Gospels

What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate?

What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate?

THE TWO QUESTIONS above have been raised online in (1) a 2018 article for a Catholic website and (2) several Web posts in the past year or so.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

That first one is easy: Aramaic.

As writer Philip Koslowski stated January 21 on the international Catholic aleteia.org, it was the common language spoken by Jews in the 1st Century Holy Land. There’s virtually no doubt Jesus would have taught in that tongue.

For one thing, the original Greek New Testament carried over numerous Aramaic words, especially in Mark and Matthew. Our Gospels in English are translations from Greek that report sayings Jesus would have uttered in Aramaic -- something the experts continually ponder.

Question #2 is more complex. On literacy, there’s no way to know for sure whether Jesus could read or write Aramaic.

Scholars like England’s Chris Keith and America’s Bart Ehrman think it’s most probable he could not read and write. On the popular level, Reza Aslan asserted this in his heterodox Jesus biography “Zealot,” which was so lauded by the “mainstream” media. (Yes, he’s the Muslim-turned-Christian-turned-Muslim-again that CNN then hired to host a religion series but sacked over his profane tweet assailing President Donald Trump.)

As an aside, note that Random House promoted Aslan’s book as “balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources” instead of “other historical sources.” Such sleight of hand excludes the Gospels -- our earliest and most extensive material -- from the historical materials regarding Jesus.

Whatever Jesus’ skill with written Aramaic, one Bible passage indicates he had some working knowledge of Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Scriptures and used by the religious elite.

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Flying Spaghetti Monster flock gets a fair shake in new Deutsche Welle report

Flying Spaghetti Monster flock gets a fair shake in new Deutsche Welle report

Does a reporter have to be a believer to cover religion?

A simple question, but a vexing one, as there are two currents of thought at work in Western culture today.

The classical view, characterized as the Anglo-American school of journalism, would say no. For journalists working from this perspective, the highest virtue is critical disinterest. The reporter’s personal views play no part in the story. He or she writes from a distance, laying out the facts, providing context and history, with the goal of enabling the reader to make up their own mind.

There are limits. One may assume Hitler and the Nazis were evil. But few questions are as straightforward as that. For example, how do you report on religions on the margins? Do you have to believe in the religion you are covering? What if you are assigned a story on Pastafarians?

The European school of journalism sees reporting primarily as a species of ideological activism. The message the story teaches -- not the content of the story -- is where value lies. The issue for a devotee of advocacy journalism is not whether a story is worth reporting, but what cause will this serve if it is reported?

The precise components of that activism will vary depending on the nature of the politics involved. Radical feminists have their issues and controversies, which tend to differ from issues and controversies that preoccupy devotees of racial, cultural, political, sexual and the other tribal commitments of the postmodern West.

The end product of this school of advocacy journalism differs according to the political aims of the author. But all work from the premise cited by Joseph Stalin in 1932:

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Why does the Bible include two different family trees for Jesus of Nazareth?

Why does the Bible include two different family trees for Jesus of Nazareth?

THE QUESTION:

In the accounts of Jesus’ Nativity in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, why are the genealogies so different?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Because there are no Christmas-y questions from readers awaiting answers, The Guy raises this Yuletide classic himself. When Matthew and Luke recount the birth of Jesus they present different genealogies with fascinating intricacies. The following can only sketch a few basics from the immense literature on this.

The Bible provides no roadmap, leaving us to ponder who was included, who was omitted, how the passages were structured, and what all this might mean. Reader comprehension is difficult due to multiple names given the same person, the lack of specific Hebrew and Greek words so that a “son-in-law” was called a “son,” legal adoption, and “levirate marriage” where a widow wed her late husband’s brother to maintain the family line.

Family trees were of keen importance for the Hebrews and carefully preserved. The central purpose in both Gospels was to establish Jesus within King David’s family line, a key qualification for recognition as the promised Messiah.

Matthew starts right off with the genealogy in the first 17 verses of chapter 1. Beginning from the patriarch Abraham, it extends through three sections of 14 generations each, down to the conclusion with “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” The passage then immediately specifies that Joseph was not the biological father because Jesus was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit (1:18-21).

