

I tend to think this is deliberate.

Think about it: if God places such stock on faith over knowledge on spiritual matters, then it kind of makes sense He’d cover His tracks, so to speak, right? For whatever reason, God wants us to Believe, not to Know.

It is our instinct to think we Know, and get upset when people make us doubt that. We want to prove them wrong, we want them to Know that they’re wrong. We want Paluxy river to be true, and we want that lunatic (or charletan) to be right because that makes life sooooo much easier on us if it is. It is, after all, much easier to know than to believe. Knowledge is easy. Belief is risky. You might be wrong. You might be right. You won’t know until you’re dead, and it’s a little unnerving when you think about it like that.

However, for whatever reason, that’s the way God set up the system: We are to Believe, not Know. Did we evolve? Did God create the world in seven days? Is there some third option that you haven’t thought of? Does it even matter? Personally, I don’t think it does. My reading of the New Testament (Which, again, is unlettered and may be wrong) is that salvation doesn’t depend in any way on whether or not Genesis is literally true. Or Exodus. Or Job. Salvation is based on Jesus’ sacrifice, and the Grace of God, and our Faith. That’s pretty much it. You may want more, but you can’t have it.

Think about that a second: you can not have more than that. No one can. No one is supposed to. Why? Because if you knew, then it wouldn’t be faith anymore, it would be fact. Remember: God prefers faith, and doesn’t really give brownie points for knowledge of these matters. If salvation comes through faith, then any attempt to prove the literal truth of, say, that pesky talking donkey in Numbers chapter 22, is actually attempting to destroy faith, and presumably inadvertently ruin our shot at salvation in the process.

“But, hey, no, it’s not like that, you’re wrong,” you splutter. Hey, I may very well be, but I think it’s more important to concentrate on feeding the sick and caring for the homeless and widowed and orphaned and showing the love of Christ than it is to come up with “Twenty five reasons that the Big Bang didn’t happen.” That’s just me, maybe.

My point is that The important part is the thing that God wants us to believe, not the puny question of whether or not it actually happened or not. Faith is God is strong enough to weather any observable objective reality. My faith that it’ll all make sense in the end is pretty unshakeable. I totally understand being the other way – fearful and trembling, and desparate to prove the 9th grade science teacher wrong – I used to be that guy. I get it. But I was wrong and immature then, and I’m pretty sure I’m not either of those things now.

I have faith in the things I want to be true, and since it’s faith it is not dependent upon any fact you can throw at me. As stupid as that sounds – and I admit it sounds stupid – that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because scripture specifically says that’s the way God wants it to be.

So relax. Don’t make things so hard on yourself. Believe. Be baptized. Let your life be one of good works, good thoughts, and good deeds, reflecting Christ insofar as is practical. Maybe try to convert someone, if you can do it without beign a jerk. That’s really all there is to it. Have faith, and nothing else matters.

So why make such a big deal out of things that don’t matter?

Here endeth the lesson.  I don’t think I did a very good job explaining it, though.