Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Rewards and Faith, Part 2

I have always loved the Gospel of John. For some reason, whenever I read it and compared it to the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it simply outshone them. I understood the Jesus in John's gospel in a way that I often didn't understand the the Jesus of the synoptics.

Form the very first chapter, I was hooked. Who couldn't be? I mean, read it:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The story doesn't start with a relationship intrigue, or a census, or a long, boring genealogy . It starts at the beginning of the cosmos. The poetry of In him was life, and that life was the light of simply speaks to me in a way that the synoptics don't.

While reading and learning about the formation of the New Testament, I learned something that began to bother me, The Gospel of John was written much later than the synoptics. In and of itself, being written decades later doesn't mean that a work is untrustworthy, but when the unique nature of the Gospel of John is compared to the synoptics, it becomes apparent that most of the material in John is nowhere to be found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Added to this new-to-me realization, was another idea, one that explained the synoptics in terms of their relation to each other, with Mark being written first and Matthew and Luke primarily consisting of appropriations of Mark, sometimes word for word. Matthew and Luke both used Mark and also added more to it, sometimes sharing material, and at other times containing material unique to themselves. That is the hypothesis shared by most biblical scholars at this point.

A handy chart:

None of this is groundbreaking information. I simply had never examined it before, or thought about what it meant. Although I had read all of the gospels more times than I could count, I had always done it through the lens of biblical inerrancy and the supposition that the gospels were all independently developed, eyewitness accounts of Jesus. When there were conflicts or contradictions, I assumed it was because they were written by different people, from different perspectives, which would naturally lead to slightly different perspectives.

One thing that never occurred to me is that early Christians would purposely tailor, or alter, the gospels to slant them in a particular way, or give support to developing theology. These were supposed to be historic, accurate documents inspired by God, so if something seemed unclear, or didn't quite fit, it was because the things Jesus said weren't applicable to that time but were somehow broader and meant for a future age.

I'd like to clarify at this point that I don't think that the gospels are pure fiction, or that the gospel writers intentionally attempted to mislead as much as they were trying to encourage the community of which they were a part, and shore up the faith of believers.

For numerous reasons I abandoned the idea of biblical inerrancy and that started a domino effect for me and for my faith, because I could no longer come to a position on anything by declaring a certain idea "biblical". Neither could I settle any questions I had with "because The Bible says so."

Once I started thinking of the process used to write the gospels and how each came to be , and what sort of audience they might have been written to, I began to see these differences everywhere, and every time I did....I would feel a deep pang in my heart.

I came across another one of those examples when I was looking for that passage about rewards in the here and now that I mentioned in my last post.

All three synoptic gospels contain the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. After some conversation between the two of them, with the young man declaring how perfectly he has followed Mosaic Law, Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. The rich young man goes away saddened at the prospect. After listening to the exchange between the rich young man and Jesus, Peter points out that the disciples have left everything behind to follow Jesus. Here's the passage in Mark:
Mark 10:28-31

28Peter said to him, "We have left everything to follow you!"
29"I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
This passage has always troubled me because it doesn't seem hard to falsify. Did all of the disciples receive a hundred times as much in this present age? The rewards listed are tangible things, not merely abstract blessings such as peace, or joy. Jesus is promising that they are going to be repaid for their faithfulness to him now and in the age to come.

We don't really know what happened to all of the apostles, but most of the legends about their deaths end badly. They all wind up murdered/martyred by one group or another. There doesn't seem to be much in the way of physical reward in the here and now for them.

Tradition holds that Mark was written by Peter's interpreter, so maybe when this particular teaching was recorded, Peter's life--one which was filled with persecution--served as a caution that persecution was part of the deal.

When we get to this exchange in Luke we find the rewards are not specifically listed, though there is still the assurance that there will be rewards in the current age for those who have sacrificed relationships for the sake of the Kingdom. Material things seemed to have dropped out of the story.

Perhaps as time passed there was a need to revisit the passage and de-emphasize the idea of financial or material rewards:
Luke 18:28-30
28Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!"

29"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life."

When we get to Matthew, the passage takes a sharp turn. Earthly rewards have completely disappeared. Instead, rewards have become subject to a condition, that of the renewal of all things, when Jesus sits on his glorious throne:
Matthew 19:27-30

27Peter answered him, "We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?"

28Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth,
at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
The "current age" aspect has been supplanted and replaced with a future age in which all will be rewarded. This makes even more sense in Matthew when we consider that most scholars consider that Matthew was written between 70-100 AD. By then the temple had been destroyed and the Jewish Revolt had been put down. It isn't unlikely to think that the author of Matthew was having to re-examine what Jesus might have meant by this saying, because everything going on in the material world certainly didn't seem very promising.

I'll stop here, and continue later.....

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