James, Peter, John, and Jude weigh in

At this point, my straight-through reading of the Bible was beginning a dash toward the end. Just seven short letters by authors other than Paul and then into Revelation and then I’d be done.

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First is the letter to the brethren from James, who emphasizes the importance of faithful actions in all things.

As Robert Eisenman details, James was highly regarded as a religious figure, possibly even as a leader of the pietistic Essenes but certainly at the head of the church in Jerusalem. The only surviving contemporaneous historical reference to existence of Jesus come, in fact, when Josephus writes of him as the brother of James.

I’ve heard one friend say the prose of James flows naturally in Greek, and a Jewish colleague of my friend noted that apart from the passages about Jesus as Messiah, the text is solidly Jewish in its teaching, continuing largely in the Wisdom stream of the Hebrew Bible.

Some date of composition at 50 CE, making it the earliest book in the New Testament. Others place it as 65-85 CE, raising questions of its authorship.

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The first letter attributed to Peter is addressed to Christians suffering persecution, while the second — possibly the newest New Testament text — looks to the Day of the Lord, or Second Coming, and quotes freely from the letter of Jude.

First Peter is given the dates of 67-68 CE by some, while others place it at 75-90 CE. Its high standard of Greek points to Peter’s secretary Silvanus as the author.

Second Peter is believed to have been written in 68 CE or at late as 110 CE.

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The three letters of John warn against false teachers and emphasize the necessity for love among the believers.

Their composition is often dated at 85 CE, although others place them at 90-110 CE.

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Jude, meanwhile, is attributed to another brother of Jesus.

The tangles of Paul’s epistles

Only Jesus occupies more of the New Testament than Paul, who crucially redirects and recasts the Christian movement for gentile followers.

Moreover, his letters are unlike anything that’s previously appeared in the Bible. Each one is a stewpot of prophetic utterance, administrative decrees, definitions of what’s permitted and then also forbidden among the believers, personal encouragement, admonition, organizational minutia, qualifications of leadership, and insistence on the role of communities of faith — the church as a body of believers rather than a hierarchy.

 

The big mystery begins with the man himself. Who is Paul?

Some scholars have perceived two hands at work here — one boldly challenging societal norms, the other backpedaling to avoid arousing its wrath.

Other researchers question the authorship of some of the letters, even placing their composition to decades later than Paul.

Robert Eisenman, in James the Brother of Jesus, examines the history recorded by Josephus and notes in the events building up to the Great Revolt in 66 CE “the intermediary between this more accommodating ‘Peace’ coalition within the city and the Roman troops outside it was a mysterious Herodian (‘a relative of Agrippa’), whom Josephus identifies as ‘Saul’ or ‘Saulus.’ We have met this ‘Saulus’ before in his works, because in the Antiquities, after the stoning of James, Josephus pictures Saulus, his brother Costobarus, and another relative, Antipas, as leading a riot in Jerusalem.”

Eisenman examines how in the generations after the Maccabee victories many of its members married into the Herodian family, and for Paul to be among their descendants would explain his Roman citizenship, which would be hard for a Jew to obtain.

An interesting theory, though it’s hard to dovetail into the conventional timeline that places Paul’s birth in Tarsus, in Turkey, around 6 CE and his conversion experience on the way to Damascus around 33 to 36 CE. His visit to Jerusalem, with the famine relief offering, would come around 46 CE, and his confrontation with the council in Jerusalem at 49 CE.

He is identified as a Pharisee, but other than his view of Jesus as messiah, did that really change when he became a self-styled apostle?

Even though his letters occupy the second largest part of the New Testament — more than a fourth, with the gospels taking up more than two-fifths, and Acts, letters by other apostles, and Revelation filling less than a third of the remainder — Paul himself remains an enigma.

We can even point to his ambiguous sexuality, especially considering his preoccupation in opposing circumcision, which contrasts sharply to his out-and-out opposition to long hair on men, even before getting to the appearance of women. How do his views align with the ingrained Jewish male fertility cult, for that matter?

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Acts, from Jerusalem and the resurrect Jesus to Paul in captivity in Rome

The book known as the Acts of the Apostles was originally the second half of the gospel of Luke, and the text continues in the same viscerally charged vein.

My straight-through reading left me puzzled by the standard ordering of the gospels and what follows.

Richmond Lattimore rationally opens his translation with Mark, followed by Matthew. Doing so does diminish the transition in the Jewish viewpoint of Matthew, but does nod toward Mark’s more compact overview of the life of Jesus as a better introduction to all that will follow.

Moving John into the third spot would come at the cost of breaking the synoptic repetition, but it would allow Luke’s account to unfold more seamlessly, especially in the transition from the extraordinary events after the resurrection and leading to the introduction of Saul/Paul, who becomes the central figure in the remainder of the narrative.

Indeed, the title of the book is misleading, as others have noted. It’s essentially an argument that Saul/Paul, who never met Jesus is the flesh, is entitled to be considered one of the apostles — those sent forth as the emissaries of Jesus.

 

Acts also demotes the authority of Peter and James and the church council in Jerusalem, which insisted on observing Jewish practices of circumcision, kosher diet, and the like. The mantle is instead handed over to Paul, who had been their persecutor, and his Hellenic (uncircumcised, pork-eating) churches.

In the absence of an account of these events from sources in the church at Jerusalem — and the events following the destruction of the city in 70 CE — we’re left with a one-sided heroic portrayal of Paul and his companions.

We’re also left with a drastic turn in the emerging path of Christianity.

