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If you are visiting my blog, expecting to see 'Toward a Progressive Catholic Church,' I have changed my title to reflect my wide assortment of interests. Having retired from my secular job, I hope to devote the rest of my life to my hobbies, ministries and perhaps a part-time job that makes good use of my communications skills. This blog will be designed to address my multi-faceted interests.

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Location: Rochester, New York, United States

I have an M.A. in Theology and an M.Div (Master of Divinity) from St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry. I am currently a media consultant and promoter of classical music. I am also certified as an officiant by the Federation of Christian Ministries for baptisms, weddings and funerals and minister independently of the Rochester Diocese. My life has encompassed many interesting paths: broadcasting, free-lance writing, video-production, music, ministry and a secular job in government. In addition to this blog, I have a YouTube site at www.youtube.com/priestray and I have a Facebook page.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Seven New Testament Mysteries


Dear Blog Visitors:

For those who follow my blog on a regular basis, I may have left the impression that I spend most of my time challenging policies of the Roman Catholic Church.  While this has indeed consumed considerable time and energy, I have also found myself returning to one of my life’s biggest challenges, which is an attempt at solving what can perhaps be best described as the seven largest mysteries/challenges of the New Testament.

While the Books of the New Testament provide a valuable window to the life and teachings of Jesus, there are missing pieces that have caused biblical scholars to spend countless hours in libraries in search of answers.  In conjunction with this, there have been numerous conferences, whereby scholars gathered for the purpose of discussing and debating theological and historical issues surrounding all available information pertaining to Jesus, and thereby pondering what is yet left to be discovered.

I have formulated what I consider to be the seven major mysteries of the New Testament:

WHY DOES THE FIRST GOSPEL (GOSPEL OF MARK) BEGIN WITH THE PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS, IGNORING HIS EARLY YEARS?

WHY DOES THE BIRTH NARRATIVE IN MATTHEW LOOK FAMILIAR IN SCOPE TO THE BIRTH NARRATIVE SURROUNDING MOSES?

WHY WERE MARK, MATTHEW, LUKE AND JOHN CHOSEN AS THE FOUR CANONICAL GOSPELS, WHEN MANY OTHER GOSPELS WERE WRITTEN?

WHY WERE PAUL’S LETTERS GATHERED AND PUBLISHED AS SECONDARY DOCUMENTS, WHEN THEY WERE ACTUALLY WRITTEN PRIOR TO THE GOSPELS?

WHY WERE JEWS BLAMED FOR THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS, WHEN AVAILABLE HISTORICAL INFORMATION COUNTERS GOSPEL ACCOUNTS?

WHY DID JESUS OFTEN SPEAK IN PARABLES, AS OPPOSED TO GIVING DIRECT ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS POSED BY HIS DISCIPLES?

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST MYSTERY:  WHERE WAS JESUS FROM THE TIME OF HIS BAR MITZVAH (AGE 13) TO HIS APPEARANCE IN THE GOSPEL OF MARK AT APPROXIMATELY AGE 30?

These are obviously gigantic issues, and despite my many years of serious biblical study and research, I have no concrete answers.  However, I would like to offer some theories based on my scholarship and my life-long immersion in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Whenever I travel, I seem to encounter a bumper sticker with increased frequency:  “JESUS WAS JEWISH.”  This simple statement is the key to understanding the mysteries surrounding the life of Jesus.  For example, the first two Gospels (Mark and Matthew) were written for a Jewish audience.  Mark was primarily written for Jews living in Rome, and Matthew was written primarily for Jews living in the area of the Middle East.  Mark focused on the public ministry of Jesus, whereas Matthew borrowed from Mark, and also added a birth narrative.  Since Matthew’s birth narrative was written for a Jewish audience, many scholars are in agreement that there are some parallels to the accounts of the birth of Moses.  An obvious distinction is the narrative of a virgin birth.  We then find similarities between Herod’s ordering a murder of the first-born in Matthew and Ramses’ ordering a murder of the first born in the Moses narrative.  We also see similarities between Moses going to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and Jesus proclaiming the Beatitudes from a mountaintop.   As these similarities will continue to be debated by scholars, it is very important to keep in mind the Jewish surroundings of Jesus, which provided an influence on the writings of the Gospel authors.  Luke followed Matthew closely.  However, he wrote for an audience that expanded beyond Judaism.  While John’s Gospel also provided a narrative, it was more theological in scope.  Therefore, Mark, Matthew and Luke are often given the designation as synoptic Gospels, and John stands alone in a category designated as “high Christology” (concerned more with the divine than the earthly).

Many Gospels were written (best estimate is 39).  However, the four canonical Gospels were chosen on the basis of their narrative format.  The other 35 are being carefully scrutinized to see if more insights can give us clues to missing data/theology concerning Jesus.