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Dollars, demograpic decline and the gospel (or Gospel) of new Washington Cathedral dean

Dollars, demograpic decline and the gospel (or Gospel) of new Washington Cathedral dean

Talk about candor. From the get-go, the recent Washington Post story about the selection of a new dean at Washington National Cathedral is very upfront about the fact that this highly visible Episcopal Church landmark faces a crisis of dollars and demographics. And then there was that earthquake thing, literally.

Consider the headline, for example: "Needing to raise ten of millions, Washington National Cathedral picks a fundraiser for its new dean."

Now, I realize that college and university presidents are frequently hailed as great fundraisers. However, I don't know of many pastors, preachers or priests who have welcomed that label. In this case the Rev. Randy Hollerith -- for some reason the Post editors drop "the Rev." or even "Father" on the first reference -- makes it clear that this isn't his label of choice, either.

There is also the question of whether he plans, as was the norm with the Hollywood-shaped previous dean, Gary Hall (once again, now clerical title on first reference), to use hot-button cultural and theological issues to push the cathedral into the headlines.

Hollerith says he won’t enter the position with plans to focus on specific social justice issues, a contrast to Hall, who was on the national news within a few months after coming in August 2012 by announcing that he’d open the cathedral to same-sex weddings.
“I’m not an issue-driven person. I’m a gospel-driven person,” he said. “Of course, the gospel at times is prophetic and has things to say to the world. But I don’t approach things from the point of view of hot-button issues, so to speak.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t share with Hall and other recent deans a focus on one topic in particular: race. The Episcopal Church -- a small Protestant denomination that until recent decades represented the faith of the American elite -- has become less diverse racially in the past few decades, Hall said. ...

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Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany.

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Holy Week question: What do we know about the Jewish leader who buried Jesus?

Holy Week question: What do we know about the Jewish leader who buried Jesus?

JACK’S QUESTION:

What do we know about Joseph of Arimathea? Have scholars learned anything more about him than what is said in the Gospels?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The man who buried Jesus is a timely topic for Christians’ Holy Week. The quick response is that lots of stuff about Joseph of Arimathea is floating around out there. But much of it was written long centuries after the fact and is best regarded as folklore that tells us about British national pride rather than the actual man and his history.

The four New Testament Gospels are by far the best available sources and, scholars tells us, the earliest ones, produced in their current form some three to six decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. All four Gospels have information about Joseph, a rare distinction for a minor figure, albeit one who participated in a history-changing event. (References: Matthew 27:57-60, Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-53, John 19:38-42.)

The Gospels’ narratives are broadly similar, but with intriguing differences of the sort that keep exegetes up at night. We’re told Joseph was “rich” and “respected,” asked Rome’s colonial ruler Pilate for custody of Jesus’ corpse, provided his own unused tomb hewn out of rock, personally conducted the burial procedures, and rolled the famous stone across the entrance to seal the gravesite. The burial was witnessed by two women, so the Gospels teach they were not mistaken that it was Jesus’ tomb  later found empty.

Mark calls Joseph a member of the “council,” which could refer to Jerusalem’s municipal government. But Luke clarifies that he belonged to the Sanhedrin that asked Pilate to execute Jesus, and says Joseph “had not consented to their purpose and deed.” Thus Mark’s statement that “all” of the Sanhedrin wanted execution can be seen as hyperbole to indicate lopsided rather than 100 percent support. John alone adds that fellow Sanhedrin member Nicodemus, who had defended Jesus during a prior dispute (John 7:50-52), joined Joseph in the burial.

Side comment: This important detail that the Sanhedrin was split helps counter anti-Semitic distortions. And divided opinion did not characterize only the Jewish rulers.

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Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?

Who was 'Theophilus,' that New Testament man of mystery?

RACHAEL’S  QUESTION:

Luke addressed the books of Luke and Acts to Theophilus, but who is he?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Theophilus is a very important person in the New Testament, yet we know next to nothing about him.  If, that is, he was an actual person at all rather than some sort of symbol.  The only information 1st Century history has to offer comes in the introductions to two biblical books:

* “It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed . . .” (Luke 1:3-4)

This is the only one of the four Gospels with this sort of dedication.

* “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” (Acts 1:1).

These two mentions of Theophilus are a major reason for experts’ consensus that Luke and Acts are linked as volumes 1 and 2 and almost certainly the work of the same author, a view supported by similarities of style and thought.  

Who was that writer?

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