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The text is full of action, murder and martyrdom, daring escapes, perilous storms at sea, and the road to Rome as it follows the resurrected Jesus to the Ascension and gift of Pentecost before shifting authority to Paul and the Gentiles.

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One thing that jumped out at me in David Bauscher’s translation from Aramaic is the emphasis on the Holy Spirit, or Spirit of Holiness, in his terminology — especially its power dwelling within believers. This experience, rather than faith, legalistic practices, or custom — is the defining characteristic of Christianity in Paul’s churches.

I am intrigued by mention in 6:1-2, of the Hellenist disciples complaining “that their widows were disregarded in the daily ministry” of teaching and evangelizing, saying “It is not acceptable for us to forsake the word of God and to serve tables.” There is no clear statement of the outcome of this debate, but the implication is clear that women were, in some circles of the early church, clearly ministers.

There’s also a description, in chapter 10, of angels as men clothed in white, no mention of wings.

 

Despite Bauscher’s ongoing argument that Jews would strictly avoid anything Greek, he glides over one phrase in 27:14, “the wind of a hurricane … called ‘Typhoniqos Euroqlydon.'” Here’s something that’s clearly not Aramaic. Euroclydon is comprised of two Greek words, one meaning wave and the other southeast wind. In his extensive and often arcane notes, Bauscher makes no mention of its usage. To me, however, its appearance seriously undermines his contention of the purity of the Aramaic New Testament from outside influences.

The text ends with Paul living for two years, at his own expense, under house arrest in Rome.

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Some give the date of composition as 64 CE, before Paul’s execution in Rome. Others place it as 95-100 CE.

John has Jesus expressing his own divinity

John presents Jesus from a much different perspective.

Instead of Nativity, he starts with a parallel to the very opening of the Bible, where God creates light and sees that it’s good.

John also invokes the ancient Greek philosophical concept of Logos, merges it with the light, and proclaims that they become flesh among us in the person of Jesus.

 

Logos, of course, presents a major difficulty for David Bauscher’s argument that observant Jews would have avoided anything Greek. My earlier encounters with the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible and Apocrypha suggest otherwise, and I do want to know how much the concept of Sophia (Wisdom) overlaps Logos and at what points she differs.

Bauscher sticks with The Word in his translation, and instead of Christ, uses The Messiah.

Even so, unlike the other gospels, John casts Jesus at the center of the cosmos. Jesus repeatedly speaks of himself, I AM THE LIVING GOD — all capital letters in Bauscher’s translation. The teachings of social action and justice that were previously at the center of his biography now shift toward the identity of Jesus and his followers’ relationship to him and the Holy One.

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Because of its emphasis on the Holy Spirit — what Bauscher translates as The Spirit of Truth or The Spirit of Holiness — and its proclamations of an indwelling presence of Jesus (17:21-26, for example), John is sometimes called the Quaker Gospel. The very name of the Quaker denomination, Society of Friends, comes from 15:15: “No longer do I call you servants, because a servant does not know what his master does, but I have called you my friends, because all that I have heard from my Father, I have taught you.”

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While the three synoptic gospels nod toward the heart of the Hebrew Bible by blending history and law-giving, John departs from all the other books. Nowhere else does a figure assert himself to be one with God. Hearing the voice of the Holy One is one thing, but to proclaim oneself to be one with God and the son of God is unique and startling.

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Some give the date of composition as 85 CE. Others place it as 90-110 CE. Either way, it cam be up to a generation later than the other three gospels.

Luke as a visceral telling

Like most of the other translations I consulted, David Bauscher has the second verse of Luke referring to “eyewitnesses and servants of The Word,” which he alone capitalizes. In his notes, Bauscher explains that the spoken or written word does not have eyewitnesses or servants. Translations of the opening of the gospel of John, however, almost universally use the Word (capitalized) or the Greek original, Logos.

One thing clearly stated at the outset is that this book is not by a direct eyewitness. He appears to be a Hellenized Jew or a gentile converted by Paul. He’s also the author of Acts, and since Luke and Acts were originally a set, I read them together. I am, however, considering them in canonical order in this overview.

 

Luke feels more visceral, more emotionally invested, than the other gospels. It alone gives us the experience of Zachariah and Elizabeth as they learn they will finally become parents, and later events in circumcising their son, the one we know as John the Baptist. We have, too, Mary’s amazement and hymn of devotion (the Magnificat) when the angel Gabriel informs her of her pregnancy.

Ancient Greeks would have no trouble with a deity frolicking with a human — their myths are replete with such encounters. They’re difficulty would be in having the woman in question being such a commoner. Back to that element of scandal!

I’ve already compared the versions of the anointing of Jesus with ointment, and Luke’s account is far and away the most personal and, yes, erotic.

In chapter 16, we have the clearest expression of Sheol (hell) as a place of separation and flame, even before we get to more expressions of resurrection and eternity.

At the crucifixion, Luke alone has two others beside him on crosses and their exchange of emotional words.

Likewise, Luke alone has the two distraught companions on the road to Emmaus who are trying to make sense of the rumors of resurrection when Jesus joins them.

I’ll leave it to others to detail exactly what makes this gospel resonate so much in the muscles and the bones and the taste buds on the tongue, but it does. For starters, just look at the active verbs he uses.

The road to Emmaus. The text doesn’t say outright the two companions are both male. Some of us see them as a husband and wife.

 

Some give the date of composition as 63 CE (before Mark!). Others place it as 80-90 CE.