None of the Gospels explain why Jesus disappeared following what would have been his Bar Mitzvah at age 13.  We see that he read from the Torah, which continues to be a Bar Mitzvah custom.  He also spoke to those gathered in the synagogue for this special occasion in such a way that astonished them.  He then joined his parents and is not seen publicly again until he was baptized by John in the Jordan River when he was approximately 30-years-old.

Scholars continue to ponder the theories surrounding the missing years of Jesus.  I am inclined to believe, based on the research done thus far, that Jesus spent at least some of those years in Sepphoris, which was a major Roman-controlled city in close proximity to Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem.  We know very little about the earthly father of Jesus, namely Joseph, other than the fact that he was a carpenter, and that Jesus was taught this trade.  So, it is very reasonable to assume that carpentry skills would have been very much in demand in Sepphoris.  If Jesus had indeed dwelled there for almost twenty years, he could have applied his carpentry skills, while at the same time, developing his special relationship with God, which would eventually bring him to the world in a very special way via his baptism in the Jordan River.

A similarity I share with Jesus is the fact that I had a Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13.  I continue to be thankful that I was exposed to Jewish traditions and the Hebrew language.  I had the best of both worlds as a child, in that I celebrated Jewish holidays with my father’s side of the family and Christian holidays with my mother’s side.  Even as a young child, I was very curious about Jesus, and I came to understand that one cannot fully understand him apart from Judaism.  To this day, I am careful to address Jewish sensitivities whenever discussing New Testament themes and interpretations.  For example, it is important to utilize the terms Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, as opposed to Old Testament and New Testament, whereby an implication is not being made that one testament is replacing another.  It is also important that we not use Hebrew texts as a way of predicting the coming of Jesus.  An example of a misinterpretation is Isaiah 7:14.  In its correct form (Greek and Hebrew), it is “………a woman of marriageable age shall give birth to a child……”  The later Latin is “…….behold a virgin shall conceive……”  The implication is that Isaiah was predicting the birth of Jesus, when in reality, Isaiah was addressing the oppression of the Jews under Assyrian rule, whereby he announced the birth of a king who would deliver them from bondage in their own time.  The lesson here is that we need to be careful about biblical interpretations.

It is important to state that the earliest Gospel (Mark) was written two generations following the death of Jesus.  So, we are not getting a firsthand account.  The earliest New Testament writings we have are from Paul’s letters, the earliest of which (around 55 A.D.) was the First Letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul never intended for his letters to be published, for he wrote them to individual communities, addressing specific issues or concerns in those communities.  The letters were later collected and canonized as part of sacred Scripture.  Paul, who was a devout Jew, would be the first to tell us that Jesus cannot be fully understood apart from his Judaism.  So, the bumper stickers that proclaim “JESUS WAS JEWISH” have merit.

When we deal with the Crucifixion of Jesus, the Jews unfortunately have become victims of anti-Semitism over a period of many centuries.  Fortunately, as a result of Jewish-Christian dialogue groups around the world, we have come to a better understanding of what actually took place in the days preceding the Crucifixion.  Based on many years of scholarship, it is safe to say that any blame for the Crucifixion needs to be placed at the feet of the Romans.  We need to keep in mind that the Gospels were written primarily for a Jewish audience, in an effort to convert them to Christianity.  By making them feel guilty for the Crucifixion, the Gospel writers felt multiple conversions would take place.  The reality is that Jews detested crucifixion, and would not have stood in crowds, demanding that Pontius Pilate crucify Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospel accounts.

If I get aggravated with Vatican personnel on occasion, it is because of their rigidity, especially when it comes to theological interpretations.  When theology is studied and practiced correctly, there must always be room for questions and interpretations that take into consideration changing times.  For many centuries, rabbis have utilized the time-tested methodology of debate.  In this manner, a single Scripture passage can go through several levels of interpretation, whereby new generations are free to engage in such debates that allow a balance between centuries past and present and future challenges.  I therefore invite the Vatican to be open to the fruits of debate.

The mysteries surrounding Jesus will continue to inspire and intrigue us.   Catholics who pray the rosary are accustomed to celebrating the sacred sorrowful and joyful mysteries encompassing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We continue to celebrate these mysteries via the Eucharist and our desire to study theology without interference from the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy.  For faith to flourish, questions must be asked, and we must be free to examine all the wonders God has to offer.

When Jesus was asked multiple questions by his disciples, he often did not give direct answers.  He rather spoke in parables, so that his disciples would be encouraged to think for themselves.  When they failed to understand, he provided gentle guidance.  For those who believe, Jesus continues to provide gentle guidance, and he encourages us to explore the mysteries of faith in such a way that respects those who may or may not have the same beliefs as ourselves.

I continue to be thankful for my Judeo-Christian background and I thank you for allowing me to share this background with you.

Peace to all,
Ray


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